Working remotely from his home in West Virginia is no problem for NASA electrical engineer Jeff Sincell – perhaps because his work gives him a unique perspective on time and space.
Some of the space machines Jeff has worked on are built to maintain communication over distances as great as 400 million miles and, at its current orbit speed, the Terra satellite he helped design would travel from his home to his colleagues at the Northrop Grumman facility in Sunnyvale CA inside of ten minutes.
When designing electrical systems for spacecraft, effective visual communication is paramount, Jeff explains. “I’ve always adhered to the notion that pictures tell a story more efficiently than words,” he says, “and my work has always included drawings whenever I could present useful information in that format.”
Jeff uses Canvas to create highly intricate engineering illustrations for key decision makers. The most complex and intricate of his works, a wiring diagram for the soon to be launched James Webb Space Telescope, contains almost 30,000 items in a Canvas document which is almost 70 square feet in size and has been two decades in the creation.
“My drawings are used to visually present electrical (and some mechanical) information about the spacecraft design to the engineering wing of the NASA team. Management personnel also benefit from being able to see and understand electrical topology,” he says. “When functional issues arise, these drawings are among the top-level documents needed to understand and address the problems.”
Electrical Systems Engineer
James Webb Space Telescope, Terra, Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Observer
“Once I saw Canvas, I was sold. I’ve used it ever since for engineering drawings, interconnection and wiring diagrams, and more…”
Over the course of his career, Jeff has worked on four spacecraft, beginning with the Mars Observer program which he joined in 1988.
Mars Observer, which launched in 1992, was sadly not to succeed, ceasing contact when agonizingly close to its destination. “It went dark while preparing to go into orbit around Mars,” Jeff explains. “Just like that, the loss of a billion-dollar mission.”
But NASA doesn’t quit, and the years of work were not in vain. Using spare parts from the Observer program, NASA began assembling Mars Global Surveyor in 1994, launching it two years later.
Precision technical illustration for the most complex machines ever built
It was during his time spent on the Mars Observer program that, thanks to a “progressive” IT manager equipping each of the systems engineering staff with their own Macintosh desktop computer, Jeff first discovered Canvas.
“One of the technical secretaries got a copy of Canvas, and once I saw it, I was sold. I’ve used it ever since for engineering drawings, which include block diagrams, schematics, interconnection and wiring diagrams, fault trees and anything requiring lines, boxes, custom symbols and icons, and text.”
Jeff was one of four Subject Matter Experts from the Mars Observer team to work on Mars Global Surveyor, which retained much of the electrical system design work he had done in Canvas for Mars Observer. With learning taken from the earlier project, NASA was able to ensure Mars Global Surveyor became a celebrated success.
“It flew for twice its expected life, from 1996 to 2006,” Jeff recalls. “It was a vindication of the original Mars Observer design, and represented man- and woman-centuries of engineering prowess back through the TIROS program, sometimes in the face of adversity. More modern spacecraft have taken the investigation of Mars many steps further, but MGS set the pace. Ad astra per aspera (through hardship to the stars)!”
Spacecraft will always fail in the end, Jeff explains, but the ambition must always be to keep that failure at bay for as long as possible. The Terra Earth Observatory satellite, which was Jeff’s next project, is a case in point.
“Creating machines that must work regardless of almost anything you can think of going wrong is a lot of work, and the crew that built Terra had what it took,” he says. “It’s been 20 years on orbit and is still going strong. Something will fail on it eventually, but it’s rewarding to know it has met all of it mission requirements, and then some.”
One illustration, 20 years, 29,377 objects
Like many people who work with technical illustration, Jeff sees the beauty in what might appear mundane to the uninitiated. “When I went to work on Terra, one of the team members generated an interconnection diagram for the spacecraft which was a real piece of art,” he says. “It was to prove an inspiration for my next project, in which I’m still involved, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).”
Incredibly, Jeff has been working on the interconnection diagram for JWST since he joined the project at the start of the millennium. Finally close to maturity, he says, the diagram consists of six Canvas layers presenting 29,377 objects on a 60 x 164 inch document.
“Unlike other spacecraft, which usually have a womb-to-tomb cycle well under 10 years, JWST is taking 20+ to reach its final majesty. When it started life as NGST (Next Generation Space Telescope), the lead systems engineer said we needed to understand every single wire going from the warm side to the cold side of the telescope*. From Jeff’s diagram came an Excel file documenting every conceivable parameter on the over 2000 wires that cross the thermal barrier on the spacecraft.
“These days, Canvas dominates my attention, day to day, as products for the James Webb Space Telescope mission are my current focus.”
Throughout that time, Jeff has been using Canvas as one of his primary applications, he says. “These days, Canvas dominates my attention, day to day, as products for use during the JWST mission are my current focus. Any picture that enhances understanding of how this complex machine is put together is game for my skill set. I’m currently preparing circuit-level diagrams for the science instruments, the information for which has existed for a long time, but not all in one place. It can be tedious work, as engineering can be at times, but it’s rewarding to know the science, engineering and management team members find the drawings useful.”
Originally scheduled to launch in 2011, it is now anticipated that JWST will launch some time during 2021. The telescope, which Jeff describes as “the most sophisticated machine short of the space shuttle” is now fully assembled in a high bay at the Northrop Grumman Space Park facility in Sunnyvale. Testing has slowed with COVID19 but still continues with the hopes of getting to the launch site in French Guiana and onto an Ariane V launch vehicle sometime next year.
So how does it feel to know that the launch of a machine which has consumed two decades of his career is now imminent? “All of us who work on these things are aware of the natural tendency to anthropomorphize the metal and silicon machine, as at times, it seems alive,” Jeff says. “But saying goodbye to it doesn’t really occur at launch. If things go well getting it off the planet, there’s a whole mission ahead, and it’s exciting to realize that scientists around the world will be working with the JWST data for decades to come.”
*Interested in what happened to Mars Global Observer? Or why JWST has a warm and a cold side? Click here to learn more!
We’re proud to count Jeff as a Canvas Original.
At Canvas we continue to be amazed at the sheer diversity of real-world uses for our software. They are all fascinating to us but there are not many that involve projects on this kind of scale, with this kind of ambition at their hearts. We’re proud to have played a role in the efforts of someone whose work helps ask questions and provide answers about our place in the universe.
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