Meet the IBEX Team: Janet Ball
Janet Ball helps build spacecraft one screw, specialized tool, or custom part at a time.
As a cost and schedule analyst at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in California, Janet works with engineers and technicians to order and purchase the parts they need to put the IBEX spacecraft together. "Depending on what it is they want to buy, I either enter an order into Lockheed Martin's procurement system to order it, or if it's commercially available off the shelf, I go out and buy it myself on my credit card," Janet said.
This means that Janet is one of the few people in the world who gets to handle most of the parts used to build spacecraft for scientific missions. "I actually touch flight hardware that goes into space," Janet said. "I touch pieces of satellites that I didn't put together, but I bought the stuff that was used to put them together."
Lately, Janet has been working to order flight parts, fasteners, screws, and other hardware. "The engineers always think of the big parts first, and then they come to me and say, 'We've got to put this together now - we need some screws!' she said.
While Janet spends much of her time ordering parts for the IBEX spacecraft, she also orders special tools to help assemble the parts. "Right now, I'm buying a handling tool assembly [for the optics deck]. We will be sending the optics deck out to a supplier for blackening with a matte finish so that it doesn't reflect light, and you can't touch the part after it's been blackened," she said.
After the spacecraft parts are delivered, Janet coordinates with the suppliers if the quality assurance team finds something wrong with a part, checks them to makes sure the order is correct, and takes parts that have been "okayed" to the IBEX Flight Stores area for safekeeping.
Working for Lockheed Martin is a family affair for Janet. Her father was an engineer and the director of materiel at Lockheed for 25 years. He helped her get her first summer job in 1980, when she was 19 years old. It is the only place she has ever worked. "I got hired as a 'technical typist.' This job doesn't even exist anymore!" Janet laughed. "I worked in Product Assurance, and I would type up documents and technical proposals."
Later, Janet said, "A woman who probably steered my life in a different direction saw my potential, and took me under her wing. She started teaching me how to do things in the 'salary world' rather than the 'hourly world'. I started learning to do budgets and costing. I transferred to the Lockheed Martin Palo Alto Research Lab for a training assignment. When I earned an Associate of Science degree in Business and my training assignment was completed, I was promoted to salary - I got my 'wings' and became a cost and schedule analyst," Janet said.
Although she has worked at Lockheed Martin for her entire adult life, Janet never turns down an opportunity to learn a new job skill. "I attend all of the training that I can to make myself more marketable... Lockheed came out with the credit card program 10 years ago, and I said, 'Hey, teach me!' I always try to learn something new and to keep an ear out for training to keep myself gainfully employed," Janet said.
Her desire to genuinely learn something new extends into the rest of her life. "When I was in college, I was interested in what the [instructor] was talking about - the planets and everything - but he was talking so fast, and you knew you had to write down everything, or memorize the 18 moons of Jupiter in alphabetical order, and then regurgitate it for the test and move on.... They just didn't let you sit and absorb it. I've often thought about going back to school and asking not to be graded so that I could just sit and listen," she said.
Working for Lockheed Martin has given Janet an insider's look into the world of space science. "I think the people I work with are highly intelligent." Janet is especially fascinated with how scientists dreamed up the IBEX mission and the instruments it will use to take measurements. "When I was a kid and I thought of NASA, I thought of Apollo missions and big science missions, but with IBEX, we're counting ions!" she said.
Janet says that contributing to a space mission like IBEX is the best part of her job. "I've helped build hardware that's floating around in space. I've touched it, seen it, and it's actually launched and out in space doing things, and I had a small part in making it."
When a spacecraft she has worked on doesn't succeed in its mission, Janet describes the loss as "devastating." Janet said, "We had a mission where the launch vehicle went into the ocean near Florida, and there went your two or three years of hard work just like that. It's a little like losing a member of the family. You're like, 'I remember losing sleep over that part, and now it's in the ocean!' We had high hopes that it was going to go out and do its mission, and it never even got off the ground."
One of the main challenges of her job is trying to make each engineer's request for parts her number one priority. "Because you have so many engineers and requestors, you may have to spend all day working on ordering one person's parts. He goes away happy, but there might be four other people in line who are unhappy. It's hard to please everybody, but you can't make them all the first priority, and they all want to be first. When you have to fess up and say you haven't gotten to [their order] yet - that's the worst part," Janet said.
Although her job can be challenging, Janet is excited to get started on each new project. "They have an interesting program coming up studying lightning, and that's fascinating, and should be really cool to work on," she said.
In the meantime, Janet keeps busy purchasing more parts and tools as the construction of the IBEX spacecraft progresses. At home, Janet keeps busy with tools, too - gardening tools! In her spare time, Janet likes to work in her garden, collect vintage Halloween postcards and memorabilia, and help her 9-year old son with his homework.