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Paul Woodmansee

Propulsion Engineer
Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)
California, USA

Are you considered a "rocket scientist"?

Rocket scientist is a misnomer.  The people who design and work on rockets are engineers and technicians, not scientists.  Engineering is the application of established science principles to build something.  That's a bit different than scientists who are trying to discover how nature works.

My MS and BS degrees are in aerospace engineering, and in a previous job with the Air Force I worked on launch vehicles (in the Titan IV program office).  Now I work at JPL on propulsion systems for interplanetary spacecraft.  What I do differs from launch vehicle work in scale and specific design, but not in the applied principles and analysis that must be done.

When did you first become interested in space exploration?

I've been interested in space for as long as I can remember.  I think all kids get interested in space at some point (usually about age 5 to 7).  I just never lost that interest.

Growing up I was very interested in the Apollo program.  I remember watching Neil Armstrong's landing on the moon when I was five.  I was on vacation with my mom at the time.  I remember thinking that the picture was really rotten.

I watched each of the moon landings on TV.  I remember seeing the buggy race around and the astronaut's bouncy motion.  I even built a plastic Saturn V model.

When I was a little older I played with water rockets and launched Estes model rockets.  I advise others to stick with these safer rockets and not venture into more dangerous home-made rockets and launchers as hundreds of people get hurt every year when something goes wrong.

What were your favorite subjects in school?

I always liked science, but not necessarily science in school, because for a long time it seemed too simplified.  I didn't like math until about 5th grade when I suddenly seemed to "get it" and from then on, through high school, I did really well in math.

I always liked creative writing and writing reports.  Basically I liked learning, so I did pretty well in history and social studies.  However, my penmanship was awful and my spelling was worse, and as a result my English grades were only fair.  Thank goodness for the invention of the personal computer with spell checkers.

What were your least favorite or most difficult subjects in school?

Memorization of facts has always been hard for me. I prefer to understand concepts and figure out things logically rather than memorizing.  As a result several things have been difficult for me.  In elementary school it was memorizing the multiplication tables (I was the last one in third grade to learn them all).  In English classes it was memorizing the spelling of words that aren't spelled like they sound.  In high school it was learning Spanish, because I couldn't remember the Spanish vocabulary.  And in history, even though I'm very good at remembering the story about what went first and who did what, I'm not very good with remembering the specific dates.

I've gotten past these difficulties by using some memory tricks.  Making a funny mental picture helps sometimes.  Other times, just writing it down over and over again works.  And in extreme cases I've used flashcards to help with memorization.

Today, I still remember concepts better than specifics.  I find myself looking up facts more than memorizing them, but at least I remember where to look them up.

What did it take to get to this point in your career?

Hard work, perseverance, and some luck.

Did you ever want to be something else?

I've wanted to be a teacher.  I've taught at summer camp, and given lectures at planetariums.  However, I think I like being partly responsible for building things more.

I also want to be a writer.  I've written a couple of short sci-fi stories and a full sized novel and I'm starting on my second novel.  It's hard to find time to do the writing, but I enjoy it.  So far I've not been successful in finding a publisher, however.

I would like to go into space, and at one point applied to the astronaut corps.  However, now that I know more about what astronauts do (thanks to my wife's book, Women Astronauts), I realize how much work is involved and I think I would rather go into space as a tourist some day.  I guess I'm a bit lazy.

What subjects prepared you most for your career?

Math, science (mostly physics and chemistry), and engineering, of course.  Not that they teach you everything that you need to know, but they teach you the basics, and they teach you how to learn and problem solve.

I realize now that most of what you need to learn you really pick up on the job.  I've been an aerospace engineer for more than 15 years and I'm still learning something new every week.  Learning how to learn and solve problems is the most important thing anyone can learn.  Learning the basic foundation principles of physics, math, chemistry, and engineering is also crucial for a technical career.

What characteristics or personality traits are the best for a job like yours?

Several people I know say that engineers are born, not trained.  I'm not sure if that's true, but certainly inquisitiveness is crucial.  The desire to know how things work and why things are they way they are can be seen from an early age in future engineers.

My mom says I started taking my crib apart by unscrewing the nuts when I was still an infant.  I was full of questions then, and I still am.  My idea of a great vacation is touring a factory, or caves, or ancient ruins, or anywhere else I can find out something new.

