Get to Know Derek Nolek, PE, LEED AP
Ground Support Equipment Leader Provides Behind the Scenes, Yet Mission Critical, Service for Aerospace Clients

For those who may not know, what does the Ground Support Equipment team do?
We provide very specialized design and engineering for equipment used to transport heavy, fragile, cumbersome or odd-sized loads, mainly for the aerospace industry. This could be anything from a mobile launch platform used to transport a rocket to the launch pad, the structure that holds the vehicle on the pad, or a cart or fixture used to move a piece of equipment or a payload.

Why is this work important?
Well, in simple terms, you’re not going to move a $10 million piece of hardware on a $100 cart you bought online. The higher the value of the product, the more resources you’re going to invest to make sure you’re not damaging delicate, one-of-a-kind components during the assembly, inspection or transport processes. This equipment needs to be as well thought out as the hardware it’s moving. This is “behind the scenes” work but it’s mission critical.

What skills do you feel are crucial to success in GSE?
One skill I rely on greatly is the systems engineering approach to design. A successful GSE engineering project identifies the holistic need of all stakeholders and what they expect to get out of the ground support equipment. Only then can we develop functional requirements and ultimately design features to meet these stakeholder needs.  This is an approach that can span all engineering disciplines and industries, and leads to cohesive, functional, and cost-effective design solutions.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve found when it comes to this type of engineering?
The most challenging aspect isn’t figuring out how to move the object but thinking far enough ahead to account for any future additions. There’s often another part or function that needs to be added, whether in this iteration or in future adaptations, so we want to make sure we provide enough design flexibility to accommodate changes that may come later.

What’s the most exciting thing about your job?
The aerospace industry is completely different than it was 10 years ago. There are so many new companies that want to launch rockets and so many new companies that have payloads to send to space. Every company has a different vehicle, a different design and a different way of doing things. BRPH has worked with NASA since the 1960s and we work with many of the commercial space companies, so we get to see it all.

How does that bank of experience help you in the long run?
Every launch vehicle is different so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to ground support equipment, either. Our breadth of experience with so many spacecraft and facilities gives us a tremendous base of knowledge to draw from, so we can provide innovative solutions that a client may never have thought of before, as well as solutions for integrating that idea into a new or existing facility.

How has technology impacted the field of GSE?
The biggest change I’ve seen over the course of my career is the increase in computing speeds. An analysis that might have had to run overnight a few years ago can now run in an hour. Analysis resolution can be much finer, so we’re able to better understand our margins and provide faster, more reliable data to our clients. This also helps us modify existing equipment more quickly.

Do you ever get stumped?
Of course! There are times when I need to integrate something into a design that’s outside the scope of my expertise, but we have a whole team of experts in house who can help with that aspect, whether it’s a nitrogen purge connector, a lighting or electrical component or an architectural element like a window. I don’t have to guess—I can draw on the expertise of my teammates to create a fully integrated package.

What do you think your coworkers or peers admire most about you?
I’m able to work well with fabricators/constructors that are making a particular part, tool or assembly. Many times, I’ve changed a design or detail based on a pre-construction review with the fabricators who are doing the job. Listening to their input and revising the design for constructability leads to a better overall design and helps build longstanding relationships.

Was there a particular person or story that inspired you to choose this career?
I had two great influences at my first engineering job. One was a very detailed technical leader, the other was a motivated leader that held everyone accountable. Their influence developed my attention to manufacturing processes, quality, GD&T (geometric dimensioning and tolerancing) and time management.

At the end of the day, what makes you most proud of your work?
I like being able to provide something of value to the client and something of value to the space industry. The equipment we design helps, in part, to advance science and communication. It’s a good feeling to be able to talk to my kids about what I do—the parts that aren’t client confidential—and to watch launches together from our backyard here on the Space Coast.

Derek Nolek has more than 20 years of experience, including three years at BRPH.