Transcript: Space4U podcast, Shawn Cochran

Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team

Hi there. This is Rich Cooper with the Space Foundation. And this is the Space4U podcast, a podcast with the conversations with today’s leaders in the space community, and that make today’s space adventures possible. I’m joined today by Shawn Cochran, a Senior Manager for Civil and Environmental Space and Raytheon’s Space Systems.


Which is a mission area within Raytheon Space and Airborne systems. He’s responsible for cross business collaboration within Raytheon and develops a variety of capabilities, including air and missile defense land, sea-based radars and various systems, including command control and communications surveillance, and reconnaissance prior to joining space systems.


Mr. Cochran was the chief scientist for the joint polar satellite system. Common ground system and the head of the mission data services program for Raytheon’s intelligence information and services. Prior to that, Shawn was the head of systems engineering and operations for the United States missiles, defense agencies, integration and operation center at Schriever air force base in Colorado.


Shawn, you sound like a guy who’s got a lot on his plate. But I got to ask, it’s been a great career. It’s been a great career. That’s obvious you you’re, you’ve been a mover and shaker there, but the thing that stands out to me is that you’ve got a lot of big words in there. Let me ask you, what do you really do at Raytheon?


So, you know, it’s been kind of consistent throughout my career, but what I’ve actually done is sort of a systems of systems integration piece, where I’m brought in and you’ll have a challenging problem. And you’re trying to figure out how to solve it. And sometimes you can’t afford to be able to go and do the procurement of all of the pieces by yourself.


So you try to pull together elements from different providers or the elements of different capabilities and create that overarching capability that you need. That’s kind of where my sweet spot is, is this assistance and systems integration. So in a systems of systems integration, explain that for people who may not be familiar with that, Are you, what does that mean?


Are you pulling all the threads and knitting them all together into one piece of fabric? It usually is, but sometimes it’s, it’s helping the people that are already participating in the effort realize that they have capabilities that could be leveraged in other areas. So there’s some liaising that’s done between different governmental organizations within business units.


And sometimes it’s just. Stepping back and not being in that stovepipe of excellence, kind of looking at all the stove, pipes and determining we can do things. If we just find ways to pull the elements out of all the capabilities that are already there, it’s the ability to first the narrative and pull people into a cohesive solution that has been part of my career.


So when you talk about bringing all those solutions together and that’s part of your career, we just went through and celebrating the Apollo 11 anniversary. I’ve got to ask you with everything that Raytheon is doing today. Do you know anything about Raytheon’s heritage with the Apollo mission?


Absolutely. You know, and what a perfect example to bring up, you’re talking about the level of effort that was conducted over a nine-year period. Maybe a really good 10-year period to put the first two humans on the moon. And it wasn’t just a couple of people there, everybody that works in the entire spectrum was part of being on the moon at that point, from the executives that made decisions inside of companies, to the leadership inside of the governmental organizations to Congress, pulling together to funding, even down to people like S the secretary and the janitorial staff that kept the machine churning every single role.


Had a part in making sure we were successfully able to execute that mission for Raytheon. One of the key elements that we had was we go be a public guidance computer. So that was the computer was on board, the spacecraft that allowed them to navigate to the moon. So let me ask you from your experience, what’s the Raytheon’s heritage?


What’s your heritage? What got you into the space business? But thanks for asking that question. It was sort of by accident. I had been largely in commercial and civil side of the house and I had a racing I’m fully convinced me in 2004 to come to work for Raytheon. It landed me at truer force base, working for United States missile defense agency.


So that was kinda my first story. In working with space and it wasn’t my first demanding control type of element, but it was the first time I was doing things that were directly related to tomato control of space elements. And it’s interesting, even though in each one of those roles that we talked about, you gave such an elegant briefing on it at the opening.


Those were sort of in-state when I came on board. With the missile defense agency, I was just the assistant engineer and I wound up being the guy in charge of just an engineering operations at MBA. When I came on board with the joint polar satellite system, I was just running machine data services. Then I ended up, I ended up as the chief scientist.


