The Real Clockers

Did you know clock maintainers actually exist? Yes, right here on Old Earth, right now, there are people working every day, all day, all year (24/7/365 in military terms) around the world to maintain clocks. Specifically, atomic clocks.

Why, you ask? Because timing really is everything. For example, millions of online bank and credit card transactions rely on precision timing. And timing is the reason the Global Positioning System—GPS—is so accurate.

I know this, because my first—and favorite—job in the US Air Force was maintaining GPS. I was assigned to the 2nd Space Operations Squadron (2 SOPS) way back in 1989, when there were a whole five satellites orbiting Earth. Four of those were the original experimental satellites. When I left for my next assignment in 1993, the GPS constellation was fully operational (twenty-four satellites) and had become the biggest free utility in the world.

The concept behind GPS is fairly easy to understand. The details? Well, they’re still not hard, but they might take a little study. Rather than explain it all, I’ll link some tutorials below. But you don’t have to know how GPS works to understand this story or any of my novels!

The key to GPS is timing. Each satellite contains several atomic clocks—only one is used at a time—and all those clocks are maintained to stay within nanoseconds of the master control clock at the Master Control Station (MCS) at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado. The GPS master clock is maintained within ten nanoseconds of the Coordinated Universal Time Scale in Boulder, Colorado. And the UTC/NIST is kept in sync with the worldwide time standard in Greenwich, England. All those clocks require maintenance by humans, because they tend to drift, especially as they age.

Yes, they all need real Clockers!

GPS is maintained by a crew of seven people 24/7/365, plus a whole bunch more technical, training, and administrative folks, both military and civilians, at the MCS and around the world. The on-duty GPS crew consists of two people who contact the satellites and check the basic state of health; a single person maintaining contact with the ground stations around the world used to contact the satellites; a person with additional training on satellite systems, and there’s a crew commander and a deputy. Finally, there’s a navigation officer, the person who makes sure those satellite clocks stay in sync with the MCS standard. Also know as “the Nav.” What I call the Clocker!

Back in the day, I did three of the six crew positions: satellite operator, satellite vehicle officer, and crew commander. The most fun and challenging was the satellite vehicle officer; I actually got to use my engineering degree. After a stint on crew, I became the training officer for the vehicle officer position, and ended up rewriting the entire training plan. I also taught the first class after the revisions; a class of three whole people.

After four years at 2 SOPS, I moved to my next military assignment. Many of the people I worked with got out of the military and continued working GPS as system experts—I heard stories every now and then as I continued my career.

Fast forward to a little over a year ago. Oddly enough, one of my satellite vehicle trainees way back then is also the brother-in-law of The Amazing Sleeping Man’s best friend. How’s that for a convoluted relationship? I’ll call him MG. MG was in that first class of satellite vehicle officers I taught. Because of the personal connection, I knew more about MG’s career than most of the 2 SOPS alumni.

MG’s sister read my books and told MG about them, and he read them. MG kept in touch with some of his GPS friends, GH and BW, and told them about my books. GH was also in my class; I remember all of them as super-smart awesome people. GH and BW read my novels and got in touch with me. GH and BW both work as technical specialists on the GPS navigation payload. BW works on the entire navigation payload, while GH works on the timing part specifically.

BW told me he’s decided to call GH “Clocker” no matter how rude it may be!

Fortunately, GH thought it was funny, since it’s only rude in my universe. Even better, BW and GH decided to name one of their time calculation software tools ^timespace^! How awesome is that?

So, next time you’re driving somewhere unfamiliar using GPS-dependent mapping software, think kind thoughts about all the Clockers around the world, working hard, so your freedom doesn’t slip away a nanosecond at a time.

Do you have a similar story? Tell me about it at am@amscottwrites.com. Maybe I’ll put it on my blog if you want!

 

References:

GPS tutorials: https://www.gps.gov/multimedia/poster/

http://www.physics.org/article-questions.asp?id=55

https://plus.maths.org/content/recognising-place-gps-has-our-lives

GPS command & Control: https://www.gps.gov/systems/gps/control/

2SOPS: https://www.schriever.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/275806/2nd-space-operations-squadron/

NIST: https://www.nist.gov/pml/time-and-frequency-division/time-services

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