People of PACE: Gary Davis Leads His Team Through Engineering Feats

Gary Davis is the mission systems engineer for PACE at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

What is your favorite ocean or atmospheric related book or movie?

I don’t know if it’s classified as a book, but I do like the Edgar Allan Poe story “A Descent Into the Maelstrom.” My favorite ocean movie? I really liked the movie “Master and Commander.” It’s not really an ocean movie, but a lot of it takes place on sailing ships, and they do have a naturalist in that movie who researches plants, insects, and other creatures.

What is your background?

I went to engineering school at the University of Virginia, got a bachelor’s degree in aerospace there, and then went to Princeton and got a master’s in mechanical and aerospace engineering. Essentially right out of school, I came to Goddard. I started off in the propulsion branch, and I worked on the TRMM mission – Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission – and then the MAP mission – Microwave Anisotropy Probe. That’s a mouthful. Then I worked on the Solar Dynamics Observatory, I worked on the MMS mission – Magnetospheric Multiscale, another mouthful – and then OSIRIS-REx and now PACE.

A man, seen from his shoulders up, takes up a majority of the picture. He is wearing a white clean suit which covers over his head, and also a white mask that covers his nose and mouth. He has glasses on. Behind him is the PACE spacecraft which is very large and covered in wires and other metallic materials.
Gary with PACE Observatory in SCA Cleanroom. Image Credit: Dennis Henry

What is your role in PACE?

For PACE, I’m the mission systems engineer, so I’m the chief engineer on the project. I have a great team working with me to hopefully make sure it all works.

What are you most looking forward to during launch?

I am most looking forward to the moment when we get the telemetry that the spacecraft is alive and is stable and pointing the solar arrays at the sun. That’s the most critical part for us, is to make sure that the spacecraft has survived the rigors of launch, and that it knows what to do and is pointed in the right direction. So that’s a huge first step for us.

And once that’s all clear, what are you most looking forward to post-launch?

I want to see that first picture. The instrument folks call it first light, and I’m just really excited to see what PACE’s instruments can do. We’ve been testing them on the ground for all these years, but they’re not looking at anything really, just the laser light that we shine in or the ceiling of the cleanroom. When the Ocean Color Instrument is able to see the ocean and the polarimeters see the aerosols in the atmosphere, it will be amazing to get that first image.

Since OCI will be looking at all these different colors of the ocean, what is your favorite color and why?

That’s an easy one. My favorite color is British Racing Green and the reason why is I’m a Formula One fan and my favorite team (though they don’t race anymore) is Lotus. Way back in the day, most of their cars were painted British Racing Green, so I’ve always loved that color. It’s a dark green, and it’s very fast.

Four men stand in a picture. All four are holding trombones in their hands. From left to right, the second man is Gary Davis. He wears a light blue long-sleeved button up shirt and has protective headphones around his neck. The men he is standing next to are all wearing military uniforms with red jackets, white belts, and black pants.
Gary with U.S. Marine Band Trombone Section. Learn more here. Image Credit: U.S. Marine Band

What advice would you give to aspiring engineers who want to someday work on NASA satellites?

The obvious answer that a lot of people give is “study this science or study that math or take that engineering class” and I kind of go in the opposite direction. For folks who want to work on NASA projects in science or engineering, they’re probably already very strong in science and engineering, so they don’t need any more of that. My advice would be to study and be trained as much as possible in human skills, leadership, team-building, and how to work as part of a team. Especially in today’s world, with so many virtual ways to communicate, your team might not be co-located with you. The better communication skills you have and the better you can get an entire team to work efficiently with you, that means a lot. For any big project, you need multiple people, and even with great people, nobody can do it by themselves – you need a whole team.

What’s a fun fact about yourself, something that a lot of people might not know?

Three men stand in the picture. All are holding euphoniums in their hands. From left to right, Gary is the third man in the picture. He is wearing a red sweater and has a red Santa hat on. The man in the middle also wears a red sweater and has a green holiday had on. The man to the left is wearing a military outfit with a red jacket and black pants. They are standing in a large auditorium and wreaths can be seen hanging in the background.
Gary with other double bell friends at Tubachristmas Kennedy Center. Image Credit: A nice Tuba Player

I’m a trombone player, amateur. I did buy a euphonium so I can play it once a year in Tubachristmas, which is super fun because we get to play the melody which you don’t usually get as a low brass player. So, for one night a year, I’m like a quasi-tuba player and it’s really fun.



What’s one catch-all statement describing the importance of PACE?

PACE is going to teach us answers about the ocean that we haven’t even been able to ask the questions for yet. It’s going to show us stuff that we don’t even know that we don’t know yet.

