THE MISSION...

THE MISSION...


…Or, How a Disciple of Bethany Ehlmann, a Former Desert Militiaman, Moore Lab Subbasement Dwellers, Roblox’s Newest Intern, a Florida Man, and a Luminous Plasma Scientist Went to War with the Caltech Mail Center, Got Double-Crossed by AirGas Corp., Survived Three COVID Outbreaks, and Nearly Stranded Themselves in the Mojave in order to Send a Bag of Peanuts to Space (A True Story).


The sun is hot. The air is bone-dry. Frankly, it’s amazing that we’ve made it this far into the middle of nowhere, and it’s going to be even more amazing if we manage to make it back out./hypTone indicator: hyperbole

In hindsight, it probably shouldn’t have taken a flat tire for us to realize that what Google Maps called “Transmission Line Road” was very much not a road at all. We’ve come so far, now only 2.5 miles from the (alleged) landing site after a wild goose chase across half of Southern California…

But the desert takes the weak…/refTone indicator: making a reference

Five students next to a pickup truck with a flat tire pulled to the side of a dirt road, in front of a desolate landscape with brown mountains in the distance.(Left to right: Florida Man, SubbasementWhere electrical engineering students famously spend all their time working Dweller #1, Disciple of Bethany Ehlmann,Crazy cool professor, head of the NASA JPL Lunar Trailblazer mission, and the reason most of us ended up here Luminous PlasmaAKA upper atmospheric lightning, something all of us were interested in studying on THE MISSION! Scientist, Subbasement Dweller #2. Not pictured: Roblox’s Newest Intern, Former Desert Militiaman)

How did we end up here? That’s a long story. But first, I’m afraid we haven’t been properly introduced. I’m Michael Gutierrez (“Guutz”), a first-year undergraduate studying Mechanical Engineering. (It’s also my first blog post – hello!)

This adventure began at the end of winter term, when I joined Caltech’s CubeSat Club.

cube·sat ║ kjub sæt ║ (n.) 1. A tiny, inexpensive satellite, about the size of a loaf of bread, that can hitch a ride into Earth orbit using empty space in another rocket.

The Caltech website plays us up a lot, but the missing context is that all of the club’s pre-pandemic members had either graduated or left by the end of last year. This left five sophomores plus one “me,” led by our intrepid president Turner Bumbary (AKA the Luminous Plasma Scientist), to scavenge through the remnants scattered everywhere from an almost-forgotten Google Drive to a room-that-everyone-thought-was-just-a-closet next to the Pellegrino Space Structures Lab (if you’re curious).

Our original plan for the club was to submit a proposal for NASA’s annual CubeSat Launch Initiative competition, but we quickly realized that we lacked the knowledge and experience (and staffing) to design an entire spacecraft mission in time for the deadline.

But that wasn’t going to stop us! If NASA wasn’t taking us to space, we would just have to get there ourselves./frTone indicator: like, for real!

WE CHOOSE TO GO TO SPACE. WE CHOOSE TO BUILD A CUBESAT BY THE END OF THIS TERM, AND DO THE OTHER THINGS, NOT BECAUSE THEY ARE EASY, BUT BECAUSE THEY ARE HARD. BECAUSE THAT GOAL WILL SERVE TO ORGANIZE AND MEASURE THE BEST OF OUR ENERGIES AND SKILLS. BECAUSE THAT CHALLENGE IS ONE WE ARE WILLING TO ACCEPT, ONE WE ARE UNWILLING TO POSTPONE, AND ONE WHICH WE INTEND TO WIN!

--John F. Kennedy
--Michael Guutz (AKA Florida Man) /jTone indicator: joking


(Inspirational lab art by my friend Jessie! Check out her work on Instagram @cloudseverywhere)

Fast forward to May. (Time is weird at Caltech.) After a few follow-up emails to the club’s faculty advisor, Prof. Ehlmann (same one), we finally got card access to the room-that-everyone-thought-was-just-a-closet next to the Pellegrino Space Structures Lab. We immediately set to work designing the science payload (essentially just a video camera, a GPS, and an ultraviolet light sensor to look for luminous plasma!)

4 students looking very proud of their tiny, messy lab! Or, as they like to call it, home <3 (is that cheesy enough?)
Besties!
We then moved on to the main event: getting to space. Or close enough to it, anyway. We would launch a weather balloon, we decided, which would get our payload high enough to see the blackness of space – but not high enough to violate FAA regulations.

This idea came from a project that a couple of our team members, the Moore Lab Subbasement Dwellers, worked on earlier in the year. There’s a fantastic blog post all about that, which goes into detail about the science of high altitude balloons!


Up next were the thrilling tasks of applying for club funding, ordering parts, and lining up a helium supplier for the balloon. After all, less than a month before the drop-dead launch date is as good a time as any to start!/hjTone indicator: half-joking (It actually kind of was, because nothing – literally nothing – motivates better than a fast-approaching deadline. [Did you know that a group of Caltech students is called a procrastination?/jTone indicator: joking])

ASCIT, the undergrad student government, actually turned around our funding proposal very quickly – and with a generous grant. We distributed our two-day shipping orders across the internet, ranging from the hip new Adafruit chips with built-in micro-machine-learning (overkill if you ask me), all the way to the sleaziest depths of Amaz*n./hypTone indicator: hyperbole To top it off, the Facilities office made it surprisingly easy to request a tank of helium from their account with AirGas Corp.

