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OFJ Field Journal from Robert Gounley - 12/7/95

AN ENGINEER MEETS THE PRESS

A billion kilometers from Earth, the Galileo Orbiter and Probe began executing their programmed instructions to collect important scientific information from Jupiter. On a quiet street in Pasadena, California, I stumbled about my home, alternately dressing and looking for a mislaid lapel pin. Galileo was preparing to encounter intense radiation and heat. I would meet the Press.

For the previous six years, most of Galileo's big events, including flybys of two asteroids and the Earth, put me in Galileo's Mission Support Area (MSA). That's where we "watch" the spacecraft. From the computer displays, cryptic numbers and symbols tell minute details of how the spacecraft is working. Sometimes, hidden in all that information, we can hear the spacecraft calling, "Pasadena, we have a problem." Everyone on this assignment spends long uneventful hours hoping there would be no such message on their watch.

Today was different. Other engineers were staffing the MSA, each one having spent months and years preparing for the big day. his was my opportunity to help out in a different capacity. I volunteered for "Guest Ops" -- escorting and speaking to the many visitors on Lab that day and, possibly, giving interviews to journalists visiting and phoning JPL.

Driving to work I listened to the radio give news reports from JPL. At the Lab's entrance, I saw a row of large TV broadcast vans, just like there were when Magellan and the Voyagers were the center of attention. The parking lot was full and, for the first time in 12 years, I used an illegal space, hoping the security guards would be lenient.

Descending the area known as "Cardiac Hill", I made my way to Von Karman Auditorium where most of the day's visitors would be. Trudging the opposite way was Dan Carlock, a member of the Probe team. He greeted me with news that the Probe should have turned on and started preparations for Jovian entry. Of course, he couldn't say for sure since the Probe, preserving its precious batteries, wouldn't turn on its transmitter until reaching the atmosphere. All night long, Dan watched a computer display to observe the radio receivers on the Orbiter turn on and stabilize. Nothing much else was expected to happen that night and Dan made sure nothing much did. Bleary-eyed, he excused himself to crawl into a camper for a short nap.

Nearing Von Karman Auditorium, two men in suits passed me by. One of them was Dan Goldin, NASA's Administrator. He seemed cheerful and animated, chatting briefly with guards he seemed to know on a first name basis. At the auditorium, other men in suits promptly escorted him in. I showed my badge and walked in alone.

Inside, the rooms were filled with people and electronics. TV cameras were being hauled into formation in a line facing the stage while technicians checked the microphones for bad connections. Elsewhere, reporters alternated between their tape recorders and laptop computers. Walking through this maze, I had to be careful not stand in the way of cameramen televising reports "Live from JPL."

Past this hubbub, I greeted members of the Public Information Office, letting them know I was here and ready to be of any service. No, there wasn't anyone needing someone to interview at the moment. Perhaps later. I found a quiet area and waited.

My first request came an hour later. I would give a telephone interview sometime after noon for a radio station in Toledo, Ohio. That sounded like a good beginning. Work out any problems with nervousness speaking to a small geographic area, then things would be comfortable while talking to a larger audience. It didn't quite turn out that way. Before the Dayton interview, I was asked to give a live telephone interview for the BBC World Television ten minutes from now.

A director at the other end of the telephone line advised me on what to expect.

To be sure he could reach me when needed, I should stay on the line for about five minutes and he would tell me when my time was getting close. In the background, I could hear a news report about events in Indonesia. Then, the announcer began introducing a story with, "Scientists and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory ...". ONE MINUTE. After a brief description of the Galileo mission, I was introduced and the interview began.

There followed several brief, innocuous questions. "What is the mood like?" ("Tense, but filled with anticipation", or something like that.) How soon could we expect to receive Probe data back? (I started to say next Monday, but began thinking it might really be Sunday. "Sunday or Monday, depending on your time zone", was my improvised reply.) Then came the tough one. "Aren't there concerns that the Probe may not survive its fiery entry?"

This is a difficult area to explain to someone who hasn't spent much of their life making something on the other side of the solar system perform complex gymnastics on command. From the beginning, everybody on the Galileo project has been dedicated to searching for the hidden flaw. Every assumption gets questioned. What can't be tested gets analyzed by experts. Yet, we know this is a risky business. Space exploration is inherently intolerant of human error. Of course something _could_ go wrong. It just isn't likely.

Taking the easy route, I said something to the effect that we were confident in the integrity of the Probe, thanks to extensive analyses and tests. Soon we would know for sure. The announcer thanked me and I was off the air.

