Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: BlackSky’s Andrew Steen finds a job inside his orbit, protecting satellites ‘blissful’

Andrew Steen says cheers to a career in aerospace. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Steen)

As a boy growing up in New Jersey, Andrew Steen had a range of hobbies and interests. He tried his hand at just about every sport, a dozen instruments, art, poetry, cooking, and everything in between. But he set his sights on loftier pursuits.

Steen was fascinated with space and obsessed over space travel. In high school he was hooked, and decided his goal was to be an aerospace engineer.

“I’m a self-professed class clown and nerd, whose curiosity often leads to getting lost in rabbit holes on YouTube and Wikipedia, reading about physics, math, sociology, and most importantly outer space,” said Steen, our latest Geek of the Week, who is now constellation operations engineer at BlackSky, a geospatial intelligence company with offices in Seattle and Virginia.

PREVIOUSLY: BlackSky wins $50M in financing from Intelsat for Earth-watching constellation

A graduate of Ohio State University with a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, Steen called college some of the best years of his life as he utilized the resources of a large university to explore his passion for space.

He was a founding member of multiple organizations that now have more than 200 students engaging in dozens of projects related to aerospace and public policy. He contributed to projects ranging from the fastest electric car on Earth to the design of a novel way of deploying a dynamic constellation of modular remote-sensing satellites.

“The broad range of projects (most, if not all, somehow related to space technology & policy) has enabled me to think about whatever project or task I’m working on holistically,” Steen said. “I’m excited for the impact I’m going to be able to try and create because of it.”

Since graduation, Steen has lived in Alabama and now in Seattle and when he’s not working, he enjoys exploring Washington’s mountains. He cooks incessantly, is attempting to sample every brewery in King County, enjoys writing code, making visualizations and hanging out with his girlfriend and their dog.

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Andrew Steen:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I am a constellation operations engineer at BlackSky. I work closely with my team to manage a fleet of smallsats in low-Earth orbit. Our constellation operations team is basically responsible for keeping the satellites healthy and happy, and ensuring they are each capturing hundreds of images per day. We participate in driving requirements from the op’s perspective, design review, launch readiness, and post-deployment commissioning on-orbit, after which the satellites are handed over to us.

Our satellite imagery is useful for a myriad of applications. The ability to provide near real-time images of the most populated locations on the globe opens up possibilities not previously available due to legacy imaging satellites being one-off and the size of dump trucks. It’s exciting thinking about all the ways that our customers can use our images and analytic capabilities to solve real-world problems.

In order to ensure healthy and sustainable operations of each satellite, we regularly review health telemetry and system log messages, identify and respond to anomalous behavior, provide input to the flight software team about needed revisions, identify hardware issues and augment the ConOps accordingly, and participate in ground and control software development to help create tools to aid in ensuring the full system is working as expected.

My passion for space motivates me to work hard in collaboration with my coworkers and my industry at large to help contribute to the utilization of space to provide benefits to ourselves, our fellow organisms, and Earth.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? Space technology affects daily life here on Earth more than one might expect. I encourage anyone and everyone to do a quick search to see which technologies, materials, foods, etc. might not exist were they not developed first for use on-orbit. Technologies ranging from LEDs to shelf-stable food packaging to the CMOS sensors in your smartphone camera can partially or totally trace their origins back to NASA and the space community. I doubt most people could drive more than 20 miles to a new place without hearing from three or more GPS satellites orbiting the Earth at about 12,500 miles up, moving at almost 3,900 meters every second.

I think a lot of people see themselves as being small compared to the scale of distances, sizes, and timescales that the universe operates on. People are overwhelmed when I tell them that at the speed of light, it would still take more than four years to reach our nearest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri. I think a lot of people think of these sorts of distances and feel small and insignificant.

I think heavily on the contrary. I feel proud and powerful that we have developed far enough to the point where those sorts of distances represent an operational problem to solve rather than an existential one. We’re beginning to ask questions like, “what is the minimum number of humans we would have to send on a generation ship to Proxima Centauri to maintain a healthy population over dozens of centuries?” instead of “do the planets and stars orbit the Earth?” I’d rather be conquering those sorts of distances and scales than letting them intimidate me.

