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Steve Alfery

Steve Alfery - Dealing for Rover Wheeling on Mars

No banks, stock exchanges or other financial institutions are known to exist on Mars. So how does a business and economics graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara end up in a key role on a mission to the red planet?

"When I was in school, I never thought 'I'm going to be buying parts for spacecraft to go to other planets,'" said Steve Alfery of JPL. But every expedition to a new world needs someone like him -- a savvy buyer with knowledge of the marketplace to acquire the unique equipment, supplies and tools that will make the voyage possible.

It's Not Rocket Science - It's Harder

For engineers and scientists, what Alfery does is not rocket science - it's much harder. For the Mars Exploration Rover mission, Alfery holds the purse strings and brokers the deals. His efforts allow the project's engineers and scientists to acquire all the materials, machines and services that will become the mission itself.

What does it take to design, build, test, launch, fly and drive two robotic rovers destined for Mars? Materiel, and some of it is pretty exotic. Whether it's a parachute from Windsor, Connecticut, spacecraft lander airbags from Frederica, Delaware, or a robotic arm from Altadena, California, Alfery has led the team that made the deal. A spectrometer from Germany? A remotely controlled rock grinder from New York? Alfery's checked them out and determined the best product for the right price.

He Makes it Happen

"He is one of those rare people who you can give a problem to and he will get it fixed rapidly with minimal additional interaction," said Richard Cook, manager of the flight system for the project. "Steve is a 'fixer' who knows the right people to talk to, how the system can be tweaked to make something happen, and what is the right trade-off between technical, schedule, and procurement considerations."

Alfery scrolled through a database listing purchases. He pronounced the tally: "As of now, we have acquired 6,018 items for a total of $127,369,019 and 44 cents."

A member of JPL's acquisitions division staff, he is assigned to the Mars Exploration Rover project and housed in the project's trailer-offices. There, he works shoulder-to-shoulder with mission engineers and scientists who appreciate not only his business acumen, but his appreciation for engineering, budget constraints and tough project schedules. In his years of working on missions to Mars, Saturn and more, he's learned how spacecraft and scientific instruments work and how to assess mechanical devices and services needed to undertake a space mission.

"Steve has a good background of working component- through system-level acquisitions, so he really understands how acquisition work fits into both the technical and programmatic elements of a project," said Cook.

Speaking the Languages of Business and Engineering

Alfery is fluent in the languages of both business and engineering and moves easily between the two worlds. "He also has a good understanding of how our subcontractors and partners look at JPL from a business perspective," said Cook. That is very useful when it comes to deciding how we plan to acquire something and what we can reasonably expect to accomplish in the negotiation process."

Alfery points out that 80-some other JPL acquisitions department personnel who have also had a hand in getting the project what it needs to move forward. "I certainly don't do this alone," he said, scrolling through names of others who've helped negotiate purchase of everything from sophisticated radio systems to volcanic rocks and dirt for rover testing.

Before taking an entry-level position at JPL 16 years ago, Alfery, an Arcadia, California native, entertained an offer from a steel girder company. Compared to the chance to buy parts for spacecraft exploring the solar system, he said, buying and selling steel girders seemed less interesting. He enjoys serving as an ambassador to visiting schoolchildren and others touring JPL, explaining the project's scientific objectives and the machinery and skills needed to accomplish them.

Speaking the Languages of Business and Engineering

Locally, Alfery's skills have won him accolades such as the "Martian of the Month" award, an in-house prize at JPL for exceptional work on Mars missions. Nationally, Alfery and wife, Teresa, who is also an acquisitions rep at JPL, were sought out to appear on an MSNBC segment featuring exemplary domestic money-minders. "My wife, " he said proudly, "is the Budget Queen. She knows every household expenditure to the penny."

At JPL, Alfery said, "I work with a lot of great, smart people working on things I wouldn't normally have an opportunity to learn about. And I hope they see me as a key point of contact who is making things happen."

Apparently, they do: "Besides understanding the in's and out's of the procurement process and how we interact with our subcontractors," says Cook, "Steve's most valuable attribute to me is an ability to get things done."


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