Thus ended my first interview.

Having given my first interview of the day, I wandered back to Von Karman Auditorium. It was now about 9:30 AM. 800 million kilometers away, the Galileo Orbiter and Probe were sailing through Jupiter's radiation belt, absorbing doses stressful even to its heavily shielded electronics. By mid-afternoon, the Probe would plunge into Jupiter's clouds, leaving a meteoric streak in its wake. Later, it would open a parachute, release its charred heat shield, and begin sending atmospheric data to the Orbiter above. After 3 PM, we should hear a short message from the Orbiter, telling us the Probe data had be received.

That is, if everything worked.

On stage, NASA Administrator Dan Goldin was delivering a pep talk. Banks of TV cameras and microphones captured every word. Across the Lab, I knew that a far more modest amount of TV equipment was set up in Galileo Mission Support Area (our version of Mission Control). These cameras watched a handful of engineers looking at telemetry from the Galileo Orbiter. They would know before anyone else how December seventh, 1995 would be remembered.

I couldn't listen long. A reporter for AP Radio had asked for a telephone interview. Unlike the previous one, it was not a live broadcast, so it became more of a friendly chat. "What is the mood like?" "What's going to happen to the Probe?" Finally, the inevitable question -- "What if something goes wrong?"

I mumbled vague reassurances about how we had great confidence in our equipment. All this was true, but it certainly wasn't the whole story. For years every member of the Galileo team had made the possibility of failure an obsession. Any flaw imaginable was considered somewhere in the planning -- all so we could be confident today. The catch is, no many how many fault cases we talked about, designed against, and tested for, the only ones that really mattered would be the ones that actually happened today. Would there be one we overlooked? These thoughts I left unspoken.

Later that morning, I met a reporter from the Boston Globe. After a few minutes conversation, it became clear that interviews are best done face-to-face. When asked a question, you can search the reporter's face for some sense of what he's really after and know if he's gotten it. For example, comparing Galileo's tape recorder problems with getting a car stuck in a rut on a snowy road produced a look of recognition from the New Englander. Over my shoulder, a _Newsweek_ reporter from New York, hearing a new metaphor, began to write also.

My next interview was a phone-in to a Toledo, Ohio radio station. My few minutes on the air, I learned from the station's producer, would be spent chatting with the local DJ between traffic reports. He was a computer enthusiast and keen to know the latest from JPL. Realizing that afternoon DJs try to be humorous, would I find myself struggling for a witty rejoinder? "Oh, yeah!", probably wouldn't do.

Over the telephone, I could hear the radio station report traffic conditions and announce a sale at the local hardware store. A few minutes later, they spoke of of big events in Pasadena and gave a short introduction of the Galileo mission. I was on.

It began with friendly banter. What were things like here? Was I feeling any tension? These questions were getting familiar, but I tried to answas though I had never considered them before Finally, there was a new one.

"So much has changed since the 1970's and 80's when Galileo was designed. Isn't working on Galileo now like taking care of an old Buick?" A moment of panic set in. Handle this wrong, and thousands of Ohio commuters would forever picture NASA's prime planetary spacecraft as a rusty wreck left unsold in a used car lot.

"Well," I said pleasantly, "there's nothing wrong with old Buicks. Sometimes the old things work best. Remember, using the very newest equipment available doesn't do much good if the manufacturer issues a recall half-way to Jupiter."

"You can't exactly phone the Auto Club from space, can you?", he added.

"No, you can't", I chuckled. (WHEW!)

Around 1 PM, the Probe was only a few hours from entry. Whatever would happen to it and the Orbiter was now long past our ability to change. We could only watch. The people doing most of the watching were locked away in the Mission Support Area, closed off from anyone who wasn't required -- including me. While I couldn't personally wish that crew good luck, there were plenty of people near my old office, all of whom had contributed something to programming and operating Galileo, who were available for handshakes. Everyone was upbeat.

On my way back at Von Karman Auditorium, I was taken aside for another telephone interview. It was BBC Television again, wanting more live commentary on today's events. As I spoke, the Probe hit the outer layers of Jupiter's atmosphere at over 170,000 kilometers per hour. Unfortunately, the distance from Jupiter and the speed of light would keep us from knowing the outcome for another 50 minutes.

