My actual job title is "satellite systems engineer", but we usually call ourselves Flight Controllers. I am a member of the team which is on duty in the Mission Operations Room 24 hours per day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. We are located at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, about 40 miles from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. The team members who work on the Hubble program at Goddard are engineers rather than astronomers. Like the night assistant in a ground-based observatory, our job is to keep the astronomers a safe distance away from the telescope!
Our group is primarily responsible for maintaining the correct operation of this very complicated and delicate (not to mention expensive) machine. We do this by constantly watching the engineering telemetry data that the HST transmits to the ground by radio. Telemetry refers to the ability to make measurements at a distance. The engineering data tells us how the spacecraft is behaving, we watch the data to monitor temperatures, voltages, current, mechanism positions and software execution. There are about 700 temperature sensors on the HST which tell us how hot or cold things are getting up there. If a certain piece of equipment gets too warm or too cold it could be damaged and might fail to operate properly, so we watch the temperatures closely and we are prepared to turn on heaters if some item gets too cold or to shut things off if they get too hot. The electrical power system is also watched closely to make certain that the solar arrays are generating enough electricity to keep the batteries fully charged.
In this job we take turns working all three shifts- days, evenings, and night shift, for one week at a time. Shift work is not too bad for me, I'm used to staying up all night, and I hate to get up in the morning (some of you probably have that problem too), in this job I only have to do that one week out of every four. On very rare occasions there may be a problem that requires immediate attention even in the middle of the night, if that happens I have a list of telephone numbers that I can call to wake up other people and ask their advice or ask them to get dressed and come in to work to deal with the problem. But it is very rare that I have to do that. I don't like to wake people up in the middle of the night, so unless the problem is serious I usually let them sleep and tell them about it when they come to work in the morning.
Probably the best thing about the job is the chance to be right in the middle of things, watching over one of the most important satellites that our country has ever launched. Hubble is not just a very complex machine, it also seems like a living, breathing creature, it has an electronic heartbeat and a pulse. Late at night there are only a couple of other people here besides myself, we are the only people on Earth who are watching over the minute by minute behavior of the spacecraft. It is also a thrill when I see our photos in the newspaper or on TV and knowing that I had a part in making it happen.
Probably the worst part of the job is that the HST project is so vast and so complicated that one person cannot understand everything that there is to know about the spacecraft and its ground control systems. People sometimes do not understand the work that other people on the team are doing. This can cause problems and frustrations when you know that you could be doing things better, easier, and more efficiently but the system won't let you do it that way. The other frustration is that when Hubble was first launched in 1990, the astronomers from the Science Institute had a workstation here at Goddard and we all got to see the raw images as soon as they came down from the spacecraft, which made the job a lot more interesting. After Hubble was in orbit for a few months, they moved back to Baltimore with their equipment and now I never see the images that we obtain until the latest issue of Sky and Telescope shows up in my mailbox, months after the fact.
I grew up in Sterling Heights, Michigan, a little bit north of Detroit, and received degrees in engineering and physics from Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. I lived in Iowa City, Iowa for a time while I was studying physics at the University of Iowa. My mother and father still live in Michigan along with my brother and two sisters. I manage to get back there two or three times a year. Although I have been interested in astronomy since the day that my father took me to the Cranbrook Planetarium when I was 7 or 8 years old, I studied engineering in college and I was hired for my engineering background and not to do astronomy. My mother tells me that I was fascinated by electric lights even before I could talk, and soon afterward I was taking apart every electrical appliance in our home to see how it worked so I guess it wasn't a big surprise that I should decide to study electrical engineering in college. I was in seventh grade when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and I sort of decided right then that that was the team I wanted to play on when I grew up. In those days the TV coverage of space missions was much better that what you get today, if you paid close attention to the television during an Apollo mission you could learn quite a lot about spacecraft construction and space flight.
For a young person who is thinking about a career in science or engineering, I would advise you to read everything that you can get your hands on, but don't just rely on books, try to get some practical experience as well. Build and launch model rockets, build a radio from a kit, or a simple telescope, and learn as much as you can from them. If you have a computer in your home or school, don't just use it to play games or to run store-bought software, but get a book about programming and learn to write your own software to make the computer do what you want it to do. Your high school and college courses will be much more fun if you can see some immediate interesting and practical uses for the things that you are learning. On the other hand, don't make the opposite mistake and think that your other school work is unimportant just because you don't see how you will ever use that knowledge. Believe me, you will use it someday.
Don't be afraid to try difficult things even though you may fail sometimes. Take the hard courses in school, and don't be afraid to open a book that may be "over your head", you might not understand it the first time, but eventually you will. Find some interesting project that you care about and stick with it until you get it working. Above all, be very persistent and NEVER give up. There will be many setbacks and failures along the way. The job market for scientists and engineers is rather poor at the present time and many science graduates are having trouble finding jobs in their field. Perhaps this will get better by the time you graduate from college, but be prepared to make many sacrifices if you truly want a career in science.
Outside of work, I like to design and build electronic and mechanical things in my home workshop, and to travel to new places far from home. We have an astronomy club at Goddard for people who like to do astronomy as a hobby (as opposed to a job), and also an amateur radio club for people who are interested in ham radio. The Goddard Amateur Radio Club transmits the voice communications between Houston and the space shuttle for most missions. If you have a shortwave radio you may be able to tune in our signal and listen to the astronauts as they work in space. Click here to see the radio club's home page.
I am also a member of Amsat, the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation. Amsat is a group of ham radio operators and engineers who design, build, and launch our own homemade satellites to relay amateur radio signals to other parts of the world and to do some simple science experiments in space. Amsat presently has a very large ham radio satellite under construction in Orlando, Florida, with parts coming from different amateur groups in about a dozen countries. We hope to have it launched into space later this year or early next year on a European Ariane 5 rocket. When it flies into space, it will carry a small radio antenna that I made in my home workshop. Amsat also works with NASA to operate the Shuttle Amateur Radio Experiment (SAREX) which sets up ham radio contacts between astronauts in space and school students on the ground. Click here to see Amsat's home page on the web
In the fall of 1994 I was able to visit Bolivia and Chile to watch a total solar eclipse. I had previously traveled to Mexico in 1991 for an earlier eclipse, but the weather was cloudy on the day of the eclipse and I never got to see it. So I decided to try again and I flew to South America for another chance three years later. On the morning of the eclipse, just as the sun was rising, there were clouds coming in from the east. I started to think that I had traveled all this way just to get clouded out again! But the clouds mostly got out of the way in time for the eclipse, which was an awsome sight. It was as if someone had flipped a switch and turned off the sun for three and a half minutes! There was just a dark hole in the sky where the sun had been a few minutes earlier, surrounded by the sun's corona, a sight that is only seen from Earth during solar eclipses. The sky got very dark even though it was 9:30 in the morning, Jupiter and Venus were visible in the sky. To make it even more interesting, there was a volcano in the distance with steam coming from its summit. After the eclipse I traveled farther south to Santiago, Chile, where I visited with a local astronomy club and showed some slides from the HST. Afterwards we went outside to look at the southern sky through the club's telescopes. Just as it was getting dark, we looked up in the sky and saw the Hubble Space Telescope passing overhead. It is a very odd feeling to be 5000 miles from home on another continent and to look up in the sky and see your job go floating by!