Marketing & Communications

 

Childhood dream comes true for Carl Sandifer

By Kristen Grom and Amy West

It is typical for children to have ambitious dreams such as becoming a rock star, a ballerina or even a professional baseball player. Bowling Green State University alumnus Carl Sandifer not only recalls his childhood dream but is actually living it.

When he was a child, stars fascinated Sandifer, and he often wondered how big they must be to be seen from Earth. He dreamed of exploring what lies throughout our solar system. Through hard work and motivation, Sandifer is doing exactly that.

“I’ve always had an interest in space and exploration but never imagined that I would have the opportunity to work for NASA,” he said. “The idea of supporting space missions at any capacity for our nation is a dream.”

Currently the planning lead for the Program Planning and Assessment area of the Radioisotope Power Systems (RPS) Program Office, Sandifer supports the office management team in leading a multi-agency program that delivers radioisotope power systems to NASA missions.

The program has several facets that include the acquisition of flight hardware in partnership with the Department of Energy (DOE), fundamental technology development, and the transition of technology to flight. The flight systems and the technology transfer are critical to the success of NASA missions.

The agency’s power systems are unique in that they provide the nation with the opportunity to explore the solar system and collect data and samples in environments where conventional power systems, such as solar arrays, are not suitable. The Voyager spacecraft, which has reached interstellar space after 36 years of exploring, has traveled farther than anyone or anything in history. The Voyager and Curiosity Mars rover are both powered by RPS and do not require sunlight to function.

For Sandifer, getting his foot in the door at NASA was a result of his impressive high school GPA and maybe a little of being in the right place at the right time.

“During my senior year in high school, I was invited to a scholarship awards ceremony and the keynote speaker was a highly esteemed NASA employee,” explained Cleveland native Sandifer, a self-described “natural” at math. “After the ceremony, I requested information on how to obtain a NASA co-op or internship. I followed the steps, and the rest is history.”

Sandifer anticipates that beginning in the spring of 2014 he will serve as the NASA point-of-contact for providing programmatic insight to the infrastructure project managed by the DOE. It is vital for the project to maintain capability to produce and assemble the materials and components essential to RPS production such as Plutonium-238 and the heat source modules used in power generators.

Sandifer recently led the RPS Program Office through a successful program-implementation review, which was an intricate and multi-faceted effort to support the independent review leading to a decision to continue the program.

Before his current position, he served as an aerospace engineer, mission designer and system integration engineer for the GRC COMPASS conceptual spacecraft design team. Sandifer was responsible for designing and analyzing the feasibility of new space mission concepts nearly every two weeks.

One of his projects included an asteroid retrieval mission concept in which a solar-powered vehicle with an electric propulsion system could robotically capture a small, near-Earth asteroid and redirect it safely to a stable orbit in the Earth-Moon system for astronauts to visit and explore.

Additionally, he participated in a Venus mission study where he and his team worked with scientists to develop a concept to keep a Venus lander powered and functional for a period of five days in an extremely hot temperature of 460 C./860 F. The vehicle would retrieve data associated with the composition of the terrain, and the data would then be transmitted back to Earth, leading to a better understanding of the history of Venus. The longest Venus lander mission to date lasted approximately two hours.

Sandifer’s project list at NASA might seem daunting, but he is no stranger to tough assignments. After becoming a father as a teenager, he worked three jobs in addition to being a full-time student at BGSU. He traveled to Cleveland nearly every weekend to spend time with his daughter, Alexus, and complete his internship hours at NASA. “I had a baby in one hand and a pencil in the other,” he joked.

“As a father at a young age, I was determined to succeed so that I could be a provider financially, and I also wanted to have a positive impact on our society. As a result, I worked three jobs throughout college, studied in between, and spent as much time with my daughter as possible. I set aside a little time for fun, but I was very goal-oriented,” he recalled.

It was during his time at BGSU that Sandifer met his Falcon Flame, Victoria. “She’s my best friend,” he said. “We do everything together.” The couple has two children, 5-year-old Chloe and 2-year-old Carl III. Alexus is now an active 14-year old; and while Sandifer’s career at NASA is a dream come true, the title of father is still his favorite.

Being a Falcon was a memorable time for Sandifer, who describes BGSU as a relatively quiet campus, perfectly balanced with strong educational programs and fun places to spend time.

His fondest memories of campus include living in the residence halls and joining Phi Beta Sigma. He is grateful for a full-ride scholarship through the Office of Multicultural Affairs that enabled him to complete his education.

Sandifer is an inspiration to many, overcoming challenges to make his lifelong dream come true. Humble about his accomplishments, he downplays the obstacles and hard work that it took to become both a doting father and a successful NASA project leader.

“Plan early on in your education what you want to do and be goal-oriented. Hold yourself accountable and start off with A’s. Have the right mentality from the beginning and add in a little fun along the way,” Sandifer advised.

Take a lesson from Carl Sandifer and aim for the stars. With hard work and determination, dreams really do come true.

(Posted December 9, 2013 )