Dodgeball Domination and the Family Reunion at the Center of the Universe

Two weeks of an internship at a world-leading robotic space exploration facility in the middle of a beautiful and bustling metropolis is a ridiculous amount of time to attempt to compress into a single blog post. Why then did I apparently attempt to do so for a second time?

1. Very busy doing awesome mad-scientist experiments, and building and testing (with great success) apparatus heretofore undreamed of.


3. Otherwise busy stuffing my schedule with a variety of fun and exciting activities.

Yesterday I achieved a sunburn whose degree caused me to slow down a bit and spend some time inside my dorm. I earned this semipermanent epidermal damage/warpaint in the most satisfying new way I have discovered nearby: surfing with my space engineer friends. What follows is a brief recap of the first half of my adventures; a second blog post is in the works and will be forthcoming shortly.

ASG 2014

Hey, remember how I said I had volunteered to captain JPL’s dodgeball teams for the 2014 Aerospace Summer Games on July 19th?

We won the dodgeball tournament!

It was a grueling 3 hours or so of elimination rounds and emotional ups and downs, and the final victorious match will live on in song and legend forever amongst a small group of enthusiasts. There were 30 of us on 3 teams against at least 250 other players from outfits such as SpaceX, Northrop Grumman (the overall winners of the ASGs), Boeing, Raytheon, NASA, Parker, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell, Teledyne, Booz/Allen/Hamilton, and other prominent area aerospace and tech entities. Only one of our 3 teams made it to the finals, but they mopped up once they got there. They are pictured below.

Max's Team

The team who won it for us. From the left, Meghan Ostermann, Mason Black, Daniel Balentine, Taylor Ingram, Zach Dawson, Bujar Tagani, Thomas Jeffries, Thomas Youmans, Matt Bossart, and Team Captain Maksimilian Shatkhin. Great job everyone! Go JPL!

Dodgeball Champions

Most of the entire team. From the left: Leah Ginsberg, Gerardo Hernandez, Tejas Kukami, Jacob Tims, Meghan Ostermann, Mason Black, Taylor Ingram, Macon Vining, Bujar Tagani, Daniel Balentine, Adam Yabroudi (not on the team but getting in on the action anyway!), Zach Dawson, me with a sunburned head bearing a striking resemblance to our practice dodgeballs, Christian McFall (horizontal), Thomas Youmans, Thomas Jeffries, Matt Bossart, Jason McDonald (is that you?), Katie Grebel, Team Captains/surf homies Maksimilian Shatkhin and Stephanie LaLiberte, Patrick Grant, unidentified photogenic non-team-member with sunglasses, Byron Brantley, Yuki Miles, Erin Main, and Frank Laipert. Looking on is fellow JPLer Seth Smith-Dryden. Not present for pictures but integral to our success: Jeremy Epps, Jeremy Morton, Aleczander Jackson, Jule Ahmar,  Luis Campos Bravo, and the amazing and inexhaustible Lauren Halatek.


Though this experience taught me very little about extracting biomarkers from Martian regolith, I learned a great deal about teamwork, preparation, conflict resolution, fairness, and leadership. I also made some great friends and had a ton of fun. Thanks to each of you for your invaluable and unforgettable contributions to this team of champions!



Now I will speak to you of yet another powerful and moving experience at JPL: the tour of Mission Control and the Space Flight Operations Facility (SFOF) given by SFOF Operations Manager Jim McClure.


1) SFOF Entrance

The SFOF at JPL has been operating continuously for the last 50 years and is the central node through which data from every NASA mission beyond Low Earth Orbit flows. Mission Control is located here, so if you’ve watched videos like the ones I’m about to link to, you will recognize some scenes from the next few pictures. If you haven’t seen the “7 Minutes of Terror” video and have time, watch it- it will help the next video make more sense. (Edit: 50 years X 365 days X 24 hours = 438,000 continuous hours of space operations!)

