Commercial orbit Space: The nation's space program is being shifted to commercial interests. At the Goddard Space Flight Center, operations teams watch dozens of satellites.

April 06, 1997|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

Nearly 28 years after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and about 400 years before the voyages of the starship Enterprise, Tammy Vajo slid her adjustable maroon office chair up to the computer.

She had just popped Abba Gold into a CD player. "Dancing Queen" bubbled along under the constant subterranean rush of microprocessor cooling fans. Vajo typed in bursts, like gusts of rain hitting a plastic roof. The readout to her left indicated 17: 17 Zulu Time. The satellite would be in range in a matter of moments.

Lisa Schlader, at another terminal just beyond the clock, was calling up pages of data that would soon bloom with fresh green numbers as the link with the tracking station went live.

"One minute to AOS," someone with a Latin accent crackled over the Voice Data System, a kind of flesh-colored radio with a telephone handset.

It was Santiago, Chile, notifying Vajo that Acquisition of Signal was imminent.

"Copy," Vajo said into the handset.

A countdown display under the clock reached all zeros, then started counting up. Schlader's 21-inch monitor began flickering with new data.

The Fast Auroral Snapshot Explorer -- known as FAST -- was releasing an invisible shower of telemetry, data points, frames, channels -- a river of electrons dropping 1,100 miles into the 9-meter funnel of the Santiago satellite dish. From there the stream would flow north on a land line, shoot up to another satellite, then bounce back down to the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt and onto two terminals in the Small Mission Explorer flight operations center.

Vajo, a year younger than Armstrong's footprints on the moon, and Schlader, a year older than the Abba song "Waterloo," were overseeing the flow.

Operating engineer Rick Saylor, 26, walked out of his office and looked on for a moment, then announced he was leaving for a meeting. He had to plan for next week's special maneuver, in which FAST would increase its spin from 11.8 revolutions per minute to 12.

At other offices all around them in Building 3, other flight operations teams bent over their computers and pulled invisible strings on some two dozen satellites. Most of the engineers worked for either AlliedSignal Technical Services Corp. of Columbia or the Calverton office of Computer Sciences Corp.

Cubicles, team meetings and stock options have not completely eliminated the natural grazing range of the wild-haired scientist with mismatched socks, but the day-to-day management of space is increasingly businesslike.

Next year, NASA will throw all unmanned space operations open to commercial bidding. Even the Space Shuttle is now being run by a combination of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co.

It's where we are on the continuum between Apollo and Star Trek. Space is a desk job.

Saylor and Vajo both arrived at work before 8 a.m., a little earlier than usual, though their hours are not always regular.

When they arrive early during the winter, it's still dark. If they work 12-hour shifts, it's dark when they leave, and they joke about their windowless office with its drop ceiling and unnatural microwave hum being a basement for creatures of the night.

Over the poles

This day last week, the morning sky was a towering blue. You almost could have seen clear up to where the 400-pound FAST satellite spun silently along in its orbit. Except that at that hour, the craft was over the Indian Ocean near Madagascar.

FAST travels over both poles of the Earth in an elliptical path that can be as low as 220 miles and as high as 2,600 miles -- roughly as far straight up as from Baltimore to New York or Baltimore to San Francisco.

The little octagonal box was put there in August so scientists at the University of California at Berkeley and a few other institutions could study auroras, which may look like mysterious sheets of heavenly light but are really solar ions excited by the Earth's magnetic field. Auroras happen in high latitudes because the magnetic field sticks up over the poles like Don King's hair.

Like so many other buildings on Goddard's manicured campus of lawns and cherry trees, Mission Operations is a jumble of brick and concrete knit by stairwells and hallways.

Up one flight, down another and around several corners, Saylor's office is deep in the network of flight operations centers that riddle the building. Each is like a miniature version of the Houston Control everyone has seen in grainy TV footage from the Apollo days, but more Dilbert-like, full of cubicles and coffee cups.

Signs in the powder-blue hallway denote each mission: XTE, TRMM, SMEX. The Hubble Space Telescope is monitored in this building.

Saylor and 14 colleagues make up the SMEX -- Small Mission Explorer -- flight operations team. Like the other teams, they're not concerned with the science of the mission. If this was Star Trek, they would be Scotty. They keep the spacecraft running, fix its problems, chart its thermal data points and battery voltage and attitude. If the captain wants more power, they find a way to make it so.

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