Dr. Rod Barto — Engineering Consultant, SDE: Spacecraft Digital Electronics
Dr. Rod Barto is an independent engineering consultant whose company is called Spacecraft Digital Electronics. During our interview, he shared how the story of Nehemiah has helped him turn projects over to God, how his career has unfolded before him, how he came to know and trust the voice he later learned was God, and what he’s learned about career planning -- listen and love what you do.
As an independent engineering consultant, who do you work for?
A few years ago most of my business was with commercial telecommunication satellite operators, but more recently it’s been primarily with NASA through the Office of Logic Design (OLD) at NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center (GSFC).
What do you do for them?
What I do is technical program monitoring. My customers contract with various companies to have spacecrafts built. I review the contractor’s electronics designs to see if they are actually going to do what they are supposed to do. I work with all the electronics portions of the spacecrafts -- the attitude control system, command data system, telemetry system, etc. One of the differences between NASA and the communications products is that the latter don’t have any instruments. NASA spacecrafts have many instruments -- cameras, particle detectors, instruments that look at lots of different stuff. OLD consists of three people and is a NASA advisory group. I’m the guy who travels around to all the projects. Although it’s taken a few years, we’ve made a name for ourselves. We do design reviews and problem resolution for all the NASA programs, particularly ones that come out of Goddard.
Can you tell us about any projects that you have been working on for NASA?
One of the projects I’ve been working on for the last couple of years is the New Horizons spacecraft which is going to Pluto. It’s going to fly by Pluto and then go to the Kuiper Belt, which is a ring of stuff, which we think are mainly rocks, around the outside edge of the solar system. New Horizons is a twenty-year mission. It’ll take the spacecraft ten years to get to Pluto. Its encounter with Pluto will only be a few weeks, and then it will go on to examine the Kuiper Belt and hopefully take pictures of KBOs (Kuiper Belt Objects). Then, like Voyager, after which a Star Trek movie was made, it will head off into deep space. There were two Voyagers launched in the summer of 1977, and they’re now heading outside the solar system. They’re still working.
What’s the purpose of the New Horizon’s mission?
Pluto was discovered as the ninth planet by Clyde Tombaugh, who was an astronomer at New Mexico State University in the 1930s. Lately, some people have been saying that Pluto is not really a planet but is just a big rock that is part of the Kuiper Belt. So, part of the mission is to figure out whether Pluto’s a planet or a big rock. It does have an atmosphere, which sounds like a planet.
What’s on the spacecraft?
It has cameras, instruments to measure the atmosphere, and more. When a spacecraft gets launched, it has to have a navigation system so that it can find the earth, especially in case it loses its attitude. It has to figure out if its antenna is pointed to earth. So, it needs thrusters and various kinds of things that can help it move around, send back information to the earth saying, “I’m alright. Here are my temperatures. Here are my voltages.” It has to give status reports, take in commands to turn instruments on and off, and, of course, send back data.
Are there challenges you’ve had where you’ve turned to the Bible for help?
Absolutely. See, in the space biz, things have to work. Once the spacecraft is off the pad, out of sight, and out of your hands, it has to work. But a lot of times on projects, you end up with people who are of what I call the “third shaft.” “Third shaft” comes from the story about the old Corvair cars, which said that the Corvair engine had three shafts -- the cam shaft, the crankshaft, and a third shaft to which connected hammers, saws, and chisels, whose purpose was to destroy the engine from within. I have continually worked with people whose top goal is not mission success, but something different. To me, the ultimate “third shaft” people who we meet in the Bible are Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem who try to keep Nehemiah from building the wall. They kept telling Nehemiah how it would not work, trying to thwart him at every turn. My wife pointed out this story to me when I was in a situation where I felt I couldn’t trust anyone around me to have mission success as the top goal. I got a lot of inspiration from Nehemiah. He just hung in there until he got the job done. He wouldn’t let anything distract him from achieving his goal.
What have been the end results?
Here’s an example. When I was working for INTELSAT, we had a bunch of units in test for the spacecraft, and there was a failure; something had come loose. We, the customer, wanted the contractor to fix it. Generally, the contractor would say that we could fly it “as is,” so we expected to have a big battle when we talked with the contractor during a telecon meeting to discuss the issue. Before the meeting, I really prayed and knew that God was in control, that this was God’s project, and that no person could do anything to make it imperfect. So, when we got on the phone expecting a big battle, the contractor immediately said, “You’re right. We need to fix this.” That was a huge battle totally dissolved by prayer. Then, after they had fixed it, the question came up, “Should we retest it?” Of course the right answer is to retest. But one of our guys took a Sanballat approach and said we didn’t have to retest. So, I went back downstairs to pray again before the next telecon with the contractor. At that meeting, the contractor said that we should retest it. Nehemiah has been an inspiration to me in turning over projects to God. I know that projects don’t belong to me, NASA, or the customer; they belong to God. God owns and controls them. And I’ve thought and prayed about projects this way ever since, as it seems that I continually work with people who accept shoddy work, collude with a contractor, or put up other roadblocks to success. In every case, turning it over to God is the answer. Nehemiah has been a model for me.
