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The countdown to NASA's Jupiter mission is on. This JPL engineer is helping it happen

Ronald D. White, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

Collegial chatter abounds because some people entering the clean room for the first time need help with the process.

"Every time we enter the clean room, we have to first put on the bunny suit, which is a very ugly one-piece jumper," Barajas said. "Empty your pockets; no phones or watches. Shoe covers go on your feet, then there are boots that go on top of those. If you have a beard; there's a mask to wear for that. Then there's a face mask and a hood that's like a fabric helmet goes over that. Then you put on the bunny suit without letting it touch the ground. Then there's tape on all of the separate parts, joining the legs to the shoes, gloves to the sleeves, etc."

The process must be repeated after a worker leaves the clean room for lunch or a bathroom break — "It's one of the daily downsides of the job" — so veterans know, "you're not able to hydrate as you would normally."

Next, there is something that looks like a shower stall, buts it's dry air being blasted at the occupant, hard enough to feel like a wind storm.

On one wall of the clean room hang plaques commemorating missions that date back 63 years, to the Ranger 1 moon mission, when engineers worked on spacecraft in street clothes. But this is not 1961, a time when earthlings weren't concerned about spreading their biological junk off planet.

"Planetary protection has evolved," Barajas said of the strict work requirements he has to follow every day. "No one wants to be the person responsible when extra-terrestrial life is finally found and it turns out to be something we brought there from earth."

 

9:30 a.m.

Inside the clean room, engineers and technicians are making sure all of the fittings on the thermal pump are sufficiently tight.

There is no chatter, no small talk. Everyone is looking intently at the work being done, a level of scrutiny that continues during the testing process. Barajas is there to ensure that members of the thermal team conducting the test have everything they need and the work is going smoothly.

"We have detectors here on the clean room floor that will read whether anything is seeping out. We do this with helium," Barajas said. It has to be below a certain rate loss. "There will always be some seepage but as long as it's not too much, we're OK."

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