Profile: On Your Mark, Get Set, Go! Catching Up with Mark Lewis

Mark on console during ICON commissioning

Mark Lewis is a Mission Operations Manager at the SSL Mission Operations Center (MOC). 

Karin Hauck is Communications Manager for Multiverse Education Group at SSL.

Karin: Hi, Mark Lewis, tell me, where did you grow up?

Mark: I grew up in Southern California when I was young and in Oregon when I was a teenager. I moved to Oregon when I was 10, so basically half and half in each place.

Karin: Are your parents scientists of any kind?

Mark: No, my dad was a mechanical engineer. He’s been retired for a long time now. My mom was a school teacher. she didn’t do that full-time for very long, but she was a substitute school teacher for quite a while on what was more on the humanities side. 

Karin: When you were a kid, were there things that you were interested in that were scientific in nature, including observations of the world around you? 

Mark: Yeah, definitely, I always liked space, outer space. I don’t know when it got started exactly. I don’t know if it was Star Trek or if it was that one of my earliest memories is being at my grandparents’ place on the coast of Oregon and seeing one of the Apollo missions go overhead. That was just so cool to see. 

Karin: How did you know that it was Apollo? Was it on the news that it was going to pass over?

Mark: I was probably three or something and I don’t have a very clear memory of it. I just remember it happening. It’s really one of my first memories, I can’t think of anything that I remember earlier than that. 

Karin: So when Apollo went overhead, what were you thinking? Were you thinking of the astronauts inside, or what their viewpoint might be, or just how remarkable it was that they were in the sky like that? Did you want to be an astronaut? 

Mark: Oh yes, of course. 

Karin: Did you ever really consider it? 

Mark: Basically, I got my pilot’s license when I was 18 and I was looking at a path towards the Air Force and maybe the astronaut program eventually, but also when I was 18— because of the physical you take for getting the pilot’s license—I discovered that I only have one kidney. That disqualifies you from a lot of things, including being a pilot in the Air Force. So my life pivoted in a different direction at that point. 

Karin: I’ll come back to your career pivot, but let’s stay on childhood for a second. Did you like to look at the stars or other celestial objects? 

Mark: Yeah, definitely. One of the nice things about being in Oregon is there is less light pollution. I lived in Portland, so it wasn’t a great place for it, but we would go camping or on rafting trips and get out in the wilderness and were able to see the whole Milky Way laid out in the sky. 

Karin: It’s stunning, and you can’t see that when you live in a city. 

Mark: Yeah, to really get out in the wilderness and see the Milky Way can have a pretty profound impact on people, if they’re willing to pay attention to it.

Karin:  It’s amazing how many people walk under it and just don’t look up. So your family went on rafting trips? That’s pretty awesome. 

Mark: Not so much as a family, I went on rafting trips with a church group I was a part of, every summer for a while there, while I was still at home and old enough to do it. So for maybe three or four years when I was in high school we went off and went to eastern Oregon for week-long rafting trips. 

Karin: You camped in different spots every night? 

Mark: No, there were maybe a couple hundred of us, and we took over a fairground area and camped there, and then we would raft to different points on the river and whatnot and then wrap for the day and then go back to the fairground camp.

Karin: OK, so you didn’t have to bring sleeping bags and tents with you in the raft. 

Mark: One time we did set up in one location and stayed there the whole week, it was intense.

Karin: I want to ask about mentors—before you got to college, did you have any mentors or teachers along the way that inspired you to go in a certain direction? 

Mark: Yeah, maybe I was going in this direction anyway, but my physics teacher in high school, Mr. Foster, who also happened to be a rally car driver, and was known as “Fearless Foster,” had an impact on me. He taught physics and AP physics and he was just so excited about it and really brought science to life and made it fun and interesting. It was by far my favorite experience in in high school. 

Karin: It makes a huge difference when teachers are enthusiastic and love their subject.

Mark: Yeah, and earlier in seventh eighth grade, it was Mr. Moss teaching science, not quite as impactful for me as Mr. Foster later on, but still he was a good teacher too. I just I loved my science classes. 

