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Michael Ryschkewitsch, Chief Engineer, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC


NTB: What are the most exciting engineering-related achievements that you've seen recently?

Dr. Ryschkewitsch: For a lot of these things on the science mission directorate, of course, we tend to see them in the front pages of the newspaper. There seems to be a new discovery every week, everything from the first really good images of Mercury, from the Mercury Messenger [space probe], to the latest Hubble [telescope] discovery. It's kind of astounding that we've become so used to a mind-blowing new discovery out of Hubble that it becomes almost routine, and you have to step back and say "Boy, we're in a position that we get to see something that human beings have never known before." Going into earth sciences: Almost on a weekly basis we're seeing some new revelation, or we're seeing an application of NASA technology. Everything from helping to map the extent and the effects of the Gulf oil spill to being able to assist the Forest Service in fighting wildfires. On the human spaceflight side, of course, we're into the last few missions for the space shuttle. We have a truly amazing national laboratory with a lot of potential. We're getting ready to put a new high-energy astrophysics instrument on there. It doesn't feel like coming to work, because there are so many exciting things that go on every day.

NTB: As Chief Engineer, your job is to assess policy and the technical readiness of NASA programs. When performing this task, what are you looking for, and what is your process and criteria when assessing a NASA program or project?

Dr. Ryschkewitsch: We have a pretty well codified set of entrance and exit criteria of where programs and projects ought to be at various stages of their lifecycle. Those are embodied in our program and project management standards, system, and engineering standards, and the handbooks that go with them. So those will be guidelines that say, "When we're supposed to be at a preliminary design review level of maturity, then we ought to be seeing these kinds of attributes."

What we're looking for very early on in the lifecycle project, when we're in the formulation phase, is a solid process that identifies where the technological challenges are going to be with the mission, in particular with the development of new technologies and reducing the risks that they have. Typically we don't see mission failures as a result of new technologies, but we frequently see programmatic challenges when we've underestimated how long or how much money it's going to take to get something mature to the point that we're ready for flight.

So we're looking for a very well-defined process that lays all of that out, and checkpoints along the way that allow us to assess whether we've actually gotten the progress that we had intended or we need to step back and do some more work before we go on to the next steps.

NTB: In the chain of events of a NASA program or project, where are you and what role do you play?

Dr. Ryschkewitsch: As the agency chief engineer, typically, I'm directly involved in the large projects, in the decision-making process, as we commit to the next phase of activities at different points in the lifecycle. For example, during the transition from our formulation of projects to the development of projects, I'm very heavily involved in the review cycle and the decision-making that goes into making the final commitment to develop the project and making sure that we have the adequate resources in place and the schedule. The other big area of engagement is typically in the process leading up to the point of which where we say we're ready to fly. For example, in the shuttle launch commitment process, I sit on the agency flight readiness review board, which is the culmination of a number of review panels that start at pretty low levels: sometimes at the board or box or subsystem level, or up through major element levels, like external tank or the orbiter itself. It's a program readiness board that makes sure that everyone has gotten everything done. After that, that's the point at which we say, "We're ready to go fly."

NTB: What are the biggest technical challenges for NASA's engineers that you've seen in the field?

Dr. Ryschkewitsch: There are always very specific ones that crop up in projects. Often times, in a development project of a one-of-a-kind system, it'll be in the actual transitioning of a technology from the point at which we've built an engineering model, or built some kind of a test model that's sitting on a bench, and transitioning it into flight. That process tends to be fairly expensive, can take a long time, and it's at the point where in the lifecycle of the project, typically, other things are starting to accelerate. So that's always a challenge to make sure that we can keep that up and do it with the proper vigor to be sure that we don't let problems creep in.

If I look at the challenges that are in front of us right now, our biggest single one is figuring out how to do the things that we need to do for the future. We call it affordability. It's really to do it in a way that's as efficient and effective as it possibly can, so that, within the resources that the Congress and the President give us, we do as much as we possibly we can with that.