By Katrina Wesencraft
As project manager for NASA’s Scientifically Calibrated In-flight Imagery (SCIFLI) group, Dr. Jennifer Inman is used to managing complicated logistics and solving problems ahead of her team’s deployments. Someone needs a new laptop? No problem. A research plane needs new window panels? OK!
The SCIFLI team – which specializes in in-flight imaging – collects data used to predict the aerodynamics of spacecraft launches, flights, parachute deployments, and atmospheric re-entries. In November 2020, they were due to put their skills to work in Australia, observing JAXA’s Hayabusa2 sample return capsule, with pieces of asteroid Ryugu on board. The international mission was called the SCIFLI Hayabusa2 Airborne Re-entry Observation Campaign, or SHARC.
Dr. Inman’s team would image the return capsule – one of the fastest human-made objects to ever fly through Earth’s atmosphere – while flying high above the landing site, Woomera in South Australia, nearly 300 miles north of Adelaide. It was her responsibility to get the SCIFLY team, and all their scientific instruments, to the site.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has a way of putting a wrench into even the most meticulous plans. As countries closed their borders and travel came to a screeching halt, Dr. Inman found herself in a tangled web of changing regulations both at home in the U.S. and abroad.
“It was like Whac-A-Mole, solving one problem at a time,” she said. “And the bad days were days where moles that I’d already whacked, popped their heads back up.”
The SHARC team selected an airliner-style plane, the NASA DC-8 based out of Armstrong Flight Research Center, to carry out their observations. But there was a major problem – the DC-8 was due to have an engine replaced before their trip. However, the maintenance facility was shut down because of the pandemic. The aircraft wasn’t going to be ready in time for the mission.
“We ended up scrambling. And where we settled was that we were going to use two of NASA’s Gulfstream III aircrafts,” Inman said. “But it meant we had to redo everything. All of our plans, all the engineering and analysis.”
The Gulfstream III is much smaller than the DC-8. The gimbals – specially engineered mounts used to secure scientific instruments in the aircraft – didn’t fit the smaller cabins and had to be completely redesigned and rebuilt. The mission computers were also too big. Dr. Inman had to order NASA-approved laptops – a relatively small purchase, but one that can take months to be approved.
Making matters worse, the scientific instruments used to observe the sample return capsule couldn’t ‘see’ through the Gulfstream III jets’ windows – no UV light could pass through them, and their multiple panes would have resulted in images with multiple reflections.
“We ended up borrowing some aircraft windows and window frames, like the actual hardware that got epoxied into the airframes,” said Inman. “We borrowed those from Armstrong, some of them, and had to fabricate additional windows and frames using Armstrong’s design.”
Pandemic restrictions were difficult for collaborators from Japan, too. During normal times, JAXA colleagues would have come to the U.S. to integrate their scientific instruments into the aircraft and perform system checks on their equipment. They ended up having to ship their equipment to Johnson Space Center, in Houston, where they entrusted a NASA team with those tasks. The next time JAXA scientists got to see their equipment again would be in Australia.
And all of this happened before even leaving the U.S. Getting the research planes and essential personnel to Australia in time for the mission were also huge hurdles.
In addition to visa requirements, the team needed special authorization to enter Australia and to travel across internal, police-controlled borders. The rapidly changing situation meant that travel regulations weren’t well-defined, particularly for the NASA aircraft that needed to make several international fuel stops along their route to Australia. Initially, the team didn’t know what types of COVID-19 tests would be accepted or where they could obtain them.
Jhony Zavaleta, mission support specialist from the Ames Earth Science Project Office (ESPO) was concerned that the team wouldn’t be able to provide their test results within a set time frame. “Some of our guys were getting tests, and sometimes it would be 48 hours or maybe a week until results came back,” he said. “There was a lot of uncertainty.”
For the personnel not traveling on the NASA planes, getting to Australia wasn’t any easier. The team faced the prospect of a 42-hour journey, via Qatar, where there were more requirements to provide negative tests and additional documentation. There were also very few flights scheduled – and many of those were being canceled.
As the clock ran down, the team was running out of options. Zavaleta had to charter an aircraft to carry the key personnel to Australia.
Dr. Jay Grinstead, SHARC’s principal investigator from NASA Ames, was impressed by the last-minute efforts: “People were really interested in seeing this mission succeed. So they made concessions and made funding available.”
Zavaleta and a colleague from ESPO made it to Australia ten days early to allow them to set up ahead of the full team’s arrival. “Nobody from our team had been to Australia before to plan,” he said. “We didn’t know what the situation on the ground was.”
Normally, key details like where to buy supplies and the team’s transportation would be sorted six months in advance. But now, the team didn’t know what restrictions would be in place by the time they arrived, who would be supporting them, or even what hangars their planes would be in. The instruments also needed to be calibrated, and Zavaleta had to make sure the hangar operators were aware of the team’s needs and willing to work off-hours. It was an incredibly tight turnaround.
Despite the numerous setbacks, the mission was a huge success, largely due to the collaboration between Dr. Inman’s team, the aircraft organizations at both Langley Research Center and Johnson Space Center, ESPO, NASA Headquarters, JAXA, the Australian Space Agency, and other Australian officials. Dr.Grinstead said, “We really could not have pulled this off without our international partners.”