So there’s been an opportunity for me to progress and grow in each one of those challenges. You described yourself as a scientist. What is your role as a scientist? With space today. And how do you take those experiences and apply them to life here on earth? I’ve been leveraging a lot of what I did for the joint polar satellite system, common ground system, which is the earth science exploitation of all of the satellites that are part of that constellation and finding new and unique ways to be able to exploit that because largely they were built for weather missions, but there’s ways to use that data to help them.


In other areas, as a matter of fact, one of the things that I’m sure we’re going to talk about today is the beers instrument, which is sort of breathtaking capability for a weather satellite or for an instrument, a lot of weather satellite and what it can do. And there’s been things that have been teased out of the data produced by the beers instrument, but it wasn’t really ever intended to do, but has had really great positive consequences.


Then you talked about veers there, and I do want to get into that. And again, you can’t do anything in the space or the military environment and not have it be an acronym. So let me spell this out for our listeners. Veers is the visible infrared imaging radiometer suite. That’s right. That’s one of the key instruments flying on board, assuming national pool, robotic partnership, satellite, which is kind of known, assuming of BP a, it was launched in 2011.


There was also a big reform on board, uh, NOAA 20, but at launch, it was known as GPSs one. And we did that launch in December of 2017. What does veers do? It it’s a, it’s a operational space sensor that enables us to do environmental monitoring and the medical weather forecasting. And it provides sensor data records that are used to tell us what’s happening on the earth.


For instance, if it’s telling us that things that are happening on the earth, is this just basically a super weather satellite, or can it model, it’s a super little satellite to put things into context. I want to start off with what the whole goal of observing gear is, right? The goal of observing the earth is to understand what’s happening on our earth system.


Sometimes that’s done during the day. Sometimes it’s done at night. But we’ve been doing that largely since about the sixties. In fact, the father of satellite meteorology is a guy named Victor Sunni, which we named shooting MPP. After, when we flew that first year as an instrument, as a, as a tribute to the production at the university of Wisconsin, the satellites.


It had been getting more and more mature over time as technology has advanced and the newest sensor that’s on orbit for doing these for conserving capabilities emissions. Here’s the beers instrument. And the beers instrument can do things like tell us what’s going on with clouds or sea surface temperatures or ocean colors or, or winds or vegetative fractions for aerosols or fires, snow ice vegetation.


There’s all kinds of applications. Cause there’s all kinds of things on the earth we’re interested in. So it’s not just a weather satellite meeting, you know, something that tells you whether it’s specific in a point of time, it’s raining. It’s cold. It’s hot. It’s something we can use to trend over time, which is more of a climate record, but it also does things that aren’t necessarily related to whether it’s related to the effects of the weather, like the greening of the earth.


When you’re looking at the vegetative fraction, you’re able to see how much the earth has greened over time based upon temperature and moisture conditions. So who uses a system like this, obviously meteorologists, but when you think of a veers customer, Who are people that are regularly using this type of insulin?


So obviously the national weather service is the first downstream consumer of the data from beers. In fact, Raytheon kind of goes from photons to forecaster. When you think about it, we make the sensor itself, that’s onboard the spacecraft. We had the ground systems that grabs the data. From the spacecraft.


We have the data processing segment that produces the science data records and environmental data records that are from the observations from the spacecraft. We even have the eight woods console that the national weather service forecasters are sitting there building their forecasts on. So we really understand that environmental change from observation to forecast or kind of pulling the information out and extracting it into the individual buckets.


So if you’re a national weather service forecast, you’re trying to take some serous observations and produce weather forecasts. But if you’re the national park service under the department of interior, you might be using green vegetative products to understand what the health of the forest is. So you can understand maybe for needle kill is wouldn’t have a simple dryness that could be at risk for forest fires.


In fact, the views sensor has a specific band called the gentle to monitor resolution channel. That’s designed. To detect fires, it’s called the active fire channel. And so the satellite can see a forest fire that might’ve been started by lightning before. Usually a human can see it through the smoke.


