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Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016

Sikeston native had hand in Mars Rover

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Sikeston native Tom Shain with the 20-pound Pathfinder Mars Explorer and one of the two 365-pound Mars Exploration Rovers slated to land in January.
PASADENA, Calif. - When the robot explorers Spirit and Opportunity attempt to land on Mars in January, their flight controllers will guide them down with the benefit of having had some practice in Tom Shain's simulators.

As one of his last tasks as logistics manager for the Mars Exploration Rovers program, Shain is now using a couple hundred tons of sand and rock to recreate to the best of his ability the surface of Mars.

"What we've done is we've built one heck of a big sandbox," Shain said.

Shain, who was born and raised the youngest of five boys in Sikeston, has worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory since April 1961 when his brother, Larry Shain, got him a job there building flight harnesses.

With his dedication and willingness to "do whatever it takes to get the job done," Shain soon worked his way up to become a spacecraft test technician working hands-on with space exploration hardware.

Through night school, he was able to achieve an engineering classification, but most of his expertise Shain credits to "42 years of on-the-job training at JPL working with some great people who were willing to teach me." Educational pursuits did, however, result in his meeting a young secretary at JPL's library. "Carol and I've been married 41 years," he said.

With or without a degree, Shain's ability has always been self-evident. Voyagers, Vikings, Mariners, Rangers - Shain has had a hand in them all during his time at JPL.

"It's obviously quite a thrill to get to do the things I get to do based on my background," Shain said. "I've been very fortunate, very blessed."

Shain was actually NASA's first choice for the current MER project's space craft test engineer, an extremely demanding role he filled for the immensely successful Mars Pathfinder Sojourner Rover in 1996-1997.

While it has been thrilling to work on the current "Class A" project, Shain recalls the Pathfinder project as the high point of his career.

"It was what we consider a low-profile mission," Shain said. Working with one-quarter of the current project's budget, odds for Pathfinder's success were slim. Of the three dozen spacecraft sent to Mars, about two-thirds have failed. "It turned out to be one of the most successfully things we've done."

Declining the space craft test engineer position and its 80-hour weeks, Shain instead accepted the duties of logistics manager this time around, overseeing the crucial process of setting up equipment for testing each of the spacecraft's subsystems such as the radio, power system and scientific gear.

"We make sure all this equipment is working properly before we ever connect it to the spacecraft," Shain said. "We do a small amount at a time, very slowly, very carefully."

He then supervises the "spacecraft integration," hooking up each part one at a time and retesting it to make sure everything still works with the addition of the new part.

One facility Shain worked with is designed "to simulate the elements of space" with an artificially-created vacuum and walls filled with liquid nitrogen to drop the temperature to -320 degrees Fahrenheit.

Another tests equipment with vibration tables roughly seven feet square made from huge speakers to create dynamic effects similar to the ignition of launch rockets.

A concrete walled room with 18 inch thick walls is used to conduct "acoustics testing" by blaring three speaker horns at the equipment to test the its tolerance to the noise of a launch. "Sound is also damaging," Shain said.

And then, when all is finally done and ready, it has to be packed up and moved to Florida. "I'm responsible for setting up the convoys for shipping all this precious cargo to Kennedy Space Center," Shain said.

The latest MER launch took three separate convoys with 11 semi truck loads of flight hardware.

Oversize loads and security issues require communication, special permits and cooperation with local highway patrols. "And we go non-stop," he said, "stopping only for food and fuel."

Once everything arrives in Florida, parts are reassembled and they begin "a very, very complicated retest," Shain said. "It's very long tedious process or reverifying all of the functions."

Arriving in Cape Canaveral in January to prepare for the summer launch, Shain didn't get back to California until August. "Florida's like a second home to me," he said.

Shain said those involved with the MER project are now in the last stages of seven months of boredom during the spacecraft's cruise there and are preparing for six minutes of terror during the rovers' arrivals.

"Entry, decent and landing is about a six minute operation from when we hit the atmosphere," Shain said. "It enters the atmosphere at about 12,000 miles per hour."

The spacecraft features a heat shield designed to burn away into the atmosphere as it dissipates the heat, Shain said.

Building on technology from the Pathfinder project, this MER mission is "bigger, a lot smarter and a heck of a lot more money," Shain said.

Additionally, it will probably be his last project as Shain plans to retire this spring. "It's a hard job to walk away from because it's been a great job," Shain said.