A Lunar Resting Place
When Joe Vitale passed away from brain cancer on February 2, 2007, his
family and friends knew that he would not soon be forgotten. His sense of
humor, integrity, and heart left a permanent mark on those around him.
Now, his family at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center is remembering Joe by leaving a mark on his final
project, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. They
have engraved one of its reaction wheels in his honor.
Joe had been
working as an
in Code 596,
at Goddard was the completion of the embedded flight software in the LRO
reaction wheels. His efforts were critical to the successful design of the
spacecraft, as the reaction wheels will be used to direct it and keep it at the
desired position and orientation once it is launched.
Russ Roder, LRO’s reaction wheel lead, explains, “Each reaction wheel
has a flywheel. When the flywheel spins up in one direction, the spacecraft
starts to spin very slowly in the opposite direction. If you put a few reaction
wheels on a spacecraft, you can control pointing about all three axes.”
When collecting information about the lunar environment on the level of
detail that LRO will, such exacting control is all-important. This control
would not be possible if not for the software Joe designed. Even though
he’s gone, Joe continues to be a part of LRO’s success.
It seems appropriate to honor Joe, the self-dubbed “Gadget Man,” through
one of his own technological achievements. Miriam Wennersten, his long
time co-worker and friend, says, “Joe was a man all about gadgets. He
loved toys and games. He married his love of gadgets with his love of
games. For his flight simulator games on the computer, he had the right
joystick. For his driving games, he had the right steering wheel. When his
wife would go out of town, he would go over to a friend’s house, where they
would 'geek out' and play computer games all night long.”
The list of people touched by Joe was not limited to those directly around
him. Shortly after receiving the news that he had a brain tumor, Joe decided
he would share his story by creating a Web site to chronicle his journey.
Through it, he was able to meet and connect with people across the country.
He constructed a virtual prayer network and placed pushpins on a map
at every location where someone was known to be praying for him. About
200 pins crowded the map, displaying Joe’s ability to reach even those he
had never met face-to-face.
Joe’s approach to his disease is described by Wennersten as, “Classic Joe
Engineer.” He faced it with the same problem-solving knack that he applied
to his profession as an engineer. He did extensive research on his disease
and kept track of the doctors he had seen and the questions he had asked
of them. He tracked his medication dosages and changes, and kept lists of
helpful books he had read. True to his desire to share his story, Joe made
all of this available on his Web site.
Chuck Clagett, Joe’s supervisor, said, “As Joe’s friend, I always had the
highest respect for him because of his honesty and bluntness in any situation.
When he saw someone or something being done wrong, he would
always get involved to straighten it out. He was not driven by political
correctness, only by uncovering the truth. That’s a rare quality in today’s
environment and one that I admire. His loss is still felt within the Branch
and LRO project. We will forever be blessed for the time we had Joe with
Joe’s wife, Debbie, and his children made a visit to Goddard in February
to view the engraved reaction wheel. She expressed that she was pleased
to see how LRO was progressing and that Joe would appreciate what the
project office had done for him.
When LRO has run its course and served its purpose, it will be guided to
a to-be-determined spot on the moon. The result of the impact will be a
plume of debris that other satellites and telescopes can observe to find out
more about the moon’s composition. When the spacecraft reaches its final
resting place, so will Joe’s engraved reaction wheel.
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center