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The Individual Journey to Space with Pete Wilczynski

Pete Wilczynski is the Program Executive at NASA Headquarters (HQs), US Air Force Veteran, Expert in Inter-Agency and International Collaborations in Space System Acquisition & Development, Satellite OPS Expert, NASA HQs Ombudsman and Aviator.


Please enjoy this conversation between Tim and Pete about their journey's to the Space Industry.




Tim - Ep5 - Pete Wilczynski

[00:00:00] Lee Steinke: Next step. We have an interview. Tim Chrisman, our executive director is going to interview Pete Wilczynski one of our favorite guests from a few months ago. Pete is the program executive at NASA headquarters, us air force, veteran expert in inter-agency and international collaborations in space system, acquisition and development, satellite ops expert.

[00:00:35] NASA HQ is ombudsman and aviator. We had a great conversation about being an ombudsman last time, Pete. Welcome back. I good afternoon. Good morning. Great to see you. I'm gonna turn it over to.

[00:00:52] Tim Chrisman: Thanks. They free

[00:00:54] Pete Wilczynski: dance. Oh yeah. Thank you. Once again, I have I have background envy [00:01:00] of models and rockets as you can.

[00:01:04] Right. I have the same issues.

[00:01:06] Tim Chrisman: Yeah. Yeah. I, uh, I like to tell people that, if I'm going to be stuck working from my house, I might as well have fun with it. And people could see a little piece of work.

[00:01:16] exactly by the way that previous segment, there's a lot to be said about articulating what we do in space to everybody in the community.

[00:01:24] Pete Wilczynski: And it was really fascinating to listen to it's. it's a really important aspect of everything we do. And I would say that, as a government space guy, sometimes we don't do it well enough. kudos to that segment where it, Yeah,

[00:01:36] Tim Chrisman: no, I think black by black creative does a exceptional job crafting those stories.

[00:01:41] And I came from army and CIA and so we were the last ever get our messages out. I know NASA is getting a lot better with you all recently publishing like your state by state economic impact reports. And so I think that's been really helpful and that's good to see. [00:02:00]

[00:02:01] Pete Wilczynski: Yeah, it is. And then it's one of those things.

[00:02:03] We get caught up in our own, niche of technicality and we get consumed because we feed off of it with each other that we forget that if you cannot explain this to somebody you're talking to at Starbucks, your overall question is what does it matter to me? how does it impact humanity that there it is right there.

[00:02:20] If you can't explain it that's part of our.

[00:02:25] Tim Chrisman: Yeah, no. And that's, when we're going out and talking that's something that we repeatedly emphasize when whenever we bring experts on or we go out to the community is no, we're trying to assume nobody knows any acronyms.

[00:02:39] We're trying to assume that we challenge. Experts to put it in the simplest terms possible. Both because it's fun to watch people squirm, but also because we're trying to get the message out to a broad audience. And there's been too long where it's just been us talking to ourselves.

[00:02:59] Indeed. [00:03:00] Yeah. But that gets me to my first question. I'm like, how did you get into space? Where did this.

[00:03:06] thank you for first of all, thank you for inviting me back. I, it's a great forum and I'm highly supportive of what you are doing, Tim and Lee,have been doing. it's it's again, getting the right people together and continue the conversation.

[00:03:20] Pete Wilczynski: I started in aviation about a hundred years ago in the service on the, in the air force I did a lot of flying in my early days. And once upon a time the air force asked me if I wouldn't mind doing a what do they call that? A career broadening assignments, That's that's the military T telling you that you're going to go do something completely. And so I did, and I ended up going down to Johnson space center and working on shuttle specifically, military payloads that at that time, in the late eighties, early nineties, we're still at the tail end of after challenger reshaped the whole launch industry.

[00:03:54] We still had manifested military payloads that needed to go on shuttle. They were designed to go and shuttle bay [00:04:00] deployments. So as part of the cadre therecut the space bug after a year or two down there, and then did a, sometime in classified space with the NRO. and then in the late nineties, got out of the service and became a of which I spent some time in the national oceanic and atmospheric administration.

