NASA Edge | MMS (Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission) Part Deux
CHRIS: Welcome back to NASA EDGE. I’m here with the MMS team for round 2. We had to get rid of the first nine and we brought in another seven. How are you guys doing?
CHRIS: You said you’re going to do much better than the first group. Right?
GROUP: Of course.
CHRIS: There you go.
JOANNE: That’s not hard.
CHRIS: That’s a good place to start, with Joanne. We had a chance to interview you about a year ago or so.
CHRIS: A lot has happened since then. As a test engineer, what have you done in the past year?
JOANNE: In the last year, we have finished building four spacecraft. We’ve taken them through lots of different types of tests. We’ve done vibration testing. We’ve done thermal vac testing. We’ve stacked all four of them and shaken the stack to simulate the loads it will see during launch. We’ve done lots, and lots, and lots of testing, and integrated lots, and lots, and lots of instruments.
CHRIS: How long did it take you to stack those four spacecraft?
JOANNE: Well, honestly it took us about four days to get through the stacking process because there’s a lot of prep work we have to do. We also have to bag the spacecraft because the vibration cell we put it in is not as clean as our cleanrooms. That took a long time. It took us about a month to actually run through the whole test.
CHRIS: Wow. Justin, you work with Joanne?
CHRIS: We’ve got to settle this right at the beginning. How was her performance on her first NASA EDGE show?
JUSTIN: Top notch.
CHRIS: Top notch. See?
JOANNE: I trained him well.
CHRIS: Justin, as a test engineer you pretty much do the same things as Joanne is working on?
JUSTIN: Not really. I work with the different, various subsystems to write code using a language that NASA invented to create the test we run during the various environmental testing.
CHRIS: NASA invented it. What kind of code is that? Is it basic?
JUSTIN: It is very similar to basic.
CHRIS: Is it? Is that a long process to develop that code and work with that code?
JUSTIN: Yeah. We make a lot of changes to it throughout the test as we learn what doesn’t work and what does work.
CHRIS: What were some of the challenges you had to face during that time?
JUSTIN: We’ve had a couple different hardware failures that we’ve had to take the boxes back off the spacecraft and have various pieces of hardware reworked. We have had several software problems but we upgrade the software when we find bugs.
CHRIS: So, just like any other mission, when you’re building a satellite or you’re building a spacecraft, you come up with these anomalies, these issues. That’s why you’re engineers. You test. You break things. You rebuild them. You come up with new parts. Oscar, a few months away; March is coming up. Are you getting nervous yet?
OSCAR: Yeah, definitely getting nervous. We’re doing a lot of mission rehearsal testing trying to get the team ready for launch and commission phase now.
CHRIS: You have an important task because you’re involved with the guidance and navigation with the spacecraft. So if it goes off course, do we come to you?
OSCAR: You’ll probably first come to me and I’ll go to the subsystem experts depending on what caused the problem.
OSCAR: If it’s a propulsion system problem, we’ll talk to the propulsion PDLs, Project Design Lead, if I got that right. Close enough.
CHRIS: There are so many acronyms at NASA. How do you keep track of all of them?
OSCAR: I hear there’s actually a website that talks about all the acronyms NASA uses.
CHRIS: Oh really.
OSCAR: That’s what I’ve heard. I haven’t actually seen it.
CHRIS: I should probably take a college course.
OSCAR: Yes, that in itself. If it’s a problem with the controller, that would be the ACS system, the Attitude Control System. If there’s any problems with the navigation side of things or obit determination, we’ll work with either the Navigator Hardware Team or the Flight Dynamics Team.
CHRIS: That must be really challenging having four identical, I should say it in quotes, “identical” because you said they all have personalities.
OSCAR: They all do.
CHRIS: Four spacecraft in a tight flying formation throughout the whole mission. That’s really challenging from a guidance and navigation perspective.
OSCAR: It is. It’s extremely challenging. The four spacecraft are in a tetrahedron where when we get towards what is known as the region of interest, that’s where we have to maintain what we call quality factor; how well the tetrahedron is through that region of interest. As we’re approaching towards and different parts of the orbit, the spacecraft actually get closer together and will pass each other in their orbits. That’s definitely one of the areas we’re concerned about, is them getting to close together.
