NASA Space Communications and Navigation Chief Engineer Neil Mallik discusses how SCaN keeps the universe connected.
SCaN serves as the Program Office for all NASA space communications activities, managing and directing the ground-based facilities and services provided by the Deep Space Network, Near Earth Network and Space Network and its space segment, the Tracking and Data Relay Satellites. From monitoring Earth’s weather to uncovering untold mysteries of the Moon, more than 100 NASA and non-NASA missions currently rely on SCaN to enable their success.
In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:
- SCaN involvement in every NASA space mission
- How SCaN supports Artemis missions
- Future space communications
Neil Mallik is Chief Engineer of NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN). Mallik is responsible for technical decision-making and authority on key issues for all spacecraft missions for the agency. He leads design, development, integration and operations for all communication and navigation systems across NASA. Mallik previously served as Network Director for Human Spaceflight and directed all network assets, developed integrated turnkey engineering solutions, and managed operations teams for the International Space Station (ISS), Commercial Cargo and Crewed missions, Japanese and Russian Visiting Vehicles, Space Launch System, Orion spacecraft, Lunar Gateway and the upcoming Human Lunar Lander. Prior to joining NASA, he served as communications systems lead engineer for Orbital-ATK where he led and executed the design, integration and test campaigns for Cygnus spacecraft communications systems supporting resupply missions to ISS and performed flight operations. He earned a bachelor’s in electrical and electronic engineering from the University of London and a master’s in electrical engineering from Stanford University. He is currently an MBA candidate at the Wharton School of Business.
Neil Mallik: If you had to go and look at all the different things that we do with launch vehicles, with how sophisticated our spacecraft are, I’m not sure there’s really any value in them if you can’t really talk to them or communicate with them.
SCaN is, essentially, the communications architecture. It’s the electronic highway that connects all of these different missions to mission control rooms.
Deana Nunley (Host): Welcome back to Small Steps, Giant Leaps, a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast where we tap into project experiences to share best practices, lessons learned and novel ideas.
I’m Deana Nunley.
NASA missions require highly reliable communications — sometimes over long periods of time and great distances. Space Communications and Navigation Chief Engineer Neil Mallik joins us now to talk about space communications.
Neil, thank you for being on the podcast.
Mallik: Oh, thank you for having me.
Host: What are you working on?
Mallik: So, I am in the Office of Chief Engineer, supporting the Space Communications and Navigation Program at NASA Headquarters. Basically, I’m there as the technical authority, looking over what it is that SCaN, that’s Space Communications and Navigation Program, looks into and making sure that we are dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s, and making sure we’re doing the right things for the missions we support.
Host: How did you come to a career in space communications?
Mallik: OK, yeah. So, this is going to be an interesting one. I think, if I start from the very beginning, when I was a kid I never thought I was going to be an engineer. I always dreamed about being an astronaut when I was a kid, and I abandoned that at the age of nine, like most kids do. Basically, I just stayed on the periphery. I really like cars and I became a car mechanic in London, at a car company. I basically stayed as a car mechanic for a while, had no real aspirations of being an engineer of any kind until I was really pushed into it by my parents, you know how that goes.
I basically took classes in electrical engineering, and I really figured out that electrical engineering was very, very broad. So, I started looking at what specific fields I could actually get into and communications was an interesting one. Part of my project was designing what they call a semi-smart antenna for wi-fi. So, I’m going to really date myself when I say this, but at the time, PDAs — I don’t even remember what PDAs even stands for anymore. Personal digital assistant, I guess?
Host: Like the Palm Pilots?
Mallik: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly, yeah. I could never get one and then, in a way, I still kind of want one. Those things used to talk directly to the Internet wirelessly, so I helped design a semi-smart antenna that actually focused energy towards those at airports. I did that for a while.
And then once I completed that, I decided to move to the United States. At that point, I got another degree, I got a master’s degree, this time on the West coast. I always had aspirations just moving into the cell phone industry. That was really what I believed the peak of my career really would be. Somehow, I fell into space. There was an exciting young company at the time, or relatively young company at the time, Orbital Sciences, that basically was very exciting to me, that worked in the space business. So, I thought, ‘I’ll go there.’ So, I stayed there for 10 years, and I worked on a variety of missions, commercial, NASA missions, and everything from low-Earth orbit all the way out to Deep Space. So, I did that, for about 10 years.
