Archive for December, 2013

GPM in Japan, the Road to Launch: A Tanegashima Thanksgiving

December 18th, 2013 by Ellen Gray
Flyers at the Sun Pearl Hotel announcing Thanksgiving dinner for Saturday Nov. 30, 2013. Credit: NASA / Michael Starobin

Flyers at the Sun Pearl Hotel announcing Thanksgiving dinner for Saturday Nov. 30, 2013. Credit: NASA / Michael Starobin

The kitchen of the Sun Pearl hotel doesn’t have an oven. Most Japanese kitchen’s don’t, in fact, but Saturday morning, Nov. 30, the borrowed kitchen was in full swing. Cody Buell, systems administrator for the Global Precipitation Measurement mission’s team in Japan, chopped mushrooms that would go into the stuffing that Courtney Buell was stirring together on the stove. Yumiko Seki, an engineer for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries responsible for launch services for the Japan Aerospace and Exploration Agency, chopped garlic and onions at another counter. Meanwhile Suja Lee, the GPM support staff interpreter, put together the sauce for Korean barbecue in case the menu of mashed potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes and green bean casserole wasn’t enough.

As for the four turkeys, Courtney told me, Lou Nagao on the Ground Support Equipment team, had arranged for them, and she didn’t know where they were coming from. They were just going to show up by three.

Courtney Buell and Yumiko Seki at work in the kitchen of the Sun Pearl Hotel. Credit: NASA / Ellen Gray

Courtney Buell and Yumiko Seki at work in the kitchen of the Sun Pearl Hotel. Credit: NASA / Ellen Gray

The third Thursday of November in Japan is just another Thursday. In the GPM clean room, Thanksgiving day was busy as the mechanical team moved the spacecraft from its traveling L-frame to the Aronson table, which supports and rotates the spacecraft as needed for the inspections that followed. So Thanksgiving dinner was moved to Saturday when most of the team had downtime. (On the schedule were solar array inspection and prep work for battery installation.)

Lou wasn’t hard to find. He was in the hotel lobby with Midori Asou, the owner of the Sun Pearl who was opening boxes of Christmas ornaments and putting him to work decorating the small trees set around the entrance. The Sun Pearl lobby was already a riot of decorations, most of them space related. Models of Japanese rockets stand on the reception desk, and a stuffed HII-A, GPM’s launch vehicle, hangs from the overhang with the GPM water cycle card hanging below. On the far wall are more than a dozen mission stickers, including one for GPM, one for its predecessor mission the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, and one for GCOM-W1, a JAXA rain and climate mission that will contribute data to the GPM mission’s global data products.

The Sun Pearl is one of the hotels that the GPM team has been staying at for years, as various team members have come for launch site visits and meetings with their JAXA and Mitsubishi counterparts. It’s family-run and feels as quirky as any bed-and-breakfast. Lou joked with Midori-san as she told him which set of ornaments go with which tree. Her English isn’t strong and, despite having Japanese parents, Lou’s Japanese isn’t strong either, but it didn’t matter — they were getting along just fine.

Midori Asou, one of the owners of the Sun Pearl Hotel, pretending to eat a fake holly berry while she decorates a Christmas tree. Credit: NASA / Ellen Gray

Midori Asou, one of the owners of the Sun Pearl Hotel, pretending to eat a fake holly berry while she decorates a Christmas tree. Credit: NASA / Ellen Gray

Midori-san was one of the big reasons we were having Thanksgiving at all, Lou told me. She helped Courtney, Cody, and Suja find ingredients for an American meal, helping them navigate the small town grocers. She recruited a few of her friends with ovens to bake apple pie, and she opened up her kitchen to the cooks.

As for the four turkeys, yes, Lou had arranged for them. But he didn’t know where they were coming from either.

Courtney and Cody, the Thanksgiving organizers, had struck out with finding turkeys earlier in the week when Lou heard about their search. He started asking around as well, and one of the people he asked was the owner of the karaoke bar across the street, Emiko’s Club. Karaoke is huge in Japan, and a big hit among the GPM team, too. Once Emiko-san understood what Lou was looking for, she introduced him to another of the karaoke singers at the bar that night, Toshihiko Nakagawa, one of the engineering team leads from Mitsubishi. Nakagawa-san said he would see if he could help and on Tuesday asked Lou how many turkeys they needed.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is the primary contractor for JAXA at Tanegashima Space Center. They manage most of the operations including launch preparations and assembling the rocket. They are the team on the ground that works closest with the GPM engineering team. But most of the GPM team has been at Tanegashima for a relatively short time, and at work, it’s all about the mission. This Thanksgiving dinner was a chance to get to know them as fellow members of the GPM family.

