Windows down, car radio blaring, I decelerate as I pull into Lab and knock the volume of my music down a few notches so I don’t deafen the security officer approaching from the gate. JPL’s Welcome to Our Universe sign gleams above me in the early morning sun as I pull my badge out from underneath my seatbelt and slip my N-95 mask over my ears. The officer inputs my badge number into his pad to ensure I’m on the Lab’s mission essential personnel list — a year into the pandemic and security has been tightened to allow only a handful of employees through the gate. “I’m so sorry,” I say, embarrassed. “I forgot to fill out my health screening form this morning.”
The officer shrugs and walks back to his kiosk to grab his thermometer. “Have you experienced any fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, or congestion in the last forty-eight hours, tested positive for COVID-19, or been exposed to someone known or suspected to have COVID-19?” he asked in a monotonous drone that implies he has asked that question far too many times before while prodding at a sign with the same words printed in large black font.
“No sir!” I answer quickly. He points the pistol-shaped thermometer at my head, verifies my temperature is normal, and waves me through the gate. I drive through and pull into my usual parking spot right across the street from the Psyche Avionics Testbed. Copious parking spots — that’s the best thing about working on Lab during quarantine, I decide as I turn off my engine and climb out of my little Honda coupe. I cross the street, nodding hello to the technician humming by on his golf cart, and let myself into building 179, the famed home of JPL’s Spacecraft Assembly Facility. I pause at the door to the testbed, taking note of the muffled pop music barely audible through the thick doors, and scan my badge. The badge reader beeps, and a moment later the music abruptly cuts out. Chuckling under my breath, I pull open the door and see my coworker Will scrambling with his laptop from behind a testbed support rack.
His expression relaxes from one of embarrassment to delight. “Oh hello! I thought you were running remote today,” he says jovially, punching a key to resume the tinny music on his MacBook speakers.
“Nope,” I say. “I’ve got to power cycle the Imager a bunch of times for this test and didn’t want to make you do it for me every time.”
He grins gratefully. “Sounds good, wanna buddy this mate with me?”
I nod, shrugging off my backpack and donning a static-safe lab coat and wrist strap. I plug my wrist strap into the monitor and buzz it out, verifying it won’t unknowingly generate a static shock near the hardware — even a tiny zap could damage our beloved Psyche Compute Element or Multispectral Imager. I join Will at the test bench where Psyche’s hardware models are laid out carefully, but still manage to look like the spilled guts of a science fiction robot. Thick cables connect the processing units for the Imager, Gamma-Ray and Neutron Spectrometer, Deep Space Optical Communication instrument, Inertial Measurement Unit, and Stellar Reference Unit to the central processor. These units are all Earth-bound, but they are functionally identical to the flight models that will one day be zooming through deep space, propelled by Psyche’s Hall thrusters.
Protocol dictates that we always use the buddy system when mating or demating hardware, so I watch carefully as Will unscrews one of the thick cables from the Psyche Compute Element and replaces it with an identical one that connects it to the Imager’s Digital Electronics Assembly, checking for any dust or bent pins on the connectors. “All set!” He announces once we’ve verified the mate is complete.
Satisfied with our work, I return to the ground data system monitor and fire up the graphical user interface we use to talk to Psyche’s brain. Powering on the testbed is a lengthy procedure that involves initializing simulations, energizing power lines, and feeding the processor the software and data it needs to come alive. I verify I can communicate with Psyche by sending a no-op — a very basic command that just says “Hello, are you there?” — and note the pleasant blue acknowledgment message that pops up in response.
I check that my grounding wrist strap is secure before walking back over to the bench and punching the button that turns the Imager on. This is the only part of my test for which I need to actually be on Lab, since my team has configured this testbed to run remotely to allow the flight software developers, simulation and support equipment engineers, and test analysts to continue making progress during our respective COVID lockdowns.
From the monitor, I access my test procedure from a web browser, double check that all the flight system and Imager telemetry is nominal, and hit the play button to start my test. I watch, satisfied, as the computer program begins to execute the functional test procedure I’ve been writing for the past three months, and the flight system responds successfully. By the time I’ve finished I’ve added a hundred new images to the Multispectral Imager’s vast library. Right now they’re just pictures of the testbed ceiling, but in a few years the Imager will be snapping photos of the (16) Psyche asteroid instead as the Psyche spacecraft orbits its final destination.
My test informs me that it has finished with the sudden noise of an old-school Mario Kart mishap; last year I had requested that the developers incorporate some kind of audible signal when a step failed or a procedure completed, and they had humorously chosen a suite of video game noises to do the job. After shaking images of Princess Peach careening off Rainbow Road from my head, I power down the testbed and help Will demate the Imager from the central processor.
“Hey, do you want to go look at the Chassis?” I ask him mischievously when we’ve finished.
“Um, always!” he quips back enthusiastically.
We leave the testbed and walk up the double flight of stairs to the High Bay Viewing Gallery. High Bay 1 is a three-story expanse of a room with gleaming white walls filled with shiny gold machinery, cranes to hoist equipment and technicians, and rows of computer racks. Engineers and technicians adorned in lab coats, gloves, masks, and hair nets meander around on the floor below, taking measurements with multimeters and mating connectors not too different from the ones Will and I had been handling in the testbed moments before. Along the opposite wall are plaques commemorating all of the spacecraft that have been assembled there — Mariner, Ranger, Voyager, Galileo, Cassini, Curiosity, Opportunity, and, most recently, Perseverance. But in this moment I don’t notice any of it, because my attention is totally captured by the massive spacecraft suspended in the middle.
The Psyche Chassis is a huge black, silver, and gold box the size of a car with an antenna dish fixed to one end. Long struts surround the dish like the spindly legs of a massive aluminum spider, and red electronic boards connected by thick, snaking cords populate the sides. I’ve spent the last two and a half years at JPL working with software simulations and engineering models, with bits of pieces of Psyche’s brain, eyes, and heart, but seeing the physical manifestation of all that work suspended before me in the form of such a tremendous machine still brings me chills.
“Sometimes I still can’t believe we get to be a part of something like this,” I tell Will, my gaze flicking momentarily to the gleaming NASA logo hanging proudly over the mission plaques. “I mean… that thing is going to outer space.”
I contemplate the spacecraft, fantasizing about the moment it will lift off from Cape Canaveral on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket and the excitement that we will experience. Hundreds of brilliant people from all over the world have contributed to the mission’s ongoing success, but right now, this little moment of awe and pride in the Viewing Gallery belongs to just me and Will, two junior test engineers excited to simply revel in the beauty of it all.
“Yeah… it is pretty freaking cool,” he agrees with a wink.