SpaceTEC® Resource Blog for Aerospace Technicians

Introduction to Aerospace

Where Do We Go From Here?

“…But all endings are also beginnings. We just don’t know it at the time.” -Mitch Albom

That’s a good question for the student studying to become an aerospace technician and current aerospace technicians.  With the ending of the Space Shuttle program, tens of thousands of aerospace technicians, engineers, scientists, and managers have been thrust into the job market in one large mass with limited jobs available.  Many unemployed or soon to graduate aerospace technicians prefer to stay in Human Space Flight, but it is quite probable that our nation will not be launching astronauts on American launch vehicles for the foreseeable future, quite likely 10 years or more for a myriad of reasons.  Though there is a deep well of talent in this workforce, it is difficult for the aerospace industry to absorb these workers all at once, especially the fledgling commercial HSF industry.  The competition for jobs is fierce with so many thrust into the labor market in such a short time span.  So where do you go from here?

There are always options available to the aerospace technician that they can pursue.  Some are not as preferred as others in the beginning, but they do exist.  We will explore some of those options in this post.

Option #1:

White Sands Missile Range

Look outside of HSF.  Though Americans are not being launched anymore on American launch vehicles, unmanned launches are still occurring.  Satellites, planetary probes, cargo vessels, and telescopes are still being designed, built, and prepared for launch.  The rockets used to launch these payloads still require aerospace technicians.  You may not think it is as glamorous as HSF, but it is still a job that falls within your education and experience.  Not many aerospace technicians in this world can say over dinner conversation that they helped prepare or launch a rover to Mars.  Why can’t you be that aerospace technician?

Option #2:

Look outside your area.  There are many spaceports throughout the nation and the world.  Those spaceports are covered in the previous post here.  Continuing your career sometimes requires relocation.  It is a fact of life for many professionals in this economy and should not be looked upon as a burden but as an opportunity.  Many companies look favorably upon an employee who is willing to relocate to help the company succeed and it helps them to find the best talent in a larger pool than just the local communities.

Option #3:

Continue your education while waiting for the number of people looking for work to thin out.  This serves two purposes: 1. It makes you more marketable by having more education, and 2. It buys you time as new aerospace programs get started and as the labor pool shrinks due to people moving away, being hired, retiring, or changing careers.  This would be a good time to supplement your aerospace credentials with an A&P license, a B.S. degree, additional certifications, etc.  SpaceTEC would be a good place to start in seeking additional certifications.

Option #4:

Start your own business.  In difficult economies, sometimes the best way to find work is to create your own work.  Some Space Shuttle Technicians have recognized various needs in the aerospace community and have started their own businesses to meet those needs.  These needs may have been created by poor customer service from established companies, or it is a need that has not been recognized yet.  Starting your own business is full of risks and should be approached with a well thought out business plan, additional studies on other aspects of business such as accounting and marketing, etc.  The local Small Business Administration should be of assistance.  Do not bet your life savings, home, etc. without a thorough understanding of what your market is and how you’re going to meet it.  Most new businesses fail within the first five years, so think this through carefully before selecting this option.

Option #5:

Change careers.  This is a radical option that not only requires you to possibly obtain new certifications or degrees outside of your area, but to be prepared to enter a new job on an entry level basis that most times include lower pay.  It can be a rewarding move and you will be surprised at how many of your aerospace skills will be applicable in your new career.  Everything from the aerospace culture, such as how to approach problem solving, working in large organizations, etc., to your actual skills you use on the job can benefit you in your new career.  New careers to consider could be teaching industrial arts or other subjects, working in a non-aerospace industry, health care industry (especially technicians who work on medical equipment), to maintenance jobs.  The possibilities are actually endless.  Also, changing careers does not have to be permanent.  As the job market in the aerospace world opens back up, you can return to aerospace and bring along the additional knowledge and experience you obtained while working outside of your first profession.

Summary

There are many other options out there besides the four listed and you don’t have to limit yourself to just these four.  The point is to never forget that you always have options to succeed and thrive.  The amount of options you have is limited only by your imagination and your drive to succeed.  Treat this downturn in HSF as an opportunity to “problem solve” this obstacle to your career.  It is not the end of the world and the skills you have already learned as an aerospace technician will be a strength you will always carry no matter where you go.  The knowledge and experience you have obtained so far in your career is yours.  You own it, you earned it, and you can use it in many varied ways.

 

 

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Sunday, July 31st, 2011 Career Advice, Introduction to Aerospace Comments Off on Where Do We Go From Here?

Clean Your Room Young Man!

Mars Rover Clean Room

How many times have we heard out parents bellow out to clean our rooms?  Probably far more than we care to count, but cleanliness does not end with childhood.  Cleanliness is essential to good health and a safe environment.  That not only applies to humans, but to spacecraft as well.

Spacecraft of course range from satellites to planetary probes to manned spacecraft.  Each type of spacecraft has its own unique reasons as to why it needs to be kept in a clean environment.  Specialized equipment can be contaminated by material that is less than 100 microns big.  (A human hair is about 100 microns in width)  Also some planetary probes must be microbe free so that the probe will not contaminate another world and possibly endanger life on that planet or give us a false reading of life on that particular planet.  If you think trying to bring a plant through customs after visiting a foreign country is a big deal, just try sending a contaminated lander to Mars and making the mistake of announcing to the world that you found life on Mars!

Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide holds up a sign for the camera as he enters the Kibo lab for the first time. Note the mask and goggles.  Photo credit: NASA TV

Human spacecraft also require a clean environment.  Dust and other contaminates will not just sit idly on the floor as they do on Earth, but float in a micro-gravity environment getting into equipment, the astronaut lungs, eyes, mouth, etc.  Depending on the material floating around, it can be an irritant to an astronaut or something that could be life threatening such as breathing in microscopic metal shavings.  This is why you always see astronauts wearing goggles and sometimes masks as they open a new module to the International Space Station until they can confirm that the filters have completely cleaned the air of all contaminants.