CHRIS: Is there going to be a certain point during the mission that you may see a point of interest that didn’t come up before and you’ll have to expand that tetrahedron or reduce the size of it? You can do that on the fly if you had to?
OSCAR: We do that. There are, I think, three different tetrahedron sizes that we look at or scale sizes, 10 km, I think, 25 km, and maybe a 150 km. During the early part of the mission, the scientists are taking a look and seeing what scale size is the right size to measure these reconnection events. Once you get to the primary phase, they’ll choose a size.
CHRIS: Sitting to your left is Toni and you’re involved with configuration management for MMS. What does that entail?
TONI: I’m controlling all of the project documentation and putting it out for review/release, making it available to the team, and work orders, that sort of thing.
CHRIS: You have the power of the pen. You could actually change a little something here or there if you had to. Huh?
TONI: I don’t go around talking about it.
CHRIS: So, Oscar’s performance plan, you could just change that from an A to an E if you had to or an A to F.
TONI: He gets an A.
CHRIS: That’s a lot of work. I can’t imagine the stacks of paperwork for a mission especially MMS, with four spacecraft.
TONI: Close to 6,000 work orders, right now.
CHRIS: Six thousand work orders?
TONI: Mm hum. About 5400 and 14 are closed. It’s a good number.
CHRIS: I have to say you’re pretty good with numbers.
TONI: Mm, that’s it. That’s as far as I go. Yeah.
CHRIS: I’ve got to ask this question, Bobby. Engine Valve Drive engineer. Last time I looked at a college diploma, I didn’t see an engine valve drive engineer there. Usually it’s aerospace, mechanical, electrical.
BOBBY: That’s correct.
CHRIS: Did you make that up yourself?
BOBBY: I try to find lots of titles on the project and fill those needs. I’m a mechanical engineer for the project. I’m the Engine Valve Drive Lead. Engine valve drive is basically what drives the spacecraft. As Oscar mentioned earlier ACS…
CHRIS: What does ACS stand for?
BOBBY: Attitude Control System.
BOBBY: They want to move the spacecraft so they do their software. They tell EVD to fire a thruster. They handle the actual firing of thrusters at their predetermined duration and sequence. We handle the hardware portion of actually firing the thrusters. We work in concert with the propulsion system as well. It’s a big effort, as a unit. It’s not just one single system.
CHRIS: Were you involved in determining that hydrogen was going to be used?
CHRIS: So you’re not part of that?
BOBBY: No, I’m not. That would probably be propulsion. Stuff I don’t know about.
BOBBY: That’s a little out of my range.
CHRIS: I think it’s fair to say Kenny doesn’t have a cool name. He’s just a mechanical engineer but you’re engine valve drive.
BOBBY: I am the Engine Valve Drive.
CHRIS: Which is pretty cool.
BOBBY: It is pretty cool. We shorten it. We call it EVD.
CHRIS: Ok. EVD.
BOBBY: We’re always “go.”
CHRIS: All right Bobby, I don’t know if you knew this but you actually have an Education/Public Outreach Lead for the mission. He’s sitting to your right.
TROY: Hey, how are you doing? Nice to meet you.
CHRIS: So Troy…
TROY: Thanks, Chris.
CHRIS: I’m going to say EPO Lead and see if people know that means Education/Public Outreach.
TROY: That’s right.
CHRIS: You have a pretty cool job.
TROY: I do.
CHRIS: You have all the engineers working on the project. You have scientists working on the project. Sometimes, let’s face it, it’s just honesty, it’s tough for the scientists to deliver that information in a very easy way to the public. That’s where you come in.
TROY: I like to think of myself as a translator. I end up working with various people that I talk to in the mission. Whether it’s engineers, scientists, technicians or even photographers in the various career fields. I end up having a conversation with them and with the Office of Communication folks and we find a little bit more about their story and try to piece together how we can translate into something classrooms, museums, general public can use. That goes into a variety of projects we work on.