When you talk about these channels. So you mentioned that there’s a fire channel. I assume that it probably has a hurricane channel. So they answered that as there’s 22 imaging union radiometric bands that are part of beers, they started wavelengths from that point 400 microns all the way up to 12.5 microns.


And those, those spectral channels that you’re looking at, allow you to see different things in land features and cloud features and atmosphere features, and absolutely the blending of some of those spectral channels. Let us do things to tropical cyclones that are sort of breathtaking. In fact, we’ve seen.


Dramatic improvement in our ability to predict a monitor what’s going on with tropical cyclists, because of the observations we’re taking from these little earth-orbiting weather satellites, veers has directly contributed to improving that forecast. I got the quote from the national weather service from the national hurricane center.


At one point in time, they said we now know seven days in advance. What we used to only know 72 hours in advance. So we’re getting better. Forecast models and better heads up as to what’s happening with storms as they’re growing and maturing. And it lets us have better fidelity and prediction where they’re going to make landfall, which helps us protect resources, helps us put the right resources into place where emergency management also get people out of harm’s way and literally saves lives.


We’ve had a lot of storms over the past several years. Obviously you think of things like hurricane Harvey and hurricane Maria, as well as the, the legendary ones of Katrina and Rita, what would you say since veers has been up and on station and operating? What has been Vere’s biggest success story? Well, that’s it, it depends on which ones you’re looking for.


Right? Each consumer has their own view of success. Uh, certainly, uh, being able to do a better job of predicting the monitoring tropical cycles through their formation, to their impact on land has been a dramatic thing from a technology perspective, because we are able to help, uh, emergency first responders and local and state and federal governments understand.


What that critical path is going to look like and help them position resources sooner to be able to respond to the impacts that are, that are certainly out to company. But again, the lens changes based upon who you are. I would say that if you’re in the forest service and you have a detection from beers of a fire, that’s in a heavily wooded forest area that you can’t normally get to the unique part of it, each one of the pixels inside was pictures from beers are geo located.


So now you’re able to send fire resources, whether it’s dropped from an airplane or smoke jumpers onto the ground. Directly to where the fire is without having to kind of sort through the smoke, defined it. And because we have two of them on all of it and we get a second pass over the scene, 15 minutes later, 19 with kind of a gross sense of fire propagation and smoke propagation.


So one impact for, for service should be understanding where to put the fire resources to be on the front line of the fire and stop the fire. The second one might be for civil resources, because now we can see how that smoke is propagating. And a lot of times things like shirt and Ash and airborne aerosols, that that would impact quality of life.


Quality of breathing may not be visible to the eye, but the cloud chain can mask that. And so now you need to be able to tell an urban area, Hey, you’re going to have a problem with air quality. Over your region in a day because of this worst buyer, that’s a thousand miles away, but watching that certain, particularly carrying through the air to your area.


So it helps local first responders deal with air quality issues in their city as well. So when you mentioned about the air quality in the suit, the first thing I thought of was the various volcanic eruptions that have occurred and that we’ve seen in the news and obviously create some air quality issues.


I assume veers can help there as well. Absolutely. Not only can we see the, you know, the visible smoke that again, there’s a quality metric with losing to understanding the aerosols around it. And so sometimes. What you can’t see with the eye doesn’t mean that there isn’t something ablated or dangerous in the atmosphere.


So that could be used to help well aircraft around, uh, areas where they could go with, into a flight regime that could have something that could damage engines or optics. It certainly helps with air quality at all levels because the abuse instruments, not just looking at the upper atmosphere, it’s also looking down at the surface, that main surface features.


So there’s a lot of things that could be. Tailored out of those observations to help different organizations respond to a thing like a volcanic eruption in different ways. I’m going to move from land to see here, um, as to how veers may work. And I have to confess I’m a big fan of discovery channels.


