PSAS/ news/ 2003-06-12 - PSAS presentation and exhibit at the USENIX Annual Technical Conference in San Antonio, TX

Sunday June 8th: Brian leaves, no sleep for the software team

Brian, being frickin' crazy, leaves for San Antonio at 5:00am in his red Ford pickup with a timing belt 40,000 mi past due. He'll travel 2,600 mi from Portland to San Antonio, with a launch tower, a couple of rockets and other junk sticking out the back of his truck.

Much, much later in the day, software people get together at Andrew's house and try to get the LTC and rocketview worked out.

Monday June 9th: Sleep? Who needs sleep?

The software team gets together Monday night in FAB 155 for YANL (Yet Another Late Night). Everyone throws in lots of work, and by 9:00am, Andrew finishes the APS code and Jamey puts the finishing touches on some of the rocketview code, and everything WORKS. Amazing. We now have real IMU data flowing to rocketview - we can shake the avionics package (carefully, with all of the wires coming off of it) and see lines jiggle. How cool is that?

Brian keeps driving.

Tuesday June 10th: We... all... neeed... sleeeepp... zzzzzz

Keith and Bart and Raya (a PSU CS student presenting a paper) arrived in San Antonio. They're actually going to attend the conference, unlike the rest of us slackers who are just doing rocket related junk.

Morgan comes over and makes an amazing system diagram poster with Adobe Illustrator. We're all impressed: it's possibly the best piece of illustration we've ever had. We almost feel... professional. Naw!

Andrew, Tim, Glenn, and Dave come over to Andrew's house in the evening. Dave cleans up a bit more on rocketview, installing it on Andrew's laptop which promptly dies a horrible, twisted death - the screen goes nuts. Typical.

Brian is still... driving.

Wednesday June 11th: JITUE (Just In Time USENIX Exhibit)

Tim and Glenn work all night: the ATV system works. The Avionics Power System works. The battery pack holder is in place. Andrew's laptop is fixed (improperly installed LCD connector). It's 6:00am, 30 minutes before we HAVE to go to the airport. We call it good.

Ted and Andrew burn rubber to the airport. There is a few sweaty moments when we wonder whether we're going to have to explain to airport security what the heck that thing is is in the black pelican case. Luckily, no one asked and we were spared a possible long term grilling. Our plane has mechanical problems - a "flipped circuit breaker". Yeah, right. We offer to flip the breaker ourselves but the offer is not appreciated. We arrive 3 hours late and miss the meet and greet. The poor USENIX people, who are paying for all of us to come and have heard nothing from us, were starting to get nervous.

Finally, Ted and Andrew hooked up with the already present PSU folks at the hotel and a bunch of us go out for dinner. Amazingly, geeks have taken over the Marriott Rivercenter hotel - they're everywhere. In the lobby. In the elevators. In the bathrooms. The sheer number of laptops was astounding. Every available outlet in the lobby was being used... and then some people brought extension cords and outlet strips...

In true PSAS style, Andrew and Ted turn the hotel room into a technological explosion zone as we check on everything and try and get ready for the next day. We even managed to hack a copy of Morgan's beautiful "System Diagram and Network Topology" poster into the "Avionics Block Diagram". We now have two posters. Wow, we're cool.

Brian gets in at 1:00am. Even at night, San Antonio, Texas is unbelievably hot. The humidity condenses on you like fog, and you sweat, and it's hot, and it's sticky, and for the first time in his life Andrew truly appreciates air conditioning. That night, when we finally get to bed, we'll crank our air conditioning down to 52 degrees, driving Ted "I love the heat, I'd rather live in Cuba" Havelka completely nuts.

But, first we need to get the launch tower and rockets into the exhibit hall. So we drive Brian truck into the Pit of Hell - the bowels the Marriott Rivercenter. It's a pretty amazing place - certainly the tallest building in San Antonio - and perfect for some kind of dystopian movie. We unload the tower, take it up a freight elevator, and maneuver it on its wheels into the exhibit hall.

Last thing to do: we still don't have our posters done. Brian and Andrew head towards the nearest Kinko's (found by searching the web through our room's $10/day 10mbps Ethernet connection!) and beg the people to nice Kinko's people to print out our posters. The Kinko's person - we think her name was Janet or Janice - basically saved our butts. They were completely booked, but she managed to slip not only our two posters in, but also a 54 x 18 banner in for us.

We finally hit the sack at 5:30am.

Thursday June 12th: Day one of exhibit

We woke up at 8:00am; it sucked to be us. We began setting up the launch tower and display, which went pretty fast. Ted and Andrew took off to hear Neal Stephenson (author of Snowcrash, Cryptonomicon, Zodiac, The Diamond Age, etc.). Andrew's a Stephenson fan, but Ted and Brian were lost to the coolness of the event. The talk was interesting, comparing the writing process with the coding process. Later, he stopped by our booth and chatted with us for quite a while; he's into rocketry himself and seemed to like our work. How cool is that? Of course, we never thought to take a photo or get an autograph. Doh!

While raising the launch tower we ran into a bit of a problem; due to OSHA regulations we weren't allowed to raise the tower without outriggers. So Ted ran to a local Home Depot and picked up a billion things which we needed - some bolts, nuts, stuff to make a display stand for LV1, etc. Finally, a bit late, we were ready.

People started streaming in at noon. As you entered the hall, the first thing you saw was... us. A 20' tall launch tower with a 11' rocket mounted on it, lots of electronics on the table, and couple of very tired looking people. So of course, folks walked straight into the room and asked us questions. It was great; we were answering questions, demoing the avionics system, and rolling our eyes at pathetic rocket jokes.

