Join Us

Sign up for the lastest information from the IBEW!

Related ArticlesRelated Articles



Print This Page    Send To A Friend    Text Size:
About Us

(This is the second in a two-part series about IBEW members who work for NASA)

November 2004 IBEW Journal

NASAs Deep Space Communications Complex in Goldstone, California, is over 2,600 miles from Marylands Goddard Space Centerwhere members of IBEW Local 1501, in Baltimore, support the development of a robot that could be assigned to repair the Hubble space telescope.

Signal processing center-Goldstone

At the Goldstone facility on the Mojave Deserts Fort Irwin Army Base, members of IBEW San Bernardino, California, Local 543 actually communicate with the "real deal," the Mars Rover, robots that are every day returning captivating details of the red planet. When they are not "uplinking" to the Rover, Local 543 members track stars, asteroids and planets and man the listening post for over 30 other spacecrafts, including the Cassini (Saturn mission). The members are, in the words of their chief steward, Steve Smith, "can do, go to members who are making history."

IBEW Members Link Spacecraft with NASA Scientists

Ray Gibson describes himself as a "space person." Coming of age in West Virginia in the late 1950s, he was captivated by the space flights that emerged from NASAs Goldstone and from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena.

From left, Local 543 Lead Console Operators Steve Olson, Anna Schermerhorn and Glenn Pleasant.

Today, 57-year-old Gibson, a member of IBEW Local 543, works at a console inside the signal-processing center at the Deep Space Communications Complex in direct communication with the Mars Rover, Cassini and other deep space missions. "I love this job," says the 32-year veteran of NASA. "Its important work. I want to let people know what the space business is doing for them."

The world was enthralled in June 2003 when NASA launched twin robot geologists on a mission to Mars. When the robots descended onto the surface of the red planet in January 2004, members of Local 543 received the very first signals from the rovers antennas. There, in a cold control roommaintained at 68 degrees to protect the equipmentsurrounded by a horseshoe-shaped bank of 16 to 25 computer screens, these employees of a NASA contractor, ITT, became the worlds ears to the space robots. They share their responsibilities with NASA workers in Canberra, Australia, and Madrid, Spain, who pick up signals from spacecrafts as the Earth rotates.

After receiving a signal from Madrid, the Goldstone crew shares 10 minutes of joint tracking time with that station before exclusively taking over the signal. After eight hours, Canberra steps in.

Lorraine Koger, 40, a maintenance and operations digital operator who has worked at Goldstone for 14 years says: "IBEW members are go betweens," linking the spacecrafts communications systems with the engineers and scientists at the JPL. Operators work shifts around the clock, assigned to one of seven antennas, ranging from 34 to 70 meters that resemble huge satellite dishes. They find the range and direction of spacecrafts, passing the information on to the experts. "Everything that were doing is educational for the rest of the world," she says. "We get whatever we can. We track asteroids, stars and other planets that astronomers are still trying to identify."

Fast Pace, High
Stress Environment

"We make the decisions. Then its on us, not the supervisors. This is a very fast pace, high stress work environment," says Steve Smith, chief steward, chairman of the 114-member unit and a lead console operator. The 44-year-old retired Navy radioman says, "We are totally responsible for the operation." Smith credits the Goldstone crew for holding up well under pressure. In line with his description of his members as a "can do, go to" group, Smith says "we were the last humans to talk to the Galileo Spacecraft on September 21, 2003, when we sent it into the atmosphere of Jupiter." Smith serves as a NASA/JPL solar system ambassador, conducting outreach programs to surrounding communities on the work performed at the complex.

Pat Carr, ITT Deep Space Technology operations and maintenance program manager, joins Smiths praise of the IBEW crews. He says, "the quality of work since we took over the contract is outstanding. IBEW folks are hard-working, dedicated team members who have made major contributions to the success that NASA, JPL and the nation have enjoyed."

The Goldstone crew monitors over 30 space missions. The administrators of each space project schedule antenna time through the propulsion lab in Pasadena and the JPL, in turn, notifies ITT, which assigns work to operators. Once assigned to an antenna, the 24 lead console operators load all software and frequencies into the transmitters and receivers, performing calibrations to make certain that the antennas are at the proper power level. Once the power is set, operators transmit or "uplink" to the spacecraft, using up to 20,000 watts, like a radio over the airwaves, sending commands or transferring data.

Scott Heck, a 42-year-old maintenance and operations technician, explains that the spacecrafts have onboard transmitters that, in most cases, project very weak signals. NASAs antennas contain cryogenically-cooled low noise amplifiers that enhance the "downlinked" signals coming back from space. IBEW members digitize the signals and then transmit them to the engineers and scientists at the JPL.

Experts at JPL review the "downlinks" that have been converted to pictures or engineering data. In the case of the Rover, the data informs JPL of the state of onboard equipment. In one instance, engineers detected a problem with a wheel on the robot. They sent a message back to ITT for assignment to a lead console operator to be "uplinked" to the spacecraft to correct the problem. Maintenance and operations technicians are also responsible for conducting immediate repairs on the antennas at Goldstone if they malfunction.

Each lead console operator can track two or three spacecrafts simultaneously, using one antenna. On occasion, the California NASA workers have stepped in to monitor other missionsincluding the Hubble space telescopewhen they incurred technical problems.



Page 1
Page 2

IBEW Supports NASA Across Nation

Doors... Part I