In “The Mystery of Firefly Field,” written by Andy Calloway, a young boy learns about the night sky to save a host of fireflies before new construction and light pollution signal their end. In the story, the boy saves the day (and the fireflies); but Calloway's vast knowledge of the night sky notwithstanding, there is no saving MESSENGER, a spacecraft that he's helped operate for the last decade. On April 30, the Mercury orbiter will impact the planet at about 8,750 miles per hour, creating a crater as wide as 52 feet.
A veteran member of the MESSENGER mission team for 13 years, Calloway has served for the last eight as the Mission Operations Manager, or more affectionately as “MOM.” Calloway explained, “It will be a bit surreal for the team on that final orbit when we no longer receive the signal from our intrepid spacecraft. MESSENGER has been dutifully collecting data all these years in one of the most challenging thermal and space weather environments of the entire Solar System. On that final orbit, the probe will travel behind the planet from Earth’s perspective, as it has hundreds of times before, but unlike those times it will never re-emerge from the opposite side. Its signal will still be traveling through space back to Earth, however, after the spacecraft has hit the surface.”
“Mission operations is often considered the hub of a space program, and that’s the best part of serving as MOM. I have the privilege of interacting with so many talented and dedicated people, especially our mission operations team and people representing ground systems, flight systems engineers, project management, the Deep Space Network, scientists and science planners and sequencers, the navigation and mission design teams, and countless others,” he said. “Every day is different, and there are always new obstacles and engineering challenges to overcome, so it is a very rewarding position and career.”
After graduating in 1989 from the Georgia Institute of Technology with a degree in Aerospace Engineering, Calloway wasn’t considering a career in space operations. For one, the aerospace job market was difficult in the wake of the 1986 Challenger tragedy. So he chose to pursue a master’s degree in Space Sciences at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne (where he met his future wife, Alexandra). During that time, Martin Marietta came to campus recruiting flight control candidates for their new communications satellite fleet, an opportunity that included training in East Windsor, N.J., followed by a year in the Pocono Mountains.
Calloway accepted their offer. “I learned a great deal about space operations and spacecraft subsystems in those early years by supporting several launches and early checkout campaigns, including Telstar 401 (on the first launch of an Atlas II-AS rocket), followed by Telstar 402, 402-R, AsiaSat2, EchoStar-1, and others,” he said. “In 1994 I supported the BS-3N communications satellite team in Kimitsu, Japan, for three months. I loved Japan, the culture, and the people, and it was certainly one of the highlights of my early career. After such variety and experience in a relatively short amount of time, I knew then that I wanted to continue in space flight operations as my career of choice.”
In 1996, when Martin Marietta merged with Lockheed and announced plans to close the New Jersey facility in favor of Sunnyvale, Calif., Calloway chose instead to accept an offer to support the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, a joint mission between NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency designed to monitor and study tropical rainfall.
“TRMM provided a great opportunity to enhance my geostationary communications satellite experience with a low-Earth-orbiting mission and Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) System communications,” he said. “One mission highlight was the decision to forego a controlled re-entry and boost TRMM’s orbit to prolong the mission, which required working closely with NASA Johnson Space Center on collision avoidance contingencies with the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle.” Ironically, he noted, TRMM science data collection just concluded earlier in April, the same month that MESSENGER will be impacting Mercury.
Calloway joined APL in 2002, continuing his journey from geosynchronous Earth-orbital missions to low-Earth-orbit missions to deep space mission operations with MESSENGER. He started off as the operations lead for command and data handling and instrument operations, then deputy operations manager, and eventually MOM. He has been with the team through launch, a 6.6-year cruise phase that included six planetary flybys, Mercury orbit insertion, and four years of orbit operations.
There have been several memorable moments, he said, such as the first Mercury flyby in over 30 years. “The pinnacle, however, was Mercury orbit insertion on St. Patrick’s Day, 2011,” he said. “We knew that after 6.6 years we were finally beginning our primary mission, and no other team could ever claim to be the first to orbit a spacecraft around Mercury. My son was just eight months old when MESSENGER launched, and he grew up with MESSENGER, as did many other children across the project.”
“We are indeed explorers, as exemplified by those first Mercury flyby images from the previously unseen territory of Mercury,” he continued. “One afternoon during Family Day I observed my young daughter casually spinning the first complete globe of Mercury, something that would not have been possible prior to MESSENGER. I knew then that all the years of hard work and dedication by so many had paid off! What better legacy for my children than to be able to say I contributed to re-writing the textbooks on our Solar System. And who knows, maybe in a hundred years, someone will build a museum on Mercury around MESSENGER.”
When he’s not flying spacecraft around the Solar System, Calloway spends a lot of time with his family – “from swimming to scouting and everything in between.” He is also active within his parish, and he is an avid tennis player, playing in many United States Tennis Association leagues over the years. “I learned to love the game of tennis from my parents,” he said. “As a child I lived for three years in Lima, Peru, where they have real clay courts; and then I grew up in south Florida, where tennis is played year-round. I have pictures of my grandmother playing tennis in the early 1900s and then in her 80s, and I hope to continue that tradition with my own children.”
And what will he do once MESSENGER is gone? “My next goal is to one day be a published children’s book author, having written stories for early readers through middle grade,” he said. “My firefly story was adapted for a local planetarium show last year, and now I’m hooked. And who knows, maybe an upcoming adventure will again involve the planet closest to the Sun.”