Sunday, July 28, 2013

Whatever it takes

Well, the TDF is long past, and I can hardly remember most of it other than specific moments that are somehow etched into my few remaining brain cells. Work has overtaken everything else in my life for now. Our spacecraft is here and demands our full attention. It arrived from the factory back in early May, and has been the primary focus of LOTS of people since that moment, and will continue to do so until it leaves the earth exactly one month from today (hopefully!).

I'm at work (again) on Sunday. It's rather quiet today as we are a skeleton crew, and as usual the weather  SUCKS out here...foggy, windy and cold...yadda yadda yadda. It's like another country out here, or even another planet. There are no booster people here today as far as I can tell, just us for the payload. It's been a very busy week, beginning last Tuesday for me (I had Monday off, as I had just completed 14 straight work-days as of last Sunday). It's an agreement with our customer that we get one day off with pay for every 14 straight days we work. My shifts are still 4am to 4pm (this is the 'day' 'shift, the swingshift is the opposite, and we work round the clock). I need to leave my house by about 2:50am to arrive at the pad (Space Launch Complex 6, or "slick-6" as it's commonly called) by 3:45 for shift turnover. SLC-6 is located about as far as you can go on Vandenberg towards the south, and the speed limit on base during darkness is 35mph (there are LOTS of fog and deer). Last week at this time the spacecraft was still at the big payload processing facility on Vandenberg Northbase (which is about 18 miles closer to home for me). As of last Tuesday morning we began the preparations to move the vehicle (which is safely encased in it's protective 5 meter fairing) to the launch pad. It was lifted and placed on the KAMAG transport, and then bolted into position for the long ride. We (us electrical people) kept an umbilical cable connected to the vehicle the entire time, as we provide constant monitoring of the very expensive payload's health at all times, right up until the moment the MEU (Main Electrical Umbilical) cable detatches as the rocket starts to lift off the pad during launch.

After the vehicle is sucessfully mounted on the transporter vehicle it was then driven outside the payload 'clean-room' facility and connected to the mobile power unit which is part of the transport vehicle (the KAMAG is entirely electric, so it carries it's own giant diesel generator unit everywhere it goes, and also a fuel tank on a tow-behind trailer along with a large air-filter/handling unit to provide perfectly clean chilled air to the payload). The KAMAG has some awesome features...the most amazing is that the deck the spacecraft is mounted to can be tilted, so as the transport is going up or down a hill the deck can be tilted to keep the verticaly mounted spacecraft/fairing assembly as straight up as possible. It also travels at a lowly 2-5mph, and has roughly a 20-25 mile journey to get to it's launch pad. As it crawls along it's constantly surrounded by walking technicians that are all wearing headsets tied into a common channel, so that they can all instantly convey any pertinent info to the driver of the transport so he can make the vital decisions involved with ensuring the payload arrives at it's destination safely. Along with the transport there is a veritable convoy of support vehicles of interested parties that probably stretches a quarter mile. That journey began last Tuesday evening at 6pm on swingshift, and ended about 6am on the following dayshift, with us 'day' crew swapping out with the night shift a few miles from the pad at 4am at a convenient temporary stopping point in the route.

After finally arriving at the pad the spacecraft was lifted WAY high into the tower and finally set down on the top of the booster, which for this launch is a mighty triple core Delta IV heavy. At the moment I believe this booster is the largest/most powerful one in our arsenal. It took all day to get the gigantic vehicle/fairing combination finally set down and mounted, as it's just a HUGE job with lots of potential for disaster (pretty much everything involved is EXTREMELY expensive). This is all done inside the confines of the humongous MST (Mobile Service Tower) here at SLC-6. Actually I don't believe it's technically called an MST at this pad (the rest of the pads on base have an MST, which is typically a single huge 'building' on giant train-type wheels/tracks, where they open doors on one side of the tower and then roll it back away from the rocket which is left standing on it's pad attached to it's UT (Umbilical Tower) ready for launch. The tower here at SLC-6 is actually a 2-part 'clamshell' building if you will, with the UT and rocket in the middle. For launch both halves back away from the rocket in opposite directions, leaving it clear for launch. I think it might technically be called the SAB/MAB, (it's an Air Force pad on an Air Force EVERYTHING has initials and acronyms), and was actually built up for launching space shuttles back in the 1980's (which was cancelled after the Challenger disaster). I'll continue to refer to it as the MST as that's just so much easier.

