Online platform diasporainvest.ba writes successful stories about Bosnian Herzegovinians and the importance of diaspora in promoting our country. This time we interviewed Sanel Babic, one of the first Bosnians with a successful carrier in space research.
Sanel Babic was born in Sarajevo, grew up in Vlasenica, more precisely in the eastern Podrinje, from where he escaped in 1992. The then thirteen-year-old with his mother, 2-year-old sister, aunt, and 2 other relatives (11 and 16 years old) was forced to leave his country. Six of them fled to Germany as asylum seekers, moving from one refugee camp to another, not knowing the language.
“Our fathers stayed behind because Croatia did not allow any man over the age of 16 to cross the border.” – Mr. Sanel told us.
They remained in Germany until 1998, during which time Sanel completed four years of high school and two years of college – specializing in electrical engineering. In 1998, German visas expired and they eventually migrated with the help of the Red Cross to the United States, Indiana to be precise. There, Mr. Babic starts his dream job after several jobs in the field of engineering.
What is your function in U.L.A., and your role in NASA missions?
United Launch Alliance, or ULA, is the most experienced space launch company in the world, with 140 missions launched and 100% mission success. We design, build and launch rockets that support the U.S. national defense, NASA and commercial customers. We began working with NASA on the Mars 2020 mission after they awarded ULA the contract in 2016.
At ULA I wear many hats: subject matter expert (SME) for Zuken E3 software, specialized IT analyst, developer and also provide Vulcan Centaur program management support. Vulcan Centaur is ULA’s next-generation rocket that will launch in 2021.
My primary role is an engineering and working in the Zuken E3 harness design application. At ULA, I started with drafting electrical schematics for the launch pads and scripting new applications to extract data from the E3 tool.
I also provide training and support for engineering teams enterprise-wide – approximately 120 drafters, engineers and end users of the E3 application.
How did you start working in the U.L.A. and can you single out the most interesting situations?
I specialized in the Zuken E3 electrical harness design application at a company called Kauffman Engineering in Indiana, designing and manufacturing harnesses for RVs and the
automotive and medical industries. In 2013 when a contracting opportunity opened up to implement the application in Colorado, I took this once-in-a-lifetime shot to test my skills with one goal: get hired full-time or go back home to Indiana. For a whole year, I flew back home to Indiana every 10 days to see my family (wife and two kids – 5 and 6 years old at the time). That sacrifice paid off, and I was hired to work for ULA in 2014.
What I love about my job is that every day is different. Every day brings new challenges and opportunities to think outside of the box, to learn and to help others, so every day is interesting.
If I had to pick favorites, I would say that challenges that give employees the opportunity to show off skills outside of our job roles.
One of those events was the “Employee Film Festival” challenge – a chance to create a ULA video based on part of our mission (Save lives, explore the universe, connect the world) with a prize including seeing a live launch in Florida. Participating and winning that competition gave me the chance to go to Cape Canaveral, our launch site, visit the pad that I helped re-design and see the AEHF-5 mission Atlas V rocket up close. That experience standing under the rocket boosters and looking up was truly life changing. It gave me more admiration of space launch history, inspiration to step in those footsteps of early NASA’s engineers, their sacrifices and their Apollo mission mindset – a project benefiting humankind that’s bigger than any one company or agency.
Mars Rover Perseverance, and your expectations in research
As a kid before I left Bosnia, I was an avid Star Trek fan – specifically The Next Generation and Capt. Picard. I still carry that deep love for unexplored universe.
Outside of work I’m also an avid space and technology enthusiast and follow NASA’s space exploration missions and industry engineering challenges as well as companies and countries talking about space hotels, inspiring and launching lunar and Mars missions.
As a human, and personally, I hope that NASA Perseverance rover research confirms life origins in the Jezero crater; that discovery would give humans even more drive for space exploration for generations to come.
Opinion on the colonization of Mars, are we technologically ready for such an endeavor and will we succeed in achieving it during the 21st century?
In my personal opinion, humans are stubborn and persistent living beings. If there is a strong idea some people will be willing to move mountains (figuratively and financially) to make it work.
I think trips to Mars will be very likely in the next 10-20 years. As to colonizing, that will be another matter for another generation to address – challenges primarily being “why” Mars over the moon, and can it be done without the lunar resources (fuel and water).
Is there any news about the Artemis 2024 Mission – going to the moon, if you are familiar with this information?