[00:04:16] Pete Wilczynski: And now the last six or seven years now with,NASA headquarters. So that's my abbreviated journey. And it is, it's, it, wasn't a clear path, but once I, once you get on the path, It's the right one. you're connected, what gets you up in the morning? And as I talked to colleagues of mine, the thing that gets you up out of bed and you run to work, if you don't run to work, then you know, you're doing something wrong.

[00:04:38] you should be excited, Because it is work. We call it work for a reason. So it's fun. And that's all part of it. So yeah, that's my.

[00:04:48] Tim Chrisman: Yeah. And nowhere this morning I was talking about how I realized most of yesterday speakers came to space mid-career. and so it was that transition where they'd been doing [00:05:00] something else and maybe I'd always been interested in space, maybe not, maybe it just ran into it and realized, and as you said, caught the space bug and now.

[00:05:10] And so it is a cool story to hear because it's not what you would stereotypically hear about space. We hear the astronauts training for 50 years or something. it's typical, especially since I was a military pilot. how come you didn't go into the astronauts? the patio, as you guys know, pedigree for to become a flight member of an astronaut team, there's extreme.

[00:05:30] not to mention test pilot school and, number one, number two of your class and so forth. And I did none of those things. so clearly I, it was nice, I'm not going to happen. Yeah. Yeah. Would you ever not a different way to contribute,

[00:05:44] Tim Chrisman: And, we really need so many astronauts and then so many PhDs and so many and so on and so on. And, Yeah. So when you described your career, and when I was doing LinkedIn stocking, you've [00:06:00] basically spent your entire career bridging organizations, which, it looks like even early in your career, which was when I was a smashing.

[00:06:10] Rival organizations in the army and not being cooperative, but like how did that, how do you bring that to what you're doing now? They're in NASA? that's a great question. And as from your own experience, boys, that challenging in government, right? it's about the, organizational moral equivalent of a constant root canal, right?

[00:06:29] it is really hard because institutionally, agencies, DOD, NASA, Noah, any of the other space burn agencies in the us in particular, we are entrenched in what we've been doing because we've been successful. And to that. we like it our way. We do it our way we have our re NASA is, steeped in rules and regulations for obvious reasons for safety and human space flight safety.

[00:06:53] Pete Wilczynski: But it is our signature that's. The signature is exactly how thorough. And in fact how deep we are in [00:07:00] checks, double checks, triple checks, the whole multitude of things. When you marry or try to get partnerships with different organizations you may have similar sets of requirements in similar ways to get there, but it is always challenging to break out of those swim lanes that each particular partner can be caught into.

[00:07:17] And that has gotten better in government over time. It's not. Clearly I work in an agency at NASA headquarters. I work in the joint agency, satellite division that by virtue of our title is exactly what we do with bring. Inter-agency requirements from a different agency, that's non NASA in this case, mostly Noah, and we build their satellites for them.

[00:07:37] All of their operational fleets, massive builds we'd launch them for them. And we then give them to back to Noah to operate, which Noah has been doing for better part of 60 years, operating the nation's weather satellites. So that partnership with Noah has been around for a very long time and continues to work, but it also like any relation.

[00:07:56] Takes day-to-day maintenance and care and feeding. And it [00:08:00] has come with different challenges. And then in this swirl of particularly the last 10 or 15 years, As we become globalized. We have global partners now, global space agencies, other, European space agency, Taiwan space, and the Japanese space agency who are valued partners.

[00:08:17] And then we institutionally have to deal with their institutional elements as a government entity and their cares and needs. And it is challenging. And I I spent. Of time based on the experience that I've had with my colleagues, the headquarters, it's basically, in one way a level of counseling that we have to learn how to talk with each other in a different way, because you come from NASA, you talk this way, you come from Noah, you talk this way, I'm at ISA.

[00:08:43] I talk this way and you have to figure out a different way to talk to each other and re-establish expectations and needs. And. I'll say from a us perspective that we're certainly over the last couple of decades have gotten very good at that. There's always room to continue to grow that way, [00:09:00] because it is specific.

