18 September 2008

Field Trip!

Or "The Humanities Major Infiltrates a Really Cool Government Facility" ...

Every now and then working with engineers pays off. For instance, the other day I got this in my e-mail:

Sent: Wednesday, August 06, 2008 7:02 PM
Subject: You are invited by the IEEE/AESS and IEEE/ GRSS to Tour NASA on 9/16/08

Next Meeting: Tuesday, September 16th, 2008 at 10am

Topic: “NASA Technical Tour, Integration and Testing Facilities & Hubble Cleanroom ”

Presenter: NASA, sponsored by the IEEE Geoscience and Remote Sensing and Aerospace Electronics and Systems Societies

Location: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

About the Tour: See how NASA builds, tests, and prepares for satellite missions.

Cost: Free

Naturally, I wrote back and asked to be included because how often does an English/Humanities Major get to tour science geekery on this level? I billed myself (to my bosses anyway) as the "corporate representative" to the tour and e-mailed the following to my friend Tim who is an astrophysicist at Goddard: "By the way, I'll be at Goddard for the IEEE tour on September 16th. No points for guessing who will be the only non-engineer there." and we made a date for lunch.

Finally, I would be going somewhere besides my office where my badge (or as I call it, my geek tag) would be considered fashion-wear.

The tour invitation got such a good response that the organizers had to break it up and do it over three days, so I got moved to September 17th. My goal was to not stand out as the Humanities Major in the room, so this morning I got up all bright and lark-like and selected an outfit from the non-Jane Austen end of my wardrobe spectrum: Black slacks, black v-neck shirt, maroon sweater, and flats. Good for walking around in, not likely to interfere with eqiupment that might cost multiples of my annual salary.

We started the tour in the Visitor's Center and proceeded to the theater where they have the Science on a Sphere (SOS) display. According to the brochure, SOS is not revolting breakfast fare but "a suspended 6-foot diameter sphere that displays 3D animated data of the planets, moons, and our earth. The GSFC production crew has also made the first movie to be seen on the SOS called 'Footprints'." Very, very cool. We got to see - among other things - weather patterns from over the past couple of months (think Gustav and Hanna and Ike*) up to that morning. When the guy behind me misinterpreted the data and said we were looking at "today" before we were I was the one who quietly corrected, "no, that's August." "Oh, so it is." He is a scientist. My cover remained intact.

After the SOS we boarded a couple of shuttles and were taken into GSFC proper and into Building 7/10 & 29.


The Building 7/10 Spacecraft Test and Integration Facility contains cleanrooms for spacecraft integration and special chambers for environmental test of spacecraft. Nine thermal-vacuum chambers, four large vibration platforms("shakers"), and an acoustic test chamber capable of 150 decibels are located in this facility. There is also a full-scale model of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Building 29 Spacecraft Systems Development and Integration Facility is a 7990 m² facility that contains one of the largest cleanrooms in the world. The High Bay Cleanroom is a 1,161 square metres (12,500 sq ft), class 1,000 (M4.5), horizontal flow cleanroom measuring 30.5 x 38 x 27 meters (100'x125'x89'). Its five 250 horsepower fans are capable of moving 25,388 m³/min (900,000 ft³/min). It has been designed to support the integration and testing of flight hardware and has the capacity to accommodate two full-sized shuttle payloads simultaneously and plays a major role in preparations for the Hubble Space Telescope Servicing Missions.

(Thanks, Wikipedia.)

Specifically, the Cleanroom is the largest known Cleanroom in the world. Its 9 stories high, so pretty much everything connected to it just looks freakin' big. I am convinced that I passed a drawer on the tour labeled "Big A$$ Wrenches." (The drawer for sockets, alas, was merely labled "Sockets.") Sort of sums up the experience, right there.

There is a smell common to government facilities. It's not a bad smell, but it is very specific. It's kind of a mix of plastic, metal, and recycled air, with maybe just a soup├žon of ozone. I've smelled it when Dad took me on Navy ships and I've smelled it a few other places and it's there at Goddard. Maybe it's the smell of our tax dollars working very hard for us.**

Anyway, we were also taken to see the vibration platforms, the thermal test chambers, and ... the acoustic test chamber. The rule at GSFC is that if there is something that can be tested before an object is shot into space to roam the galaxies at 172kph, they test it. Hence, the acoustic test chamber. Picture loud. Picture the speakers that your most annoying neighbor ever owned. Now picture that speaker being, oh, 10 - 12 feet across. That huge freakin' speaker was quite a few feet overhead and we could only see the back of it and the several feet of business end that was resting on a platform overhead. We walked into the room that leads to the acoustic test chamber, our guide pointed up to the speaker and the group reaction was pretty much "Whoa!" I still tend to think "Whoa!" as I remember it.

Our guide told us that nearby staffers usually find a reason to be out of the building when things are being acoustically tested.

The last stop on our trip was the cyclatron, which a) is huge and b) can spin things up to a rate of 6g. Yep. Six times the gravity of the earth. Humans tend to pass out at 3g. Oddly enough, our guide wouldn't let us ride the cyclatron, but did point out the big mark on the wall from the last time that someone started the device without being 100% positive that everything was completely secured. We all agreed that a good goal was to not be the last signature on the checklist for that event.

As I was leaving the building it began to occur to me that those payloads must find space very restful after all the testing they go through in Greenbelt.

After our tour, I met my college friend Tim for lunch and although I'm sure that the other people enjoyed the tour very much, they didn't get to have lunch with Tim afterwards, so I can only pity them. Tim, who is both wicked smart and a nearly professional story-teller, is a very entertaining lunch companion. With my theater schedule and his two daughters starting their teenage years, we don't see each other nearly often enough.

Goddard hosted "LaunchFest" this past weekend and from what our guide told us, they had a good enough response that they'll do it again, possibly next year. If you get the chance, go. Maybe they'll let you ride the cyclatron...

*No, no, not "Gustav and Walter and Franz." Be serious.

**It is not, as Apocalypse Now teaches us, the smell of victory, as that has a strong napalm aroma.


Michael Clark said...

I'd think a bunch of scientists would name their building using decimals instead of fractions (.7 vs 7/10). Boy, people just continue to surprise you.

Anonymous said...

Um, "centrifuge," maybe?

LaunchFest recap.

Liza said...

I'm jealous.

And the way scientists use decimals, as Michael noted, always makes me laugh. It's how you can tell I'm just a wannabee geek. (Well, one of the ways.)

Leta said...

Yeah, probably centrifuge. Remind me to touch your glasses the next time I see you.

Anonymous said...

I should point out that that is the smell of governnment facilities "Just after they've been cleaned up for a dog and pony show," and not neccessarily indicative of their normal pong.

Maureen said...

Oh wow, how completely cool! I'm not nearly as interested in space as I was as a kid, but just the mention of what you got to see makes me ever so jealous! Maybe my new job will bring with it the possibility of a future such tour; I can only hope...