Leaving the office, there was one more request, an on-camera interview for a local TV station. The interviewer was a different sort from the rest. Where others wanted a few facts and a general description of "what things are like over there", this fellow was interested in my feelings. He wanted to hear my deepest inner anxieties and fears. Could I give him my basic human emotions at this momentous occasion? "From the gut", was the way he phrased it.

Well, I thought, there really wasn't any feeling going on inside except for a strong desire to go back into the auditorium and check up on Galileo. That probably wasn't what he wanted to hear. Better answer a different question.

"At this moment, I'm remembering that I've devoted almost one third of my life to this one project and I want it all to work."

That seemed to give him what he needed.

Back inside, I was shown to a set of special seats alongside 20 to 30 members of the Galileo flight team. For some reason, we were all grouped together.

The answer became clear as several dozen photographers and TV cameramen assembled into a firing line before us. They would capture our spontaneous reactions as we anxiously watched the minutes tick away. Of course, we were anxious. However, adrenelin has many strange and unexpected properties. Now that everything possible had been done, we wanted to savor every possible moment together. Mostly we laughed and joked and tried to see if there was any disappointment on the photographer's faces.

Perhaps sensing that some gesture appropriate, someone near me raised both hands to show his crossed fingers. He was answered by a volley of camera flashes and TV lights. Some of us shouted disapproval at an open display of concern, even a self-mocking one. A few discreetly rubbed their hands together in private acts of anticipation. Meanwhile, on the TV screens above us, the engineers in the Mission Support Area showed they had no time for any of this -- they were busy with their work.

Soon, we were told, a message from the Orbiter would tell us that Probe data had been collected. The time for that message came -- and went. We watched the engineers on the TV screen stare all the more intently at the their computer monitors, as though willing their displays to change. Like Mission Control in Apollo 13, they were wondering if, perhaps, the delayed signal meant there would be no signal at all.

As the seconds turned into minutes, I tried to remember all the ways Galileo's message could be delayed. I understand how the spacecraft works, but the maze of amplifiers and computers that collect and process signals from the tracking stations has never been completely clear to me. Could some innocuous glitch on the ground be causing the delay?

The TV camera lights seemed to grow brighter. Much longer and perspiration would bead on our foreheads. This would not be the image of calm and self- assurance we hoped for.

Our first sign of hope appeared when the face of one of the televised engineers broke out in a broad smile. Around her, people began to cheer and shake hands. While we could see her lips move to give an announcement, we could not hear her.

The entire auditorium had erupted in shouts of joy and relief. All around, in a scene repeated in dozens of conference rooms and offices, the people of JPL, NASA - Ames, and Hughes Electronics saluted each other with cheers, handshakes, and "high-fives". Remembering the years of hard work and frequent disappointment, a few were even moved to tears.

The Probe had survived and a record of its journey was safely stored in the Orbiter. There was still much to do before the Probe data would be in the scientists hands, but the most difficult steps were behind us.

It was in this euphoric state that I was approached, one final time, for an interview. A cable TV reporter asked me to say a few words for her and her cameraman. She was articulate and consumately professional. Also, she was quite attractive. :-)

The auditorium was still crowded and we must, she explained, stand close together for a good picture. Overcoming my shyness, I described for her and her cameraman all the pleasure and satisfaction the Galileo team felt at this historic moment. It seemed to go well, but the cameraman said that the sound wasn't very clear. Adjusting his microphone, asked us to repeat the question and answer one more time. Also, could we stand just a little bit closer together?

Once more, she asked what it was like here in the auditorium just a few minutes earlier. I raised my enthusiasm up a notch and answered with the fervor of a sports reporter describing the final seconds of a close game. She seemed happy, but the cameraman looked back at us sheepishly. He had hit the wrong switch and missed some of my comments. Could we do it once again? And this time, could we stand side-by-side? By now, I could hardly have been more ready. Her questions were answered with passion and conviction. Today's accomplishments were not merely great, but heroic. If my responses seemed a bit lavish, it was because I wanted everyone to know just what it meant to the Galileo team that we sucessfully completed the most important, most complex, and riskiest part of the mission. In spite of great obstacles, we made it work. When the interview ended, it took several minutes for my emotions to carry me gently back to the ground.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the solar system, the Galileo Orbiter had collected the last of the Probe data and was preparing for orbital insertion. The radiation was still intense and might yet affect its electronics. If the rocket engine didn't work, Galileo would fly on past Jupiter, unable to explore it further. If something went catastrophically wrong, there might be no further contact with Galileo ever, its precious cargo of scientific data lost.

It was time to start waiting again.

 
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