Becoming a Leader at NASA

Marcellus Proctor oversees major space projects

2 min read
A man standing in a parking lot with cars and a building with the NASA logo and an american flag on it.
Marcellus Proctor

"Growing up in the Bowie, Md., area, whenever we drove by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, I told my parents that I would work there someday," recounts Proctor, who is now an associate chief at Goddard for NASA's Electrical Engineering Division (EED).

Originally, Proctor was focused on astronomy, but during high school at an engineering exploration summer program he solved "a resistor equivalence problem that nobody else in the class had gotten [and] the instructor recommended I look at electrical engineering as a career instead." He got a master's in EE from Johns Hopkins University. "I started working at Tracor Systems (now part of BAE Systems) in their Standard Missile Program," recalls Proctor. "In 2001, after three years there, an opening at Goddard became available. I applied...and I've been there ever since."

Today, as an associate chief in the EED—one of six senior leaders in the division—Proctor manages the EED's operational budget, and also oversees a major support contract, the Electrical Systems Engineering Services contract. The EED's portfolio includes the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) Mission, International Space Station Cosmic Ray Energetics And Mass (ISS-CREAM), and Neutron star Interior Composition ExploreR (NICER) .

"We have about 300 civil servants and 300 contractors," says Proctor. "We design, prototype, test, and build flight-production units of electronic boards and power systems. This includes reliability testing like making sure that boards are radiation-hardened—or, for the Webb Telescope, vibration-testing the mirror. We usually do the electronic systems overview of a spacecraft and integration and testing for the craft and subsystems. And we do communications for the spacecraft and ground networks."

If you'd like to follow Proctor into space engineering, "you need to take some types of internships," recommends Proctor. "Among other things, this will tell you what you do and don't like. And don't be afraid to reach out to people, especially in the aerospace industry. Introduce yourself and say, I have questions. Do you have someone who will talk with me or mentor me in the field? You'd be surprised how many will share time."

Also: "It's essential to link with industry to get the latest technologies and work with our scientists to incorporate these developments and methods in our designs. For example, 3D printing to build our circuit boards in-house and less expensively; chip design and manufacturing to make smaller parts and boards that fit into CubeSats...and finding ways for smaller, more compact chips that can do multiple functions while meeting size and power constraints."

As a Native American, says Proctor—a member of the Piscataway-Conoy Tribe—"I'd like to see more Native Americans at NASA. I think we bring a unique perspective to space."

"We get recruits through the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) and the Society of American Indian Government Employees (SAIGE). We have internship opportunities and try to recruit through AISES, and we do career fairs to get high school and college students into STEM/STEAM fields."

Working at NASA can have its perks, Proctor notes. "I got to attend a launch of the MMS spacecraft at Cape Canaveral—at night, with no clouds. It was amazing."

This article appears in the November 2021 print issue as "Marcellus Proctor."

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Can This DIY Rocket Program Send an Astronaut to Space?

Copenhagen Suborbitals is crowdfunding its crewed rocket

15 min read
Five people stand in front of two tall rockets. Some of the people are wearing space suits and holding helmets, others are holding welding equipment.

Copenhagen Suborbitals volunteers are building a crewed rocket on nights and weekends. The team includes [from left] Mads Stenfatt, Martin Hedegaard Petersen, Jørgen Skyt, Carsten Olsen, and Anna Olsen.

Mads Stenfatt

It was one of the prettiest sights I have ever seen: our homemade rocket floating down from the sky, slowed by a white-and-orange parachute that I had worked on during many nights at the dining room table. The 6.7-meter-tall Nexø II rocket was powered by a bipropellant engine designed and constructed by the Copenhagen Suborbitals team. The engine mixed ethanol and liquid oxygen together to produce a thrust of 5 kilonewtons, and the rocket soared to a height of 6,500 meters. Even more important, it came back down in one piece.

That successful mission in August 2018 was a huge step toward our goal of sending an amateur astronaut to the edge of space aboard one of our DIY rockets. We're now building the Spica rocket to fulfill that mission, and we hope to launch a crewed rocket about 10 years from now.

Copenhagen Suborbitals is the world's only crowdsourced crewed spaceflight program, funded to the tune of almost US $100,000 per year by hundreds of generous donors around the world. Our project is staffed by a motley crew of volunteers who have a wide variety of day jobs. We have plenty of engineers, as well as people like me, a pricing manager with a skydiving hobby. I'm also one of three candidates for the astronaut position.

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