But that was where our luck ended.

About two days later, I woke up to a terrifying sight: FOUR unread emails from the Caltech Mail Center.

The Mail Center Associates may be the most powerful beings within the Institute. Not even the smallest envelope will make it past 1200 E. California Blvd. without them knowing about it. If they so desired, they could bring the entire campus’s operations to a screeching halt with a flick of the wrist./jTone indicator: joking So when one of them manually sends you an email with that many exclamation marks in the subject line, you book it to the Mail Center.

So I did, and the Associate was only too happy to present me with an armful of packages. After ripping them all open like a kid on Christmas, though, I noticed we were missing a mission critical element: the GPS unit. The shipping tracker said it had been delivered, yet the Mail Center disavowed any knowledge of it. This meant war./jTone indicator: joking

To make matters worse, later that day we got an email from AirGas Corp., saying “sowwy (⁄ ⁄>⁄ ▽ ⁄<⁄ ⁄).. we awen’t accepting new customers wight now (*^.^).., cause of the gwobal hewium shortage 😭” (roughly transcribed)./fTone indicator: fake, for humorous effect Those cowards. Don’t they know it’s our American right to dump scarce natural resources into the atmosphere?/sTone indicator: sarcastic

With less than two weeks until launch day, we were running out of options. But while the rest of us were recalculating, there was a glimmer of hope: the code for the payload computer was coming along nicely, courtesy of our local CompSci major (and recent hire at ROBLOX!), Shivansh.

That is, until one day his COVID surveillance sample came back positive. And then the PCR test. Honestly, it was really lucky that no one else on the team caught it from him, since we all worked in the same enclosed space, not to mention Caltech was having its second (third?/srsTone indicator: serious) COVID outbreak in as many months. It was still a somber moment though, because we all knew our fallen comrade would not make it out of quarantine soon enough to see the launch in person. But his dedication to THE MISSION was unshaken, and he continued to provide ground support remotely, even as he was physically isolated in a tiny room in Braun Residence./posTone indicator: positive connotation


5 days remained. And the payload still didn’t work. The week ahead would prove to be the busiest, most challenging, and most rewarding of my entire Caltech experience up to this point./genTone indicator: genuine

I made that sound rather romantic, but the better part of it was just me sitting in the lab at 2am trying to figure out why the Arduino won’t talk to the Raspberry Pi?Because I2C sucks. Never rely on sending data over I2C, kids. /nj Why did this code not compile?Because I forgot a semicolon. Is this even worth it?At 2am, probably not… you are better off using the time to sleep! Is this how I want to spend the rest of my life…?good question. Did I eat dinner today??Fortunately, yes. Although that was 8 hours ago by now.

Oh, and by the way, it was also finals week. And on top of that, I needed to start moving out of my room, as I had to catch a flight to Boston immediately after the launch was [scheduled to be] over, in order to start my summer internship two days later. No pressure or anything./sTone indicator: sarcastic

There was one piece of good news./posTone indicator: positive connotation After weeks of repeatedly walking to the Caltech Mail Center in vain hopes of finally receiving our GPS unit, I had a revelation.

FLORIDA MAN: hey Saren, have you checked your personal mailbox on campus? sometimes they put small packages there

SUBBASEMENT DWELLER #1: uhhhhhhh

FLORIDA MAN: it’s definitely just there lol

SUBBASEMENT DWELLER #1: lmao yea, maybe alice wasn’t lying after all

Minutes later, he returned with the package in hand! Moral of the story, kids: war is never the answer. Especially in matters of mail./jTone indicator: joking Check your mailbox.

It all came to a boil the night before the launch. The whole team was crammed into the lab (plus Shivansh on a Zoom call), desperately debugging code; unplugging sensors and plugging them back in again; cutting duct tape, cardboard, insulation foam, and fishing line; oh, and calculating how many single-use helium tanks we would need to buy from Party City. (Thanks, AirGas.There are so many levels of irony here./sTone indicator: sarcastic) The whole thing was reminiscent of the final scene in Ocean’s 11, with each person finishing their work one at a time and heading home for the night. I tapped out around 2am; Lily (AKA Disciple of Bethany Ehlmann) tapped out around 3am; and then we all met back at the lab at 4:15am to load up the cars. It’s go time.


Never too late for debugging!

It was a stunning morning in the desert; a little windy, but otherwise good launch conditions. Aside from an eleventh-hour phone call from ROBLOX’s Newest Intern asking us to pull one more code update from Github (he was lucky we had cell service/lhTone indicator: light-hearted), the setup went quite smoothly. In NASA JPL tradition, we all munched on a handful of peanuts for good fortune (and then decided to throw the rest of the bag in with the science payload box. We’ve got enough lift – can’t hurt!They say each peanut adds +1dB to the radio sensitivity link budget! /j)

Seconds after launch, against a deep blue sky, the balloon lifts off with the science payload in tow! The fully-inflated balloon was truly a sight to behold. Its less-than-spherical complexion glowed in the early morning sun, and its buoyancy bucked against our nitrile-gloved grip with the spirit of a wild mustang, yearning to be untethered from the earth.