James McClure Jr. is Operations Manager for the Space Flight Operations

Jim McClure, Jr., whose father was Operations Manager before him, gave us the grand tour as well as the opportunity to sit in chairs usually reserved for controllers and operators during crucial events like the Mars Science Lab (MSL or Curiosity Rover) landing in August 2012. He also recounted stories (some hilarious, some deeply poignant) of the artifacts and people who have inhabited this place over the years.

4) Friends in Mission Control

Kevin and Stephanie wear stylish headsets which are normally used by operators and controllers for solar system exploration and a variety of other activities which fall under the general heading: “Winning.”

Smooth Lone Operator

The next room is full of consoles where operators and controllers carry out the day-to-day operations of all NASA/JPL missions in the solar system outside of Earth’s orbit. The screens above show a constant feed of data to and from each of several space craft and rovers, and the 3 Deep Space Network (DSN) antennae sites which monitor them.


Here’s an overhead view of Operations (taken on a separate day to illustrate what it looks like all lit up) from the viewing gallery above…

5) Panoramic Mission Control

…and a panorama from down on the floor. Notice the two red placards in the foreground? This is where the Ace (exclusive controller) sits who sends commands to Opportunity, the surviving twin Mars Exploration Rover.

The Other Center of the Universe

In the middle of the floor of this room is the recessed plaque shown here. Jim McClure told us why: Director of JPL Dr. Charles Elachi once reasoned that since the data from all known space craft in the universe converges in this room, it must be the Center of the Universe. My home town of Tulsa has it’s own Center of the Universe too, named so for different reasons. Perhaps there is some connection.

3) DSN and JPL missions

One of the monitors from the previous pics. You might have to click this picture to expand and catch the details. At the bottom of the monitor are three large rows of what look like satellite dishes; these symbols signify data transfer between each of a dozen space missions and the 3 DSN antennae sites here on Earth. One is located here in California at Goldstone (where I will visit next week!) and the other two are in Canberra, Australia and Madrid, Spain. Above this you can see each of the space missions represented numerically and abbreviated, including MSL (Curiosity), MAVEN, JUNO, KEPLER, and others.


If you are reading this, Jim, thanks again for sharing some of your experiences with us.


Robotics Lab

After the SFOF tour ended with a brisk walk through a not quite ancient underground tunnel to building 264, I finally got to see where Stephanie has been hanging out during her internship. She is helping to develop technology which will one day retrieve Martian samples for analysis back on Earth.


Inside the robotics lab

This is a picture of some work being done in one of JPL’s robotics labs with Stephanie’s help. She is a high school math teacher whose internship here will no doubt benefit her students for years to come.

Spider-looking robot

Another robot being developed for possible future use on a planet near you.


Mars Yard

On a different day, I went to check out the Mars Yard where Curiosity’s clone hangs out. Luckily, the garage doors were open and I got to see her. I’ve heard that sometimes they take her out for testing on the rocks and dirt in the Yard.


Curiosity Up Close

This model has just about every instrument and tool that the one on Mars has. Notice the odd patterns in the wheels? The holes spell JPL in morse code. Some lucky intern probably gets to work with this magnificent beast every day…

Nathan with a destroyed wheel

Hey, here’s one! This is Nathan Stein, an intern with an insatiable desire to destroy wheels! Just kidding; he is actually working with a team of engineers to determine how best to protect Curiosity from damage on Mars.

Nathan with Scarecrow

Nathan with Scarecrow: the wheels-only (no brains) rover unit used for testing mobility and maneuvers in simulated Mars conditions.

Curiosity Scarecrow

Another shot of Scarecrow


It is pretty amazing to me that I, a community college student from Tulsa, have the chance every day to talk with and learn from the team of people who are involved in protecting the most sophisticated robot ever built while it cruises around on a different planet. Go humans! And thanks, JPL, NASA, and Tulsa Community College!