Karin: Was it “Fearless Foster” who got you into race car driving? 

Mark: That came later, but it certainly was always in the back of my head that that was something I would like to do.

Karin: So had you seen him race his car?

Mark:  No, the school didn’t want to promote that. Mr. Foster and I actually got in trouble for firing water rockets down the hallway after school and almost hit the principal. My English teacher took me aside and tried to warn me off him a little bit, she said, “Yeah, he seems really cool, but he’s also been in a really bad accident racing and was in the hospital for weeks, and had a long recovery. Don’t romanticize it too much, don’t follow in his footsteps.” 

Karin: The school was warning you off him (laughs). To return to what you were saying before, you thought you were going towards becoming an Air Force pilot but then you ended up going in a different direction. Would you say that your path was straightforward up to a certain point, and then it took a turn? 

Mark: Yeah, I don’t know how straightforward it was, but I definitely took a turn. My dad wanted me to go to college first anyway, so there was kind of an agreement that I would be doing ROTC while going to school and then become a pilot afterwards. But he was supportive in helping me get my pilot’s license when I was a senior in high school, with the agreement that I would go to college instead of going straight to the Air Force. Then that didn’t work out that way, so I studied engineering in college. After school, I didn’t really know where I was going to end up. One of my friends who is another SSL employee, Chris Smith, had come out to California with another one of our friends and was taking some classes at Berkeley and happened to see a flyer for a job at the Center for Extreme-Ultraviolet Astrophysics (CEA). 

Karin: Oh, okay, so you were there at CEA, too, along with several others who are current SSL employees. [see photo below].

Mark: Yeah, Chris called me up  after he got a job and said, “Dude, this this place is great, you need to come down here.” So I came down and talked Brett Stroozas into giving me a job.

Karin: So was this your first job, right after you graduated from college?

Mark: It was the first professional, legit job after college.

Karin: So what were you doing for your first job for CEA?

CEA circa 1997 includes several current SSL employees including Bryce Roberts, Chris Smith, Greg Picard, John McDonald, Jeremy Thorsness and Mark.

Mark: I was a data analyst, I guess you’d say. I remember looking at FITS images and looking for sources because the A.I. was not very good, so it would spit out thousands of potential candidates and then we would look at them with human eyes to figure out which ones were actual sources and not just blotches. 

Karin: I remember when I worked at the Association for Variable Star Observers and we had this whole batch of star fields printed out as photos, but there were some gaps in the inking so we actually had to hire three temps to go through thousands of photographs to sort out what was just a speck and what were actual stars. 

Mark: Yeah, that’s sort of what we were doing. I mean there were thousands of printouts and we looked through them and then with the candidates that looked promising, we would go and look at the actual data on the computer and look at what was there in the file.  

Karin: So then what was your progression to SSL? because that’s when CEA was down on lower campus, right? 

Mark: Yeah, exactly, on Oxford Street. So after a couple of years, Roger Malina sent me to the east coast. We were basically trying to extend the mission and convince NASA to be okay with some of our ideas for improving mission operations, including using automation, going to one-shift operation (as opposed to 24/7 human monitoring), that sort of thing, and we were having trouble getting things done. There was a lot of resistance to this at NASA and we were sending people out there on a regular basis. I was one of a group of six or seven people that were rotating out to Goddard to knock on people’s doors and go to meetings and this and that. Apparently, they liked having me out there, so they put me there permanently— not permanently, really, but for two and a half years until we got sorted what we wanted. We got our extended mission, and then while I was doing that I also trained a little bit with the EUVE operations team. When we did outsource the mission operations to Berkeley, I became the power & thermal engineer. From there, I came up the hill to SSL to help when the FAST mission was transitioning from Goddard operations to Berkeley operations. Then we were spinning up the MOC for supporting RHESSI mission at the same time and so I got involved with those two projects. Then EUVE went away and I just stayed up at SSL and eventually became the mission operations manager. 

Karin: Can you describe some high points and low points of working on the stuff that you do? 