Header image caption: Gary with PACE Observatory during PACE Family Day. Image Credit: Dennis Henry

By Erica McNamee, Science Writer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

People of PACE: Ivona Cetinić Studies the Ocean’s Microscopic Organisms

Ivona Cetinić is a biological oceanographer in the Ocean Ecology Lab at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

What is your favorite ocean or atmospheric related book or movie?

I’m a science fiction fan. Definitely “Abyss.” I don’t know why, but it’s been my favorite ever since I was a kid. I’m sure there are better ones, but it’s the only one that comes into my head movie wise. For a movie it was always, always, always “Abyss.”

What is your background? What do you do for PACE?

The image is primarily taken up by the large trunk of a tree on the right side. The left side of the image shows the background of a forest landscape. A woman is centered in the image, wearing jeans and a black jacket. She is hugging the trunk of the tree, but the tree is much larger than her and she cannot fit her arms around the trunk.
Phytoplankton cannot be hugged, but trees can 😊. Image Credit: Mary Jane Perry

I am an oceanographer. I am interested in phytoplankton community structure and how it interacts with the environment, and also how the environment interacts with phytoplankton community structure. That’s how I ended up developing better tools to study phytoplankton.

For PACE, I am in charge of anything that has to do with biogeochemical processes in the oceans. Not just phytoplankton, but also the elements (such as carbon) and energy that phytoplankton move around, and other types of carbon, sediment, or organic material that float around the ocean. So, I take care of those algorithms and make sure that they look nice and pretty once we launch.

What are you most looking forward to during launch?

The launch itself, since I have never been to a single launch. So I’m excited for the countdown, and being surrounded by family, friends, and colleagues, and everybody enjoying that moment.

What are you most looking forward to post launch?

The first light images and the first data. I’m looking forward to getting to start playing with the data as soon as I can get my hands on it. We’ve been testing algorithms and I just want to get some real data!

The image is comprised of four of the same phytoplankton, each taking up one quadrant of the image. The phytoplankton is shaped like a hexagon, and each corner of the hexagon has an additional spike coming off of it. They look slightly like snowflakes. The hexagon and spike parts are bright white colored, except the bottom left phytoplankton is more of a dark blue color. Inside the middle of the hexagon is an orange color.
Microphotographs of phytoplankton species Dictyocha speculum. Image credit: Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Dalhousie University, Rajashree Gouda

Do you have a favorite phytoplankton?

I shouldn’t have favorite children! But there is one that I really like a lot – it’s called Dictyocha speculum. It’s really cute. This “guy” looks like a little star, and to me looks a little bit like the star on top of the PACE logo.

Since PACE will be looking at all these different colors of the ocean, do you have a favorite color and why is it your favorite color?

I think you’ll see me in black all the time, which isn’t a color. It’s really hard to define color because the color is dependent on the thing as well as the light that is bouncing off that thing. And when something is black, that means that eats up everything, all the light. There’s nothing coming back towards your eyes, that’s what black is. I think it just kind of goes back to my teenage years everyone was comfortable person in black. But when it comes to real colors, probably purple, lilac, bluish.

What advice would you have for aspiring oceanographers who are interested in working for NASA?

Never give up. Never surrender. Really jump at any opportunity that opens up to you, just because you will never know where it’s going to lead. And it might not lead right to where you want to go, but it’s much better than sitting in one spot and thinking “Oh, what would be happening, where would I be if I didn’t take that opportunity?” Just try to jump on any opportunities out there. I was lucky to have the doors open every time and I was just jumping in everything that was available to me. I think that’s the route that got me to NASA.

A woman is centered in the image wearing a bright red outfit with white, black, and blue patterns and designs in circular shape on the back of her outfit. The woman has down black hair with blue streaks through it. She is carrying a drum that rests on the top of her head. The drum has the same pattern of red, black, white, and blue colors on its face.
Ivona carrying her drum during one of the performances of Batala Washington. Image Credit: Robert Werner

What is a fun fact about yourself? Something that people might not know about you?

I like music a lot, and I play many instruments. Currently, I play drums in an all-women, Afro-Brazilian band.

What is one-catch all statement describing the importance of PACE?

PACE will give us a view of the ocean and atmosphere that we have never had before. It opens up so many possibilities that we don’t even know about. I think PACE is going to give us so much more insight than we expect about the ocean and the atmosphere and interactions between them.

Header image caption: Ivona happily posing with the PACE observatory. Image Credit: Dennis Henry

By Erica McNamee, Science Writer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

People of PACE: Kirk Knobelspiesse Keeps His Eyes on the Skies

Kirk Knobelspiesse is an atmospheric scientist and the project science team polarimeter lead for PACE at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. He is also the polarimeter instrument scientist for the Atmosphere Observing System (AOS) constellation.

