Managing orbits, one day at a time

It might sound a little crazy, but one longtime Stevenson Ranch resident travels about 30 miles every day to explore planets, moons and areas of the galaxy that many will never see in their lifetime.

Jim McClure, who’s lived in the SCV for about 30 years, works as the operations manager for the Space Flight Operations Facility — a national historic landmark that consists of two buildings constructed in 1964 as part of the race to put a man on the moon.

The buildings were built in response to then-President John F. Kennedy’s famous speech that , McClure said, which kicked off the and served as a place where scientists and engineers could prove their concepts using robotic spacecrafts.

To this day, NASA’s Deep Space Network is operated from the Space Flight Operations Facility — as its main room is referred to as the “dark room” — has monitored and controlled all spacecraft that travel outside of the lunar orbit or into deep space for NASA and other international space agencies since 1963, McClure said, before mentioning the facility operated five successful surveyors from the room prior to the 1961.

“In the history of the world there have only been 8 successful mars landings,” he said. “All eight have occurred from the JPL facility. That’s for all of mankind and it’s amazing to be a part of.”

The room has been so instrumental throughout the human race’s race to space that McClure said, “We refer to it as the ‘center of the universe.’ We marked it and made stickers so that makes it true.”

JPL created the first United States’ spacecraft in 1958, according to McClure. The project was named Explorer 1 and it was crafted to compete as the first to space.

The mission control room also operated the moon landing of Surveyor 1 in 1966, and less than two years later, McClure’s father, Jim McClure Sr., would begin working in the same room that his son works in today.

In his 30 years as a JPL employee, McClure Sr., who at one time was also an SCV resident, would work on a number of projects, one of which being a project named Mariner.

Mariner went to more planets than McClure could recall, including Venus, Mars and beyond.

“These are exploring robotic spacecrafts,” he said, recollecting the events that led him to become an explorer of the galaxy like his father was before him.

“My first time I came to this building I was 8-years-old,” McClure said. “I literally lived right across the street from here,” and remember getting a tour in an open-house type setting.

McClure would leave home and head to college in Michigan, where he found himself working for Ross Perot, the billionaire business magnate and former politician, around the time the company was sold to General Motors, which was period that allowed the young McClure to hone his computer skills and work ethic.

“I give 100 percent credit to that man for where I am today. He taught me that it’s all about work ethic, all about team goals and you are small piece when compared to the greater good,” McClure said. “It takes every one of us doing our tasks perfectly to accomplish our goals and everybody appreciates that and it creates success.”

Citing his computer background, McClure said, “To be honest, I don’t have the scientific brain to do what the scientists do. I have an engineering brain to do my job, but I’m not a space nut at all.”

That may be because his father ruined everything science fiction-related for him a long time ago, he says.

“No Buck Rogers — none of that stuff,” McClure said, referring to the fictional space opera character from “Armageddon 2419 A.D.”  “(My dad) said it wasn’t real, so I’m not like the younger generation here who grew up with that sci-fi stuff.”

But McClure has been touched by the reality of what he sees on the job every day, he said. “I’ve been fortunate to be here for the last five Mars landing missions when they happened and the emotion was just unbelievable. I’ve seen all this stuff in real life.”

In 1988, while McClure was up still in Michigan working with Perot, “I literally just got homesick after a high school reunion and blindly applied for a job at JPL using my new experience,” McClure said. “And my first job was commanding the Galileo spacecraft as mission control that went Jupiter in 1989.”

McClure and members of the project team would find eventually find water on a Jupiter moon called Europa.

“That’s the reality I get,” McClure said, remembering back to when he was new to the field. “I was cool about it, but I’m thinking, ‘I’m sending commands to a spacecraft that’s in orbit in Jupiter. Who gets to do that?’”

The Galileo mission would last in orbit for 12 years, according to McClure, who ended the project as mission control team chief.

“My title now is spaceflight operation facility operations manager, which means I’m responsible for mission control of everything that flies here at JPL,” McClure said. “I don’t want people to think I fly here. I’m responsible for the infrastructure of every spacecraft that flies outside of the lunar orbit.”

This includes the two rovers and lander that are on Mars today, and the Juno spacecraft that is orbiting Jupiter.

Thanks to the efforts of the first project that featured McClure on the mission control team — Galileo — JPL is currently designing a spacecraft called Europa Clipper that’s going to investigate Europa, the Jupiter moon that he helped spend 12 years studying and is believed to possess two times the amount of water that is on Earth, McClure said.

“We’re going to go orbit it and take data and hopefully in the future create a lander,” McClure said, quickly mentioning that his progressive dreams are not yet funded or contracted by NASA, “but it’s the progression of science I’ve learned since my time on the Galileo discovery.”

Whereas last time McClure and the team were able to confirm Europa had water, they hope this time around they are able to answer questions like: How thick is the ice crust?; do we want to land on it?; and what would happen from there?”

Scientists are very excited for that project, McClure said, as he listed projects that will inspect a protoplanet core that’s been bombarded by asteroids and left with nothing but its metal core, as well as the two largest asteroids in a nearby asteroid belt.

The mission spacecraft was named Dawn, McClure said. “We just ran out of fuel on that one. It was just put in a ‘safe orbit,’ or a trajectory so it can fly away and won’t hit the solar system for a minimum of 50 years. Thats a planetary protection requirement.”

Consider it being an intergalactic good neighbor, McClure said.

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