Lost On Base: A Day at Vandenberg

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There are some days that work isn’t work, not because of what you do or who you work with … but where you work.  Today was one of those days.

My duties of late have mostly been performing electrostatic discharge (ESD) control audits.  This is basically ensuring that static build-up is dissipated so you don’t ruin electronics.  Usually that means work benches where sensitive components are evaluated or test equipment doing the same thing.  It’s important that any stage during a mission, there is exposure … so any stage is a risk, and any stage could need an audit … any stage … any … stage.

Today I did that job at two suppliers who are working on missions that are nearing launch; specifically GRACE-FO and InSight (will fill you in on those in a later post).  These suppliers are helping with the final flight testing of the missions — as in, everything is built, everything is proven to work, now all that needs to happen is to make all the beeps start beeping, fill the fuel tanks, and button the little buggers up.  GRACE-FO is so close that it has only a little over a month to launch — yet they think they can sneak in a little more testing, I guess.

Both of these suppliers are located on Vandenberg Air Force Base.  Some of you more astute Space Nerds would know of VAFB, but most people don’t … heck I didn’t know it exited until about 6 months ago (and now I am badged to visit 24/7).  While most space launches happen at the Kennedy Space Center / Cape Canaveral in Florida, there are challenges with launching there.  Namely, polar launches.  If you want to send a rocket into an orbit that goes over the poles (which many of your GPS or Communication Satellites may need from time to time), you can’t really launch them northbound out of Kennedy — you are basically sending a rocket directly over the entire East Coast population centers.  While VAFB is much closer to a much bigger population (namely LA, Orange County, etc) – due south out of VAFB is about 75 miles out to sea over the Pacific.

Historically, VAFB was a test bed for more of the intercontinental type rockets (you can guess what that was about in the 50s 60s 70s 80s).  It helped as a test-bed for some of the different boosters meant for smaller launches, like Atlas, Delta, and Titan.  In recent years, it has opened up to more commercial ventures, including main use by the United Launch Alliance, and of way more popular SpaceX – who like to launch from there and land a booster on a boat just off the coast.

The real piece of history was in a location I got to spend a fair bit of time at — namely SLC-6 (or ‘Slick-Six’).  It’s known not as much for what launched there, but what wasn’t launched there.  Remember, VAFB is desirable for polar launches, and when you have the opportunity to do launches with … let’s say a manned reusable vehicle .. you keep that option open.  So in the early 80’s VAFB and SLC-6 became a launch facility intended for the Space Shuttle.  At SLC-6, there is a shuttle assembly facility (which actually is also the launch pad, and would retract for launch), as well as all the build up facilities for any cargo.  The audit I did today actually was in the old shuttle cargo assembly facility.  They were pretty serious about using this location, going as far as selecting the first mission and building up the prep work for Discovery in Late 1986.  The Challenger tragedy ended that dream, funding was cut when questions were raised about the risk of a second launch site.  Still, much of that structure remains, and Delta boosters still launch from that pad.

VAFB actually was a bit of an odd duck to drive around.  Covering some 22 square miles, the base is right on the coast north of Santa Barbara at the terminus of the Santa Ynez mountains (that’s a wine country reference, by the way).  The base feels like a basin of sorts much like Los Angeles and Ventura feels.  With little tree coverage, heavy brush, and lots of open space only occasionally interrupted by a dull tan building covered in rust – it felt more like a northern airfield like I used to see in Alaska or Canada.   The brush mixed with the hills made driving deceptively hard – you can miss roads and turns easy, meaning you can get lost easy.  But I to quote a conversation I had yesterday at work:

Coworker:  Are you worried about getting lost?
Me:  Heck no.  I mean, I am getting lost, I know that.  But it’s going to be awesome to get lost there … so what’s there to worry about?

Tomorrow I go back to the grind of far less interesting places to visit (namely Colorado Springs … for barely an overnight).  But at least there was today.

Little Bit of the Best

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Picture, if you will, a small auditorium and a few tables set up with small batches of legos, dowels, duct tape, binder clips, and other nick-nacks.  Seated in the first couple of rows are sixteen 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders – all somewhat itchy following a day of school and a quick snack. In front of them is just some random dude who had little prepared.  The scene plays out something like this:

“Hello, I work for Jet Propulsion Lab.  Does anyone know what that is?”