After that, I transitioned to NASA, and I became the Deputy Network Director for Human Spaceflight. And there, I was responsible for communications and tracking for all human spaceflight missions that NASA did, as well as our collaboratives with the Japanese for their cargo vehicle. After a couple of years, I became the Network Director, and I did that for a couple of years before I transitioned into this Chief Engineer position that I now have at Headquarters.
So, if you had to summarize everything, I basically went from being a car mechanic doing oil filter changes and replacing wiper blades and installing audio systems to being chief engineer at NASA, in about 15 years. As a result, it’s really an interesting American dream type story, in a way. It’s being able to go and do something that I don’t think I would have ever dreamed of.
Host: That is just so fascinating, how different it must have felt to go from being a car mechanic to being a chief engineer on a space communications program for NASA.
Mallik: Yeah, absolutely. It’s been a whirlwind. In a way, sometimes I wake up in the morning and I think to myself, ‘Is this really happening? When do I get out of this dream?’
Host: Don’t pinch me. (laughter)
Mallik: Yeah. No, exactly. It’s definitely been living the dream in a tornado that has been my career, it’s been great.
Host: That sounds like so much fun. How important is SCaN?
Mallik: So, SCaN is extremely important, in terms of how these missions work. If you had to go and look at all the different things that we do with launch vehicles, with how sophisticated our spacecraft are, I’m not sure there’s really any value in them if you can’t really talk to them or communicate with them.
The analogy that I would use, just for the overall audience is take a look at your cell phone. Take a look at everything that you have, everything that we have that’s connected to the Internet. But, cell phones are really probably the most appropriate examples here. Everyone now has the latest iPhone, everyone has the latest Android. If there is no network to connect to, what does that cell phone do for you? It’s basically a nice metallic, shiny object that has a nice fancy screen, and colors and stuff. But if you can communicate with it, it’s very, very difficult.
As a result, that’s the analogy that you want to use here. That infrastructure that the cell phone talks to is what SCaN does for all our space missions, and all our launch vehicles and all the other aerospace activities that we currently have. So, yeah, SCaN is absolutely important. It’s that infrastructure, it’s that backbone that all the NASA missions, and all our collaborative agencies use as well.
Host: When you describe it as the backbone, what exactly does SCaN do?
Mallik: Yeah. SCaN is, essentially, the communications architecture. It’s the electronic highway that connects all of these different missions to mission control rooms. SCaN itself is basically a mission support function that goes and takes all the missions, takes how they communicate, and we are able to go and build ground stations, antennas and the overall infrastructure that allows you to connect back to mission control. So as a result, what we’re trying to do at least on the SCaN side of things is making sure that we have a robust enough technology that keeps up with technology, that is able to go and give us the higher data rates, the things that I think a lot of the users are coming to expect that they now treat as creature comforts. For example, on the International Space Station, the crew now has high-def video capabilities, and we see that here on the ground.
So, what we’re doing on the SCaN side is making sure that we are enabling those technologies and those capabilities for all of our missions. And, making sure that we enable the functions and the science that they’re pulling down, as well as being able to go and provide astronauts in future crews to being able to do anything that they would normally otherwise do here on Earth.
Host: So, SCaN touches every single space mission?
Mallik: Absolutely. There is a part of SCaN in almost everything. And again, just using the cell phone analogy, there is a part of a network on everyone’s cell phone, it’s those cell bars. As a result, it’s the same thing with these missions. These missions connect directly to Earth through our SCaN assets. So as a result, there’s always a touchpoint that each of these missions have. And then again, that’s what makes SCaN so exciting. It’s because it’s involved in everything that the agency does.
Host: Neil, from a technical standpoint, is network communications more challenging with Deep Space missions than, say, low-Earth orbit?
