Trailblazer of the Week

Alan Didion

24 July 2020

Alan Didion spends much of his weekend time hiking, camping around many of California’s wilderness areas, or restoring and riding one of his several motorcycles. Turns out he’s a bit of a daredevil.

“I’ve been riding for about 10 years, with the exception of about three years when I took a break after a car hit me and I ended up with some titanium leg parts,” says Didion. “I’ve also got a degree in mechanical engineering, but I don’t often get to use it, so I like tinkering with things. My most recent project was a motocross bike that the previous owner rode without oil and the engine blew up. I got it really cheap, fixed it, put racing slicks on it and now I’ve been taking it to a local paved track on weekends.”

It’s between Monday through Friday, however, that Didion works as an assistant project systems engineer on the Lunar Trailblazer mission. Prior to launch, Didion and the project systems engineering team must make sure Trailblazer’s instruments and technical systems meet all functional and performance requirements.

“The detailed analysis I do for Lunar Trailblazer involves balancing our planned orbit, observation scheme, and spacecraft capabilities so that we can gather all of the science we need in a reliable manner,” he says.

On any given day, Didion could be managing and monitoring some of the technical tasks being carried out by sub-teams, coordinating documentation, or even performing some of the tasks directly.

“The role of a project systems engineer is a hybrid one—we often switch roles throughout the day or “change hats" depending on what’s needed to progress the mission,” says Didion.

Considering the broad technical scope represented in a space mission, Didion reflects on how best to approach these diverse efforts—all of which no one person can simultaneously master.

“It can often be overwhelming to juggle multiple disparate tasks, which is what makes my responsibilities both challenging and necessary,” he says. “It is sometimes stressful to consider that it is your, sometimes sole, responsibility to coordinate important efforts, but that also makes the outcome more rewarding when things come together.”

Didion studied at West Virginia University where he specialized in spacecraft trajectory design. He’s now at JPL applying his design skills to space projects in formulation and notes that such work regularly involves a healthy amount of math and coding, but also includes organization with other team members who are cognizant of all the other aspects of the mission.

“This is the kind of technically rewarding but also broad-reaching work that I enjoy,” he says. “I feel like it has a real impact on how Trailblazer will eventually manifest. I’m glad to be part of the team trying to find clever solutions to our obstacles. It is never easy to accomplish a space mission—it takes a lot of effort by many people over several years.”

In addition to its varied collective, Didion describes how Lunar Trailblazer operates under different constraints than other space missions.

“Trailblazer aims to provide an elegant implementation for an ambitious science return in a modest mission, and this presents us with a lot of interesting challenges with rewarding outcomes,” Didion says. “I’m happy to be working on something that will advance our scientific understanding of the Moon, as well as our engineering prowess in space exploration. Lunar Trailblazer is a unique type of space mission which aims for a high “bang for the buck” science return, a type which is rapidly growing in popularity.”

Lunar Trailblazer was selected in 2019 as a part of NASA’s SIMPLEx (Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration) program. As a SmallSat, or small satellite, Trailblazer will ride along with a larger spacecraft to get out of Earth’s gravity well before independently making its way to lunar orbit for its mission to map water on the Moon.

“Success for Trailblazer is more important than just for the mission,” says Didion. “It helps us continue to prove that we are capable of doing more science in a smaller package, a shorter mission, and more affordable budget. This will allow us to do more missions and faster, and I’m glad to be a part of it.”

Alan Didion is an assistant project systems engineer and Trailblazer of the Week!

Trailblazer of the Week is an ongoing series showcasing the diversity of experience and expertise that supports the collective determination of the Lunar Trailblazer mission.

By Emily Felder
Emily Felder is a Pasadena City College student and Caltech intern working on science communication for the Lunar Trailblazer mission.