The Thanksgiving spread. Credit: NASA / Michael Starobin

The Thanksgiving spread. Credit: NASA / Michael Starobin

The four turkeys showed up, fully cooked as promised, and at six p.m. so did a long line of hungry Americans and their Japanese guests. Jay Parker, GPM’s mechanical team lead, opened the evening with thanks for our hosts and the crew that put dinner together. He added a special tanks for the Mitsubishi team and their crane operator who performed the very difficult lift of the spacecraft out of the L-frame. Then, paper plates loaded with mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, turkey, and Korean barbecue from the grill out back, everyone found a seat in the dining room or at one of the extra tables set up in the lobby and dug in — with chopsticks.

The GPM Thanksgiving was a full house. Credit: NASA / Michael Starobin

The GPM Thanksgiving was a full house. Credit: NASA / Michael Starobin

The food was delicious, a little bit of home brought across the ocean for a night. Lou introduced me to Emiko-san, and a little later found me again to introduce me to Nakagawa-san and another Mitsubishi engineer. “This is Sakae-san. He got us the turkeys!” said Lou. Sakea Gushima is on Nakagawa-san’s team and when Nakagawa-san mentioned the Americans looking for turkeys, he knew a guy. He has a friend who just took over management of one of the local restaurants and put in the order.

While we chatted, Lou explained what Thanksgiving meant for us. “It’s a time when families come together,” he said. “And if you can’t go home, someone will take you in.”

The turkey connection: Sakea Gushima (left), Lou Nagao (center), and Toshihiko Nakagawa (right).

The turkey connection: Sakea Gushima (left), Lou Nagao (center), and Toshihiko Nakagawa (right).

GPM in Japan, the Road to Launch: GPM in Japan: Let it Be

December 13th, 2013 by Michael Starobin

How do you launch a satellite into space? It isn’t easy. The simple answer would be to build one, place it on a rocket, and shoot it off.

But building and launching satellites turns out to be exceedingly complicated things to do. They’re highly complex machines, requiring profoundly precise levels of craftsmanship, not to mention extraordinary inventiveness. Armies of specialists work closely with supremely skilled designers and mission planners for years to build typical satellites. Most people involved have expensive educations under the belts, and intense, serious years of work proving their mettles while they move up the ranks.

Satellites need money, too–lots and lots. Rockets are expensive; the satellites themselves are expensive; ground operations are expensive.

All of this means huge crowds of people, and in any huge crowd of people you’re going to have differences. People bring different backgrounds, different experiences, different points of view. They disagree; they fall in love; they cause trouble; they stand atop metaphoric mountaintops waving flags like heroes.

Sometimes they sing together, no matter what stripe they wear on their sleeve.

In the small Japanese town of Minimitane on the island of Tanegashima, a small army of NASA engineers worked together in late 2013 to complete the final phases of construction for one of the most sophisticated Earth observing satellites every built. The satellite is called GPM, for Global Precipitation Measurement, and it’s been years in the planning between NASA and the Japanese space agency JAXA.

It’s Thanksgiving weekend, and dozens of these folks are far, far from home. The past week of work has pushed and tested this crew of diverse specialists, and folks know that mistakes at this stage are not easily corrected. With launch just three months away, there’s pressure to operate at high levels of performance. That’s why when Friday night rolled around, promising long flights home for a portion of the team and flights in from replacement players, a big portion of those still on the island met at a local watering hole to unwind. The scene was no different than millions other similar work crews meeting for drinks after longs stretches on the line. And yet….and yet….

The sign for Emico's Club, one of the karaoke bar's in Minamitane, Japan. Credit: NASA / Michael Starobin

The sign for Emico’s Club, one of the karaoke bar’s in Minamitane, Japan. Credit: NASA / Michael Starobin

It happens elsewhere, too, but Japan has a special lock on a peculiar pastime in bars: they sing karaoke. Thirty NASA engineers ordered drinks and started selecting songs.

These engineers are not artists in the traditional sense. As the room’s resident filmmaker, I was decidedly the odd fish in the pond, a koi in a school of tetras. As I got to know the crowd a little bit over the preceding two weeks, I certainly understood how they didn’t necessarily see themselves as artists in the traditional sense, even as I appreciated their craftsmanship and ability to solve tricky problems by looking at them with inventive, disciplined eyes. Often those who work in fields not traditionally regarded as “the arts” miss the opportunity to appreciate shared traits with those who actually do.

