Evie is an aeorspace engineer and will blog about current events in various fields including but not limited to: Space, Astronomy, Genetics, Biology, Green Energy, Neuroscience, Physics, Quantum Physics, Evolution, Environmental issues, Engineering.. Pretty much anything and everything that catches her eye. Stay tuned! Thoughts, comments, requests – always welcomed!
My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.
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A while back I posted a great story (ok well I thought it was a great story) about a bad day at work that I had.
In continuing with the telling of what bad days at work are like, I thought you might like to know what happens when a rocket test goes a little bit not exactly right. As with my last ‘bad day’ post, no one was hurt, and no damage was done.
Sometimes you go to work in the morning and you think to yourself ‘self, this is going to be a good day’, and self thinks back at you ‘yea, yea this is going to be a great day!’
Well in this case self was wrong.
As with many things in life, rocket science does not always go the way you want it to. During my time in the biz, I, like anyone else, have had some good days, some bad days, some happy days, some mad days, and also some scary days.
This day, had its scary moments.
It all started during my first week on the job. I was told I’d be working with the VP of engineering. I was told we’d be working on setting up a sub scale rocket motor test stand, to be used asap to test various fuels. I was told I’d be learning from the VP how to design, implement, wire and test a reliable control system for the rocket motor experiments.
I was not told that the VP was going on a 2 week vacation and would have about a day to spend with me before said vacation, leaving me and only me alone to work on this project by myself during yes, that’s right, my first week on the job.
No, I was not told that part.
That day I met my arch nemesis. As it turns out, my newly acquired arch nemesis had taken the form of a programming language if you will, a graphical and entirely unintuitive (though they claim to be completely intuitive, liars) thing named ‘LabView’. If any of you out there have actually worked with LabView to try to control actual hardware, while also acquiring data from that hardware, and also maintaining important timing in your program loops, you will know that is a nearly impossible task. But I digress.
The end of the day came and the happy cheery VP smiled and said ‘Good luck, don’t let me down! I expect you to have this finished by the time I get back. C-ya!’
You know that feeling when you have a clump in your throat and you try to swallow, but it doesn’t really go anywhere? Yea, it was a bit like that with some of the terrified ‘what have I gotten myself into’ feeling mixed in.
Miraculously, (well either that or thanks to my awesomeness) I pulled it off. In the two allotted weeks, I totally kicked butt and managed to create an awesome fail safe system. Fail safe doesn’t mean it can’t fail, ‘cause it can, it just means that when it fails, it does so in a safe manner.
My work of art
VP was really surprised I actually pulled it off. He never expected me to. He was sure he’d get back and we’d both have to work for another month or so to get it done. Of course that meant I set a dangerous precedent, one in which I can be left alone to work on a crazy problem and I’ll find a way to make it work in 2 weeks time.
Anyhoozle, system got implemented, tested out and approved, and the day came when we were ready to run our first sub scale rocket motor firing using this new system of mine. This was how I got to be the one pressing that big red fire button. Well, a) it was a big red fire button because I made it that way, and b) it was my system, so if anything went wrong.. it was alllll me. Yuuup, no pressure…
The way it was set up was neat. The tests were to be conducted at that big warehouse place where the rockets were made. (Note: Hybrid motors are not flammable, they don’t explode or ignite, so there is no danger with that, you can read more about that in a previous post of mine) There was a rig mounted on a trailer, kinda like a boat trailer, but not really. The rig had the mini thrust stand where the rocket was strapped to, along with the whole control system, data acquisition and control hardware, Nitrogen purge safety system, the works.
That trailer was wheeled up to one of the big rolly bay doors. You see, in order to make everyone happy, and by everyone I mean the fire marshal, the city lawmakers, the usual bureaucracy stuff, they came up with this plan. You can’t have a fire inside (but you can have one outside), you can’t have a rocket firing outside (but you can do what you want inside your own facility). So, you have a rocket firing inside, while the fiery plume is outside the rolly doors. Yup. Everyone was happy.
Inside the warehouse way in back was a big trailer, the kind you could live in, if you really had to. I, on various occasions, suggested mounting a couple of hammocks in there, but for some reason that was frowned upon. Anyway, that trailer was in fact the ‘command center’, in which resided the operational computer that ran the program with the big red fire button.
This is clearly at a diffrent outdoor location, but that is the same command center
As this was the very first test on this very new system, everyone had to come out and watch and make sure it was safe to proceed. This was going to be the test where we proved how safe it all was, so that in the future we could do these things privately and not have to invite the fire marshals and all the other folks over.
I was nervous. Yes, yes, I was. First rocket experience of my life was about to happen. And what do you know, I was the one in charge of the safety of this thing, and I was the one in control, and holy shit, I was nervous. I mean, I knew it was a tiny little motor, with a max of like 70 lbf thrust, maaaybe 100 lbf if there were some extra O2 in the room or something. I knew there was no danger, and I knew I had done everything I could think of to make it safe. But still, you know, that's a lot of responsibility.
This being the first test and all, the CEO, CFO, founder of the company, board members, other dignitaries, and of course the rest of the employees were all very much present outside watching as well.
