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Tap into the experiences of NASA’s technical workforce as they develop missions to explore distant worlds—from the Moon to Mars, from Titan to Psyche. Learn how they advance technology to make aviation on Earth faster, quieter and more fuel efficient. Each biweekly episode celebrates program and project managers, engineers, scientists and thought leaders working on multiple fronts to advance aeronautics and space exploration in a bold new era of discovery. New episodes are released bi-weekly on Wednesdays. 

Kathleen McIntyre, PACE Deputy Project Manager, discusses NASA’s Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem mission.

The PACE mission represents a leap forward in observing ocean color and will provide an unprecedented view of the ocean. Scheduled to launch in 2022, PACE would extend NASA’s 20-plus year record of satellite observations of global ocean biology, aerosols and clouds. McIntyre discusses the mission and her perspective as deputy project manager.

In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:

  • The significance of the science PACE can produce
  • Innovative approaches to keeping the mission within budget
  • Skills and best practices of a deputy project manager


Related Resources

Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission

PACE animation

Goddard Space Flight Center

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Kathleen Hursen McIntyre Credit: NASA

Kathleen Hursen McIntyre
Credit: NASA

Kathleen Hursen McIntyre is the Deputy Project Manager for NASA’s Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission. McIntyre previously served as the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R Series (GOES-R) Deputy Project Manager. Other positions she’s held during her NASA career include Chairman of the Standing Review Board for the Langley Research Center Radiation Budget Instrument; Observatory Manager for the successful launch of the GOES-N, -O and -P missions; COMET Mission Launch Operations Manager for Mercury Astronaut Deke Slayton; and Integration and Test Manager and Mission Operations Manager supporting Goddard Space Flight Center’s space shuttle payloads. McIntyre earned a bachelor’s in earth sciences from Pennsylvania State University and a bachelor’s in mining engineering from the University of Pittsburgh.


Kathleen McIntyre: The interaction and understanding ocean color, understanding aerosols and clouds and how they interact is something that hasn’t been done before on one mission.

That multidimensional look from space is really going to make a difference in the future of making new discoveries in science that are really going to help us better understand what we are doing to our oceans, and what’s in our oceans, and how important it is to all of us, being that it’s the base of our food chain with the phytoplankton, and it helps control the environment.

For me, it really hits home to really what the importance of this PACE mission is. It’s really for life.

Deana Nunley (Host): You’re listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps – a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast featuring interviews and stories, tapping into project experiences in order to unravel lessons learned, identify best practices and discover novel ideas.

I’m Deana Nunley.

The ocean is a critical part of the world’s economy. 40 percent of the world’s population lives within 62 miles of a coastline, with fisheries and aquaculture supporting approximately 12 percent of the world’s livelihoods. In the U.S. there are nearly three million jobs related to the ocean economy, contributing over 282 billion dollars to the U.S. Gross Domestic Product.

Our guest today is Kathleen McIntyre, the Deputy Project Manager on NASA’s PACE mission – a mission to improve understanding of the ocean and the atmosphere.

Kathleen, thank you for joining us on the podcast today.

McIntyre: I’m very happy to be here. Thank you for selecting me to do this.

Host: Absolutely. Could you give us an overview of the PACE mission?

McIntyre: PACE stands for Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem, and every one of those words indicate what the mission is about. So, PACE is an Earth science mission. As with all Earth science missions in my experience, it all comes down to the science, the science in this case that PACE can produce and what it can mean for all of us. So, the science that PACE will be producing is going to be amazing, because the breadth of all the complementary measurements that will be made to study how the ocean and atmosphere interact together will be a first-time occasion.

The mission itself is being built at Goddard. We are building the Ocean Color Instrument, which is our primary instrument in the spacecraft. So, the entire mission complement is OCI, which stands for Ocean Color Instrument. It’s a hyperspectral scanner and two polarimeter instruments, which are very small. They’re about 10 kilograms each. The three instruments go on the spacecraft Earth-pointing platform, which we’re building here at Goddard.

