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Behind the Scenes with a NASA Engineer

Kenneth Harris II shares his journey to becoming an engineer at NASA and why learning to fail is a key cornerstone of their culture. Find out what exciting projects follow the well-known Hubble Telescope.

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Kenneth Harris II shares his journey to becoming an engineer at NASA and why learning to fail is a key cornerstone of their culture. Find out what exciting projects follow the well-known Hubble Telescope.

Preben Thorø: My name is Preben Thorø, I'm with the GOTO organization. And with me, I have Kenneth Harris II.

Kenneth Harris II: Yes, sir.

Preben Thorø: And I must say I'm honored...

Kenneth Harris II: I'm honored.

Preben Thorø: ...to share this moment with you. Thanks a lot. And it has been on its way for quite a long time.

Kenneth Harris II: Yeah. Quite sometime, over a year,

Preben Thorø: Over a year. The first time we spoke on the phone. That was before the pandemic.


Kenneth Harris II: Over the pandemic, we got that email and it was like, "Hey, I'm interested in, you come in to speak." And I was like, "Okay, I don't know this guy, but I'll have a conversation with him." And we just kicked it off and we've been in touch for the past year and it's been a real experience and I'm thankful to be here now.

Preben Thorø: Thanks a lot for joining us. No matter where I dive into the description of you, it's just filled up with these words that everybody is dreaming about NASA, satellites, space, this, and that. And even on that, there is this Forbes 30 Under 30 exclusive list. What is that?

Kenneth Harris II: It's a list that they do each year. They choose 30 individuals in different categories. My category is with science specifically, and they're acknowledged for what they're doing in the field. Usually some groundbreaking stuff. So it's pretty easy to qualify as groundbreaking when you're working for NASA or working with NASA or DoD and things like that. So, Forbes, it was great to be on their list...

Preben Thorø: So you had a headstart by working for NASA?

Kenneth Harris II: I'd say so. I'd say so. You know, we're all about doing the cutting-edge. Some missions are repeated but they're always better, right? It's always challenging when new technology is out there.

Preben Thorø: But you have to be recognized.

Kenneth Harris II: Yeah. Definitely. Definitely.

How did it all start?

Preben Thorø: How did it start?

Kenneth Harris II: So I started our first mission when I was 15, and that started as a result of me working at a summer camp meeting the right people. I applied, I ended up getting this great internship where I had the opportunity to work in a radiation effects lab. So basically, how do our components react when they're under these space-like radiations. Our facility specifically at NASA, Goddard in Greenbelt, we have a facility that almost simulates or it does simulate space radiation. And there's this huge chamber with like this huge door, it looks like something out of a Marvel film like the Hawk, for example. It looks something like that. The chamber he got trapped in. 

So we put our components in there and we test them out. That was my first internship. So a program called MMS, the Multiscale Magnetospheric Mission. From there, I did six other projects. One being the Perseverance Mars Rover and the latest one being the Artemis program, which is the follow-up to the Apollo program that put the first man on the moon. So the Artemis program will put the first woman and the next man on the lunar surface.

Preben Thorø: That's an amazing story.

Kenneth Harris II: Yes.

Preben Thorø: May I ask you were how old? You must be under 30.

Kenneth Harris II: Yeah. I'm 29. I'm 29.

Preben Thorø: That's an amazing career.

Kenneth Harris II: I'm fortunate to have such an amazing career and to keep it going. It's challenging working in the space field because again, that cutting-edge technology can oftentimes be intimidating because some individuals such as myself when I started out, I had a fear of failing. So when it comes to doing these things like that, you just have to kind of get into your mind that I'll probably do this and it'll probably be wrong the first few times, right? But, you know, you eventually keep getting at it. You have a great team behind you and eventually, things work out. I mean, to not oversimplify, we're taking materials from Earth, putting it together, putting some fire behind it, and launching it into orbit. Oversimplifying it, right? But on a very base level, that's what's happening. It's all about your passion for the field. It's all about the team you have behind you. And the amazing missions that we're hoping to accomplish.

Fail early and fail fast

Preben Thorø: But probably getting this wrong the first couple of times, to me it doesn't sound like an environment where you do too many experiments.

