Saturday, May 31, 2008

Summer Space Seminar - Los Angeles

The first section of the program took place in and around Los Angeles, CA. Here's a brief overview of where we went and what we did:

Northrop Grumman Space Technology
Our first site visit was to Northrup Grumman. They took us on a tour of the facility, which included a high bay where they construct and test satellites. We saw the Advanced Extreme High Frequency (AEHF) satellite while were were there - it was pretty cool to see something that would later be in space. They gave presentations to explain what programs are done at Northrop Grumman and how their company is organized.

Boeing Satellite Systems
Our second site visit was to Boeing Satellite Systems. Here they talked about the satellites that they construct and programs they run. They also gave us a tour of their high bay where we were able to see a GPS II satellite being constructed. They had just found out that they had lost their bid for the GPS III contract, and talked about why that might be. They said that (of course) believed they had the better proposal, and had the experience with GPS II, but that they believed sometimes large contracts are alternated between major companies so that neither of the companies loses too much of its capacity.

U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, Los Angeles Air Force Base
On our second day of tours, we visited LA Air Force Base. It's a very large base, though we spent most of our time in one building, learning about what operations and research are based out of the area. They deal with GPS there, so it was interesting to get their perspective on how the contract was awarded, though of course they couldn't go into much detail.

Aerospace Industry
The Aerospace Industry is a Federally Funded Research Center (FFRC) affiliated with the Space and Missile Systems Center. We toured the facility - particularly the labs. The labs there reminded me of a larger version of what I was used to during my undergraduate aerospace engineering experience. It seemed like a cool place to work - they get to do interesting research, trying to answer questions to further the field.

The afternoon of our second day, we visited SpaceX. This is the company started by Elon Musk that is trying to create a low-cost launch capability for the United States. They're designing and building the Falcon Rockets. One of their strategies is to do as much in house as possible - they deal with as few supply companies as possible and instead manufacture parts on their own. This helps them tighten their schedule considerable and avoid delays when they need to fix things. They gave us a tour of the facilities, and we could see people cutting metal for engines, and putting things together. The company is filled with young, excited engineers, and there is a sense of purpose and excitement there that you don't experience in the other large aerospace companies. They've had two trials, both with failures - though when they described it in the tour they talked about the second launch as a "successful launch until some complications many minutes into flight". That illustrates one concern outsiders seem to have about the company - that they're optimistic to the point of no longer being realistic. I think it's difficult, because they sound so confident, and so many people really want to see them succeed, that its very easy to get caught up in the excitement. Of course, being a space geek that wants to see access to space become affordable, and a young engineer full of hope, I'm a big fan of SpaceX. They have another flight coming up soon, so we'll just keep our fingers crossed.

Stephanie and I standing by a mock-up of Pheonix at JPL.

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Our last stop in California was at NASA JPL. Out in Pasadena, the huge campus is what I think I imagined the cool California working style to be like. It is laid out more like a university - with buildings spread out and nice green areas and walk ways around them. It also has space stuff all over the place, which in my mind makes it cooler than most universities. We had a tour of the facilities, including another high bay and an area where nano-technology was being done. Though the nano-technology talk was a bit high level (even with an aero/astro engineering background) it was an interesting tour. One of the very cool things we got to see was the Operations Center, which is where they would be monitoring the descent of the Phoenix Mars Lander two days later. (In fact, Stephanie and I watched the landing live on TV, which consisted of watching people in the Operations Center monitoring computers, crossing their fingers, and cheering as each progressive step of the landing went perfectly.)Adam feeling very patriotic about Pheonix.

Around L.A.
Since I love traveling, it was also a benefit to spend some time seeing the area. Outside of tour time, we made a trip to Manhattan beach, which was near where we were staying. We were able to see the ocean, get some food, and start to meet the diverse group of students on the trip.
Stephanie and I on the pier at Manhattan Beach.

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