September 8, 2008

Life in the Space Business

Thomas C. Bagg III ’74 reflects on career and role in Hubble Space Telescope mission

By Thomas C. Bagg III ’74

Lafayette was a part of my life from my earliest recollections. My father, Thomas C. Bagg Jr. ’39, hosted many Washington D.C. area Lafayette alumni picnics. There were usually about 200 people at these events!

There was a family understanding that I would go to Lafayette. My older sister would have gone, except the college was not yet coed. She did try to apply. I was thrilled when I learned that women also would be admitted for my freshman year.

I followed my father’s footsteps at Lafayette with a bachelor’s degree in physics. As he told me, this gave me a good understanding of how the world works. One memorable semester I took Modern Physics, Chemistry, Partial Differential Equations, and Geology. One of the other students in the class was taking Physical Chemistry. It was amazing, all the subjects were discussing the same thing but each looking from a different direction. The minerals of geology are chemicals; atoms and chemical bonding are described by the physical chemistry Schrodinger wave functions, all in the language of partial differential equations.

At Lafayette, I began to enjoy English class for the first time in my life. Professor [James] Lusardi had such enthusiasm that I chose his poetry class for the second semester of freshman English. I had no idea how well this better enjoyment of the English language and writing would serve my later life as an engineer. An engineer can have the best design possible, but unless she can describe it in English such that someone else will fund the development, it will never get built! All of life as an engineer involves writing. The basic ideas of operation, function, and high-level design must be described to get funded. Then the details must be further described such that others can build and test. Finally, more description is needed to tell others how to use the developed system. If any of these are unclear due to bad writing, the resulting system may be very different than envisioned or even totally unusable.

After Lafayette I went directly on to the University of Delaware Graduate Program in Physics where I discovered that I did not want an advanced degree in physics. Those with master’s or Ph.D.’s in physics usually go into research where the results of that research will not see common usage for at least 20 years. I am not that patient. I want to see results or at least tangible progress more quickly than that.

I worked for a while at DuPont as a lab technician until I could get an interview with Computer Sciences Corporation at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. After the typical discussions about company policies and benefits I was sent upstairs to the attitude department. All the way to the 6th floor I was wondering what this was all about. This was a computer company, not the CIA. Did they do enough psychological exams to need an entire attitude department? I was relieved when all the questions were about vector fields, math and physics; all stuff I had learned at Lafayette. I finally found out that in the space business, attitude refers to the orientation of the spacecraft, i.e. Is the spacecraft right side up?

I spent a couple of years keeping the Atmosphere Explorer Satellites C & E right side up, and then did an operations research study to determine the size and speed of the computers NASA would need to operate future satellites. This was a great first job. I had free access to the NASA IBM 360-95 computer, one of the largest in the world at the time. As long as I got my work done and did not interfere with operations, I could use the computer to learn as much as I wanted. I took advantage of this as Lafayette had taught me how to learn.

I spent the next 15 years in the defense business. I worked for Sperry doing command, control, computers, and signals intelligence, known as C3I, then for Westinghouse doing radars and air defense systems for several foreign governments. It was a thrill to spend half time over two years in southern Mexico putting systems on top of mountains. It gave a real appreciation for the things we take for granted here in the United States such as reliable plumbing, sanitation, telephone service, and electrical power. We had to install diesel generators and power conditioning to keep the computers running. Measurements showed significant power dropouts up to 30 times per minute all day long! I also moved my way up from software development to configuration management, requirements development, software test, integration and test, field installation, and finally to customer systems acceptance test.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, my “peace dividend” was to get laid off, along with several thousand others, after 10 years with Westinghouse. I went to a job fair where a small engineering company was thrilled to find someone who could write an intelligible engineering summary of a space system, and who already knew the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center culture. I was back in the space business!

I took advantage of the Westinghouse separation offer to pay for half of a master’s of science in systems management. My lessons from Professor Lusardi served me well with all the graduate term papers! The strong foundations in English, math, and science from Lafayette and the more in-depth graduate study from Capitol College, combined with experience in most of the phases of large complex systems development, had prepared me to transition from a software engineer to a systems engineer.

I spent several years working organizational systems issues at Goddard, several years developing and administering the Systems Engineering Education Development training program before I finally got a chance to work as a systems engineer on a flight project.

I was now working on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) Development Project. The project was developing a robotic mission to install new instruments and systems upgrades to the best-known satellite telescope in history, and I was a part of it! This was a year after the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster and the NASA administrator had decreed that the shuttle could not fly to an orbit different from the Space Station. Since the HST has a very different orbit, the team had gone to robotics. My first month was working requirements documents while listening to dry runs of the robotic mission preliminary design review. The team had developed a feasible mission, but it was very risky to the telescope. A new NASA administrator determined that reduced risk to Hubble was worth risking a manned mission, so the project changed direction again to develop the HST Fourth Servicing Mission (SM4), a manned mission with the space shuttle.

I am responsible for developing the HST section of the shuttle program flight rules. Flight rules describe all the things the astronauts and management are allowed or not allowed to do during a mission. Space missions are very complex with very busy schedules all choreographed to the minute. All decisions that can be defined ahead of time are documented in the flight rules so we do not waste time during the mission with long discussions.

Another responsibility is to develop the HST SM4 Contingency Roadmap, an index to all the contingency products developed throughout the project. Each group in the project has thought through what could go wrong with each step of the mission and developed at least one Plan-B contingency product. My job is to organize all 1,200 different contingency products into charts for each major event in the servicing mission. The roadmap is a three-ring binder about four inches thick. During the mission, I will be in the Mission Control Center Blue Flight Control Room at the Johnson Space Center in Houston supporting the servicing mission manager. I follow the astronauts’ progress and keep the Contingency Roadmap open so I can provide the servicing mission manager with the appropriate contingency products whenever things do not go according to plan.

Things are getting hectic since we are now less than two months from launch of the HST SM4. Most of the equipment is already at the Kennedy Space Center undergoing final testing before being loaded onto the space shuttle. We are all busy finishing up the paperwork and closing action items to ensure everything is ready. We are also flying back and forth to Houston for practice simulations. Everything in the space program is practiced over and over and over so we all know what we are doing during the mission.

Things are always busy at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, but never too busy to help students who will be the workforce that continues the space program. Most of us are very excited to work in the space program and we all like to share our excitement. The Lafayette College externship program is a wonderful way for me to share my excitement. I have hosted Lafayette student externs at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center since 2004. This year I was also able to help Kelly Goodman ’11 obtain a paid summer internship where she has been working with flight hardware that will be used to repair one of the instruments on the Hubble Space Telescope.

I have flown model rockets since I was 10. I now provide model rocket build and launch sessions for elementary schools and scout troops. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing kids watch a model rocket they have built fly to several hundred feet altitude. I am planning to take my family to view the SM4 Space Shuttle launch in Florida. They will return to Maryland while I go on to Houston to be on console. This will be the first real launch I have ever seen. I feel like one of the kids watching “my” mission fly!

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