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Air Force officers contribute to Lab's mission
Air Force officers contribute to Lab's mission

In recent weeks, JPLers have been joined by six lieutenants and a captain from Los Angeles Air Force Base taking part in a a six-month employee exchange program.

Most days Adam Richie-Halford rides to JPL on his Suzuki GS-500 motorcycle wearing sporty sneakers and a black leather jacket. But if you catch him on a Monday, you’ll see him in full camouflage fatigues and squared-off cap. And no, that’s not an Army uniform. Richie-Halford is an Air Force lieutenant (orders came down from on high to ditch the regular blues and wear fatigues as a reminder that our nation is still at war).

Lt. Richie-Halford joined the Lab a few weeks ago along with five other lieutenants and one captain as part of a six-month industry/Air Force employee exchange program with the Space and Missile Systems Center at the Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo. It’s the fourth such group to work at JPL since 2003, when the program officially started.

Twenty-five-year-old Richie-Halford, who earned a private pilot’s license so he could be more competitive for pilot-training selection, says he realized he was a nerd while taking undergraduate science classes. He decided against pursuing a career as a pilot and says he remembers being very impressed during a tour of JPL. When this opportunity came up, he saw it as a chance to do real science.

“It’s kind of exciting for me to know that I’m going to be able to contribute something new to science,” he says.

Working with John Armstrong, a member of the Cassini radio science team, he will analyze a phenomenon called radiowave scintillation to study solar wind activity too close to the sun for a spacecraft to collect data. Solar wind turbulence can interfere heavily with radio communication. In past solar conjunction events that were studied, when Cassini passed behind the sun, its signal became distorted—but by analyzing what many scientists would consider noise, he and Armstrong should be able to infer certain characteristics of the solar winds.

“From a pure science point of view, it’s interesting to extract that data from a radio signal,” Richie-Halford says. The engineering application, he adds, would be to improve our understanding of the turbulence so that engineers can extend the ability of spacecraft to communicate just before they pass behind the sun and just after they reemerge.

By many accounts, visiting officers like Richie-Halford have been very helpful additions to the Lab.

“People have come to realize how valuable these lieutenants are to their own organizations, because they really work hard and they’re very interested in whatever they’re doing,” says Lynn Baroff, the JPL coordinator for the program. Baroff notes that in the first year only 10 to 15 JPLers submitted descriptions of opportunity, but this year he received 30 to 40.

Regardless, both institutions have benefited from the program: the Lab has earned certain contracts in part because of its relationship with the Air Force base, which in turn has developed an electronic version of its regulations after studying JPL Rules!, and Air Force participants have advanced their careers. And participating JPL scientists and engineers get extra help at minimal cost, since the Air Force continues to pay the officers’ salaries.

Air Force people are fascinated by the work JPL does, says General Gene Tattini, who has a unique vantage point from serving currently as the Lab’s deputy director and formerly as the commanding officer of the El Segundo base. And “I’ve heard comments by JPLers about how bright these officers are,” he says.

For their part, the officers seem pleased with the hands-on technical experience they are getting at JPL. Lt. Rey-Jan Garma, 25, who is currently helping with the requirements process for the Gravity Reduction and Interior Laboratory (Grail) project, says at the Air Force base he dealt more with logistics than with engineering. But later in his assignment at JPL, he may get to help with the development and testing of an algorithm for the Grail spacecraft. The ultimate goal of the mission, which is scheduled to launch in 2011, will be to characterize the gravitational field of the moon, including any subtle variations caused by objects deep below its surface. The algorithm will help to isolate the gravitational influence on the spacecraft by accounting for and ruling out the effects of thruster force and solar pressure.

Working directly alongside engineers and scientists at JPL on projects like Grail can give these officers a stronger technical base from which to build their management skills later. Many of them say it’s a step toward future career goals.

Brian McLaughlin, who came to JPL with a group of eight other lieutenants in 2005, says he is grateful to have participated in the exchange. He used part of his time at JPL to learn about solar photovoltaic engineering. Now no longer in the Air Force, he is director of engineering at a private firm called Sequoia Solar. He even married another participant from that year, Jennifer Bergen. “JPL has definitely gotten me where I am today,” McLaughlin says.

So far the employee exchange program has been one-way, since no JPLers have gone to work at the Air Force base. But Baroff, the program coordinator, says he is still working to set up a full exchange in which JPL sends senior systems engineers and project managers to the Air Force base for six months to learn how the Air Force handles systems contracting and project management.

The other Air Force officers working at JPL this year are Capt. Ryan Downing and Lt. Andrew-Jan Garcia, both working with Hamid Hemmati in free-space laser communications; Lt. Minchull Paul Kim, working with Dan Dvorak on human-robotic interaction research; Lt. Paul Jacobs, working with Nagin Cox on the flight systems/systems engineering team for Mars Science Laboratory; and Lt. Rupinder “Roop” Sekhun, working with Kelly Moran on preliminary design review for the new Orion spacecraft being developed to send astronauts back to the moon.

Several of these officers have their sights set on the Astronaut Corps. Many are currently pursuing master’s degrees in science or engineering fields, and while some will spend their careers with the Air Force, some may not. Richie-Halford says he’s not sure what the future holds, but he’d like to stay with technical work for as long as possible before he’s back to management. He’s got at least five more months to do so.

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