Nearly all hands go up, and most stay up, now ready to ask questions.  This is the next fifteen minutes:

“When are we going to Mars?”
“What is the furthest into space you can see?”
“Why’d you blow up that thing around Saturn?”
“Where are the aliens hiding?”
“I saw that movie with the guy who had to plant potatoes.”
“Did you shoot that thing up just that last time?”
“Why do we want to go to Mars?”
“Did you guys find planets outside of the solar system?”
“How come they didn’t let my sister take pictures when we were there last time?”
“What is the other planet you crashed into?”
“Is that the thing that flys in 2022?”

Etc. Etc.

I think I was lucky to answer maybe half … and maybe half of that I answered correctly.

This past Friday I joined dozens of volunteers from JPL who are going out to elementrary schools around Los Angeles to present at individual events for LA’s Best.  LA’s Best is the city’s main after school program that provides fun events, academic building blocks, a safe place to meet, and a snack too.  JPL volunteers annually to reach out to many of the schools in the program giving normal JPL’s the tools we need to put on a good show.

My visit was to Ferneagles Elementary in Sun Valley.  We pick where we get to go to, and I’d like to say I did a deep study to get me to land there but … didn’t.  Basically I chose the one Elementary school that was the closest and didn’t get a presentation last year.

Of course, I knew it was going to be fun.  I mean, yeah, I don’t have kids, yeah I am perfectly okay with not following the family tradition of becoming a teacher; but I knew well enough that one mention of NASA and I would have these kids eating out of my hand.  Plus if they got a little bit out of control, there were gonna be responsible adults (me not included) to reign them in.

The whole thing really just had two parts.  There was the random quick fire Q&A session, and an activity.  We were given a list of suggestions … so of course I chose the robotic arm challenge.  Using a stack of different building items, teams had to design, build, and maneuver arms to pick up toys from one bucket to another.  It was pretty rudimentary, but the basic team building and engineering skills were on point.

That and all I had to do was walk around and laugh a little.

Of course it was going to be chaos … but it was so worth it … and at the best of time to do so.  It’s still Insanuary in my life, and it was a rough week … right up until 3pm on Friday when those goof balls walked into that auditorium.  Honestly, it’s never really lost on me the cool stuff we are working on, but sometimes you need a the curiosity of a kid to understand how cool it is what you do.  This upcoming week I have three audits in two time zones, four airplanes, six reports, two projects I need to catch up on, all while we prepare for a period where our team will be short staffed while the work is expected to increase.  Ask me on Thursday and you would have gotten dread and anger for what was ahead of me … ask me now and I say ‘bring it on’.

Of course, this is an annual event, and now I feel I am going to have to do it the rest of my career … and why not it was kinda fun.

It’s just next year I better be ready with the actual answers to some of those questions.

First Explorers

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Most of you nerds about space flight can tell me the first man-made satellite to be launched into space was Sputnik 1, done so by the USSR in 1957. More nerdy nerds can also say that later that year they also launched Sputnik 2, the second such satellite.  What most people can’t answer is what the first USA built man-made satellite to successfully launch into space.  So can you?

Here’s a hint … Explorer 1.

Okay that was more of an answer than a hint.

Explorer 1 was launched on January 31st, 1958 – meaning next week marks the 60th anniversary of the launch.  Of course I know this because … it was built by JPL!

Explorer 1 was fairly small and light, especially compared to the Sputniks.  A cigar tube shaped satellite, it measured just over 6 feet long and only 6 inches in diameter.  It weighed only 30lbs, which was far less than the 180lbs Sputnik 1, and is practically nothing compared to the 1,100lbs Sputnik 2.  That’s a bid difference because every pound needs to be thrusted up into space – so the fact that the best we could do for the time was fractional to the Russians was noteworthy.  Not that we didn’t try, just a month before the US Navy tried to launch the Vanguard TV3 that only weighed 3 lbs, but it blew-up on the launch pad.  At take-off Explore 1, launched on top of a Juno Rocket (that was nearly 10 times taller and wider than the satellite, looked like a toothpick sticking out the top of a booster.  Yet, the launch went flawlessly and led the US into the Space Race.

