What is it that you do here?

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Late in my tenure at BP Exploration – Alaska, I had one of the most surreal meetings in my life.  It was a one-on-one meeting scheduled with my manager, two steps above me (my boss’s boss),  It was scheduled for just a half hour but was suggested it would run shorter than that.  I walked in, sat down, and he pulled out a letter.  He then told me he was directed by HR to read me the letter then hand it to me — which is never good, but bear with me here.  The letter read, “Congratulations, you have been selected as a Supplier Quality Specialist.”  The thing was, my title at the time was Supplier Quality Specialist.  Confused, I started asking questions until it became clear – they were congratulating me because layoffs were happening, and I would keep my job.  Mind you, it wasn’t the first time I survived a layoff — hell, at Cessna my last two years alone I survived 12 rounds of layoff.  For nearly 18 months prior to that meeting at BP, our organization with the intent to reap the wheat from the chaff; though they made it sound like we were helping to design a better organization.  In the end, it felt like something out of Office Space the movie – where people who think they know what you do are asking you ‘what do you really do around here’.  A couple months later, I left BP – this wasn’t the nail in the coffin, mind you, but it was the symbol of how blind a company management could be.

So, needless to say, I get a little squirrelly when people ask me what I do for a living.

I got a few of those questions recently as I started to share more about what’s coming up at JPL.  Some of it asking what my role is on those missions.  Others questioning if I do anything at all.  Some going the other direction and just assuming that I do things with these missions that I don’t.  So maybe it’s time to clear the air.

My title is Procurement Quality Assurance (PQA) Engineer.  I’ve held that title since starting at JPL, though the role changes from time to time.  PQA has a team of about 10 people with varying functions.  We all report into a larger Quality Assurance team with a couple hundred people.  Quality Assurance is a part of a Directorate called The Office of Safety and Mission Success (OSMS).  For nearly two-thirds my career, I’ve been in a role of Quality or Quality Assurance and nearly all that time in a role similar to a PQA Engineer – though under different names (Supply Chain Quality, Supplier Quality, Purchasing Quality, etc).

Before I go into the specifics of the role, it’s important to know a little about quality in general.  As I say often, Quality isn’t rocket science, but you have to learn it to break your preconceptions.  Many people assume Quality is just the process of inspecting to ensure only the good gets through. That’s close but insufficient.  I like to say Quality is really about Risk Mitigation – Quality evaluates a part or process or system and looks for those situations that could eventually be a risk.  From there a plan is developed to overcome that risk either through improved planning, improved design, or improved detection.  Some say Quality is the last line of defense to a successful outcome; I believe that is true but the effective quality system is always pushing the line of defense further and further ahead of where failure can’t be an option.

With JPL, my line in the sand is probably as far in front of the last line of defense as you can get.  We look at the suppliers who provide us hardware to make sure they meet the minimum expectations of their quality systems.  Much of the time, we are looking at companies before they start work, and the rest of the time it is before they finished the work.  While a certain amount of the suppliers we work with are found acceptable by established 3rd party certifications, many times we validate the supplier through audits.  Quality audits aren’t like financial audits; we are looking for compliance and opportunities for improvement.  Commonly we say we partner with our suppliers, moving them down a path to improvement.  These can be comprehensive across all aspects of the company’s workmanship and management, or they could specific to a single process.  For instance, a majority of my time at JPL, I’ve been involved with validating electrostatic discharge (ESD) protection at our suppliers — which the day I arrived at JPL, I couldn’t even spell ESD and since then I’ve done nearly 50 ESD audits.  Since you can’t do an audit at your desk, I spend a fair bit of time at suppliers.

While I deal with hardware suppliers, I have no interaction with the actual hardware … usually.  As the hardware is built, other QA team members guide the inspection points, testing, and buy-off.  Others evaluate hardware as it is received.  Even more, walk the hardware right up to launch.  It’s so rare that I actually see flight hardware that I geek out a little bit.

Something that working for JPL that is different than my past employment is that we are Federally Funded.  This means a more direct line of sight between what you do and how you get paid for what you do.  If you work on a program or project, your time is charged to that program – which means the program must allocate your time from their budget.  Since our specific team works in a service center role, most of my funding looks like overhead, but it originates from funding from projects.

One thing it’s worth noting is that it takes a long time for a mission to reach launch.  From a concept stage through the proposals, design, engineering models, building instrument, then full assembly, and loads of testing even the most complex missions could take years to complete.  Then again, a mission may not launch until once that is done since launch windows are a thing.

