Launch & Deployments?

I’ve moved into a new role on the Europa Clipper project, and if you’re not an engineer at NASA, it might sound like a bunch of jargon. What exactly does the “Flight System Launch and Deployments Lead” do?

First off, I’ve been on the Flight Systems Engineering Team for the past year. The Flight System is a term we use at JPL for the spacecraft (all subsystems together) plus the payload (the science instruments). Our team of ~15 people ensures that the high-level design of the spacecraft works, all subsystems work when related to each other, and that the spacecraft supports instrument needs. We basically make sure that all engineering topics work when put together as a cohesive system.

Our team has identified three key phases for the Flight System in the mission: Launch and Deployments, Jupiter Orbit Insertion, and Flybys (usually of Europa). These are all critical activities that the spacecraft has to complete to have a successful mission.

The Launch and Deployments Phase is the first phase in the mission and involves the spacecraft performing several activities to “ready itself” for the rest of the mission. The phase more or less starts when the Launch Vehicle (carrying Europa Clipper) lifts off from Earth and ends when the spacecraft is in a sound flight condition to make its trip to Jupiter.

The key activities that I’m working on include: establish communications once separated from the Launch Vehicle, ensure that the spacecraft is in a thermally safe orientation, vent and prime the propulsion system prior to its first use, deploy the solar arrays, charge the batteries as needed, and deploy other instrument related equipment, such as the magnetometer boom. The majority of these activities have to be completed autonomously, meaning that we have to design software to carry out all of these activities without ground operations.

It’s a lot of work, but it sure is fun! Here’s to getting a spacecraft safely to Jupiter, cheers!


October 27th SO MUCH STUFF!

If you like video games, or 80’s themed sci-fi shows, October 27 is the day that’s going to make your head explode. Games released today: Super Mario Odyssey, Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, and Assassin’s Creed Origins. Shows that drop today on Netflix: Stranger Things 2. AH. I die.

So, what’s my plan? I’m getting both Super Mario Odyssey and Wolfenstein 2 on release day. I’ll play Wolfenstein 2 on PS4 while my fiancée plays Super Mario Odyssey on the Switch- but I’ll bet I put down my PS4 controller a fair amount over the weekend to partake in some hat-throwing! It might be jarring to “switch” back and fourth between a cheery Mario title and a more gruesome FPS, but hey, I can’t choose, so I’ll play both. As for AC, I’m not the biggest fan of the series, but reviews have looked solid, and the environments look darn beautiful. I’ll pick it up as soon as I beat Wolfenstein 2!

Then there’s Stranger Things 2…Oh joy and happiness. I loved the first season so much. I’m not planning to binge this new season with all of these video games a foot, but I do plan to watch one or two episodes a day over a meal.

Also, I’m going to a Stranger Things themed yoga class tonight. NAILED IT.

Dear everyone who is making choices between these games and media this weekend – good luck to you. It’s tough out there having such amazing things to choose from. Enjoy yourselves! What a time to be alive.

Update on 11/6:

Wolfenstein 2 – Beat it on Sunday 10/29 (15 hours). It was awesome!

Super Mario Odyssey – My fiancee beat it on Sunday 11/5 (I helped out a bit). What I played was awesome, and what I saw was awesome!

Stranger Things 2 – Finished it on Saturday 10/28. AWESOME!

And now I have picked up Assassin’s Creed Origins. AND IT IS GOOD. I usually don’t like AC games and I get frustrated. I did like Black Flag, and I’m loving this new one. It’s actually creeping up into GOTY realms for me. Dang. What a year for games!

Naughty Dog Studio Tour

Twitter is an amazing tool—when it is used for good. I started using Twitter earlier this year (in 2017), and one of my main goals was to be a positive voice in things I care about. Did you make a game I really loved? Great! Let me tell you how awesome you are. It was my attempt to spread some love when the errr “political climate” seemed to be creating chaos.

I’ve found that people really appreciate this, and I’ve made some great new friends in the video game industry– an industry that I don’t work in, but one that I admire. Whether the person I follow is a journalist, podcaster, game designer, marketing/community manager, or just a fan like me, it doesn’t matter. The video game community, as far as I’m concerned, is a great community to be a part of.

I met some Guerrilla Games people when I started tweeting Horizon Zero Dawn pictures at them, and gave some of them a tour of JPL when they were in LA. Through them, I met some Naughty Dog people, who I also began to follow on Twitter. These new internet friends were kind enough to give me a tour of the Naughty Dog studio in Santa Monica, CA last Friday September 29th.

They answered numerous questions about how game design works and described each role – programmer, artist, designer, and everything in between. Each person had three monitors, two for work and a third hooked up to a dev PS4 console to play their in-work game (which everyone knows is Last of Us II by this point). It was really inspiring to see their team in action, and to meet such kind, fun and interesting people. Plus, they had some pretty sweet stuff around the office. Here are some pics!


Hello Europa, are you there?