We finished assembling the flight-train, attached the parachute (a last-minute engineering feat courtesy of Saren and Krishna, the Subbasement Dwellers), called the FAA to tell them our estimated flight path… and finally, at 08:56 on June 4th, 2022, the first Caltech CubeSat Balloon took to the skies.

Astoundingly, my makeshift antenna setup was able to keep relatively steady contact with the payload far after we lost visual on the balloon. From the tiny screen of my phone, which I had connected to the radio receiver, we watched the altitude readings grow higher and higher, mile by mile. Soon enough, we passed 21,000 feet, which meant we had broken the record for longest communications link with a balloon in (recent) Subbasement Dweller history!/frTone indicator: like, for real!

But our signal strength started dropping sharply soon after. I wasn’t concerned at first, but then at 09:47, we received a garbled signal from the payload, and then… nothing.


Over victory pancakes at IHOP, we crunched the GPS data we’d received. Lily graphed the ascent rate using her mad MATLAB skills, and as it turns out, we’d put too little helium in the balloon… which meant by the time it had risen to popping altitude (more than 60,000 feet!), the wind had carried it way farther than we anticipated./negTone indicator: negative connotation

Also, the last two plot points sent before the battery banks (presumably) died showed the payload was falling way faster than it should have been, if the parachute had deployed…

It seemed our child would be lost forever in a distant, unknown location. But at the moment we started packing up to head home, by some miracle, one last transmission from the payload trickled in. It had (crash?)landed around 12:00, apparently in the middle of the desert, and we knew exactly* where. After a brief discussion, we punched the coordinates into Google Maps and hit “GO.”


The sun is hot. The air is bone-dry. Frankly, it’s amazing that we’ve made it this far into the middle of nowhere, and it’s going to be even more amazing if we manage to make it back out./hypTone indicator: hyperbole

In hindsight, it probably shouldn’t have taken a flat tire for us to realize that what Google Maps called “Transmission Line Road” was very much not a road at all. We’ve come so far, now only 2.5 miles from the (alleged) landing site after a wild goose chase across half of Southern California…

But the desert takes the weak…/refTone indicator: making a reference

The desert landscape was seriously awesome, and the adventure was getting more exciting by the second, but we were actually in quite a sticky situation./srsTone indicator: serious Fortunately, accompanying us was Saren’s father (an actual Former Desert Militiaman/frTone indicator: like, for real!) who knew not only how to patch a tire, but also how to survive weeks in hot, arid climates (just in case). Still, our next move was unclear. Attempt to return the steep, rocky way we came? Or pursue the last couple miles of this tire-shredding terrain, and find a different way out? Or even hike to ground zero on foot?

Deliberation ensued. Do we preserve our physical safety… or our pride? (And, all told, about $1,000 worth of electronics, plus our data and footage, which would otherwise be doomed to a sandy, unmarked grave?) And what about the newly-fledged space peanuts? THINK OF THE PEANUTS, PEOPLE! [I would have been willing to make that trek for the peanuts alone./jTone indicator: joking]

In the end, considering that 1) it was the hottest part of the day, 2) my flight was in 6 hours, 2b) we were 3 hours away from Caltech, which is an hour away from LAX, and 2c) like any responsible Techer,/sTone indicator: sarcastic I hadn’t finished packing… we decided it was for the best to turn back.

We may not have recovered the payload, but all things considered, THE MISSION was still a huge success. Even on this small scale, we learned so much about “space”craft operations – both technicalAdd more battery capacity than you think you need and logisticalDon’t save integration and testing for the last day! – and we got to learn it all the hard way, which is so much more fun./genTone indicator: genuine

Amazingly, we did make it safely out of the desert with no major incidents (only one of the cars got stuck!/jTone indicator: joking) and I boarded my flight on time. In my book at least, that’s a happy ending if I ever did see one.


CREDITS

Title inspired by this amazing book!

Cover photo courtesy of Tyler Nguyen and the EE154 class, since we haven’t recovered the footage from our own MISSION :sob:

Huge thanks to Shivansh Gupta for inviting me to join the CubeSat Club, and to the rest of the team [Saren Daghlian, Krishna Pochana, Turner Bumbary, Lily Coffin] for being awesome <3


Epilogue.

This isn’t over!

First, the payload. At the time of writing, it’s still stranded in the desert, but the team is plotting a rescue mission. The onboard GPS, which had its own battery, stayed alive for a few days. It moved a few feet in that period, but our best guess is it’s still in that general area. Fingers crossed!

What’s next for CubeSat Club? For starters, we want to go full steam ahead for the next round of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative this coming fall, so we hope to recruit a bunch of new members (could be you someday, dear reader??/frTone indicator: like, for real!👀) and find a bigger space to work in. No current plans to launch another balloon, but if there’s enough interest…? The sky’s the limit!Strictly speaking, the stratosphere. The stratosphere is the limit.