He's already been a classical violinist and a professional snowboarder. Now mechanical/aerospace engineering student and Montana-native Andrew Crawford is learning what it's like to intern at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He'll share his experiences as an intern in the Deep Space Network's Antenna Mechanical group and the stories of the fascinating people he encounters.

Andrew Crawford and Todd Barber in mission control at JPL

There are certain people in life that exude such enthusiasm and passion, that you are helpless to escape their tractor beam of positivity. This summer, during my second internship at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., I was fortunate enough to meet and befriend just that kind of person. Todd Barber has such passion and talent for exploring and doing what humans do best: pushing the boundaries of what humankind is capable of. As the lead propulsion engineer for the Cassini spacecraft, he was at the controls for the tricky insertion of the spacecraft into Saturn's orbit and recently was at the helm for the cruise stage of the Mars Science Laboratory's Curiosity rover during its "seven minutes of terror" descent through the Martian atmosphere. As if that's not interesting enough, during his free time, he goes on math-based adventures, inspires students through NASA outreach activities and plays in at least two jazz bands. I caught up with Todd just days before he helped successfully land NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars to learn a bit about his path to success and how he inspires others.

How did you get to be the lead propulsion engineer for Cassini, one of my personal favorite missions?

"I started here 22 years ago. Often when they bring you in, they put you on mission operations, flying something, because you get to interface with all the other sub-system engineers and what they do, including thermal, power, communications, propulsion, essentially a boot camp. I started at JPL on the Galileo mission, doing mission ops. I loved mission ops so much, and I had a penchant for ops work. I think I'm a planetary science geek. The Voyager missions are what grabbed me. My way to contribute to planetary science is by being a propulsion engineer. I didn't know what missions I'd work on after Galileo, and luckily a Cassini engineer moved on. Six months before launch, they sought me out, and I've been on Cassini ever since. I get to work on other missions part-time, including the Mars Exploration Rovers, Deep Impact and a Mars airplane study."

"The Cassini job opened up, and my mentor, Dick Cowley, was the lead propulsion engineer at the time, but near retirement. He worked on Apollo -- the F1 engine -- so this guy was the propulsion guru. I picked his brain every day until he retired, and then one day, he said, 'I think it's time we make you the lead propulsion engineer.' This was a couple years before Saturn orbit insertion, and I had the privilege of presenting to the review boards, getting barbecued at the flight reviews. But all went smoothly and we had a marvelous orbit insertion, and now the Cassini spacecraft is still sending amazing images and data home every day. I like to say that if everything goes well, I'll be 51 years old after these missions and wonder what I'll do when I grow up, because I've been having so much fun on these outer planet missions!"

What exactly does a lead propulsion engineer for Cassini do?

"I am responsible for the health and safety of the propulsion system. We are like 'space plumbers.' All the engines, regulators, tanks, valves, we are responsible for all these systems. The Cassini propulsion system is the most complex propulsion system ever flown by JPL. It's a plumber's nightmare! My job also includes figuring out the gas mileage of the spacecraft -- bean counting the propellant, if you will -- and that is getting very important now as our monopropellant gas tank on the spacecraft is half full. (I'm an optimist.)"

What happens to Cassini when it runs out of its propellant?

"At the end of the mission, we will cross inside Saturn's rings, getting views and pictures we've never seen before, and then go out in a blaze of glory. On September 15, 2017, Cassini will be crushed and vaporized by Saturn's atmosphere."

Why not save the spacecraft?

"Actually, it's for astrobiological reasons. We would never want to accidently crash the spacecraft into Enceladus or Titan, two of Saturn's moons, and possibly contaminate them. Even though it's hard to imagine 'hearty spores' could have hitched a ride on the spacecraft from Earth that are just waiting for liquid water, we would never want that to happen before we can answer the most fundamental question, 'Did indigenous life start on its own?' It's called 'forward planetary protection.' The opposite is true as well, which is called 'backward planetary protection,' where if you bring things back to Earth from other planets, you would never want to bring back something that could wipe out humanity. We want to be as careful as we can."

Do you have to dodge asteroid belts, space junk, etc.?

"Yes. We have to worry about Saturn's ring plane, made up of dust and small particles. The rings are very thin, like a phonograph record, but huge across. There's a ton of dust and particles that make up the rings, and sometimes we have to turn the spacecraft around with the antenna facing forward, which acts as a giant dust shield. The dust can damage the engines, so we built a dust cover similar to a baby stroller sun shield that folds down. We've had to use it 70 times on the mission, and the engine is still working great! Our engine has a wonderful heritage, as it was the same reaction control thruster that carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on Apollo!"

Where do you think we should explore next?

"Well, I love the outer planets, I would love to work a Neptune orbiter and would love to go to Saturn's moons Titan and Enceladus, or Jupiter's moon Europa. There are very complex propulsion trajectories to get there, but the payoff could be huge!"

