No banks, stock exchanges or other financial institutions are known to exist
on Mars. So how does a business and economics graduate of the University of
California at Santa Barbara end up in a key role on a mission to the red

"When I was in school, I never thought ‘I’m going to be buying parts for
spacecraft to go to other planets,’" said Steve Alfery of JPL. But every
expedition to a new world needs someone like him — a savvy buyer with
knowledge of the marketplace to acquire the unique equipment, supplies and
tools that will make the voyage possible.

It’s Not Rocket Science – It’s Harder

For engineers and scientists, what Alfery does is not rocket science – it’s
much harder. For the Mars Exploration Rover mission, Alfery holds the purse
strings and brokers the deals. His efforts allow the project’s engineers and
scientists to acquire all the materials, machines and services that will
become the mission itself.

What does it take to design, build, test, launch, fly and drive two robotic
rovers destined for Mars? Material, and some of it is pretty exotic. Whether
it’s a parachute from Windsor, Connecticut, spacecraft lander airbags from
Frederica, Delaware, or a robotic arm from Altadena, California, Alfery has
led the team that made the deal. A spectrometer from Germany? A remotely
controlled rock grinder from New York? Alfery’s checked them out and
determined the best product for the right price.

He Makes it Happen

"He is one of those rare people who you can give a problem to and he will
get it fixed rapidly with minimal additional interaction," said Richard
Cook, manager of the flight system for the project. "Steve is a ‘fixer’ who
knows the right people to talk to, how the system can be tweaked to make
something happen, and what is the right trade-off between technical,
schedule, and procurement considerations."

Alfery scrolled through a database listing purchases. He pronounced the
tally: "As of now, we have acquired 6,018 items for a total of $127,369,019
and 44 cents."

A member of JPL’s acquisitions division staff, he is assigned to the Mars
Exploration Rover project and housed in the project’s trailer-offices.
There, he works shoulder-to-shoulder with mission engineers and scientists
who appreciate not only his business acumen, but his appreciation for
engineering, budget constraints and tough project schedules. In his years of
working on missions to Mars, Saturn and more, he’s learned how spacecraft
and scientific instruments work and how to assess mechanical devices and
services needed to undertake a space mission.

"Steve has a good background of working component- through system-level
acquisitions, so he really understands how acquisition work fits into both
the technical and programmatic elements of a project," said Cook.

Speaking the Languages of Business and Engineering

Alfery is fluent in the languages of both business and engineering and moves
easily between the two worlds. "He also has a good understanding of how our
subcontractors and partners look at JPL from a business perspective," said
Cook. That is very useful when it comes to deciding how we plan to acquire
something and what we can reasonably expect to accomplish in the negotiation

Alfery points out that 80-some other JPL acquisitions department personnel
who have also had a hand in getting the project what it needs to move
forward. "I certainly don’t do this alone," he said, scrolling through names
of others who’ve helped negotiate purchase of everything from sophisticated
radio systems to volcanic rocks and dirt for rover testing.

Before taking an entry-level position at JPL 16 years ago, Alfery, an
Arcadia, California native, entertained an offer from a steel girder
company. Compared to the chance to buy parts for spacecraft exploring the
solar system, he said, buying and selling steel girders seemed less
interesting. He enjoys serving as an ambassador to visiting schoolchildren
and others touring JPL, explaining the project’s scientific objectives and
the machinery and skills needed to accomplish them.

Speaking the Languages of Business and Engineering

Locally, Alfery’s skills have won him accolades such as the "Martian of the
Month" award, an in-house prize at JPL for exceptional work on Mars
missions. Nationally, Alfery and wife, Teresa, who is also an acquisitions
rep at JPL, were sought out to appear on an MSNBC segment featuring
exemplary domestic money-minders. "My wife, " he said proudly, "is the
Budget Queen. She knows every household expenditure to the penny."

At JPL, Alfery said, "I work with a lot of great, smart people working on
things I wouldn’t normally have an opportunity to learn about. And I hope
they see me as a key point of contact who is making things happen."

Apparently, they do: "Besides understanding the in’s and out’s of the
procurement process and how we interact with our subcontractors," says Cook,
"Steve’s most valuable attribute to me is an ability to get things done."