Live From...the Stratosphere
Juan Rivera, Airborne Telescope Operator


Name: Juan Rivera

Position:Airborne Telescope Operator

I'm a senior electronic technician and telescope operator. I've been around for about 4 years and I've been involved in just about every aspect of the project from designing and building equipment to operating and maintaining cryogenic, pneumatic, electronic, and mechanical systems. Currently, I'm responsible for operating the telescope in flight and monitoring all the various systems that make it work. On the ground I do maintenance of the telescope and its various systems such as high pressure air compressors, cryogenics, power amplifiers, etc. I spent the first three years flying extensively but now I fly less often and am more involved in the electronic maintenance end. For the LIve From The Stratosphere project I designed the constructed the video system on the KAO.

I spent 13 years as a television news technician and cameraman. I'm a commercial airplane and helicopter pilot and always kept my eye open for interesting aviation-related stories the station could do. While working at KTVU I learned of the KAO and managed to get a ride on it while doing a news story about it. After covering drive-by shootings, hostage situations, and every other type of bad news for 13 years I finally burned out on TV news, and 7 years later here I am. I think many opportunities present themselves with no warning. The trick is to recognize one when you see it and to be prepared and ready. My personal motivation was to get involved in a project that I thought had some socially redeeming value and offered an opportunity to fly and travel.

I have always been interested in aviation and electronics. My idea of an ideal job would be to combine flying and working with complex electronic systems but I had no idea that there were such jobs until I read an article in the paper one day about the KAO. At the time I was a broadcast engineer working for a big TV station's news department. I always made it a point to try to talk the station into doing at least one aviation related story a year so I could get a ride in a neat aircraft. I was very fortunate to work out all the details and set up a news shoot on the KAO.

As it turned out, it was a short flight because a mechanical problem forced us to return early, but it was long enough to rekindle my desire to move into this type of work. I spent the next six years trying to keep in touch with the few people I had met that evening and wait for an opening. Then one day I was scanning through the want ads and there it was... Telescope operator to work on a NASA research aircraft. International travel required. I jumped on it with everything I had and got the job. We left for New Zealand two weeks later!

I really like working with a tight knit group of people that I greatly respect. We're like a family on the KAO project. Some people work for the Government and some for a contractor, but we are all very close. When we go on deployment we spend months together on the road eating, working, and playing together. We share our rental cars and go off to town together on our occasional days off. The work can be intense even under "normal" conditions and all this breeds a real closeness that I enjoy greatly.

What I like least of course is the fact that the project is shutting down for good after the last LFS flight on the 13th of October. But I suppose the night flying would be at the top of the list otherwise. It's really difficult to rotate your schedule around and fly all night a couple times a week and work days the other days. That's a killer. You can get away with that when your a you're a wipper snapper but an old geezer like me has a problem with it.

This project can point to some important discoveries. They will be there long after the players are gone.I think the most enjoyable missions I've been on were Shoemaker/Levy 9 and Comet Halley. They took a lot of advanced planning and required very specific timing, but they were unique events, and we had the opportunity to go see them!

I'm a heavy rescue specialist and an Emergency Medical Technician... Hobbies include computers and radio-controlled model helicopters. I'm an active radio amateur...I have worked as an aircraft mechanic for United and as a radio broadcast engineer prior t o moving into television. I built the country's first Spanish/English educational FM radio station.

I have always been interested in mechanical and electrical things. I remember sticking a paperclip in a light socket when I was about 3 years old. Somehow I knew it wouldn't kill me beacuse I was on an insulated surface and there was no current path through my body. I really got a great reaction from my mother! Right there I knew I was on to something really neat. (Don't you kids try that at home. Remember, I am a trained professional!)

I also remember the absolute thrill of listening to my first crystal set which I built in the Cub Scouts. It got five stations all at once! It seemed like the most powerful kind of magic I could imagine. How can a small collection of parts with no batteries or electical plug do that? One thing builds on another. I'm one of those unusual people who knew exactly what I wanted to do when I was a kid. I got my ham radio license when I was in junior high and passed my commercial radio license when I was in high school. I also got interested in flying when I was a high school student and spent all my spare money flying around on weekends.

If you are interested in electronics one of the best books you can get your hands on is the Radio Amateur Handbook. Ham radio is a great hobby to get into. There is something there for everyone. We are the only hobby that launches our own earth satellites!

My advice to anyone interested in this sort of work is to learn everything you can in school. Most important of all is to learn how to research information on your own -- learn how to learn, in other words. No matter how hard you pay attention, your teacher can only cram so much into your heads. When you get into the "real world" you'll find that most often you won't know everything you need to know for whatever it is that you're doing. Can you ramp yourself up and gather all the information you need to get the job done? If you need to develop a new skill, do you know how to do that on your own? You better if you want to stay employed.

The world is a very complex place and it's getting more complicated every day. When my parents were working they could depend on keeping a job for most of their working lives if they wanted to. Those days are long gone. Look no further than this project to see the current situation. Many of us will be out of a job in a few weeks. The same thing is probably going to happen to you several times in your life. Count on it. I know it's probably hard to really put yourself in an adults place when you're still in school, but the day will come when you don't just need money so you can buy some new CD's or go to the movies with your friends. You need a job to survive. You'll have mortgage payments or rent to deal with unless you like living in a cardboard box under a bridge. It can get downright ugly and very scary.

So far I've been very fortunate. Not only have I had a long string of really interesting jobs but I've had the luxury of pretty much picking and choosing what I want to do. My secret, if there is one, is that I put all my energy into my interests. I'm a little bit better than the next guy because I work harder at it that he does. It's that simple. I live and breath this stuff. I have a better equipped electronics and machine shop at home that they do at work. I am totally into what I'm doing. I'm always trying to learn something new. I'm completely interested in what I'm doing and I give it 100 percent. My work is my hobby.

So what's the bottom line? If you're not sure what to do try a lot of different things. When you find something that lights your fire, give it all you've got!

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