Were you an intern before you worked here at JPL?

"No, I was not. I actually interviewed here three times and got turned down twice. The third time was a charm. After getting turned down the first time after getting my undergrad in aerospace engineering, I went back and got my masters in aerospace engineering at MIT, and then I got my dream job. I remember the summer of my 8th grade year, I saw a National Geographic with the Voyager spacecraft flying by Jupiter and Saturn and was hooked. I said, 'I have to work there at JPL!'"

I know that you are very involved with NASA's educational outreach and are constantly inspiring and trying to get kids involved with NASA and JPL. What do you feel is the most vital thing we need to tell young people today to get them inspired?

"Well, I think the most vital thing is showing them that math and science are cool. Math and science are not generally thought of as cool, but when you see math and science in action at NASA, it's the coolest -- especially during our missions such as the Mars Science Laboratory. For the U.S. to stay competitive, I think we really need to focus on new innovation, for that's what made this country great!"

"I've had strange hobbies that have helped me apply math and science. One of my hobbies is 'confluence hunting,' basically geeks with GPS devices trying to find and visit integer (whole counting numbers) latitude and longitude intersections [across the globe]. There are 850 confluence points in the continental United States, and I visited 17 of the last 50. They gave me the nickname 'The Closer' on the website."

Do you think innovation is a learned trait, or something people are just naturally good at?

"I'm here because of great teachers. I'm the first to sing the praises of teachers who got me fired me up about math and science. I went to public schools and got really lucky that my teachers were world class and fired up on math and science, and I'm still in touch with them. They follow all my missions and tell the kids that I was once a former student of theirs and to shoot for the stars."

"I had two dreams as a kid, to work for NASA, and to compose music. I'm so happy that they both came true, and I feel like I have an explorer's spirit, and need to share that with others."

Speaking of music, I hear that you are in a Jazz band called "The Big Band Theory," and that you have a minor from MIT in music? Well, I play the classical violin, and I was wondering if we could jam sometime?

"Haha, absolutely! I'm in two bands, The Big Band Theory and The Jazz Propulsion Band, and I'm always playing music. Let's make that happen!"

TAGS: Todd Barber, Propulsion, Engineering, Cassini, Math

  • Andrew Crawford

Andrew Crawford interviews Jaime Waydo

Two weeks before I returned to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., for my second internship working on projects with the Deep Space Network and the Department of Defense, something special happened. I was poised to present my research from JPL and Montana State University's Space Science and Engineering Laboratory -- where I've been building cube-satellites while going to school -- as part of the Montana Space Grant Consortium Research Symposium. The crowd was full of distinguished scientists and professors, but there was one face that stood out among the rest. She helped send robots to Mars, she's a famous public speaker, and she has a passion for space exploration. But more than that, her perseverance and drive are an inspiration to me. (Plus, like me, she's from Montana!)

The face I was looking at was that of Jaime Waydo, the mobility team lead mechanical systems engineer for NASA's next Mars rover, Curiosity, which is scheduled to land on Mars on August 5. An MSU mechanical engineering alum, Jaime went through the same program and schooling that I'm going through and was returning to her alma mater to speak to the next generation of explorers and engineers after working on two successful Mars rover missions and leading the mobility team on a third. Space Grant, the program that brought me to JPL for my internship, thought it would be a great idea that Jaime and I meet. (Little did I know she would be listening to my speeches!) What follows is our conversation, which not only highlighted the power of education -- and my JPL internship -- but also reaffirmed my passion to reach for the stars.

Me: Do you giggle every night when you go to bed knowing that you work for JPL?

Jaime: Umm, yes ... a little bit. I remember one time my boss looked at me and said, "Jaime, you've been putting in a ton of hours, we can get you some overtime pay," and I looked at him and I said, "I can't believe I get paid to work here!"

Me: When you were growing up in Montana, did you ever think that you would someday be working for NASA, or was that a childhood goal?

Jaime: In our science class in seventh grade, we learned about NASA's Viking spacecraft landing on Mars, and I was especially attracted to Viking because it landed the year I was born. I looked at my teacher and said, "I'm going to build stuff that will go to Mars!" The stars aligned, and I got to go to JPL at a time when there were Mars missions all the time. And I got to work on two of the most famous Mars landings of all time and soon to be a third. It's been a great career.

Me: How did you get to JPL?

Jaime: I was working at Perkins Family Restaurant during school at MSU in Bozeman, Montana. A couple would come in and eat everyday at 4 p.m., and one day the lady pulled me aside and said, "What are you doing with your life? I don't want you to be a waitress forever." And I said, "I go to school at MSU. I'm a mechanical engineer student, and my dream is to go work at JPL in California." The lady said, "My brother just retired from there. I'll bring him in." Two weeks later, her brother came in to Perkins and took my resume. Then, a week later, the famous Don Bickler [who leads the Advanced Mechanical Systems team for JPL] called. Don brought me in to JPL, where the stars aligned again, and gave me an internship in the group that was designing mobility systems to go to Mars. It was everything I had ever wanted.You learn to be really sharp when you work for Don. He's the father and inventor of Martian mobility.

