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The Evolution of a Career in Ethics, Technology, and Space Systems Engineering: An Interview with Steve Battel

We sat down with inventor Steve Battel to learn about the evolution of his career and his unique perspective on engineering, ethics and the business of space.

Steve Battel is an alumnus of the University of Michigan with 46 years of experience as a systems engineer, designer and manager for NASA and DoD space projects. An expert on high voltage engineering, Battel is an inventor, space technologist, business owner, and professor of practice, who brings his teaching, mentorship and expertise to many areas of the university — ranging from the Space Physics Research Laboratory to the College of Engineering Departments of Electrical Engineering and Climate and Space.  Steve (BSEE ’79) was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2016 for engineering design and implementation of space flight systems.

We sat down with Steve to learn about the evolution of his career, while also hearing his unique perspective on engineering design, engineering ethics and the business of space.

Q. During your educational career, you studied philosophy as well as engineering. How has your education in philosophy influenced your work in engineering?

“Philosophy is about why, and engineering is about how. So, matching those two up, especially in fields that are very different, has actually been beneficial to me. One of the things I try to convey to our students is why we’re doing what we‘re doing. Why is systems engineering important? Why do we do it this way? What are the things that don’t matter and what does matter in terms of what you’re doing?”

Q. So, why is systems engineering important?

“Systems engineering has evolved over time, but as projects have gotten bigger and as different organizations and different teams have had to work together, there’s been a need to functionally decompose a system into pieces that each can be designed and built separately and then merged into a larger system of systems. So systems engineering is taking a problem, first figuring out how to solve it and then organizing the strategy for not only designing and building it but then also testing it and deploying it.” 

Q: Do you think the ethics of technology changed the direction of your career?

“I was—and still am—interested mostly in the ethics of technology. One of my early mentors was Henryk Skolimowski, he was a professor at Michigan and also the Philosopher in Residence at Arcosanti, the futuristic city in northern Arizona. He was a leading thinker in the area of eco-philosophy and encouraged me to examine myself inside of a philosophical framework, instead of just an engineering framework.

Steve Battel

“We had a lot of discussions and he was a very interesting man. That was in the early 70’s when there was a lot of discussion of “Silent Spring”, the oil crisis, nuclear energy was having its problems and risks associated with that… So, there was a lot of technology ethics in play at that time, with a lot of interest in assessment.

“Technology ethics and assessment was the direction I thought I would go, and then I crossed paths with Dr. Ralph Cicerone working at the Space Physics Research Laboratory (SPRL). At that time, I was unaware of SPRL, and he was really one of the founding scientific experts on ozone layer depletion. Cicerone was doing a lot of modeling when President Nixon canceled the supersonic transport, the SST, in 1971. One of the dominant considerations was the depletion of the ozone layer due to nitric oxide. It’s a biproduct of combustion in jet engines.

“He gave a talk. I was hungry, and they had pizza. As a budding ethicist, I listened to the story, and I realized that there was a conjunction between my interest in ethics and my interest in engineering that ran through this atmospheric sciences path.

Q: How did you first start working for the Space Physics Research Laboratory?

“At the time, I was interested in robotics. At the same time, Viking had just landed on Mars, which was a remarkable thing also, and it has a long history based in Ann Arbor with the companies that did work on the Viking Mission. So, I went to Professor Chen-to Tai, my first engineering mentor, and he told me this is maybe an area where I could find my path. He then said ‘I will make a phone call,’ just like that.

“He picked up the phone, and made a call to George Carignan, who was the director of SPRL. George who answered on his speaker phone and said, well, we’re not hiring but if you think he’s good I’ll interview him. I had never interviewed for a job. George interviewed me in his office, he hired me on the spot, he walked me over to Marti Moon, who wrote down some stuff to hire me, and walked me over to John Maurer who became my second engineering mentor.

“George is still a great mentor to me even at age 92.  I call him Chief, and I still use a speakerphone to this day!

Q: How did you decide to become an inventor?

“You don’t decide to do it really. Many people, like myself, in engineering, I think, are accidental tourists. You go somewhere and a problem interests you, and then you solve it, and build it.

“I’ve been very fortunate because I’ve had mentors all along my path, beginning with George Carignan and John Maurer at SPRL , along with Chen-To Tai, who was in the electrical engineering department. They were my main engineering mentors here at Michigan. Each of them allowed me to solve the problems in my own way. I went from there to Lockheed, and then to the University of California – Berkely, and then the University of Arizona, and then I started my own company.

“In each place, I’ve always had a mentor there or someone I could talk to. One of the things that became evident to me was that I was good at coming up with new ideas and ways of solving problems. Moreover, my philosophy background, to some degree, and my sort of unusual path toward engineering allowed me to look at problems differently. And you learn how to do that. It’s actually something you can learn to do.”

Q: It sounds like this came very natural to you. But it wasn’t simple, was it?

“I still have to work hard at it every day. One of the philosophical decisions I made early on was that it was important to have systems be as simple as they can be to do their function. And simplicity actually is harder than complexity. It’s easier to make things complicated, because once you start with something, you can just keep adding things until it works. That’s sometimes called the make work mentality.

“Especially for space systems, which are highly complex already and also work in very difficult environments, it’s not necessarily the optimal way to  design or build a system.”

“First, I started trying to solve problems and make designs simpler. Then people began recognizing that in me, and came to me to solve problems that were really hard and sometimes fundamentally over-complex. So, it’s an evolutionary process, but I would argue that it starts from a philosophical perspective, in terms of asking why are we doing this, before you start asking how are we doing this. That opens the door.”

Q: In your experience, was there room to make mistakes as an inventor and engineer?

