An Encounter with Space Flight Hardware

voy01If I’d left for my appointment one minute earlier, I’d have been out the gate and gone.

If I’d left for my appointment one minute later, I’d have been stuck behind the employee bus, a block away from the gate.

But luckily for me – and I do mean that – I was stopped by the guard IN the gate lane and so I got an up close and personal view of some actual space flight hardware as it was slowly carried from the upper Lab to somewhere on the lower Lab. No one drives in the vicinity of flight hardware, save for the two Security cars escorting the very slooooowwwwllllyyyy moving forklift. All the streets are blocked when a precious piece of flight hardware is on the move.

Sometimes people in a hurry get upset by this.  I love it! The whole reason any of us exist at my day job is in support of the Science (and that IS with a capital S believe me). And the flight hardware is what brings (or sends) the Science home to Earth.

Flight hardware is not classically beautiful. At least not to this business major’s eyes.  I was confounded when I first started working there and toured one of the machine shops in connection with a contract I was doing for them. I remember staring at the bulky metal and wires and thinking, wow, not much like the gleaming, round cornered, pretty things in science fiction movies and shows.

I’ve come to love our gawky robots and instruments, and all their elegantly engineered (if not intrinsically beautiful) components. Every inch of space and every ounce of mass is put to use, hotly argued over in “the trade space”, representing our best efforts to bring home the maximum Science we can get for the taxpayer dollars.  Flight hardware sometimes looks fragile but don’t be fooled – that stuff is tough. It has to survive the rigors of launching into space, radiation, cosmic dust, solar winds, hard landings on other planets….we build them so tough we can even recover Science sometimes when they smash into the planet and weren’t supposed to! (And yes, there are usually redundancies built in as well, trying to outfox Mother Nature and her penchant for the unforeseen problem.)

When I started at the day job, I came in on the middle of various Projects already well underway. Over time I became involved with others from the get go. There’s one where I went to the first brown bag lunch just to observe while scientists and engineers noodled over a certain idea for an hour, trying to decide if we should propose on it or not. Well, eventually we proposed but didn’t win. The team tried again, refined their approach for years, finally hit the sweet spot, got selected, built the hardware and and the Science is now streaming home. Science is a very long process.

220px-001-the_motion_picture_posterThat’s another thing I love about the flight hardware we build – it works tirelessly on Mars or out in space, usually way past the expected Mission life. Remember the first Star Trek: The Motion Picture movie, way back when? The one kirk-chris-pine_lwithout Chris Pine? (SPOILER Here) Yup, the heart of the invading alien force was one of our spacecraft. Well, ok it had been plucked from its interstellar route and enhanced by aliens somewhere along the line but still…we build them hardy.

So this piece of flight hardware I was admiring last week was the size of a breadbox maybe, partially covered in shiny gold, sensitive parts protected from the California breezes by a special plastic wrap. Eight anxious engineers or techs walked alongside the forklift, keeping a wary eye on their baby. I don’t know what it had been through – shake and bake testing maybe, or a session in the vacuum of the space simulator. I assume it was headed for the big clean room to be added onto other equally gawky pieces to make a whole. I’m sorry I can’t tell you what Project…

I just felt very proud as it passed me on the way through the gate to its next Earthly stop. I’m sure it will represent the human race pretty well, once it gets Out There to do Science.

Then the guard signaled for me to drive on and I went about my mundane business but just for a few minutes, I’d glimpsed the glorious heart of what we’re all really there to do at my day job.


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