Me: With all the pressure and stress of flight missions and landing on Mars, how do you leave the office and go home to a family and sleep?

Jaime: When you are on a flight project, everybody is 100 percent committed, and you know that even if your system is having bugs or not working today, other people are pulling it up by its bootstraps and helping to fix the problem. It's an incredible team that works at JPL, and you will never find, I don't think, in one spot, so many talented people in one place.

Me: Tell me about the bogie joint on Curiosity that you worked on and helped design for the rover. Is that new to suspension or mobility systems on rovers?

Jaime: No, it's not new; it's a take off of old train technology. It balances the weight between the two wheels. Sojourner had it, Spirit and Opportunity had it, and now Curiosity has it. When I started working on Curiosity, JPL asked me to run the mobility team, and I said ok, but I want to do hardware too. I was worried about a career trajectory that would take me into management and not be so technical, and I still really wanted to be technical. I'm really proud of the fact that I ran this amazing team of highly creative, talented people who allowed me to be a manager, and build hardware like the bogie joint at the same time, and to fulfill a lifelong dream of building hardware to go to Mars. [I look over at my father backstage who just retired from 46.5 years on the railroad, and Jaime says to him, "Bill, I bet there was a bogie joint on the train!" He grins from ear to ear and says, "Yep!"]

Me: Tell me about this? [I show Jaime a picture that I took at JPL last summer of a huge pink steel platform that was used as a test bed to work on the mobility system for the rover.]

Andrew Crawford laughing with Jaime Waydo
I interview Jaime Waydo, the mobility team lead mechanical systems engineer for NASA's next Mars rover, Curiosity, during the Montana Space Grant Consortium Research Symposium. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Jaime: [laughing] that's called the "Pink Pig." It's a piece of support equipment for the rover mobility system. I decided that we needed a little bit of "girl" in the mobility team. I was the only girl on the mobility team for a long time, and if I could do anything to make girls more excited about science and engineering, then I was going to do it. I figured that if girls saw this huge pink piece of equipment, and realized that a girl had been there and done that and worked on the rover, it would make girls excited. And it did. Engineering school is really hard: the all night studying, the thermodynamics. The fact that I made it through engineering school still blows my mind. It was tunnel vision focus to get to JPL to be on that spacecraft team. If I can do it, then I want to inspire other girls to go for it as well.

Andrew Crawford laughing with Jaime Waydo
Jaime had the idea to paint this piece of support equipment for the Curiosity rover bright pink to show girls that engineering can be fun. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Not only does Jaime continue to inspire girls and boys alike, she inspires countless students and future engineers. She has a way of making you feel like you have the right stuff and should continue to shoot for the stars. The next time I see Jaime will be at JPL on August 5, when Curiosity is scheduled to land on Mars. On that night, when I look toward Mars in the sky, I'll know that Jaime was a part of paving the way for space exploration, my greatest passion.

TAGS: Women in STEM, Jaime Waydo, Mars, Rover, Robotics

  • Andrew Crawford

Jason Carlton, Andrew Crawford and Scott Maxwell

At one point, a large potato-sized rock became embedded in the Mars rover Spirit's wheel, rendering it useless until it could somehow be removed. The team was able to use this facility and test a "pop a wheelie" move, which helped the team navigating through the problem in style! (From left: Jason Carlton, Andrew Crawford and Scott Maxwell). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

To help set the stage for this special blog post, it seems fitting to start with a great piece of advice given to me by Scott Maxwell, a Mars rover driver at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory: "There will come a time, possibly more than once, but at least once, where you feel like you simply can't go on -- you're too tired, it's too hard. When that happens, go on. You can do it. You can do it."

An enormous sense of dedication had already become abundantly clear by the time I sent out an email request to interview the team that drives the rovers on Mars. I received the immediate response of "yes!" at 3:45 a.m. from an enthusiastic Scott Maxwell - who clearly not only loves his job, but also loves sharing it with others. I instantly recognized his name and was eager to see if he was the same engaging "voice of Mars" who I had seen in so many NASA stories. As it turned out, he was not only gracious and helpful in lining up the interview, but he was also passionate about sharing his work with others.

After making an entrance up two floors and badge access doors, we were happily greeted by the same Scott who I had pictured, smiling from ear to ear, as well as a room full of rover drivers who he had arranged for me to interview. It was a tremendous surprise and delight, as I looked around the room and instantly recognized a few of the faces from television and various NASA documentaries.

