Michael Tierney’s life as a NASA spacecraft software engineer

27 Aug 2015

Remember the recent EPIC camera shots of the moon crossing the path of the Earth? Well, one of the software engineers who worked on the DSCOVR craft gives a glimpse of life at the space agency and why we need to talk about acronyms.

Software engineers are familiar with projects that have long development schedules, with weeks and weeks of testing likely to be undertaken before their creation sees the light of day.

But how would you feel if you had to wait 14 years to revel in one of your career’s greatest moments?

Well, spare a thought for Michael Tierney, who for 10 years worked at NASA as an electronics engineer on various NASA projects but, most memorably, developed the attitude and orbit control software for the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite.

Just recently, the internet was captivated by the sight of the moon crossing the face of the Earth, which was captured by DSCOVR using its Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC).

The spacecraft, which finally launched in February this year with the help of a SpaceX rocket, was designed to monitor solar winds and provide any possible warning to those of us on Earth in the event of a potentially damaging solar flare.

Tierney’s job back in 1999, along with his four colleagues, was to develop the crucial attitude and orbit software that precisely calculates the craft’s distance from Earth to ensure it doesn’t stray too close or too far from its planned orbit.

It also ensures that its array of sensors is focused on both the Earth and the sun at all times.

Michael Tierney

Former NASA electronics engineer Michael Tierney

A surprising Irish connection

Working on the project, Tierney says, had been what he had always wanted to do during his decade-long stint at the US space agency and he enjoyed working on the small, tight-knit team.

“We collaborated really well, where one person was responsible for the software of one component of it. At some point, we would sit down and have a code walkthrough and print out the source code and the person who wrote it would have to explain everything on it.

“I was really proud of it and the folks I worked with on that mission I’m still in touch with and we Skype and talk on occasion, even though it’s been 14 years since I left.”

In terms of milestones, it was the first spacecraft at the Goddard Space Flight Center to use C++ as its programming language and it even has an Irish connection, with all of the maths used to create the attitude and orbit control software using the quaternion method developed by Sir William Rowan Hamilton. “I have to go find Broom Bridge [where Hamilton wrote out the equation] now,” says Tierney.

Epic moon

The recent shot taken by the EPIC camera aboard the DSCOVR. Image via NASA/NOAA

While expected to be his final send-off for NASA, Tierney had to wait 14 years for the spacecraft to finally launch because during the late 1990s and early 2000s NASA experienced some of its darkest moments financially, with budget cut after budget cut.

“It was a challenging time,” he says, when speaking with Siliconrepublic.com “I think probably the biggest challenge is not so much the budget in terms of absolute numbers, but the stability.

“To have budgets fluctuate in the middle of one of these projects can be very frustrating because then you have to build into your project planning all the possible contingencies if five years down the road your budget takes a 30pc hit.”

14 years in the making

He and his fellow engineers did finally get to see their work blast off from Earth and into the planet’s orbit and it is no surprise, despite all being located in different parts of the globe, that they celebrated together.

“It was incredibly, incredibly gratifying to see this thing go up and it works and, for my friends I worked with on this, we were sending congratulatory emails to one another as we knew we did our job right when the image [of the moon in front of Earth] was actually there.”

DSCOVR during launch preparations. Image via NASA/Kim Shiflett

DSCOVR during launch preparations. Image via NASA/Kim Shiflett

Now working as the senior engineering director for the patent attorney group Invention Investment Ireland, Tierney says that, despite what you’d imagine, there are some similarities between the two.

“It’s similar in that you are always having to draw on technical tuition and background.

“At some point during the course of the week there’s something you knew two years ago, or 10 years ago, that you’ll have to remember as there’s some technical thing you have to look at. Writing software and working with patents, in an odd way, it can be a bit aligned.”

Acronym overload

As you may have noticed, NASA likes to create acronyms. Given that he worked on the DSCOVR mission, which featured the EPIC camera, this journalist couldn’t help but pose the question as to how much time is spent creating them.

“I think it was 1991 when I saw the first nested acronym and that’s when you realise we have gone too far,” he says with some passion.

“I worry that this is because the people working on it now don’t know anything about the classics or famous astronomers. Is it the case that 40 or 5o years ago, engineers had more of a grounding in the liberal arts where they could make reference to the past? I hope it’s not that!”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic