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Online From Jupiter 97

Jim FH Taylor

Orbital Engineering Team - Telecom Unit Lead

My Field Journals

I think I have the best job in the world, working as a Galileo communications systems engineer. I started on this project in 1978 or 1979 -- it's hard to remember exactly that far back -- coming off of flight operations for the Viking Orbiter project. Before that, I had worked in "telecom" (short for telecommunications) at JPL on the Mariner Mars flight team in the early 1970s and on the Viking Mars (Orbiter and Lander) flight team in the later 1970s.

In the early years on Galileo, during spacecraft development, testing, and getting ready for flight ops (what we call operations, for short), my title was "telecom systems cognizant engineer." I think of "cognizant" as a kind of know-it-all, in the good sense. I learned a lot when the mission changed to fly the spacecraft past Venus and the Earth before heading out to Jupiter. I was involved in the systems design work to add a second low gain antenna to use to communicate with the spacecraft when it was "inside" Earth's orbit (that is, closer to the sun). More generally, my goal was to learn all there is to know about the Galileo telecom system (the radio receiver and transmitter, the command detector, the telemetry encoder and modulator, and the antennas).

I also had to know quite a bit about the equipment that the Deep Space Network uses to transmit to our spacecraft and to receive the data from it. To document the changes such as the second low gain antenna, the Galileo Project wanted updates to the official requirements documents (the ones that say "such and such shall...") I used this as an opportunity to make the document also be a guide explaining the system to the people who would fly the spacecraft. Instead of just saying "shall", the guide would also say "why" and "how" things were required that way. This was the perfect way to be sure I learned it myself! Also, I chose to have a new engineer, who would be on the flight team, do the actual writing. Doing this was much more effort than if I had done the writing myself. I think both the man I mentored and I learned a lot from this experience. The guide we produced before launch in 1989 continues to be used to this day.

My job on Galileo now is "Telecom Unit Lead in the Orbiter Engineering Team." My purpose is to be a telecom coordinator or information broker. My day is complete if everyone who works with or uses the radio links is aware of what everyone else is doing.

The way that I have done my work has changed quite a bit over the years. Until the early 1980s, I used a typewriter to do my own memos and reports, having learned to type in the 7th grade -- a rare thing for a boy in the 1950s! In the early 1980s, I went from a typewriter to an Apple 2+ computer, with the WordStar word processor and the Multiplan spreadsheet. I could do so much more! Now these are positively ancient computer tools. A dozen years later, I am networked. I use a personal computer and an engineering workstation, and communicate mostly via e-mail.

How could one person spend an entire career in one field (spacecraft telecom)? I'm now 57, and I went into telecom system engineering right out of college in 1962. When I was 9 or 10, my parents took us children on "rides" in the family automobile. My mother told me one of the first things I did was count the telephone poles we passed on the road. As a young teenager, I lived in Wyoming and Montana. My dad, working in the oil production business, would take me to the well sites. These drives were 100 or more miles, and most of the highways had power lines alongside. In the early 1950s, the car radio only could receive AM stations, and there weren't many of these in Wyoming and Montana. Sometimes the static from the power lines drowned out the radio broadcast, and I became curious why.

Later, it became a hobby of mine to "broadcast DX", to see how many distant AM radio stations I could receive at home. Our family didn't have TV until 1953, when one of the very earliest cable systems was built in our Wyoming town, Casper. I learned how this system used microwave relay stations to transport a single channel from Denver. I experimented putting a TV antenna on our 21-inch black and white set. I was amazed that sometimes distant TV stations, such as from Los Angeles or Memphis, could be received in Wyoming due to what was called "skip". So my growing-up years were spent experiencing these aspects of telecom. It seemed natural when it came time to go to college that I wanted to major in electrical engineering and learn about communications. I received my bachelor's degree in EE from Stanford in 1961 and my master's a year later. It was my incredible good fortune at that time to land a job with a company (then called RCA) in New Jersey that built weather satellites. I still remember that I didn't know what I wanted to do, or could do, with my engineering degree. Or how anyone would want to pay me to work for them.

Building on that fortune, I was also lucky to chance into a telecom systems engineering group at RCA. Some of my work involved using some documents called the "Space Program Summaries," published by JPL.

But then, in the late 1960s, RCA's business fell off, and I had to find a new job. I had married in 1970, and we wanted to make a new life in California, my native state. Luckily, my only job offer was from the place I most wanted to be a part of, JPL. The publication that grew out of the JPL volumes I admired so in the RCA library are called the Tracking and Data Acquisition (TDA) Progress Reports. They are edited by my boss' boss. I have written a few articles for this periodical, giving back to others some of the riches in knowledge that I have received. These days, though, you find the TDA Progress Report mainly on the World Wide Web, not in bound volumes. You can look at these yourself by starting with the home page of the Deep Space Network at http://deepspace1.jpl.nasa.gov/dsn/. Check out what they're doing for Galileo, then click on "documents".

What do I do or think about when I'm not here in my eighth floor office, with its view of the San Gabriel mountains and the always-changing sky? My wife Barbara and one remaining son, Andy, live with me at the home in Sierra Madre that we found in 1970 along with my JPL job. We have five children, all sons. Bob, the oldest, is a fireman in the city of Pasadena and thinks the JPL fire department has the best firefighting and "hazmat" equipment available. Sam is a pediatrician just starting a practice in Spokane; his twin Omar got his degree in computer science and works with unix systems in Silicon Valley. Andy, and his twin Mike, are both registered nurses. Mike chose to start out in a small town part way from Tacoma toward Mt. Ranier in Washington state.

Three of the boys are married, all in 1994, and Andy will marry at the end of this year. All the "kids" are grown up; the younger twins are 26. Barbara and I miss the years we had our sons with us at home. We don't do much that special around home, though we've been known to play tennis or go for a walk in the neighborhood, or attend a movie just like real people. Because so much of my work here involves sitting down, I make sure every day I do a "noon time lope" on the horse trail that bounds two sides of the JPL campus. On weekends I ride my bike in the hills and canyons at the top of Sierra Madre. A special project Barbara and I did was a letter for family members and friends that told about the 1994 weddings and included pictures. Barbara is just now mailing copies out.

Our special thing, every year, is to drive from here to upstate New York. We have a log cabin cottage on the shore of Lake George, and Barbara (who is an preschool educational aide during the school year) is able to spend the whole summer there. I fly back to California to work on Galileo and take care of our cat Shadow at home, then rejoin Barbara at the end of the summer. It is very relaxing to canoe and hike in the Adirondacks, but mainly just to experience rural and small town life for a week at either end of the summer. On our drives to and from New York, we travel different routes and visit family members and friends who live in different states.

Even during vacations, I give a thought or two to JPL. This happens when I hear on the radio about one of our projects, such as Galileo's collecting data about the Shoemaker-Levy comet collision with Jupiter several years ago. Or the loss of the Mars Observer spacecraft which dominated the radio news all the way across the country. This last summer, three days from home, I heard in Texas that Galileo had experienced a "safing" event (meaning that there was some problem with the spacecraft, and it had put itself into a "safe" state, waiting for instructions from Earth). I knew there was work waiting for me to return. Telecom work is never done and not usually routine.

There are bitter disappointments in any job. As you may know, the spacecraft's main antenna (also called the high gain antenna) failed to fully open. Telecom was involved in special tests and sequences to try to get the high gain antenna to open. We then worked to see what the best possible mission could be when the antenna stubbornly failed to deploy despite the cleverest ideas by the brightest people. The antenna that we're currently using (the low gain) sends data at a much slower rate, so we're getting far less data than originally planned. However, nothing on Galileo matches the devastation I felt when I saw the explosion of the Shuttle Challenger and learned of the deaths of its crew. I saw this on TV during a Galileo training session. Those of us in the room were stunned.

The last three years, telecom has been involved in the testing of two brand new ground receiving systems. The most recent new system was operated with the Galileo signal for the first time last year. At the same time, the Galileo signal was substantially changed (it now has a new coding scheme and new data rates). There is always something new to learn, like the interaction of the new data system with the effects of the sun's plasma on the signal (I wrote a journal on this topic).

Many of our days, and nights, are long here. More often than not, we end our day tired but reflecting on the events that made that day special, exciting, or fun. I know that being part of "Online from Jupiter" is going to be fun.


 

 
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