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my Resume.

mjgradziel, mechanical engineer:

I earn my pay being a mechanical design engineer. I invent and develop precision machinery that is produced in low volumes at high quality. Each week I put my mind and fingertips to work in a beige windowless room full of silent cubicles where other people also invent and develop their designs. My career has been this way, more or less, for the last decade. Day to day there is little glamor but ample predictability, a nice benefit of the job, and it is also nice that I am only really working my fingertips. After weekend trips and construction projects I can go to the office and swap physical activity for complex imagination. The job has exciting times where considerably more than fingertips are exercised: my efforts have put scientific instruments on aircraft and helicopters and the surface of Mars. More recently, my work has been a core strength of proposals that won my company contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and now we are building what I designed.

My other jobs don't pay cash but they sure keep me busy: cooking our meals, keeping up the house, painting, plumbing, electrical upgrades, replacing windows and doors, taking care of the lawn and gardens, and some woodworking too when I can find time.

My first office job was at a local engineering firm my senior year of high school in 1999. I did CAD work, managed parts databases, and made engineering drawings. This experience gave me an advantage in my drafting class the next year at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where I was studying mechanical engineering, and I won a contest for the best CAD project. Good designers who are fluent in CAD, machine tools, and engineering are surprisingly uncommon, I have learned, there being many draftspersons who cannot engineer and many engineers who just do calculations, and the hiring manager at NASA-JPL told me this on the phone as he invited me to come out to California.

I had submitted my resume and at a campus career fair in November looking for a summer job. Two months later, I left behind the frozen confines of my upstate New York college town and settled in a paradise of palm trees, ocean, and snowy peaks where street names were straight out of song lyrics. I stayed six months, came back the next summer, and joined full time a year later. The work was exciting: my second week on the job, I was sent to a base in the California desert where fighter jets roared overhead and dropped bombs on a distant range while my colleagues prepared to load a rocket motor onto an instrumented sled and shoot it down a four-mile-long track built in the 1950s to test missile guidance systems at supersonic speeds. This was to try out a new radar system to be used for landing on Mars. I worked on the 2003 Mars Exploration Rover mission, developing a prototype rock abrasion tool and helping with shock mitigation for an antenna release device and with tests of the descent rockets. I also built an environmental enclosure with thermoelectric cooling and control circuitry for a helicopter test platform that proved the image processing algorithms used to generate firing commands for lateral stabilizing rockets in the last moments of descent to Mars.

I put a microwave spectrometer in an ER-2 aircraft, a U2 spy plane outfitted to fly civilian research missions 70,000 feet in the sky. This instrument studied atmospheric composition over hurricanes and rainforests. For another task, I designed a radar antenna structure and installed it on a Twin Otter aircraft for flight tests in Western Colorado. Over the Gulf of Mexico, I flew in NASA's KC-135 Low Gravity Lab airplane with an experiment that tested a sample collection system for asteroids and comets. Imagine being chest deep in water but without the resistance of liquid, almost floating - that's what lunar gravity feels like. Martian gravity is more like being a helium balloon skittering along the ceiling, except inverted. And in zero-g, the sand in our test chamber swooped around like a cloud of tiny insects until gravity returned to send the grains crashing down like ocean surf.

For NASA's 2012 Mars Science Laboratory mission - a robotic vehicle as large as some cars, a mission on which we spent $2.5B, I established the fundamental designs of the vehicle chassis, robotic sampling arm, and mass balancing system. Between 2006 and 2008 I built and delivered the mechanism that deployed the big landing vehicle on ropes underneath a descending rocket stage that set it down on Mars like a helicopter delivering cargo. Aerospace-grade lowering devices have been around for decades and NASA had flown three to Mars already, but this project called for something above and beyond the heritage hardware. For more than three years I was a historian and detective, sorting data and developing simulations of various systems and exploring their behaviors. I optimized a design, built CAD models, made engineering drawings and assembly instructions, and gave the cold hard steel and titanium parts a life-giving coat of grease for operating as cold as 65C below zero. On Mars, August 5th 2012, it worked exactly as designed.

I've written both proposals and requests for proposal, been involved with subcontracts and large procurements, prepared design reviews and test plans, and personally brought three aerospace projects from concept to flying hardware. One proposal for which I was lead mechanical engineer at JPL eventually resulted in a spacecraft in orbit, carrying the special x-ray telescope NuSTAR built based on the designs I prepared. Working for NASA brought me lots of exciting assignments that I can talk about, but at my present employer, I keep quiet on my involvement in specific programs. I have built and flown things, built other things and tested them underwater, and now for several years I have been designing complex machinery that takes six years to design, build, and test. These are big jobs with high stakes, and every now and then I have to take a step back and remind myself that we are actually building this thing I designed, just like we actually sent that mechanical contraption to Mars and listened to the device I built execute the landing a hundred and twenty million miles away.

Me with the nearly-finished product of three years and about four million dollars:

Me with the nearly-finished product of three years and about four million dollars
Most of that cost is for engineering; to build another would cost just a few hundred thousand dollars. This one is going to Mars:

this is the flight spool mechanism in the operating room before close-out here is another view of the bridle spool mechanism this is the bridle device nearly complete, without the brake mechanism

These photos are from the engineering model prototype:

main drive rewind ratchet, redundant with half-tooth increment tether spool end cap mechanism for deploying NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Rover me with the technicians at our table
tether spool for deploying NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Rover tether spool for deploying NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Rover tether spool closeout for deploying NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Rover


Here are photos from some of my other projects at JPL:

prototype centrifugal brake device for Mars descent externally pressurized instrument enclosure for flights at 70,000 feet radar antenna for sea ice thickness measurement, on Twin Otter aircraft
me delivering ER-2 instrument pod equipment for test fit me installing Mars lander descent imaging system test unit on gyro stabilized helicopter platform Mars descent imager test unit with PID thermal control system, N2 purge, and inertial sensor
radar antenna range test with custom built hoist and support rig tape forming tooling for variable ratio passive transmission, Mars rover deployment mechanism me manning the asteroid sampling device test in zero-gravity during a parabolic flight

Here are pictures of some of my less-technical projects:

box of black cherry burl and white ash end table of maple burl and black walnut icy puddle photograph from the Sierra Nevada mountains decorative hickory barrel
contrasting forms on a snowshoe trip near Tahoe a hand forged copper pull handle on my chest of drawers my maple and walnut coffee table
seared ahi tuna wrapped in bacon, with a sweet chili sauce, over shrimp herb linguini, topped with parmesan fresh berry crepes with maple syrup my kitchen had no wood beam to hang pots from, so I joined scrap lumber together and hung one myself
a spice rack in maple, walnut, and cherry fish carved in butternut wood on a sierra pine base a kitchen carving block of oak and birch goldfish swimming in their custom built wall-mounted tank


More about my woodworking projects.
my Resume.
Mechanisms for Lowering Tethered Payloads - an overview. (Technical paper excerpts)
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