06 December 2018

Hidden Damage

     Of course, it took one of the Power Room electricians to find it.

     And of course, it was the ternary degausser.  The degaussers don’t run very often but they’re absolutely essential.  They’re after the output of the [CLASSIFIED], five hundred feet right after the big ion trap, and cycle on whenever the induced magnetism of the support structure exceeds a preset level. There’s a neat little magnostrictive oscillator to detect it, and—  But that’s too much geekery already.  The blamed thing kept tripping the breaker and the riggers and I hadn’t been able to figure out why.  I was sure the problem had to be in the wiring or hardware out on the boom; there’s a lot of stress on everything out there and we’d replaced the transformers for it just last year. The most recent breaker trip was nasty enough that it glitched the stardrive -- and it was pure luck it didn't happen at a critical time.

     Dr. Schmid, the Chief's boss, decided we needed an electrician and I figured he was right.  The degausser secondaries run a couple of hundred Amps through the coils.  Power Room’s got test gear that’ll read that high; we don’t.  The primary current’s only 19 or 20 Amps per leg, at 480 Volts, and even that’s enough energy to make plasma arcs on a bad day.

     Ron, the electrician, was whistling a tune I didn’t recognize when he showed up at the Drive Room in one of the little electric service vehicles, loaded down with tools and supplies.  There were a couple of riggers waiting with me, already in their pressure suits except for gloves and helmets.  Ron’s first words after introductions were, “So what’s going on with this thing?”

     “It keeps blowing the breaker,” I told him.  “We haven’t been able to find any wiring problems and every check I’ve had the riggers make out at the transformer looks okay.  I’m mystified.”

     “Well, let’s set up to see what happens and give it a try.”

     The riggers finished suiting up, Ron handed out clamp-on ammeters and we got set up: riggers in vacuum out on the boom, checking at the first junction box and the transformer, me inside watching the degausser controller and contactor in their explosion-proof box, with the door open, and the electrician at the breaker panel around the corner and a few steps down the passageway.  I had the controller off, so the contact wasn’t going to pull in and we’d just be checking the wiring from the breaker to it for this first step.  Just turn it on and right back off, unless it tripped first.

     He shouted “Here we go,” reset the breaker and something went POP! like a firecracker.

     I yelled, “Dammit!” right afterwards. 
     My radio clicked and on of the riggers asked, “What was that thump?  I felt it through the conduit!”

     Ron had come over to where I was by then, and asked, “What was it?”

     “I don’t know.   Not the contactor closing; it’s pretty quiet.”

     “You want to try again?”

     I said sure, told the riggers to listen close, and sure enough, the same thing happened.  Pop!

     So, we’re clever, we checked the wiring from the breaker to the contactor, unhooked it from the breaker and pulled it out of the conduit, laid it out on the floor.  Nothing.  Twenty years old and the wires looked brand new.

     Ron looked at me.  “You sure that contactor’s off?”

     “Should be.”

     He said, "Mm," and we traded a look.  “Should be” often isn’t and we both knew it.

     On close examination, the contactor -- a big relay -- seemed fine.  The contacts are fully enclosed for safety, so you can’t see them, but the moving part, the armature, has a little tab that sticks out and that was clearly in the de-energized position and moved freely.

     Ron whistled a couple of bars of something vaguely classical while getting an ohmmeter out of his toolbar.  “I wonder….,” he said, more to himself than to me.

     Three measurements later, we weren’t wondering.  Three sets of contacts in the thing and one was open just like it should be, one was closed…and one read a few hundred Ohms instead of zero or infinity.
      I went to look for a spare contactor on the parts inventory.  He started taking the old one apart.

* * *
     Ten minutes later, having come up dry on a replacement, I walked back to see how things were going and Ron handed me a set of contacts.  No bigger than dimes, scarred and blackened.  “They weren’t quite welded together.  I pried them apart.”

     I looked them over.  “Ugly.  Inventory shows we should have three replacement contactors, the whole thing, new in the box; note says the last one got used in ’97, right before I started.”

     “These’ll clean up.  How’re you fixed for sandpaper?” 

     In the end, it took fine files to clear up the worst set. In a half-hour, we had them all smooth, shiny, and moving freely.  With the contactor back together and wired up, he returned to the breaker, I radioed the riggers to watch their meters, and told Ron, “Power up!”