As an aerospace technician, you may find yourself working in a clean room environment.  Some space hardware cannot risk exposure to dust, microbes, or any other contaminant.  Humans, no matter how fastidious they are in their hygiene, are the dirtiest objects to enter a clean room.  So, since you are a hazard, precautions must be taken.

At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory or JPL, “The default clean room settings are determined by the project with the most stringent cleanliness requirements. Both high bays are class 100,000. This means that in every cubic foot (about 28 liters) of air there must be no more than 100,000 particles at one-half of a micron and no more than 700 particles at five microns or larger. This may sound like many particles, but they are incredibly minute; for example, one strand of human hair measures 100 microns. A typical home or school usually measures in the 200,000-300,000 class.”  But it can be even more stringent.  During the assembly of the Genesis spacecraft, “engineers and scientists at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, built a class ten clean room exclusively for the spacecraft to ensure that no contaminants from Earth accompanied the Genesis spacecraft to its destination in space. That means that a mere ten particles (one micron in size) are present per cubic foot of air per minute.”  Genesis used “collector plates” to capture particles from a comet’s tail and return them to Earth.  To ensure that only comet particles were being viewed once the collector plates were returned and examined, extraordinary efforts were made to keep the plates and spacecraft as sterile as possible.

So, as an aerospace technician, what precautions would you be required to take?  Well first of all, good hygiene is a nice thing to do.  (Your co-workers will thank you for that step!)  Next would be collecting a “bunny suit” from logistics that is sealed in an air tight bag.  This suit will end up covering your head, face, and entire body including your feet ensuring that any particles such as hair or exfoliated skin that falls off your body is contained within the suit.

Your next step would be to stop by a clerk or person that is responsible for keeping track of everyone and everything that enters and exits the clean room.  For the Space Shuttle Program, these people are called Orbiter Integrity Clerks or OIC’s.  You will bag up all unnecessary items on your person and place them in a bag to be kept by the clerk, sign in all tools and materials you will be taking inside with you to do your job, and of course sign yourself in too.  When you exit the clean room, you will go over the list of all the items you took inside with you with the clerk and ensure you brought everything back out.  You cannot leave any FOD behind in the clean room.

Air Shower

Once you’re done checking in with the clerk, it’s time to take a shower.  Not a water shower, but an air shower.  You will enter a doorway, close it behind you, and raise your arms in the air while a blast of air blows over you from several nozzles.  This air blast is to knock loose any particles that may be on your clothes and tool bag.  The particles are then sucked up into a filter.  After the shower ends its cycle, you will exit the other door into the dressing area.

The dressing area will have a “sticky mat” (sometimes there will be sticky mats outside before you enter the air shower) that will cause your shoes to stick to the floor removing any particles that may be on the bottom of your shoes. In the dressing area you will put on your bunny suit and prepare to enter the clean room.  Make sure you inspect the bunny suit for any tears or holes.  There should be no openings that could possibly allow contaminants to fall out.

While in the cleanroom good work practices become even more important.  Did you bring a waste bag that seals to put all your trash in?  Are you practicing “clean as you go?”  These things are important outside the clean room and much more so inside.  You should never leave anything behind that shouldn’t be there.

Now you know how to work in a clean room.  Your parents sure will be proud of you.

Goddard Space Flight Center clean room used for the Hubble Telescope

More information can be found about clean rooms at JPL’s website.

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Thursday, January 13th, 2011 Introduction to Aerospace Comments Off on Clean Your Room Young Man!

Can You Measure Up?

A Weights and Measures office in England

When I watch the International Space Station fly overhead, I am always amazed at what a piece of craftsmanship it truly is.  Is it because of its large size or how high up it is?  No, not really.  It’s the fact that each and every piece was built in over 1 dozen countries by thousands of people and brought together for the first time 250 miles up in low Earth orbit.  The chances of everything fitting together the first time would be astronomical (and it did fit together the first time!) if it wasn’t for one thing, the standardization of measurement.

With things such as the ISS, the various countries involved use the United States Customary System of measurement.  In fact, as stated on the ISS tour at KSC, the ISS is the last international space project involving the USA that will use this system of measurement.  Afterwards, all international space projects are to be done in the metric or SI system.

Currently the USA uses the United States Customary System as its standard of measurement.  The rest of the world uses the International System of Units (SI or commonly known as “metric.”)  In 1959, an international standard was agreed upon so that both standards could be easily translated back and forth.  The table below shows a good example of conversions for common measurement between the American and SI standards.

Unit Divisions SI Equivalent
Exact relationships shown in boldface
International
inch (in) 2.54 cm
foot (ft) 12 in 0.3048 m
yard (yd) 3 ft 0.9144 m
mile (mi) 1760 yd 1.609344 km

The standardization of measurement is a basic building block of a successful civilization.   You cannot have trade, buildings, or complicated machinery without an agreed upon standard of measurement.   From standards on length, volume, etc. societies cannot function without some standard of measurement.  The next time you go to fuel your car, look at the gas pump.  Somewhere on the pump will be a stamp from an official state office certifying that the pump meter is in accordance with standards of measurement when it calculates flow of gasoline being pumped into your car.  This ensures the fair trade in your purchase of gasoline.

Many ancient societies had standards of measurement.  Some small villages that dealt in trade would post their “standards of measurement” on a board in the village square, while larger governments and cities would actually set up standards of measurement by decree and have officials to enforce the standards.