Andrew with the Mars Exploration Rover Team
Not only were we to meet many of the Mars rover drivers, but also it would later turn out that we were fortunate enough to talk with some of the software developers and original founders of the Mars Exploration Rover project. (From left: Paolo Bellutta, Brian Cooper, Vandi Verma, Jason Carlton, Scott Maxwell, Andrew Crawford and John Wright). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Scott is the poster child for being passionate about something and making it happen. From an early age, he wanted to explore far-off worlds, and he worked hard to make those dreams come true. Scott's dedication and brilliance has helped in developing much of the software, operating procedures and commands that are used for the rovers on Mars today. (I encourage you to watch the charismatic interviews Scott has done on the Mars rovers and JPL as well as check out his ongoing five-year blog about his adventures with the Mars rovers at: http://marsandme.blogspot.com.)

Within a matter of minutes, Scott brought us up to speed on a brief history of Mars, the rovers and other expeditions NASA has sent and will send to the Red Planet. It was immediately clear that Scott lives, eats and breathes rover driving. The way he explained the technicalities and details of the Martian missions and rovers with such precision, spot-on memory and passion, made me feel as though I was part of this exclusive group of brilliant individuals.

One of the faces in the room I instantly recognized was rover driver Vandi Verma, whose interesting background and childhood story I had seen on television. I remembered how passionate she was about robotics from an early age. When she completed all the schooling and learning she could in her native India, she set her sights on the United States to get the education and experience that would take her to the pinnacle of robotics: working with and driving rovers on Mars. She went through the citizenship process necessary to work for the U.S. government all while earning her Doctorate and pursing top-level robotics research until being hired by JPL for flight operations with the Mars Exploration Rover project. (For a fascinating look at her history, read her bio.) I had no idea I would be lucky enough to interview Vandi, let alone receive a behind-the-scenes tour of what she was working on.

She showed us a detailed 3D contour map of the Martian landscape and Husband Hill, a legendary Martian landform for Mars Exploration Rover drivers. She had been re-driving the particularly challenging and difficult terrain of Husband Hill -- which took the Mars rover Spirit a full year to successfully climb in 2005 -- in preparation for the arrival of the rover Opportunity at a similar feature called the Highlands. All the while, Vandi's fingers seemed to navigate the keyboard with lightning speed, entering commands that exposed breathtaking images and grids of the Martian terrain.

Andrew with the Mars Exploration Rover Team
It was Husband Hill -- which is named in remembrance of Rick Husband, the commander of NASA's Space Shuttle Columbia -- that took the Mars rover Spirit a full year to successfully and triumphantly climb in 2005. The rover made groundbreaking scientific discoveries all along the way. (From left: Jason Carlton, Vandi Verma, Chris Leger and Andrew Crawford). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Sitting directly beside her was another face that I instantly recognized from years of following Mars exploration missions. Chris Leger, a youthful, hip-looking and brilliant member of the team who's responsible for some of Mars robotics and space-robotics most significant advancements and undertakings. Chris was part of the original driving team that took Spirit up Husband Hill's incredibly challenging 30-degree, boulder-laden slopes; he also does his own bouldering and climbing here on Earth twice a week. (For a mind-blowing description of all he's done, visit: http://www-robotics.jpl.nasa.gov/people/Chris_Leger/. )

We were joined by even more legendary rover drivers, and the room was alive with varying generations of drivers and programmers reaching back to the days of NASA's Mars Pathfinder mission. The conversation was in full swing.

The moment seemed fitting to ask if the team had ever seen anything strange that made the hair rise on the back of their necks, and if so, what did they do? One of the gentlemen seated at the table wearing a big smile, shorts and a cool Hawaiian shirt, spoke up about a strange event involving what looked like a "white rabbit" on the surface of Mars. I listened intently to John Wright, an engaging and cool dude who used to work at Hughes Aircraft, founded by one of my personal favorite heroes and explorers, Howard Hughes.

John drove Spirit for six years and is one of the five developers of the software that the rover drivers use to build command sequences and visualize and rehearse the rovers' activities. He tells great stories, including this one about the "white rabbit." He said one day an image came through from Spirit showing a feature that looked an awful lot like a white rabbit in the distance, and in the preceding pictures, it was gone! The group immediately called up a team of engineers and scientists to examine the finding. It was later concluded that the "white rabbit" was simply a small piece of fabric from the rover's atmospheric descent landing bags that had blown past in the wind. It was a story and lesson that the whole team could relate to with many adding that they feel as though they've earned a degree in geology because they can now quickly identify rocks or anomalies, know what to steer clear of and avoid, and what to investigate.

We said goodbye to Chris and Vandi as they were late for a meeting, which I could only imagine was highly technical and dealt with strategically planning future movements for billion-dollar spacecraft. We were then joined by two more rover drivers coming straight from the driving room. It seemed that once again, Scott had gone a step above in rallying all the troops for this interview, and I couldn't seem to stop smiling. Paolo Bellutta and Khaled Ali wcgere just as charismatic and enthusiastic as the rest of the team, and instantly, they started sharing stories that had us on the edge of our seats.