It was test time. Safety briefing was done. Everyone knew where they were supposed to be and what they were supposed to do. Countdown began.. T-10.. 9… 8…. all the way down to FIRE!!
I pressed that fire button as hard as my heart was pounding, and glued my eyes to the data monitor. It all looked good. It was really hard to keep my eyes on the data, since the rest of the crew was actually watching the rocket itself, or at the very least the monitor showing the video feed, and I kinda wanted to see that too. That’s the down side of being in the control room. You don’t ever really get to see the stuff happening with your own eyes.
As soon as that fire sequence got going, it was very apparent that there was one factor that was not considered. Decibel levels. This was the first time ever such a test was conducted indoors, or in any walled space, and no one thought the noise/vibration levels would be an issue.
Yea… they were.
You know how sometimes if you’re at a rock concert or something, you can literally feel your internal organs shake and vibrate with the base. Yea it was like that, only it was crazy, so much stronger than I’d ever experienced before. It was like a fucking wall of force. I remember thinking to myself at that split second ‘hey, I bet those sci fi force fields feel just like this, cooool’.
So far, other than some unanticipated noise and a bit of a force field feeling, everything was going great. When all of the sudden… something went wrong!!
The data was not updating, needless to say, parameters of a controlled rocket combustion process must be closely monitored at all times, internal aborts based on data are implemented as well, but those too are reliant on the data actually coming in!
The program had thrown some error message! MY program had thrown some random error message!! It was not responding!! I could feel my eyes popping out of my head, kinda like you see in cartoons sometimes.
This was when things started moving in slow mo for me.
Normally, I’d calmly turn to my boss and say whatever it was I had to say to get him to cut the power (it was just unplugging a power cord, which was too bad cause it would have been so much cooler if it were one of those crazy big knife switches), and have everything move to its fail safe position.
Unfortunately, those unanticipated decibel levels made it such that even though he was standing a mere 5 feet away from me, and even though I was screaming at the very top of my lungs, he couldn’t hear me. Hell, I couldn’t even hear myself! I mean, not at all. I couldn't tell for sure if I was actually producing any sound.
For some reason, I felt like I shouldn’t leave my seat at the controls, so I couldn’t reach anyone to grab their attention. And like I said before, they were all glued to the video feed screen.
I found myself flailing my arms about like a rabid monkey and screaming unbelievably loudly to no avail, all this while my eyes were still lodged pretty far out of their sockets.
Finally, another manager dude who was seated between me and my boss caught a glimpse of whatever it was I was doing, noticed the frozen data screen, (smirked at my crazy overreaction) and got my boss’ attention. Boss man then pulled the plug, at which point everything shut down, fire was out, Nitrogen purge was on, and oddly enough the program came alive again!
We were all scrambling around the ‘command center’ trying to figure out what went wrong, when we realized, everyone outside was clapping like crazy. They were totally happy. No one knew anything went wrong.. So, we kept it that way.
When the smoke cleared – yes, it is normal to have smoke – the VP walked in and said ‘Everyone is happy, you guys really pulled off a great test here, congratulations!’ And continued to say ‘boy that sure seemed longer than a 20 second test burn’ to which we had to reply, umm yea, it was like a 50 second burn, with a total system failure, but it’s cool, fail safe worked like charm and we’re all good.
So first rocket test ever, using my system, in my hands, didn’t work out so well.. ‘Ok so this probably means I’m fired’, I thought to myself. Self was wrong once again that day. Turns out, I didn’t cause that failure. Apparently it was a hardware thing. Even better, we were able to reproduce the issue when exposing said hardware to the unanticipated decibel levels seen during that test.
***Biiiiiig sigh of relief..*** ‘Self’ I thought, ‘it looks like we are going to be employed to royally fuck up another day’
Needless to say, my next stop after work, was the bar. I imagine I had a great time. It’s a bit hazy. Before I left however, that other manager in the control room took the opportunity to remind me of how hilarious I looked with that terrified look upon my face and my eyes about to fall out of my skull.
So, what did I learn that day? Just one thing really – If you’re in a trailer in a warehouse and a rocket is going off, close the trailer windows. It’ll make it so you can hear yourself scream.
Totally different test a couple years after this story occurred, but you can see what a typical test looks like. Oh, and I’m not in this one.
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What an AWESOME story Evie! You have the best job EVER! They really need to invent something that requires a big red button in cell biology, though I'd maybe add in a couple of keys you have to turn simultaneously with some other dude. Brilliant!
Awesome story and video.. I agree with Janede.. U have the best job ever..
Love your posts Evie! You're a great story teller :) Just remember me when someone gives you your big writing break :P
Thanks guys! Much appreciated :) I never know while I'm writing these things if it'll turn out funny to anyone else..
Evie - Awesome story dude! I wish my job was that exciting!
Thanks @Why. It's not always that exciting though, I mean there is a lot of set up time, months and months of working late, trying to get everything just right, all for that hopefully successful few seconds of glory.. It can get quite frustrating.
Absolutely brilliant story! Man, I wish my job was this cool.
Thanks @Jay! But really, it's not that interesting all the time. There is plenty of documentation writing, and painful step by step proceedure creating, triple checking of check lists, internal meetings, customer meetings.. arguing with vendors.. just like any other typical job. :)