When it comes to spaceflight, astronauts Tammy Jernigan and Jeff Wisoff
have just about seen it all. These days they are firmly grounded back
on earth, both nurturing careers at the Lab and about to embark on their
next adventure (you’ll have to keep reading to find what that is).
Last fall, Jernigan and Wisoff, who are married, decided they’d had their fill of the wild blue yonder and it was time to pursue new challenges, albeit this time on the ground. On Oct. 1, Jernigan joined the Physics and Advanced Technologies while Wisoff landed at the National Ignition Facility.
Prior to that Wisoff, 43, had served four missions in space, taken three space walks totaling almost 20 hours, delivered tons of supplies to the Russian Space Station Mir, retrieved the European Retrievable Carrier Satellite, conducted science experiments in space, and helped construct the International Space Station.
These days, he serves as deputy associate project manager for Systems Engineering, working closely with Mary Spaeth, the chief technical officer for the NIF Project.
“The Space Program is a team effort in the same way that NIF is a team effort,” Wisoff says. “The astronauts are lucky enough to get to do the flights, but nothing would be successful without all the engineers and people working on it. It’s a huge effort that involves lots of people and I think that’s the attractiveness of these big projects.
“It gives us a feeling that there’s a reason for us to do all this hard work, because we can do things that are pretty amazing. Anybody who stands out and watches a shuttle launch is struck by the same feeling,” Wisoff continued. “It’s tear-jerking to see and hear the incredible power. It’s a pretty amazing thing that humans can build these incredible machines. I think the same thing is true of NIF. It’s going to be a milestone in human history.”
Wisoff comes to NIF with a background in lasers. He began his graduate work on the development of short wavelength lasers at Stanford University as a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow. Completing his master’s and doctorate degrees at Stanford in 1986, Wisoff joined the faculty of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at Rice University. His research focused on the development of new vacuum ultraviolet and high-intensity laser sources.
In addition, he collaborated with researchers from regional Texas Medical Centers on applications of the laser to reconstruction of damaged nerves. He has collaborated with researchers at Rice University on new techniques for growing and evaluating semiconductor materials using lasers. Wisoff also brings experience with integrating systems.
“By the nature of our training and the nature of who we interact with,” he says, “astronauts generally have the best big picture of how to execute the mission. This involves getting our hands on the hardware and working with the contractors to figure out ways to fix problems that come up that don’t cost too much, but still make the hardware operational. And I think those are the kinds of things that are going to be needed here as we get into commissioning NIF.”
Reminiscing about his space travel, Wisoff said the “big ride is one of the most fun times.”
“For the first two minutes, while the solids are burning,” he says, “it’s very much like a jerky roller coaster ride. There’s a cadence of calls from mission control and a lot of rumbling.” There’s also a lot of interaction in the cockpit, looking for milestones and checking systems.
After two minutes, the boosters come off and typically this is when the astronauts open their visors. For about the next six and a half minutes, they’re riding the main engines, which is “similar to riding a high-speed electric train that emits a high-pitched hum but very little vibration,” Wisoff says. However, the astronauts do feel the G-Forces building to a sustained three-G’s. When the main engine cuts off, the three-G’s drop to zero gravity and “it feels like a big bear has jumped off your chest,” Wisoff says, “Suddenly you’re no longer pressed into your seat. Your seat belts are floating up in front of you. You’re in orbit.”
During his last flight in October 2000, Wisoff and his partner tested a jetpack called SAFER (an acronym for Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue; EVA is how astronauts refer to a space walk, or extra-vehicular activity).
“Space walks are like having a full-screen IMAX theater in your face,” Wisoff added. “The views are incredible.”
In the past, space walkers were tethered to their spaceship. If the tether were to break, the only option was to bring the ship to the astronaut. SAFER would allow astronauts to rescue themselves, to bring themselves to the ship.
Built onto the back of the astronaut’s oxygen pack, this self-contained jetpack has a hand controller that allows astronauts to guide themselves wherever they want to go. To test SAFER, Wisoff’s partner, standing on the robot arm to which Wisoff was loosely tethered, dropped Wisoff off the space station structure.
Wisoff floated around until he deployed the SAFER’s hand controller. Then he oriented himself down at the target — one of the cameras in the back of the shuttle payload bay — and flew a straight line toward it.
“I was to fly a straight line toward the camera,” Wisoff says, “as if I was trying to rescue myself and get to a point.” Wisoff’s partner tracked him with the tether so it never became a constraint on his flight. “We flew right down to the camera and it worked great,” Wisoff says. “It was a kid’s dream; the closest thing to being Buck Rogers.”
The hardest part about being the spouse of an astronaut is being the one left back on earth.