The earliest known examples of standards of measurements came from the 4th and 3rd mellennia BC from the civilizations of Indus Valley (covering modern day parts of Pakistan, India, Iran, and Afghanistan, Egypt, and Mesopotamia (covering modern day parts of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran).  Probably the most common story of government setting standards of measurement is the story of King Henry I of England, who ruled England from 1100 to 1135.  The standard for the “foot” was supposed to have been made by measuring the King’s foot.  This practice had been going on before his rule, but it appears that new rulers would frequently want to leave their “mark” in some way in the culture, and this was one way of doing it, hence the “foot” and quite likely the term “ruler” for the stick showing a foot.

So what can happen if standards are ignored or the wrong standard is applied?   Much can happen such as unfair trade practices, building collapses, machinery that cannot have interchangeable parts, and one famous example of a multi-million dollar spacecraft being lost.

Aerospace technicians working on the Mars Climate Orbiter. Credit NASA.gov

The Mars Climate Orbiter was launched on December 11th, 1998 as part of a two spacecraft team (the other being the Polar Lander which was also lost) and was declared lost September 23rd, 1999.  It was discovered that the loss of the spacecraft (total program cost of $327.6 million) was due to the wrong measurement standard being used.  Lockheed Martin was responsible for the thrusters and had used United States Customary Units to calculate the thrust in pound force.  The main computer was expecting the calculations to be in newton’s based on SI standards resulting in the spacecraft underestimating it’s thruster effects by a factor of 4.5 (1 pound force is equal to 4.5 newton’s) .  The software error was never caught during ground testing and the entire spacecraft ended up dipping too low into Mar’s atmosphere during orbit insertion causing the spacecraft to burn up.

The importance of having a standard of measurement cannot be stressed enough.  Because of these standards, a meter or foot means the same throughout the world ensuring fair and accurate trade, collaboration on international projects, and someday a human return to the Moon and on to Mars.

For more information try:

http://www.nist.gov/index.html

http://www.bipm.org/en/home/

http://ts.nist.gov/WeightsAndMeasures/upload/stlaw.pdf

http://ts.nist.gov/WeightsAndMeasures/Publications/upload/HB44-09-Combined.pdf

www.nasa.gov

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Friday, December 31st, 2010 History, Introduction to Aerospace, Tests and Measurements Comments Off on Can You Measure Up?

Liquid Fueled Rocket Engine Basics

Bi-propellant rocket motor Credit NASA

As an aerospace technician you may find yourself around liquid fueled rocket engines daily or as in some cases of SpaceTec alumni, actually working on them.  Either way, it is a good idea to know some basics about these engines, especially the more common bi-propellant engines.

Tsiolkovsky

Liquid fueled rocket engines were first proposed by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in his book The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices published in 1903.  It remained a theory until the first successful flight by a rocket named “Nell”, lasting only 2 and ½ seconds and traveling 41 feet, done by Robert Goddard on March 16th, 1926.

Goddard and “Nell” Credit NASA

What is a bi-propellant liquid fueled rocket engine?  Well, as the name describes, it is a rocket engine that is fueled by a liquid fuel and a liquid oxidizer.   The entire set up is deceptively simple and consists of two tanks to hold the fuel and oxidizer, two turbo pumps, a combustion chamber, and a nozzle.

The two tanks can be small such as what was on Robert Goddard’s rocket or can be as large as the External fuel tank on the Space Shuttle system (which holds the tanks for both the fuel and oxidizer in one large shell).

The pumps are critical in pushing the fuel and oxidizer to their explosive meeting in the combustion chamber while maintaining adequate pressure to ensure proper flow rate and to prevent the combustion chamber from collapsing under its own weight due to atmospheric pressure.  As Dr. Jerry Grey wrote in his book Enterprise, “Much of the difficulty with liquid-propellant rockets arises in maintaining constant flow and rapid, efficient mixing of the propellants…the need for tanks heavy enough to withstand the pressure dictated the use of pumps instead…pumps the size of washing machines which had to have the power of a diesel locomotive…” (Grey, Ph.D., 1979)  One of the factoids listed at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center Launch Gantry says that one turbo pump from one Space Shuttle Engine (SSME) can actually drain an Olympic size swimming pool in just 25 seconds.  That’s a lot of fuel being pushed along the pipes leading into the combustion chamber, yet it takes all three Space Shuttle Main Engines nearly 8 minutes to drain the External Tank!

The combustion chamber is where all the action happens.  This is where the fuel and oxidizer meet and combust forming the explosive energy required to lift the rocket.  “Chamber walls less than a sixteenth of an inch thick that withstood pressures of one hundred atmospheres and temperatures of 6,000 F.” (Grey, Ph.D., 1979)  Basically an explosion occurs that is continuous as long as there is fuel or until the engine is shut down.  This is why it is said sometimes that a rocket launch is nothing but a vehicle or payload riding a controlled explosion.

After the fuel combusts the resulting energy has to go somewhere or the chamber will explode.  The resulting energy or flame exits out the familiar nozzle we see on all rockets.  Nozzles experience great heat from the flames and actually have to be made of a material that can withstand it and/or have a way of being cooled so they can maintain their shape and form during the launch.  The nozzles for the SSME’s actually have some of the liquid hydrogen routed through tiny radiator tubes lining the nozzle using the super cold liquid hydrogen to keep the nozzle cool and to warm the hydrogen before it reaches the combustion chamber making it easier to ignite.

As I said, deceptively simple but as many technicians and engineers that have worked on these engines for nearly 100 years now can attest, this “simple” system has resulted in many exploded rockets and engines (and some loss of life) during the trial and testing that still goes on today.