Paolo's introduction said it all: "My name is Paolo, and I am from Italy, and please no jokes about driving." The room erupted. What followed was a mesmerizing story about a treacherous navigation next to an 80 meter cliff in Victoria Crater on Mars with Paolo at the helm. Due to the estimations of the terrain combined with the long response time of sending and receiving data and commands between Earth and Mars, there was a period when Paolo had to wait in utter silence wondering if a valuable supplier of otherworldly exploration and knowledge had gone off the radar ... Then, after a grueling two-hour silence, the images and data started to appear again with huge relief.

Paolo's story triggered a conversation on safety parameter software programs, which are always evolving and incorporated into rover planning and mission architecture -- usually written and constructed by the drivers and planners themselves. Little did I know that seated at our table, quiet but insightful, was Brian Cooper, who was one of the original software developers and Mars Exploration Rover mission architects. He was also responsible for hiring most of the drivers there with us that day. He said that at the beginning of the Mars rover missions, it was difficult to know exactly what terrain and routes were secure and what parameters to observe. But over time, the parameter software development and safety autonomy programs have been getting better and better, incorporating gridlines with built-in "keep-out zones" and danger-sensing abilities.

Next, we heard from rover driver Khaled Ali, whose personal background made me want to never stop learning. While listening to Khaled explain how he eventually landed a job as a rover driver, Scott interjected excitedly saying, "Khaled sometimes goes off and takes on other jobs around JPL, such as building test-beds for testing Moonrise, stuff like that. And we always welcome him back with open arms!" This resonates as a prime example of the collaborative, never-stop-learning attitude that seems to be especially prevalent within this team and at JPL.

The last of the usual five rover driving meetings per day was about to begin, and Scott suggested we boogie to the command room and catch the tail end of the meeting. As we walked into the room -- "quiet as mice," per Scott's advice -- the first thing I saw was a table laden with coffee, computers, papers and many of the same people that were just in the other room with us discussing various commands and undecipherable software language displayed on a screen up front. Scott whispered to us that they were reviewing the day's planned movements and trajectory for the rover Opportunity. Every day there are multiple meetings and checks, then double checks, ensuring that the scientific goals, safety parameters and command sequences are exactly on target to provide 100 percent safety and redundancy for the mission. Paolo and John were stationed at computers typing what appeared to my eyes as a foreign language and discussing and answering questions from all angles of the room. We exited the room as it was clear they were in the midst of highly technical planning. And my mentor Jason and I just smile at each other like little kids in a candy store.

Just when I didn't think my brain could absorb any more, Scott had more adventures and stops planned for us, including another room where Bubba, a full-size replica of a Mars Exploration Rover (like the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity) was located. Scott gave us such a detailed breakdown of the rover components and functionalities that I felt like a VIP with a backstage pass.

Andrew with the Mars Exploration Rover Team
The suspension I'm marveling at here was designed by my mentor's mentor, Don Bickler, and it really hits home what a tight-knit, cooperative and dedicated group exists here at JPL. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Our last stop was the rover testing facility, located in a building specially designed with soil and rocks mimicking Martian terrain and housing full-size, functional rovers. The Planetary Science Summer School group was taking a tour and peering down at the rovers through the glass as we walked in. Within seconds Scott had the full attention of the group and was telling them stories. It wasn't long before he was convincing the whole group to join us downstairs inside the testing room. There was no stopping Scott then, and to the sheer delight of the group, as well as myself, we saw a green light flash on the badge reader and heard the door click open: access granted! Three feet in front of me, in the soil, was where the very engineers, scientists, drivers, and programmers who are responsible for the rovers do their testing!

One of the group-members asked Scott what his "Free Spirit!" shirt meant and he explained that after six years of what was planned as a three-month mission, Spirit had become trapped in a very fine soil, granular sediment, which is much like powder. And making things more difficult was the fact that only four of her six wheels could help in the exit strategy. After months of testing and brainstorming right in that very room, using those very rovers, they were unable to free Spirit from her Martian trap. She lost her ability to align her solar panels with the sun, and after a long winter, the signal was lost.

Andrew, Jason and Scott
Scott explains how the driving team used this facility to test strategies for freeing the Mars rover Spirit from her Martian trap, while a model of the next Mars rover, Curiosity, looks primed for exploration in the background. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The loss of Spirit, however, in no way marks the end a continually busy schedule for Scott, Vandi, Chris, Paolo, John, Brian and Khaled. In fact, the team just celebrated the arrival of Spirit's twin rover, Opportunity, at Endeavor crater after a three-year trek across the Red Planet. It's a major milestone for the Mars Exploration Rover mission and one that will continue the Mars rovers' amazing history of discovery.