Also, not everyone working in the space industry is a rocket scientist – even though we all like to think we are.

Where do you find your inspiration? Helping to develop technologies that will either take advantage of resources off-planet and therefore give Earth some relief, or that will help us treat our planet better is my vocation.

There are a lot of people on Earth, and we along with all the trillions of organisms with which we coexist are beginning to give our biosphere some significant growing pains. If we want to exist for another thousand (let alone another hundred) years we need to look outward for resources, space (no pun intended), and knowledge.

Finally, the poetic nature of working with technologies that are operating where only a choice few humans have gone before is exciting to me. It’s humbling and empowering to be able to say, “I tell satellites what to do!”

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? Wi-Fi. For obvious reasons!

(Photo courtesy of Andrew Steen)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? Currently, I’m working in close quarters with my girlfriend and 5-month-old puppy. We’re trying to do our part and stay inside as much as possible until everything blows over. It’s not a bad place to work: the Wi-Fi is really fast, there’s food, my bed is 15 feet away if I get fatigued, and I don’t have to change out of my PJs! The main drawbacks are that I miss having multiple monitors and all my friends at BlackSky. Also, my newest coworker, Theo, keeps barking at birds, peeing on the floor and biting my furniture. I’m going to take it up with HR.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) I have a few …

1. If you’re used to staring at pixels for 8-10 hours a day like I am, try to limit screen time when you’re off the clock. Spend some time reading, catching up with family and friends (not in person!!), finding your passion for cooking, or de-stress with some yoga or stretching. If you work inside without much access to the outdoors, take a walk on your breaks. I try to go outside once an hour for a few minutes to get some fresh air and gain some natural energy.

2. Keep your work-related stress at WORK; don’t bring it home. It’s not fair to introduce your partner or roommates or family to undue stress. Instead, work on providing a comfortable safe space at home to unwind from the issues at work.

3. Your workspace matters. Having a chaotic work environment in terms of clutter, distractions, sound, etc. is not conducive to getting good work done (at least for me). I make sure that my workspace is clean as possible so that the only thing I’m focused on is getting stuff done.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Windows.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Probably going to anger some actual geeks when I say that I’ve never seen Star Trek.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Transporter 100 percent. I’d like to have breakfast in Edinburgh, lunch in Lagos, dinner in Santiago, dessert in Sydney, and sleep it all off in my bed in Seattle.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Question their motives. I would then get over that question and open my phone and invite some amazing contacts I have made in the past few years around the globe to meet me somewhere we can focus for a week and identify a problem we think we can solve, and begin to outline our strategy for solving it. My startup – whatever it is we eventually decide to do – would utilize an open-source collaboration strategy to allow people of all backgrounds and walks of life to engage in the development, implementation, and benefits of the solution that we develop. The general public would be the shareholders and beneficiaries of the solution and would therefore hinge on the collective mind of the global community to be prosperous and beneficial. My mind is already racing about the possibilities!

I once waited in line for … “Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.” Midnight release. 11/11/11. Waited outside for four hours thinking I was going to be the first in a long line at my local GameStop. I was the only one that showed up.

Your role models: My parents: taught me to be passionate and work my *ss off for what I think I deserve.
Carl Sagan: taught me to find beauty and curiosity in everything.
My mentors at THE Ohio State University: taught me how to turn that passion and curiosity into valuable skills.

Greatest game in history Baseball. That was my fallback if this whole engineering thing didn’t pan out.

Best gadget ever: The French press.

First computer: An old Compaq Presario desktop with like 512 MB of RAM.

Current phone: iPhone XS.

Favorite app: NPR One.

Favorite cause: Women in Aerospace.

Most important technology of 2020: 5G.

Most important technology of 2022: CRISPR.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Invite someone outside of your sphere of influence to coffee and learn something new.

Website: BlackSky

Twitter: @lightninmcsteen

LinkedIn: Andrew Steen

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