An example of all of this and how it plays into my role would be InSight, a Mars lander launched last summer to study the red planet’s geology.  InSight was built by Lockheed Martin, who (without sharing details) needed little oversight by our PQA team at all.  Our QA team did have to be there through most of the build and deal with the testing, but it wasn’t in my specific team or role.  Due to hardware issues, the lander missed its launch window and when you are heading to another planet that means delays of years.  After sitting in figurative mothballs for a couple of years, it finally flew and is having a good go of it up there.  So in summary … InSight was built before I started at JPL, by a company that didn’t require me to support if I was there. I had nothing to do with InSight.

Editorial Note:  The last paragraph is a contradiction to a published newspaper article from the town I grew up in sighting an unnamed source and stating that I not only was on the InSight project, but I was also involved with the landing operations – something so outside of the scope of work that I do that I had to self-disclose to HR and Public Relations.  (#notkidding).  Yeah … I’m calling you out again, Dad.

Enough about the projects I haven’t worked on, let’s talk about those I have.  My role can touch many if not all missions in their early or mid stages of the build.  Last week I wrote a blog about Mars 2020, a rover set to launch next summer.  I estimate I spent about 10% of my time at JPL supporting that project directly.  While that might look small, it is the largest of all currently.  Missions like Europa and Psyche may need more of that when all is said and done, and I have had some cross-over with others.  The first mission launched that I had any time (albeit about 4 total hours) was Grace FO launched last summer.  Cold Atom Lab (CAL) launched a couple months ago for installation on the International Space Station … again maybe 4 hours at most with that.  Like I said, I work on things early on in the build, long before launch, so if something has gone up it’s not like I spent time on it.  Heck, I didn’t even know about MarCO until the day it launched.

That’s what I do … at least currently (or at least up until a couple weeks ago, but not going into that yet).  My role isn’t the sexist, but it’s what I love to do.  So,  if you want to congratulate me for that, feel free.

 

Mars 2020 is Coming

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From the day I landed at JPL, the biggest buzz was around the next flagship mission we intended to deliver.  In about 13 months, that mission is set to launch.  So, it’s time to get you Bear Feeders buzzing about it as well.

Mars 2020 will be the next rover to land on the red planet.   Mars 2020 is a juxtaposition of a mission not very unlike Curiosity (aka Mars Science Lab or MSL) that landed up there in 2012, but also the most technologically advanced mission to visit another planet.  It’s an aggressive attempt to achieve way more than Curiosity and advance our knowledge of interplanetary travel by a good leap and bound.

Wait … let’s slow … take a couple breaths … exciting yes, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

As I mentioned, Mars 2020 builds off of Curiosity’s success as well as its design.  Both rovers are the size of a small SUV with a vast array of instruments on a test bed driven around by six independent wheels.  It had a revolutionary Entry/Descent/Landing called the Sky Crane method (or colloquially as ‘Seven Minutes of Terror’).  First of all – depending on the time of year, signals from Mars take between seven and fifteen minutes to reach Earth, then just as long to send back – to the landing had to be completely autonomous.  Mars’s atmosphere is thick enough that a heat shield is needed, but thing enough that a parachute won’t get you down safely.  Thrusters are needed, but it kicks up too much dust.  A few meters before touchdown the rover was lowered by a crane that later cut its tethers and flew away.  That same concept will be used but will have an additional landing camera and guidance system that will allow the descent stage to pick the final landing spot automatically to give the safest result.  Other than that, the main body of the rover is the same (well, the wheels are different, but only to reduce wear).

From a grander scale, the mission has changed.
Curiosity’s main mission was to answer the question: “Did Mars ever have the right conditions to support life at any time in its history?”  Curiosity answered that question with a resounding, Yes!
Mars 2020 will try to answer the next logical question: “If Mars could have supported life, did it?”
Mars 2020 has other lofty goals:  Characterize the Climate of Mars, Characterize the Geology of Mars, and Prepare for Human Exploration of Mars

To get all this done, there a bunch of key instruments on board:

SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals) uses spectrometers, a laser, and a camera to search for organics and minerals that have been altered by watery environments and may be signs of past microbial life.  I visited the company that designed and built this instrument (literally a garage, there was a motorcycle repair shop next door).  They gave me a laymen’s version of what SHERLOC does, and it essentially will scan the ground for signs of organics.  In other words … if there was life at any time in the dirt under the rover, this guy will find it.  This is the unit that could prove that Earth wasn’t the only life-bearing planet, that we aren’t alone in this universe.