Kenneth Harris II: So one of my mentors told me to fail early and fail fast. And that's a mantra that I've kept with me. One of my first experiences in failure was when my mentor said, hey, we have to design...it was a rotor of some sort. We had to design a rotor. And he let me go through the design phase for it. He let me go and do the schematics for it. I picked up the material. And when I got some of the material part, he actually said, "Okay, so what do you want to make this rotor out of?" He has these sample blocks of material there, about, you know, yay big on his desk. And one's wood, one's like an aluminum alloy, one's a titanium. One's some other material I can't remember, but it was like a polyurethane. So it's like a plastic. And so he's like, "Which one do you wanna make it out of?" Me being new to NASA, being new to Aerospace, I choose the metal one because it's solid. It's gonna be robust against space debris. And at this point, I'm thinking like comets...

Preben Thorø: It's the obvious choice.

Kenneth Harris II: Yes. Obvious choice. I'm thinking of comets and meteorites at this point are gonna take my satellite out if it's not as robust as possible. He lets me go through the entire design phase, like I'm talking to the point where we're about to order this thing. And he comes back to me and says, "Hey, you know that's too heavy, right? You know that's too heavy to fly."

Preben Thorø: So he knew that all the time.

Kenneth Harris II: Yes. He knew the whole time, but he allowed me to go through...like think through the full process and get to the end and actually "fail." It was an easy failure because you just swap out materials, but it's the concept that he allowed me to study things for myself. He allowed me to make these mistakes and thus build that confidence that it's okay to mess up. It's okay that you didn't think of everything at first, but this is why you have a team around you to kind of catch your mistakes and learn from them. But that wasn't my first failure in the industry, but it's one of my favorite stories to share.

Preben Thorø: But is that how you feel in the situation? Like, I failed in a constructive way?

Kenneth Harris II: Not at all.

Preben Thorø: The opposite.

Kenneth Harris II: It's the opposite, but looking back on it now, it's something that I talk to him about often and I replicate with my mentees. Not that exact same situation, obviously, but as we're going through these projects, I allow them to think through a number of different scenarios. If I see they are headed down the wrong direction, I will as a mentor try to correct them, but at the same time allow them to figure out the answer on their own. As long as it doesn't impede the mission, as long as it doesn't cause delay or additional cost to the project, it's all right. And that again, allows them to "fail," to have that feeling that, "Oh, I didn't accomplish it the first time." Because you need that feeling as an engineer. You need to understand that it doesn't go right every time, even if you're someone like Elon Musk who did not get it right at the beginning at all, right? But when you step into the public light, it just seems like the Tesla or a Tesla is perfect, but we don't go through everything that was wrong with it at the beginning. So you have to have that feeling so that you can continue as an engineer in my opinion.

Preben Thorø: It sounds like a very healthy structure.

Kenneth Harris II: Yes.

Preben Thorø: And I must say, it doesn't really go with the picture I had of NASA. That's how it is. That's really how it is.

Kenneth Harris II: Yes. That's really how it is. There's almost nothing that goes right the first time at NASA or in the aerospace industry in general, or I don't know any industry where it goes right 100% the first time. Maybe a professional chef that's been cooking for a long time. Maybe they just have the recipe down 100%. Maybe that's one of the only times I can think of something going right the first time.

Preben Thorø: Well, in that situation, there is no single truth. So it's easier to say that it went well.

Kenneth Harris II: Yes. The margins are a lot smaller in baking a cake than launching something into space. Maybe I should have that comparison.

Preben Thorø: Have you ever launched anything else into space, something that went wrong too late?

Kenneth Harris II: There's no wood around me, that's metal. But no, I have not. None of my projects have had catastrophic failures of that sort. You obviously have anomalies when you're dealing with launches. So you can get into space and there have been certain situations, not my missions where satellites don't reach their intended orbit. So because they don't reach their intended orbit, it either takes longer or you have to use additional fuel that you didn't think you'd have to use to put it into that orbit. There have been catastrophic failures where either a satellite will blow up before it leaves the atmosphere, or one of the most famous blunders is Hubble and its lens. So the situation with the lens was upside down, backward, whatever it was. And so, no, luckily for me, I have not experienced that, but I think I'd be prepared...well, no, I don't think anyone's prepared for that to be honest.

