NASA People

Center Snapshot: Bryan Fabbri
Bryan Fabbri. Image above: Bryan Fabbri's escape from the office is the Chesapeake Lighthouse, where he checks instruments that are part of the CERES Ocean Validation Experiment (COVE). NASA/Sean Smith

Patrick Lynch

When the whir of the air conditioner and the confines of the office become too much, Bryan Fabbri can usually look at the calendar and see at least one day out of the office on the horizon.

Not just a day out of the office, but a day at sea, on a small lighthouse 15 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach. It takes a helicopter ride to get there, and it’s all part of the job.

Fabbri, 34, a research scientist with Science Systems and Applications Inc., is one of a few researchers responsible for maintaining the instruments on the Chesapeake Lighthouse that are part of the CERES Ocean Validation Experiment (COVE).

The instruments take surface measurements in an open-ocean environment that are used to validate the satellite measurements of the Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES) mission.

When the CERES team was looking for an accessible location for validating satellite measurements made over open ocean waters, the Chesapeake light seemed a good fit. From space, aerosols, clouds and water vapor are easiest to detect over a dark surface with uniform reflective properties. That gives the COVE site at sea an important validation role for CERES.

The U.S. Coast Guard still keeps an automated light there, but the multi-level, platform lighthouse has not been manned since the mid-1980s. Now, it’s manned a day at a time, once every two to three weeks when Fabbri and colleagues Fred Denn and Bob Arduini fly out to the light. The team has a contract for regular helicopter flights to the lighthouse with a Norfolk general aviation firm.

"You can’t beat that part of it," Fabbri said. "I get a little stir crazy. I like getting out of the office and out there to work on the instruments. It doesn’t hurt to take the helicopter out."

The top level of the lighthouse is essentially a landing pad with a tower in one corner that houses the beacon and many of the COVE instruments. Below deck, the lighthouse’s two levels contain former bedrooms converted to storage and workshop space, a kitchen and a lounge. The "lounge" is "decorated" with an old pool table, bookcases and an aging TV with what is now a set of non-functional analog "rabbit ears." While the lighthouse’s main platform is 80 feet above the water’s surface, pilings act as a reef and attract large fish visible from above. Some days the COVE team has company nearby when anglers come out in boats to fish the spot.

There are 13 CERES-sponsored instruments and five related instruments sponsored by other agencies or NASA centers. The COVE team looks after those, too. Trips to the light are either triggered by an instrument glitch – the exposure to the elements ensures plenty of them – or the need for a regular check-up. Instruments range from those measuring shortwave and longwave radiation, sea surface temperature, the amount of radiation upwelling from the ocean surface and a host of basic meteorological measurements, such as humidity, wind speed and direction, barometric pressure and temperature.

Fabbri considers himself lucky to have found such a job in research. A relentless Weather Channel watcher as a kid growing up in rural Pennsylvania, Fabbri drove his brother crazy watching the fluctuating forecasts, especially predictions of snowfall in winter.

The fascination stayed with Fabbri when he studied meteorology at West Virginia University and then California University of Pennsylvania, from which he graduated in 1997. But after getting his degree, it took awhile before Fabbri found his way back to his chosen field. He worked as a manager for an inventory firm in Cleveland before a job with COVE opened up in 2000, when Tilson Chappell and Ken Rutledge gave him a chance to work on the project. Fabbri has been in Hampton since, first with contractor Analytical Services & Materials and now with SSAI.

Fabbri, who married his wife, Lisa, in 2005, also became a father recently. Gianna is now 9 months old.

"It’s been great," Fabbri said. "After a long day, you always like to go home and see your baby girl."