Birthday Marc: A brief Interlude


Birthday Marc

This is Marc the Intern, otherwise know as “Sack of Gucci.” His birthday occurred on the night before I went to the airport to pick up my lovely girls. We surprised him with a cheesecake feast, or would have if Theresa could be trusted with sensitive information…


Visited by Ethereal Beings


Awesome girls

My awesome girls came to stay with me finally!!!! Here they are at JPL after 7 hours of travelling, super worn out but still gorgeous. I missed them so much and wanted to show them what I have been doing, so the first place I took them was the SFOF. Thanks for helping us all get together, Dad!

Girls at the lab

The next place I took them was the lab I have been working in. Here Aubrey, Athena and Aurora are watching water molecules cavitate under High Intensity Focused Ultrasound!

Fam at the beach

The next day we went to Point Dume in Malibu. We swam in the sunshine and splashed in the great roaring ocean, whose waves were unfortunately a bit too large and powerful for my smallest ones to jump into.

Athena at Point Dume

Athena had a blast and says she wouldn’t mind coming back some time.

Me and Aubrey at Point Dume

Aubrey getting a taste of California.

Rory sand-exploring

Rory climbing the high tide sand wall. At the far end of the beach was a steep cliff where some rock climbers had top ropes set up. We had prepared for this and brought our harnesses, but didn’t get any pics of Rory on the rock face. Had fun climbing anyway.

Cut it out, mom!

Taken later on in the day on the way to get some dinner. It is crazy how old Aubrey is getting. Pretty soon she’ll be old enough for an internship somewhere!

Smiling on top of a little wall

Same evening, different beautiful ladies.

Happy floating munchkins

We concluded each day with a visit to the pool, where the water wasn’t salty and there were no huge, scary waves. These two little fishies loved it.


The next morning we decided to go to the California Science Center and check out some IMAX movies and exhibits. We got there super early to beat the crowds, which paid off big time. Only took a handful of pics, though.


Waffle licking

Here is Rory licking some syrup out of her waffle at breakfast!

Shining climber

Happy little tree monkey.

Can we go in yet?

Family waiting for the doors to open.


Maxin’ and relaxin’.

Can I eat one?

I am dumbfounded that this is the only picture I got from inside the Science Center. Aurora is looking extra sly in front of the aquarium…

Super happy car family

What looks like a pained grimace on my face is actually a failed attempt at a comical smile. After navigating the growing Saturday crowd at the Science Center, we headed back to the hotel. Vania and Aubrey later got pampered in Arcadia, and the two little ones and I went in for some more swimming pool action.


The last day, we went to the Venice Beach Boardwalk and strolled around eating yummy food, listening to music, and watching all the skaters, cyclists, performers, and transients. It was a great day except for the freak lightning strike. We were close enough to hear an enormous ka-boom! but were not in the water, fortunately.


Grassy knoll.

Chilling in the shade with an enormous pineapple smoothie.

Orangutan girl.

Rory climbing the rope near Muscle Beach.

Brave Rory

Here’s Rory walking up to give this awesome guy some money.

Girls with robot man

The girls with Robot Man.

Blue sky Aubrey

Aubrey styling.

Vania and Athena in the sand.

Happy girls in the sand.

No hands

Athena on the balance beam near Muscle Beach.


After we left Venice Beach. I took Rory to do some indoor bouldering at Cal-Tech.


Rope Climber Rory

Saying goodbye

Saying goodbye at the airport.


I miss my girls even more now, but I’ll be home soon. The first wave of interns left this weekend, more will be gone by the next, and I’ll be on a plane back to Tulsa on the 23rd. Until then, I’m going to learn as much as I can here. Thanks for reading!


One thought on “Dodgeball Domination and the Family Reunion at the Center of the Universe

  1. Great post! Beautiful family. I am so glad you had a wonderful visit.

    Looking forward to your presentation…… You are amazing!

    Take good care,


    Mary Phillips Associate Professor of Biology Tulsa Community College 10300 E. 81st ST Tulsa, OK 74133 918 595-7689 ________________________________

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