For further learning about this subject:

Grey, Ph.D., J. (1979). Enterprise. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

www.nasa.gov

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liquid-propellant_rocket

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konstantin_Eduardovitch_Tsiolkovsky

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Tuesday, December 14th, 2010 History, Introduction to Aerospace Comments Off on Liquid Fueled Rocket Engine Basics

Interview Tips and Techniques For The Aerospace Technician

With the major changes in Human Space Flight due to the end of the Space Shuttle program, many aerospace technicians are dusting off and updating their resumes.  But, how many of you have gone over interview techniques lately?  A good resume can land you an interview, but it is the interview that lands you the job.  Your interview technique has to be as good as or better than your resume.  After all, this is the first time a representative from the company you’re applying too will see you face to face and it is of the utmost importance to give a great first impression.  Below are some tips and techniques I have found successful in the past and may be of some benefit to you.

  • Dress for success.  When I first moved to Florida over 13 years ago, and started interviewing for jobs, I would show up in a nice suit as I was taught to do when I was a younger man.  I was surprised to find myself competing with other people who showed up for their interview wearing shorts, tee-shirts, and flip-flops.  Trust me, I’m not exaggerating.  These people ended up having very short interviews, usually lasting less than five minutes, and were not hired.  A good rule of thumb to use when interviewing for a job is to dress one step above the position you’re applying for.  If it is a technician’s position and their normal wear for the job is jeans and a shirt, then you should be wearing at least dress slacks and a dress shirt.  Of course, wearing a suit and tie is even better.  Don’t forget to shine your shoes either.  I’ve learned working in the aerospace industry that many managers are former military and they do pay attention to your shoes.  So learn to shine your shoes like the guys in boot camp.
  • Hygiene: Dressing for success also means showering and shaving before the interview, so don’t forget to wash behind your ears and to shave away that five o’clock shadow.  Make sure you clean your fingernails too.
  • Research the company.  If you want to work for a certain company, you should know something about them.  Go to their website and learn about the company, its type of business, its goals, mission statement, etc.  You want to be a team member, so you need to know about the team.
  • Research the job you’re applying for.  Talk with people who already do the job, research the position on the web, learn the average salary for the position as it relates to your experience level, etc.  Coming into the interview with a good, solid, basic knowledge of the job and its expectations will give you a leg up on the competition and grant you the ability to ask better and more knowledgeable questions.   This shows the interviewer that you have initiative to learn on your own.
  • Speaking of questions, make a list of questions to take in with you.  Have questions about the job, work environment, dress code, benefits, etc.  If you are interviewing with the person who would be your boss, ask him/her what they expect of you and what their management philosophy is.
  • Remember, an interview is actually a two way street.  The company is there because they want to learn more about you and you are there to learn more about them.  By asking educated questions and keeping those questions positive you will learn quickly if this company is a good match for you or not.  I’ve actually had interviewers get hostile over my questions and I have ended those interviews on my own initiative because I knew they would not be a good match for me.  Other interviewers have been pleasantly surprised at my questions and took a large amount of time to answer them fully.  Also look at the interviewer’s appearance and conduct.  Are they professional?  Do they represent their company well?  Do they treat you with respect?  If not, these should be taken as warning flags that you might want to reconsider working for them.  No one says you have to accept every job that is offered to you.
  • Be prepared to answer any question fully and in as much detail as possible.  That does not mean tell your life story, but stay on topic concerning the question.  Such questions as “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” are classic ones that are asked.  Start out with a specific weakness and what you are doing to correct it and always end on your strengths.  For example, you could say that time management is a weakness of yours, but you are currently reading a book on time management to learn new tips and techniques to strengthen that skill.  You might even ask if the company has any educational programs in house that teach better time management skills.  Never give general answers without having specific examples to back them up.  Saying, “I never call off work” and backing it up with, “At my last job I went 3 years without a sick day” is a good example.
  • Stress that you wish to continue your education.  This shows that you won’t be idle and content with “just a job” but are looking to improve yourself and in turn improve the company.  Ask about tuition reimbursement programs and if the company has an in house education department.
  • Don’t forget about hobbies.  Some employers during an interview want to know what you like to do in your spare time.  And, make sure you can point out that the skills you use in your hobby can be useful in the job you’re applying for.  For example, I think the two main reasons I got hired into the Space Shuttle program was my Aerospace Technology degree and my hobby, which is model building.  I told my interviewers that my hobby taught me how to do small precise work, and to read and follow instructions/processes to the letter.  These turned out to be skills that were very much applicable for working on the thermal protection system of the Space Shuttle as a technician.
  • Always be pleasant and rested for the interview.  Not getting enough sleep or having a bad day affect your mood will end up being reflected during your interview.  Make sure you are well rested, have eaten, and in a good mood prior to the interview.
  • Never, never speak ill of your past employer.  Even if you did not have a good relationship with your past employer, keep the hard feelings away during the interview.  If you speak ill of your past employer, then the prospective employer will assume you will speak ill of them someday.
  • Be frank about your past work history if there is something negative there.  If you were fired, and it comes up during the interview, be frank about why you were fired, and what you have done to correct that behavior to ensure it doesn’t happen again.   If you have been laid off for an extended period of time, then make sure you have something going on in your life to show you were active during that time period and not just sitting around idle collecting unemployment.  Talk about volunteer work you did, a side business you did, etc. during that time unemployed.  Never allow your resume or your interview to show you as being idle and having no initiative.
  • Always have a notebook and pen to take notes with during the interview.  Also, bring at least two copies of your resume with you, one for you to refer too and one for the interviewer to look over in case he lost his copy (It has happened many times in my experience.).
  • Always use the “King’s English” when speaking.  Other words, watch your grammar and spelling.  Fair or not, people will judge you by your grammar and spelling.  Poor grammar such as slang, cursing, etc. along with poor spelling (Learn how to use spell check!) tells an interviewer that you might not be so bright or care about your linguistic appearance.  Proper grammar and spelling are just as important as the clothes you wear to an interview.
  • Don’t be afraid to negotiate.  It never hurts to ask for a better salary, but be prepared to back it up with good solid reasons as to why you deserve a better salary than being offered.  Some aerospace companies will negotiate with you, especially if you have experience.
  • Always write your interviewer a thank-you note the next day after the interview even if you don’t get the job.  Remember, he/she took time out of their busy day to talk with you and it is only courteous to tell them “thanks.”  You may not get hired this time, but if you apply again later on for another position at that company, that interviewer will remember your courtesy.
  • Learn from the interview no matter if you’re hired or not.  What did you do right?  What can you do better?  List all the questions you can remember being asked and keep them in a notebook.  It is a good chance that many of those questions will be brought up again someday at another interview.  This way you can improve your chances by being better prepared the next time.

