The Vicarious Astronaut
By Barry Brown
The Vicarious Astronaut: When I was ten years old we were given an assignment to write about what we wanted to be when we grow up. I was convinced I would be an astronaut. My detailed report included several innovative rocket designs. My parents were not well off, but somehow Mom managed to scrape together enough to get a subscription to National Geographic and I absolutely devoured the articles on space and planets. In 1975 I wrote a letter to NASA asking about their programs, pretty sure my teacher and parents thought there was no way they would respond to a request from Northern Canada, but they did. I received more than 10 lbs of manuals, specs and details on programs from Gemini to the (yet to launch) Voyager…it was fantastic!
It turned out that Astronauts were typically fighter pilots with perfect vision, so I was partially crushed when glasses were a necessity in grade 7. I denied needing them until I couldn’t get any closer to the blackboard and the teacher refused to write even bigger. Then I heard Astronauts were often Engineers, and hey, I was good at math…there was hope, maybe they would find a cure for poor eye-sight too. Kept reading those Nat Geo’s…Voyager1&2, Galileo probe, Jupiter, Saturn, Titan…awesome! Then came the Shuttle program in the 80’s, so thrilling and full of possibilities for a would-be space explorer.
Skip ahead a few years and I have a Computer Engineering degree. Turns out NASA does not have to pay well for hopeful astronaut pre-candidates and only takes the top talent with multiple PhDs…but I did look at applying, seriously. My first engineering job, though not in space, is pretty cool (for a nerd), as I get to design electronic systems and write microcontroller code that does real stuff for real people. We eventually need to upgrade the system to a full CPU and decide we need an Operating System. We chose VxWorks…not because I saw that it was being used on the Mars explorers…but well ….that played a major role in my decision, yes.
Nat Geo covered the Mars rover well but it even made main stream media when the priority inversion had to be debugged remotely. By mainstream media I mean CBC Quirks and Quarks radio program. It turned out this little tidbit of knowledge on Priority Inversions, and how to fix it, probably got me my next job as it was an interview question in the hi-tech mecca of Ottawa.
Still not an Astronaut but one company I worked for in Ottawa built computer boards that ran the critical “toilet” system of the Space Station. Yes I tell that to people proudly; no one would have been happy up there without it working every day! Work trips also let me see the Smithsonian Apollo exhibit – where the ingenuity and problem solving ability of humanity really hit home for me. They also had a Gemini capsule to try out, this provided evidence that my Astronaut payload factor would have been an issue. Touring the Kennedy Space center, I had to sit down again to absorb the emotion when the Saturn 5 rocket section came into view…simply awesome.
Well now I have landed a job with Wind River…the maker of VxWorks. Wind River recently celebrated 20 Years in Space (bit.ly/1V6qUp1) and I was very pleased and proud to recognize Wind River/VxWorks references in the “The Martian” book by Andy Weir. The book is a fantastic read, and not just for nerds or geeks. I expect The Martian Movie to be truly thrilling and am recommending that everyone goes to see it.