Designing a communications system for a spacecraft is a basic, yet significant undertaking. All spacecraft must communicate, so the general practice is nothing new, but without a properly designed system, well, there could be just radio silence. Literally.

In addition to selecting the right hardware (radios, antennas, amplifiers), the Flight Software (FSW) must be designed to manage all the necessary functions. How should the hardware be configured to listen to commands? To send data to Earth? When should these configurations change?

Just imagine for a moment calling someone and the phone rings forever with no response. There is no voicemail system, just ringing. Forever. Does the other person’s phone not work? Are they asleep? Is their ringer on silent? Are they busy? The key is picking the right hardware (the phone) and designing the spacecraft’s software (the human’s actions) to “pick up and answer”.

This is what we’re doing on Europa Clipper right now. The hardware is already mostly selected (with some details to work), but the software is in an exciting early phase of development. Our team is thinking of how it should work for various scenarios including spacecraft emergencies and how new capabilities might fit into the mix.


My Final Fantasy Redemption Story

My first memory of Final Fantasy, the long running video game series, is seeing the FF7 PlayStation 1 case at my local video rental store in Atlanta in 1997. I was enthralled by the graphics shown, by this mysterious box. (I don’t recall seeing all of the commercials, but perhaps I did and I can’t remember now as I was only 9 at the time.) I also never played any previous FF. I spent my SNES days with Mario and Donkey Kong, and the only RPG I had played was A Link to the Past. I rented FF7, but I didn’t quite know how to manage the game or “how” to play it. I never got out of Midgar. My parents bought the game for me on PC the next year (mostly because I wanted the cool trapezoidal box), but I still never got that far. 10 year old me couldn’t handle it. I can’t tell you how many times I played the opening sequence. So. Many. Times.


Then came Final Fantasy 8. I was a year older and a year wiser, and I was just the right age (11) to appreciate Squall. The cut scenes were magical, the story of a military school pulled me in and the mystical Guardian Forces intimidated and excited me all at the same time. I remember loving all of the characters, and getting pulled into the alternate reality world of Laguna Loire. I even bought the cards in real life and a few action figures. I was obsessed. But, once again, I didn’t beat the game. I at least got to the final disc though. I don’t remember why I gave up, maybe I just didn’t want it to end. I thought about the game often, about how I’d come back to it someday.

Fast forward through Final Fantasy 9, 10, and 12. Same story. I played them all, but never beat them. I got to the final disc in 9 also, somewhere near the end of 10, and only 15 or so hours total in 12. (I completely skipped the MMO 11.)

I put down 12 my Freshman year of college, and boxed up my PS2. This was actually one of the last games I played before I went on a three year break from games. I was busy studying, going to concerts, and hanging out with new friends. Games didn’t have a place in my life during those few years, but looking back, I am a much better person with games in my life than without. They provide a sense of inspiration that I just can’t get from other forms of entertainment.

When I came back to gaming in 2010, I promptly bought a PS3. I perused through the shelves of GameStop and saw Final Fantasy 13. The years of of my childhood came back to me. This would be my return. It was unfortunate that this entry aligned with my return to games, but honestly, it’s my story. It did something for me. I remember playing 13 thinking “What the heck happened in the past three years?!” First, the graphics were beautiful. For someone who just jumped into the PS3 after three years off, the graphics were breathtaking. I remember just looking at the environments and being shocked that games had come this far. At the same time, I was confused. I remember thinking “Is this what FF is now?” I was confused by the battle system and I missed the days of selecting attacks and magic like in FF7-10. I also could not understand the story at all. There was no magic sucking city to conquer, no military school, no knights in armor…Just nonsense. But alas, I was a different person. I now complete the things I start. I saw that entire game through, and due to some unfortunate timing in my personal life, FF13 was the first game in the series that I ever beat. But you know what? I wasn’t deep in listening to games media at the time. I was confused by the battle system and the story, but I wasn’t aware of how much others hated the game. For me, I was just proud that I finally beat a Final Fantasy game. I actually cried during the credits, not because I loved the game, but because I had finally finished one of these games that takes 50+ hours to finish. I did it. I played FF13-2 when it came out, and beat it too. I liked this entry much more with the time traveling and the Pokemon-like monster capturing, but it still didn’t feel like the FF’s that I remembered as a kid…

…So I began my mission. I would go back and beat all of the Final Fantasy’s that I never finished as a kid. This would be my redemption. This process has taken me many more years than I had anticipated, as I have fell in love with all other games on my return to gaming. I’m okay with this, as games have become such a huge part of my life and I wouldn’t trade playing Mass Effect 1 and Uncharted 1 for the first time, but my FF backlog was always in the back of my mind.

In 2012 -2013, I plugged in my PS2 (which was backwards compatible unlike newer consoles) and put in FF8. I beat it. (I really would like to write about FF8 and why it’s my favorite because a lot of people don’t like it, but that’s a story for another time.) Right after I finished FF8, I went straight to 10. I’m not sure why I moved to that one next, but I did. I beat it.