The avionics system demo was fantastic. The inertial measurement unit was sending data once a second over the CAN bus to the flight computer. The flight computer then broadcasted it over the wireless link to a laptop running rocketview. We hadn't had a chance to solder up a battery pack yet, so we were still tethered to the table... except of course, when people unplugged the shore power cord asking "what's this?". Augh! We must have suddenly powered down like four times. Later in the day, we got around to soldering up a battery pack which put and end to that.

We also had a small bug in the ATV receiver - it just stopped working. Turns out an large inductor with a ferrite core had snapped a lead - Andrew soldered it and it (surprisingly) worked.

At least we can say that we were the only people at USENIX (that we know of) to whip out a soldering iron and do hardware work. Now that's a geek honor.

That evening we did what anyone in San Antonio is obligated to do. We had dinner on the River Walk that runs through the city, and went to the... uh... the.... oh yeah, the Alamo.

Friday June 13th: Day Two, Birds of Feather Session

Day two opened at 10am with a thousand IBM people flooding the exhibit hall, from some IBM center in Austin. Surprisingly, we did just as much talking Friday as the day before... usually it's much quieter the second day, but not for us. We met the Linux BIOS ( guys, who were totally geeked out on us. And us on them: they think that we can get our boot time from the current ~60s to (get this) THREE SECONDS. We're all over that. We're currently working with them to get a Linux BIOS port for the AMD SC520 and our MOPS520 board.

Amy got in around noon and hung out with us for the rest of the conference, which was fun and a great help.

At 4:00pm we quickly tore down the exhibit and packed everything away. After loading the launch tower back onto Brian's truck, we learned the tower+truck combination wouldn't fit in the garage so we unloaded it yet again and stored in the underground loading dock.

After the aptly named "Fajita Fiesta" meal, we had our BOF - Birds of a Feather - session. About a 20 or so people swung by, and we had a really nice 1.5 hour discussion on various topics. We were all a bit tired, but mostly happy at this point.

Then, in a sudden panic, Andrew realized he didn't have all the slides for Saturday's presentation done yet. In a fit of PIP (Panic Induced Productivity), he got the slides done at 3:00am. Go team go.

Saturday June 14th: Paper presentation & motion-induced nausea

We gave our talk at 10:30am. It went pretty well, with at least 100 people if not more in the audience. Not the best talk ever, but adequate. Would have helped if were weren't completely wiped.

We hung out that early afternoon, and finally piled unto a few buses at 3:00pm to go to "Six Flags", an amusement park ride. it was great! We rode the "scream" twice, which is a ride which is about as close to riding a rocket as you can get - a pneumatic tower shoots you straight up ~300ft and then after a bit of bouncing you zero g down to the ground. It was great. Then we went on other rides, including one which launches you at ~4g's via - we kid you not - a linear induction motor. It was the fastest acceleration I've ever experienced. By the end of the day, we were all slightly nauseous... except, of course, for Ted who could have gone on a dozen more rides. The cardboard pizza we ate probably didn't help, of course. :P

Now, you might ask yourself what a bunch of rocket geeks with what is essentially a wireless IMU might do at an amusement park. Well, we thought about it but were so tired of setting everything up again and again - not to mention the fact that we'd have to explain that one to the park management - that we decided not to do it. But mark our words - next time we go to an amusement park as a group, we'll be measuring our rides in all 6 degrees of freedom ;-)

That night, the San Antonio Spurs - a basketball team, apparently - won the second to last game of the NBA playoffs. People in San Antonio went... nuts. Strangers in a strange land, we felt obligated to join in the the communal celebration of the local sports team's athletic prowess.

Sunday June 15th

Keith, Bart and Raya headed back to Portland; the rest of us got up at 5:00am, packed, and got on the road by 7:00am so we could go on a 3 hour pilgrimage to the Johnson Space Center just outside of Houston, Texas. Remember the phrase "Houston, we have a problem"? Yep, it's that Houston. It was great! Space Center Houston was a bit of a disappointment in terms of lack of technical details, but the historical displays were good.

Andrew got to see the actual Apollo 17 command module, the same one he saw when he was 4 on TV and started the whole space thing. Brian got to see rocket engines. Lots of them. Lots of BIG rocket engines. It was great. We all piled onto a tram tour and saw the integration and training facility the astronauts use to train on the shuttle and ISS, and also the historic mission control. The details were astounding: three IBM 360 mainframes were connected directly to the dozens of small black and white monitors and switches on the consoles - apparently there used to be enough wire in that room to go around the planet three times. Instead of email, they used pneumatic tubes to send messages and get printouts... and cigarettes. According to the tour guide, there was a thick blue haze since everyone smoked in the center during stressful missions.

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Then the best part: face to face with the Saturn V rocket that would have been used for Apollo 18 had NASA's funding not been cut. It was amazing. It looked like they had simply laid the flight-ready rocket on its side the day before launch and just left it there; the piping, wiring harnesses, everything was just right there.

We, of course, had to compare LV2 to the Saturn V. It was a bit... smaller.

Monday June 16th

Brian and Amy began the long journey home, and Ted and Andrew happily wimped out of the drive and flew back to Portland.

All in all, it was a very, very successful conference. Based on the feedback we got from USENIX, they loved having us on center stage, and it was certainly great for us.

There's so many folks to thank that there's no good place to start. Thanks to Brian and Amy for driving the rocket around. Thanks to everyone in the software team for getting the demo to work - James, Jamey, Dave, Ian, Larry, to name a few. Thanks to Glenn and Tim who got the hardware working.

Thanks to Bart for starting this whole process and helping us through it.

Thanks to the Usenix folks - we'll include Keith here - for bringing us out, and who were incredibly helpful and pleasant.

USENIX also allowed us to push ourselves to get the avionics and ground systems to a crucial point of functionality. We're now on a path for an amazing September launch in Black Rock - congratulations, everyone!