We said goodbye to Scott and expressed our gratitude as best we could. I couldn't help but think that he and his team are some of JPL's most valuable assets, and I blurted it out as Scott crossed the street, like a little kid cheering for his favorite team. He laughed, smiled and swiped his badge, entering another world.

TAGS: Rover Driver, Mars Rover, Engineering, Science

  • Andrew Crawford

Andrew Crawford looks out over the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex sign

Beep-beep ... incoming transmission:

Transmission Source: NASA's Dawn spacecraft on its final approach to the giant asteroid Vesta, situated between Mars and Jupiter.
Date of orbital insertion: Friday, July 15, 2011.
Mission status: Orbital insertion confirmed.

On July 15, history was made when NASA's Dawn spacecraft became the first probe to enter into a prolonged orbit around a celestial body in the asteroid belt. With telemetry and deep space communication provided by NASA's Deep Space Network, Dawn closed in on Vesta, a 330-mile wide asteroid, after four years and 1.7 billion miles of travel. This mission has huge significance for humankind, but also a particular significance to my job and internship with the Deep Space Network's Antenna Mechanical and Structural Analysis group because it is responsible for the vital design and engineering components that make communication with the Dawn spacecraft possible.

Recently, I had the chance to visit the Goldstone, Calif., Deep Space Network Tracking facility (check out my photo album on Facebook!), one of the three sites around the world that houses the network's massive antennas. And just when I thought my mind could not absorb and process any more surreal advanced technological wizardry and human determination, NASA, JPL and the Deep Space Network again exposed me to new horizons.

To provide you with a brief 101 of the Deep Space Network, or DSN: It is the largest and most sensitive scientific international telecommunications system in the world, charged with interplanetary spacecraft missions and radio and radar astronomy observations for the exploration of the solar system and the universe.  How's that for a job title!  In other words, it is responsible for communicating with and guiding spacecraft, probes and NASA missions sent into space, (including the rovers on Mars, whose driving team will be featured in a special guest interview for my next post). The DSN monitors asteroids and celestial objects and their proximity to Earth, searches for signals and anomalies from outer space, performs interferometry observations, measures variations in radio waves for science experiments and provides the vital two-way communication link that guides, controls, and brings back images and science data from planetary explorers.

There are three large deep-space communications facilities strategically placed approximately 120 degrees apart around the world: at Goldstone, in California's Mojave Desert; near Madrid, Spain; and near Canberra, Australia. This strategic placement permits constant observation of spacecraft as the Earth rotates and has been in constant operation monitoring the night skies with the first antenna being constructed in the '60s.

The roots for what would eventually become the DSN began in 1958 with the establishment of an antenna and tracking system to receive telemetry and plot the orbit of NASA's Explorer 1, the first successful U.S. satellite. Shortly after, NASA established the concept of the DSN as a separately managed and operated communications facility that would accommodate all deep space missions, thereby avoiding the need for each flight project to acquire and operate its own specialized space communications network.

The component of the DSN that I'm working with, Antenna Mechanical and Structural Analysis, is a phenomenal team that provides ground support and engineering, and builds, designs, and fabricates the antennas and components that make up these massive spacecraft-tracking facilities. In particular, my task this summer is to design, model, and fabricate the future addition of a platform to hold the cryogenic equipment and processing hardware on a brand new, 34-meter beam-waveguide antenna being built in Australia! 

Even cooler - literally -- is the fact that the incoming signals from the Mars rovers and interplanetary spacecraft are funneled down these giant antennas through a network of mirrors, then cooled to cryogenic states where molecules can actually be separated and extracted from the "noise" of other space signals, processed in a maze of computers and analyzed for whomever or whatever that signal is for or from.  I must admit that gathering the seismic, vibration dampening tolerances and heat exchange data for the build requirements was a little nerve-racking, yet also so exciting!  Basically, I was charged with gathering data such as Australia seismic codes, dampening and vibration tolerances for the feed cone, material strength and human "live-load" factors of safety, all of which are used in international engineering projects. Luckily, my group members are an amazing and highly encouraging team who help me out tremendously and guide me with precision and experienced accuracy.

To help gain a better perspective on and appreciation for the magnitude and caliber of the Deep Space Network's responsibilities, we took a trip to one of the three DSN tracking facilities: Goldstone, Calif. And boy did it give me goose-bumps -- in a good way!  After several military checkpoints, security screenings and identity checks, we soon arrived at what can only be described as something straight out of "Star Wars" or some other sci-fi movie, a site fittingly called "Mars," with antennas that seem as big as my hometown pointed at the sky. My jaw dropped, my mentor Jason laughed, and we stepped out of the car to look straight up at what looked like part of the Death Star aimed into outer space. 

