SDCC '15: Need a Tow? Who You Gonna Call in Outer Space? JPL Engineers Talk Shop

By Michele Brittany, West Coast Correspondent

There was only an hour left to go of the San Diego Comic-Con, and I was ready to rest my tired feet and be entertained. I came across "No Tow Trucks Beyond Mars" and with a title like that I knew it was the panel for me.

MBrittany_Mars_1Moderator David Rosing introduced himself as a JPL 37 year veteran. As a System and Opto-Mechanical Engineer, he has worked on several projects that included Galileo, Magellan, IRAS, and Mars aircraft and instruments. Shonte Tucker was a JPL 23 year veteran. As a Thermal Engineer, some of the projects she has worked on include Cassini Mars Observer, Europa Orbiter, Mars Exploration Rovers and the James Webb IR Telescope Mid IR instrument. Todd J. Barber is a JPL 25 year veteran. As a Senior Cassini Propulsion Engineer, some of his projects include Cassini, Mars Exploration Rovers, and Mars Science Laboratory.

Rosing said that each panelist would tell a couple of stories that described their best, worst and most memorable moments working as engineers for JPL. He did explain that the stories they would relate conformed to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). He also took a moment to thank the audience for their support of JPL's work with space exploration.

MBrittany_Mars_6Rosing started the stories off by talking about the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) project he worked on in 1983. The telescope revealed over 60,000 galaxies, which were seen for the first time. He explained that he shorted out all of the temperature sensors and accidentally contributed to "frying the focal plane assembly" on the satellite. It was definitely a memorable moment, but not for positive reasons.

Tucker entertained with a story from the Cassini project. She was observing a thermo balance test on a graveyard shift. She said that usually nothing goes wrong on such a shift, but it did the night that she there. The supervising engineer was unreachable and the night staff, while knowledgeable, were not experienced with the problem that occurred that nigh. Tucker had to step in and with her guidance, they were able to manually reset the temperature switches on the secondary computer systems. She relayed it was a frightening but also exciting moment and said that it was "amazing what you can do when you have to." She added that she felt like a superhero.

MBrittany_Mars_5Barber was visiting his grandparents one summer as a boy and they encouraged him to read their five-year collection of National Geographic Society magazines that happened to cover Voyager's mission as it was passing Jupiter and Saturn. It inspired him to work with space exploration. Securing his position with JPL was a dream come true, especially since one of the projects was working with Saturn, the planet whose photo he admired so many years before.

Rosing explained that in the course of their jobs, they have to anticipate problems that may come up and find resolutions. One such safeguard is to have backup system for everything, which came in handy on the Voyager's gyro equipment. The backup systems were put to the test; it was a tense moment and fortunately, the last possible option worked. As a result, a reset sequence was established when the primary system shuts down and the secondary one comes on line.

For the audience that was feeling science-deficit, Tucker's reference to her superhero name at work where she is known as "Kapton Girl" resonated with the con crowd in the room. Tucker talked about Kapton, or duct tape for space as well as spacecraft blankets. She also walked through her superhero uniform and all of her tools.


MBrittany_Mars_3Barber talked about one moment that could have lost him his job. He was working on the Mars Exploration Rovers and had just finished testing on the "Spirit of Opportunity." Because it was successful, some important officials came to JPL for a visit, one being the Governor of California, which at that time was Arnold Schwarzenegger. JPL personnel had been cautioned not to engage or take any photographs during the tour. Barber really wanted to meet the movie star turned politician. He devised the plan that he would block the governor's path so they would meet. It worked and Barber was tickled at his ingenuity to have a brief exchange of words (Barber does a decent impression, by the way!). A short time later, he excitedly recounted the story to various co-workers. Fast forward to him talking with his Kansas family later that evening and it confused Barber that his family knew about his meeting and was chastising him about it. Apparently, he had been recorded and the incident was reported on CNN!

MBrittany_Mars_4Barber closed with letting the audience know that JPL will have an open house event on October 10 and 11 from 9 AM to 4 PM. A handful of questions were answered in the few remaining minutes. Afterwards, several people went up front to talk with the three engineers, asking more questions and hearing more stories. Finally the room staff had to tell the exuberant crowd they needed to vacate the room.

MBrittany_Mars_7Event photos were taken by Michele Brittany.

Michele Brittany is an independent popular culture scholar and semi-professional photographer and editor of James Bond and Popular Culture: Essays on the Influence of the Fictional Superspy (McFarland & Company) as well as the forthcoming book Essays on Space Horror in Films, 1950s – 2000s. Read her reviews and analysis on the spy/espionage and space horror genres via her blogs at Spyfi & Superspies and Space Horror Films. Follow Michele on Twitter: @mcbrittany2014.