Sep. 29th, 2011

When I worked at the particle beam lab, we had a large electron injector about the size and weight of a locomotive. It had a large Marx high voltage generator in the back, which lived in a dumpster-sized tank of high voltage transformer oil, open on top. In order to position it for various experiments, it could be floated on air pads pressurized by compressed air, and pushed around by hydraulic cylinders.

One day, the hydraulic system failed, but it needed to be moved. The researcher figured we could fire up the air pads, making it essentially frictionless, and round up some physics grad students to simply push it into position.

We got everybody lined up along the back of the thing, turned on the air pads, and we started pushing. It didn't seem to budge, as it was quite heavy, so everybody kept pushing, not realizing that we were continuing to accelerate this huge mass (it's physics!). After a while, its motion was perceptible, so we stopped pushing. It crept across the equipment bay at a stately pace, until it hit the stops and ... stopped. The thousands of gallons of transformer oil, however, didn't. In a giant, slow motion slosh, the transformer oil started to pour over the front. Then it got sucked into the air pads, became atomized, and formed a thin, strange-smelling fog and making everything slippery.

That's when folks suddenly remembered that the exotic high voltage transformer oil was distinctly unhealthy, as well as capable of dissolving all sorts of rubber and plastic compounds - such as the soles of our shoes. We all got out of there, massively chagrined.

This is a guest story, one of my dad's.

My dad was working on a problem with a satellite. Like most satellites, it was a complicated, expensive affair, but this particular model didn't last as long as it was supposed to, and my dad was asked to analyze the problem and suggest possible solutions.

The satellites generally failed when a particular optical encoder would stop working. This consisted of a light bulb, a slotted disc, and a light sensor. As the disc rotated, the sensor would see the light get brighter and dimmer as it passed through the slots. The problem was, this type of bulb had a filament that would evaporate, causing the glass to silver, blocking the light. There was an established procedure to deal with this when the light output got too low. They'd crank up the voltage to the bulb, which would then emit more light. Unfortunately, it would also evaporate faster, and they'd have to crank it up again. After a few cycles of this, the bulb would burn out and then the satellite didn't work any more.

My dad made a simple suggestion - add a second bulb. He was told that this would involve too much re-engineering, making a second hole in the casting to hold the bulb, switching circuitry and another driver transistor for the additional bulb, so the whole circuit board would have to be laid out again. Too much to design, test, and get approved before the next launch.

So my dad went and pulled the engineering drawings for the satellite. Lo and behold, there already was a second hole in the casting, in just the right place. And there was switching circuitry and a place for an extra driver transistor on the circuit board! A few phone calls confirmed that the original design had called for a second bulb, but it had been deleted for cost reasons.

Armed with this information, he was quickly able to get the second bulb approved and installed in time for the launch, effectively doubling the life of the satellites.

This is another story about my dad.

Some people were having trouble with an earth observation satellite. This particular one had a clever scanning system that used the satellite's own motion for one axis, and a pivoting mirror for the other. The problem was, as time went by, the mirror wasn't able to swing as far, so the swathe the satellite could observe would slowly get narrower and narrower.

Nobody really understood why this was happening, or how to deal with it. Eventually, they asked my dad to look at the problem. His approach was to get copies of all the engineering drawings and then ponder them, which he did for a couple of weeks. He eventually formed a logical hypothesis of why the mirror might be getting restricted. The mechanism that moved the mirror involved a collar that slide along a greased rod. My dad's idea was that the grease was getting thick after being in the vacuum of space for a while, and piling up on the ends of the rod, where it would get in the way. Better yet, he had an idea to fix this.

The procedure for putting the satellite into idle mode while it passed around the night side of the earth was to center the mirror. My dad's idea was to modify this procedure and instead rotate the mirror as far as it would go to one side and let it sit there overnight. This, he figured, would tend to slowly squish the grease out of the way. The next night, park it at the other side, alternately pushing the grease away at both ends.

This made sense to the people in charge, seemed harmless, and might work, so they approved the change in procedure. And sure enough, as the weeks went by, the mirror slowly increased its range of motion, and ultimately was capable of its full original scan.

So, from thousands of miles away, without even seeing or touching the satellite, my dad was able to repair it (and avoid the same problem in future satellites), by making a simple change in a procedure. All from looking at the design documents and thinking about it. Good on ya, dad.

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