Q&A: Adrian Tang and working for NASA

Adrian Tang shows his design at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. (Courtesy  Adrian Tang)

Adrian Tang shows his design at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. (Courtesy
Adrian Tang)

It was only six years ago that Adrian Tang left Ryerson, electrical and computer engineering degree in hand. Now he works as a design engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the space organization’s leading centre for robotic exploration.

Tang spoke to The Ryersonian by email about his current project, making chips for robotic exploration in space by finding ways to reduce the size, weight and energy of spacecrafts.

What work goes on at the lab generally?

Adrian Tang (AT): The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is an amazing place, which is unique in the world for space exploration. One thing that makes it so unique is we have scientists working directly with engineers like myself. Together, we develop an entire mission concept, instrument concept, measurements, and science objectives in parallel.

Can you break down for us your current project of reducing the size, weight and power consumption of spacecraft systems?

AT: I am trained to design extremely complex microchips, which contain thousands to millions of digital, analog, and (radio frequency) circuits. At JPL, my work is to try and infuse (this) technology from the commercial world into NASA spacecraft, systems, and projects.

What does it mean for the future of spacecraft systems?

AT: If successful, NASA can benefit tremendously because most science instruments on NASA missions are strictly limited by the power they consume and the volume of space they occupy. NASA can’t afford to send a mission to Saturn or Jupiter more than once every seven to 10 years. (But) reducing the size and weight of instruments can have a major impact (and allow) more instruments to be flown on one mission. This greatly improves NASA’s ability to answer more of its science questions about the places we are exploring in the solar system.

Why do you believe this advancement is necessary now?

AT: The future of space exploration is less certain than ever, and NASA budgets are very tight. Looking for creative new ways to reduce the power and footprint of instruments enables NASA to continue the exploration of the solar system without compromising on the quality of science data.

Looking back to when you started at Ryerson, did you know that this is where you wanted to be?

AT: When I started my undergraduate studies at Ryerson University, my original intention was to enter the commercial industry as a regular iPhone chip designer. It wasn’t until my senior year that I had some exposure to circuit design research, and really decided that was what I wanted to do.

How did Ryerson help you get to where you are today?

AT: Beyond the technical training, the master of science program and my adviser in particular really trained me in the most important skill there is for an engineer: technical writing and the ability to communicate technical ideas efficiently and clearly so others can understand.

What is it like working for NASA?

AT: The discoveries made by NASA and, specifically JPL, are amazing. Almost every day, some amazing new result is announced about a discovery made in astrophysics, earth, or planetary science. I feel extremely privileged to be at this forefront of discovery. That said, JPL is an extremely competitive place, especially for someone new, and by no means an easy career path. You constantly need to generate new ideas, and write proposals to secure funding. You must directly compete with hundreds of world-class experts and renowned scientists for every dollar you receive.

What advice would you give to current students on fulfilling their career dreams?

AT: If you really want to become a researcher in an environment like NASA, JPL, or some other national laboratory, you really need to make a strong effort to understand everything you learn along the road. When (undergrad engineering students) understand 97 per cent of the material, they carry on believing they’re competitive. In a place like JPL, everyone knows the 97 per cent (but) that last three per cent makes all the difference between getting the project and not getting the project.

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on April 2, 2014.

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