CHRIS: Over the past several years, as you’ve been engaging the public, talking to them about the MMS spacecraft. You have some cool outreach material from models to Lego models to the cut outs. How have the kids been inspired? To me, when you look at four identical spacecraft, you see this in a tetrahedron pattern, there’s a lot from an education standpoint you can teach these kids. What have you been doing to enhance that MMS mission?
TROY: When I came on board with the mission, they said one of your biggest challenges with this particular mission is the concept is very abstract for the public. You need to work on ways with our team to find ways to help the public try to take that in a usable, digestible way that makes sense to them for how does this affect me here on Earth, and why would I care? What I found out is when you go into classrooms and you talk to different groups, when you first say Magnetosphere Multiscale Mission, if you’re not careful, you’ll see eyes start to glaze over. I immediately come in there and start talking about magnetic explosions in space, and the trigger of space weather and how we’re flying four spacecraft almost like a jet formation around the Earth for two years. When you start talking in those types of engineering terms and mix the science in, eyes start to brighten up a little bit. People get very interested in it.
CHRIS: The analogy of a jet formation going around the Earth, you can use this. It’s free of charge. Wouldn’t you classify yourselves as the Blue Angels of NASA?
TROY: I think that’s a great idea.
CHRIS: Troy, in terms of Education Public Outreach, you have a counter part which is Public Affairs. That’s where Susan comes in. Susan, while Troy’s in the classrooms talking to informal educators, you are dealing with issues from the public.
CHRIS: What’s that role as a Public Affairs person?
SUSAN: I basically take the science and the mission and I try to break it down like Troy does and make it digestible enough for reporters, news media. Reporters and news media these days don’t do a specific beat. So, you have to be able to explain things to them. What is difficult about this mission is the visuals. It’s not like SDO, which has really pretty pictures of the sun, or Earth Science missions that show hurricanes and wild fires. We have a team that works with us that actually do the visuals. We have a web person. We have Science writer. We work together to get the story out.
CHRIS: When the four spacecraft are orbiting around the Earth, you’re not really seeing magnetic reconnection, are you, with the naked eye?
CHRIS: You’re only getting it in situ through science instruments based on a set of numbers and data. When you bring that data back, it’s the scientists’ job to decipher that and synthesize that. I can see in one sense it’s hard to get the public excited about seeing nothing.
CHRIS: But it’s still pretty cool from the engineering aspect to be able to pull that off to learn about magnetic reconnection and do it in a way that’s very challenging. It’s got to be very rewarding for all of you.
TROY: It really is a challenge. That’s why it’s very important for us in education and communications to reach out and partner with other organizations that are very good along with NASA that we can work with to do outreach. For instance, the International Society of Technology and Education, they’re just experts at helping us get to the public with great outreach materials that are cutting edge, educational technology, such as 3D printing. We’re starting to learn how to use that. We’re also getting into real serious model building with hobbyists, groups, and clubs. We have one incredible model. All of those materials are going to be ready to download shortly.
CHRIS: Now Joanne, let’s assume we have a successful launch in March. Atlas V goes up. The four spacecraft are deployed. You go through your 5-month test period. Every thing checks out and now you’re into your mission. Just for the sake, let’s say there’s an anomaly on board one of the spacecraft. Does the team then come back together that worked on it and try to figure out what’s going on and come up with a solution to that problem?
JOANNE: Yes. During the mission, if there’s a problem with one of the components, they’ll call up…. Actually, Oscar gets called up a lot from his previous missions to help solve problems. We’d definitely pull on everybody on the team who needs to solve problems.
CHRIS: Oscar, it seems like you have some experience from past missions.
OSCAR: That’s correct.
CHRIS: Can you share some of those examples?
OSCAR: The past mission I most recently have been working on is LRO, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. There have been different anomalies that have occurred where we’ve entered what I call Sun Safe. I get called back in to help diagnose what happened, what caused us to enter those, and then to get us back into the observing mode and to science operations.