[00:09:02] And, just because either NASA or DOD or any other agency has been doing it for a hundred years, it doesn't make you necessarily entitled to that's the only way it can be done kind of methodology. Yeah.

[00:09:15] Tim Chrisman: Yeah. I,over the pandemic, I've gotten to hear some of my wife's calls.

[00:09:20] She works at the federal reserve board and some of the terminology where if I were to go into a meeting trying to talk with. We would never get anything done because what I'm thinking of is the correct term is not what they're using. And I can only imagine how much worse that gets then adding in the international layer to that.

[00:09:40] Pete Wilczynski: Yeah. And to be completely Frank, even NASA. So we have 10 centers, Geographically dispersed around the. We talk differently amongst ourselves. So talk about the calc, the algorithm there to talk as a unit to somebody externally, we have to counteract all the colloquialisms that exist between our different centers, whether you're a [00:10:00] Johnson or Kennedy, or you're out west at Edwards, there's different elements of this and different cultures.

[00:10:05] So we, we cope with that.

[00:10:08] Tim Chrisman: Yeah, and I don't doubt that makes it hard then to get the message out about all the good stuff. That is being done, especially the stuff that affects earth. That's probably more often what comes up when a point D sends around an RFP, a request for information. And everybody's this isn't my job.

[00:10:27] I'm trying to, do the first of this new, amazing thing. But what are some of those messages that maybe aren't getting out as much about what you mean? You see it, you're sitting between all these different agents.

[00:10:41] Pete Wilczynski: Yeah. and I would say that of all of the governmental agencies, I think historically, NASA has probably done better than others can clearly do more.

[00:10:50] this started with Apollo with the whole premise thatin the Kennedy administration that the whole. U S population was going to, embrace going to the moon and the [00:11:00] fortitude, both financial and otherwise that was going to be needed by this nation to get there. We had to get public buy-in to this.

[00:11:07] Pete Wilczynski: Decided to do the public outreach of that. that basically is the foundational methodology of how NASA operates now to this day, based on what we did in the sixties and seventies, with Apollo, we continue to talk about the goodness we talk about that earth and or science and in particular things related to earth day and how we try to convey the science, one of the elements that, that we.

[00:11:30] The space builders the, in the earth science community are learning, is that we, again get caught up in the world of the widgets of how great our little spacecraft is or big spacecraft is or what the instrumentation is or how fascinating the technology is. Cause it certainly is. But at the end of the day, it is what happens to the user when they get it on there.

[00:11:54] Yep. Or whatever platform they risk, because once it's in their hands, it's manipulated you [00:12:00] and I will look at the weather later this afternoon and see what's going on. So we can go take a run, walk, whatever we're doing to see what's happening. That's what we do. That's what we.

[00:12:09] Pete Wilczynski: Consciously do. and it is the providers of that data satellite in situ terrestrial, all the providers of that data that put this into the hands of not only qualified meteorologists to do this, but also those of us who are not qualified meteorologists, just want to know, should we bring an umbrella or not?

[00:12:28] And it is that translation. of creating data products that can be more easily used. I think one of the things that when we were exchanging emails earlier, I think I was thinking about with, how from a government perspective, cooperatively with industry, how.

[00:12:45] How can we partner in a better way? a lot of the things that government does institutionally can provide larger platforms and make those big corporate, if you will, what kind of investments. But I think industry in many ways can help in particular to, earth science [00:13:00] and basically our weather producing nation is that, creating the kinds of products that become a friendlier.

[00:13:06] To use, this doesn't obviate, obviously the need for professionals in the meteorological business to continue to do the fascinating and great work that they do. But this is clearly a different way now that people get data and it's satellite and it's otherwise, and to that end, it's also It has to do with even understanding are our oceans people that live on the coastline want to know sea surface height and things that are coming with an impending storm, a nor'easter right.