A view of the 70 meter DSN antenna and Andrew Crawford below the antenna
If you can spot me just below NASA's Deep Space Network antenna (left), you'll get an idea of just how big these things really are. One highlight of my visit was a trip below the antenna (right) to view the inner-workings of how the DSN tracks and communicates with spacecraft throughout the solar system. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This particular antenna at the Goldstone site is among the biggest and most sensitive of all of the DSN antennas, spanning 70 meters (230 feet) across and capable of tracking a spacecraft traveling more than 10 billion miles from Earth. The precision across the antenna surface is maintained within one centimeter (0.4 inch) of the signal wavelength, an amazing feat that reminds me what an incredible opportunity it is to be working with this team.

The day consisted of exploring and analyzing all the systems and subsystems that comprise the massive array of tracking antennas.  All the while, I couldn't help but think how cool it was that as Earth rotated, these can be programed to switch control to an antenna on the other side of the world in order to maintain constant contact with all the spacecraft and signals out there.

One highlight was walking down one of the antenna tunnels that led underground to the inside of the massive concrete pedestal that houses the huge 34-meter antenna above as well as the space-age cryogenic processing equipment and platforms that hold them. The signals are essentially funneled down the antenna structure and dish by a matrix of precisely aligned mirrors. They are then captured and funneled into a network called "wave guides." Radio waves coming from deep space and other sources, like spacecraft, are guided along this tubing, which gets smaller and smaller passing though filters that eventually lead to a certain bandwidth ready for a trip to cryogenic-ville. All of this takes place in preparation for a result that to me seems like black magic but is definitely the coolest thing I've heard about: molecular separation for extracting the desired signals from the rest of the "space noise."

As I contemplated the complexity and wonderment of how many people and years it must have taken to design and build all of this, an alarm and voice came on over the loudspeaker announcing that the antenna would be moving and tracking in two minutes, which was our cue to exit the premises. And it could only mean one thing: The antenna was adjusting to track some distant spacecraft or asteroid in the stars above, and once again, I couldn't help but smile and pinch myself at how amazing the universe and humankind can be.

Stay tuned for my next post on how the Deep Space Network and the Antenna Mechanical group contribute to navigating spacecraft and rovers 15 million miles away, when I interview the Mars rover driving team!

TAGS: Deep Space Network, Engineering, Space Communications

  • Andrew Crawford

Andrew Crawford with Dr. Charles Elachi at JPL

Beep-beep ... incoming transmission.

As I sit in the Deep Space Network's Telecommunications Laboratory, writing this special broadcast, the relativity and reality of this transmission takes precedence. Today I sat down with the director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Dr. Charles Elachi, on a search to see what drives JPL's spirit of exploration.

For a quick debriefing to bring you up to speed, space exploration has a certain magic and aura about it that's had an influence on me for a long time. First, from following the missions to Mars, and then with my engineering schooling, where I've paid much more attention to what JPL does and how it completely inspires me. When my phone rang one day in Montana and I was invited to come be a part of this workforce, it was a dream come true.

When I first arrived here, not only was the magic of this place confirmed, but it was also exponentially skyrocketing by the minute, so much so that it made me want to try my hardest, work my best and literally shoot for the stars. So I thought why not request an interview with my inspiration and the reason JPL is what it is today, the lab's director, Dr. Elachi.

Access: Granted.

As my mentor Jason Carlton and I step out of the elevator, the first thing that strikes our attention is the huge windows with a scene that stops us in our tracks: an aerial view looking down at the buildings that comprise the Jet Propulsion Laboratory with the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance. As we make our way down the hallway, I can't help but gaze at a huge picture from the surface of Mars with rover tracks disappearing into the distance, which seems to embody JPL's mission of exploration.

When the door to Dr. Elachi's office swings open, the director walks over to me quickly, shakes my hand with a smile, and says, "Andrew, come in, come in." Soon enough, we're seated at a large table in the middle of the room, and across the table looking at me, with eyes that have witnessed so much, is Dr. Elachi.

Andrew interviews Dr. Elachi
I catch a glimpse of Dr. Elachi's unflinching enthusiasm as he responds to my query about the aura that JPL seems to exude, the same aura that attracted me to this place. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

One of the driving factors that JPL seems to employ is giving scientists and engineers a certain autonomy, the freedom to tinker, think, imagine and then create. I see it every day, whether it's the engineers in my Deep Space Network Antenna Mechanical Group hashing out ideas on a white board or conversations in the lunchroom of creative ideas. This seems fundamental to life at JPL, and I soon learn that Dr. Elachi feels the same way. "You probably know a lot more about mechanical engineering than I do," he says. "I have to rely on the experts and talent we bring in to make these advances."

He recalls that his "first tinkering as a boy was taking apart our family's handheld radio to see how it worked. I was never able to put it back together," he says. I laugh with a tremendous smile, not only because his story parallels the curiosity that JPLers seem to have, but also because my father would constantly ask me as a boy why I was so good at taking things apart, yet never putting them back together. Glad I'm not the only one.

