How it is to operate satellites: the story of a Ukrainian working at NASA
Former journalist with 20 years of experience Andrei Vasiliev (Dorzh Batu) has been working at NASA for 2 years. During this time, he managed to write a book about space exploration - “Francesca. Lady of trajectories. " In an interview for “Ukrainian truth”Andrey told why the Internet and mobile communications depend on the control of satellites, why he calculates the trajectories of spacecraft manually and is it easy to get to work at NASA.
- Andrey, you already had to say the famous phrase “Houston, do we have a problem?” (A famous phrase from the movie "Apollo 13". The tape is based on a real accident of a spacecraft during a flight to the moon. Houston is the central control center of NASA)
- Fortunately, no. Although we had problems, they were not as critical as during Apollo.
- You are the trajectory correction operator of the US Aeronautics and Space Administration at a military base. What exactly are you doing?
- The trajectories of all spacecraft rotating in near-earth orbits are influenced by various factors: earth's gravity, moon's gravity, solar wind, radiation, electromagnetic fields, inertia from the last corrections ... Many factors.
There is no resistance in space. The final inertia after the last correction is preserved, and little by little the object moves in the direction we do not need.
Therefore, once every 10-15 days, correction of the trajectory and orientation is required. The satellite begins to deviate from the trajectory and change orientation. At this stage we intervene.
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We take telemetry from two points, find out the actual location of the satellite. Comparing these two points - A and B - we calculate the actual trajectory.
When we compare this data, calculate the error, then based on the errors, the machine calculates the frequency and strength of the engine pulses in order to return the satellite to the desired orientation and trajectory.
- But you and your partner are still recalculating the data manually ...
- Sure. All critical missions in NASA are counted with pens. We have a bunch of automation, there is the so-called "foolproof", but all the same, the main calculations are carried out by hands: living physicists, mathematicians, to be sure that we are doing what is needed.
The person is aware of the process, but the apparatus is not. He just turns the car in the right parameters.
Therefore, the most critical missions are not given to automation. People do everything.
The calculations must be very accurate, so we carry out them at two parallel stations. They must match. If they do not match, we do it a second time, if not - the third time. If it still does not converge, we transfer the data to Houston. This has never happened in my work.
- When satellites deviate from their trajectories, how does it harm people?
If a telecommunications satellite begins to deviate from the trajectory, sooner or later it will deviate and either go off the trajectory and completely fall to the ground, or go in a completely different direction and lose contact with ground stations.
If the satellite loses connection with ground stations, the telecommunication connection is interrupted: the phone does not work, the ATM does not work, the TV does not work, nothing works.
If we do not correct the satellites, you will not be able to withdraw money, call someone, go online or turn on the TV.
- It must be a very nervous job ...
- I would not say. Mathematics cannot be nervous, it is absolute peace and numbers.
- But in your book you write that there are great unrest.
- Yes, but it's all in my head. You operate a multi-ton machine. If you start to wonder how much it costs, how many people worked to create it, and you can destroy it, it's a little awkward.
I think every job has these fears. My job is easier than any surgeon in the operating room. In his hands is the life of a person, in mine - only a piece of iron.
- How much do satellites cost?
“Whether it's the small CubeSat satellites the size of a mobile phone, or the Inmarsat satellites weighing more than 6 tons and the size of a three-story building — a large team of people are working on them. It is much more expensive than money.
The price ranges from several tens of thousands of dollars to several tens of millions of dollars.
- How is your working day going?
- At 7 o'clock in the morning, an active shift begins, which lasts 4 hours. This is a critical change associated with large psycho-emotional stress, which is why it is so short.
The second part of the day is routine: calculations, reports, documents, as in any other government office.
- Although you cannot take pictures at your base through a secure facility, you teach children to launch real satellites.
- These are state programs that involve schoolchildren in the study of mathematics, physics and space. Then these children become students, participate in student programs. This is a very big plus in the resume for employment both in NASA and in private companies, which are now very developing.
- You are describing a case where schoolchildren after training independently launched a satellite. NASA trusts them with very valuable technology ...
- When I arrived, I was also entrusted with the remote control. There are no simulators. If you don't work with real instruments, you will not learn anything.
It's like they say to you in an empty pool: "Let the water go when you learn to swim."
Recently, people were recruiting to the base in Houston. And our HR emphasized that becoming a flight management leader is very simple.
You may not be related to space, you may not be an astronaut in the past. You just have to be either a biologist, or have a programmer education, or be a mathematician. The main thing is to be a good person.
You can get into NASA without any background.
NASA idealize many. In fact, this is an ordinary state office in which people work, such as you and I. They are not gods or demigods.
- But still there must be some knowledge. You are an orientalist and a journalist, but at NASA you do math.
- I had a background. In 2013, I was looking for a job because I quit my job with Voice of America. It was a long and not romantic story. He got into a production facility that makes parts and assemblies for spacecraft.
He came to the position of laboratory assistant, which did not require any technical knowledge. This is the position where you shift the paper, fill out the forms and take where you need to. I started with this, but more and more interested in the topic.
My curiosity was satisfied by colleagues. They saw what was interesting to me and began to teach.
For three years at my previous job as a laboratory assistant, I moved to the engineering position of the final inspector.
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- And you didn’t demanded any papers on special education?
- Not. Then we moved to another state and I started looking for a new job.
He took the resume to the agency for the employment of people in the aerospace industry. They completely threw out the entire journalistic background from the resume and wrote down what position I started from, what I can do, with what programs I work and what I achieved in my previous job. We started sending it out. So I found this job.
When I came to NASA, I immediately told HR that I had no technical education. I heard: "We are absolutely satisfied with your background."
In this position, I have already reached my upper limit. If you want to move further in the industry, you need a serious education: college, university.
Education is not a prerequisite for working at NASA, but it is a prerequisite if you want to make a career there.
If you want to work as an operator all your life, you don't have to study.
- Do you want to move forward?
- Not decided yet. I plan to study, but not tomorrow. Maybe in the future.
- What are you forbidden to talk about?
- About everything in essence. We have a press office that is responsible for external information. It is forbidden to talk about details, about the internal kitchen. The most important thing is to speak, make statements on behalf of NASA, and publicly sign a NASA employee.
- But at the same time you give out a book about everyday life at NASA ...
- At the beginning of my book it says “The names of some characters have been changed. Coincidence with real events is accidental ”.
I had to intentionally change some parameters, intentionally distort some processes so that they did not resemble real ones.
The general sense remained, but experts will understand that something is wrong here.
- Why are you interested in space?
- We can understand how our Earth works. NASA isn't just exploring deep space. She explores the climate, changes in air masses, their movement, the movement of water masses, how rivers flow and the oceans change.
This allows you to understand what is happening on Earth. If we understand this earlier, we can avoid many disasters, including climatic and environmental ones.
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