A man stands centered in the image standing straight with his arms held out on either side of him. He is standing on a tan sand dune. The sky behind him is a light blue and gray color.
Kirk Knobelspiesse hiking sand dunes near Swakopmund, Namibia, during the ORACLEs field campaign. Image Credit: Michal Segal-Rozenhaimer

What is your favorite atmospheric or ocean related book or movie?

There was a series on Netflix called “Connected” that had an episode called “Dust.” The general idea is that everything in the world is connected, so it started with dust that was generated in the Sahara Desert, specifically the Bodélé Depression. And that dust – which is really from a dry lakebed – gets lofted into the atmosphere and goes out over the oceans, and in the process interacts with clouds and potentially fertilizes the ocean. That dust makes it all the way to the Amazon basin where it may also be an important source of nutrients.

What is your background?

I am a photographer who got really into imaging of all kinds, which led me to remote sensing. I ended up doing work on remote sensing of Earth from space and worked on SeaWiFs, which was an early ocean color mission. I decided I need to go back to grad school and get a more quantitative education, so I got an applied math degree at Columbia University.

What are you most looking forward to during launch?

Earlier in my career I worked on a satellite that had a launch failure (Glory in 2011). So, during launch, I am going to shut myself in a closet and not learn any news until somebody tells me it’s all over. Because it makes me so nervous. A lot of people want to go and see the launch and that kind of thing. Not me, I’m going to stay away. Somebody will tell me when it’s all over.

What are you most looking forward to post-launch?

A man is sitting at a desk in an office. He is facing the camera and appears to be taking a selfie. He takes up the right side of the image. The left side of the image shows a computer screen and a water bottle, which the man is holding. In the background, the office door, a coat rack, and part of a whiteboard can be seen.
Kirk Knobelspiesse in his office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Image Credit: Kirk Knobelspiesse

I have a list of all the Science and Nature papers we’re hoping to write with PACE data. It’s ambitious, a little bit. But there are new types of observations that we will be making, that no other satellite will have done so far, at least not at a global scale. One aspect I’m interested in is just exploring the data, looking for basic things that will be useful for our understanding of aerosols and clouds and the climate in general.

I have some pet projects that I’ve always been interested in, for example a specific situation when aerosols are lofted above clouds. Aerosols are generally something that cools the climate because they reflect light. But if you have, say, a dark smoke aerosol on top of the cloud, it actually warms the climate, because it absorbs some of the energy that would have otherwise been reflected into space. So that’s something we’ll be able to do with PACE that we don’t really have great observations of now.

What is your favorite color and why?

I have a 10-year-old daughter, and favorite colors are very important to her and her friends. They’re always asking me what my favorite color is, and I say I can never answer them because how can you like one color without liking all the others?

Do you have a favorite type of cloud or weird atmospheric phenomena?

There’s also an optical phenomenon called glory. If you’re floating above a cloud and the Sun is behind, you look down at your shadow and you will see your shadow with a glory around it, which is like a circular rainbow around yourself. That’s one of my favorite optical phenomena.

What’s a fun fact about yourself? Something that a lot of people might not know about you?

A man takes up the left side of the image. He is walking towards the camera. He wears a neon yellow vest and is holding onto a large, green gas canister, which is rolling behind him. In the background of the image, a large plane sits on a runway with the nose of the plane facing the left of the image and the tail of the plane, featuring a NASA logo, on the right side. The plane has a stairway connected to the door.
Kirk Knobelspiesse working on the NASA P-3 during the ORACLES field campaign in São Tomé, São Tomé and Príncipe. Image Credit: Andrzej Wasilewski

I’ve been to latitude zero, longitude zero, the point in the South Atlantic Ocean where the equator and prime meridian intersect. It was part of the ORACLES field campaign. There’s nothing special there. It’s just ocean – and I don’t mean to offend my oceanographer friends by saying it’s nothing special – but there was no pillar of fire or something like that.

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists looking to get where you are today?

Don’t pigeonhole yourself into one discipline or one topic of study. Not just computer science or physics or oceanography. They’re human constructs, sociological constructs, and they don’t have anything to do with nature, other than how we have organized ourselves. A lot of where I’ve found interesting and productive things to do have been at the boundary between disciplines, or learning from one discipline and applying that approach to another discipline. So, don’t tell yourself, “I can’t do something because I’m not trained to do that.” You can learn and you can train yourself, and don’t be afraid to go out on a limb and do something you don’t really know how to do.

What is one catch-all statement describing the importance of PACE?

We will be making use of things that people cannot see – the nature of light – to understand things that we can’t otherwise observe.

Header image caption: Kirk Knobelspiesse hiking at Rachel Carson Conservation Park in Brookeville, Md. Image Credit: Barbara Balestra 

By Erica McNamee, Science Writer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center