Hubble Project Manager Patrick Crouse

Pat Crouse

Project Manager

Pat Crouse wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted to do in high school. He wasn’t sure in college. And he wasn’t sure even when he was hired to work at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

He did know it would involve critical thinking, physics or math, and that it would focus on a technical field. So he took chances that arose, and embraced opportunities that presented themselves. He tried things that were new and different. He explored.

Today he’s the Hubble Space Telescope’s project manager, supervising all aspects of Hubble’s mission. “We have whole teams of engineers who get way down in the details, they come back with recommendations and options, and we sort through them and clarify what’s the best direction for us to go,” he said. “It’s working with a team and knowing the ins and outs of how the satellite works. When something changes and it’s not working the same way, we have to figure out how to make it work a different way.”

In addition to supervising the technical work of Hubble, Pat oversees budgets and works with NASA policies, making sure they’re followed and helping to adjust ones that aren’t working the way they should.

Growing up in Hancock, Maryland, Pat was good at math and science in high school, and thought he might become a computer science major. But in college, once he took computer science courses, he couldn't see himself as a programmer. A friend suggested engineering instead. He was attending Maryland’s Frostburg State University, which didn’t offer engineering, so he entered a combined degree program that let him take those classes at the University of Maryland, College Park. “I talked to a few people, but even then I wasn’t sure what kind of engineer,” he recalled. He was fairly sure he didn’t want to be an electrical engineer, and civil engineering didn’t hold his attention. “But then I thought about aerospace and thought that sounded interesting.”

He graduated from Frostburg with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and from the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering. “I thought maybe I’d be designing airplane engines,” he said. But those companies weren’t hiring when he graduated. Goddard, on the other hand, was looking for recruits.

Pat received a job offer from the Flight Dynamics Division, where he would be analyzing whether satellites were pointing correctly and working with the software that made sure they did. “Ironically, the position they wanted to hire me into used some of the math I enjoyed the least.” But he decided to give it a shot. It was 1990, and Hubble was just launching as he finalized his acceptance.

The job threw him right into day-to-day work on missions that were getting ready to launch that year or that were already in space, he said, and he liked the diversity. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to be the world’s expert in one thing,” he said. “I wanted to be a little more broad and be able to dabble here and there. I enjoyed operations, and I was staying in flight dynamics, and I was managing a couple of the satellites on orbit and I enjoyed that.”

He continued his education while he worked, getting his master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Maryland, College Park, and later a master’s degree in engineering management from the University of Maryland University College.

In 1999, he became mission director for five Small Explorer spacecraft, for which he was responsible for overall operations, budgeting and resolving problems. Around that time, one of those science satellites failed after launch. It was supposed to last for six months, but burned through its coolant in 18 hours and didn’t point correctly. Pat was able to help turn it into an opportunity. “We still had this satellite that we knew we could use.”

He and his group used the satellite as a piece of test equipment — something that’s common for engineers on Earth but hardly ever seen in space. “With the things on it, maybe we could use it in different ways and learn from it,” Pat theorized at the time. So they experimented with the satellite’s star tracker, which would have helped the satellite point, by using it to look at stars and measure how they changed. At the time, star trackers could freeze up when affected by radiation bursts, so they were able to work with engineers to test solutions for that problem. They tried out different ways to control the spacecraft. Eventually, the results of some of their work would make their way into the planet-finding Kepler mission.

In 2001, Pat moved into management, supervising other employees and eventually becoming a deputy project manager. He saw it as a way to blend technical management with the business side of things. “I remember thinking, ‘I’ll try it out for a little while,’ and I remember the supervisor that I had, she said, ‘No, I could tell by the way you liked it that you weren’t coming back.’”

Afterwards, he became manager of the Space Science Mission Operations Project, where he was responsible for more than 30 missions, and then the project manager for Hubble. The work is exciting on several levels, Pat said.

“I liked being in charge,” he said. “I talk a lot to other people and get consensus, but I enjoy knowing I’m ultimately the one who makes decisions for these missions. I think I like the challenge: how you get the technical work done with the constraints you have with money and time. If budget gets reduced, how do you still get the job done? If we have a problem in space, you have to try to figure it out. When there’s a problem, it’s an opportunity to try to be creative and find ways to get the job done more elegantly. I like puzzles. It’s fun to solve puzzles and try to be creative at the same time.”

Ultimately, Pat’s journey to his career was a matter of experimentation — perhaps fitting for a person who manages science missions. “It was not a clear-cut path. I knew a little about the things that I liked, and if an opportunity presented itself where I could expand in a certain area, I would give it a try. I kind of evolved to where I am,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to try something new. I’d say to look for challenges and enjoy the challenge.”