Protecting NASA’s Parker Solar Probe

Parker solar probe

In 1941, John Gillespie Magee, Jr., a fighter pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force, was killed in a mid-air collision over the bucholic hamlet of Roxholme, England. Practicing maneuvers in his Spitfire VZ-H, an aircraft he’d flown in engagement with the German Luftwaffe just four weeks earlier, Magee was just 19 years old when he died. The son of Anglican missionaries, Magee was educated in Britain and the United States before volunteering for war service in 1940, and it was his early years at Rugby, one of England’s oldest and most venerated public schools, that instilled in him a strong sense of duty and statesmanship. And it also inculcated in Magee another passion. The alma mater of Edwardian poet Rupert Brooke, Rugby also cultivated in the young Magee a passion for poetry, which he channeled into the writing of sonnets. The most enduring, of which, High Flight, is the reason for our reflection on the young fighter-poet today. Recited by such illuminati as Orson Welles, Cary Grant, and Bob Hope, this poem has accompanied astronaut Michael Collins on his Gemini 10 mission, and was quoted both by former NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz’s in his book Failure is Not an Option, and in a speech by President Ronald Reagan following the Challenger disaster in 1986. The final phrase reveals why the work, the official poem of both the British and Canadian Royal Air Force, is so beloved of astronauts:

“Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
РPut out my hand, and touched the face of God.Ӡ

We’ll confess: the very idea of slipping ‘the surley bonds of Earth’ to climb toward the solar planes brings with it a chill, frisson of excitement, a shiver at the possibility that such advancement might be within our reach.

And, in a sense, the idea of ‘touching’ the sun is the impetus behind NASA’s Parker Solar Probe initiative, currently scheduled for launch on August 4th 2018. The probe will be conveyed out of Earth orbit on the back of a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, FL. Flying into the solar atmosphere it will hover approximately 4 million miles from the (notional) surface, tracing the movement of energy and heat and analyzing solar winds and energetic particle distribution.

…the invitation did, however, come with a number of stipulations – all of which involved familiarity with cleanroom protocols.

That in itself makes for interesting reading, but of course a contamination-control angle makes it even more exciting to us. In an interesting move on the part of the agency, NASA invited applications from the media to gain direct access to the craft that will touch the face of God. Last Friday – notably the thirteenth, for readers with paraskevidekatriaphobia – a handful of journalists were invited to photograph the spacecraft and interview lead project team members. Although freely open to anyone with a government-issued ID, the invitation did, however, come with a number of stipulations – all of which involved familiarity with cleanroom protocols. Here’s the list…

Per NASA, to be granted access to the probe, all applicants must comply with the following conditions:

  • Full clean room attire (bunny suits) will be furnished and must be worn during the media opportunity.
  • Long pants and closed-toe shoes must be worn. No tank tops, shorts or skirts will be permitted.
  • Please do not wear perfume, cologne, hair spray or makeup. Those wearing makeup will be required to remove it prior to entry.
  • Photographers will need to clean camera equipment under the supervision or assistance of contamination-control specialists. All camera equipment must be self-contained.
  • Nonessential equipment, such as suede, leather or vinyl camera bags, carrying cases, camera straps, or accessories with Velcro must be left outside the clean room.
  • No notebook paper, pencils or click-type ball point pens are permitted; clean-room paper and non-retractable ball point pens will be provided.
  • No transmitting devices will be permitted in the clean room, to include: cell phones, key fobs, Apple watches, camera remote controls, Fitbits and similar Bluetooth devices.
  • Electronic flash will be permitted. The lighting in the facility is LED for pictures.
  • No food, chewing gum, tobacco, lighters, matches or pocketknives will be allowed.(1)

Now, although this seems like a robust list of measures for ensuring a minimized risk of contamination, we do think there are a couple of things that could usefully be added or elucidated. And there is still time – a point to which we will return later.

Firstly, it might be helpful to explain to potential attendees exactly what the term ‘personal protective equipment’ covers. Unless you know what is meant by a ‘bunny suit,’ for instance, it is not immediately clear why skirts or shorts would not be permitted attire. And although most folks are familiar with the hazmat suits as a general concept, of the extent of the PPE might not be completely understood – from the shoe covers to beard masks, hoods to oversleeves it can be a confusing world to those entering it for the first time. Moreover, it will not be clear to those in the media that specific pre-gowning and gowning protocols must be followed. Cleanroom SOPs are formulated for a reason and the following of efficient but thorough processes is critical. Donning PPE is a routine with specific steps to be taken at specific stages, with great thought put into how best to maximize worker productivity (when employees are fully gowned and ready to work) and minimize the potential for contamination through sloppy practices and the adoption of shortcuts. And let’s not even get started on the intricacies of moving from the gowning area to the cleanroom itself. Need we mention positive pressure, air showers, unidirectional airflow, slow but purposeful movement, and so on…?