And there’s a ground system. The ground system, or the ground segment, includes a mission operations center, a flight operations team and all the ground stations that are around the world that we use to downlink our data and uplink commands.

There’s also, a science data segment. It actually is a Headquarters responsibility. The science data segment is one that actually allows products to be built from the science data, and provide to all the scientists in the world to study what it is that PACE that will be able to produce for this country and to the world.

The overall orbit of PACE is designed for two-day coverage. So, over a two-day period of time, the entire globe will be covered. It’s a 676.5 kilometer altitude. It is a sun-synchronous orbit at a 98-degree inclination.

Our launch readiness is a short time away. November 2022 is our readiness, So, it’s only a few years from now. So, we have a heck of a lot of work to do between now and then.

Our mission is planned for three years on orbit. Then we’ve also added 10 years of fuel, in case the design is such that we can make it for another seven years. But the design for the mission is only three years. So, we’re going to collect data over that period and, hopefully, it’ll go on for many years after the first three years, like many of the NASA satellites have, very long life.

Host: As NASA missions go, why is the PACE mission important?

McIntyre: Well, I can tell you a little story there. When I first came to the project, it’s been more than four years ago now, I had thought that the world’s trees, the plants, the forests, the jungles and all that contribute to the air that we breathe. I thought that’s where we got our air.

What I found out when I came to PACE is that there’s phytoplankton in the ocean, which are microorganisms in the ocean, and they operate just like land plants, the trees and the meadows and things like that. So, they have photosynthesis and they give off oxygen.

So, one of the things that I learned is that for every two breaths that we take, one comes from the oxygen produced by the phytoplankton. So, we need that phytoplankton. I mean that’s just so amazing to me. I was left in awe and have repeated this message so many times to my family, to friends and people that I meet. For me, it really hits home to really what the importance of this PACE mission is. It’s really for life.

Host: So, when you make presentations or you speak with people about the PACE mission, what’s their reaction to the mission and what you just talked about?

McIntyre: Well, it’s definitely excitement. A big part is because I’m very excited about it, and when I speak about it, it comes with quite a bit of passion for what this mission is going to mean to the world. So, the thing that surprises people I think, first of all, is that NASA is studying things that they don’t think about in their everyday lives.

Generally, the surprise, to some degree, is that NASA is doing Earth science. We’re not just going to Mars and to the Moon and studying the universe, which are all great things. We actually are studying, looking back.

So, when I go to a class, for example, to speak to students about NASA, I bring this really cool poster. It shows an image of nighttime on Earth, So, what it looks like at night. It’s just amazingly similar to a star field. It has all the different lights, little lights all over the world, where we actually have our lights on across the world. So, it really looks like a star field, and it also is us looking back at ourselves. So, it’s us researching us as well as looking out into space.

So, I get a lot of people with their eyes actually get wider in surprise and amazement. So, all those kinds of experiences for me are so worthwhile for all the hard work that we put in.

Host: So, let’s talk about your role as the deputy project manager. How did you prepare for this role?

McIntyre: For me working at NASA – I’ve been here 35 years – NASA has provided me so many opportunities, beyond anything I could have imagined or dreamt. I used to watch Star Trek way back in the ’60s, and that kind of helped me to really gear where I was going to go in my career. I did pick NASA and I’m privileged to work here.

We work with, on PACE, a very diverse group of people. We’re all very team-oriented. The only way to make a mission like PACE happen is to be a team. We do have the best people in the world, very dedicated, hard-working, experienced, smart engineers and scientists. So, I’m very lucky to be here.

For me, my preparation, essentially for the role of deputy project manager, was in the kinds of roles that I selected at NASA. In doing that, I knew that one day I wanted to be a project manager. So, I said, “What do I need to do to be a project manager?” So, all of the positions that I have held previously have all been on various projects, and really, to have a better idea of all the different roles people play on the team to make a mission come together successfully.

