Blending science and engineering to make space missions possible
July 29, 2022

Blending science and engineering to make space missions possible

The story of a senior planetary scientist in industry – Dr Beau Bierhaus

By J D Prasanna Deshapriya, Nandita Kumari, Hans Huybrighs, Batiste Rousseau, Ottaviano Ruesch, Carina Heinreichsberger and the EPEC future research working group.

Academia or industry? This is no doubt one of the topics that occupies the minds of early career scientists.

In a quest to gather some insights from someone who has had success in the both, we had a chat with Dr. Beau Bierhaus, who is now a senior research scientist at Lockheed Martin. He started off his career in academia with a planetary science-focused PhD at University of Colorado and later ended up transitioningtransiting to industry, where he works on both engineering and scientific aspects of space missions. Here is what we learned.

Engineering and science backgrounds merge to make a versatile planetary scientist

Beau Bierhaus
Beau Bierhaus. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Could you give us a brief introduction about yourself?

I’m a senior research scientist at Lockheed Martin, which is a space company with activities spanning across the United States. I’m located just outside of Denver, Colorado and I work within Commercial Civil Space, which is a smaller part of the larger company. 

What do you do for your job?

I partner with space scientists and instrument providers to put together NASA proposals for new mission concepts, such as Maven and Juno mission proposals. I work with the scientists to transform science goals into specific instrument measurements and mission requirements.  For some missions I have the opportunity to be a member of the science team.

OSIRIS-REx is an example where I was involved from the very beginning with the first proposal. I was a member of the engineering team that put together the design of the spacecraft. I was also a member of the science team, thinking about all of the incredible science that we could do at the asteroid Bennu.

Tell us about your academic background

I was a physics major as an undergraduate and got a wonderful exposure to a broad array of concepts. In terms of graduate school, I went to the University of Colorado in Boulder in the aerospace engineering department. I really liked the school and the organisation of the department, because they had a lot of collaboration with the science departments, for example with the astrophysics and planetary science department. Despite being in the engineering department, I was able to take classes in planetary science and Earth’s atmosphere, among others. 

Then I got lucky. Clark Chapman, co-investigator of the imaging-team for the Galileo Mission, was looking for help on analysis of the image data. Even though I was in the engineering program, I loved the science of the mission. I was interviewed for the position and fortunately got it. I started working at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) for my graduate research and ended up doing my PhD thesis on impact processes, Galilean satellites and looking at Europa in particular. So I ended up getting a planetary science PhD from the aerospace engineering department. I was a little bit worried that I might not get a good job somewhere because I was from an aerospace engineering department. 

Fortunately, as I was finishing up my career, I met a scientist named Ben Clark with a long background in planetary science and instrumentation. At that time he was working at Lockheed Martin at the facility where I work now. He was looking for somebody comfortable and familiar with both engineering and planetary science. Again I was fortunate that somebody was hiring exactly when I was finishing up my degree, looking for my qualifications. I was very happy to take the job.

A childhood inspiration goes a long way…

You said that you were always interested in space. Was there any defining moment in your life when you decided that you really want to do this ?

Even as a very little kid I just loved space. I can’t pinpoint a particular moment where something happened, but I knew that I wanted to explore space. I’m old enough now that I was alive when the first Star Wars movie came out. I was only four, but I remember seeing the first Star Wars movie and just being amazed. 

Skills? Build your own expertise and also have a sense of the big picture

Could you talk a little about the skills that are necessary for working in industry ?

Engineers have to make things that work in space, with no chance for repair after launch, except for software updates.  This requires incredible attention to detail and a rigorous analysis and test program that evaluates the performance of individual subsystems — such as the power or propulsion subsystems — as well as how those subsystems interact as a system-level spacecraft.  Nothing beats hands-on experience in actually building and testing hardware, even if it’s for something used on Earth, to appreciate the level of detail required.

I would encourage graduate students in science disciplines who are interested in missions, and spacecraft, to learn more about a specific engineering discipline as an entry point to the overall process of designing a spacecraft.  It is also important to keep in mind that your particular subject does not solve the problem alone. Have a sense for community, and work together with people, as all parts of the mission are connected with each other.

I would say in terms of recommendations for interested students, if you’re a scientist, take engineering classes. If you are an engineer, take science classes. At the end of the day these missions are realized not just because of engineers and not just because of scientists but because of both. If you have exposure to those other areas as a student that’s just going to make you a better scientist in the long run, if that is the direction you want to go.

A postdoc looking to transition to industry? Go to conferences, be proactive and make contacts! 

How can a postdoc, beyond taking additional engineering classes, get into industry?

It would be useful to go to conferences where science and engineering overlap because the industry representatives are usually present in such conferences and can be looking to hire. I would encourage you to go to booths of the commercial companies in the conferences and make contacts.

In a nutshell: scientists love ideas, engineers make those ideas work.

You talked about different working philosophies for engineers and scientists. Could you describe it a bit more of how these two sectors approach a problem?

When developing a mission, engineers work, live and design by requirements — that kind of discipline and rigor is necessary to make a mission work. Scientists don’t start out thinking about requirements, they start out thinking about what kind of fundamental questions that they want to answer.  It can take a lot of work to translate the question and hypothesis-based ideas from scientists into mission requirements for the engineers.

Academia vs industry, a choice related to research freedom, teamwork and getting hands-on with stuff that go into space

You transitioned from academia to industry after your PhD. What changes did you notice in the way these two domains work? 

In academia you have the opportunity to come up with your own problems and generally be in charge about what you want to do and what particular problem you want to solve. In industry, your individual efforts are more coordinated with problems that the organization is trying to solve. So I think you trade some intellectual flexibility by working for a company, but you have direct access, responsibility and involvement with actually building satellites that will go into space. 

Fancy being a scientist in industry? The more ‘bilingual’ you are in science and engineering, the better the chances!

Could you reflect on future opportunities for scientists in industry in the next decade or so?

There needs to be a bridge that connects those two to make the missions work. I think it’s always important to have people who are comfortable speaking to both communities, probably because of the different working mindsets of engineers and scientists. So I think if you are interested in industry, I think that interface is really valuable and makes a mission successful.

Find out more about the EPEC future research working group.

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