Science & Technology



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

10:30 a.m.

There are two thresholds for success. One is a vacuum test using a wand spraying helium to see if it it is being sucked into the system. The other is the high-pressure test in which helium is pumped through the system to see if gas leaks out.

Any significant leaks will interrupt the tight choreography of the spacecraft's assembly and testing schedule, less than a year away from launch time.

"We are physically putting the spacecraft together. We are the end of the line," Barajas said, trying to explain the serious atmosphere in the room. "It's up to us to verify that the parts we have been sent are working the way they should. Humans aren't infallible. We're always looking over each other's shoulder to make sure we're doing the job right."

"I think that's where the stress comes from, right? That we feel the pressure and the burden of building this vehicle that has been the life's work of some and years of work for many others."

1 p.m.

It's lunchtime. You might think that the pressure of tight deadlines would cause Barajas and others on the project to push through to stay on schedule. Bad idea, Barajas said.

"We always make time for lunch," he said. "What we don't want is to have hungry people on the floor. Sometimes we cycle people in and out so that the work can continue. Other times we just take a 45-minute break, so the folks can stay focused on the floor when we are having a long day like this."

2 p.m.

Barajas steps out of the clean room to catch up with phone calls and email.

"In my particular role, the brunt of the day is a lot of behind-the-scenes work," Barajas said. "To keep things moving, looking ahead to the next job."


There's the occasional startling interruption of tour guides speaking in the hall outside his office as they lead groups through JPL's Spacecraft Assembly Facility. The main attraction is the window into the clean room, where tours can see the spacecraft itself.

"There's a constant stream of tours during the day. It's like working in a fishbowl," Barajas laughs.

3 p.m.

The work day comes to the 3 p.m. change of shift. But Barajas isn't knocking off; he's back to the clean room as testing continues. Barajas needs to make sure that the second shift is able to pick up where the first shift left off.

4 p.m.

The tests are done and the teams determine that there were no leaks. But there isn't even the briefest of celebrations for this achievement.

"We've got so much still to do. Interim steps don't really get much of a response from us," Barajas said.

Barajas and colleagues turn their focus to the next few days, when they will fill the system with freon and then close the spacecraft's aluminum vault for good.

"That will be a milestone, not just for us, but for the whole project," he said.

That might even get a high-five.

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