While at IIT, Jason Tenenbaum seemed to have hitched his wagon to the proverbial star. A former Student Government Association president, he was honored with the Richard Babcock Award for outstanding student leadership, the Clinton E. Stryker Award for significant contributions to the IIT community, and the Neal L. Hospers Award from Phi Kappa Sigma International Fraternity for Most Outstanding Undergraduate. As Tenenbaum advanced in his coursework, his desire to one day work in the space industry skyrocketed as well.
Five years after graduating from IIT Armour College of Engineering, he continues to expand his aerospace frontiers at SpaceX, a private company that designs, manufactures, and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. With a goal to one day make it possible for people to live on other planets, SpaceX was recently awarded $440 million from NASA to develop the successor to the space shuttle and extend the reach of solar system exploration.
As a youth, did you dream of becoming a rocket scientist?
I first became interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 and seeing how the NASA mission control team was able to come together, solve a really difficult problem, and bring home the Apollo 13 astronauts. I couldn’t imagine working on something more exciting and challenging than space exploration. That’s what really sparked my interest in space and becoming an aerospace engineer.
You’ve been employed in Dragon spacecraft operations at SpaceX since May 2010. Please describe a day in the life of a SpaceX mission operations engineer.
One of my favorite things about being a part of SpaceX is that every day brings something different. Over the last two years, I’ve been fortunate to be able to work hands-on with our spacecraft—from design, integration, and testing of the vehicle through launch and real-time operations. Designing and building a spacecraft to berth with the International Space Station (ISS) involves a lot of coordination with NASA on both the vehicle design and testing to ensure that we meet the safety requirements NASA has for visiting vehicles. For me, that’s meant working with NASA to show we meet all of their requirements, coordinating the joint testing we do in conjunction with NASA, planning the overall integration and testing needed to get Dragon ready for flight, and then actually performing the testing and hardware integration on the spacecraft. There are days when I’m in meetings with NASA in the morning, writing and testing ground software we use to operate the spacecraft in the afternoon, and running a test on the spacecraft or participating in a mission simulation in the evening.
Could you tell us about your current and future projects?
When I applied to SpaceX, I was interested in working on Dragon. I was brought on to help lead the verification and integration activities between SpaceX and NASA, which was a good fit with my previous experience doing similar work with NASA on Orion. [Before joining SpaceX, Tenenbaum worked for three years at Lockheed Martin on the Orion spacecraft.] Now that we’ve had our first flight to the ISS, our focus for Dragon moves from development to production and making all of our operations more efficient. With the NASA contract, we will upgrade our cargo Dragon vehicle to carry NASA astronauts to the ISS, which is what we had in mind when designing Dragon. For our crewed Dragon vehicle, I’m working on the development of the next-generation space suits astronauts will need for the trip to the ISS.
What are some of the greatest challenges of your position?
That’s a tough question; almost every day brings a different challenge. We’ve worked really closely with NASA on the development of Dragon and have learned a lot during that partnership. We’re constantly working to meet NASA’s requirements, and often, that involves proposing new approaches to solve a problem. Working this way has ultimately yielded some great results; the partnership has not only helped us develop a better spacecraft, but it’s also caused NASA to consider new ways to approach problems.
SpaceX’s achievement of crafting the first purely commercial supply ship to travel to the ISS is monumental in the history of space ventures. How do you feel being a part of this historic endeavor?
I couldn’t ask to be in a more exciting place in the space industry right now. It’s a huge challenge to develop a brand new spacecraft, complete all of the rigorous testing and analysis required by NASA, and then not only fly it to the space station but also return it back to Earth. The team at SpaceX that made this a reality is a phenomenal group of people, and I feel really lucky to be a part of it.