     He hit the breaker — and there was no pop.  I waited a minute and tapped the manual override button.  The contactor pulled in with a muted “clunk,” followed by the riggers checking in on the radio:

     “Twenty Amps at the J-box, over!”

     “Degausser’s humming like normal.  Twenty Amps. Over.”

     “Thanks, guys.  Stand by.” I raised my voice.  “Ron, you hear that?  Looking good!”

     He walked around the corner smiling.  “It must have single-phased every time you reset the breaker!”

     I gave him a rueful grin, “Yeah, and arced like a son of a gun.”

     He nodded.  “The worse set of contacts were wedged in at a kind of funny angle.  It can’t have been good.”

     I told the riggers to button everything up and head for the airlock.  I cleared the manual override, but the degaussers stayed on, with the flickering red light of the “magnetization detected” indicator lit up.   Ron and I closed things up — gutter covers on the breaker box, the lid of the explosion-proof enclosure for the degausser contactor and controller — and about the time we finished, the red light went out and the contactor released with a soft thump.  No arc, no popping sounds.

     It’s easy sometimes to leap to a conclusion and become too attached to it.  If I’d suspected the contactor myself, it wouldn’t’ve taken much effort to open it up and check, or put an ohmmeter across it.  But I hadn’t.  It took a fresh pair of eyes — and a lack of preconceptions — to find the problem.

24 October 2018

The Problem With Captains

     It was the problems with the data-loggers on the old Billy How that clued me in that the ship's new owners were going to be difficult to work for.  Cincinnati Group was something well beyond frugal and had installed a Captain and XO who came aboard determined to show us a thing or two about how starships should be run.

     See -- or maybe you don't; it's been decades and all of the technology has changed -- back then just as now, everything having to do with maneuvering the starship was recorded.  Intercom chatter, control inputs, telemetry, inertial navs, all of it was saved and at that time, that meant magnetic tape.  Some tracks were digital, some analog; one track was nothing but a clock.  The idea was that if anything went wrong, you'd have a record of it and with any luck, enough information to put things right.

     They were fiddly beasts.  Billy How had six of them in two groups of three, one set in the rack room* just off the Command deck and another down in Engineering/Power, the combined space for the Jump exciter, reactor controls, and suchlike. The two-inch wide tapes spooled slowly, each one holding twenty-four hours of recording on one big reel, and we "bicycled" ten reels of tape through each set of recorders.

     They were supposed to spool slowly, that is.  The set up on Command had gotten squirrely, racing through a tape in a few hours during the Jump in the Kansas II system.  Once we were back in normal space, I dug into them,  running the setup procedure from the manual, and they weren't behaving as they should; the speed control, a lovely complex setup with tachometers on the drive and reel motors and a triple phase-locked servo, wouldn't stay locked.  The signals from the tachs were ragged, and when I went to look for replacements, all I found were a few empty boxes with a note from three years before: "Order more ASAP."  Before my time as Chief but I should've checked already.

     By the time I'd got that far, we were close enough to get a reply back from Kansas II in a few hours, so I messaged the chandler Cincinnati Group preferred to deal with and had a price back on replacement parts by the start of my next watch.  They weren't cheap.  Between all six units, we needed eighteen of them; not all the tachs were bad, but at least half had failed the rest probably weren't far behind.

     The new Captain was in his quarters just off the Command bridge.  "Cap'n Wheat?  About the loggers, I'm going to need some parts."

     Gregory Wheat was a young man as starship captains go, only a few years older than I was at the time.  He looked up from the papers on his desk and frowned, "And what parts would those be, young lady?"

     I kept smiling.  Captains get a lot of leeway.  "Tachs for the speed control.  About half ours are worn out and I'd like to stock replacements for the remainder.  So eighteen, at just over seven hundred dollars per deck."

     His eyebrows went up.  "You want...over four thousand dollars worth of parts?"

     "Didn't have any replacements in stock, sir.  That's on me; I missed the empties on the shelf."

     "Why don't you have another look at those recorders, see what you can do.  I'll get back to you."

     I kept on smiling.  "Yessir."