“When you’re launching into space, you’re so busy you’re not thinking about the risk,” Wisoff says, “but when you’re sitting in that launch control center, more or less by yourself, it’s a lot harder to watch your spouse launch than it is to launch yourself. As the spouse on the ground all you have to think about is the risk.”
Now that Tammy Jernigan is done with blasting off into space on the shuttle
and spacewalking several hundred miles above Earth, she can get on with
the most challenging adventure of her life.
No, it’s not her new job as assistant associate director for special projects in the Lab’s Physics & Ad- vanced Technologies directorate. Although that’s providing enough new challenges in and of itself, thank you.
Actually, it’s preparing to become a mother for the first time. “Spaceflight is much less physically demanding than having a baby,” quipped Jernigan, 42, now 19 weeks into her pregnancy. “This is a real challenge.”
Since Jernigan left NASA’s astronaut program last September to join the Laboratory, the challenges have come fast and furious.
“It’s been an entirely new start: new job, new family, new home.”
Jernigan was in the Bay Area, trying to close the deal on a new house, on Sept. 11.
“My husband called me that morning from Houston to tell me about the attacks back East and to warn me about flying that day,” Jernigan said. “Needless to say, the house-buying was put on hold.”
Things have started to settle down, though. She and husband Jeff Wisoff, also a former astronaut, are happily ensconced in a new home in Pleasanton. Wisoff has joined the National Ignition Facility Programs Directorate as deputy associate project manager for Systems Engineering (see accompanying story).
The changes mark a new era for Jernigan, who started working for NASA as a 19-year-old physics undergraduate at Stanford University. She worked part time at NASA Ames on the Galileo project, which launched a probe to explore Jupiter and its moons. After earning her bachelor’s in physics at Stanford in 1981, Jernigan went on to earn master’s of science degrees in engineering science (’83, Stanford) and astronomy (’85, UC Berkeley) before becoming an astronaut in 1985. She completed her Ph.D. in space physics at Rice University in 1988.
Last year, after 15 years at NASA and five shuttle missions that included spacewalks and a visit to the International Space Station, Jernigan, along with Wisoff, felt ready for new challenges. They considered various options, including coming to the Lab, where Jernigan had served on the Physics directorate’s review committee since 1995.
“We really enjoyed the astronaut program, but it was nice to leave on such a high note,” said Jernigan.
“Here at the Lab, we can utilize more of our physics backgrounds, at an institution that does superb science and also has a great record for executing large programs.”
Jernigan says the experience gained at NASA performing large mission overviews, and comprehensive mission planning and pre-testing, would serve her well in her new position.
She is currently engaged in strategic planning for the directorate, including helping to ensure that the directorate’s structure is optimized to take advantage of the organization’s strengths. She will also take part in evaluating the directorate’s investment strategy, and in program development and review.
“We have a terrific group of people at Livermore, and (AD) Bill Goldstein and his staff are making my transition a real pleasure,” Jernigan said. “I have a tremendous sense of satisfaction in the contributions we make here to national security. Just after Sept. 11, when people heard Jeff and I were coming to Livermore, they said we must be glad to be going to the Lab because now we could do so much to help bolster the country’s defense.”
But blasting off into space on rockets is not easily forgotten.
“Flying in space in definitely exciting,” Jernigan said. “When the solid rocket boosters light, it’s a real kick in the pants. And the view of Earth from space is simply magnificent.”
Jernigan’s last flight, in 1999, was a 10-day mission during which the crew performed the first docking to the International Space Station. The mission delivered logistics and supplies in preparation for the arrival of the first crew to live on the station. Jernigan performed a spacewalk of nearly eight hours to attach equipment to the exterior of the station.
“The missions go by so fast. It’s almost as though you blink and it’s all over. If you don’t watch out, you can get so busy with your responsibilities that you forget to take the little free time you have to stop and enjoy the view and the whole experience.
“Interestingly enough, coming back to Earth — even after as little as nine days in space — requires an adjustment to the burden of Earth’s gravity. Even though I’d spent the first 30 years of my life on Earth, it was Earth that felt like the foreign environment.”
Born in Tennessee and raised in Southern California, Jernigan always wanted to fly. “Growing up, I was interested in science and math. Later, I learned to fly small planes, and in graduate school I was on the astrophysics path. So, in some sense, becoming an astronaut was a natural follow-on career.”
Jernigan and Wisoff know astronaut Leroy Chiao, the Lab employee on leave to NASA. In fact, Chiao flew with Wisoff on his last mission in October 2000.
Jernigan and Wisoff were the only husband-and-wife astronauts in the program when they left NASA. They never crewed together on a flight, but they managed to share their experiences during missions via videoconferences between Earth and the shuttle.
In searching for new careers after NASA, the two didn’t necessarily intend to work at the same place again, but the Physics directorate attracted Jernigan and NIF was a perfect fit for Wisoff.
“At least now we can share work experiences over the dinner table at home each evening.”