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Orbiter, 2011 June - Careers in the Space Industry
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A Part of Something Big . . .
A Peek into the World of a Systems Engineer at Space Systems/Loral

by Dahlia Williams, Space Systems/Loral Intern

For senior systems engineer, Van Chiu, going to work everyday is an exciting prospect. Van is part of the team responsible for making sure the mechanical systems for a large, complex communications satellite are perfectly integrated. One slip in the schedule can have a ripple effect throughout the factory, so her challenge is to support the mechanical design and integration effort throughout the spacecraft build.

But Van is up to the challenge and loves the fast pace and the immediate impact that her decisions make. She is one of thousands of engineers and technicians responsible for building the 21 satellites currently in the manufacturing facility at Space Systems/Loral (SS/L). Based in Palo Alto, California, SS/L is the world’s leading provider of commercial satellites with customers in 25 different countries around world. The company builds satellites for all the top FSS providers such as Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat and Telesat; and it also builds satellites that are familiar to consumers in the U.S., such as satellites for DIRECTV, DISH Network and Sirius XM Radio,

Van follows a satellite program from design through launch and her schedule changes, depending on the phase of assembly or test that the satellite is in. Now, she is in the midst of the satellite integration phase and her workdays are packed.

Today Van started at 8 a.m. with meetings with the payload, mechanical, and electrical subsystem groups. They discussed satellite status, how to approach a configuration issue, and yesterday’s reviews. Van works with the team to coordinate the responsibilities of the day. It all has to be carefully orchestrated to keep the building progress on schedule.

Van Chiu (pictured in the middle) and colleagues discuss spacecraft status in the Space Systems/Loral manufacturing facility in Palo Alto, Calif.

After her morning meetings, Van reviews last night’s test data with a keen eye for non-conformance issues. When she finishes reviewing those documents and signs off on the package, she puts on a smock and twists her long black hair into a cap to enter the clean room area where the satellites are assembled and tested.

"Of everything I do, my favorite part is being on the floor with the satellites,” says Van. "When people visit the high-bay, they are amazed by how large these satellites really are.” The one that Van is currently testing is about the size of a school bus.

She has to be right there with the satellite when hardware units are being integrated. Earlier in the week, the waveguides didn’t line up perfectly, and Van had to work with the design group to alter the design slightly to resolve the issue. This is the kind of mechanical system puzzle that Van has the expertise to solve. Today she sees that their work paid off because everything fits into place perfectly without any interference.

Even as a child growing up in Texas, Van was interested in solving puzzles, and she loved math, science, and technology. When it was time for college it was natural for her to pursue an engineering degree. She got her Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas in Austin and soon after began working for Lockheed Martin Information Systems at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston where Lockheed was a subcontractor. A year and a half later, intrigued by the opportunity to move to the West Coast, she left Texas for a position at Lockheed Missiles & Space Division in California’s Silicon Valley.

In 1997, when Van learned about the fast paced environment and opportunities for growth at SS/L, she joined the company as a mechanical vehicle engineer. Here she gets the opportunity to see satellites go from a design on paper to launch in less than three years and she knows her efforts make a difference.

"The environment at SS/L is a hybrid between Silicon Valley and the older defense systems mentality,” she says. "It is an interesting combination. I get to work together with some amazingly talented and innovative engineers and scientists and we’re focused on taking a proactive approach to getting it right the first time.”

Van walks up to a small meeting room with windows looking out over the factory floor at the busy teams working on the satellites that line the 40 foot high ceiling. These days Van gets assigned to work on the larger, more complex satellites, because of her experience with the complex configuration required to maximize capacity for Ka-band and S-band satellites. Van is part of the team that oversees all the mechanical systems testing, including supporting reflector deployments, acoustic, vibration and thermal vacuum chamber testing. She studies the test data meticulously to make sure the satellite is ready for the next stage of integration. Her job entails supporting all the mechanical aspects of satellites starting with design, following through with integration and testing, to launch.

Throughout the satellite build process she works with the spacecraft team to manage the flow and communication between the subgroups with the main goal being the smooth launch of the satellite, which is expected to provide service for at least 15 years at 22,300 miles above the earth’s surface. The satellite has to be perfect because you can’t go up to tighten a bolt or replace a capacitor once it is in orbit.

Typically a two to three year process, she has been involved with six different satellite programs in her 13 years at SS/L. She follows some of the satellites through to launch base where her team makes sure the satellite is integrated with the launch vehicle, properly encapsulated, and ready for launch.

When she joined SS/L her first work was on the manufacturing floor, where she obtained hands on experience working with satellite construction. It was tough work but she loved it, and not a day went by where she was bored. At the time the company was making smaller, simpler satellites.

Van says, "Since that time the average satellite we build is twice as big and three times as powerful as they were when I started. It has been exciting to be a part of that process.”

Van Chiu and the interviewer, Dahlia Williams, on the manufacturing floor in the required shop coats and hair nets.

SS/L supported Van’s career growth and paid for her Masters Degree program in Engineering Management at Santa Clara University. She says that people tend to stay at the company for a long time because there are so many opportunities for growth and change.

"If you like to do analysis, you can do analysis,” she said. "If you like to do testing, you can do testing. If you want a job with travel opportunities, you can find plenty.”

Van has traveled to Baikonur in Kazakhstan to see a number of her satellites launch and will go again for a launch toward the end of the year. Van says, "After working on a satellite for two or three years, the day the satellite rockets into space, I feel like every bit of effort, all the hard work was completely worth it. I know I was a part of something great, a part of something big that will change people’s lives for the better.”

Click here for more information about Space Systems/Loral

In this Issue:

A Part of Something Big ... A Peek into the World of a Systems Engineer at Space Systems/Loral

NSR Report Looks at the Global Satellite Manufacturing and Launch Markets

From the Chairman: The Art of Satellite Manufacturing

It Can't Just Be Business As Usual Says Spacenet's Andreas Georghiou

Do You Know a Deserving Young Professional or Industry Mentor?

Save the Date for the 2011 Future Leaders Dinner

Satellite Week in New York is Where the Action Is

Mixing Business Talk and Elegant Receptions in Paris

ISU’s Executive MBA Welcomes High Profile Keynotes

From the Executive Director: I Dare You To Do Better

From the Director of Development: "Stars Have to Eat too"

Chapter Chat



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