Mark: Mission Operations is kind of a strange job, where the best or most interesting part of the job is honestly when there’s an anomaly. When there’s something wrong and it’s on a spacecraft and it’s far away, you can’t touch it, so you’re trying to resolve these problems with one hand tied behind your back. It can be very scary, especially in the beginning when we didn’t have a lot of missions. If you lose the mission, you’re on the street looking for another job. So there’s a lot of stress to it, but at the same time, those anomalies are the kind of problem-solving that is the most fun and satisfying. A lot of people get into operations and they either love it or hate it. They wash out quickly if they’re just not suited to it, they don’t like the stress. Some people exit very quickly, and the people that stay tend to do it for a long time.

Karin: So what are some challenging anomalies that Mission Ops has dealt with over the years?

In the MOC during ICON Operational Readiness Test

Mark: We’ve had some very interesting anomalies. The FAST mission comes to mind, they use optical couplers for electronic circuits that eventually degrade in the radiation environment in space and change the way those circuits work, and one of them caused the spacecraft to lose some function. It basically has a detection circuit that would detect when we had an uplink, that is, when we would talk to the spacecraft. And although the real circuits for talking to the spacecraft never stopped working—we could  always command the spacecraft—the circuit that detected that we were talking to the spacecraft and was attached to a watchdog stopped working properly, and so it thought we weren’t talking to the spacecraft at all. Every four days, it would reset the spacecraft, actually pull the power supply and switch to the backup power supply, and plug it in again and power up. At first, figuring it out was a challenge, and then figuring out how to live with that is the next step. First you had to figure out why it was resetting. Usually, the first way you find out is that you miss a contact, [between spacecraft and ground station]. The transmitter doesn’t turn on and so you’re thinking, “What happened there?” 

Karin: And so then you make a ground contact?

Mark: Yeah, that’s right. Then we turn on the transmitter using ground command and see the state of the spacecraft and it’s a mess. So then we started trying to figure out why this happened and it wasn’t obvious, it required a lot of digging. By the time it happened again, we still hadn’t figured it out. Because once it started happening, it just kept happening every four days. It was temperature-dependent because it was based on a simple counting circuit, where it would keep latching events until it rolled over. And when it rolled over, it would then reset the spacecraft. But how fast that circuit ran was based on the temperature, so it would be four days, plus or minus four or five hours.

Karin: Even more confusing.

Mark: So there was a lot to this problem, but we eventually figured it out. You come up with different hypotheses, like detective work. I pulled out the old schematics for circuits, once it wasn’t obvious what was going on, and once we couldn’t find a flight software issue. We started looking at the circuit diagrams and eventually found a pathway to something that could actually make this happen and eventually came up with a good explanation for it.

Karin: Sounds pretty nerve-wracking. I could definitely see where some people would find it intriguing to try to figure out the problem or just feel like, “This is so stressful, I gotta get out of here.” 

Mark: That’s exactly right, yeah—maybe once, but no more than once. 

Karin: So conversely, then, maybe a bad day would just be where nothing particular happens? which is actually good but maybe it’s not as engaging. 

Mark: Yeah, I mean there’s always plenty of work to do. Especially nowadays, we have so many new missions so we’re constantly planning how we’re going to support them and there’s a lot of paperwork. NASA missions have a lot of oversight, there are a lot of reviews, there’s a lot of preparing for the next mission. We’ve got a lot of new missions in the pipeline right now, so there is no downtime. But you’re right, in the old days when we were smaller, the team had to be large enough to be able to handle more than one anomaly at the same time, or be able to still fully run operations even if somebody’s on vacation or whatever. We were still a small team, but you had to have enough people. So what that meant was when nothing was going wrong and it was smooth sailing, it could be pretty quiet at times and you had to look for things to do. Nowadays that’s not really a problem, we have so much to do. 

Karin: My last question is, do you have interests or hobbies outside of work that might surprise people? 

Mark: I’ve always liked adrenaline sports, but I’ve considered myself to be fairly conservative within those elements, but yeah, I like autocross. So I’ve got my little race car. I used to have a sailboat. The sailboat went away a couple years ago because it needed too much work. It was an old boat and I was working on it much more than I was sailing. I love sailing, I love that interaction of wind and water and thinking vectors in your head and how to get where you’re going and cross currents and so on. 

