Zero Gravity Engineering
John Hayes posted on June 24, 2013 | 10271 views

Name: Kate Toon
School: University of Texas Cockrell School
Degree: Master of Engineering Management (May 2011)
Employer: NASA Johnson Space Center
Industry: Aerospace
Job Title: Project Manager – Flight Hardware ISS
Compensation: $90,000 - $100,000
Location: Houston


Engineering at NASA
Like many engineers, Kate Toon wanted to work at NASA because engineering for the International Space Station (ISS) is leading edge technical work.

The ISS hardware group at NASA has unique requirements for anything that goes into space. It has to meet fail-safe standards for reliability, durability and safety. Kate is in the Crew and Thermal Systems Division within the Engineering Directorate. Her team is charged with designing, building and maintaining environmental control and life support systems that make manned, long duration presence in space possible, including air, water and habitation systems on the ISS.

For example, one recent project was to sustain the potable water dispenser that supplies hot and cold water at varying increments, depending on the food that is being rehydrated. (Sounds delicious.)

Another recent project has been the development of an air purifying respirator that has been specially designed by NASA and sub-contractors called the Emergency Mask. As NASA looks to extend the life of the ISS, astronauts may be called upon to make repairs rather than abort the mission. To enable astronauts for emergency repair work, Kate’s team has worked for the past 2 years on this respirator. She says, “It will be really gratifying to see that Mask go to the Station in September, giving the astronauts the contingency hardware they may need to keep ISS ‘alive’.”


On Being a Project Manager at NASA
Kate likes being a project manager at NASA because she loves the teamwork aspect and she believes the NASA mission of space exploration is important.

A day in the life of a project manager involves a lot of time at her desk, but there is still a lot of variety in her work. Kate says that on any given day she may be:

  • Experimenting and testing hardware in the lab
  • Scheduling and budgeting projects on her computer
  • Reviewing requirements and designs
  • Following detailed technical development (design, function, and science) of the projects
  • Chasing team members for task updates
  • Holding project review meetings

Kate said that the hardware development process often takes months of test and research which take up a lot of her time. For the Emergency Mask, for example, Kate traveled to the White Sands Test Facility (WSTF) in New Mexico to test the resistance of the Mask to high concentrations of chemicals.


Skills that a Project Manager needs
For her role as a PM, Kate says she needs to be able to, “lead and manage people through influence.” You have to understand your schedule and resources from a realistic perspective, because anybody can blow the budget and schedule. Keeping a realistic eye on your resources is the only way to keep ‘on track.’.”

One unique aspect of project management in government is that budgets are not as flexible as they once were. This means that a project can simply disappear if it goes over budget.


Does a Project Manager need a Masters in Engineering Management?
Kate pointed out that there is a deficit in undergrad engineering course work in that it doesn’t prepare you for the reality of the business world. Even engineers in highly technical roles will likely find themselves in a management role at some point as they gain experience in their respective fields of discipline, and their technical education won’t have adequately prepared them. As Kate says, “Management is a reality of the business world.”

Kate found that the Masters of Engineering Management really filled that gap. Her employers at NASA recognized the importance of these soft skills and were even willing to pay for the program. She had to find the right program however, because the funding was only available on a course by course basis.

The Masters in Engineering Management at the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas fit that requirement perfectly. Kate was able to justify every course to her employer, since the course work” directly applied to her day-to-day job.”

See a program guide for the University of Texas Masters in Engineering Management.

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