     I took the old tachs apart and cleaned them up again -- they're optical, and any grime on the moving disc will mess them up -- but it didn't do much good.

     Shortly after chow, the Captain called me up to the bridge.  "I'm going to get you some help.  The Kessler is at Kansas II.  It's a Cincy-Group freighter a bit larger than us.  I was XO there and they've got a real sharp Chief.  He'll come aboard after we reach K-two and help you with those loggers."

     I was thinking he wasn't going to be much help if he didn't bring any tachs with him, but you don't say that kind of thing to the guy in the worry seat, so I nodded and replied, "I'll look forward to that."

*  *  *

     The trip in was uneventful.  Once we were parked in orbit around Kansas II, Kessler sent a squirt-booster over and I met their Chief at the airlock -- a dapper young man, who was not, in fact, carrying any replacement tachs.  We shook hands and exchanged names -- Jim MacAlheny, he was and I asked if he had any luggage.

     He laughed.  "No, just me and a green tweaker."  The ubiquitous pocket screwdriver -- we all carried one back then; it was practically a badge of office.  "I'd better check in with the Old Man."

     I told him, "Okay; then we can see about the tachs on those loggers."

     The Captain was in his quarters; I waved the Kessler's Chief in ahead of me, and Capain Wheat stood up, his hand out.  "Jim!  It's been too long.  How're you doing?"

     "Greg, you've come up in the world!"

     "Yes, well -- close the door.  We've got some catching up to do."

     With that, he shut the hatch in my face.  I went back to Engineering; there was plenty to do.

*  *  *

     Jim didn't  show up again for several hours.   I kept myself busy checking the replacement parts stock; finding one set of empty boxes had me worried there were others.  I didn't realize the next watch had come on until my number two stuck his head in the storage compartment.

     "Chief Bobbi?  Cap'n Wheat's on the 'com for you.  Says he wants you up on Command."

     I gave him a smile.  "Always good to be wanted, right?"  I wiped my hands and got moving.

     The Captain was at his desk and Jim was in the visitor's chair.  I squeezed in and Captain Wheat told me to close the door.  He gave me a look I couldn't quite read. "Jim tells me those tachs are shot."


     "Well, why is that?"

     "Age, sir?  Those loggers run all the time.  It's a wear part."

     That got a frown.  Beside me, Jim said nothing, his expression neutral.  "Well, why didn't you say so?"


     "That we needed tachs."

     "But sir--"

     "I had to fly Jim over here at great expense to the company, because you didn't know how to fix those loggers!"

     "Sir, I said--"

     "I really hope this does not set a pattern, Roberta.  It does not bode well."

     Jim still said nothing.  I gave him a quick glance, silent appeal.  Nothing.

     "Yes, sir.  It will not set a pattern."

     "Indeed.  Jim has ordered the parts we need.  I trust you will be up to installing them?"

     I was boiling mad.  But you don't get mad at starship captains.  You can't.  "I believe so, sir."

     "You believe?"

     This was well past tolerable.  Nevertheless, it's a long walk home and there's not much to breathe along the way.  "I can and I will.  Sir."

     "See that you do.  Thank you."  Captain Wheat waved a hand in dismissal.

     "Sir."  I opened the hatch and got out, shaking mad.

     And that was when I realized working for Cincinnati Group might not be a long-term career for me.
* Yes, "rack room," or occasionally "rack compartment," looking not very much different from a modern-day server farm.  I was Chief on the freighter Billy How before things were quite so digital, though even then, the early '90s, it was well begun and any fool could see the trend was only going to grow.  Still, the end is the same; then it was mostly screwdriver adjustments with oscilloscopes and meters to see the result; now it's all keyboards and screens for the same job. 

     "Rack" is an overused word.  Small to medium sized equipment gets installed in racks nineteen inches wide and standardized to a pattern that goes back to late 19th-Century telephone equipment; when we had computer and audio tapes aboard starships, they got "racked" on the machines instead of "mounted" and "re-racked" instead of rewound.  You even sleep in a rack -- well, you do if you're a regular grew member; as Chief Engineer I rated a compartment of my own, much too handy to Engineering and nearly large enough to turn around in.  Somehow the meaning is clear in context -- and the galley never serves rack of lamb.