This is not a full list of interview techniques, but it should give you a start.  Talk with managers you know and ask them what they look for in interviews and research it on the web or in books.  And, if you have any other techniques you wish to share, please feel free to share them in the comments section.  Good luck!

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Wednesday, December 1st, 2010 Career Advice, Introduction to Aerospace Comments Off on Interview Tips and Techniques For The Aerospace Technician

Surprise! You’re An Expert!

How the public views you.

“Expert-a person who has special skill or knowledge in some particular field.” – dictionary.reference.com

Leading up to my appearance on The Space Show, I had stopped by the web site to check on upcoming guests.  Along with other guests listed, my upcoming interview was listed and the host had titled me as a Space Shuttle expert.  I was horrified!  Though I had worked on the Space Shuttle fleet as a technician and had a Master’s degree in Aeronautical Science, I was no way an expert in mine or many of my peer’s eyes.  Many of my peers at KSC had much more experience and had forgotten more about the shuttle systems than I would ever learn in a lifetime.  I immediately wrote an email to the host and asked him to take the word “expert” off the section announcing the upcoming interview.

A week later I was recounting the story to a friend of mine whom I considered an “expert” in academia.  After I told the story, he told me that he considered me an “expert” on the Space Shuttle.  I protested and reviewed the reasons as to why I couldn’t be an expert.  He then countered with this simple argument: “You are the only person I know that has worked on the Space Shuttle fleet and you have taught me much about something I knew little of.  In my eyes, you are an “expert.””

I reflected later that evening on what he had said and he was right.  In his eyes, and many other people’s eyes, I am an “expert.”  And, as an aerospace technician or student in an aerospace technology program, so are you.

A aerospace technician out in the world.

How many aerospace technicians do you deal with on a daily basis outside of work?  How many people in your life, family, friends, internet, business acquaintances, etc. outside of work are aerospace technicians that have actually worked on space related hardware?  Probably very few people.  How many people inside your workplace do you encounter that would have no clue as to what you do?  That makes you an expert and a teacher to anyone that is a willing student.

During my time at KSC, I sent many personal pictures and emails detailing my day to day activites, for I felt working there was truly an adventure that should be shared.  The surprising part was the feedback I got.  Instead of people complaining about my numerous emails and pictures, many friends and family (and some others that the emails got forwarded too) wrote back thanking me for teaching them about the Space Shuttle in such a personal way.  Much of the information I shared was just common day to day stuff for the aerospace technicians, but for the general public it was all new, interesting, and educational.  I would venture to say that probably 99% of the general population in our country and world has no clue as to what you do as an aerospace technician to prepare a spacecraft for its mission or what that mission is.  I have had contact and questions from people literally all over the world showing an intense desire to learn more and that in turn pushed me to learn more to be a better teacher and technician.

Even at work, astronauts would approach technicians and ask what they were doing and would become the student learning from that technician.  Same goes for some of the upper management and even VIP guests such as senators and ambassadors.  During those times, the aerospace technicians are the expert and have a duty, in my humble opinion, to teach and hopefully give that person a positive experience during their visit.

Just getting through the first semester in the aerospace technology program has already made you an “expert” in relation to the general public.  The lessons you learn on space history, aerospace culture, safety, etc. is much more than most people get in a lifetime.  And, as people in your life find out that you are learning to “work on spaceships”, they will look to you with many questions they have had but never knew where to find the answers.  You are now their “expert” and it is a great opportunity to teach someone about space exploration and why it is important to our country and our human race as a whole.

Getting public support for our Human Spaceflight Program doesn’t entail full page ads in the paper or busing in as many people as you can to watch a launch.  It does not entail having an astronaut appearing on TV or at a public appearance.  It does not entail press releases by NASA.  Gaining support and understanding for what we do is done one person, one taxpayer, one politician, one child, etc. at a time and it’s done by you.

You want public support for our HSF?  Then it’s up to you to garner it.  Teach your family, friends, post a blog, whatever, but make time to teach about what you do.  That child you see playing with a toy spacecraft at the store or on the playground, can be overjoyed at their good luck to have you talk with them and their parents for five minutes (show some pictures on your phone of your workplace) about what you do and why you do it.  While you may not remember the encounter days later, they will remember it for years to come and will have passed on the news that they met someone from “NASA” who works on rockets to their family and friends and that he took time to speak with them.

When someone sees your Boeing, Lockheed, USA, SpaceX, etc. sticker on your car or on your tee-shirt and ask about it, make time and show them some pictures and talk a little bit about your job.  You are the “expert” to them and they may never have an opportunity again in their lifetime to meet someone from a space center.  Is five minutes of your time worth it when you will give them a positive memory of space exploration for a lifetime?  I hope so.  You will find the experience just as rewarding as the person will when you make time to share your “expertise.”

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Saturday, November 20th, 2010 Introduction to Aerospace Comments Off on Surprise! You’re An Expert!

