Meet the IBEX Team: Greg Rahal
It takes some people years to figure out their career path, but Greg Rahal isn't one of them. From the time he was a toddler, Greg knew that space science was in his future.
"I was born in 1967, which was notable because the Moon landing happened in 1969. As a toddler, I can remember my parents waking me up in the middle of the night to watch the astronauts on TV and to hear them on the radio," Greg said. "There was never anything else I wanted to be besides an astronaut and then an engineer."
As a child living in the Vienna, Virginia area, Greg often had astronauts on his mind. "My mom tells me that whenever I heard the man in the traffic helicopter on the radio, I thought it was an astronaut," he said.
However, by high school, Greg's aspirations for working on the space program shifted. "When the shuttle program started, I began considering whether I wanted to fly it or build it, and by the end of high school I had decided I wanted to be an engineer," he said.
The progression from aspiring astronaut to budding engineer came naturally to Greg, who was constantly taking household appliances apart. He advises aspiring engineers to follow his example. "If you want to be an engineer, learn to work on your own car or fix a toaster or a hair dryer. Don't be afraid to pick up broken stuff and take it apart to see how it worked. That's what I've done since I was a kid, and I believe it makes me a better engineer."
Greg was inspired to pursue his interest in exploring mechanical things by Dave Wright, the youth director at his church. "He was a real tinkerer. He would fix his own lawnmower and do a lot of home improvement projects. When I had a question about how something worked, I would call him," Greg said.
After high school, Greg earned an aerospace engineering degree from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech). He went on to work for Lockheed as part of the team processing the space shuttle at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Although he enjoyed the work, Greg missed Virginia. "So I started writing and calling Orbital Sciences until they hired me in 1997 to work on the X-34." The X-34 was an unmanned, suborbital space plane. Since the X-34 program was cancelled in 2001, Greg has mainly worked on telecommunications satellites and science satellites like IBEX.
As the Mechanical Lead for the IBEX project, Greg is responsible for the design, manufacturing, and qualification of the structural components of the IBEX spacecraft, the launch vehicle adapter cone, and the three separation systems. In the past month, Greg has been working with three subcontractors to complete the manufacturing and testing of the flight hardware, which will all be delivered by the end of October. Greg spends much of his time communicating via email, phone, and face-to-face visits; managing the subcontractors; coordinating with the other subsystem leads; and supervising the rest of the mechanical team.
Greg enjoyed the transition from working on the space shuttle to smaller projects like IBEX. "While working on the shuttle, I was surprised to learn how many people it took to get seven astronauts into space. There were 10,000 people working at Kennedy Space Center-about 7,000 contractors and 3,000 each of us had just a small piece of the puzzle." Greg explained. "IBEX is smaller. It's unmanned, and each of us is involved in the big picture of the program, which has been a fun part of the IBEX job."
Being part of a mission's big picture is just one enjoyable part of a Greg's job. "For me, the most rewarding aspect is actually producing hardware that performs its function well. It's giving someone a solution to a real problem that they have."
For Greg, working with talented coworkers to tackle technical challenges using creative problem solving in the pursuit of science goals makes engineering the (almost) perfect career. "If it weren't for schedule demands, we'd have the perfect job... the political pressures and budget or schedule pressures are the real challenges."
He recommends that students hoping to break into an engineering career should get on-the-job training as soon as possible. "Do an internship or co-op, even if it's not in the company or the exact field you're interested in. One of my college summer jobs was working for SAIC [Science Applications International Corporation] when Reagan had the 'Star Wars' initiative. The only thing I was doing was compiling classified data on the effects of lasers on various materials. I had no idea what the data meant, but it gave me experience working with other engineers in that type of environment," he said.
Because each engineering problem is different, Greg believes that creativity is essential in his job. He said, "Engineering school teaches you how to think, rather than specific skills. You learn those as you go."
Greg expects that future space science engineers will mainly work on unmanned missions. "I actually think more and more of [space exploration] is going to be done robotically. I think we'll discover that the expense [of sending people into space] doesn't justify the science... and as robots become more autonomous and more capable, the advantage of having a person there will become less and less."
In the meantime, Greg hopes to continue to work on small, unmanned missions like IBEX and to pursue his hobbies. Outside of work, Greg and his wife, Michelle, are active in their church. They attend a Bible study and lead a contemporary Christian band called Work in Progress.