By the way, if you can’t tell JPL and NASA use heavy hands when naming their instrumentation.  Sometimes forcing an acronym to work even if it is quirky.  SHERLOC is an investigation tool, kind of like the fictional detective.  Well, SHERLOC happens to have a camera that acts as a sidekick and helps to make observations of how the instrument is doing … that’s right, it’s called WATSON.

MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) is another big one.  Mars’s atmosphere isn’t breathable by humans, but it has some oxygen in it.  If humans are ever going to visit or live there, then we need to know if we can produce enough oxygen to sustain life.  MOXIE is the first demonstration model of how that could be done.

Other instruments like PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry) and RIMFAX (Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment) are designed to take better reading so the geology of Mars.

Mars 2020 will also be equipped with the most advanced planetary cameras in history.  Few people know that while black-and-white photos are transmitted like photos on your phone, a color picture from Mars is typically is a rendering of scanned data with known feature output – think of it as there is someone on Mars explaining to an artist on Earth what they see then the artist recreates that result.  Mars 2020 will have cameras that can capture and transmit real color photos.  It will also have zooming technology to get finer detail.  While some of it is still to get worked out, there is hope to have an array of landing cameras to get faster and greater photos of the entry, descent, and landing.

Then in what is a major forward-thinking idea, the rover will have what’s called a Sample Caching System (SCS).  Like with Curiosity, the rover will be equipped with a rock drill to allow the retrieval of material for testing.  The SCS intends to take that mater and place it inside of metal tubes.  Somewhere, the tubes are stacked in a big cache by the rover and left behind.  Then somewhere in the future, a mission will send something to that cache, pick up all the tubes, then return them to Earth.  If this works out, it will be the first time material from another planet will be brought home (or our home I guess).  The SCS is going to fly, we’re pretty sure about that – but what we aren’t sure is when something will pick it up, or how, or … anything.  There is no mission planned yet to do that, but we are still doing the sampling.

Crazy right?  I mean, this is all out there and crazy.

Oh by the way … we’re going to put a helicopter on it.

You heard me.

Mars 2020 will include the Mars Helicopter.  It is a four blade drone that has the intention to fly ahead of the rover to look for potential hazards.  It comes with a docking station and everything.  It’s a hell of an idea, because like with landing the rover, no signal can be sent in real time due to the delay between Earth and Mars.  You basically have to pre-program any flight.  Thing is, if the helicopter crashes or screws up, it won’t hurt the bulldozer of a rover – so we the approach was a ‘do no harm’ mission low funded.  The inside joke is if the Helicopter can lift off and take a Rover Selfie it will be a mission success.

Currently, the Mars 2020 build is happening at full speed at JPL, and just a half a block from my desk in the Satelite Assembly Facility (SAF) also known as ‘the high bay’ where so many great JPL missions were built.  You can see pictures of it from time to time on my Facebook and Instagram since it’s pretty easy for me to pop into the observation bay.  Also, JPL has a live YouTube channel filming the build as it happens, so feel free to check that out at:

Seeing 2020

Last week they added the Mobility System (the wheels and suspension), they are getting ready to attach the robotic arm, and are gunning for environmental testing to start later next month.  That all, of course, is on the Rover; but in the SAF is also the cruise stage (which is what protects and keeps the rover on course between Earth and Mars), Aeroshell (which also protects the Rover during cruise & decent), and the Descent Stage (which is the actual Sky Crane).  The heat shield is still under assembly but will meet the Rover in Kennedy in January.

The whole of the work here at JPL is expected to be complete in a couple of months, after which it will be buttoned up and shipped to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  There, the final assembly and final testing will take place before it is put on top of a massive ULA Atlas V Rocket.  The launch window opens July 17th, 2020; the earliest projected landing is in February 2021.

As for my part in all of this … well, I am expecting to put something together that better explains what I do here, but essentially I am tightly touching parts and instrument suppliers at their earlier stages of work.  That being said, since coming to JPL about 10-15% of my time has been on Mars 2020 work of some type; for me that’s significant.  It was the first mission I caught any buzz about, and it is the first mission that I feel I had a part in.  So yeah … it’s kind of a big deal to me.

As things progress, I will update more on Mars 2020, but in the meantime … let’s start counting the days.

Drive Casually and Turn Sometimes

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It’s always interesting to see what reactions I get from my blog posts, and the reward of cookies seems to be what gets the most attention.  Earlier this week, when giving dumb excuses about why I haven’t blogged for a while, I mentioned a sporting series that I hate that I love.  The guesses came in quick, and no one got the cookies, but since it was such a hot topic, I decided to run with it.  That … and I am full on a rant on it this week.