Efficient Use of Your Workplace

Aerospace Technicians at work-credit Florida Today

Of the many things I have learned while working as a technician at Kennedy Space Center, the most important and most challenging one is managing your time.  A typical shift at KSC is about 8 hours long, but if you take into account the time off for meetings, breaks, answering emails, etc. your actual workday to perform your primary tasks is about 6 hours.  That’s not much time to start, work, and complete a job.  I thought I would share with the technicians and soon to be technicians what I’ve learned to be successful in getting through my day.

“By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin


Before doing the job:

  1. What jobs will you doing that day?  Usually your shop lead will give you your assignment for the day and it’s up to you to get off to a good start.
  2. Read the Work Authorization Document or WAD.  What does the job want you to do?  What certifications does the job require?  Are you certified to do the work?  Do you have your cert card with you to prove you are certified?
  3. What process covers the job?  Find the proper process that applies to the job and either set aside the book with your tools or print out the paperwork.  Read the process; don’t assume you already know it or have it memorized.
  4. What paperwork will you need to print out and add to the WAD?  Get the paperwork printed out and verify the process version matches the version in your process documents.
  5. What tools will you need to do the job?  After reading the process you should have a pretty good idea what tools you need.  Are all the tools in your tool bag already?  Do you need to visit Logistics to pick up materials and tools?  There is nothing more wasteful of your time than having to stop your job in mid-work to go find a tool, material, or another page of paperwork.  Set aside the tools and materials you need for the job beside your process and paperwork.
  6. Where is your job going to be?  Since I worked on the thermal protection system of the shuttle, I needed to know where my tile/blanket/cavity was located on the ship.  After all, there are only 24,000 tiles alone on a typical shuttle!  Print out a map of the location on the ship for your job and go find it before moving everything there.
  7. Check out the work area.  Is there room for all your tools and other items?  Will you have to stage some of the things nearby?  If so, you will want to lay out your items in the order you need them to make the flow of the work go smoother.
  8. Safety.  Do you need a harness, goggles, smock, etc.?  Are you required to tether your tools and if so, then place tethers on all the tools you’re going to use for this job ahead of time.
  9. Have a bag handy to place waste material in and set it aside with your tools.
  10. Will you need a Quality Control Inspector for your job?  If so, this would be a good time to put in a call for one.  Let the QC see where you’re going to be working and have them go over the WAD and other paperwork with you.  A QC is there to help you follow the process, not “ding” you.  I at first had a problem with someone looking over my shoulder while I worked, but have learned to value that “second set of eyes.”
  11. Take all your paperwork, processes, tools, etc. to the worksite or the staging area.  Set up your bag to place waste material in.  Tape off and cover anything you need to avoid any accidental damage to the ship or hardware you’re working on.  If you are working above the floor, then have some sort of catch/drop barrier placed below your work area and the floor to ensure nothing falls on the ship or people below.

Aerospace Technicians working on a Taurus Rocket-credit NASA

Doing the job:

  1. Be aware of your surroundings while doing the job.  Always be mindful of your safety and the safety of others.
  2. Make sure you have adequate lighting to work in.  As my friend Larry Tanner used to always say, “Light is your friend.”
  3. Clean as you go.  Nothing worse than to be standing in a pile of trash and potential FOD while working.  Once you produce waste, pick it up and put it in a trash bag.  You will find there is less to clean up after the job ends.
  4. Always refer to your process and WAD.
  5. Stamp as you go.  Stamp the WAD as you complete each task.  DO NOT STAMP AHEAD OF YOUR WORK STEPS.  That can get you into some big trouble.

After the job is over:

  1. Go over your paperwork and ensure that everything that was to be stamped has been stamped and dated.
  2. Clean up your work area.
  3. Return all tools and unused materials to their proper places.
  4. Go back to your work site and do a final walk down ensuring that nothing has been left behind.
  5. Pat yourself on the back for a job well done!

Job well done! – Credit cloudsat.atmos.colostate.edu/news/2006

If any other aerospace technicians would like to add to these suggestions, please feel free to do so in the comments section.

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Monday, November 8th, 2010 Introduction to Aerospace Comments Off on Efficient Use of Your Workplace

Expanding Your World View

Which way do I go?

A while back I was a guest speaker at an aerospace technician class.  This was the first semester for the class in a two year program.  I asked the students where they planned on working after graduation and to the man/woman, they all said “the Space Shuttle program” at Kennedy Space Center.  I pointed out the program would be over by the time they graduated in two years and a look of surprise and dismay crossed their faces.  I then asked if they were aware of and could name other space ports in these United States of America and they indicated they were not aware of any others.  I proceeded to teach them about the other space ports and to explain that the skills they were learning will be needed there also.

Kennedy Space Center gets all the publicity because of Human Space Flight, but there are currently nine space ports in use and 3 proposed ones.  The nearest space port is just right across Mosquito Lagoon from KSC at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS).  The primary companies that launch there are United Launch Alliance and SpaceX.  (SpaceX also has a launch facility at the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean.)  Many unmanned NASA probes, government, and commercial satellites are launched from this facility at multiple launch pads.  Also Pegasus launches are conducted from there.  CCAFS has been launching rockets since the 1950’s.

Further up the east coast is NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility at Goddard Space Flight Center.  Wallops is responsible for launching sub-orbital and small orbital launches along with testing and research.  Wallops has been in business launching these smaller rockets since 1945.

Just next door to Wallops is the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS).  MARS launches both commercial and government payloads.  MARS has been launching rockets since 2006.

Moving out west, there is the Nevada Test and Training Range responsible for launching sounding rockets and test vehicles.  It was formally known as Nellis Air Force Base and is also home to Area 51.  They have been launching since the 1950’s along with many other activities.

The next launch facility is in New Mexico called Spaceport America.  It’s most famous resident is Virgin Galactic which will be launching tourists into sub-orbital flight within the next year.  Spaceport America also does sub-orbital commercial launches.  Spaceport America has been an operating spaceport since 2006.

