March 2011

Calif. Members Make Repairs to
Massive Space Antenna
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Scientists at NASA cheered the news last October that their ambitious 2009 mission—where researchers crashed a rocket into the surface of the moon to look for traces of ice and water vapor—was a success.
The verdict: There's actually enough water on the moon that some at NASA are considering installing a space station there.
The discovery was one of the most eye-popping science stories of the past year—but it wouldn't have been told without the skilled work of IBEW members behind the scenes and away from the headlines.
Members of San Bernardino, Calif., Local 543 at NASA's Goldstone Deep Space Network Communication Complex located on the Army's Fort Irwin National Training Center helped supply the meticulous technical expertise to keep researchers on earth in contact with the space equipment during its 220,000-mile flight.
"I wouldn't trade this work for anything," said Local 543 member Lorraine Koger. As a Lead Space Operations Controller, Koger works on site with engineers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory—a research and development center that operates NASA's Deep Space Network—to monitor everything from rovers on Mars to asteroids on the edge of the solar system. "You get to be a part of scientific history. We don't get the same kind of glory [as astronauts do], but we're the hub of communication. We see what's going on with the multimillion-dollar spacecraft, which is very important work."
Now, IBEW electricians at the complex in the Mojave Desert are completing a mission back on earth: repairing and upgrading the massive 70-meter antenna that played a key role in the celebrated moon experiment.
Deep Space Station 14 is the official name for the largest of 11 antennas at the complex that have tracked extraterrestrial activity for decades. Since last April, IBEW members like Seymour Unpingco have been painstakingly rehabbing DSS-14—which stretches longer than a football field—with new wires, bearings and other components that will help the 9-million-pound behemoth better rotate horizontally and track vertically.
"One of the biggest jobs is installing new cables in the antenna," said Unpingco, a member since 2000. "We've taken hundreds of cables that are as long as 1,000 feet and run them from the tip of the antenna, all the way inside the machine, through the device and into the nearby control room." There, technicians decode the mammoth amounts of encrypted, top-secret digital data captured by the antenna into useable information for scientists and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Three times a week, Unpingco straps on safety harnesses for work on the harder-to-reach areas of the dish. An aerial lift extending as high as 240 feet enables him to make tricky cable installations. Other times, he ventures to the highest part of the antenna—300 feet—via a ladder to make electrical adjustments.
"It's intimidating the first time you go up there," he said.
But it's necessary to get DSS-14 back up and running for members like Koger to help monitor spacecraft and photograph distant interstellar events.
To make all this work possible, it takes a group effort—on the site and around the world. Goldstone partners with similar facilities near Madrid, Spain, and Canberra, Australia, to ensure that when the earth's rotation puts one antenna out of range, another is there to pick up the signal.
"It makes me proud that people in this union can not only help with the scientific discovery aspect, but that they're spearheading the efforts to maintain and upgrade the hardware and software we use," Koger said.
In late 2009, local union leaders negotiated in a five-year agreement with employer ITT Industries—which assists staff at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory—that includes a 13-percent wage hike over the life of the contract. Compared to workers in the manned space sector who are facing the end of the shuttle era, members of Local 543 have added job security considering the number of expensive and valuable rovers, satellites and other spacecraft that NASA continuously monitors.
The size and scope of the upgrade to DSS-14 caught the eye of the National Geographic Channel, which sent photographers to Goldstone to document the action for its popular show "World's Toughest Fixes." The episode will air sometime in the near future.
For more information on IBEW members at NASA's Deep Space Network, visit

A San Bernardino, Calif., Local 543 member uses an aerial lift to repair the largest antenna at NASA's Goldstone Deep Space Network Communication Complex.