MECHANICS -- A Report from Japan

Heavy metal. 

Heavy metal. 

The choreography rivals precision aerial acrobats. The teamwork reflects the forward line of a pro football team. This is the vanguard of NASA's mechanical engineering corps, and to experience them at their full operational power is to gain a profound appreciation for how much more goes into spaceflight than big, booming rockets.

Ages range from mid-twenties well into mid-sixties. A handful of women in the ranks reflects a slowly changing demographic, but it's still mostly a male crew. A visitor may have to look carefully, however. The clean room "bunny" suits everyone must wear has a way of turning human morphology into ambulatory, genderless marshmallows. They're always funny the first time someone suits up. Then they're not. Proper clean room garb includes non-static jumpsuits embedded with micro-mesh electro-diffusion wires, designed to insure that even the smallest discharge of static electricity has no chance of damaging delicate circuit boards. Face masks, hair bonnets, rubber gloves, and electrostatically inert booties complete the ensemble. Different missions have levels of "clean", necessitating nuanced differences in clean room attire, but generally speaking, wearers get used to the extra layers in no time.

The mechanical team handles physical aspects of satellite readiness. How do you move a delicate, billion dollar bird around the globe? That's mechanical's job.

Wrenches and muscle power come into play, of course, but the mechanical team needs to be knowledgable about a range of disciplines. Working closely with electrical engineers, environmental specialists, satellite designers and more, seemingly simple decisions go through rigorous analysis and consideration before they're implemented lest unintended down-stream consequences accrue.

That is, of course, the plan. When things come down to old fashioned common sense, this is the team you want to have.

Standing next to Mechanical Team Lead Jay Parker, I watch as the crew prepares to extract the satellite from it's L-frame, the mounting skeleton in which it travelled around the world in its shipping box. "See this?" he says. "There's only three inches of clearance between the satellite and the frame. We can't just lift it up and out. Too tight." The massive overhead crane can handle the weight, but the problem is a risk that part of the fragile solar array scrapes the structural girders of the frame. He tells me the plan is to simply release the satellite from it's mounting base, and slide it out of the frame horizontally. To the question about how his guys plan to keep the satellite inside it's narrow safety envelope, he deadpans, "Very carefully." The technique involves little more than horse sense, patience, superb teamwork, and a sculptor's gaze before striking chisel to stone: they're going to eyeball the situation and simply make sure the satellite doesn't swing where it shouldn't.

Twenty-minutes later the satellite hangs in space, suspended from high-tension cables. Free of its shipping skeleton, the team begins moving it slowly across the vast integration facility where it will be attached to a special articulating table. Centimeter by centimeter, the bunny suited experts make these moves look easy. On the way to space, these stately, precision maneuvers on the ground matter just as much as lighting the main engines.

GETTING THERE -- En Route to Japan

Having travelled halfway around the globe, an advanced satellite makes it's way to a special port, ready for shipment to the Japanese launch facility at Tanegashima.

Having travelled halfway around the globe, an advanced satellite makes it's way to a special port, ready for shipment to the Japanese launch facility at Tanegashima.

Getting up before the sun on a November morning in Alaska may not be an honest way to represent a person's effort. The sun doesn't make much of an appearance at this latitude. The GPM team traveling to Japan takes that as a charge: we're not planning to hang around too long, either. 

Back on the icy tarmac, we leave our steamy bus for the gelid confines of our twilight passenger cabin, up, up, up the precarious metal ladder to the top of the C5. Then we wait.

And wait.

And wait.

Turns out that the plane is fine. It's the runway that's too slick with ice.

Engines idling, bellies rumble. Breakfast never happens. The catering we'd expected in the second half of the trip didn't survive the days of our unexpected Alaskan idyll. People crack a few jokes--how could the overnight quartet of engineers assigned to babysit the satellite have eaten everyone's pancakes!-- but nobody complains. As soon as the Air Force clears us for take off, we're heading west at full throttle.

Nine hours above the Pacific, the team settles into zenlike repose. Conversations are minimal due to the ferocious airplane noise and requisite earplugs. Movement slows. Time expands.

Then, after an eternity, we're on approach. Human dynamos spin up. People run through mental checklists and stretch for action.

Minutes after the wheels stop beneath the gray airplane, people move like springs released. The advance team meets us on the ground with no greater ceremony than high fives and back slaps. In minutes the Japanese and NASA ground teams are rolling at full speed. The C5 nose and tail pops open, and it isn't long before our truck trailer gets pulled out the plane. Not far behind, the great white box holding the satellite rolls out smoothly, only to be bolted down to the waiting truck bed.

From a distance the scene looks like the epitome of an ant colony. Dozens of people with well- coordinated roles clamber and labor over objects many times their individual size, yet collectively manage to make short work of huge jobs. The American team coordinates care and feeding of their spacecraft; the Japanese ground team coordinates movement of heavy objects and extensive runway logistics. A handful of US Air Force crew provide essential assistance working in and around the airplane.

In a little less than three hours, the plane is unloaded, sealed up, and gone. With the satellite now loaded onto the truck, a motley foot parade walks alongside, heading a mile distant for a freshly paved section of sea port, retrofitted specially for this enterprise.

The Japanese ground crew performs like Cirque du Soleil; onlookers can only marvel at the display of technical acumen. They make it look easy. The truck pulls up like a demonstration of precision driving. A massive crane, already waiting, hoists a special I-beam into place. Working side by side, NASA mechanics and Japanese ground teams unbolt the satellite, hook lifting chains to the sides, and prepare. As the shades of night stretch shadows long, crews wheel in small, powerful outdoor lamps, turning the scene into an outtake from Close Encounters.

Then: it rises. The great white box containing the largest Earth science research satellite ever floats above the scene. Gracefully it swings over the edge of a great cargo ship, waiting at port. Then slowly it descends into the hold, disappearing beneath the railing. Another quartet of NASA engineers boards the ship, where together with a Japanese crew they'll sail for Tanegashima Island. First by air, now by sea, the satellite inches it's way to space.

Soundstage, Autumn 2012

Recently the 1AU Global Media team spent time surrounded by wide open spaces. That is, they were wide open spaces only after they went through our post-production pipeline, transforming green painted soundstage hardware into a fully imagined world. The photos here show a collection of snapshots from that production.

But you're wondering, aren't you, "Who's it for?"

Ah, yes... Let's just say that we're pleased to add a major new client to our roster, a prestigious player with vision and influence. But hey: there are all sorts of cool things cooking here at 1AU! 2013 promises to bring new productions, big ideas, and lots of creative energy to projects of all shapes and sizes.

As you reflect on the year now drawing to a close, get in touch to discuss how we might transform your dreams for 2013 into fully realized worlds. Or, loyal readers, just get in touch! We love to hear feedback about our blog, our work, and the wider world of ideas. And we'd like to hear from you about yourself: about where you're headed and what you're wishing for in terms of helping convey messages that move your own audiences.


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Almost, almost,

We're getting  very close to wrapping a great new piece,  designed to play on an ultrawide screen technology. For those of you who geek out on this stuff, we're mastering the final piece at 3420 x 1152. That's a LOT of pixels! Way bigger than HDTV. The premiere will be at the Dulles Annex of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on April 19, with multiple follow-on shows scheduled throughout the year. But when it hits the web (and it most certainly will right away), you'd better believe  you'll be able to see it here, too!