Satellite director in proper orbit

Kathleen Kelly director of the Satellite Operations Control Center (SOCC) at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wasn't in her job a week when she faced her first major challenge: a serious malfunction on one of the nation's weather satellites.

Early last month a hardware failure on a two-and-a-half-year-old weather satellite system known as Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-8 caused it to turn away from Earth.

"That's about as serious an anomaly as you can get " Kelly said. "Many combinations of failures are serious. But if a satellite itself won't look at the Earth you really don't have a mission."

Alarms went off on the ground alerting the staff at the SOCC Suitland Md. which commands and operates civilian weather satellites. The center had only about 30 minutes to send a series of commands that would put the satellite into safe hold a temporary position that keeps the satellite powered until the source of a glitch can be located. Meanwhile NOAA used weather images from GOES-9 and a European weather satellite to fill in missing GOES-8 data.

"The satellite stays in safe hold until we uncover the source of the anomaly " Kelly said.When tests to get the satellite working again failed Kelly decided to switch on a backup part of the control system. About 36 hours after the satellite started to drift it was back to normal operation. "That's what redundant systems are there for " she said. "Now it's working great."

Fortunately Kelly's background happens to be in geostationary satellites so "this anomaly was a comfortable anomaly if there is such a thing " she said. A 21-year NOAA veteran Kelly previously worked as the GOES navigation leader.

"I was responsible for getting the image navigation system on-line and working " Kelly said. "It's a matter of what we do on the ground and what we can do in the satellite to make it better."

But Kelly knows that her job involves not only complex engineering challenges but also management challenges.

"The way you manage people isn't an engineering problem " she said. "It takes more skills to find out what motivates people to find out what they respond to. You have to find a way to help all the people who work for you do their jobs the best. That's hopefully what I can begin to accomplish. Clearly I can't do it all. It's finding the best combination of people to work in the best ways."

Kelly said she has been fascinated with the space program since she was a young girl.

"When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon - that was thrilling for me " she said. "I wanted to be the first female astronaut."

Kelly got especially excited when she began to work with satellite imaging and navigation in 1980. "In the area of image navigation you get to work with the user and get to see the output of what you do " she said. "I was given the responsibility for the image navigation system for the old spinning GOES and we made a bunch of improvements. And then I jumped at the chance to work on GOES-I through -M [the current versions of GOES] which had a new image navigation capability that hadn't been done before. Getting that system in operation really launched my career."

The mission of NOAA is one that Kelly said she likes because it affects people's daily lives. "It's a real mission to provide the people of the United States with accurate weather satellite information to make their lives better " she said. "I think that's what we in government are all about. We have fascinating jobs we do good work and we hope that we serve citizens and make their lives better.

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