Commercial orbit Space: The nation's space program is being shifted to commercial interests. At the Goddard Space Flight Center, operations teams watch dozens of satellites.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Nearly 28 years after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and about 400 years before the voyages of the starship Enterprise, Tammy Vajo slid her adjustable maroon office chair up to the computer.

She had just popped Abba Gold into a CD player. "Dancing Queen" bubbled along under the constant subterranean rush of microprocessor cooling fans. Vajo typed in bursts, like gusts of rain hitting a plastic roof. The readout to her left indicated 17: 17 Zulu Time. The satellite would be in range in a matter of moments.

Lisa Schlader, at another terminal just beyond the clock, was calling up pages of data that would soon bloom with fresh green numbers as the link with the tracking station went live.

"One minute to AOS," someone with a Latin accent crackled over the Voice Data System, a kind of flesh-colored radio with a telephone handset.

It was Santiago, Chile, notifying Vajo that Acquisition of Signal was imminent.

"Copy," Vajo said into the handset.

A countdown display under the clock reached all zeros, then started counting up. Schlader's 21-inch monitor began flickering with new data.

The Fast Auroral Snapshot Explorer -- known as FAST -- was releasing an invisible shower of telemetry, data points, frames, channels -- a river of electrons dropping 1,100 miles into the 9-meter funnel of the Santiago satellite dish. From there the stream would flow north on a land line, shoot up to another satellite, then bounce back down to the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt and onto two terminals in the Small Mission Explorer flight operations center.

Vajo, a year younger than Armstrong's footprints on the moon, and Schlader, a year older than the Abba song "Waterloo," were overseeing the flow.

Operating engineer Rick Saylor, 26, walked out of his office and looked on for a moment, then announced he was leaving for a meeting. He had to plan for next week's special maneuver, in which FAST would increase its spin from 11.8 revolutions per minute to 12.

At other offices all around them in Building 3, other flight operations teams bent over their computers and pulled invisible strings on some two dozen satellites. Most of the engineers worked for either AlliedSignal Technical Services Corp. of Columbia or the Calverton office of Computer Sciences Corp.

Cubicles, team meetings and stock options have not completely eliminated the natural grazing range of the wild-haired scientist with mismatched socks, but the day-to-day management of space is increasingly businesslike.

Next year, NASA will throw all unmanned space operations open to commercial bidding. Even the Space Shuttle is now being run by a combination of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co.

It's where we are on the continuum between Apollo and Star Trek. Space is a desk job.

Saylor and Vajo both arrived at work before 8 a.m., a little earlier than usual, though their hours are not always regular.

When they arrive early during the winter, it's still dark. If they work 12-hour shifts, it's dark when they leave, and they joke about their windowless office with its drop ceiling and unnatural microwave hum being a basement for creatures of the night.

Over the poles

This day last week, the morning sky was a towering blue. You almost could have seen clear up to where the 400-pound FAST satellite spun silently along in its orbit. Except that at that hour, the craft was over the Indian Ocean near Madagascar.

FAST travels over both poles of the Earth in an elliptical path that can be as low as 220 miles and as high as 2,600 miles -- roughly as far straight up as from Baltimore to New York or Baltimore to San Francisco.

The little octagonal box was put there in August so scientists at the University of California at Berkeley and a few other institutions could study auroras, which may look like mysterious sheets of heavenly light but are really solar ions excited by the Earth's magnetic field. Auroras happen in high latitudes because the magnetic field sticks up over the poles like Don King's hair.

Like so many other buildings on Goddard's manicured campus of lawns and cherry trees, Mission Operations is a jumble of brick and concrete knit by stairwells and hallways.

Up one flight, down another and around several corners, Saylor's office is deep in the network of flight operations centers that riddle the building. Each is like a miniature version of the Houston Control everyone has seen in grainy TV footage from the Apollo days, but more Dilbert-like, full of cubicles and coffee cups.

Signs in the powder-blue hallway denote each mission: XTE, TRMM, SMEX. The Hubble Space Telescope is monitored in this building.

Saylor and 14 colleagues make up the SMEX -- Small Mission Explorer -- flight operations team. Like the other teams, they're not concerned with the science of the mission. If this was Star Trek, they would be Scotty. They keep the spacecraft running, fix its problems, chart its thermal data points and battery voltage and attitude. If the captain wants more power, they find a way to make it so.

Juggling satellites

The SMEX team is unusual because it handles more than one satellite. Besides FAST, they have SAMPEX -- Solar Anomalous and Magnetospheric Particle Explorer -- which has been aloft five years. Three more missions are in line for launch, though the next on the list got bumped last year with about 10 minutes to go before ignition. There was an equipment problem on the aircraft that drops the rocket that carries the satellite. Now it could be a year before the unit gets another shot.

The SMEX missions are related to one another as part of NASA's new fetish for doing things "better, faster, cheaper." At $60 million or so a pop, SMEX missions are little blue-light specials that use off-the-shelf technology -- not exactly Kmart in space; more like something a really, really well-connected engineer might put together in his garage.

When Saylor got to the office, he fired up the computer for the morning's first pass, which is when the satellite crosses the range of a tracking station and dumps its data.

FAST was scheduled for four passes during the day. The computers pick up nighttime passes automatically.

At 13: 06 Zulu Time -- five hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time -- FAST was way up above Inhambane, Mozambique. It still had more than 15,000 kilometers to travel before it would get in range of the tracking station in Poker Flats, Alaska. It would cover that distance in about half an hour.

Saylor and Vajo were the first two in the office, so they took the terminals. Vajo would handle command, Saylor analysis, though both have progressed beyond those positions in their young careers.

