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Who's Who at NASA: Jack Vieira, Range Project Manager

NTB: What were your biggest technical challenges in getting these rockets off the ground?

Vieira: There are different aspects of challenges. One of them was building the payloads. This mission was Ok’d by NASA headquarters, and we immediately went into fabrication. So we built these from nothing. Just the fabrication was quite a challenge. After fabrication, we had to put them through tests and evaluations. Obviously this isn’t the only mission that we’re doing. There are a lot of missions going on through the pipeline, and we were very, very concerned about being able to do this one without affecting the other missions as well. There was a lot of work getting those built and fabricated.

From a range perspective, one of the biggest concerns I had was we had seven telemetry downlinks, and that was going to be challenging to the range. I was very happy to see that it went off like clockwork with those guys. They were able to receive all the telemetry links, and there were no hitches at all. It was perfect.

NTB: What was your specific work with the mission, as range project manager?

Vieira: It’s kind of hard to describe what a project manager is, but I guess the best analogy for me is that I’m the orchestra leader. The band is the one that actually creates the beautiful music. I’m just lucky enough to be the one leading that effort. We had a great team.

Basically, we have a mission initiation conference, or MIC, where the project investigator would come in and say “Hey, this is what I want to do, and these are the requirements that I believe we have to have.” Then we come back with a design review, which we then present back to the PI saying “Hey, we heard what you want, and this is how we plan to incorporate your requirements. Is this correct? Did we capture it properly?” And once that’s been ironed out, there are several reviews that have to go on: mission readiness reviews, range readiness reviews, and then all of the documentation. Nothing gets done without paperwork. I have a project plan that needs to be written, and then [a meeting with] the missions operations director, and then the countdown. With 6 and 7 months to do all this, it was pretty heavy-duty.

NTB: How big of a team was working on this? And how were the work and the responsibilities divided up?

Vieira: From the range, which is what I represent, my primary point of contact with the instrumentation folks is a range support manager. And then underneath that person are a radar lead, a telemetry lead, a communications lead, and a photo lead. It flows down like that, and then it comes back up through the same chain.

NTB: How would you define a successful mission?

Vieira: A successful mission is one, first and foremost, that doesn’t hurt anybody. Thankfully, in my career, we’ve never hurt anybody, and hopefully we’ll maintain that 100-percent success rate. Secondly, of course, we have to make sure that the PI is happy when he leaves, that he receives all of the data that he was expecting, that we captured all the telemetry, that we tracked it with radars properly, so that he knows exactly where the TMA releases were ejected.

NTB: What is your favorite part of the job?

Vieira: By far: sitting in the control center, watching things unfold, hopefully the way that you expected it to. This countdown was over 400 items long, which is a pretty lengthy countdown. The best part of it is to see it take off as you’d expect, and have all the players ready to make the calls for each of the steps —just sitting back and looking at it and being proud of the team.

NTB: What are some of the specific points in this 400-item-long countdown?

Vieira: Right at the very beginning, you have to arm the rockets. Then you have to remove the shelters. We built Styrofoam boxes around each of the vehicles, and we were pumping in heated air, conditioned air, because the payloads, at launch time, couldn’t be less than 60 °F.

That’s one of the things that we were so very concerned with on launch day, was removing the shelters. We removed the shelters late in the countdown, because we were so concerned that the winds could tear those Styrofoam boxes apart. Of course, that’s not what we wanted to do. We wanted to launch the vehicles through the boxes. You had the removal of the launchers, elevating them, and doing a vertical check, and making sure the systems are working properly. Then it was getting the wind waders to give us the data so that we could point the rockets into the right direction.