MARX: Orion High School graduate Lisa Turner plays big role in successful rocket launch
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MARX: Orion High School graduate Lisa Turner plays big role in successful rocket launch

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I hover on the lower half of life's smart meter.

It is what it is.

When I give someone that puzzled "I don't get it'' look in mid-explanation, I often hear: "Dude, this is not rocket science.''

In the case of Orion High School graduate Lisa Turner, though, it is about rocket science.

Turner is one of the world's best at what she does.

Brilliant in many ways, Turner is a senior designer on the flight design team for United Launch Alliance.

ULA crafts trajectories for Atlas V and Delta rocket launches from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, Calif.

Turner and her design team of engineers and scientists are fresh from successfully using an Atlas V 411 rocket on Feb. 9 to launch the Solar Orbiter spacecraft on a mission of studying the sun for the European Space Agency and NASA.

This was Turner's eighth mission as the engineer responsible for leading the trajectory design. It was her first NASA mission.

According to Turner, the Solar Orbiter spacecraft is expected to loop the sun for the next decade — that's right, 10 years — using instruments to study the sun and look for evidence of what triggers solar winds, flares and storms.

It is also designed to help determine if space weather directly influences life on Earth by upsetting orbiting satellites, interfering with communications, and disrupting navigation signals.

"The Solar Orbiter spacecraft, after completing flybys of both Venus and the Earth, will come within 26 million miles of the sun's surface. This is actually inside the orbit of Mercury,'' Turner wrote in a recent email interview.

It was Turner who initiated a change just before the Atlas V launch that adjusted the payload to create a customized orbit that will help the spacecraft optimize its mission. That was a game changer for Atlas V.

"My role in this mission was to design the trajectory that the rocket would travel to deliver the spacecraft to its intended target,'' Turner wrote. "The unique aspect of these interplanetary missions is that these targets typically change day to day.

"In addition, the path the rocket needs to follow from liftoff to the daily target changes as the Earth rotates and orbits the sun. This typically results in hundreds of trajectories that need to be analyzed and bounded to ensure that both rocket and spacecraft meet their destinations safely.''

It should be noted that Atlas V is one of the world's most reliable launch vehicles used to deliver exploration spacecraft, satellites and classified payloads into space for NASA, the U.S. Air Force, the National Reconnaissance Office, and commercial customers.

Turner's craft demands precision and no margin for error. Each member of the design team is held to a standard the Average Joe or Jane might not understand.

"The trajectory path is often a collaboration between a few engineers,'' Turner said. "There is the initial trajectory design (which is what I do).

"Then there is guidance, navigation and control, which incorporates the flight software of the rocket and tells it how to steer," Turner added. "There's also a multitude of various engineers who each have an area of expertise in terms of analyzing the resulting affects of the trajectory on the rocket and spacecraft.

"There are thermal and heating constraints, timing and sequencing requirements, staging protocols, etc. These 'rules' exist for both the rocket and spacecraft, and we must ensure both vehicles are safe for the entire journey."

Turner said her career path was charted as a youngster. She has long been taken with the Great Beyond.

"I've wanted to be involved in the space program since I was about 10 years old,'' said Turner, who graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in aeronautical/astronautical engineering and then earned her master's degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado.

"My parents always supported my goals, and a week at Space Camp when I was in high school motivated me even more. After (college) graduation, I took a job at Lockheed Martin, working on trajectory design for the Atlas rocket program.''

The rest is successful mission after mission history.

Columnist John Marx can be reached at 309-757-8388 or jmarx@qconline.com.

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