I was describing this as: “my fascination of the most boring sporting series in the world.”  What am I describing, you ask?

Formula 1 Racing

I hate Formula 1 Racing – yet on a given race weekend, I will watch between 2 and 6 hours.  Every Frickin’ Week.  I can’t get enough of it … and I CAN’T STAND IT!

For those of you who don’t know or know little about Formula 1 (or F1), it’s an auto race circuit born out of Europe but is now worldwide (though mostly in Europe).  There are 21 races in 2019, nine in Europe, seven in Asia, three in North America, and one each in South America and Australia (sorry Africa, not this year).  Tracks are mainly run on ‘road course’ tracks with different curves and straightaways, most of which are designed and built for F1 races though some, including the famous Monaco Grand Prix, are run on city streets.  They are open-wheel cars.  If you are familiar with Indy Cars or a fan of the Indianapolis 500, it is that style of car you can compare it to.  For the record, any comparisons I will be making will be more to NASCAR, the stock car circuit in the US.  I am not a follower of NASCAR but watched it enough over the years to be dangerously educated enough to rant properly.

First thing you need to know about F1 is money.  Money gushes in and out of F1 like tidal waves of greenbacks.  Like NASCAR cars and drivers get sponsorships, but they aren’t shoved down your throat at F1 – but because F1 is so global it’s followers that are vomiting cash for tickets, TV rights, and propaganda, they could possibly be lining the racetracks with gold if they wanted to.  The two driver teams in the circuit (there are 10 making up 20 cars in each race) also get backed by their owners, who in many cases are corporations or auto manufacturers using the series as a test bed (e.g., Ferrari, Mercedes, Aston Martin (racing as Team Red Bull), Alfa Romeo, Renault).  Since these cars are prototypes, a team can gain an advantage by investing more in the design, testing, and construction.  Or more to the point … the more money the team has, the better the car.  It’s a well-accepted fact that the fastest cars in F1 don’t need the best drivers … they just need the most money.   

A big part of my frustration comes from this, as Mercedes and their racers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas win every week.  That’s not a generalization.  Seven races into 2019, and one or the other won each race.  Not just that, they finished 1st & 2nd in five races, 1st & 3rd in another, and 1st & 4th in the last.  When they have a good week, they dominate.  When they are at a track that doesn’t suit them or if they make mistakes, they win anyway.  Team parody is so bad that it’s hard to see this changing soon, and if it does it is only one team Ferarri, that looks to be able to do something about it.

But let’s get past all this exposition and background … let’s get into my rant.

My big problem with F1 is that F1 hates racing, by that, I mean all the things you love about watching a race — like passing, or trying to pass, or trying to go as fast as possible — is either inhibited or prohibited.

When you watch NASCAR race, it’s pretty common to see a bunch of cars that led the race at some point along with massive packs of cars tight to each other.  Even tracks like Daytona, someone can gain or lose the lead multiple times in a single lap.  In F1, unless there is a wreck or a problem in the pits, overtaking (passing) happens so rare that they highlight a track as ‘overtaking is possible’.  There are literally less than a dozen overtakes in a race, sometimes none at all, not just for taking the lead but at every position.  This is mainly due to aerodynamics.  Stock cars in NASCAR are essentially bricks with wheels.  They don’t slide through they air, they plow through it like me at a BBQ all-you-can-eat.  Because of this, when two cars are close to each other, they create a ‘draft’ that makes both cars faster.  Since you are only inches away from the other car gaining speed, passing in NASCAR only needs room on the track, and oval tracks are typically one constant passing lane.  F1 and Indy cars have such a low aerodynamic profile with a high amount of downforce that when they approach other cars their ability to stick to the track becomes more unstable.  The closer one F1 car is to another,  the harder it is to pass.  F1 courses are neat and well designed, but the problem with road courses is that there are few opportunities to pass.  In the end, even if you have the fastest car, you have to be the faster car at one specific corner or one particular straightaway.  Now, these are all the nature of the beast, but it goes beyond that.

