Meet the IBEX Team: Alan Dunn
Alan Dunn was a kid who liked to fix things. "My mother would tell you that at 10 years old I fixed the dryer at home. I always liked to build things, and always wanted to be an engineer. I ended up doing what I wanted to do," he said.
After a childhood spent moving all over the world with his father, an army officer, Alan attended the University of Maryland, where he chose electrical engineering as a major. "I grew up through high school with the Apollo Program, which was an inspiration to get into the engineering world," he said. He went to work for Fairchild, a company that builds both weapons systems and spacecraft. Alan began his career there by designing electrical systems for weapons systems such as the B-2 and F-14. He transitioned to space projects starting with the Hubble Space Telescope in the early 1980s.
Today, Alan is the Spacecraft Chief Engineer for the IBEX mission, which means that he is in charge of assembling the spacecraft from pieces that were constructed around the world. This month, Alan is putting in long hours at his workplace, Orbital Sciences, to ensure that the assembled spacecraft will operate correctly. He and his team are conducting tests that simulate the harsh conditions of both launch and space. "Right now I'm working on the comprehensive performance testing. I'm doing whatever it takes to get the spacecraft finished," he said. That includes shaking it on a vibration table and operating it in a thermal-vacuum chamber. When the equipment does not function properly during tests, Alan tracks down the people who originally designed it so that they can make modifications.
Although working long hours to get the testing done is tough, Alan enjoys the challenge of seeing a project through to its end. "I love the fact that I'm building something that no one has ever done before. They are all one of a kind, and you can't go back and see how the last guy did it - there's no previous guy. There's a great deal of satisfaction in designing, building, testing and launching something that is completely new," he said.
This rigorous testing reflects the imperative of NASA missions to succeed, which surprised Alan when he switched from military engineering to space engineering. "I think the incredible attention to detail surprised me. When you build a spacecraft, you don't get a second chance to fix it, so you have to make it perfect. Once it goes up, you can't do anything to fix it. There's a saying in engineering, 'If [the spacecraft] is on the ground, you can wish it's up there [in space], but when it's up there, you don't want to be wishing it were on the ground,'" Alan said. This differs from his days as a military engineer. "The airplanes come back on a military job and you can fix it. They expect failures in the military engineering world. You don't have that ability in the space world. Once a spacecraft is gone, it's gone forever - they don't return. Going into space is also exquisitely expensive, so you don't want to fail."
He finds engineering inherently exciting, and people who tell him that they think it is boring often eat their words after he shows what he actually builds. "Usually, I bring in people who say engineering is dull and show them the hardware. Right now, it's [the IBEX spacecraft] hanging from a crane. I do things you can feel and touch that are tangible. You can see the accomplishment. When I worked in military electronics, I would take people to an air show and open up the cockpit on an F-14 and show them that my name is on a box in there somewhere. Saying, 'I built this thing,' is the 'wow,' and it will get them excited about it. You need to be an engineer to do these kinds of things," he said.
To get to be an engineer, though, Alan says one must learn the basics. "Science and math are incredibility important. You can't do what I do without understanding them both. You have to take it in school, and you have to work at it. My oldest daughter is a senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and she's realizing that you can't just take the classes. You have to really like the science and the math side of it. If you enjoy it, you need to study those things and do well at the field," he said.
Once school is finished, there is still more to learn. Alan said, "Education gets you through the front door. Every company has a personality and you have to learn that personality. There's an enormous amount of on-the-job training for spacecraft engineering. Education won't tell you how to fix things or make it work. Spacecraft develop a personality, as strange as that may sound, and you have to figure out what's going on with its hardware in order to find out how to make it work," he said.
Alan finds the work of space entrepreneurs inspiring, and predicts that they will revolutionize the space industry. "I think the guy who won the X-Prize, Burt Rutan, is inspiring. He's the type of person who shows you that you can accomplish anything if you put your mind to it and try real hard," he said. "I think space is going to be taken over by these mavericks. NASA will be there to do pure science missions, but I also think that the commercial people are going to take a larger and larger role in space exploration. For instance, the world is waiting for a rocketry revolution. We've been dealing with 60-year old concepts about rocketry, and if someone can think of better way to get into space, it will break wide open," he said.
He believes his daughter could be on the forefront of those commercial breakthroughs in space. "The person who is going to be involved in it is my daughter at MIT. Some of these things are going to be 20-30 year developments. She wants to be an astronaut, and she'll get there, I think, on a commercial venture," Alan said.
In 20-30 years, when his daughter makes it into space, Alan might be at home pursuing his hobbies and reflecting on his long career in the engineering field. "I'm very much into photography. When I got out of college I did a lot of professional photography work. I love to take pictures, and what's kept me busy is that and rebuilding my house. I've spent the last 4-5 years of my life remolding my house. I did 70% of the work myself. Our neighbors gave me a plaque that says 'Never Dunn'. My wife thought it was hilarious," he said.