Early jokes in the bar began to give way to honest laughter. People began to relax. People took turns singing, poking jibes, having fun. Then the song changed on the karaoke system, and everyone started singing together. We sang The Beatles’s “Let it Be”. Thirty voices rose up together, regardless of political views, sentiments, aesthetic taste, or even deep knowledge of each other. Many in the room didn’t know others there beyond a few cursory greetings throughout the week. But here was a forty year-old song by a British band, easy to sing, resonate of universal things, sung by Americans working on an international space mission on a small Japanese island. We sang from our hearts; people swayed and laughed as they sang, filled glasses between verses, sang louder.

Emico's has been a popular for after-work karaoke since the Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission launched from Tanegashima in 1997. Emico, the owner, has a TRMM sticker on a board that's signed by the TRMM team. She also has Polaroid photos of all her patrons over the years.  Credit: NASA / Ellen Gray

Emico’s has been a popular for after-work karaoke since the Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission launched from Tanegashima in 1997. Emico, the owner, has a TRMM sticker on a board that’s signed by the TRMM team. She also has Polaroid photos of all her patrons over the years. Credit: NASA / Ellen Gray

In the movies the song would have ended with some sort of deeply satisfied looks among people, one to another, telling the audience of some intimate bond of camaraderie. No so in reality. Bon Jovi followed almost immediately, and no one hesitated to get their New Jersey rocker in gear. The moment passed quickly, and for the rest of the night the Earth spun through space as it always does, and folks in this tiny little bar in Minimitane, Japan acted zany and had enjoyed each other’s company. But I’m not being nostalgic here: I’m certain of something. While singing Let it Be, the room changed, even for just the three minutes it played. For a moment, the nuances of tribal distinctions fell away. We were all together, and that was enough. In fact, it was all anyone needed.

People want to be part of experiences that make them feel connected to other people, want to make them feel greater than the strength of their own individual efforts. For a moment, the group raised their voices, sang “….there will be an answer….let it be…” and smiled at each other, genuinely happy to be alive.

I know I was.

GPM in Japan, the Road to Launch: GPM’s Clean Room Mechanics

December 5th, 2013 by Michael Starobin

The choreography rivals precision aerial acrobats. The teamwork reflects the forward line of a pro football team. This is the vanguard of NASA’s mechanical engineering corps, and to experience them at their full operational power is to gain a profound appreciation for how much more goes into spaceflight than big, booming rockets.

Mechanical team lead Jay Parker briefs his team on the upcoming lift of the GPM satellite. They're moving it from the L-frame that kept it safe during transport to the satellite support table that will allow them to rotate the spacecraft for inspection. Credit: NASA / Michael Starobin

Mechanical team lead Jay Parker briefs his team on the upcoming lift of the GPM satellite. They’re moving it from the L-frame that kept it safe during transport to the satellite support table that will allow them to rotate the spacecraft for inspection. Credit: NASA / Michael Starobin

Ages range from mid-twenties well into mid-sixties. A handful of women in the ranks reflects a slowly changing demographic, but it’s still mostly a male crew. A visitor may have to look carefully, however. The clean room “bunny” suits everyone must wear has a way of turning human morphology into ambulatory, genderless marshmallows. They’re always funny the first time someone suits up. Then they’re not. Proper clean room garb includes non-static jumpsuits embedded with micro-mesh electro-diffusion wires, designed to insure that even the smallest discharge of static electricity has no chance of damaging delicate circuit boards. Face masks, hair bonnets, rubber gloves, and electrostatically inert booties complete the ensemble. Different missions have levels of “clean”, necessitating nuanced differences in clean room attire, but general speaking, wearers get used to the extra layers in no time.

The mechanical team handles physical aspects of satellite readiness. How do you move the delicate Global Precipitation Measurement satellite around the globe? That’s mechanical’s job.

The mechanical team has only a few inches of clearance between the L-frame and the satellite. Credit: NASA / Michael Starobin

The mechanical team has only a few inches of clearance between the L-frame and the satellite. Credit: NASA / Michael Starobin

Wrenches and muscle power come into play, of course, but the mechanical team needs to be knowledgable about a range of disciplines. Working closely with electrical engineers, environmental specialists, satellite designers and more, seemingly simple decisions go through rigorous analysis and consideration before they’re implemented lest unintended down-stream consequences accrue.

That is, of course, the plan. When things come down to old fashioned common sense, this is the team you want to have.

Standing next to Mechanical Team Lead Jay Parker, I watch as the crew prepares to extract the satellite from its L-frame, the mounting skeleton in which it travelled around the world in its shipping box. “See this?” he says. “There’s only three inches of clearance between the satellite and the frame. We can’t just lift it up and out. Too tight.” The massive overhead crane can handle the weight, but the problem is a risk that part of the fragile solar array scrapes the structural girders of the frame.
He tells me the plan is to simply release the satellite from its mounting base, and slide it out of the frame horizontally. To the question about how his guys plan to keep the satellite inside its narrow safety envelope, he deadpans, “Very carefully.” The technique involves little more than horse sense, patience, superb teamwork, and a sculptor’s gaze before striking chisel to stone: they’re going to eyeball the situation and simply make sure the satellite doesn’t swing where it shouldn’t.

