Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Phathom Donald: Hubble Space Telescope Mission Engineer | NASA Goddard

Phathom Donald: Hubble Space Telescope Mission Engineer | NASA Goddard

Phathom Donald Brings Space Closer as a Hubble Mission Engineer

“I'm always proud every time I see a new picture taken by Hubble," said Phathom Donald, a satellite systems engineer for the Hubble Space Telescope. "It feels like an accomplishment and an honor even to be part of a mission that brings those images to people on Earth.”

Name: Phathom Donald

Title: Mission Engineer

Formal Job Classification: Satellite Systems Engineer

Organization: Astrophysics Project Division, Hubble Space Telescope Operations Project

What do you do and what is most interesting about your role here at Goddard? How do you help support Goddard’s mission?

As a member of the flight operations team for the Hubble Space Telescope, I monitor and evaluate the performance of Hubble's subsystems through its telemetry. I send commands to Hubble as needed for routine maintenance, maintaining communication with the spacecraft, and recovery from onboard anomalies. I also support ground system maintenance to ensure that operations run smoothly and uninterrupted.

On the flight software team, I build and run simulations to verify flight software changes before they're installed onto Hubble. Just like how your laptop or your smartphone gets regular updates to add new features or to fix bugs, Hubble gets flight software updates for added capabilities and to address new issues.

Being a flight controller was a dream of mine, so being able to command a spacecraft has been really exciting. I also really enjoy coding, and it's been interesting seeing how all these critical and complicated activities happen at the same time. I think the work I do outside of my flight controller role has helped me become a better flight controller, because I have a better idea of what's happening behind the scenes—things feel a bit more intuitive to me.

How did you find your path to Goddard?

During undergrad, I was on a path to become a power systems engineer. But one day in my senior design class, our professor invited the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) project manager at the time to speak to our class about systems engineering and its applications to the mission. Within five minutes of this presentation, I was on the verge of tears. This presentation alone changed the course of my career because it reminded me that I love the stars and I love space. More importantly, it made me feel like a career at NASA was actually possible.

So, I emailed the speaker and asked him for advice, and he responded with excellent guidance and encouragement. I saved that email and essentially used it as a career guide. After graduating, I worked for a NASA contractor first as a quality engineer, then as a model-based systems engineer. While I was in that role, I pursued my master’s, and about a month after graduating, I saw the job posting for Hubble's flight operations team at Goddard. After a year or so of settling in, I reached out to that same speaker and I let him know I took his advice, I made it to NASA, and that I couldn't be more grateful for his help. He responded beautifully, saying that he was humbled to have played any role in me getting to where I wanted to be.

What first sparked your interest in space?

My dad used to take my brothers and me to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles all the time. I loved going to those shows in the planetarium and just feeling engrossed in what they were teaching. I'd always wanted to take an astronomy class, but I didn’t get the chance until my last year of undergrad. I'm so glad I did; it just reaffirmed that space is for me.

What is your educational background?

I graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 2014 with a bachelor's in electrical engineering. I also have a master's in space systems engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. Right now, I'm pursuing a graduate certificate in control systems from the University of Michigan at Dearborn to prepare for a role supporting Hubble's pointing and control subsystems. After I'm done, I plan to pursue a graduate certificate in aerospace for that same reason; I want to pick up and hone skills in order to maximize my contributions to Hubble.

How do you keep a cool head when you have a mission-critical situation?

I think I'm generally a pretty calm person, but in moments where Hubble's mission is at risk, I tend to focus on what is in my power to get done. So I'll look at the situation and think, “OK, what can we do to either fix or mitigate this problem?” And I do what I can with care, I communicate clearly with those I'm working with, and I trust the abilities of my colleagues. I work with really brilliant, dedicated people who love what they do, so I know that they're going to do what’s best for the mission.

What is your proudest accomplishment at Goddard?

To be honest, I'm always proud every time I see a new picture taken by Hubble, especially after we've recovered it from an anomaly. It feels like an accomplishment and an honor even to be part of a mission that brings those images to people on Earth.

Who are your science role models, and how have they shaped your career in science?

Katherine Johnson: she was an African American mathematician who was pivotal in the success of the early human spaceflight missions carried out by NASA. Her complex trajectory calculations got the first man into space and back unharmed. I also admire Dr. Sian Proctor: she was the first Black woman to pilot a spacecraft.

As a minority, it can be easy to feel like an outlier in the space industry. Seeing people like Katherine and Dr. Proctor succeed and excel in these fields adds a bit of comfort. They show me that these technically demanding roles are attainable.

How do you like to spend your time outside of work? What are your hobbies?

I spend a lot of time with my tiny dog, Chara. I named her after a yellow star in the Hunting Dogs constellation. Chara is Greek for “joy,” and to say she brings me joy would be an understatement.

I actually have a new obsession with snorkeling and freediving. I went snorkeling for the first time in early 2021 and it completely changed my life. Before snorkeling, I was terrified of water. After snorkeling, I wanted to be a fish. I just love the freedom that comes with the lack of equipment. I love the peace that I feel underwater.

What is your “six-word memoir”? A six-word memoir describes something in just six words.

“The stars are not too far.”

What is some advice you would give your 10-year-old self?

You are capable of more than you know, more than what people might try to make you believe. Do what makes you feel fulfilled and define your own success. Your passion is your strength.

Conversations With Goddard is a collection of Q&A profiles highlighting the breadth and depth of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center’s talented and diverse workforce. The Conversations have been published twice a month on average since May 2011. Read past editions on Goddard’s “Our People” webpage: 


Image Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Rob Andreoli

Location: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, United States

Story Credit: Hannah Richter

Release Date: Jan. 31, 2023

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