Here's what the entire assembled rocket with payload looks like in the tower (these are all pictures of the first Heavy from back in 2009, this current one looks exactly the same). For some help in figuring how big this is, if you follow the uppermost gantry (the gray structure that goes from the UT on the left over to the middle rocket, and actually that's the top of the 2nd stage and the bottom of the fairing/payload), that is actually on level 15, which is actually 17 stories up from the ground.

If you are interested in seeing how the heavy booster gets to the pad go to this link:

Delta IV Heavy photos courtesy of

And if you're really interested, from the link above on the left side near the top there is a column called "The Mission" and below that are links to many photos...these were taken from them, and you can go link after link and follow all thru launch if you are so inclined.

Here's a view looking thru the ocean-side half of the 'MST' right at engine ignition. The UT Gantries are still attached to the rocket/payload, and will be released VERY soon. It's hard to see in this shot but the other side of the MST has backed quite a ways off from the rocket so it isn't damaged by the launch. 

After the mating of the payload to the booster on Weds afternoon our end is nearly complete (electrical)...all we really have remaining until launch is continuous monitoring of the vehicle's health and a few final tests of systems here and there, and probalby some battery maintenance. The mechanical folk still have lots to do, including the final fueling of the spacecraft so it's ready for it's lifetime in space. Multiple times a day I make the journey up to the payload levels in the MST (levels 16 and up). Being as I'm not getting ANY bike rides in (being as I'm working pretty much every single day) I have vowed not to take the elevator unless I HAVE to. So nearly every day I do between 3 and 6 climbs up/down the stairs of the tower. The first 2 levels aren't even numbered...and my work is actually on level that's technically 20 floors I go each time. I can usually beat the guys in the elevator, though it's a rather pathetic elevator I have to admit. Today I brought in my diving weight belt so-as to add a few extra pounds. I have twelve pounds of lead on it, making my climb that much more difficult, and I hope to add a few pounds every week or so. We shall see how that goes...but so far so good.

This is what it looks like in flight just after it has cleared the UT. In this shot you can clearly see the top of the 2nd stage (in the white above the 2 cones of the outer boosters you see an orange band...this is the top of the 2nd stage and the bottom of the payload/fairing). That fairing is over 6 stories tall, and if you can imagine that entire assembly bolted to a transport vehicle standing straight up as it is for launch, that's how it's moved from the processing facility to the launch pad. Up close the fairing is just HUGE beyond belief, and it's hard to believe we can actually launch it into space!

And so...a new week begins tomorrow. August is pretty much here as July is almost in the history books for another year. I'll keep you posted when anything is published about this launch, including links to any of the gazillions of  pictures taken throughout the process. So far nothing has made the news, but I'll keep watching. The date for launch is set for August 28th, but due to the nature of the spacecraft (it's a classified government bird) the launch time is classified until 24 hours of launch. I'll keep my fingers crossed that it goes off on schedule...I want my life back! My bikes hang in the garage, constantly whimpering and whining (which only I can hear) every morning as I climb into my car, and again around 5:30 to 6pm when I return home from my long day. I don't expect my next ride to be until next Tuesday, which will be the next '15th' day for me. I expect the month of August to zing on by, as have May, June and now July. We are all just hanging in there doing 'whatever it takes', and some of this madness will all be missed when it's over. I'm hoping to go backpacking in early September with Greg, it's been our tradition for years now. We don't seem to make it every year, but don't miss too many. I'm hoping my many trips up and down the tower stairs will in some way compensate for my near complete lack of cycling and help me pull off our trip in style. Time will tell...I'm sure Greg will arrive at our trip in AWESOME fitness, and will do his best to grind me into the trail (in a friendly way). Not that we're competitive or anything.'s almost quitting time, night shift should be arriving within the hour (woo-HOO!). Then it's the hour drive home where I begin my less than stellar 3 hours of daily family life, and then off to bed around 7:30 to 8:30pm. Tomorrow I get to do it all again. Lather, Rinse, Repeat. That is the story of my life right now. I've just got to hang in there.