With assistance of the contamination-control specialists, cameras will be wiped down thoroughly with an IPA wiper prior to entering the cleanroom.

Moreover, for the photographers in the group, not only with they have to deal with self-decontamination, but their equipment will also come under scrutiny. And for anyone who’s balked even at the TSA scrutiny of our point-and-shoot cameras knows, clarification of the ways in which expensive professional equipment will be handled might be reassuring. With assistance of the contamination-control specialists, cameras will be wiped down thoroughly with an IPA wiper prior to entering the cleanroom. The chemicals used to decontaminate the camera will not cause damage but it should be noted that both the equipment and the gloves used to handle the equipment will need to be decontaminated.

‘Cleanroom Paper Vs Standard Copy Paper’

For reporters, even in this high-tech age of tablets and hand-held devices, an old-fashioned notebook is still an industry fall back. But the stipulation that a notebook and pen will not be permitted within the controlled environment may be a source of concern to those who have not spent time within the confines of an aseptic environment. As we outline in our Learning Center post, ‘Cleanroom Paper Vs Standard Copy Paper,’ our BCR® Bond 850 – a strategically selected wood pulp blended with a synthetic latex binder – reduces particulate shedding from the 7200 particles per foot cubed of standard copy paper to just 68 particles in the same cubic volume.(2) Using the Helmke Drum test method in which sheets of paper are placed in a rotating drum and the loosened particulate matter is analyzed by an airborne particle counter, Berkshire’s BCR® Bond 850 was found to have superbly low particulate loss. Additionally, our cleanroom paper shows significantly lower typical ion values for chlorine, sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. See our product information sheet for all metrics.(3)

And then finally, there’s the question of cellphones and other ‘transmitting devices’ in cleanrooms. From a security point of view, it’s clear that cellphones are non grata. On an innovative mission such as the Parker Solar Probe, an integral component of the ‘Living with a Star’ (LWS) program of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, having a cellphone-based ‘leak’ of sensitive data could pose a threat not only to the individual mission but also to the future of the over-arching program. One of the stated objectives of LWS is to provide a ‘detailed characterization of radiation environments useful in the design of more reliable electronic components for air and space transportation systems.’(4) This goal certainly brings with it some national security issues. Moreover, the target of acquiring the ‘data and scientific understanding required for advanced warning of energetic particle events that affect the safety of humans’ could also conceivably be used against the interests of the United States if erroneously delivered to unintended parties.(5)

But more than that, as we outlined in our earlier article ‘Should Cellphones Be Allowed in a Cleanroom: Viral Vectors – Why Cellphone Users Might Have More to Fear Than Rogue Apps,’ those innocent-looking slabs of silicon circuitry bedecked with cheerful app tiles can be the ideal vectors of myriad bacteriological, particulate, fungal, and viral contamination. As noted: ‘A gloved hand instinctively reaches beneath protective garb to fish the ringing phone out of a pocket and voila – that glove needs to be changed. Without much thought, the user has had contact with the clothes beneath their personal protective equipment – gowns or suits. And then there’s the glove-to-screen contact with the device itself: while old-fashioned cellphones with push buttons are the worst culprits for harboring dirt, touch-screen devices come in a close second.’(6) So it is more than ‘just’ an abundance of caution on the national security level that drives NASA to ban these devices within its controlled environments.

And that has to be a good enough reason to don that bunny suit correctly and ditch that dog-eared steno pad and sticky cellphone.

But back to the spacecraft… Having survived its ‘Meet the Press Challenge,’ the Parker Solar Probe will embark upon an epic adventure. Flying closer to our sun than any other craft has ever attempted, it will contend with indescribable temperatures and press through intense radiation to collect ‘samplings’ of the star’s corona, the envelope of plasma that surrounds its fiery heart. At mission’s end, it is possible that we will have gained hitherto unparalleled insight into the star’s role in our sun-Earth system, its effect on space weather and terrestrial climate change, and its potential impact on future long-term manned missions. And that has to be a good enough reason to don that bunny suit correctly and ditch that dog-eared steno pad and sticky cellphone. So it is fortunate that representatives of the media still have the opportunity to do this correctly. In a tweet last Friday – the day the briefing was to take place – NASA confirmed a rescheduling ‘to repair a minor tubing leak in ground support equipment discovered during Parker #SolarProbe processing.’(7) The agency went on to say ‘The spacecraft is healthy and we’ll work to provide updated spacecraft photos before encapsulation.’(8) Given the extra advance warning let’s hope the contamination control guidelines can be fleshed out a little more fully and clearly, and that those lucky few selected will benefit from a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stand close to the probe that will ‘touch the face of God.’

Excited by the objectives of the Parker Solar Probe initiative? We’d love to know your thoughts!


  5. ibid
  8. ibid

† The full poem, High Flight by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., reads as follows:

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

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