So, I’ve worked as a system engineer, integration test manager for space shuttle payloads. I’ve installed an operations control center. I did launch site operations for commercial launch. I built a launch pad, which was very interesting. I’ve also been an instrument manager, an instrument systems manager, observatory manager, and now I’m a deputy project manager. So, all of those positions have led to a better understanding of the type of work that we do, and how all of those pieces need to come together to make a mission successful.

So, the preparation is basically my career choices along the way, and of course all the training that’s required in all of those positions. That’s where I am right now as a deputy project manager.

Host: Are there skills or best practices that you’ve learned or experienced as a deputy project manager that you would want to share with people in similar roles?

McIntyre: There’s a few I think. In thinking about it, I feel that it’s so very important to work in partnership with the project manager. For me, it’s really to communicate not only the mission goals and objectives to the whole team and to the outside world, outside of NASA, but to communicate the project manager’s vision for how to implement that project, and then to operate accordingly.

So, I think the mission and goals and objectives bring us all together, but it’s the project manager and assuring that there’s a leadership there that I reflect as deputy project manager, to ensure the mission gets to be successful. So, it’s really critical to understand all the different pieces of a project, being that it’s very fast-paced activities that we have here. There’s a lot of things going on at the same time, a lot of different developments at the same time. We need to keep track of all of that.

So, the project manager can’t be everywhere. So, in partnering with the project manager, we need to divide and conquer management responsibilities. So, we actually separately go to the different meetings, go to the different reviews, and then come back and speak about them to each other and communicate what we’ve learned, So, that there’s always two managers available and always ready to respond to any concerns. So, I think that for people in similar type roles, it’s important to really get along well with people, and especially whoever your supervisor is and other people on the team.

So, part of the overall management, in my mind, for the project that really helps with the success is managing risks. Managing risks is a really important tool that the whole team needs to engage in. So, everybody needs to be thinking about what are the risks out there that might get in the way to us progressing, either technically or keeping the schedule moving or the cost to the project.

So, we have to identify what the risks are, based on our experience, what we’ve seen happen before, say, “Hey, there’s a risk here. X might happen. So, we should be prepared to avoid that.” So, then we pull together a number of mitigation steps, and we go forward with those step-by-step to make sure none of those risks become issues. So, I think it’s important in this kind of role that risks are managed very well.

Overall, most importantly, is communicate, communicate, communicate. One of the biggest parts of being a project manager and a deputy project manager is to communicate what’s going on across the whole project, up and down the line, outside of the project to the public. Keep everybody informed. That way, no one is surprised. Everybody feels part of the team, as part of a teaming activity as well. So, I think those are very, very important types of best practices that people should use.

I guess lastly, I would say be friendly with everyone. I found that when you’re friendly with everyone, people feel that they can be understood and there’s no concern that there’s difficulties between people – will not stop the work progressing because we’re all there for the same reason, the same thing, the success of the mission. So, I would say make friends, not enemies.

That’s really been my philosophy in everything that I’ve always done, because everybody works so much better together when they’re on friendly terms. So, I would say that is really important that we understand that together we’ll succeed or we’ll fail. So, it’s a together thing. I think that’s probably one of the more important things.

Some of the people that have been my colleagues, they actually have become my best friends. So, it’s really a joy to come to work when you know that you are with friends, and together we’re marching towards a launch and a success.

Host: That’s really helpful insight. Thank you so much, Kathleen, for sharing that. From a project management standpoint, is PACE like other projects you’ve supported?

McIntyre: PACE is like other projects, but there’s a significant difference from other projects in that we have a hard-line budget that has us designing and building the mission under that cap. So, we have a mission cap for the cost, and we need to produce the most science capability for the money.