[00:13:38] Coastal flooding situation. Does that affect my neighborhood? Should I be, migrating out of the neighborhood I live, should I be moving other home resources out of the way? These are all things that are now. Commonplace is how we operate now. And that data has to be easily understood because unless it's actionable again.[00:14:00]

[00:14:00] Our whole constituency of citizens in the country and around the world, then who is it for? there's obviously a science element clearly, but they're scientists they're trained to do this. The rest of it is for the rest of the people to benefit from it. And I think there's more work that, that NASA NOAA, private industry can do to enable the data part.

[00:14:21] Once it's on the ground, what can we do with the data, getting it somewhere else faster and making it better in terms of its platform. Can it be, does that make sense?

[00:14:31] Tim Chrisman: Yeah, no, it does. Because ultimately it's whether whatever you're doing, it's about the customer. And so I think, as you're saying, like it's important, even if you can't upgrade the sensors that are already flying, you can make the backend a little bit better and always be improving your foxhole as we used to say in the army.

[00:14:53] Pete Wilczynski: Yeah, data exploitation really. because. Because, like you say. thanks to physics. We can't do much once a time more, but we [00:15:00] can't do much, however, data on the ground can continue to be processed and reprocessed and manipulated if we manipulate it in different ways. And if you addsome of the, I say this often to my.

[00:15:14] Geoscience daughter, who study geoscience. Like I say, if you applied, Pixar technology, like from the Hollywood animation and you applied that to atmospheric science, for example, what does that do for atmospheric science? How do you interpret data? How does a picture then?

[00:15:31] Because right at the end of the day, the picture is the thousand words. So how does a picture, something that shows up here? How does. Change, you know how that data is interpreted the value of that asset. That's thousands and millions of taxpayer dollars on orbit. How was that? What does that mean to me?

[00:15:49] Tim Chrisman: Yeah, no, exactly. I do want to ask and I am exceptionally bad at followup questions. But, we're talking about the satellites [00:16:00] that you're the program executive for the joint, polar center. satellite system. There we go. What is what w I know from reading a little bit about it, that it is represents a phase shift in accuracy detail and the like, but like what actual, what is it?

[00:16:18] Give me different.

[00:16:19] Pete Wilczynski: So, JPSS the joint polar satellite system is the continuation of a nearly 45. Climate data record that was established by Noah, of polar satellites that have been flying around our planet since, 45, 50, nearly 50 years ago. The data, generationally as all these satellites have matured generationally is highly.

[00:16:43] More accurate temp, quarterly sensitiveit's accuracy and calibrations are becoming almost, absolutely perfect with the advent of adding GPS to a lot of our signals. Now we can get a near perfection. And so what happens is [00:17:00] this particular data set of this 2,600 kilos satellite. Good sized satellite with four or five instruments on board that, that ticket multitude of data down.

[00:17:11] what this data feeds, for my customer, the national weather service NOAA, it feeds them the basic data that's needed to generate. Atmospheric models, basic data that they need to get a steady state condition to allow other data, to be added into their weather models, such as geostationary data, observational data, radar data, all of that together that they can ensemble this data and then give it to a human in the form of a meteorologist that can look at this and then project, One day three day, five day, seven day type forecast. And so the basis, the anchor of that model is these polar orbiting satellites has been for nearly 40 years. And the accuracy of that first get, if you will, of that model, that weather model, that first time that the [00:18:00] accuracy. Is really what allows the high level of accuracy that our night, our nation's forecasters, both public private and governmental forecasters, and allows them to take a really good look and make some powerful judgements on what's happening with high confidence of the data.

[00:18:17] So that's what the that's in 30 seconds or less what JPSS provides. It does many other things, but that is that the core essence of what it does for my customer now.

[00:18:27] Tim Chrisman: Okay. I remember reading early in COVID that something about, how weather forecasts got worse because fewer planes were flying and feeding that data into the national weather service, but you all are doing the, step or two before that.

