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Two intriguing investigations -- One flight-proven spacecraft

Greg LaBorde

Greg LaBorde

Activity Lead / Flight Director, JPL

Greg describes how the spacecraft was used on the original Deep Impact mission as Rich Rieber (right) looks on at the JPL Open House in May 2010.

Greg describes how the spacecraft was used on the original Deep Impact mission as Rich Rieber (right) looks on at the JPL Open House in May 2010.
Credit: Judy Counley, McREL

What's the coolest thing about EPOXI?
The people I work with.

They are unbelievably smart, interesting, and extremely dedicated (even though most of them pretend not to be). They have such a wide variety of personalities, interests, and experiences. They take radically different approaches to flying our spacecraft and to life in general. I was uncomfortable around such variety at first, until I saw it create possibilities that greatly exceed the sum of the parts. All engineers on space projects will grouse about scientists always wanting more, taking us to the brink of disaster and beyond, and we're no different. And sometimes our scientists must think their engineers would be happiest flying past the comet in SAFEMODE (because it would be SAFE, right?). Now, though, as (another) Big Day approaches, we realize again that we share the same goal after all, and we are not going to leave Hartley 2 with any less than all the science we can get. Not one single bit.

The feeling that something is about to happen, that comes with launches, orbit insertions, and encounters. All the analysis and tests are coming to an end, and all the possibilities are narrowing down to the final, single path. Everything will be as ready as it will ever be, and then it will be time to hold on tight until we see how it went. It's like a big final exam: very challenging, we're almost done, and I hope we get a good grade. And the class was fun!

Legos. Working with DIF is like Legos. I do not get to choose the number of bumps. Rather I rummage in the Lego box and do the best with what I find.

Oh yeah, the comet will be pretty cool too. Especially if it turns out to have a door in it.

Why do you like working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory?
The bathrooms are reasonably clean, and no one is watching over my shoulder telling me when I have to be where, or what to wear, or anything like that. There is a real team feeling with everyone working together. I feel trusted to carry out my part. I felt that way about JPL the day I walked in 23 years ago. Plus there are so many smart and interesting people who work at JPL. I never thought engineers would be very interesting to be around, but they are. I am always surprised to find out what our people do when they are not beating DIF into submission (or vice versa). Woodworking, backyard astronomy, rock climbing, road-rallying, cart racing, cooking, robots, hockey, travel, photography. Even comedy.

I guess it is the people, again.

What is your job on the EPOXI mission?
I am an Activity Lead. I try to understand the requirements for an engineering or science activity, turn them into sequences and commands for the spacecraft, as well as any special requests for the ground systems, and deliver the results to science or engineering. I pull together inputs from the specialists in the different fields comprising the mission, both in space and on the ground. Usually the activities are implemented as sequences, programs that run on-board, executing each command at a set time. I test the commands and sequences on our testbeds, which are "spacecraft-on-the-ground" built of spare parts with a universe-in-a-computer wrapped around them (actually I ask our dedicated staff of testers to test them). I make sure the specialists review the results (wheedle and beg), verify that the activity does what we wanted it to, and prepare the package for review, approval, and uplink to the spacecraft. If necessary, I am in the Mission Support Area (control room) during the activity to send any commands necessary (in which case I become a Flight Director). Actually I think I know what a chef feels like.

I also cause a lot of trouble by asking too many questions; however, I think that's part of my job, asking questions that need asking. I'm still around, so someone must appreciate me.

How did you end up in Space Science?
When I graduated with a Masters in Electrical Engineering (after a BA in Physics) in 1987, all the jobs were defense-related. JPL offered me a job working in Mission Assurance for Galileo, the mission to Jupiter. It did not require a security clearance, the pay was good, and I got to live in Southern California. After being promoted too fast for my own good (I got along better in those days), I transferred into Systems Engineering, first running testbed tests for and then flying Galileo. I've worked flight operations and ATLO (system testing and launch), and its all fun! I never intended to make a career out of this, but I got married and had kids and settled down, trapped in LA. I still haven't give up the idea of doing something else, somewhere else, someday.

Besides, I was always interested in exploring space, and the marvelous machines with which we do it. When I was little I had a book called We Came in Peace, which was about the Apollo 11 mission, with a lot of diagrams of the Saturn V and the Apollo spacecraft. I built models of them, and HM Bark Endeavour. Space wasn't the only place I was interested in exploring.

Greg at work

"Most recent picture. I'm on the right (Collins is on the left). I think I might be looking at the EPOXI or DIF FB page on my laptop."
Credit: ???

What do you do in your spare time?
Work on the screenplay for a film I have an idea for, just like everyone else in LA. Called "Tim Must Die!" it follows a day in the life of my Beagle, Tim, and his sidekick "LD" (little dog), a Corgi/Chihuahua mix. Seen through Tim's eyes, he interprets everything, however innocuous, as part of my dastardly plot to do him in.

Seriously, it is hard to remember what I do in my spare time. Sometimes I walk around the table in the Testbed. Sometimes I even walk around the building, if I have several minutes. I work a lot, and I have three children who require lots of attention. Taking care of the minutiae of daily life eats up more than it should. I read a lot, and keep a book in every room so I can read wherever I am (and in the car for red lights. No. That was a joke!). I used to like to hike and travel, and I'd like to pick those up again. I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about sleeping, but not enough time actually doing so.

Who in your life inspired you?
My Dad. Yeah, that's trite. He was an engineer and then a manager in the petroleum industry. He was smart and had a lot of integrity. He believed he would succeed, and the company prosper, by treating other people well and being straight with them. I like people like that. I try to be like that.

What is one yet-to-be achieved life goal?
I would like to get my pilot's license. Nothing fancy, just being able to rent a Cessna 180 anywhere I go to toodle around in and take a look from above.

Were you science-oriented as a young person?
I was a kid in Houston, Texas, where being smart and into science was not cool. I read a lot, and science and technology were big subjects, along with science fiction. I wasn't of the experimental bent, but I liked theory. And I got it. I took a second year of Physics in high school, which was unusual back then. The professor pushed us beyond data-driven experiments into grasping the big picture, striving to answer the "why?"

What was your favorite book as a young person?
Frederick Forsyth's The Shepherd. I recently found it again after many years. For some inexplicable reason I also liked, and still like, Clive Cussler's Raise the Titanic.

What did you want to become when you were young?
I wanted to sit in a windowless room for hours watching streams of meaningless numbers scroll by on a VDT. I think when I thought about it at all it had something to do with flying.

If you weren't working in space exploration now, what might you be doing?
Probably a veterinarian. I was very interested while I was in college, and there are a number of advantages to being one. Or a Physical Oceanographer. That was the only field I applied to PhD programs in.

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