“I was given the opportunity to come up with ideas and invent things, but with mentorship that was first, encouraging, and, second, allowing me to learn from my mistakes. I’ve made more mistakes than anybody else in the history of the space program, probably! Not big mistakes fortunately, but a lot of little mistakes. If you make enough little mistakes, and you figure out a way to course-correct, then you also kind of figure out why things didn’t work the way you expected.”

Q: In the field, has the tolerance for making mistakes changed over time?

“We have a low tolerance for risk now, especially in the space business, and that can be a hard way to live your engineering life. NASA and commercial space have a different calculus on how they manage projects.

“NASA uses a risk-based process, which has its pluses and its minuses. But one of the outcomes is that you’re always looking at things in the context of risk. Businesses look at things in the context of opportunity, and thus they weigh the risks against the opportunities, whereas NASA does the opposite.”

“Both have their merits, but my perspective is that it’s a balance. The middle ground is really where it’s optimal. It takes experience to achieve that, and that’s one of the things that I’ve tried to mentor and teach as part of the process of engineering — look at the opportunity first, and the risk second, then weigh the risk honestly against the potential opportunity.”

“What you want to do is always have people wanting to do their best and accepting that occasionally bad things happen. Bad days do happen in the space business, like in any other business, so we try to minimize those impacts, but you don’t do hard things by taking the easy path.”

Q: What is your particular focus? What are you working on now?

“I probably spend most of my time teaching, reviewing NASA projects and consulting in high voltage engineering. I made a commitment to NASA and the University of Michigan to help train people in high voltage engineering , because there are very few practitioners that are experts right now. So, I developed a course that I’ve taught at the NASA level and for all different kinds of institutions.

“Here at Michigan, I’m really working hard on mentoring our young engineers both in the classroom and at SPRL. In the past, my company has worked with SPRL on many missions including Cassini and Huygens and also on the SAM- Surface Analysis at Mars- instrument, which is the primary instrument on the Curiosity Rover. Recently, we have worked with Los Alamos on the SuperCam instrument and also with JPL on the PIXL instrument for the Perseverance Rover.  Currently we have many projects but one that is especially challenging and fun is our collaboration with Goddard Space Flight Center on the DraMS instrument for the Dragonfly mission.

Q: Why are these high voltage systems important?

“For the Mars Rovers, the specific problem at Mars is that the atmosphere is at a very low pressure and the pressure is in a similar regime to where neon bulbs run. So, when you apply an electric field it glows, a phenomenon called Paschen breakdown.

“To operate in that low pressure environment, you need to have a very special design. Interestingly, these problems happen all over the place, for example with levitating high-speed trains designed for operation in a low-pressure gas tube. It’s a very generalized problem -with specialized applications.

Q. Do you think people can get ahead by thinking outside of the box?

“The space program was built by oddballs, but that’s not the right word — unusual and eccentric people. People who had unusual passion, had incredible drive and interest. So the creativity came from people who were both passionate and unbridled. There was no precedent and no restrictions on what they were doing in most cases. Now, we’re much more in a formalized environment, risk-based on some level, and so people work inside of perceived boxes that really don’t have to be there.

“I think that’s the one place where I have really tried to change the way people think — is to make the boxes bigger. The ‘outside of the box’ thing I don’t believe in much, but I do believe the box is much bigger than what people realize. It’s just they put artificial boundary conditions on what they do because they believe that they have to, but not because they really should.

“So, this is the place where I probably have the biggest impact, as a mentor and as a teacher. I try to have people expand the boundaries, have them think differently about how you solve problems, and also explore how to work as diverse multidisciplinary teams.”

Q: Is diversity important in the space business?

“Diversity is very important in multiple dimensions.”

“Oftentimes, especially in the space program, it wasn’t a diverse place. It was diverse in terms of eccentricity of the people and their way of thinking, but not in terms of any other way of crosscutting through it. There were virtually no women, although I have been very fortunate. Two of my primary work mentors were women.

“One of my mentors was Esther Williams, who was a genius and also a very giving person. We wrote our first paper together when I was 24 and she was 69. She came out of the University of California – Berkely, in 1941 and started at the Kaiser Ship Yards as a metallurgist, before going to Lockheed Aircraft and then the Skunk Works. She was one of the pioneer developers of what’s called 6AL-4V Titanium and was the expert on the titanium that was used as the primary structural material for the SR-71 Blackbird.

“After she retired, she passed me on to Yvonne Brill, who invented the Electrothermal Hydrazine Thruster, and was a great mentor to me as well. Now, there’s the Brill lectures which are given every other year jointly at the AIAA and National Academies in her honor, and I am happy to have partially funded that. It’s a great tribute to her as an engineer and as a person and as my friend and mentor.

Q: What’s important to you in your career now?

“You actually can make a difference. That’s one of the important things that people have to recognize and it is the thing that really keeps me going.

“Once I could afford to give a fair bit of my time and pay it forward to the profession, I realized that we had evolved away from a mentoring approach to engineering that was so beneficial to me. Engineers are trained through doing, but also through learned experience from people who are experts. We  don’t seem to have time to do that anymore. That’s why I started working with young engineers in a teaching and mentoring mode.

“I am trying to, one engineer at a time, change the way we do things. In a sense, you want to train people how to think about problems, how to solve problems, how to develop things, how to be creative, how to do all those things — and that’s been the evolution of my career. I try to emulate what my mentors did and give back in a similar mode, while also doing the projects that I like to do.

Q. If you could give young engineers only one piece of advice, what would you say?

“Give your best at everything you do. That’s my motto. Don’t settle for being mediocre. Everybody’s best is different. What you consider best is different than what other people consider best, but be true to yourself, whether you’ve been trained to be an engineer or a scientist. It keeps you going, because you know when you’ve done your best.”

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