Alumni spotlight: Marcel Mabson

June 3, 2019

Marcel Mabson is a familiar name at Capitol Technology University. 

Marcel Mabson, Capitol Tech astronautical engineering alum

Those who graduated in 2010, probably remember him as a classmate; he earned his Bachelor of Science (BS) in Astronautical Engineering that year. Students who are active in the Balloon Experiment Club might have been told he started that organization in 2007. And to students who enroll in astronautical engineering course AE350, he’s their instructor.

Marcel knew he wanted to work for NASA since he was seven years old. Today, as a software test engineer at the Hammers Company, that dream has come true. He still finds it exciting to help a spacecraft launch into orbit.

When he and his wife are not cruising all over the state in his Camaro, they can be found grilling on their deck or preparing for the birth of their first child. 

Q: Do you remember how you got interested in space?

MM: I watched a space documentary about one of the Apollo rocket launches with my uncle and knew instantly that I wanted to work for NASA. In elementary school, I remember I would take every space and astronomy book home and read every topic from the formation of the planets to some of NASA’s famous missions such as Voyager and Hubble. Very proudly, I could name every NASA space shuttle, when their first flight was and how many missions each completed. My grandparents bought me my first telescope when I was eight or nine. My mother remembers me being outside in the dead of winter with my little red telescope, looking at the stars and planets. Even today, I can be found on our deck showing our neighborhood kids the moon, planets and celestial objects. I even had one child ask me last year if we could look at Mars (when it was at its closest approach in 12 years) for his class project. 

Q: Your job title is software test engineer for the Hammers Company. How exactly do you help space missions?

MM:The Hammers Company creates the software used to transmit commands to the spacecraft, manages data products once they arrive at each ground terminal, and trend spacecraft data. Any time we update or create a new product, it’s my job to make sure the software does what it’s supposed to do (we have a set of requirements that mission provides and we ensure the software satisfies all requirements prior to launch). If a customer has problems in the control center, I’ll assist them with resolving the issues. Plus, I help build spacecraft procedures that will command the spacecraft as well as train new operators to use the Hammers Company products. Sometimes, when a spacecraft is about to be launched, a few of us stay in the control center to be the support system in case there are any anomalies.

Q: What’s it like to be in a control center on launch day?

MM:After years of working endless nights and lots of weekends to prepare the spacecraft and ground systems for launch, Launch Day can be stressful. Teams verify all systems are configuring properly and resolve any last-minute anomalies. Me personally, by the time we are on the pad, we have exercised the system so many times that we are fairly confident things will work as planned. Space, however, is very difficult and anything can and will go wrong, but we prepare the spacecraft and ground systems to perform in both extremes. Many engineers who have been on multiple launches have traditions for good luck. Some will wear their lucky socks or ties; the younger engineers bring our lucky M&M candy, and we have a few prior to liftoff. One of our mentors would pass around “launch cigars” and for each successful flight would take the team outside and light each one for a job well done. For the “launch team,” once the countdown clock strikes zero and the rocket lifts from the pad, it’s only a ten-minute ride to orbit (sometimes it feels like an eternity!). Once the spacecraft is released from the rocket, we then have to wait to hear from the spacecraft, which varies from a matter of minutes to a few hours depending on the mission. Once we finally hear from the spacecraft and the ground systems are working as expected, we can relax (if only for a few minutes), and then it’s on to configuring the spacecraft to perform science. Whether it’s going to the moon or another planet, it’s always fun seeing a spacecraft launch into orbit, seeing that deployment and hearing that first signal.

Q: You dreamed about working with spacecraft since you were a little boy. Any big surprises now that you’re working in this field?

MM:  Yes. When I was younger, I thought space was just rockets, spacecrafts and flight controllers. I sometimes feel more like a lawyer than anything else because I must debate with other engineers about test procedures, schedules and reviews. I find I spend more of my time interacting with developers and operators than creating procedures. I enjoy the challenge and the fast-paced environment. I am also surprised by the amount of time missions need to be developed and tested before they reach the launch pad. When you watch a NASA rocket launch on television, they don’t say how it has been in development for five or six years. 

Q: You teach AE350, Autonomous Ground Systems. Do you ever share insights from your job with your students?

MM:All the time! The Hammers Company donated the software package to Capitol’s Space Flight Operations Training Center (that’s the lab I teach in), which means the students learn how to use the same software we use in the industry. I bring what I do in real life to an academic level. I remember working on a mission where there were anomalies, and I showed the students the exact steps we used to recover the spacecraft, just a few weeks after it happened. And, since a lot of our alumni work in the operations field, we receive emails from them almost every other day giving us suggested exercises we can run in the lab. 

My goal is that by the time our students graduate, they have done so many rehearsals and simulations that it’s as if they have four or five years of operations experience, which helps them land a job.

Q: Do you know if that happens?

MM:All the time. Hammers has an agreement with Capitol that students can intern with us. And, we recently hired a Capitol graduate who’s now working on my test team. He was hired because he worked in the lab. My director told me, ‘I hired him because he knows what he’s doing and he knows the software.’ Another of our recent graduates is now a flight controller on NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM), and he completed his certification in just five months all thanks to the SFOTC and Astronautical Engineering department.