My mentor Jason Carlton, a mechanical engineer who graduated from Cal Poly Pomona, chimes in on the subject of tinkering, saying he's concerned about students having enough hands-on experiences in school. Dr. Elachi and I could not agree more on the importance of this kind of education.

"It's really an investment in the future. The more we can tell leaders that's what got us here, the better off we'll be. I've always said that when things are tough, it's time to invest in your future because that's how you get out of tough times. If you look at history, the people who invested in technology were the ones who succeeded."

We all take a second to reflect on this point and silently nod in agreement at the need to convey the importance of this kind of education in the future. I decide to take the opportunity to ask a question that has always piqued my interest: What is it about JPL that attracts such scientific, engineering and research talent from around the world?

"There are two things," he says. "First, is the kind of work we do, where you can come here and be working on exploring the universe. Second, is the talent that comes here with the mindset that anything is possible. There are places that humans currently cannot go, and we get to explore those places. A new-hire once said to me, 'At JPL, we get together in the morning and talk about what's impossible and then do it in the afternoon.'"

This statement resonates with me profoundly, knowing that my internship and job this summer, with the Deep Space Network's Antenna Mechanical Group, are directly connected and responsible for the exploration of places we have not yet charted or visited.

As our time draws to a close, I ask him one final question: "Who is the first person you would call if one of JPL's missions finds evidence of life on Mars or beyond? Is there a special 'red-phone' hotline for that?"

There are laughs and smiles all around the table, and then a moment of silence while he pauses and thinks. He says there's no "red-phone" hotline. In all seriousness, he would call NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who would then call the White House. This statement causes a few goosebumps to rise on my neck as I consider the magnitude of calling the White House and the conversation that would follow. The interview comes to a close, and I can't help but smile and say thank you as I shake Dr. Elachi's hand. He opens the door, smiles and says thank you in return. And as he begins his next meeting of the day, what I'm sure is one of many, the generosity of his time truly becomes apparent.

I find myself strolling back to the office with the excitement and wonderment reminiscent of when I was a little boy dreaming of space, yet this time with a newfound and non-diminishing source of inspiration. Knowing that I get to be part of something special - and am microscopically responsible for structures monitoring that big night sky -- is enough to keep me fueled for eternity.

TAGS: Charles Elachi, Deep Space Network

  • Andrew Crawford

Jason Carlton in the clean room at JPL

Checking in ... beep-beep ... beep-beep.

It’s been an incredible and almost surreal week in the land of jet propulsion, and to try and summarize the emotions and sights into words is daunting, as the vocabulary escapes me.

It seems as though around every corner, you meet someone who is so friendly and inspiring that it’s hard not to just smile and try and listen in amazement. From sending beeps aimed at distant galaxies looking for anomalies in the return signal, to brilliant twenty-somethings building descent stage thrusters capable of hovering above the surface of Mars like a UFO, to the beautiful array of different languages and cultures you hear just on your way to the coffee grove, the people and mission here make it hard to contain a smile.

The department I’m writing from is the Deep Space Network (DSN), Antenna Mechanical Group, an incredibly diverse group of people who have welcomed me with open arms. Comprised of a complex network and interface of all different departments and jobs, the DSN is responsible for monitoring all spacecraft currently exploring the universe, searching the night sky for signals and pushing the envelope of what is possible for future communication and data acquisition.

I have an official government NASA office with a phone and voice mail to boot, and the speed and vigor at which things move around here is mind-blowing. It seems imperative to listen and write fast, even if what you’re hearing seems unreal or beyond belief, and before you know it, you're neck deep in documents and learning curves that didn’t seem possible when you got out of bed this morning. The part I enjoy tremendously is walking outside my office and seeing my fellow DSN antenna mechanical office mates, who are mechanical, civil, structural, aerospace engineers, attacking a white dry erase board with looks of determination. They make cuts in beams, figure out angles and calculate distributed loads in order to find failure points for future antenna-component construction, all of which Effat Rady, my amazing engineering professor at Montana State University has taught me and stressed the importance of, time and time again. It seems as thought the days are lightning quick here, and the only thing I can seem to do after riding my bike home is run in the San Gabriel mountains as far as I can to try to process everything that happened in a day.

The Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, the largest and most intelligent rover to date, departed the Lab this morning after years of complete dedication and planning by thousands of people.

I was one of a handful of people who was lucky enough to witness the incredible entourage and police escort of the rover -- sending it one step further on its quest to explore where Mankind has not yet set foot -- as my mentor Jason Carlton was an integral part of the rover, descent stage, and heat shield container builds, assembly, and mating of all components with their transports.

TAGS: Curiosity, Launch

  • Andrew Crawford