Deadliest catch show with the crab fishermen who are out there in the Bering sea and during just tremendous challenges on the water. And I read an article that talked about how the veer system was actually used to help crab fishing boat. That was operating in those waters and actually helped save the crew.


And what was going on. Can you share that story? Absolutely. The, uh, that’s what was called the Kiska seed and they were trying to retrieve some of their crab pots in an area that was kind of dense ice pack and they got lost and it was started being impacted vessels. So they radioed up to the coast guard with a Mayday and the Mayday.


Uh, was able to work through Alaska national weather service and eventually the national ice desk at Suitland, Maryland to put together a plan of how to help that vessel and to use a particular channel from, from the , which lets us see at night as if it was daytime. And we were able to see the crab boats at night in the ice flows.


And as I referenced earlier, each pixel in our images is geo located. So they were able to draw a line. Through the clear in the ice, no way did you have coordinates of each one of those turns and had that radio back to the vessel? So they could navigate to those coordinates and navigate safely out of the dense ice pack and spread the murders.


And he would think that that would be such a great success story saving on its own. But what you may not know is it’s actually happened twice. We had a sailboat that got lost in dense ice, uh, North of Beryl, Alaska. And they use the same scenario. It was about 12 months later when he called in the coast guard and the coast guard made a, uh, turns into looking good to be nicely on product.


And we were able to get them out of that base pack ice into the shore, fast ice, and eventually to the open ocean. So it’s obviously a super weather satellite. It has helped in certainly the coast guard and other maritime response operations. Is there anything else that veers is doing that is changing life here on earth?


You know, it’s, it’s the art of the possible, we don’t know until we start to explore. Right. It was certainly never designed for a search and rescue mission, although it’s been employed in two search and rescue efforts. So that’s what we do in the science period is we’re opening up the aperture and trying to find.


What are the problems that you have, and are there things that we can solve using the beers instrument to look at that? One of the things that is used in there’s actually a daily product that comes out from NOAA is about harmful algal blooms, harmful algal blooms can do things like kill fish, uh, because the algae eats up all the oxygen in there, but it can also impact drinking water.


So there’s a daily, the harmful algal bloom product is produced by NOAA, from the beers instrument to help people understand. What the impacts could be to them. And that could again be, it could be fisheries or it could be people trying to get a drink of tap water. So the question becomes for me, what are the observations that we need to have that a part of a problem set?


And can we apply beers to help solve that problem? When you talk about problem sets. If you were to have an opportunity to sit down with say the FEMA administrator, or for that matter, any major emergency management leader, I’m going to ask you to complete this sentence. Veers can help you serve the public by blank.


I’ll let you fill in the rest of the sentence. So, so the, that we’re, we’re going to have to, we’re going to have to pick one leader for me to talk to. So I’m going to start off with people, uh, and this is an easy one. There’s going to help you by better prediction tropical cycles and where they’re going to make landfall and what that impact is going to be.


If it was the national forest service state, yours can do that by helping you identify where the fires are and helping you with any fire propagation there that sometimes exists. And I’m not sure if it’s been stitched together as a, as a full answer is okay. Or the waterfall effects of things that we see.


And I’m going to explain that in terms of a particular product, Veers could do breathtaking creams majored in clouds. And one of the products that can fall out of it is something called total perceptible water. So if you look at a cloud, we can measure this cloud volume. And by using total perceptible water, we can tell you how much water will rain out of a cloud.


If you take that and simultaneously you’re able to do a soil moisture content at the ground. You’re able to determine about how much, what that saturation point of the soil is, and then be able to estimate how much runoff you would have. If you look at the tributaries that that runoff would run into, you look at the height of those tributaries.


You should be able to figure it out about when flood stage is going to be and how much water is going to wind up going downstream. So postulate this for a moment, if you will, if we were to get the right people together and to pull the right data set together. You should be able to look at a big storm system happening in Oklahoma and figure out how much water is going to run off of the land into the tributaries of the wind up going to the Mississippi that could impact the flood stage in New Orleans, Louisiana, three days later, that would be breathtaking emergency first responders and for the government in the city of new Orleans, to be able to understand the three days in advance that a storm in Tulsa, Oklahoma.


