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Technology not only expands humankinds capabilities on Earth, it is helping scientists push the limits of knowledge about the universe. But even the most advanced technology needs the skilled minds and hands of human beings behind it. IBEW members do just such work in missions that have opened doors to the universe and in monitoring every deep space mission undertaken by the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA). This two-part series explores the work done by these highly skilled brothers and sisters and recounts some of the down-to-earth job struggles they face.

Part ILocal 1501 and the Hubble Telescope

The concept of a whole being greater than its parts is nowhere represented more powerfully than by the Hubble Space Telescope and its radiant images of other galaxies.

Since its launch in 1990, the Hubble has provided astronomers, students and the world community with unprecedented discoveries such as the birth of stars, and the accelerated growth of the universe.

Hubbles parts, including its batteries and gyroscopes, are wearing out. Without repairs, they will not sustain the telescope beyond 2008.

After a contentious debate over Hubbles futurea debate that involved the BrotherhoodNASA announced on August 9 that a robotic mission would be launched to install new parts and scientific equipment that will enhance its research capabilities.

NASAs announcement reminds us that Hubbles magnificence is only possible because of its parts. These parts deliver their wonders through the work of members of the IBEW who work for Mantech Inc. at NASAs Goddard Space Center in Maryland, and who helped the Hubble overcome early difficulties to become one of the most productive missions in NASA history.

Mike Kurtz, unit chairman and vice president of IBEW Local 1501, based in Cockeysville, Maryland, a Mantech group leader, describes the work of the locals 200 engineers, technicians, draftsmen and sanitation technicians as "support." The Hubble has provided steady employment to between 50 and 70 Local 1501 members and also members who perform facilities maintenance, represented by IBEW Local 26 in Washington, D.C., hundreds more at Goddard and over 400 scientists and technicians at Johns Hopkins University in nearby Baltimore.

Crews Go the Extra Mile

After leaving an "air shower," that vacuums dust from his street clothes, Kelly Scharmann, an engineering technician and Local 1501 member, slips into white coveralls, boots and gloves. He pulls a hood over his head and a mask over his mouth and nose. Scharmann will spend the next 12 hours in Goddards vast "clean room," where airborne matter is reduced to micron-sized particles to protect sensitive electronic devices. The one million cubic foot room, where astronauts have trained for Hubble repair missions, contains equipment massive enough to require lifting by two 35-ton overhead cranes. A splash of metallic orange insulating foil that protects equipment from extreme space temperatures shrouds several of the hulking structures, some of which accompanied prior Hubble repair missions. The foil is space-age upholstery, custom-cut by IBEW members.

Scharmann, a 15-year veteran of Mantech, has been working on one of the robots that could be commanded to repair the Hubble. "The robot would fall under its own weight," says Scharmann, "without the support structure that we designed to simulate a weightless environment."

"They worked flat out, 12-hour days, seven days a week," says Giles Robinson, of Canadas MD Robotics, who credits IBEW members with "remarkable progress in a short time," to meet the August review of the robotic repair option. Its not the first time that Scharmann, his co-worker, senior technician Rick Wilson, and others have gone the extra mile.

Some were trained to simulate weightless equipment repairs in underwater tanks, training astronauts in facilities in Alabama and Texas. Others accompanied freshly retrofitted satellite parts on 3-day barge trips from the Chesapeake Bay to Cape Kennedy in Florida. Some are in France for two months working on a new satellite.

Dion Guthrie, business manager and president of Local 1501, champions the unique attributes of the Goddard work force. "Job responsibilities change almost daily," he says. "The workers thirst for training. This is the only workplace that I have experienced where workers insistedin contract negotiationsthat the company evaluates them on a yearly basis. If the evaluation is not performed within 30 days of a members anniversary date, the worker does a self-evaluation, and it goes into his or her personnel record."

"The Hubble is just one part of the work of our members at Goddard," explains Kurtz. One building houses a noise simulator that tests parts for vibration resistance. Even with the bank vault-thick doors shut, he says, "the noise will blow you out of the building."

Across from the noise simulator is the thermal vacuum chamber that tests satellites for their ability to withstand the severity of low vacuum and temperature extremes. Entire satellites are lowered by crane into the colossal cauldron, like ice cubes into a glass, and left to cook or freeze for days. A centrifuge, resembling a giant kitchen blender, spins satellites at speeds that simulate the gravitational force that will be encountered on the mission.

Prior to one satellite launch, Kurtz recalls, astronauts encountered an unexpected problem with the operation of certain equipment. "The mission was delayed for four days. Our crews were on call the entire time," he says, "repeatedly working with replicas at Goddard to help solve the problem."

Laura McKelvey, a mechanical integration engineer, works on the Wide Field Camera 3, that will provide high-resolution coverage from the near-infrared domain of the spectrum to the ultraviolet. IBEW members built the camera. "I love the job," says McKelvey, who started with Mantech in November 2003 after graduating from Penn State University-Erie with a B.A. in engineering.

Niko Stergiou works on the Wide Field Camera and shares McKelveys enthusiasm. Stergiou, a optics engineering technician, says, "This is a good working environment. I think that you will find a consensus that nobody is worried about anyone else getting the spotlight because we are one entity." Nearby is the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (see above right), also supported by IBEW members, which will accompany the Wide Field Camera on the robotic mission.


Part 2
September 2004 IBEW Journal