Mallik: I wouldn’t say it’s more challenging, I would say it’s more different. Since I happen to be on the analogy train, let me go and give you another analogy. For example, if you had one of those — you see how everyone now has those mopeds, those scooters that you ride around? It’s almost like saying, ‘Which is more difficult? Is it more difficult navigating through a city with a lot of traffic, on that little scooter, and making sure you’re dodging all that traffic? Or is it easier to go 150 miles on that one scooter?’ In a way, it’s that they’re both challenging in their own environments.
So, for us on Deep Space missions, yeah, we have more than 40 Deep Space missions out there. They all have their challenges. One of the things that we have to make sure is we’re pointing in the right place, we have the necessary Doppler compensation, we do the correct navigation techniques to ensure we can communicate effectively and we’re always available whenever that mission needs us. You can see that we’ve enabled those, for those high-profile missions, going back to Voyager all the way up to now, and looking at what it is that these missions are doing. We just saw some pictures from Juno of the moon. In a way, you can see how Jupiter’s moon looks like, and again SCaN enabled that. Yeah, it’s challenging doing stuff like that.
And then, in low Earth orbit, it’s a different set of challenges. There are so many more missions that are being supported by SCaN. For us, it’s really more making sure that we’re able to go and communicate effectively, with every single one of those missions as best as possible, knowing that they all want to be able to communicate with the ground, or we want to communicate with it, almost all the time. So as a result, there are different challenges. So as a result, I would say it’s always challenging. And again, that’s what makes it fun.
Host: How does SCaN support Artemis missions?
Mallik: Yeah. Artemis is going to be an interesting mission because SCaN is so integrated with how that mission is going to be enabled.
The Artemis mission is composed of both the Space Launch System, the rocket, as well as the Orion spacecraft. And again, going back to does SCaN touch every single mission, for that one it absolutely does. We are communicating with that rocket and that spacecraft from the launchpad hours beforehand. And we are going to be using both our Near Space Network assets for when both the launch vehicle, both the rocket and the spacecraft, are in low-Earth orbit, as it goes through its ascent and checkout phase. And as it performs its translunar injection burn and heads out to the Moon, we transition SCaN support services from Near Space Network to the Deep Space Network. So as a result, you’re going to see that we’re basically customizing the assets that we’re using to support that mission.
The same thing with Orion. Once it goes around the Moon and starts to head back to Earth, we go back in reverse. We transition from the Deep Space Network over to the Near Space Network, and we provide the comm support and the navigation support, all the way as it comes back and re-enters back and splashes down.
Yes, SCaN is going to be supporting with multiple assets, both the Tracking Data Relay Satellites, the TDRS. We have our own near-Earth, Near Space Network ground stations, as well as the Deep Space antennas. And tracking that for as long as possible, while being able to go and supporting every other mission out there that still needs our support, too.
Host: What’s the future of SCaN?
Mallik: SCaN’s future is actually very, very bright. Actually, that’s one of the reasons why I really wanted to take this Chief Engineer position. SCaN is trying to get ahead of where we really need to be, so there’s a lot of things that SCaN is trying to endeavor and are succeeding in.
The first thing I think everyone’s started talking about, and that’s optical communications. For everyone, that’s essentially lasers, communicating with lasers. With that, we have a couple of missions coming up that SCaN is building the infrastructure for now. We have the LCRD mission, the Laser Comm Relay Demonstration mission, that’s going to be coming up shortly. The space station is going to host another payload called Illuma-T. And on Orion, the second Orion mission to the Moon, which will be crewed, there will be an optical package on there, and we’re going to try and attempt another laser communications demonstration from lunar distances.
On top of that, we have another set of things going on here, even just in the near-Earth domain, and that is commercialization of our low-Earth orbit. A lot of our missions are dependent on the use of TDRS and our ground stations, and what we want to be able to do is, essentially, foster a commercialization aspect of how we run the business, at least on the SCaN side. We have seen with cargo resupply missions as well as the Commercial Crew Program that it does work. If we do go and provide some seed money to a company to be able to go and build a capability and have that, sell it back to the government, for the government to basically go and say, ‘OK, we want a commercial industry to go ahead and foster this relationship.’ We can see that we can commercialize communications, too. We’re looking to commercialize the low-Earth orbit, basically see what it takes to go and do Earth relay as well as ground station communications for all our low-Earth orbit missions, and maybe extend that out to lunar distances in the future.
