BERKELEY– At noon Tuesday – 30 hours before a satellite was supposed to launch – the head of the University of California, Berkeley’s Space Sciences Lab sent an alarming email.
“Here’s an update on the impact of the power shutdown,” it began. “Overall, we are not optimistic we can pull this off but we are working as hard as we can to make it happen, if everything falls our way.”
If PG&E’s power outage went as planned, it would not only close schools, spoil stores of ice and food supplies, and darken thousands of homes, it would also disconnect the UC Berkeley lab. The team, which built NASA’S ICON satellite, needed power to monitor its scheduled takeoff Wednesday at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
As cities braced for PG&E’s mass preemptive power shutdown, the director of mission control headed out to buy extension cords. So began a DIY effort to jerry-rig the science lab and keep the fallout from PG&E’s outages confined to Earth.
“I said, get over to Home Depot and buy some stuff,” said Steven Beckwith, director of the Space Sciences Lab and a professor of astronomy at Cal. “We were concerned we would have to scrub the launch.”
By 3:48 p.m., James Sampson, chief of facilities at the Berkeley lab, and Manfred Bester, the head of ICON’s mission control operations, were on their way out of the store, pushing a shopping cart stuffed with $1,000 worth of electrical cords for a $175 million satellite. A New York Times photographer, captured the moment: A mustached, tattooed man with a serious look, pushing a cart stuffed with extension chords, his bespectacled companion looking on with a smirk, like they were sharing an inside joke.
“At a Home Depot store in Emeryville, Calif., on Tuesday,” the caption read, under a story about the expected PG&E shutoffs.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen movies about space missions?” Paula Milano, executive officer of the science lab asked. “Sometimes you only get a box of Band-Aids and rubber bands. That was the case here.”
The hundreds of feet wiring fed dozens of computers, a meeting room, and microwaves, refrigerators and freezers for the crew of about 50 scientists and engineers. Someone brought in a generator from a neighboring campus building; a second generator arrived to power the computer servers.
NASA requires mission control to be on a primary power source for a launch, Beckwith said, but the university’s contract with the space agency allowed Berkeley to make its own decision.
“We were willing to take that risk,” Beckwith said. The satellite, which will collect measurements to help scientists study the relationship between terrestrial weather and space weather, had already suffered several delays since its scheduled launch in 2017. It’s last planned launch, from Cape Canaveral last October, was scrubbed just minutes before it was set to take off.
With PG&E expected to cut off power to Cal’s campus at noon Wednesday – six hours before the scheduled launch – scientists at the Space Sciences Lab worried there wouldn’t be enough fuel to feed the generators it needed to pull off the mission.
Charlie Robertson had been working nonstop. As an account representative for Concord-based Pacific States Petroleum, he was zigzagging across Sonoma and Napa counties Tuesday, bringing fuel to hospitals, wineries, supermarkets and hardware stores, when he got a call from Milano.
“It was Paula and she mentioned that they are going to be putting a rocket up in space,” Robertson said. “I told her we’ll take care of you.”
He spent the rest of Tuesday and Wednesday on standby, ready to deliver fuel.
“We are a customer-service company. I treat everyone the same,” Robertson said. “Whether it’s a rocket going into space or a refrigerated trailer going in at Safeway.”
At 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, the power was still on at the Space Sciences Lab as the launch team assessed weather conditions 3,000 miles away in Florida. While dangerous wind conditions predicted by PG&E had not materialized in the Bay Area, pushing the utility to delay the outages until later Wednesday, the weather in Florida delayed the liftoff until Thursday.
It was not ideal for a mission that had seen lengthy delays since its original launch, scheduled in 2017, but it gave the crew at Berkeley some time to breathe. Power eventually went out in Berkeley, and across most of the Bay Area, at around 11 p.m. Wednesday.
Because it was uncertain when the PG&E power would return, the lab stayed on a campus generator Thursday when the Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) spacecraft lifted off at 7 p.m. PST aboard a Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket, released from its carrier plane, Stargazer L-1011.
“If there are space gods they were smiling on us,” Milano said.