California has three spaceports, including one that is mobile.  First is the Vandenberg Air Force Base which specializes in ballistic missile tests, along with the typical government and commercial satellite payloads.  Vandenberg has been launching rockets since the 1950’s.

The second California spaceport is the privately owned Mojave Air & Space Port.  This facility is famous for the two historic launches of Space Ship One.  Mojave Air & Space Port has been operating since 2004.

The third California space port is Ocean Odyssey Complex owned and operated by Sea Launch.  Ocean Odyssey Complex is a converted oil rig with associated support ships whose home port is in Long Beach California but does the actual launches at the equator in the Pacific Ocean.  Ocean Odyssey Complex has been doing commercial launches since 1999.

If you don’t mind the cold, there is the Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska.  Kodiak is operated by the Alaska Aerospace Development Corporation and specializes in satellite and ballistic missile interceptor launches.  They have been in operation since 1998.

There are three proposed space ports that have not yet launched any rockets: Oklahoma Spaceport in Burns Flat OK, Corn Ranch in Van Horn TX, and Spaceport Sheboygan in Wisconsin.

There are also numerous spaceports throughout the world if you feel like working outside of the country.  You can find a list of these spaceports along with the appropriate links here.

The point is, though Shuttle work at KSC (though some other work there continues) is coming to a standstill, there is still lots of work at CCAFS (for example SpaceX and ULA) and other spaceports throughout the country and the world for certified aerospace technicians both in government and private companies.  Don’t limit your talents and skills to just one spaceport.  Think outside of the box and the area when it comes to pursuing the career you have chosen.

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Friday, October 22nd, 2010 Career Advice, Introduction to Aerospace 1 Comment

Why is there an American Flag on the Moon?

Apollo 11 displays the Flag of These United States of America.

How did six American Flags end up on the Moon?  “It’s because American astronauts put them there,” might be said, but it was a little more complicated than that.  A basic tenet of human nature is to take simple things and make them as complicated as possible.  Deciding which flag to put on the first manned mission to the Moon was no exception.

President John F. Kennedy first proposed using an American flag by saying, “…for the eyes of the world now look into space, to the Moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace.”  NASA did not take much notice of that at the time for the Moon was still years away.  In fact, only spacecraft had American flags on them and it wasn’t until Astronaut Ed White’s first spacewalk that you even saw an American flag on a spacesuit along with one on his partner, James McDivitt’s suit.  Both of the men had bought the American flag patches themselves and had them placed on their suits.  Afterwards, NASA started having all spacesuits adorned with American Flags.

But putting a nation’s flag on a spacesuit is nothing compared to the historical significance of placing a flag on the Moon.   The political aspects internationally and domestically for such an event had to be considered.  Though it would be Americans landing on the Moon, they were representing all of humanity in this historic first visit to another world.

Christopher Columbus “Planting the Flag” and claiming the land for Spain

“Planting the flag” usually means making a claim to something, usually territory or land.  Throughout history men have “planted the flag” claiming ownership in the name of the king, queen, country, church, etc. marking the land as their own.  The United States had signed a United Nations Treaty in 1967 called the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies also commonly known as the Outer Space Treaty.  A section of that treaty forbids nations from claiming celestial bodies as their own through “claim of sovereignty, by means of occupation, or by any other means.”    Since “planting the flag” up to this time in history usually meant a “claim of sovereignty”, NASA had to explore if planting the American Flag would be perceived by nations of the world as a claim or would they understand it was only symbolic.

To solve this problem, NASA of course set up a committee to explore the issue.  In February of 1969, the Committee on Symbolic Activities for the First Lunar Landing was established.  “The committee was instructed to select symbolic activities that would not jeopardize crew safety or interfere with mission objectives; that would “signalize the first lunar landing as an historical forward step of all mankind (Sounds like something Neil Armstrong said a few months later doesn’t’ it?) that has been accomplished by the United States” and that would not give the impression that the United States was “taking possession of the Moon” in violation of the Outer Space Treaty.”

The committee looked at options such as planting the United Nations Flag, leaving a solar wind experiment that looked like an American flag, leaving little flags of all the nations of the world, or putting a plaque or marker on the surface of the Moon.   Arguments were made that since the first humans on the Moon were representing mankind, then some type of world flag such as the UN flag should be used.  Another argument in favor of the international type flag was the fact that even though most of the work and cost of Apollo was borne by the American people, NASA did have some international partners assisting in the program in a limited role including the Swiss with their development of the solar experiment, eight different countries assigned to examine any lunar rocks brought back, Brazil with its rocket sounding program, and the various nations that hosted tracking sites at their own expense.

In the end, the committee decided that only the American Flag should be planted on the Moon and also recommended the famous plaque left on the lunar lander that said, “Here men from planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D.  We came in peace for all mankind.” The plaque would not have any nation’s flag on it, but a picture of the east and west hemispheres.  Small flags of all 50 states and member nations of the United Nations were to be brought along, but returned to Earth with the crew and presented to each entity the flag represented.

The night before the launch of Apollo 11 a crew of technicians supervised by Jack Kinzler, the Chief of Technical Services Division at Marshall Space-flight Center, attached the American flag and plaque to the Lunar Module Eagle.  On July 20th 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin deployed the American Flag on the lunar surface, a task that only took about 10 minutes but watched by the entire world.  There was no international outcry and only a few media outlets complained about the United Nations flag being left out.  A precedent was set and along with Congress’s blessing, all subsequent Moon landings had an American flag deployed at each site.