Karin: What was your sailboat?

Mark: It was a 1964 Piver Loadstar trimaran. It was a cool-looking boat with three hulls and two masts, a 35-foot boat that was 20 feet wide. It was a wooden boat with a fiberglass skin, which is a terrible combination. It was designed to be built from plans by a home builder, but the trick was if anything happened in that fiberglass skin—and over 50 years things happen—water gets underneath and it gets trapped by the fiberglass. So what looks like a little blemish or whatever, you start opening it up and there’s all this wood rot underneath, so you had to be a carpenter and an epoxy expert in order to work on it. It was a really cool boat, but eventually it became a real burden because it just needed so much work. 

Mark and his trimaran sailboat

Karin: Could you sail all that by yourself? That sounds like a lot of boat. 

Mark: I didn’t. You could, and in fact I nearly sailed by myself because I would often take people out who didn’t really know what they were doing at all, so they weren’t much of a help. But at least I could just say, “Hold the wheel, go that direction,” while I mess with the sails or do whatever. But, yeah, the original owner who built this boat sailed it to Fiji and back. You can set these boats up to be sailed solo. Mine was not really set up for solo sailing, but it was fun. 

Karin: And you took it out on San Francisco Bay? 

Mark: Yeah, all over the bay, we would go outside the Golden Gate once in a while. 

Karin: That’s brave, that’s a pretty wild and woolly world out there. I got to go out in a catamaran in the bay a few years ago and that was really fun. We went out from Emeryville up to the bridge and just a little past the bridge into the ocean and back. 

Mark: Yeah, that was a common trip. In the SF Bay, I’d like to go up around Angel Island, go through Raccoon Strait, come down the other side and come back around. That was one of my favorites. Sometimes I’d go to the South Bay and come up along the waterfront in San Francisco, which was also fun. 

Karin: And then the car racing, when did you get into that? How’d you get into it and how often do you do it?

Mark: That was maybe seven years ago. It was something I’d been talking about for a while. I’ve been driving a Miata, a fun little car. I was thinking about racing it but didn’t have anyone to do it with. Then finally Chris Smith bought a Ford Focus ST with a with a turbo on a little hot hatchback and I said to him, “We should really go autocross,” and he was like, “Yeah, let’s do it,” so we just started poking around online.

Autocross event at Crows Landing (Mark and his Mazda MX-5)

Karin: What’s the definition of autocross? 

Mark: Autocross is a time trial event with cones defining the course, so we take over an airport or something. The course is different every time and it’ll include things like slaloms and offsets and whatnot, and there are penalties for hitting cones. So it’s not wheel-to-wheel racing, you’re not trading paint with other cars and having accidents. There are people with real race cars that are doing this, they show up on a trailer and the whole thing, but most of it is people using the same cars they also drive on the street. You probably have seen my car up on Grizzly Peak with all the stickers on it and everything. 

Karin: Oh, I’ve never seen your car with stickers. I haven’t been up there much lately because of the pandemic, and also I park in the lot.

Mark: People recognize the car because it’s a bright red Miata with a bunch of racing stickers on it. It’s often people I don’t even know. I just bump into them at an event or something, they’re like, “I know this car, I’ve seen this up on Grizzly Peak.” 

Karin: Right, so the autocross?

Mark: So it’s a timed thing, drivers go one at a time. Then sometimes there will be more than one car on the course at a time, but there’s like 25 seconds between vehicles. It’s all volunteer. It’s a club, so you race or you work the course, and there’ll be people in different stations and if somebody hits a cone, then you have to run over and set the cone back up in the right spot. There’ll be a chalk box to put it in and you need to get out of the way again before the next car comes. There’ll be somebody there with the radio to call in the cones and a flag to halt the racers if there’s any sort of danger. The clock has timing lights at the beginning and end, with accuracy down to the thousands of a second.

Karin: Is someone pronounced winner of the day or session or whatever?  

