March 4, 2003
If the producers of Jeopardy do call Sara Hyman, who recently passed the game show's qualifying tests, she won't be expecting anything related to her job to turn up as a category. Though mission operations assurance hasn't yet worked its way into popular culture, it does share with the quiz show the need to know at least a smattering about a lot of different subjects.
"For this job," says Hyman, mission operations assurance manager for the ocean-observing satellite Topex/Poseidon, "you need to understand a little bit about everything that goes into a spacecraft. It is also nice to have an understanding of software and how it works, but you don't necessarily need to know how to read code."
Hyman joined the Topex/Poseidon team three and a half years before the satellite launched more than a decade ago. The satellite and its follow-on Jason-1 make detailed measurements of sea-surface height for studies of global climate and ocean circulation.
"Basically, I work with people who fly the satellite to try to remove problems before they get to the satellites and hurt it. When there is a problem, I participate in the investigation and recovery." In addition to Topex/Poseidon, Hyman also works on mission operations assurance with colleague Hui-Yin Shaw for Jason-1, launched last year, and the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer instrument flying on the Terra satellite.
Hyman began her JPL career in 1988 doing software product assurance -- working with software writers to eliminate bugs or errors -- for the Deep Space Network and the Space Flight Operations Center. The following year, she began helping with ground system software development for the Topex/Poseidon mission. After the satellite launched in 1992, she moved into mission operation and command assurance management. "I got into this first looking for the cause of problems in operations software and then errors in operations," she says.
"There is an investigation whenever an error occurs," says Hyman. "It could be something as simple as a communication line going down between here and the French ground station because a router hiccupped or as serious as the satellite going into safe mode. Part of my job is to make sure that all the necessary questions are asked and answered. An anomaly report is written that describes what happened, why it happened, and what we're going to do keep it from happening again. The idea is to not keep repeating mistakes."
"What I like most about my job is that I've learned so much about how satellites and their various sub-systems work," Hyman says. The downside, she says, is being perceived as a cop. "We're the people who say 'you can't do that' or 'you have to report that.'"
Born in Hollywood, California, Hyman grew up in the Olympic/Fairfax neighborhood of Los Angeles. "I became a valley girl right after high school," Hyman says of her family's move across the Hollywood Hills to Encino. She earned her bachelor's degree in math at UCLA. "I was planning to study archaeology, but I got a "D" in my first anthropology course, so I switched to math where I was making "A's." After graduation, Hyman spent a year in Israel as a visiting student at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. When she returned, she took a job as a programmer for a high-tech company in the San Fernando Valley. Her next move was to JPL.
While Hyman and her widowed mother, a retired banker, have remained valley residents, Hyman's sister Marsha, now lives in Israel with her husband and three children.
Now for Something Completely Different
On weekends, Hyman often leaves the 21st century behind and takes on another persona -- Anne FitzAlan of Castle Combe. As an active member of the Society of Creative Anachronism, Hyman assumes the name, dress and personal history of a fictitious medieval or renaissance character for the group's many social functions. "The society is devoted to studying and re-creating pre-17th century European history," says Hyman. "We have a court with a king and queen, put on feasts, do crafts, make costumes, and study heraldry. There's something going on every week."
She also enjoys going to the theater. "I don't just mean a couple of plays a year," says Hyman, "I'm talking about 20 or more times a year."
Hyman may not make it on to Jeopardy -- she qualified once before a few years ago but wasn't called. However, she is a regular participant, though not a contestant, in two other challenging competitions -- the Science Bowl and Ocean Sciences Bowl. She volunteers each year to help staff the regional events of these national science competitions for high school students. "It's fun, says Hyman, "but I find it intimidating. These kids are so smart."