What were you doing before working in the space industry?
I was a graduate student. I went to grad school for a long time, ended up at Martin Marietta in Denver working with JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratories) on the Galileo spacecraft mission to Jupiter. I did quite a bit of design work on the ACS (attitude control system), which controls the roll, pitch, yaw, thrust, sensors, star scanners, etc. During my work, I ran into the designers of the early spacecraft from JPL. Those guys were sharp. So for years, I picked their brains about spacecraft. After I left Martin, I moved out to California and went to work for JPL. I had a brief stint in commercial industry, and then finally ended up doing what I’m doing today. There’s no way I could’ve predicted where I’d end up or figured out all of my career moves. So I take opinions about career management with a grain of salt.
So, how was your career laid out?
While I had no clue at the time, I know now that God lines everything up for me. I think about this, too, because every once in a while I find myself in a position to give people career advice. I think there are three different types of career planning: 1) organizing your career around where you want to live; 2) planning your career around what you want to do, like working on the floor of the stock exchange; or 3) sitting down and saying, “God, whatever you want me to do, I will do.” Then you listen and follow God’s command. Today, I do the third type of “planning,” which really is listening to and following God’s plan for me.
So what career planning did you do?
I didn’t do any of these -- consciously. I was led more like Abraham, not knowing where I was going or what I’d find. When I look back on my career, everything that I studied in school, even though it seemed to be a hodgepodge, fit together to make an integrated whole. I originally earned my BS and my MS in mathematics. When it was time for me to take my qualifiers and write my dissertation for my PhD in math, I realized that while I really loved math and thought it was the most sublime form of art that there could be, I didn’t want to go from one end of the classroom to another. All my buds who were working on their dissertations were either being bumped back to square one after finding their research presented in papers by big name researchers or fighting for very few teaching slots. So, I started thinking of math as a foundation for a career. My dad was an engineer, and when I was a kid, I spent my time building radios. I started taking classes in engineering mechanics. Then I felt around a bit more and decided to get an MS in EE (electrical engineering). During my studies in logic simulation and computer architecture, I created a logic simulation that one of my professors thought was the best thing in the world. He talked me into doing my doctorate, and it turned out to be the best thing I ever did. During that time, I also ended up with the best job any grad student ever had. I worked with the group that did the electronics support for a radio telescope at the University of Texas in Austin’s McDonald Observatory (the telescope is not there any more). I got to work with astronomers, design, do observations, write computer programs, while most of my electrical engineering buds were helping some professor write papers. I was just kind of led.
Can you explain more about how you were led?
The truth is that I was not raised to believe in God. In addition to that, my early upbringing taught me that while Jesus was a great social activist and a good teacher, all the miracles and healings described in the Bible were not true. But I had a spiritual sense and became convinced that there was a God, that God would take care of me, and that everything was going to turn out okay. I could tell when God was talking to me and giving me direction. I had this sense that if I turned my problems over to God, He would answer me. That’s probably how I ended up where I am today.
How did you come to know God and be able to recognize and trust His voice?
Ever since I was a teenager, I had a sense that some higher power was talking to me, even though it took me years to figure out that it was God. The first time I heard God’s voice was when I was out in the desert at this rock formation that I used to climb all the time as a teenager. I had wrap-around sunglasses, and I was going to jump across this chasm that was pretty deep but didn’t look very wide. Suddenly, I heard a voice that I should take my sunglasses off. When I did, I saw that the sunglasses had created a significant distortion: the chasm was six feet wide, and I never would’ve made it. I was grateful to hear the voice, but wasn’t sure of its origin. I thought that it was possibly my subconscious. Sometime later, I was driving a VW microbus. I was sitting at a red light. There was a building next to me, and I couldn’t see down the crossroad. The light turned green, and the voice said clearly, “Don’t move.” So I sat there. A bus ran the red light, and I would’ve been creamed. There’s no way that that could’ve been a subconscious message. I couldn’t have reasoned that. So I gained the sense that what I heard was not a humanly determined message but really had to come from a higher source. Since I was not brought up to believe in God, assigning the voice to God was a big leap of faith for me. But I really came to trust the voice I was hearing. If I didn’t listen, things would go really bad, and I knew I should’ve listened. So, I would decide to listen the next time. That’s how I got to the point that I learned to listen. And then when I met my wife and truly learned about God, it all made sense to me. So, even though I wasn’t consciously sitting down and saying, “God, where do you want me,” I was still doing it by listening to His voice.
So what career advice do you have for people?
I would say:
- Love where you are and what you’re doing, and be happy with what you’re doing;
- Think about how you can apply the knowledge and skills you have;
- Listen to God’s voice and follow His direction.
At every point along the way, I loved what I was doing and listened to God’s loving voice. That was truly my career guidance. As Abraham discovered who God was, wandering in a sense, I discovered who God was. He learned to listen, which is what I have done. In Hebrews, we read:
By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. (11:8)
Having complete faith in God, as Abraham did, is the best thing we can do for our