Other projects are given the money and say, “Here’s the requirements. Go build the mission.” Quite a bit of times there’s less cost control, simply because the requirements can be very difficult sometimes to meet, and sometimes the technology is not adept yet at being able to meet some of those requirements. So, the engineers and scientists keep trying and trying and trying to meet those requirements and sometimes it just can’t be, and as that time is going on, schedules are moving to the right and money is being expended.

But for PACE, we have to define that science capability with the money that we’re given. So, we do have some control, more control than a regular project. So, we are defining the baseline capability while other projects, like I said, are working towards the requirements that they’ve been given.

So, there are threshold requirements that we’ve been provided, which is the minimum that we should meet, but there also is the opportunity to build above what those thresholds are based on the amount of money we have. So, we actually have done quite a few trades to decide how do we get the most science for the money.

One of those trades, for example, was the polarimeters. We wanted the polarimeter on the mission. It was requested, not required. That would be a great option from NASA Headquarters. So, our initial thought was, well, let’s go out there and see what the rest of the world can give us. Can they give us a big polarimeter?

So, what we found out was, when we got in all of the proposals, we knew we couldn’t afford it based on the money that we had remaining after we had defined what the spacecraft looks like, what the Ocean Color Instrument looks like, what the ground system looks like. So, we just don’t have enough money for that, but let’s see what we can do.

So, we actually started looking out and said, “Let’s look outside the box. Let’s look outside what’s possible.” So, what we found was possible is that there were some polarimeters that were being developed that were very small, CubeSat-sized instruments that are about 10 kilograms each.

We actually have now on our mission two polarimeters that are actually contributed. Contributed means like for the international polarimeter with SRON and Airbus, which is from the Netherlands. They are contributing that instrument to us. So, we’re going to get all this great science from the polarimeter for not much money. In fact, they’re giving it to us, and the only money that we’re expending is to integrate and prepare that instrument to be integrated onto the spacecraft.

The other polarimeter that we have on the mission is from UMBC. That’s the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. It’s called HARP2, and they also are building a polarimeter for us. So, we have two polarimeters that we can afford to have, that will provide some great science capability that’s going to provide data from the aerosols and clouds that will be complementary to the Ocean Color Instrument.

So, the interaction and understanding ocean color, understanding aerosols and clouds and how they interact is something that hasn’t been done before on one mission. So, the mission of PACE is very different than what we’ve flown before. So, this is really the big difference between the PACE mission and other types of projects that are typically performed here.

Host: What are some of the challenges associated with the PACE mission?

McIntyre: I think there are actually a few, but one of the first that comes to mind is that the PACE mission was formulated with a design-to-cost process. A design-to-cost process is a way to control costs. So, it’s a new paradigm for us that helps us keep in alignment what the capabilities are, the requirements of the mission, for the science and the cost.

So, as I talked before, there are many trades that we did to make sure that we stayed within our cost cap. Being in that cost cap also means that we need to have a very high joint confidence level for the mission, which is another risk tool to help us to be able to understand what the risks and uncertainties are with implementing this project. So, we have to not only stay within the cost cap, but also have sufficient reserves to be confident that we can make the mission implementation. So, that’s the first big challenge.

We’ve been through most of that already at this point, through Phase B. All of the trades, the primary trades have been completed. So, we have designed the mission and now it’s going into critical design, which identifies all the details. So, that was a very big challenge, and it continues to be a challenge in the sense that we still need to make some of the hard choices and decisions as we begin to integrate and test the different aspects of the mission, to make sure that we can get to a successful capability. So, there may be some hard decisions in the future for us as well.

Our biggest technical challenge is with the OCI – the Ocean Color Instrument, which is different than other instruments that are actually doing a type of work of ocean color that OCI does. OCI covers the full spectrum of wavelengths. These other instruments, which are very helpful and useful, are actually looking at unique bandwidths. And, so, OCI is capturing the full spectrum from the ultraviolet, visible, hyperspectral wavelengths to the shortwave infrared. And all of that is to differentiate the different species of phytoplankton. And to do that, the instrument design needs to complete a number of complex functions like a rotating telescope, which has to be matched to the orbit along with the timing of the data from the detectors.

