Crafting instruments to probe the atmosphere

Jack Fox, Manager


Jack Fox left NCAR in April 2010.

Photo of Jack Fox
Jack Fox (Photo by Carlye Calvin, UCAR.)

In 1966, high school sophomore Jack Fox spent the summer as an intern in NCAR's machine shop. 

He was hooked. "I compared every job I had after that to working at NCAR," he says. "I always wanted to come back."

Today, Jack is manager of NCAR's Design and Fabrication Services (DFS), which includes that very same machine shop. His team of 18 mechanical engineers and instrument makers designs and builds highly specialized tools and equipment for research in the atmospheric sciences. Working closely with researchers who will use the equipment in the field, the group fashions aircraft instrumentation, radars, laboratory equipment, balloon-borne instruments, satellites, ocean-going systems, and more.

Jack's favorite part of the job is brainstorming with researchers who come to the machine shop with everything from hazy visions of the instruments they want to highly detailed drawings they've prepared. "I get involved in the early stages of planning and it's a lot of fun," Jack says. "A scientist has an idea of what he or she wants to accomplish; we figure out how to build that instrument to make it do what it needs to do."

The unique demands of the atmospheric sciences put a twist on instrument design. Researchers may mount a device on an airplane, ship, or truck, or they may suspend it from a balloon at 120,000 feet (36,576 meters). It may be exposed to temperatures in the atmosphere as low as –70º Fahrenheit (–57º Celsius), or be required to withstand hurricane-force winds, rotate 360 degrees, create a vacuum, or capture aerosols.

"We've been building instruments for the atmospheric sciences community for 40 years," Jack says. "There aren't many problems we haven't seen in that time."

Another tricky aspect of building instruments for the atmospheric sciences is that often it's not possible to test the instruments before researchers employ them in the field. "We don't get to build a prototype and try it out," Jack says. "We build it and it goes straight into the field."

One of Jack's most recent and memorable efforts has been designing a balloon gondola for the Sunrise project, an international program to observe the Sun's outer surface. The balloon, which is scheduled for launch in 2007, will circle Antarctica for about two weeks approximately 25 miles (40 kilometers) above Earth, more than four times higher than commercial aircraft fly. 

Because the density of Earth's atmosphere is much thinner at this altitude, designing the gondola and accompanying instruments was especially challenging, particularly since the gondola must shelter a 1-meter diameter solar telescope. "There are a lot of complications with making instruments work in almost a complete vacuum—it's like building a satellite," Jack says.

Another exciting project for the DFS team was designing an installation for a lidar, or laser-based radar, on a Naval Research Laboratory P-3 Orion aircraft. The installation required a large fairing on the side of the aircraft to house a turning mirror that allowed the laser to be pointed up or down. The mount had to withstand forces of 20 g (g-forces are a measurement of the acceleration due to gravity you feel when riding a rollercoaster or making a hard turn in a car). That's far more than the average civilian aircraft is designed to handle. The team was forced to completely redesign parts of the airplane in order to accommodate the mount, but its efforts paid off as researchers successfully used the lidar in 2002 during one of the largest weather-related studies in U.S. history.

Photo of two men working on scientific equipment
In August 2006, Jack traveled to the African country of Niger as part of a field project to gather data on hurricane formation over the tropical Atlantic Ocean. A team of researchers launched balloons from Niger that drifted west over the Atlantic, releasing instrument packages called dropsondes along the way. Jack and colleagues in NCAR's Earth Observing Laboratory designed the highly compact dropsondes to endure the atmosphere's extreme cold, intense sunlight, and low pressure. Here, Jack (right) and colleague Keith Romberg load dropsondes into a balloon gondola on site in Zinder, Niger. "It's one thing to work with something in the shop, but another to go into the field and see how it's used," Jack says. “Despite the tough conditions in Niger, working with highly professional and congenial colleagues made the experience memorable and very positive." (Photo by Terry Hock, NCAR.)

Jack has been tinkering with mechanical parts all his life. As a child growing up in Broomfield, Colorado, he was always interested in how things worked. "Any time I got a toy, I took it apart—and usually put it back together," he recalls. 

His high school shop teacher encouraged him to pursue a machine trades program, which led him to the internship in the NCAR machine shop, where he was mentored by Marvin "Bud" Hewitt and Ferris Matthews. "I was in awe of their abilities," he remembers. 

After the internship, Jack knew he wanted to return to NCAR some day. But it took him some time to make his way back. When he finished high school, he joined the Navy, working in its nuclear power program. He realized during this time that he would need more education to advance his career, so he earned a license in airframe and power plant mechanics at Colorado Aero Tech (now Redstone College) after leaving the Navy.

His next step was a job at Particle Measuring Systems, a Boulder-based company that makes aerosol spectrometers. He also began working on a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The degree took him 12 years to complete since he worked full time, but he didn't give up. "The education was critical to my career path," he says.

Indeed, Jack's path came full circle in 1981, when he returned to NCAR as an instrument maker in DFS, advancing to designer and, eventually, manager of the facility. 

The biggest change he's observed over the decades is in how the instruments are made. "The materials are the same, but the way we build the parts is completely different," he says. 

The difference can be credited to computer numerical control of machine tools, abbreviated CNC. A CNC can machine surfaces and make precise cuts more efficiently than instrument makers can by hand. After a designer creates a three-dimensional model of an instrument in a software program called Solid Works, the software converts the model to a set of instructions for the CNC. An instrument maker programs and oversees the machine. "We can produce more parts faster and produce more complex parts, since it's all digital," Jack explains. 

Jack's belief in the scientific and social value of the atmospheric sciences helps him stay motivated in his career. "Science is the whole reason we can sustain society, and we wouldn't be where we are without it," he says.

His advice for people interested in science careers is to be very self-demanding. "You need to be passionate about the science and really get involved with it," he says. "The reward is being able to work with top-level people in the field. I get to work with these people every day."

Related Links

Drifters at Work—High-flying balloons track hurricane formation

by Nicole Gordon
December 2006

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