The GPM satellite is moved by crane across the clean room to the Aronson table which will support the satellite while the GPM team does its final preparations and testing before launch. Credit: NASA / Micheal Starobin

The GPM satellite is moved by crane across the clean room to the Aronson table which will support the satellite while the GPM team does its final preparations and testing before launch. Credit: NASA / Micheal Starobin

Twenty-minutes later the satellite hangs in space, suspended from high-tension cables. Free of its shipping skeleton, the team begins moving it slowly across the vast integration facility where it will be attached to a special articulating table. Centimeter by centimeter, the bunny suited experts make these moves look easy. On the way to space, these stately, precision maneuvers on the ground matter just as much as lighting the main engines.

Operation IceBridge: Antarctic 2013: A Clear View: Operating the Digital Mapping System

December 1st, 2013 by James Jacobson

As a Digital Mapping System (DMS) operator, I have a fairly consistent morning ritual to prepare for a day of flying over the ice. This consistency is necessary for both operational integrity and presence of mind while we are attempting to accomplish our mission. I am often apprehensive at the beginning of a daily mission because I know it is so easy to overlook a small detail that might have a large effect later. All the average person looking down into the P-3 bomb bay would really see is a pair of Canon DSLR cameras pointing down at the ground, unaware of the great care that goes into the preparation.

Sea ice from above

Digital Mapping System image mosaic of Antarctic sea ice. Credit: NASA / DMS

Once at the plane, I clean our optical window inside and out with pure ethanol so that there is no residue of dust or grease left behind (a task often made difficult by gusting winds, freezing temperatures and other unforeseen environmental effects). I then clean the cameras and lenses and take a few test frames on the ground to ensure that the cameras are working properly. After that, I set up our GPS receivers to make sure we can capture the position and orientation of the P-3 at many fractions of a second.

Next, I set the camera’s frame rate so we are sure to capture at least 60 to 70 percent overlap from one frame to the next. This changes due to how high or fast we are flying at any given time, I am constantly adjusting and fixing settings during flights, calculating frame rates by hand. Very little of the DMS system is automated for the simple fact that the human eye is often the best tool to determine the correct settings and factors that make for good data collection. I have to use whatever limited time I have at my disposal to get the best results I can, writing down by hand all changes made, as well as environmental conditions outside the plane that might adversely affect our imagery such as clouds, haze, fog or poor sun angle).

James and teachers

Digital Mapping System operator James Jacobson talks with visiting teachers about the instrument during an IceBridge Arctic campaign flight in 2012. Credit: NASA / Jefferson Beck

Because the instrument I operate is, in essence, a pair of very specialized digital cameras, I feel that it often gets overlooked by visitors to our little world within the tin belly of the NASA P-3. I don’t mind, really, as I completely understand the draw that one might have towards the exciting technologies involved in the laser system, the radar arrays, the gravimeter sitting shrouded in the mid-body of the plane, or the magnetometer poised in the P-3’s stinger. But what most people don’t understand is that other than the pilots, I have probably the best view of the world outside the plane while we fly. Through hundreds of thousands of digital photographs I document the world as it passes below us at 250 miles per hour and see it clearly and unobstructed.

Also, I get a view that none of the other instruments get, because as a human being, you can see our data and have and instant and intuitive understanding of what you are looking at, without any need for computers to help you interpret what you are seeing with graphs or charts. They say a picture is worth 1,000 words. What does 15,000 pictures over an 8 hour flight say?

Pine Island Glacier rift

Digital Mapping System image showing the rift in Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier seen from NASA’s DC-8 during an IceBridge Antarctic campaign flight in 2011. Credit: NASA / DMS

As I watch glaciers, mountains, valleys, rivers and ice pass below us in crystal clarity, I am consistently awe-struck by the images that I see. Few people have ever gotten such a pure perspective. Some of the places we go have never been seen by human eyes, and I am both humbled and honored every time we fly by the task and mission we have set before ourselves. It is a fairly daunting mission, with radical scope, and I am proud to be a member of the team responsible for helping to make it happen. Like I said before, the casual observer may think of operating DMS as mundane, but I know for a fact that they don’t see what I see.

For more information about the Digital Mapping System, visit: www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/icebridge/instruments/dms.html

Notes from the Field