It’s going to cause them to have a need to open the flood Gates and let more water out into the Delta. That’s a powerful, powerful tool that an emergency management leader in particular at FEMA could use. Let me ask you, has veers explored any opportunities with the insurance community as to how a tool like this might be able to help them address risk?


That’s a great question. And I’m surprised. If there weren’t models that were already being used to ingest this data and do that specifically for insurance companies. What I can tell you is that the Raytheon company was paid by the United States government to go and build the sensor and do the algorithms and build the ground to produce the products that are given to NOAA.


And they’re freely distributed from NOAA. How they’re employed beyond that. If somebody wants to commercialize that and turn it into something that is tailored for an insurance company, we wouldn’t have visibility into, but it kind of makes me proud that they’re doing that. What’s something else that veers is doing that people would be surprised to learn, because I have to tell you what you’ve shared is already been surprising to me as to its capabilities, but there’s always one or two other sort of features that sometimes can get overlooked.


What would one or two of those other features that fierce has that people ought to know about? Well, I mean, we can talk about normalized differential, vegetative, indexes, right? And DBI. So vegetative index is looking at the greening of the earth in space. And if you started in the spring and you monitored it to the fall, You should be able to understand how the earth green by just simply looking at it.


You can see it build some sort of a pale tan to Brown into the light green to the dark. Green is as plants go through their normal cycle and start to mature where that becomes interesting. As you start to do things like estimate the crop yield. So for instance, this is, this is a hypothetical situation.


Let’s say that we had a vested interest in the crop yield of the foreign nation to make sure that they had enough rice produced to be able to feed their citizens. We could watch the greening of the earth over their area over time and kind of estimate what the crop yield is going to be based upon the greening of the crops.


And if we noticed that year over year, they’ve been pretty good, but this particular season, it doesn’t look like it’s as green. And it looks like we’re going to have a little yield. That means that they could have issues with feeding their citizens or making issues with famine. And maybe that’s probably one of some resources to try to help that nation bridge that gap.


That’s one example. So what’s next for veers? How long does the system have what’s its forecast life and what do you do after it? So, so the funny part is, is that in a very gross sense, Raytheon sensors are far exceeding their design life. We’re generally getting about two and a half times the design life out of the sensors that they were, that they were originally required by the government to do so.


It’s been a pretty good value for the government. The predecessor instrument to beers is called motives, and we still had two of those on orbit. And they’re still working perfectly on Aqua and Terra doing their mission. Like I said, the S and P P instruments beers went up in 2011. Uh, the J one nine North 20 instrument went up in 2017.


Uh, we have fully manufactured with J two instruments it’s been delivered, but it’s being stored at our facility. And also the, to California were delivered to the G2 spacecrafts to be launched. And we’re in production on the T3 and J four beers now. So NOAA has already put in plan the ability to have five Beers instruments over that period of time.


But we are building and launching to their schedule. We could maybe get some additional benefit by flying, eaten more beers and changing the orbit plane. So, so during our early afternoon orbit, uh, one 30, maybe there’s an opportunity to apply beers at the nine 30 a little bit. So we take a mid-morning observation followed by that afternoon observation.


The more observations you have, the higher fidelity. American weather prediction bottles. So could veers end up becoming a suite of smallsats. Okay. I would say that Moore’s law applies everywhere and Raytheon is investing in technologies for the next generation of ears and we’re working on it diligently inside the company.


And when we get the call for that new capabilities, we’ll be ready to answer it. You talked about multiple channels that veers has operated on. And I’m going to ask you to sort of pull out your crystal ball and take a look here at the future, but where do you see the future of space-based earth observation?


I think ideally what people want to get to, especially people like forecasters is lower latency, all observations. So the short and sweet answer that would be. The faster, you could make an observation with higher fidelity and get it down, the happier everybody’s going to be. And the only way to do that is to buy, have a constellation of satellites, performing those observations, or have the ability to bring that data down.