Three main organizations get the credit for Explorer 1.  Redstone made the rocket, which of course was as critical as anything back in those early days … there weren’t man of anything getting off the ground back then.  The bulk of the science instruments were developed by people from University of Iowa … which … who knew they did something other than pig farming there.  But the design, construction, testing, and management came through JPL.  This was pre-NASA days, NASA didn’t exist yet, but there was JPL cranking out the space.

The thing about Explorer 1 was that it wasn’t just out to prove we can put things in space, it was made to do some real work.  While rudimentary compared to current test equipment launched, the instruments on-board were sent to look for cosmic radiation, micro-meteor impacts, and temperature variations.  The data from this satellite led to the discovery of the Van Allen Belt, an area in the atmosphere controlled by the Earth’s magnetic field that helps protect us from solar radiation.  Sputnik 1 was intended just to get up there, equipped soley with a radio signal for tracking.  Sputnik 2 was … well … you could say it was sent for scientific reasons (if you were evil) — as it launched with a cargo of (watch as I cover Auggie’s ears) Laika the dog, the first non-microbe launched into space.  But Explorer 1 was sent to advance our knowledge of space … without having to kill fuzzy creatures in the process.

Also, Explorer 1 stuck around.  Sputnik 1 did pretty well, with no data to send it still lasted about 2-1/2 months before burning up.  Sputnik 2 sent data for about 5 days, and stayed in orbit for about 5 months.  Explorer 1 sent data for 4 months, and didn’t come down for 11 years.  That’s right, it finally ended it’s mission after man reached the moon.

So maybe, it is the forgotten of the first for flight things; but it shouldn’t … and we try not to.  A mock-up of Explorer 1 sits in the JPL museum as well as the Air & Space Museum in Washington DC.  The launchpad used, Launchpad 63 at Cape Canaveral, is designated as a museum itself.  The Explorer program is actually a continuing program tallying up more than 90 launches to date with NASA funding earmarked for or physics, geophysics, heliophysics, and astrophysics investigations from space executed from multiple facilities and institutions.  So here we are 60 years on, and the Explorer legacy continues.

So cheers to that first Explorer.  60 years years after bringing the good guys into space and you keep us going back.

Now … don’t you feel a little more nerdy than you did when this started?

Insanuary

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Y’all miss me?  Forget about me?  Go into some sort of Bear Feed-less coma without my random stupidity?  I mean, holy crumbs its nearly been three weeks since my last post — and that was just me rambling about sweeping a few floors.  That after I did really well of keeping up to about 1 or 2 posts a week in 2017.  So what happened you ask?  Was there nothing blog worthy that came around?  Well, no … I mean, not news bending awesome blog worthy things but I wasn’t short of things to write about.

I was just short of time.

I know, everyone gets busy, but this has been literally insane.  An insane January.  Insanuary.  Get it?

It starts with work – and we are hitting some critical times right now.  Our next Mars Rover (MARS 2020) is deep into it’s build mode; and the next big mission the Europa Clipper is just starting up.  At the same time people are needing the services of my group to get the supplies up and approved.  Tie that to the fact that we are a little understaffed – in the midst of training new personnel – and having a short number of people trained in one area, I am getting hammered.  In comparison – I did 44 audits in all of 2016, which in my 10 years of auditing came one short of beating my record for a year.  In January, I have performed or am scheduled to perform 8 audits – which is a pace of 96 audits!  Heck, the amount of audits I am scheduled to do this month for JPL is almost as many as I did for BP Alaska over my 2 years of employment.

Then there was slipping in a day back home in Prairie du Chien, WI (53821).  By slipping in a day, I mean figuratively & literally slipping in.  While in Iowa (doing an audit of course), I planned a day to run up and meet with kids from my old high school, maybe give a bit of a NASA / JPL spiel.  But then freezing rain came, and they canceled school .. and I slipped back to a chilly airplane ride home.