Another big difference between NASCAR and F1 is caution periods, where the race is slowed for a wreck or other issues on the track.  NASCAR tends to throw a lot of caution periods, even adding artificial ones for the ‘stage’ style of race.  It’s pretty common to get over a dozen caution periods in NASCAR.  They do this because:
– It tightens up the field leading to more passing
– It gives cars stuck in traffic a chance to compete with those they are faster than
– It allows pit stops to happen with less impact on track position
– It leads to more interesting racing

F1 will try to avoid caution periods like the plague.  Why you may ask? For the same FRICKIN reasons that NASCAR likes them.  F1 believes that slowing the field down and tightening them up is unfair to those who are already at the front — because God Forbid, it may end up making the race more interesting.  Called a ‘Safety Car’ instead of a caution period, these things come up so rare that, like overtaking, they will advertise a race as “We Could Get a Safety Car.”  Seven races into the year and there have been two safety cars deployed.  They even created a thing called the Virtual Safety Car – which substantially slows all cars down to the same speed so tracks can be cleared.  It makes the track safe but doesn’t let anyone … you know … have a reason to improve their position.

What all of this means is that qualifying periods are almost more important than the race.  If you get pole position on a track where overtaking is rare and a safety car isn’t expected, you can essentially park your car in the front and drive around like an elderly person looking for a parking spot outside of the drug store.  During a race, tire wear and fuel can come into play, but if you drive slow enough that doesn’t become a problem – and since no one can pass you, what are they going to do to make you go faster.  In the best example of this, the winner of the 2018 Monaco Grand Prix won the race after losing part of their turbo power with 20 laps to go.  Since they don’t refill the fuel, the car is massively lighter and faster at the end of the race, but this guy was going 5 seconds slower than his first lap.  There was a literal train of cars behind him crossing the finish line, but none could get through.  Slap a marching band in the middle of it, and you would think they were at the Rose Bowl Parade.

Sure, you can still argue … nature of the beast.  This is what it is.  Then this past weekend happened.  The 2019 Canadian Grand Prix was dominated by Sebastian Vettel of Ferarri.  He had the fastest times in practice, won the pole position, even crossed the finish line first; but Lewis Hamilton won the race.  Let me restate that … Vettel crossed the line first but lost.  Arguably, Vettel made one mistake the whole weekend.  He hit the breaks a little late going into a chicane (an s-curve), jumped a rumble strip, missing a wall, and got back control of the car.  Lewis Hamilton had to tap the breaks but wasn’t more than mildly inconvenienced.  In NASCAR, if that would happen there would be some cheering and screaming from the near miss and love for the hard racing … maybe someone would throw a punch, but that’s about it.  In Formula 1, that was considered an ‘Unsafe Reentry onto the track’.  Vettel was given a five-second penalty applied to how he finished.  Passing in F1 is hard, but Hamilton didn’t have to pass – the race stewards just said stay close and you got this.  One analysis and the former driver said about the penalty “F1 has to decide if they want a racing circuit, or just put on the most expensive parades in the world”.

There is literally so little interesting that happens in an F1 race, or in qualifying, or in practice.  These days ESPN will show all five sessions, which when you add it all up is a good 7 hours over a weekend.

And I still watch every bit of it … every race weekend … weekend after weekend like my life depended on it.

But what else I am going to do with my time.  Be productive?

Miss Me?

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I know I’ve haven’t posted the blog in a while, but I was shocked to see that it’s been as long as it has been.  April.  Frickin’ April.  Almost six weeks without a post.  That’s just crazy.  I’m sitting now with a bunch of folks that like to write and drink wine, so I thought I better do something … anything … just to get something out.

Like the hundreds of other times I failed to keep up with my blog, it’s not that things weren’t blog worthy.  There were more things to blog about the last month and a half than most times.  In part, I wasn’t exactly in a blog mood this whole time.  Caught a cold, caught the blues, caught some drama.  Of course, that’s all not fair because what I really caught was the lazy and haven’t just done what I need to do to keep posting.

So what’s been going on?

Well, JPL had our open house.  Two days of electrocuting kids in the name of science.  It was my third year working it, and it keeps being fun.  We fought the rain a bit but still had 25,000 come through our gates.

I spent a couple days in Tempe, AZ.  Uneventful except for catching up with co-workers and having some out of the box enchiladas.

I spent a couple days in Boulder, CO.  Most of it either suffering from a cold, suffering from allergies, or suffering over the altitude.

We went to the Renaissance Faire.  Drank beer, cider, and faire stuff.

It got really really cold.  Like almost freezing, in May.

Now it’s really really hot, like almost 100 today.

I watched a lot of sports.

I watched a lot of dragons and thrones.

I went to work, made the rovers, went to bed.

I’ve got plans to post a bunch more, always did.  Heck, I have five drafts left unfinished in my to-do list; one ironically about my fascination of the most boring sporting series in the world (cookies if you guess it, and it’s not one I’ve been outspoken about on social media).  So expect, hope that I start getting to regularly blog again.

Until then, be patient.