Anne M. Platoff of Hernandez Engineering Inc. has written an excellent paper on this subject, called “Where No Flag Has Gone Before: Political and Technical Aspects of Placing a Flag on the Moon,” that also includes the technical hurdles NASA had to overcome to deploy the flag.  Most of the information in this post is directly gleaned or quoted from her paper.  You can find the paper here.

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Saturday, October 9th, 2010 History, Introduction to Aerospace 1 Comment

Advice for Challenging Times

Into the sunset of history. Credit RV-103.com

These are challenging times right now for our nation’s Human Space Flight program and the aerospace workforce in general.  With the cancellation of the Space Shuttle program and the future of America’s HSF in doubt, there is cause for pessimism.  But, I don’t think that all is lost or doomed.

I’ve been a “space nut” ever since I first saw Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon and when I was first hired to work on the Space Shuttle fleet, it was a dream come true.  I used to get up every day, kiss my wife goodbye, and say to her “I’m going to work on my spaceship!”   I remember reading an article once quoting an engineer working on the Mars Rovers who when asked at a dinner party what he did at work, he replied, “I drive a rover around on Mars.  What do you do?”

These are the unique experiences we all have.  Out of the billions that live in this world, just a few thousand of us have had the experiences being part of space exploration.  Every day was an adventure at Kennedy Space Center and though some days the particular job I was doing may not be “fun”, KSC was still the coolest place to work.  The same applies at all the NASA centers no matter if you were working in HSF or planetary probes, etc.  Those memories and experiences cannot ever be taken away once you have lived them.

Working in a space program requires you to be a problem solver.  While others in this world were trying to figure out what to wear for the day or what fast food restaurant to have lunch at, you were figuring out unique problems and solving them so you could once again “touch the heavens” and make our world a better place.

With the unknowns facing our workforce right now, those problem solving skills need to be used to the fullest extent, not just in a space program, but in your own personal lives and careers.  How can you survive the time between programs?  How can you influence what HSF program will come into being?  What can you do to make yourself more marketable?  If you are currently a student in an Aerospace Technology program, you might ask, “Is there any hope that I will get to use my degree in a space program?”  For those questions and many others, I have some humble advice.

Increase Your Vision

Kennedy Space Center, or Marshall, or Houston, etc. are not the only space centers in this great world of ours.  Too many people become focused on the one space center in their area that they forget that NASA, private companies, and other countries have space centers throughout the world.  With English being the common language for airlines and science in this world, you already have an advantage being able to speak the language.  You can apply to other space centers and combine your adventures working in space flight with living in a new place.

Be a problem solver. Example: A new creative way to chase cars. Credit Thornton May

Be a Problem Solver Outside of Work

What can you do to survive while awaiting the next program?  You have an experience that most people in this world will never have.  You may want to try to find a way to communicate that experience and share it with other people.  You can do this with a blog, lectures, write a book, or maybe teach.  As a technician, why can’t you build a “Launch Control Center” with bells, buttons, and blinking lights to enhance some child’s experiences with his model rocket he got for
Christmas and sell them?  The media and the government may not be too interested in space flight right now but Joe Public still is.  You are truly limited by only your imagination on how to share these experiences with other people and profit from it.

Be Politically Aware and Active

Whether you like it or not, politicians determine our programs and fund it.  Nearly all of these politicians couldn’t tell the difference from the nose of the Space Shuttle to the tail. Most people in aerospace think that only CEO’s and rich entrepreneurs have exclusive access to our politicians, but that is not true.  You have access also through email, regular mail, town hall meetings, phone calls, etc. You can find your contact info at this website.  You just need to input your zip code.   Use these methods of communication to teach your politicians about space exploration and why it is important to our nation. Remember, these politicians actually work for you and they need to hear from you.  Ask them what HSF plan they support.  Did you know there are four leading HSF plans out there right now? Educate yourself as to what each of these plans are and decide for yourself if any of them are right for our nation or if another plan not being thought of right now is better and let your politicians know.   Tell them why you think the plan you’ve chosen is the right one and be specific about it.  Ask them if they support your plan and don’t accept a general answer such as “I support the space program.”  Ask for specifics.  Be a frequent communicator and teacher with your politicians.  Just because you are a technician does not mean you don’t have credibility to lobby your politicians for what you think is right for our nation’s HSF program.  Vote for and donate to the campaigns of the politicians that share your dream.  Support them by working in their campaign office as a volunteer.

Credit NASA

Be Aware of Your Industry

Learn as much as you can about all the different space programs, ones that are currently in place and ones that are coming online.   Broadening your knowledge about the different space programs out there gives you an advantage to seeing opportunities to find work that others may miss.  Check out their websites, get on their press release email lists, network with people inside those programs, go to various space websites and participate in the comment forums.  If you work on satellites as a technician, did you know that NASA has programs that send satellites into the upper atmosphere via balloons?  How can your skills translate to that program if your current program ends?

Don’t Stop Learning

Some people think that once they obtain their degree and learn their job, they don’t need to learn anymore.  You should always be stretching and growing or you risk being left behind once your program ends.  If you are a technician on the Space Shuttle, think about learning about robotics, composites, etc.  Look at other space programs, both current and future ones, and make an educated decision as to what their needs will be, and then get certified or degreed in those areas so you can be more marketable.  The worst thing you could do is just sit home and collect unemployment waiting on a space program to call you.  Get out there and add to your education and pursue those opportunities.

Most Importantly Do Not Give Up Hope

“Chance favors the prepared” as the old saying goes.  Being an aerospace technician has already given you the most important skill set and that is problem solving.  Make use of it in your pursuit to further your career and you will be surprised at the potential opportunities that will come your way.

Please feel free to add your suggestions in the comments area as to what our community of technicians can do to weather these uncertain times.

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Monday, September 27th, 2010 Career Advice, Introduction to Aerospace, Space Politics Comments Off on Advice for Challenging Times