Alfonso Feria

Who would have thought that a man who maintains two-way communication between NASA and its spacecraft doesn't own a pager or cell phone?

Alfonso Feria is the man who lives that paradox. He began his career at JPL nine years ago as a member of the technical staff, doing analysis on ground antennas.

Feria was born and raised in Mexico City. From an early age, he was always quite inventive.

"I always liked to take things apart and put them back together." While he focused much of his time on his studies, he always found his way back to inventing.

"I've been working my whole life." Indeed, by age 6 he was selling walnuts he had picked from his aunt's tree to folks in his apartment building. At age 10, he worked as a construction worker, by age 14 he had an office job as an account assistant, and during his college years he was an auto mechanic. While working toward his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, Feria held six different jobs.

"I needed the rent break while supporting my wife and myself through school so I was my building's manager, painter and held part-time jobs as car mechanic, proctor, programmer and research assistant."

Now, he is a mechanical engineer at JPL and supervisor of the Antenna Mechanical and Structural Engineering group in charge of maintaining NASA's Deep Space Network, the largest telecommunications system in the world for communicating with spacecraft.

Phoning home

"My job is to support the Deep Space Network, which is managed by JPL. It involves doing analysis of antenna designs, upgrades, fabrication, construction," he said. "This job has also allowed me to visit many exotic places like Australia, Spain, Germany and Mexico," as proved by the numerous photo albums that cram his desk drawers.

Just as ET phoned home in the popular movie, spacecraft traveling way beyond our solar system can also phone home. However, they don't use an ordinary telephone.

Instead spacecraft rely on the Deep Space Network, a global communication network that consists of clusters of antennas at three sites, spaced approximately one-third of the way around Earth from each other so they can cover spacecraft in any direction as the world turns. Each station has one 70-meter (230-foot) diameter antenna, plus several smaller ones ranging from 11 meters (36 feet) to 34 meters (112 feet).

"JPL has a growing number of spacecraft and longer missions. The network is constantly being upgraded and improved. We are currently building a new 34-meter (112-foot) diameter antenna near Madrid, Spain, that will help track the many space missions planned for future years."

Astronomical Traffic Jam

The new antenna is in response to the growing number of interplanetary missions. In late 2003 and early 2004, the United States, Europe and Japan will each have missions arriving at Mars, two other spacecraft will be encountering comets, and a third comet mission will launch. Several other missions will have continuing communication needs.

"We have a lot of work ahead of us as we build this new antenna. It's something we need, otherwise we may have a traffic jam on our hands."

NASA plans to land two rovers on Mars in early 2004. Building a new 34-meter antenna in Madrid would add about 70 hours of spacecraft-tracking time per week during the periods when Mars is in view of Madrid.

"I was responsible for identifying a contractor, reviewing the designs of the dish and assigning personnel to be on site to support the construction phase."

Making or Breaking a Dish

The Madrid antenna is the biggest piece in about $54 million worth of improvements that NASA has set as priorities for increasing the Deep Space Network's capabilities by late 2003. Other parts of the plan would improve the capabilities of existing antennas at all three of the network's tracking complexes: Madrid; Canberra, Australia; and Goldstone, near Barstow, Calif.

Feria says troubleshooting comes with the territory, a result of the aging giants.

"I've never owned a pager or cell phone but I do have a list of everyone's home and work numbers just in case of an emergency."

One such emergency occurred during the 1992 Landers earthquake when a universal joint broke off the 70-meter antenna in Goldstone and brought down its subreflector that weighs more than 6,000 kilograms (6 tons).

"Luckily for us, the subreflector rested on the antenna quadripod and not the ground. We got it up and running fast. JPL built most of these dishes for NASA in the 60's. We are constantly making upgrades. Our reach is also limited because we can only hear so far. We need to look at new technology and capabilities to support new missions."

One of the emerging technologies that may aid the ground antennas is inflatable technology. Feria coincidently once worked within the inflatable antennas group and thinks inflatable technology may hold promise for aiding the ground-based antennas.

The idea behind inflatable technology is to pack lightweight materials into small packages and launch them at a low cost. Once in space, the antenna inflates and serves as a space-based antenna capable of relaying information from distant spacecraft to ground antennas.

Not surprisingly, Feria is active in many extracurricular activities at JPL. He is a member of the Advisory Committee on Minority Affairs and is an active member of the Asian American Council and Amigos Unidos. He is also an advisor for the Large Millimeter Telescope project, a joint venture between the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the government of Mexico. More information on the project is available online at http://www.lmtgtm.org/. The 50-meter (164-foot) diameter telescope will lay on top of Cerro La Negra, Puebla, next to the highest peak in Mexico. Working in his homeland has given Feria a chance to share his knowledge and open space exploration to his countrymen. It also fulfills his lifelong passion to invent.

"When I was young I always wanted to be an inventor and thus becoming an engineer gave me the tools and allowed me the freedom to design and be creative."

Information on the Deep Space Network is available at http://deepspace.jpl.nasa.gov/dsn .