Thursday, February 23, 2017

Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Today was the big day. For the last two years we have been working on a project for NASA and today we demonstrated our first prototype to the guys at JPL. The demonstration went off better than I could have hoped but boy what a stressful day. 
We have made one prototype and we've just about completed our second one. The first prototype, RPS#1 (for Radioisotope Power Supply) gave good results. Not perfect but pretty good for a first test and with a decent presentation we would be able to show exactly what the problems were and how we can correct them. 
Some members of our team really wanted to focus on RPS #2 because they were convinced that it would perform even better than RPS #1. I told them that we would be far better off with one really good demonstration that we would be with two poor demonstrations and that we should focus on the RPS that we knew was performing well. They promised that they could have RPS #2 on test by noon so I caved in and let them work on it. Big mistake. 
The plan was to program a DAQ (data acquisition system) that would take data from our RPS and display the operating parameters on a big screen so everyone in the room could see how it was performing. Since we knew it would perform well, and I think it looked impressive, I was confident that everyone would be impressed. We had replaced the outside aluminum shell with a clear Plexiglas shell so you could look inside it and see how it worked.  

Finally, around 4:00 in the afternoon I had to shut down the work on RPS #2 and tell everyone to focus on RPS #1. I got some push back telling me that it would only take an hour to get the DAQ operating on the laptop but I insisted. When I went home at six it still wasn't working but I was assured it would be done soon. 
This morning when I walked into the lab at 5:45 guess who was still there working on the DAQ? You've got it, the unnamed team member. He had gone home frustrated around midnight and came back at 4:00 this morning to finish the work. In order to get to our meeting on time we had to leave at 6:00 so you can imagine I was starting to feel a bit stressed. Finally at 6:30 I had to call off the work on the DAQ, give up on the cool display and hit the road. My new saying was that a poor demonstration is better than none at all. 
On the road to Pasadena the unnamed team member (feeling pretty down at this point) was scrambling to find a way to redeem himself and came up with a scheme where he would take data manually and enter it into the cool display that he had working. Since we had both the RPS and the laptop in the car I told him to give it a try. He did and was confident it would work but his battery died before he could complete the test. I suggested that he just enter the data into a spread sheet and have that on the big screen. 
We arrived at JPL just before 10:00 when our meeting was supposed to start so we had no time to set up the demo. People started arriving right away so I started our power point while the guys got the RPS set up. I finished my spiel and then asked the guys if they had something to show us. For some reason they weren't able to get the DAQ to work but based on my suggestion they did have a spread sheet where they could enter the data. They took a reading and entered the data but got some wild number. The spread sheet was supposed to accpeted the raw data and do some math and display how much power was being produced. Our demo was supposed to produce 40mW of power and according to the data we were making about 500mW. 
The discussion at that point got pretty interesting. The guys were sweating bullets because now they were trying to solve a confusing math problem with the entire room watching them. I felt for them because I know how tough that can be. What was cool is that the entire room started to help them out. These were smart people and some of them were well versed in thermoelectrics and they were telling them where the mistakes were. It didn't take me long to figure out what they were doing wrong and in no time we were posting some impressive figures but it was good that our customers (JPL) were helping my team solve their problems and I could tell that JPL was a)  becoming invested in the RPS and b) they had zero doubt that the RPS was performing as it should. 
The other cool thing that came out of this was that we did bring the partly assembled RPS #2 with us so they could see the internal components and how it went together and how it worked. They were completely enthralled with it and begged to keep it. I think that was every bit as impressive as the working RPS #1. 
So, even though I have rarely been under that kind of pressure, the demo went very well. I was also reminded, in the harshest of ways, that you don't start on your "nice to have" work  until after your "must have" work is done. I knew better, and I can't get mad at the guys because I've been in their place and I have done the exact same thing and I knew better. It is exciting work and you really want to do the best you can. It isn't fun settling with second best when you just "know" you can do better. 

It was a great day. 

1 comment:

Mom/Nola/G'ma said...

How interesting Fred. you should be a happy camper. What an interesting problem. I wish I knew enough to more than comment.Congratulations Fred. Aunt Nola