Have a great week, and here's hoping you can get out and ride.

And stay frosty!


  1. Matt it is mind blowing for me to look at the old slick! Are you working with any AF personnel from SAMTEC, my old squadron? Do you realize that if I had stayed in for the whole twenty I would have been retired for twenty years now? Gadzooks! I'm ancient! Proud of you, brother. Good luck on your launch, even though we both know that luck has nothing to do with it. Careful work and redundant systems will see the bird safely off. Allez!


    1. Hey TJ...I look at pics of SLC-6 during the "shuttle days" (mid-late 80's) and I'm just amazed at the changes (and how much it cost to do it). There's a VAST diff between the shuttle and a Delta IV/Heavy. Here's a link to some pics of 1985 w/ the Enterprise on the pad in all it's glory:

      Never heard of SAMTEC...the only AF folk I work with are w/the NRO (our customer). Was SAMTEC part of the 30th Spacewing? That's the big cheese out here these days.

      Careful work is indeed the key...have you seen the video of the Proton out of Kazakstan that crashed/burned a few weeks back? I heard that some lowly tech installed an accelerometer upside down (tiny electrical chip that senses movement/direction)'s output wasn't being looked at for the initial launch sequence, but after a set amount of time the systems looked at it's data and freaked out (like the rocket was upside down/moving the wrong way) and tried to fix it, then the rest of the systems freaked out trying to fix can see the initial 'freak out' moment and the next 'freak out moment' as it's onboard systems vainly tries to save it...and then when the fairing/payload snap off (they were never designed to hold the weight of the spacecraft in anything other than a vertical position)...just amazing video! And it shows that a lowly 2$ part and/or poor workmanship can kill a very expensive mission. (I can't vouch for the authenticity of this, it's what I heard from some smart people who 'heard' it somewhere else from the crash investigation).'s the link, it has the story and the video (pretty impressive tradgedy when a rocket goes down):

    2. Space and Missle Test Center. Supply side and logistics.


  2. Matt, I always enjoy reading about your work. But, why do they have your shifts start/end at such odd hours? Is there a good reason, or is it just because it is the time that shifts are changing in the eastern time zone?

    I'm well used to working a 12 hour shift, but even 2 days in a row are taxing lately, I can't see doing more than 3 in a row anymore (when I was in my 30s though I regularly did 7 or 8 in a row, and I was barely able to drag myself out of bed the last 2 days!) You are hard men!

  3. The best story I've heard is the 4 to 4 shift came about (rather than 6-6 or 7-7) for the dayshift folk...if they were to get off work at 6 or 7pm they'd never be able to get to the bank and such while they were open. This shift schedule has been around since the first 'cycle' I worked back in 2005...I've asked the question "WHY 4 to 4?" since then and don't get any good answers...other than "that's the way it's always been" (boy, you want to get my blood boiling, use THAT as an excuse for why we are doing something stupid!)

    The 2005 cycle (that's what they call it when we go into 24 hour coverage/12 hr shifts on a spacecraft) went on for NINE MONTHS! (we had some problems and the launch was moved a few months, typically they last 4 to 5 months like this one...May thru Aug). And it's stull like this is part of why they're so's not like you can have just any Tom, Dick and Harry off the street step in and process these spacecraft for launch...we have crazy high level security clearance (and not 'everybody' can pass one of those)...and we don't have spacecraft all the time...the gov just can't lay off everybody after a launch and say we'll see you next everybody has to remain employed even though we don't always have viable work. That's why we travel so much when we're not working on a vehicle at home...gets us off our contract and on someone esle's dime, saving our customer money when we can. It's a crazy biz for sure...but somebody's gotta do it!

    1. Dude yer runnin east coast time zones. tech centers in India linked through NYC.

  4. just posted a little blurb about our upcoming's a link if anybody is interested:

    Funny they used the same 'file photo' that I had found on their site to post (see above). There are apparently no 'current' pics that have been released...I'm guessing those will come out closer to launch, possibly after.