Writing history: James Webb Space Telescope

Preben Thorø: No. No. So on the other end of the spectrum, is there one single project that just stands out as the project?

Kenneth Harris II: Yes. For me, that is the James Webb Space Telescope. It's been delayed so many times. We're aiming for successes. I don't wanna say its intended launch date because we're being recorded, but its intended launch date is 2021 pending no further delays. So maybe 2022. Hopefully, we're not watching this in 2025 still waiting for it to go up, right? So I'm really excited for it. It really seems like it's at the point now where it will be launched because it was sent down to its launch facility. It was completely stowed and packed into its launch vehicle. So it's ready to go. What's today? It's about a month or so out now. So I'm really excited about that. And sorry, I didn't even explain what that is.

James Webb Space Telescope is the follow-up to through the Hubble Space Telescope. The idea behind the mission is to look at the first light in the galaxy, right? Like, who thinks about that? So we're trying to look back at light to the big bang, essentially. And part of its observation is because of this phenomenon in the cosmos that we know as cosmological redshift, which is basically how wavelengths become redder and redder the further from the source in the universe that it extends, and that supports the concept that the universe is constantly expanding. That supports the concept that as of now, we have not even seen a fraction of the amount of stars in the universe. 

When you look at Hubble's, you know, Deep Space Field, it's just a picture from Hubble that has got hundreds of billions of stars or hundreds of thousands of stars and that little itty-bitty picture. But the fun fact about that is that Hubble shoots in a very low infrared, whereas you need a very sensitive infrared camera to actually see everything that's out there. So a lot of the stars are hidden as ultraviolet light, which Hubble cannot see, which no one can see per se. So I'm excited about James Webb.

Preben Thorø: But what is the purpose? Is the purpose to confirm a theory that we have, or is it to expand?

Kenneth Harris II: It's to it's to expand. It's to expand. So James Webb is not the first telescope or first observatory to have this kind of instrumentation on it. So it's done infrared before or other instruments have done infrared before, but this one has much more advanced technologies. Again, comparing it to Hubble, it's about 16 times more powerful than Hubble. In addition, it will be launched into an L2 orbit, which is 1.5 million kilometers away from Earth in a Lagrange 2 orbit that doesn't have the interference from either the earth or the moon or the sun, like the lights from any of those. So because of that, it allows the satellite to be in much more appropriate environments to see things that we haven't seen before. So it is an expansion, but we put it into a different environment and we've jacked up the power of these instruments and it's really an impressive piece of hardware.

Preben Thorø: So you're writing history.

Kenneth Harris II: I'm trying to.

Preben Thorø: Maybe. Hopefully.

Kenneth Harris II: Trying to. So yes, it was definitely a pleasure to have the opportunity to work on the satellite and be kind of in that bunny suit environment and actually say that, "Hey, I worked on this part of the satellite and now it's in space forever." LIt's an amazing feeling.

Preben Thorø: You'll have a presentation here at our conference in one and a half hour, what can the audience expect?

Kenneth Harris II: The audience expects to go on a 14-year journey through my projects. I'm going to talk about three main projects that are really near and dear to my heart for several reasons. I'm will give some behind-the-scenes kind of conversations that you wouldn't know just from reading a paper about these amazing satellites. I'm going to discuss things like climate change, how the universe is constantly expanding, and ultimately how all this can impact society. 

I will do all that in about 40 minutes. Crunch it down to about 40 minutes. Hopefully, they'll walk away learning some stuff about how we get from point A to point B. You know, how do you think about, I've got a question about the universe, how do scientists come to engineers and say, hey, I want to...like someone just comes to the office one day and says, "Hey, it'd be really interesting to study the big bang." Okay. So where do we start? And so that's the relationship scientists have with engineers, "I have this great idea. I think you can do it utilizing these kinds of instruments or these kinds of materials." And the engineer will say, okay, that makes sense for this, this, and this reason. It doesn't make sense for this, this, and this reason. And through that collaboration, that's how we put those blocks together, again, put some fire behind it, and get into space.

Preben Thorø: Thank you. Thanks a lot for Joining us.

Kenneth Harris II: Yes, no problem. Thanks for having me.