Jim at WSGT Antennas, 1996
TDRS-E Before Geosynchronous Orbital Insertion Flight
TDRS-HIJ Gen-2, Artist Rendering
What led you to the path of this interest?
I believe it was a childhood illness (bed ridden with rheumatic fever) that made me so interested in outer space. A home tutor kept me up to speed with my third grade St. Gerard classmates, but in my spare time there was nothing to do but read books and listen to music on the radio (no physical exercise allowed). The Irving grade school branch of the Lima Public Library was only two blocks away and one of my friends would bring me books about physical and natural science, rocketry, airplanes, and plenty of science fiction. I had a large poster of all the planets hanging over my bed and loved looking at it.
What led you to your career?
My 4 year hitch in the USAF (1964-1968) as an Automatic Flight Control System specialist provided valuable training and experience in electronic control systems. Also, a Temporary Duty assignment to New Mexico gave me some experience in the high desert and beautiful national forests that eventually resulted in my relocating there in 1973. I had no idea that NASA was going to build the Space Network ground stations there, but I was already working on computer controlled systems at Burroughs Corp. in Lima and had also successfully tested for my First Class FCC Radiotelephone license. I decided to pack up, leave Ohio in the Autumn months, and head for New Mexico. My first enterprise was an electronics repair shop in Alamogordo, NM to pay our bills while taking some more engineering courses at NM State University. After moving to Las Cruces, NM for better access to the university, I eventually went to work at the NMSU Research building, mainly supporting the Astronomy Department. This was the time of the Voyager missions and one of the NMSU astronomers, Rita Beebe, was a member of that team. I designed and built some computerized photographic plate measuring system enhancements for her that may have been used in the mission planning. When the openings for the Space Network White Sands Ground Terminal were announced, I applied and was hired by the main contractor, Spacecom. That began a 35 year stint at the White Sands Ground Terminal (WSGT), starting out as a Senior Technician and ending up as a Principal Design Engineer. While it was all happening, it seemed a chaotic jumble of unrelated events, but looking back, it just seems like a logical and natural progression.
What is the most memorable thing you have done in your career?
The largest project, and one that saved the Space Network from extended down times and data losses, was the design, construction, and installation of the Replacement Data Bus at WSGT. It replaced a failing site control system that had never been very reliable, but the site's performance shot through the roof after the switchover to the new hardware. There were definitely other important players in the project design team, including the project manager, the software leads, and the implementation team. Still, it was a real hoot to walk out on the equipment floor and see the indicator lights on my hardware merrily flashing like a marquee as they provided a visual indication of the site's activity. That system was eventually replaced when the entire WSGT ground station was upgraded to match the new Second TDRS Ground Terminal (STGT). I have since designed critical fixes and built many new or replacement devices for the Space Network, but the Data Bus Replacement was the biggest and most memorable. The whole of the Space Network was being controlled by my hardware. What a glorious chance to “spread your wings and fly”!
What are your thoughts on the privatization of space exploration? (ie Elon Musk, Richard Branson)
The advent of commercial space enterprise seems to have given our national space program a much needed transfusion of ideas and capabilities. The Space-X vehicles are performing really well and the boosters land themselves after each launch. Their ISS crew and supply missions have been very successful, and they are now looking at even bigger challenges like the moon and Mars. The few expensive joy rides taken by rich people don’t really bother me – we learn by doing, and those trips help pay the bills while adding to the experiential databases.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
This answer is still related to my NASA career. Some of my latest designs and installations that occurred in the 21st century are still in operation and supporting a wide aspect of our nations space endeavors. The data for all of those beautiful Hubble Telescope pictures passed through a little bit of me on it’s way to earth. All of the International Space Station data is supported by Local Interface systems that were installed by my Engineering Changes. Launches and range safety now have extensive communication coverage from the TDRS satellites due to a Ground Network Modulator addition that is approximately 50% my design. In the grand scheme of our nation’s space efforts, there are many people working “behind stage” that you never know about. They come from towns, cities, farms, etc. all across our nation. To my home town of Lima, Ohio, I extend a hearty “thank you” for the excellent education received in your parochial school system.
Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
In all of the above responses, there are a lot of personal pronouns, but successful fixes and enhancements to the Space Network always involved a real team effort. The NASA “gold standard” for Engineering Changes included open dialogue with operational personnel to get an accurate picture of the problem or goal; followed by consultation, analysis, and design reviews with hardware/software engineering and maintenance departments; then reliance upon a talented implementation staff to build and install the Engineering Changes in a scheduled and thoroughly controlled manner; and finally comprehensive testing of the final product by a Test Ops and Analysis team. The Space Network is a national asset that supports a wide array of scientific and manned space flight missions. The rank and file supporting that extensive satellite communication network are some of the most dedicated and patriotic people I have ever had the pleasure to know and work with. Keep ‘em flying!
Retired NASA engineer Jim McBarron models an astronaut's glove.
Jim McBarron showing a space suit to Queen Elizabeth
James McBarron was an aerospace technologist who worked on spacesuits for every NASA program, from Mercury to the International Space Station. During high school and college, McBarron worked a series of odd jobs — car washer, Christmas tree lot salesman, movie theater usher, and bartender. When he was hired as a test subject (for spacesuits) for the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Aeromedical Laboratory in 1958, the work was a lot more exotic and much more grueling. To simulate the extreme conditions of space travel, McBarron was ordered to do tests like sitting in a hot box that could reach temperatures of 200 degrees or dip into an ice water tank that averaged minus-20 degrees. McBarron did all this for $1.85 per hour, $3 per hour for hazardous tests, but he had found his career path. NASA offered him a job as an aerospace technologist in 1961, changing his life trajectory.