Young commanders

"Command" sounds impressive but is the most basic entry-level post. AlliedSignal hires many flight operations team members straight out of undergraduate school. Aside from two SMEX managers in their 30s and 40s, Vajo and a colleague are the oldest at 27.

Schlader, 24, started last fall on command but has completed training to do analysis, which is where you look at the information coming in and make sure the satellite is healthy. Command is setting up the link and telling the satellite what to do, such as reset the clock or clear an instrument that has dumped its information.

The team's division of AlliedSignal has been under contract to monitor satellites ever since Goddard opened in the late 1950s, though back then the unit was part of Bendix. In a rare partnering arrangement with Computer Sciences Corp., the workers on various missions process 55 gigabits of data a day -- information equivalent to about 5,500 John Grisham novels, but more useful.

This FAST pass would be a short one, only 9 minutes, so Saylor knew he could only accomplish a few tasks. The craft downloaded its engineering data, and Saylor had Vajo clear the banks so it could accumulate more. It spewed out science data, which went to another processing center at Goddard.

One line of telemetry came up red, which indicates what is known as an "anomaly." Anomalies are usually bad for the spacecraft, but good for the flight operations team. They make things interesting.

Last fall, three days before FAST was going to launch, the SAMPEX satellite suffered a big anomaly. The tracking station at Wallops Island, Va., took a lightning strike during a pass, and SAMPEX went dead. They couldn't get the craft to do anything.

Rebooting in space

For 24 hours, the operations team tried to wake SAMPEX up. Finally, the scientists who built it told Saylor to turn the machine off and turn it back on again, sort of like rebooting a desktop computer. It was an all-or-nothing move. Engineers are not a sentimental bunch, but they do get used to working with a particular satellite. It's usually an emotional event when one "re-enters," which in engineer-speak means "dies" in the same way that "interface" means "talk to."

The reboot worked, but when SAMPEX came back to life it was blank. It had to relearn how to communicate and perform its functions.

Meanwhile, FAST was ready to launch, which brought dozens of outsiders to the little operations center. The combination of events meant about two weeks of solid work with no time off for the team.

The current anomaly on FAST turned out to be negligible. The machine was just letting them know that a certain switch had been tripped a lot, mainly from the flight operations team turning it on and off. Saylor had Vajo clear the switch. By that time, the pass was just about complete. Other tasks would have to wait until later.

When the pass finished, Vajo went into her office to build the command load for the next 24 hours. This is the string of computer commands that tells the satellite what to do.

She took a daily menu of science tasks sent in from Berkeley, a regimen of maintenance commands and some flight dynamics adjustments and clicked each with her mouse. The software meshed them into a single chain of instructions.

On the wall over Vajo's desk, along with a couple of Dilbert cartoons, a Fruitopia label and some certificates of achievement, was a photograph of FAST in the clean room before launch. It's the one reminder that beyond the gray metal desks and fluorescent lights and through the reaches of the atmosphere to the fringe of space is this machine, an actual spacecraft, that Vajo and her teammates can control with the click of a keyboard.

The next pass, at midmorning, was another short one. It wasn't until the 34-minute Santiago pass that Saylor could have Vajo send up the command load, along with a number of other tasks -- adjusting the clock, clearing the engineering data.

Other team members had arrived. After Vajo's Abba disc finished, someone else would get to select something from the small communal library of music -- Indigo Girls, Genesis, Blues Traveler, Neil Young.

Everyone chipped in $10 to buy the sound system. They also go out to dinner together, play golf together, ski together -- and even hire and evaluate one another.

None is old enough to remember Apollo 11, or really any of the manned moon missions. They are as likely to have been inspired by Star Trek as by Apollo. Just as often, the primary inspiration that got the team members into the space program was that of getting a paycheck.

"I sent resumes out and weighed the responses," Schlader said.

Saylor, who grew up working at his father's lumber mill in Pennsylvania and has all 79 original Star Trek episodes on videotape, found it easier to specialize in space engineering than in the broader field of aeronautics.

"Do I feel any kinship with the old Apollo team? No," Vajo said. "Maybe only when I saw the movie 'Apollo 13.' "

"There's a line in that movie that's kind of our slogan around here. It's, um, something like, 'There's never been a loss of life on my watch, and there's not going to be one now.' Something like that. We use that a lot on SAMPEX," Saylor said.

Team member John Nagy gave a smirk. "Well put, Rick," he said.

"Well, it would have been better if I could remember the quote," Saylor said.

No Klingons, but lost data

The problem with science fiction, Vajo said, and especially Star Trek, is that it's hard to make the connection between that and what they do at the Small Mission Explorer flight operations office.

"Star Trek doesn't show them dealing with the day-to-day tasks. Their problems are so much grander. They don't have problems where the data drops out, and you lose data, and then you have to account for that to the government," Vajo said.

There is one thing she can do to get a sense of awe. She walks up the hill to Building 7, where scientists in white "bunny suits" work in dirt-free chambers to build satellites, some of which the ,, SMEX team will one day control from their computers.

"To see the spacecraft being built, and see the clean room, and see the Shuttle mock-up -- that impresses me," Vajo said.

As she was speaking, the Voice Data System barked at her.

"FAST ops," she replied.

"Transmitter is off," Santiago said.

"Copy."

The tracking station was reporting that FAST had stopped transmitting. Vajo had sent the command earlier. The transmitter had to cycle off, then back on, or the battery would run down. It came back on for four more minutes of dumping.

Pub Date: 4/06/97

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
27°