We also have a lot of cognitive radio, software defined radio activities that are going on, things that are basically trying to help make things smarter, increasing data rates, looking at how noise in the RF environment works and being able to compensate for that autonomously, and being able to do that both on the ground side and from space. We talked about lunar communications and relay, and seeing what that really looks like. Because we’re going to fly things like Orion, and lunar rovers, and a lot of science missions, we are looking at building a lunar common relay navigation infrastructure, similar to what we have around the Earth. That’s another big focus item.
And then, I think in the — I would say near to mid-future — is the real exciting one, and that’s quantum communications. This is where we go and we use the optical framework, but we build quantum, where we can start going and moving photons, and using that to go and move communications packets around. That will be the one where it gets really exciting.
Again, the future is fairly bright for SCaN. It’s never a boring day when it comes to the things that we do on a daily basis, as well as looking and keeping one eye on the future for the things that we’re doing.
Host: When you reflect on your experiences since joining NASA, what are some of the lessons you’ve learned that other engineers might appreciate?
Mallik: Oh, absolutely. And again, I’m not going to ever state that my career has ever been the perfect model for how to go and do things, it’s just one way. But I will tell you one thing that I’ve learned, that’s absolutely key. I think there’s a couple of sub-lessons that come out of it, if ‘sub-lessons’ is even a word.
But one of the things that I’ve always done is maintaining that curiosity to always wanting to learn. One of the things that I’ve learned and appreciated as an engineer, and I think that I’m bringing into this position is learn and see everything from beginning to end of a project life cycle. If engineers out there want to be able to go and have an impact in a major functional role, or in a management role, being able to learn the engineering. Learning the development, learning the build, the testing, flight operations is absolutely key.
Because what happens is, as you’re working through the different parts of a mission, be it on the spacecraft side, the rocket side, or even on the ground side, you’re going to see how the projects that you’re working on start to morph from what was essentially a design, how it really operates once you’ve actually built it, seeing how test phases occur and see how you work around those. And then, building up a concept of operations around the way your hardware really works. And being able to understand and basically gather those new skills, and making sure that you continue to learn and getting out of that comfort zone.
I think the other skill that I would encourage is making sure that everyone takes everyone’s perspective. You may be the absolute expert in this gizmo that you have just created, but other people’s perspectives may play a role in how you see things being done. So, that’s one of the things that I will say is a big lesson learned for me. When I came in, I thought I knew anything and everything about antennas, and I thought that coming straight into my first job. I remember being schooled on how to go and do things by people outside of the communications arena. Mechanical engineers, thermal engineers, telling me how things are really done and how they impact a lot of the things that I do.
So, in a way, seeing things from beginning to end, being able to go and understand every phase of a project or a program’s life cycle, learning as much as you can from everyone and continuing that learning. It’s something that I actually enjoy, even today. It’s one of the things that makes my job satisfying.
Host: Well, this has been so much fun, getting to hear your story. Thank you so much for sharing that. It’s such an interesting journey that you’ve had getting to NASA, and then since you’ve been with the agency. Thank you so much for joining us today on the podcast. We really do appreciate it.
Mallik: Well, thank you and glad to have been here.
Host: Do you have any closing thoughts?
Mallik: You know, one of the things that I would encourage anyone listening to this podcast, if you’re dreaming about working at NASA, don’t ever think that there is a model that you absolutely have to follow to get into the industry, to be able to go and do great things. Take a look at what I’ve been able to do in the time that I’ve been able to do it. Even though it sounds weird, but if I can do it, I think anyone can do it. I think, again, if you have a dream, you put everything into it, put your mind to it, you can go and do almost anything, because guess what, that’s exactly what I’m doing.
Host: You’ll find Neil’s bio along with links to related resources and a transcript of today’s show at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast.
If there’s a topic you’d like for us to feature in a future episode, please let us know on Twitter at NASA APPEL – that’s APP-el – and use the hashtag Small Steps, Giant Leaps.
As always, thanks for listening.