From the Bunker: Control (Part 2 of 2 with Geoff Licciardello)

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Geoff Licciardello (Control, right) with engineer Lee Draper (DAQ, left) and engineer Jeremy Voigt (Checklist, center) during a recent cold flow test at the XCOR hangar.

This is the fifth in a series of posts “from the bunker,” interviews with the people behind the scenes at every hot fire and cold flow that takes place at XCOR.

Today we complete an interview which began last week with XCOR’s Geoff Licciardello (in the role of Control). Geo previously worked as Control on both the Lynx truss (5K18) and LOX pump tests, and currently works on all hydrogen program testing at XCOR.

We start with a brief answer to a question of how time changes for the crew when an engine is fired.

Bryan Campen: Do you have this experience with time that Jeremy mentioned as well, that it slows down during a hot fire?

Geoff Licciardello: Yes. I call it the hot fire time warpI might be set up to do a two second engine run, and I flip that switch and the engine starts running, and it feels like a long time for those two seconds.

But then I watch the video afterwards and go “oh, that was really fast!” It felt like ten seconds in front of the box, but everything seems to slow down a little bit when you’re actually there in person firing the engine. And I don’t know how to explain it, but everything seems to move in slow motion almost.

BC: When you began at XCOR, what was your first role on the test crew? 

GL: My first job on the test crew was as an intern, where I ran DAQ for a couple tests. When I came back full time they threw me over to running the checklist. Checklist was where I spent most of my time my first couple of years at XCOR, at first with the 5K18 stand, and then the LOX pump test stand.

As the hydrogen program came online I transitioned to being Control for all hydrogen work, because I was experienced running pumps on the other stand. That transitioned to being Control for hot fires.

That’s my progression so far. We try to do cross-training as well so different people are trained in different roles. Then if for some reason I can’t come in one day, someone else could take over for me. And you need that understanding before you start flipping valves, or become a test czar for a test.

BC: So that’s your progression. I’m curious how Control integrates with what roles during a test day, starting with Test Czar…

GL: During the actual test day there’s not much interaction between Test Czar and Control. Usually it’s between Checklist and Control. On the day, Czar usually has the job of watching and waiting with his hand over the shoulder of Control. If there is an issue, he’ll clap you really hard on the shoulder to shut things down so that you can deal with things if there’s an anomaly.

But it’s Checklist and Control that have the tight interactions.

Every test we run through the checklist. It’s really important that we do things in the right order, that we set everything at the right pressures and go through it all in a very orderly fashion.

When a command is called out, I repeat back that command to let Checklist know I’ve done it. There are a lot of steps on the list that need to happen in the right sequence.

Having everyone understand where they are at and where they want to be keeps things very smooth for test day.

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Chief Engineer Dan DeLong (Test Czar, left) in the XCOR bunker with engineer Mark Street (Control, right).

BC: One other question, about the Test Czar with the hand on the shoulder of Control. Can you explain that for readers?

GL: Sure. The tradition we’ve had at XCOR is, during an engine run, it’s a tense moment where things could happen quickly. Everyone is looking at the monitors and switches. Control has a lot do and is very focused on doing the job, but the Test Czar doesn’t have to worry about flipping switches. He is watching the engine and the stand, and if things need to stop quickly he is the best person to see that and to know that we should stop.

BC: Why not just shout?

GL: Engines are loud. It’s better than a verbal command you can’t see or feel.

BC: Anything else that I haven’t asked that you’d like to cover?

GL: Control Box is exciting. You feel a really strong connection with the hardware. And you are tangibly connected to everything that happens.

For anyone who wants to experience, the cool part is that you are the one right there with all the buttons, running the engine, flipping the switches. You are very involved with the test. It’s a lot of responsibility but at the same time, when you get a successful test off there is a high level of satisfaction.

If you’ve made it this far… congrats, and stay tuned for some pretty big news tomorrow!