I recommend following the Artemis program’s program on NASA’s project website: https://www.nasa.gov/specials/artemis/
ULA is part of two of the three teams NASA has selected to refine proposals under its Human Landing Systems (HLS) program. NASA will choose one of these teams to land the first woman on the moon, so I will be following announcements closely with all of you.
Will SpaceX continue to work with NASA and are “reusable rockets” the future of transportation when the issue of the cost of resources for use is resolved
I can only speak on matters related to ULA, and our CEO Tory Bruno has said on reusability is on the road map for our next launch vehicle the Vulcan Centaur.
Reusability is a balance of launch cost of additional fuel needed for lift as well as time, resources and infrastructure to refurbish the same. ULA will focus on future reusability through mid-air capture of the first stage engines — the most valuable assemblies in the booster.
Your opinion on the current situation when it comes to entrepreneurs in BiH and how much do you follow such information?
I follow Bosnian events closely. I personally have spoken up on numerous occasions privately and publicly about its high and stagnant (post-war) unemployment, especially among the youth, for approximately two decades.
These trends are not sustainable, but reasons are many, and most outside of what Bosnian citizens can control. I think Bosnian integration into the European Union – decade-long delays, stability need through acceptance into NATO – local opposition, as well as geo-politics between EU and Russia are challenging. However, what individuals and local companies can do is raise the bar in preparation for the international economic stage in terms of labor and broader quality standards to be ready when that time comes. Bosnia has great resources (land, minerals), tourism and exceptional untapped talent.
Your opinion on the diaspora abroad (especially in the USA), and its potential for BiH
I see diaspora as one of the core economic pillars for Bosnia – hundreds of millions are spent on tourism and economic relief. Its best value is still love for the home country – despite its constitutionally deadlocked politics for two decades. Great value can be placed on vast knowledge of those million people who escaped ethnic cleansing and offer expertise in engineering disciplines and also sports, arts, education, management, and international laws and standards knowledge.
Is there anything else that connects you to Bosnia and Herzegovina and what are some of its disadvantages and advantages compared to the countries in which you lived?
I was never disconnected from Bosnia and Herzegovina. My latest efforts in helping its people is the founding of “Partiotski Fenjer Fund” – a humanitarian nonprofit based in Denver, Colorado.
Over 18 months through the help of some 300 members, we have helped some 90 families in Bosnia in various ways: financial aid, livestock, house rebuilds, agriculture, medical needs, support returning to their homes and student projects.
One big advantage having such nonprofit in the USA are the basic financial online banking capabilities and mobile apps such as PayPal, which do not operate fully in Bosnia.
What do you think about human resources in BiH?
I have met and know a lot of Bosnian students, accomplished engineers, managers, IT experts, lawyers, doctors and Nobel prize winners. They show the Bosnian education system is one of the best. Last year I raised $8000 for three students from Bosnia last year to come to the US and compete on the world stage as part of the “Microsoft Office Specialist World Championship” that included some 120 nations. One of those students won third place, and another earned a full scholarship to a US university. Bosnia has bright, talented people who can compete with the best in the world.
Why do you think certain Bosnians and Herzegovinians are much more successful in some other countries than in their own?
What is missing in Bosnia is opportunities. Opportunities for all of mentioned talents to show their potential, and I know that is an economic vicious cycle between stability and integration in EU on one hand, and building the economy, investment opportunity and infrastructure needed in that uncertainty. I firmly believe that the EU and NATO acceptance breakthrough will lead to the biggest economic expansion in Balkan history.
Some tips for young engineers in BiH?
Do what you love. Build (design, code, draw, practice) as much as you can in any tool you can get your hands on. Teamwork is key – build on each other’s strengths, test ideas, present concepts to small audiences, build diverse teams, create start-ups.
Love and passion for their profession, and how to recommend people to find their ideal career.
As they say in the U.S., “Fail, and fail often.” Try new things, explore jobs/roles/tasks, volunteer, design and create for nonprofits. Build that experience.
Inspiration and characteristics and traits that led you to success?
Be best at everything you do, but don’t do it all. A quote from my uncle guided a lot of my career choices, he said “It’s better to be the best experienced engineer, than an inexperienced manager.”
What advice would you give yourself at the beginning of your career?
An imperfect working app is better than the non-existing one.
Never make judgements based on incomplete information.
Stick to your dreams.
Thank you for the opportunity for share my career story and help the next generation of successful professionals.