The other challenge I think has been with the polarimeters. We’ve got two great capabilities, HARP2, and SPEXone from the Dutch. Those instruments are considered Class D. Class D, another form of that is called do no harm. What that means is that these instruments that will be implemented and integrated onto the spacecraft will not do any harm to the primary mission, which is the Ocean Color Instrument.

So, to ensure that there’s no causes of concern that would happen because the polarimeters were there on the mission, we have to look at the possible failure modes that those polarimeters could have happen, and make sure that any of those things that could happen would not impact the mission. So, we have to make sure there’s a safe design.

The reason that’s a challenge is primarily because at Goddard we are really typically dedicated fully to mission success. So, that means end-to-end, from the beginning to the end we are there for mission success, that the instrument will fully operate as it was intended to be.

However, with the do-no-harm polarimeters, we at Goddard are not responsible for that instrument working. We are there to influence it, to make sure that it works, but we are not there to do the work of ensuring that they operate. So, it’s really hard to step back from that as engineers.

Host: Because you really want to be hands-on.

McIntyre: Absolutely. We really want to be hands-on and make it successful. We know what the steps are to make an instrument successful, and it’s hard not to do all of those things, because doing all those things costs money. These are contributed instruments and we’re not spending a lot of money to make them work, though I believe that they will. I believe in the teams that are contributing them, and I believe that they will operate as intended.

Host: So, with launch planned approximately three years from now, where is your focus at the moment?

McIntyre: Well, let me just tell you where we are at this point in time. We have just completed the mission preliminary design review, which is a major key review. We successfully passed that review, which means the independent standing review board that reviewed us said that we are okay to go to the critical design review. We’re able to continue to go and design the details.

So, our next key milestone is in the confirmation review at NASA Headquarters later this year. So, our focus now is really in the final design details for the mission, leading up to the mission CDR. The polarimeters, by the way, are way ahead of all of us, which is really great. They have already completed their critical design reviews. So, they are successfully now building their instruments.

The Ocean Color Instruments is now in a development of the engineering demonstration unit and the engineering test unit. So, they made some very successful progress there. These engineers are there to do our prototype, proof of concept, and make sure that the final product will resemble what we are intending it to do, that we have confidence in that design, and those things are intended to be prepared and ready for the mission CDR.

The spacecraft is going to be building and testing all their components. The components are all coming in for the spacecraft. So, we’re getting all those built and shipped to Goddard to be integrated.

The ground is working on the critical design for the ground stations and mission operations center and So, forth. And we’re getting all of our facility ies prepared and ready to integrate all these parts that will be coming into Goddard.

So, this is a heck of a lot of work to do in three years. So, our focus now is on the detail design.

Host: Well, we wish you the very best with all of these details that are coming together as you prepare for the mission. And thank you so much for taking time to talk with us today.

McIntyre: You’re quite welcome. I really enjoy sharing what PACE is all about and how important it is to the nation.

Host: Is there anything that we didn’t talk about that you’d want to mention to us before we go?

McIntyre: I do want to try to express how important the integration of these three types of science that we’re doing, studying the phytoplankton, studying the aerosols and  clouds and how those all interact, and that multidimensional look from space is really going to make a difference in the future of making new discoveries in science that are really going to help us better understand what we are doing to our oceans, and what’s in our oceans, and how important it is to all of us, being that it’s the base of our food chain with the phytoplankton, and it helps control the environment and it produces oxygen.

So, I’m hoping that people get interested in hearing about PACE and support us, and know that the PACE mission is really for all of us, and its success will lead to some really fascinating discoveries in science.

Host: Links to topics discussed during our conversation are available at, along with Kathleen’s bio and a show transcript.

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Thanks for listening.