By Anna Heiney
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center
Charles "Chuck" Tatro has always been a tinkerer -- an engineer at heart, even as a child. Now he's about to see nearly seven years' worth of engineering effort take off for Mars.
Tatro is the MAVEN mission manager for NASA's Launch Services Program (LSP). MAVEN, which stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, will study Mars' upper atmosphere for clues that may explain the planet's apparent change in climate. When MAVEN rockets away from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V, Tatro will be one of many launch controllers and managers ensuring a smooth start to the mission.
"What a mission manager does in the Launch Services Program is equivalent to a project manager on a major project," Tatro said. "That means making sure the ride -- the rocket -- is procured, verified, and managed correctly. It means making sure we meet the schedule and launch successfully."
Tatro's involvement with MAVEN dates back to the end of 2007. At that time, the mission was merely a proposal, one of several the agency was considering for a future flight. The Launch Services Program reviews all proposals to assess what the launch vehicle needs would be for each. NASA selected MAVEN in September 2008. Since then, Tatro has worked in tandem with the MAVEN project management team from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.; the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, which leads the mission; and Lockheed Martin Space Systems, which built the spacecraft.
"The best part of this mission has been working with a very small project team," Tatro said. "In the past, typically, Mars missions were managed with a cast of hundreds. MAVEN was handled differently, with a small group of technical people and heavy reliance on the Lockheed Martin team.
"We've had good esprit de corps. You know people on the spacecraft side, and they know you. We're a team working together for the same goal."
There are several mission managers within LSP, each assigned to specific projects. A day in the life of an LSP mission manager changes as the years go by and the project progresses from paper to hardware. Early on, it's all about balancing the requirements of the spacecraft with what the launch vehicle providers propose, and ranking and evaluating these from a technical standpoint.
Finally, the flight hardware arrives at the launch site. An Air Force C-17 cargo aircraft delivered MAVEN to Kennedy Space Center on Aug. 2. Its ride to Mars, the Atlas V booster and Centaur upper stage, arrived at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station a few weeks later. At this point -- as preflight milestones are checked off one by one -- the job of the mission manager becomes increasingly demanding.
"You're working the detailed interfaces where spacecraft and launch vehicle connect -- spacecraft to launch vehicle, and launch vehicle to spacecraft. You're managing the technical problems, cost issues, schedule risk, and the team involved," he added.
Despite the technical nature of the mission manager role, people-management skills also are critically important, according to Tatro.
"You don't do this alone," he said. "Our team members believe in what they're doing, and if you never ask them to do anything you wouldn't do, you'll always have their support."
But technical know-how has always been a part of Tatro's life, even as far back as his childhood in Los Alamos, N.M. His father could fix anything; whether the problem was mechanical, electrical or both, his father would figure out what had gone wrong and repair it. Now a resident of Titusville, Fla., Tatro shares these same qualities. Even some of his favorite hobbies, such as bicycling and windsurfing, include elements of engineering: These are technical sports, involving equipment that can break or be made more efficient.
"Growing up, I always liked to figure things out," Tatro recalled. "I'd take things apart and put them back together -- and I'd try to improve them. I'd think, 'How can I make this better? How can I get more out of it?'"
He earned a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering from the University of California, San Diego. He followed up with a master's degree in nuclear engineering from the University of Arizona, this time with emphasis on power systems. Upon graduation, he wrote to NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, and was hired to work on the design and procurement of space station solar arrays.
Tatro came to Kennedy Space Center in 1989 to work on the tiles, reinforced carbon-carbon panels, and specialized blankets that made up the space shuttle orbiters' thermal protection system. A few years later, he switched gears by moving into Kennedy's Environmental Projects Office, which monitors the center's air and water and manages environmental resources.
"You follow where you think the excitement is, and you follow good people," Tatro said of the change.
Tatro joined LSP in 1995. Prior to MAVEN, he managed the Pluto-New Horizons launch in 2006 and the 2009 liftoff of Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter/Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite. But don't be fooled by the years between these missions.
"Even if it's not your mission, the mission manager is always helping out with Public Affairs, VIPs, and any other outreach," Tatro said. "We're good spokespersons for addressing questions about the launch campaign and can take some of that pressure off the actual mission manager, who at that time is very busy."
With the MAVEN launch currently scheduled for Nov. 18, Tatro is busy, indeed. Once the mission is underway and the pressure is off, two of the things on his to-do list include spending some extra time with his three high-school-aged sons and playing a lot more tennis.
But until then, he remains focused on the mission at hand: ensuring a successful launch for MAVEN.
"Launch is very exciting," he said, "but there's nothing like the sense of accomplishment and relief when you get confirmation of spacecraft separation -- that it's alive and healthy, on the right trajectory, and on its way to Mars."