[00:18:41] Pete Wilczynski: So, satellite based data tends to be the backbone, the. 'cause once on orbit, always on orbit, it stays it's absolute until failure, it stays and it's absolute and it is the anchor. Yeah. The other terrestrial observations from airplane, other in-situ observations observers around the country and around the [00:19:00] globe, balloons, different asks and radars, all of that contribute to that whole ensemble, that a forecaster then.

[00:19:07] and starts predicting,the out days with relative confidence, They, because the confidence, at the end of the day what we want to get to is a forecast, right? This is what you and I want. When we want to go out for a run or a walk. We want to know that tomorrow's forecast.

[00:19:21] it's confidence is the same for Saturday. When we look at Saturday and it's a few days away and you know how things can change, but if you can forecast with that same level of confidence at 24 hours at 48 or 72 hours, now you've accomplished something. And I'll just say, the national weather service and hurricane center and all the other components of weather service, I've done remarkable jobs.

[00:19:43] Pete Wilczynski: Let's look at the hurricane season here just recently. predictions of landfall for for hurricanes and the amount of saturation in terms of the, these wet rain events and the saturation have been predicted near. Perfectly is a tough word to say [00:20:00] it's never perfect girl. Good high confidence.

[00:20:02] And that's just not satellite, but that's the whole, again, the whole ensemble of predictions. And that's what got people out of Louisiana safely. That's what kept the death toll of virtually nonexistent as compared to. Going up the east coast and forecast work, taking us seriously, the emphasis wasn't given.

[00:20:21] And here again, communication's a little bit of a breakdown from how we try to inform people that this sprain was coming and it came and it is coming. just looking at the Washington post this morning, talking about the UN climate agency, talking about, are we ready for how much water the plant is going to get?

[00:20:36] And that, so this is not the new normal, this is just.

[00:20:40] Tim Chrisman: I'm definitely not ready. I've got to clean my gutters. make sure you check the forecast before you get on the roof.

[00:20:47] so with JPS, as you said, it's the continuation or sort of the next days, but how much better? the data and on orbit stuff's getting what's.

[00:20:56] Tim Chrisman: Where does this go next?

[00:20:59] Pete Wilczynski: Great question. [00:21:00] So I will say that there is there is, there's obviously a huge look at partnership with the commercial entities that are producing smaller, constellation of constellations that are going to do very specific measurements, Perhaps, uh, Battlestar Galactica type of satellite, like JPSS at 25, 2600 kilos has a multitude of things that sensing smaller satellites, on the order.

[00:21:22] 6, 12, 24, you can, do single, single components, single parameter kind of measurements in high volume and high concentration. If they formation, fly or otherwise, the commercial industry is really being very innovative here. And this is where the partnerships with government can come into play.

[00:21:40] Pete Wilczynski: This is where the overlap of requirements become. Significant government has a need for the day. It has a, has a need for accuracy and the science capability and the providers are getting them up there and getting data. And, and, and I think it's, it's going to, it's going to converge on a pretty decent.

[00:21:58] It's it's working [00:22:00] in areas of radio occultation for example there's some providers of radio occupation. This is where you look at the, the bending of the GPS signal through the atmosphere and that bending Delta can tell you, uh, elements of precipitation and pressure change in the atmosphere. It's fantastic.

[00:22:15] Science. We can have another talk about that another day, but that, that is, that is another GPS based signal that is. Particularly accurate than it is so helpful to the weather prediction element that we were talking about earlier. These things like this, those types of instruments can be flown by industry and entrepreneurs and the commercial business, uh, and in partnership with the government.

[00:22:37] May find itself in a pretty decent marriage. Uh, and there'll be others like that. We're already talking about other sounding, uh, sounding sounding is when you take a measurement of, uh, uh, temperature and pressure through the atmosphere, they refer to that as a sounding, these sounding measurements that can be done by smaller satellites and multitudes of them will probably be somewhere where we partner because the innovation that industry drives is [00:23:00] something.

[00:23:01] Uh, from an agility perspective, that government is not quite as good that way. In terms of that fast paced, developmental deploy, put it into service. We operate at a much slower, much more methodical uh, deployment sequence. And I think that's an opportunity for large scale. You know, and the small sat constellations of satellites.