McBarron was there during the Apollo 13 crisis that inspired a book and movie. McBarron referenced his experience depicted in the movie Apollo 13 when a man in charge dumps items on a table and challenges everyone to find a solution to build a carbon dioxide filter that would keep the Apollo 13 crew alive as they traveled back to Earth. McBarron was there, in the real-life crisis. “I was one of those guys who had to solve the problem,” he said.
McBarron worked for NASA from 1961 until his retirement in 1999. During his time with NASA, he supported the Manned Spacecraft Center at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas and worked with spacesuits for all NASA flight programs including Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, Skylab, Shuttle, and the International Space Station. In 1999, he took a position with ILC Dover, Inc. as Spacesuit Systems Manager where he reviewed advanced spacesuit technology requirements and design concepts for future manned space flight programs. In 2002, he joined the “Gray Beards” and provided knowledge and insight learned from past programs to support development of advanced spacesuit technology and inflatable products for current and future manned-space missions including the Artemis Project.
McBarron passed away in November of 2020 a the age of 82.
M31 (The Andromeda Galaxy) is a barred spiral galaxy that lies approximately 2.5 million light-years away from Earth. It is the nearest galaxy to our Milky Way.
IC 1396 (The Elephant’s Trunk Nebula) is an emission nebula that lies 2,400 light-years from Earth.
Caldwell 49 (The Rosette Nebula) is an emission nebula that lies 5,000 light-years from Earth, which contains numerous newborn stars.
M42 (The Orion Nebula) is a reflection nebula that lies 1,300 light-years from Earth, and it is visible to the naked eye when viewed away from light-polluted skies.
What led you to the path of this interest?
I recall being enthralled by space at an early age. My grandmother gifted me books about space, and I would stare in awe at the enclosed images. However, it was not until recently when I realized that the beauty of our universe could be captured from my own backyard with modest equipment. Once I learned that I do not need the equivalent of a Hubble Space Telescope, I began researching and slowly acquiring more capable tools.
What did it take for you to begin astrophotography?
It took many hours, days, weeks, and months of research. I purchased my first DSLR in 2021 and began learning how to use it. Then, I purchased a Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer to mount the camera onto. This allowed the camera to take 30s-60s exposures because the mount rotates the camera to counteract the rotation of the our planet and prevent star trails. After learning the basics of image acquisition and processing, I purchased an entry-level refractor telescope, which replaced my 50mm camera lens. I was able to attach my camera to the telescope and acquire more detailed images. Along the way, I spent hours upon hours watching tutorials, reading books, and reading blog posts, all of which provided essential information for learning how to find targets, configure proper exposure parameters, and how to process the images.
You've recently begun developing an app to help with this. Can you tell us more about that?
When imaging targets in the night sky, it is preferred to image away from light pollution. This can be quite challenging when living in a larger city as there is likely to be much more light pollution. Because of this, astrophotographers use what are known as narrowband filters. These filters are designed to let specific wavelengths of light through to the camera, which reduces the effects of light pollution. Some filters are susceptible to light pollution, so this can impact imaging sessions even when away from city light pollution because light pollution also comes from the moon. In order to help myself determine which filters I may want to use when imaging, I am in the process of building an application that computes the phase of the moon, the illumination percentage of the moon, and other data that will allow me to clearly see which filters are appropriate for each imaging session. Planning is a critical part of astrophotography, so I wanted to combine two of my skillsets (software development and astrophotography) and build something that will help me better plan.
How does your camera capture what the eye cannot see?
Because human eyes are not made for viewing many of the objects we see in space, we use cameras to capture images in order to see the details that we would otherwise miss. Most objects appear as faint, fuzzy, gray blobs when viewed through an optical telescope. However, the objects can come to life, with the help of image processing, after capturing many long exposures. Because space is dark, and because night time is dark, long exposures are needed to collect as much light as possible from the distant and faint objects that we see with our eyes. Typically, each image I take is five minutes long, and I can take upward of 500 exposures, but it depends on the target and sky quality. After I have captured all of the images that I want of a specific target, the files are inspected and processed with software to bring out the colors and details. This is the same process that goes into the images from the Hubble Space Telescope.
What is top on your list to still capture and why? How difficult will that be to achieve?
I live in the Northern Hemisphere, which means I do not have physical access to targets in the Southern Hemisphere. This means I am missing out on capturing the Large Magellanic Cloud, which is a satellite galaxy of our own, the Milky Way galaxy. Contained within are beautiful structures of gasses and dust that provide spectacular details. I desire to make a trip to Australia in the future. In the meantime, there is no shortage of diverse and wonderful targets that I can capture from home. The only limiting factor is time and weather conditions.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
I am a nerd at heart. I build software for my day job and for fun, and I have a strong passion for space. However, I am not a typical nerd. I have never watched a Star Wars movie, nor have I watched an episode of Star Trek.When I was young, I used to dislike riding in the car with my grandfather because he always listened to AM talk radio. Now, my wife pokes fun at me because I rarely listen to music as my listening usually involves a queue of many podcasts about space and technology. I can only assume that as my daughter grows, she will think the same thoughts when riding with me that I once did when riding with my grandfather.
Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
Astrophotography is a rewarding hobby. With the ever-growing plague of light pollution, there are places in which adults have never seen anything in the night skies other than a handful of the brightest stars. There are ways to minimize your impact on the growing problem of light pollution. To learn how you can contribute to better sky conditions, not only for hobbyists, but also for scientists, you can learn more by visiting the International Dark-Sky Association’s website. There, you can learn about responsible lighting and other ways to help us preserve our night skies.If you have any interest in getting started with astrophotography, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will be happy to share resources, knowledge, and provide recommendations that will set you up for a rewarding experience.
Lastly, you can see my current collection of images at https://www.astrobin.com/users/nickkohrn/.