CHRIS: Very cool. Are there any stories that you can share from the past 3, 4, 5 years. Maybe it was something in a lab that was pretty funny; something that happened where you had to really come up with a unique solution to solve. Was there anything that was challenging that you can think of that you care to share?
OSCAR: I’ll pass to Joanne.
JOANNE: Let’s see. We did have one of our transporters burn up one time. We were transporting one of our spacecraft to the Naval Research Lab for our thermal vac test. We noticed there was smoke coming out from the truck. We had the fire department. We had some of our folks get the fire extinguishers out. Luckily, our spacecraft was fine but that was pretty exciting and kind of scary. We did have to redesign our transporter pretty quickly. We had to come up with different solutions so we were ready to take our spacecraft back and bring the other spacecraft back to NRL.
CHRIS: What you’re saying is Toni had about another 1,000 pieces of paperwork she had to do to make that happen.
JOANNE: Yes. And Michelle had a lot of work to do. Since she is the safety engineer, she had a lot of work.
CHRIS: In considering something like that from the public affairs side, I’m sure you had to be involved. Anytime something happens where you have an anomaly.
SUSAN: That’s a call I never want to get and I did. We work closely with the project team, project managers, and the leads. We make sure we have all our details straight and information is correct, and we go ahead and release it to the public. Stuff like this does happen. It’s important to work together to make sure the message is correct to get out.
CHRIS: Justin, going back to you as far as a test engineer and working with software. Is your job still functional as the spacecraft is orbiting around the Earth?
JUSTIN: Yeah, I’m also part of the flight operations team that will be managing the flight of the spacecraft after launch.
CHRIS: Is that sort of a subset of the entire team that will stick around? In other words, does your entire team become more of a skeleton crew during the actual mission or are you still intact?
JOANNE: A lot of our system engineers and subsystem leads will definitely be there at the beginning. I think once, as Justin is a part of flight operations team, there’s a core team that actually flies the mission for the two years. They work with the scientists, get the data down, and put the spacecraft in the right orientations. Part of the team does continue on through the operations sections. A lot of the other people go on to different missions.
CHRIS: Bobby, you are the Engine Valve Drive engineer. I love that, EVD. That’s really cool. Are you the only one at NASA that’s an EVD?
BOBBY: Yeah, I think so.
CHRIS: I’ve never heard of that before.
BOBBY: They call it PDE and other things on other missions. I think I could be the only EVD lead on NASA.
CHRIS: So you’d still stay on?
BOBBY: Yeah, I’ll stay for commissioning. Once we hand it over the flight ops team, like you mentioned earlier, unless there’s an anomaly, we won’t be supporting but we’ll support through commissioning.
CHRIS: Who’s going to be controlling the spacecraft once it’s in orbit and collecting data? Is Goddard responsible for handling.
CHRIS: So you’re going to be sitting on console throughout the day making sure the spacecraft are healthy.
JUSTIN: Yeah, for those 5 months of commissioning it will be running 24 hours a day.
CHRIS: You’re not going to be in there with a joystick and say, I want to play some games and change the tetrahedron shape of this.
JUSTIN: Yeah, it doesn’t work like that.
CHRIS: Let’s say you have to change the orientation of the spacecraft. How long does that take from the time you set the commands to the time the spacecraft receives it and starts to move?
OSCAR: From the time we send the commands, I’m trying to think of the right way to answer this question. The commands are all onboard. So, we do it through an automated sequence. Once we enter the mode, it takes a few minutes by the time we’ve changed the size of the formation. We actually did a mission readiness test last week where we were changing the formation size and the menu was rolled out in the order of a couple minutes.
CHRIS: Is there any point throughout the orbits that you’ll lose contact with the spacecraft?
OSCAR: That we lose contact with the spacecraft? With our whole orbit, we have good view periods to all the stations. It’s just what’s available and how much contact time we need. For our mission, normally we have, per orbit, which is about a day for phase 1, we’ll have one DSN pass plus two passes with TDRS, which is near perigee. So we’ll have a pre-perigee and post perigee of TDRS passes. When we have maneuvers, we’ll have an additional DSN pass.