Mark: Yeah, at the time they’ll be announcing it and it’ll be sort of unofficial until they have a chance to check the integrity of all the timing afterwards and make sure it’s right. Occasionally something will get messed up in the in the software and a time will go in that’s not correct or it’ll get mixed up somehow and they’ll go back and correct it and then post the final results. We have a little trailer where there’s someone doing timing and someone doing corrections and someone doing announcing. There are safety stewards that certify that the course is safe and there’s someone that’s in charge of grid making sure the cars are safe to run.

Karin: There’s no pit crew, though?

Mark: There’s no crew that runs out to fix your car but there are certainly people who bring their whole family and work on it together. There’s usually not a lot of time between runs so there’s a limit to how much you can change in between runs. You’ll get four or five runs in a given day and the best time is what sticks. While you’re in grid waiting for your next run, you can make changes to your car, but there isn’t very much time to do it. 

 Karin: I see, and then does the club have a website where they post the results and stats online? 

Mark: There’s a little magazine that comes out once a month because we’re part of the SCCA, the Sports Car Club of America. We’re a local chapter but they’re nationwide so there are national championships, as well. Our club has a couple hundred people in it. Nationwide, I think they have a cap of 1300 people for the national championship. 

Karin: Have you been to one of those national championships?

Mark: I haven’t yet. I was getting close. I was thinking I was going to do it in 2020 and then the pandemic hit, so I have not done Nationals. There’s a traveling tour, as well, where they do events leading up to it and that’s what gets you qualified for the national championships. So we do one every year locally at Crow’s Landing. There’s one in southern California, there’s one up in Washington state. Those are kind of the west coast events, and then there’s more in the middle of the country and on the east coast. I’ve done the local national tour events but I haven’t been to the actual national championships yet. That is on my bucket list. 

Karin:  Anything else you want to add right now about your spare time activities? 

Mark: I probably shouldn’t admit that for exercise I do parkour. 

Karin: I’m so fascinated by Parkour videos online, where do you do it? 

Mark: There’s a club down in Emeryville, they’ve got padded surfaces and all these big blocks and things that we can move around and velcro together to make structures and whatnot. It’s not crazy, I’m not jumping off roofs.

Karin: I was gonna say, when I see videos, I always end up thinking, wow, these people act like there’s no gravity.

Mark: Right, so I learned how to do that but I don’t actually jump off of roofs and do back flips off of walls. [SSL Systems Engineer] Ellen [Taylor] already worries, she’s like “You can’t go to a race or do Parkour the two weeks before we’re gonna launch a mission.” But it’s kind of the equivalent of doing rock climbing in a gym rather than doing it outside on actual hard rocks. 

Karin: Yeah, I see. Do you do back flips off of the structures? 

Mark: Yes, but back flips with padded surfaces.

Karin: Have you ever gotten hurt?

Mark: Not bad enough to keep me from doing it. I think my body won’t take it too long. I’ve been doing it for a number of years now. The club shut down during the pandemic and it’s like, “How long am I going to be able to keep doing this?” I’m not really sure. I’m not even sure when I go back again for the first time what it’s going to be like. I do wish I had discovered it when I was younger. As a kid, the closest thing was probably an obstacle course. 

Karin: I’m gonna google that place in Emeryville, you said it’s called the Athletic Playground? what a great name. I think I’ve heard of this place, do they have trapeze and hanging silks and do acrobatics?

Mark: They have silks that they do static trapeze on, they do acrobatics and acro-yoga, all that that stuff. 

Karin: What’s a static trapeze?

Mark: It doesn’t swing like the trapeze you see in the circus. It does swing a little bit but it’s not like the ones where they swing together and there’s two of them and they transfer back and forth. There’s only one of them, they’re not transferring to anything so they call it static trapeze. They’re not doing huge swinging back and forth, they’re just doing tricks on the one.

Karin: So they’re not letting go of one and grabbing on to the next one?

Mark: Yeah, and I’m not saying they wouldn’t teach that sort of thing but this facility is not really big enough. There are circus schools,  I think in San Francisco, maybe somewhere else too, in San Jose, maybe, that actually teach some of the things that require a bigger facility.  

Karin: Okay, thanks so much, Mark. This was an interesting interview and I appreciate you making the time.