Nearly continuously, rather than waiting for us to make contact with the ground stations and just bring the 26 channels in the context of the, of the contact with the ground station, the 22 great imaging and radiometric bands. I told you about the wavelengths, but basically those were visible wavelengths to short wave, medium wave and long wave infrared.


So it’s covering a lot of different spectrums and all those observations are stored on board. The spacecraft. And every time we make contact with the ground station, we take the data that’s stored from those observations and we send it down to the ground. Our primary ground stations that fall burden will away.


It’s way up North in the Arctic circle. In fact, at the small-bore ground station, you’re closer to the North pole as Fallburg did, was to the South pole at McMurdo. That’s how far North it is. So the satellite goes around the air from the North pole to the South pole and back to the North pole about once every 100, one minutes.


And each time it’s flying around the earth, it’s looking at your energy, it 3000 kilometers from side to side, taking those observations, storing them on board. And then when it gets into contact with the ground station, that’s wallboard, Norway. It downloads that data, uh, first and second copy. And that data goes across the network in North satellite operations facility at Suitland, Maryland.


Is there the robbing, the records from the satellite are turned into science, data records, and then environmental data records that are then distributed to national weather service met stat. Jackson is department of defense. You said early on in this conversation that you were a scientist and not an engineer.


So I’m going to ask the loaded question here. Is it better to be a scientist or is it better to be an engineer? It’s better to be, uh, a scientist with a background in engineering. Wow. I was going to say that, that that’s letting the, the areas there. That’s good. So in fairness, my background is aerospace engineering, but I got captivated by the art of the possible and the science.


There’s no failures, they’re just outcomes. So the opportunities to go out there and explore the art of the possible. And even if we don’t get the result we wanted, we learned from it. And that’s kind of been what we’ve been doing with all of the data products that come out of the beers instrument. It was sort of the art of the unknown.


We knew what we were going to major in, and we would work those basic first observation products were going to be the things that we’ve been able to matriculate out of. Those have been kind of breathtaking. I want to pull the thread of the art of the possible, the last question that I’ve got here for you, and again, your career, you’ve been at a lot of different places, and you’ve talked about some of that discovery here.


You’ve found a lot of challenging and rewarding projects. I’d like to know. What is the biggest takeaway from your career that you would want future space pioneers. Like yourself to know as they start their career. What’s the best advice you can give to them on that space journey. Ask for help. Never be afraid if you are, if you are in a situation where you are.


Given the challenged, and you’re afraid that you don’t know what you’re doing, or you feel like you don’t have a clear vision for where you’re going. Ask for help. Mentorship is a really critical chain item, and I assure you, the people you work for want to see you succeed. Don’t ever be ashamed to raise your hand and say, I need guidance.


I need help with this. I’ve done that my entire career. And I have literally been pulled up by the people I’ve worked for. Shawn. That is great advice. That is that’s really powerful. And it’s obvious that the people that you’ve worked with have invested in you as has Raytheon. And we’re the beneficiaries of a tool like veers that can literally save lives and help prepare communities in a lot of different ways for any types of, uh, natural emergencies that may come their way as well as keeping an eye on the health of the earth.


Shawn. I want to thank you for your time. Very grateful for what you and the Raytheon company do. Uh, not only in space, but for how you take that space work and apply it to lives here on earth. We’re very, very grateful for that. So, thank you. My pleasure. It has been a pleasure to chat with you today. Uh, that concludes this episode of Space4U.


With Shawn Cochran of Raytheon, please pay attention to the Space Foundation website at, as well as all of our social media platforms for a lot of activities that we’ve got coming up that continue the celebration of Apollo but continue the celebration for what is happening in today’s space renaissance, because at the Space Foundation, we’ve always got space for you.


Thank you for listening.

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Space4U Podcast: Shawn Cochran, Raytheon Space Systems