John McCormick

Integration and Test Manager

Where are you from?

I was born in Fargo, N.D., but I mostly grew up in Bullhead City, Ariz. I've been living in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1997 and I don't plan on leaving anytime soon.

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.

To be honest, I never really thought about space too much before I started working at NASA Ames Research Center (ARC). Of course as a boy I played at being an astronaut, but I didn't really think about it as a career option until I was an adult. It wasn't until I was a part of the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission that I began to connect with space.

Early on at Ames, I remember attending a meeting in which they were discussing some flight dynamics aspects of the mission. I remember thinking to myself that working on spacecraft is pretty cool -- it certainly beats anything else I had done previously.

How did you end up working in the space program?

It really was a surprise to me that I ended up working for NASA. Prior to working at Ames, I had spent 10 years working mostly as a product manager for mobile-phone software (address books and the like). I had no space experience. It happened that someone I had worked with previously was working for Ames and had recommended me for a position on the LCROSS mission. I was called in for an interview and a few days later I was working at Ames.

Who inspired you?

My father has been an inspiration to me on many levels, and provided an example of the type of man I should strive to be.

Professionally, I've had many mentors from whom I have drawn knowledge and inspiration, so it's hard to point to just one or even a few. I've had the fortune of working for and with some very intelligent and talented individuals. With every interaction, I try to learn and implement what I can from whomever I can.

What is an Integration and Test (I&T) Manager?

Every spacecraft project has an integration and test phase, and hence an I&T manager (in role, if not in title).

A spacecraft is an assembly of subsystems (propulsion for example) and components (star tracker, battery, etc.). These components are provided by a variety of vendors and are typically delivered independently from one another. As they are delivered, I&T is responsible for assembling all of the components together according to the designs provided by the spacecraft engineers. That's the "Integration" part. I&T is also responsible for testing the spacecraft (hence the "& Test") to ensure it can survive the launch and space environments. This testing includes both functional testing (making sure the various components work together and can perform the tasks necessary to complete the mission), and environmental testing (subjecting the spacecraft to launch and space environments to prove it can survive and still perform adequately). Typical roles on the I&T team include mechanical tech, electrical tech, test script developer, and test conductor.

An I&T manager is ultimately responsible for delivering the fully assembled and ready-to-launch spacecraft to the launch provider. He or she is primarily tasked with the administrative aspects of that effort: assembling the team, creating and tracking budgets and schedules, setting priorities, and reporting at the various reviews.

I&T managers have to interact with many parties (both within and outside the project) in order to coordinate support resources: including personnel, equipment and facilities. I&T managers are usually involved in anomaly resolution and change-control board meetings as well. (So, yes, they spend a lot of time in meetings.) The position isn't all administrative though. There are also technical aspects to the job, including providing input on spacecraft designs to accommodate I&T activities, creating/reviewing test procedures, participating in troubleshooting activities, and sometimes serving as a test director.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.

I have a lot of fond memories from both LCROSS and Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE). Top of my list would have to be being at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) for the LCROSS launch in June 2009. KSC had set up a VIP area where my family and I, and several LCROSS team members, stood to watch the launch.

The launch was set for the late afternoon and waiting all day had been agonizing, especially since anticipation had made the time seem to crawl. When the launch window finally arrived, storm clouds appeared on the horizon. Due to the clouds, the first of three launch times was scrubbed in hopes that the clouds would pass. Unfortunately, the second launch time was also scrubbed as the clouds approached even closer. As the sky grew completely overcast, I thought for sure that the launch was going to be delayed a third and final time. (This would mean we'd have to go through the same waiting torture the next day.)

Miraculously, despite the cloud cover being worse than when the first launch time was delayed, we received the green light to launch: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6 ... time hit 0 and the rocket ignited. As the Atlas carrying LCROSS started to lift off, we could feel the bleachers vibrate from the force despite being four miles away. I felt a mixture of relief, awe, pride, and exhilaration wash over me as I watched the rocket soar into the clouds -- definitely one of my favorite moments. I am looking forward to experiencing a similar moment when LADEE launches in September 2013.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?

I'm not sure I'd advise someone to take the same career path as mine given the winding nature of the path that brought me here. However, if you are looking to be an I&T manager, I'd advise you to diversify your skills. Some folks may be tempted to focus only on the technical aspects, spending all their time learning about science or engineering. However, being a good manager entails much more than just a solid technical understanding. You'll need to know how to create and manage schedules and budgets, deal with contracts and proposals, and present to management and large audiences. I'd also suggest taking some software development courses. The vast majority of spacecraft testing is actually testing Flight Software (FSW), so a basic understanding of software concepts is highly beneficial.

What do you do for fun?

I like to golf and spend time with my family. The latter doesn't leave much time for the former, but as my kids get a little older I plan to combine the two.

If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?

I have a mathematics degree and it has served me well throughout my career. I think math, science and engineering give you core capabilities that you can leverage regardless of what you actually end up doing. Also as a hiring manager, I know that I prioritize individuals who hold those degrees over ones that are less scientific. So, my advice to you would be to pursue a degree in one of those areas. But as I mentioned above, I'd suggest diversifying your studies so they are more balanced, which will give you the flexibility to fill more roles.

Read More

Where are they from?

Planetary science is a global profession.