[00:23:21] Yeah.

[00:23:22] Tim Chrisman: Yeah. For sure. I would imagine you could you know, contract, it's almost a subscription service, uh, and lower the overall program cost.

[00:23:32] Pete Wilczynski: Yeah. And, and, and what gets sorted out there again is, is, is the data and how it's, who manages the data. Once it gets on the ground, there's a lot more work to be done there in terms of how best to do that, but that has potential.

[00:23:46] Yeah.

[00:23:47] Tim Chrisman: So, so then as you know, you're going forward, um, I mean, I come from national security space where even though, you know, the DOD is buying commercial imagery, [00:24:00] they're still running dedicated platforms to do classified work. Right. Um, is there a plan for a similar model there with NASA and NOAA?

[00:24:08] There's like a dedicated. Persistent system that provides the backbone and then you just contract out the rest.

[00:24:15] Pete Wilczynski: Yeah, really good question. You know, I think the government has identified through the science community and of course through the national academies has, has decided that certain variables that we study for climate are absolute and, and, you know, the study of climate over time is really.

[00:24:33] Uh, things that climate scientists do, they trend it. They look at it besides day-to-day operational forecast, but then the long-term use is that continuity of that record. So this is where the stability of government systems helps maintain that stability of that record. We've looked at these images in 1962.

[00:24:51] We'll look at them in 72, we're looking at 82. We're looking at, you know, you look at that, that continuity of a data set. It's really important to make sure that [00:25:00] we plan correctly for the ever-changing planet. Now, operationally though, the other, other elements of, uh, uh, environmental sensing, um, will, will evolve to be probably, I suspect it will be commercial many commercial partnerships and it could be, um, they, you know, and then partnerships to get the data down and share the data.

[00:25:19] Then product sharing is the next stage of that because, you know, sensing it is. You kind of put water on it and it blossoms once you get it on the ground and you create products of that data. Cause it's ones and zeros until you make a pretty picture out of it. Right. So, you know, I think there's a lot more to be done there and a lot more to be.

[00:25:41] Yes, the government doesn't need to do all that, but that clearly can be shared expense, shared expense. Uh, in the future, we have a long way to go with that still, but I think it's encouraged because I think it's the price points for everybody are going to be work out quick.

[00:25:55] Tim Chrisman: Yeah. Yeah, no, it definitely seems so.

[00:25:58] I, uh, when you were talking about the [00:26:00] continuity of record, I remember seeing there's a handful of different measurements of the climate over the past hundred years where there's like gaps. And, uh, I always, it's always awkward if that's your field of study and you're like, yay. Sorry, our

[00:26:14] Pete Wilczynski: bad. Well, you know, you ask, you know, you'll ask leadership across the government and across municipalities will ask scientists, say, has this ever happened in the last 50 years?

[00:26:26] Well, I only have. Yeah, or I have segmented, you know, 30 years. And so it, it puts an inherent bias into that data or to your answer. It gives a bias to your answer to go, well, I don't have all the data, but I think, you know, and that's unfortunate. What we want is to complete all these, these climate variables that have been, uh, studied and, uh, annotated as the most essential are well known.

[00:26:49] And that's what some of these legacy systems are doing for the government, from both the NASA perspective and from.

[00:26:56] Tim Chrisman: Yeah, no, that makes sense. I think we're right at time here, but, [00:27:00] uh, thanks. Pete goes by quick. I know, right?

[00:27:04] Pete Wilczynski: It does. It does a great conversation. There's a lot more to be. To, to, to talk about, uh, on these topics at any one of these topics could be a separate, you know, Ted, Ted talk clearly, but uh, thank you, Tim, for the invitation.

[00:27:20] I'd love to chat some more. So, uh, I'll take any questions or anything else that anybody has from, uh, from the audience or anywhere, uh, after the call, I'll be happy to talk about.

[00:27:31] Tim Chrisman: Thanks Pete

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