CHRIS: And that is Deep Space Network?
OSCAR: Yes, sir. Deep Space Network. And I don’t remember what TDRS stands for.
CHRIS: Tracking…. Yeah, right. We covered TDRS and I still don’t. I’ve got to take the course with the website.
CHRIS: I do a question that I want each of you to answer. We’ll start with you Susan and we’ll go down the line. How has this mission impacted your life over the past several years?
SUSAN: Actually, all the heliophysics missions impact my life because I’ve learned so much. I don’t have a Science background. I’ve learned so much about the Science, the Sun-Earth connection. When you talk about what happens on the sun, it’s 93 million miles away but it can affect us here in our technology. That’s how it’s impacted me.
JOANNE: MMS, for me, has been a big exercise in logistics. Trying to plan every day what we’re doing has been quite an experience. Also, working with everybody has been great. I’ve made a lot of new, good friends.
CHRIS: It sounds like when you retire from NASA, you could become president of UPS.
JOANNE: I’ll think about that one.
CHRIS: Oscar, what about you?
OSCAR: The biggest take away from MMS is the logistics of things, four spacecraft, making sure we update things as we test. One of the things we do when we build single spacecraft, you do procedures, tests. You do it one time. You take those lessons learned, you may or may not fold them in here, we have to fold them in to make our lives easier as we continue on.
TONI: What was the question again?
CHRIS: How has MMS impacted your life since you’ve been working on the project?
TONI: I think here at Goddard it helped. I’ve learned to be more organized. Again, with the four spacecraft and trying to keep things separate in the way that we track data. We’ve talked about the fact that they were numbers 1, 2, 3, & 4. Each one is color coded also. I don’t know if anybody said that. Within our data base, we’ve actually made it so you’re entering a work order. Depending on what observatory you are choosing, it’s actually coming up on your screen in that color. When we print it, we print your work order on the same color paper.
TONI: We’ve definitely overcome challenges from the very beginning.
CHRIS: You’re pretty much making life easier for the engineers and scientists.
TONI: We hope so. We hope so.
JUSTIN: This is actually my first mission out of college. I’m just learning the logistics of how it actually works and how spacecraft are really built.
CHRIS: I’m going to stay with you for one second. You’re just fresh out of college. Do you think college has prepared you for the MMS mission?
JUSTIN: Yeah. I would say they did a pretty good job.
CHRIS: Pretty good job. Okay, good. Troy.
TROY: I think the biggest take away for me was learning how to deal with very difficult people like Susan. I just had to through it out. No, we get along great.
TROY: I work right beside her. I have to be careful. Actually, being able to work with the variety of people I am exposed to on this mission has been incredible. I get to take that and get to see the expressions on people’s faces when I tell them about a different type of career that they could actually follow and pursue. For me, it’s all about the passion of why people here do what they do and trying to figure out a way to convey that out to the public.
CHRIS: And the only Engine Valve Driver at NASA.
BOBBY: What I take away is what I was brought here to work MMS. That’s why I was brought here. MMS has afforded me lots of opportunities to grow career wise and within my peers. The project as a whole has afforded lots of people lots of opportunity to work in other areas where they might not usually work and see what’s a good fit; really understand how Joanne handles INT, how she does an excellent job doing it. It’s a lot going on for all of us. I think it’s been a great opportunity. I’m excited and thankful to be a part of it.
CHRIS: Well said. I want to thank all of you for participating in this event. We’re so looking forward to this launch come March; seeing the MMS spacecraft perform. Actually, seeing the first data come back down and see if you actually have magnetic reconnection.
BOBBY: That’s true. It better be there.
CHRIS: Thank you again. Thank you so much for joining us in this special edition of NASA EDGE. Our intent was to get a look at how a team functions together. Normally, when we do our video podcasts we’re interviewing engineers and scientists one on one but this is a first chance of getting a group of people together, hear their responses, and see how they interact with each other. Thank you for watching NASA EDGE, an inside and outside look at all things NASA.