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Operations Jobs

by Suzanne M. M. Young

October 10, 2007 -
Greetings from Philly International Airport -- a usual stop!
(They have the worst and rudest TSA staff in the country, BUT they do have the most conveniently placed electric outlets - right next to the gates in easy places to sit and work while waiting to board a plane!)

I’m on my way back from ORT6 -- Operation Readiness Test 6.  They are always so good.  They get more and more challenging each time, but they also get more and more exciting as they seem more and more real. The lessons one learns could be accomplished no other way. The importance and impact of all we gain is, without a doubt, critical.  It becomes more and more obvious with each ORT.

This was a special ORT. I got to be a SPI again. I’ve never done any job I enjoyed more in all my life. I did get stroppy once! But it was bad room dynamics. I was seated in a bad place and couldn’t hear conversations with which I had to deal and respond. It got terribly frustrating. Any low murmur of background chatting, even whispered, in the room, rendered it impossible for me to hear the key conversation way up front. But as soon as I fussed about it (or it might have looked more like blowing a gasket -- I can get all intense about going my job!), my seat was changed the very next time. Lesson learned; problem solved. 

Now the SPI sits up front along the side of the U of tables instead of at the centre of the U which is actually rather far back from the front board and the Sci Lead who leads the whole meeting.  The job itself is just endlessly exciting, infinitely interesting, and deeply satisfying. For some reason, everyone thinks it’s such a tough job and they don’t want to do it -- the veteran Mars scholars all politely decline (or flat out refuse!). But I wish I do a fantastic job as a SPI that perhaps I could be a SPI-for-hire on other missions if they have a problem staffing the position.  I think it’s great.

This time we worked entirely on Mars time. That was a first. Some of the Rover Veterans have Mars watches and that makes a huge difference. I’m going to acquire mine at the first opportunity. Mars seconds and minutes and days are all just a wee bit longer than ours.

I mentioned it was an exciting mission because we brought along the final additions to our staff.  Kalina, my wonderful assistant/technician in lab actually came as an “observer” but I fed her loads of material before we left Tufts, and she worked very hard, as she always does, and she knocked the socks off the boss (Mike Hecht) of our instrument team (MECA -- not just WCL, but OM and TECP as well) and she earned a position on operations of ISE. In a nut shell, that means she’s commanding the space craft! We, the whole science team, decide what it is we want to do and then we refine a plan. My SPI job means I work with getting the plan into acceptable shape and I have to deliver a final, air-tight, fully scrubbed, and approved plan to a back room of ISEs.  The plan has to fit all resources like time, power, and data volume -- and just generally be all reasonable actions to take. I’m not going to re-describe my job every time we have an ORT -- just because it thrills me no end. Anyhow, that whole plan I deliver to the next phase, then that plan gets carved into instrument parts and the ISEs (instrument sequence engineers, such as Kalina!) take their parts and are responsible for delivering their code to take those wanted actions to the SPI-2. That second shift SPI (or SPI-2) integrates all the instrument pieces of code as well as lots of space craft commands into the entire set of code that goes to the space craft. So Kalina’s MECA code goes into the whole and then to the space craft. She’s commanding the space craft. And she is absolutely a star. She had to earn the job the hardest way, leaping hurtles, overcoming resistance - and she did and none deserve it more. I am so very happy it all worked out perfectly and she could be seen clearly for all that I already knew she was.

Jason, our mechanical engineering masters student, has also just been added to the operations team.  He’s going to be an IDE -- instrument downlink engineer. That means the space craft with talk to him! The data the comes back from space is not exactly in the form that we need it in -- it’s not processed and graphed in ways we need to evaluate it, but it also doesn’t even look exactly like the raw data we are so used to watching pour out of instruments in lab. So the IDE, in part, takes all the packets of our MECA data coming back from the space craft (from experiments Kalina coded!) and does the processing so the MECA team can view and interpret our data. The IDE also has to watch all kinds of things like command histories and whether they each of Kalina’s commands executed and so forth -- so we can evaluate our whole experiment as well as evaluate the scientific data. So Jason will be an important man to us -- putting the data in a good form for us to evaluate.

So we’ve added 2 young people to jobs that blow their minds. Kalina talks to the space craft.  Jason gets answers from the space craft. Both are so excited they didn’t sleep before coming to mission control. And both stayed at mission control absolutely all the time they could -- meaning working both shifts -- each other’s shifts instead of just their own. I ended up there as much of the time with them as I could be. But I had a big job to do too, and so for my own 1.5 shift couldn’t help them out or even look out for them much. But they didn’t need it. They both did terrifically. I’m so happy with their performances and for them both.

We have started added special MECA training days after ORTs as well. Our whole team including all the Wet Chem (WCL) members, all the optical microscope (OM) and atomic force microscope (AFM) members, as well as the TECP probe on the robotic arm team as well. I’ve long known the basics of all the other instruments on board, but now we are starting to become seriously well acquainted with the real detail of each instrument. That’s quite interesting too.  

In addition to discovering the fascination of other instruments, we also discovered how much we enjoy the other people of instrument teams of MECA. Big thanks to Mike Hecht for really bringing us all together instead of allowing us to keep working as sub-teams. The OM team has loads of Europeans on it and they rented a big house instead of staying in many hotel rooms.  The place was great -- especially for a final night’s dinner party which Kalina and I cooked.  Kalina lead with all kinds of wonderful Bulgarian treats, including special spices provided by her parents. I assisted her and also added my invention of special maple wild salmon -- a taste of New England in the southern desert! I’m sure Mike knew there was great wisdom on all levels in what he was doing. And the house had a big HD flat screen telly on which Mike could watch the Red Sox after his shift! He’s in California now, but he’s from outside Boston as well. Visiting Tufts is sort of coming home to him. I’m really much more of a football fan myself. The Patriots are going to do it this year -- again!  We are sure off to the right start!

And soon we’ll all be back and on a big push to do all the actions we’ve acquired in the ORT and training days and carry on with the heaps and heaps of lab work as usual!

Keep very well….and talk to space craft whenever possible.  
(It has to be good for one because it just makes my staff members glow with delight!)