What is a typical day like for you?  What is the best part of your job?  Are there any disadvantages to a job like yours?

Like many professional careers, there are no typical days.  Every day is different, which is what keeps it interesting.  In my days I spend a lot of time in meetings, or on the phone finding out about things, discussing problems and working with others to come up with solutions.  I also spend a lot of time on the computer writing and doing analysis.

The best part of my job is when I come up with a new idea for solving a problem.  It doesn't happen as often as I'd like.  Most of the time in problem solving is spent understanding the problem, testing, and evaluating options.

I also love it when I can explain something to someone else.

The worst part of my job includes administrative tasks such as personnel evaluations, timecards, budgets, and other mundane things that have to be done and usually end up taking more time than you want to spend on them.

How long before a project is launched do you finish your part of the job?

That depends on the project.  For the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) I was working with others on the propellant tanks for the cruise stage.  My part was completed in September 2002, and others continue working on the project today.  The launch is in May and June of 2003, and they won't be to Mars until 2004.  So by the time the scientists are evaluating the data they send back, I'll have been done with my part of the project for almost two years.

I spent about three years working on the Europa Orbiter propulsion system with a lot of other good people both at JPL and Lockheed Martin.  That was disappointing because the program was canceled for budget reasons.  It's always a huge let down when a program that you're working on, and is so worthwhile, gets canceled.

Right now I'm working with Lockheed Martin again, this time on the propulsion system for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.  It's a really great mission that will launch in 2005.

I'm also working on a number of studies with other people, including some early involvement that I did with the Prometheus program before it was proposed to Headquarters.  That's a mission that isn't planning to launch until 2010.  So you see that some of my work takes a long, long time to become a reality.

What does your family think of your job?

Laura, my wife, is a great author who shares my enthusiasm for space.  We support each other.  She puts up with my trips and I bounce ideas off of her, while I help her by manning her booth to sell her books and other things.  The rest of my family (parents, in-laws, sister, etc.) are all very supportive and proud of what I do.

Would you encourage your children to go into a career like yours?

Yes, but only if they love space and the great things they'd be doing.  If you don't love what you're doing, don't do it.  It's not a career that you can get rich at.  Also, there's a certain lack of job stability in the aerospace sector.  And there is a perceived lack of appreciation too.

If you want to help space exploration, there are lots of other ways to do it besides a technical career.  Artists, writers, administrators, etc. are all needed as well as scientists and engineers.  Young people should try lots of things and do what they enjoy doing, because when you do what you enjoy doing, you do it best.

Do you have any hobbies or collections?

I am an avid gamer.  I play strategic games with my friends a couple of times a month.  This usually means wargames, but it can be fantasy games, role-playing games, growth and development games, or games about business.  I love the challenge and enjoyment of playing face to face with other people and trying to outwit the other person.  Computer intelligence just doesn't do it for me, because so far computers are dumb (or they just cheat).

I also read science fiction and fantasy books.  I've been reading about 30 to 40 fiction books a year since I was 12.  I like to think that this helps me keep an open mind to new ideas.

If you could visit any place in the universe, where would you go?

I would like to visit an Earth-like planet with aliens who are enough like us that we can communicate and exchange ideas, if such a planet exists.  Such aliens may be either far ahead or far behind us technologically, but that's ok.  If they are enough like us that we can communicate then we can learn things from them and perhaps teach them something too.

What advice do you have for children who are interested in following a similar career path?

At times some subject is going to seem so tough that you wonder if you are cut out for it.  Don't worry, it happens to everyone.  The important thing is not to give up.  If you apply yourself and get help, you can get through it and succeed.  Just keep looking at your future goal and you will see it will be worth it in the long run.

Do you have a favorite inspirational quote that you would like to share with students around the world?

I'm a big fan of Sun Tsu and Clausewitz.  Their philosophy was created for war, but it applies to other things in life too.  For example, one of my favorites is,

"No plan ever survives contact with the enemy."

This can also be taken to mean be flexible in life because things will go wrong, and you will have to change your plans and make do when things don't go the way you originally wanted them to.

- 4 June 2003


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Last Updated:
4 June 2003

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