In some ways, the Challenger accident was good for the project, because we (they, in those days; it was before I started work there) were in no way ready for the pre-Challenger manifest. They got another couple of years to work on things, and I got a job, because I ran into the guy running the project at a conference.
"You need a pet theoretician," I told him. He seemed to like the idea.
I ended up doing all kinds of strange things. Sitting through endless meetings with engineers, who, it turns out, come in 2 or 3 varieties: mechanical, electrical (with subtypes digital and analog), and software. Whether software is an engineering discipline or not is the subject of another rant.
Turns out that mechanical engineers and electrical engineers can hardly talk to each other, and it showed on the project in question. The electronics boxes ran out of real estate, and had add-on boards which broke, physically, during vibration testing. The pressure transducers were susceptible to electromagnetic interference.
The PI's solution to all this: hire a physicist to translate. Which would have been me. It was a hoot. I've also been used as a translator between scientists and software people, which is a different kind of a hoot.
Anyway. A couple/three years went by, we repeated the testing program, more or less passed, fixed the "or less" parts, and arrived at the Cape. If I thought the engineering paperwork was nonlinear back home, it's an order of magnitude worse when you get anywhere near the manned space program. Tools. You check them out from the tool crib. You check them back in again. Anything that's lost becomes a class one fire drill. And still there have been a case or two of the Shuttle flying with a stray wrench loose someplace.
Payload integrated, we showed up at the control room, where we'd previously installed ground support equipment (GSE), some rather antique but real-time computers. The second set of GSE, for redundancy and a near-real-time look at the data, had to be shipped last minute from the Cape and installed.
Launch. It flew. Woh. I watched from a hotel room in Greenbelt, MD. The idea was we'd have 3 shifts: the PI, myself, and the cognizant EE would be shift leaders.
Well, except for Flight Day One; the PI had to be at the Cape to hold the hands of VIPs on launch day. So he spent his first shift on an airplane. And I had to use the launch time to select details of the operations strategy, once we knew the orbit. Even though I was supposedly evening shift, I had to do that at 10AM.
By the start of my 2nd shift, it was clear that all was not sweetness and light. Autonomous systems were behaving as designed, not as we'd intended. So the 3-shift thing was right out. The EE and I ramped up to 12-hour shifts, leaving the PI and the other brain trust to troubleshoot.
So I'd crawl out of bed for breakfast before the hotel restaurant closed at 10, go back for another few hours of sleep; show up at the control room late in the afternoon, and we'd run the damn thing for 12 hours until the EE came back to relieve me. I never really figured out when to eat.
Early one morning I was driving back down Greenbelt road, bound for the hotel and sleep. I turned the radio to NPR, and they were talking about some event on the Mall in Washington, DC, scheduled for Saturday Afternoon.
I thought about this for several minutes, and found that I had no idea what day it was, what time of day it was, or what the phrase "Saturday Afternoon" meant. My watch was set to Mission Elapsed Time, and that was pretty much all I needed to know.
We got the thing fixed, got some data, and (much later) published a paper and a PhD thesis based on it (not my thesis).
Woosh. What a ride. What a crazy way to make a living, though.
|< There's Nothing New Under the Sun | BBC White season: 'Rivers of Blood' >|