I went to PSX in 2015, and was excited to hear that FF7 was being released on PS4 with full trophy support. Glorious! Square and Sony were both on board with my redemption story. Over the next year I worked my way through FF7 in between other game releases, and guess what? I beat it. In 2017, Square gave me another gift: Final Fantasy 12: Zodiac Age. This game, like FF7, had a function to speed up walking around and grinding battles. Thank you devs!! FF12:ZA had a number of other updates, including the new class system from the International version. I loved this game. I beat it. I also beat FF15 when it came out to keep my backlog clear. It wasn’t from my childhood, but it is FF. I liked it much more than 13, and it felt more true to FF, but I still was confused by the story and the battle system. The world was great though. (I liked it enough that I got the Platinum, but it also wasn’t as hard to get as some others.)

(If you’re wondering, “What about FF13-3 Lightning Returns?” No. Just no. This is not on my list. I bought it when it came out, and played it for a few hours, but I couldn’t. I remember the graphics not looking as pretty and this was one of my good points for FF13-1. Or maybe it was just my mind tricking me so I wouldn’t have to sit through a nonsensical story again. Or maybe it was the fact that now I was listening to more games media and I had learned how much everyone hated FF13 and that trilogy had become even more tainted in my mind. Reviews were okay with 13-2, but Lightning Returns wasn’t doing it for anyone. This game is off my list. Not doing it. No.)

(Also, what about FF6? The FF darling according too all game experts? Well, I never played it as a kid, so I haven’t prioritized it in my backlog. I have played through the first few hours on Vita and then started a playthrough on PC. This will be next on the list after the one below…)

There is one last game on my list of non-completions. Final Fantasy 9. I got to the final disc on PS1 as a kid, and I have played the opening few hours countless times since then. Literally I cannot count how many times I have played the beginning of this game. That might sound like a bad thing, but I don’t attribute it to me not liking it. I think the game is extremely charming and I just love the opening sequence with Vivi – my favorite character in that game and in perhaps all of FF. (I still remember the first time playing this game going to Vivi’s home village, and that was a magical moment.) Earlier this year (2017), I decided to get started on my last FF redemption backlog item. I bought the game on steam and have been casually playing through it in between other game releases. Again, remember that as much as I love FF, I still really love other games, too. I have been getting a bit more distracted during this playthrough than I’d like. Maybe I don’t want my redemption story to end? I’m not sure…

…Or maybe I was waiting for a sign. Some inspiration. And here it is. FINAL FANTASY 9 IS OUT ON PS4 TODAY. AH. Thank you Square Enix. You have done it again. Not only is there full trophy support, but there is high speed (something I loved in FF7 and FF12 re-releases), no battles (I usually avoid this but might use it once in a while), autosaves, and more. THANK YOU. This couldn’t be more perfect.

Vivi, I’m coming back. And we’re going to get through it this time. Redemption time!

Vivi, my dear friend



Goodbye Cassini

Well, that’s it. The 13 year tour of Saturn, or 20 years if you count the time since launch, is over. During those final hours of the mission in the Mission Support Area (MSA) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, there was a mix of sadness and pride. I think it was the first time that I witnessed a live event in the ops room when there wasn’t jumping and cheering (like during MSL’s landing on Mars), instead there was silence. Everything went quiet when the signal was finally lost. Then our Project Manager, Earl Maize, and Spacecraft Operations Manager, Julie Webster, hugged.

I thought I’d share some pictures of the mission’s final moments with you.


With a little help from my friends

…Or A LOT of help.

As all you Guardians know out there, Destiny 2 was released last week. I was on a work trip the first few days it was out, but promptly logged in when I got home over the weekend. I beat the campaign in two days, playing most of the story missions with friends in the “What’s Good Guardians” clan (fans of the What’s Good Games podcast). We fireteam’d up and shot some baddies and had a great time exploring the various locations in the game.

This experience was so much more fun than I ever remember having with Destiny 1. I only played Destiny 1 for a month or so, then gave up because I felt like the game got repetitive and it was devoid of story. I can’t say where I’ll be a month from now in Destiny 2, but I’m already loving this so much more. I started a second character to play the campaign missions solo to really soak in the story. Even though I think the story is much better in Destiny 2, I have to admit I was having so much fun with my fireteam that I didn’t pay as much attention to it as I would’ve liked. Going back through now though, the characters are fun and lighthearted, the main enemy and plot is also significantly more comprehensible than vanilla Destiny 1. I’m liking this world a lot!

Then came the bad times. I’m not good at strikes, or at least that’s what I thought after playing the Nightfall for the first time last night. I was level 258 and was playing with two friends who were in the 270’s and had previously beaten it. I COULD NOT stay alive for the life of me! Dying so often was not fun at all, and, to be honest, I was a bit discouraged. A mark of a good game though is that even though I failed miserably, I don’t want to give up. I want to jump back in and level up, so I can hang in longer next time. At the end of the day, at least I have some friends to revive me when I fall. Thanks Guardians!