Plus I entered a brave new world of judging winter guard.  You loyal Bear Feeders may know that I judge marching bands during the fall band season.  Well, I thought it was time for a new challenge and to learn new things.  So I joined a group that will train me on indoor color guard competitions held in February, March, April.  It kicked off with about 10 hours of on-line training, then about 12 hours of a clinic in Irvine.  Later next month, I’ll being trailing … where I am at a show judging but only for other judges to tell me that I am not good at it.  No seriously … 20 years of fall band, and after one clinic I am saying “am I at all qualified to do this?”

Plus I joined a writing critique group – we get together every two weeks and discuss each other’s stories.  Which takes time to read their stuff and prepare my own.

Plus I went to the Santa Anita horse track, not once but twice … though only once was it cool.

Plus it got cold, plus it got hot, plus I didn’t get in any of those mud slides so quit asking, plus I am not succeeding from California so quit asking that too, plus I am at work today even though it is my regularly day off, plus I need a haircut.

And that doesn’t even mention Auggie the Doggie.

So this month has been insane.   This month will continue to be insane.  February maybe insane too.  But I am going to keep trying to post.  Not for you guys … I mean, I know you Bear Feeders well enough to know I don’t love all of you, or even like some of you.  But I do love the attention, so … be patient … sooner or later I will post again just so you lather me with just that.

Cleaning to Clean The House

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My mom reminded me recently of one of those things I really miss about Alaska.  I mean, I miss a lot of things about my life in Alaska, but this one in particular.  I had a cleaning lady.  Every two weeks, on the Thursday before my regularly scheduled Friday off, she would come through and do a whirlwind clean-up of my house.  When I set it up, I still remember her teasing me that she was giving me the Bachelor’s Special meaning I’d still get to be too lazy to clean up after myself, but at least the place will be in order enough to not be embarrassed if someone came over.  She really did a great job, and it became this cool thing to start a long weekend with a clean house.

These days, that doesn’t happen.  Mostly because money for a cleaning lady goes to things like paying the mortgage.  My Alaska house was nearly double the size of my current one, but it’s still a luxury I’m not one for.  So the task of cleaning has fallen onto my shoulders … and you can guess how good of a job I do at it.  Oh, the house isn’t in complete shambles, but as an amateur housekeeper it takes me a long time (and a lot of motivation) to really put things together.  Mostly it is floors that need cleaning – a house of cheap wooden flooring does great to show it’s messy colors from tracked in dirt, dog fur, and the occasional spilled wine.  The fires around the area also was kind enough to waft through a layer of dust and soot just thick enough to be annoying.  Windows have nose smears, especially at Auggie-level.  Not to mention, it seems most of the last couple of months, I’ve spent that time emptying boxes just to know where everything is at (and tossing what I don’t need) from all the moves that I have done.  So by the time the end of the holidays rolled around and the great ‘Ass-Sitting 2017’ was coming to a close; I had the need to get things a little more spic-and-span.

Motivation is always the key thing.  Most the time, my motivation is that I have someone coming over.  When I lived in Kansas, my house was a little rough and rarely presentable.  Then again, I rarely had visitors.  I told most my family (and had for years even before that) that I have a 2 week rule, meaning I needed two weeks notice to clean the house.  But it honestly had nothing to do with who was coming over — if I had a messy house, I didn’t want anyone inside or around it.  Best example was that Alaskan house.  It was the cleanest house I owned as much because I had a cleaning lady coming over every 2 weeks, but because I knew a cleaning lady would be there every 2 weeks.  I typically spent the night before she came to clean the house cleaning the house.  Did I mention I have a dog sitter coming over this week for a visit?

I had seven of the last eleven days off of work, and usually that would mean the place would be a pig style – not just on my own doing, the pup’s free roaming would had left hairballs and chew toys everywhere.  Though after the last couple of days, it’s in better shape than it has been in months.  There’s more I need to do, but that’s more about organization than de-cruding the place.  It’s about getting things into some kind of order so I can have a real plan of attack for the work ahead.

In short, I cleaned house best I could.  Working hard to throw out what I don’t need, get the stuff that messes up the place out of the way, and organize enough to have a real plan going forward.  That’s why we do it, don’t we?  To enjoy what we have, and be excited about what’s ahead.

… there seems to be a metaphor in there for something …

Anyway, Happy New Year, and Welcome to 2018.