Dispatch from the attic: NASA engineer guides mission into crawl space

Sunday, January 10, 2010

I was flat on my belly, low crawling through the soft cellulose insulation in my friend Christine's attic, wearing goggles, a face mask and a headlamp.

I've never repaired air-conditioning ducts before, but Christine, who is a NASA aerospace engineer, told me what to look for. She designs heating and cooling units for Mars missions, so when the cooling unit in her house stopped working, she knew exactly how to repair it.

The problem was finding someone small and reckless enough to fit through the crawl space. Two different HVAC contractors had refused to go up there, suggesting that Christine punch random holes through her ceiling instead.

At work, she might be part of a team of engineers remotely guiding a spacewalk by astronauts tethered to the outside of the space station. Here, in Washington, Christine guided me from her perch at the top of the drop-down ladder.

"Follow the main duct out. At the split, follow it out to the left. And, just, please, be careful." Christine's flashlight lit up a barren landscape of fluffy gray insulation and attic beams.

This was as close as I would ever come to walking on the moon.

Christine was nervous, but I was excited. For me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime spacewalk, guided by a real aerospace engineer, and I couldn't wait to get out there.

I squeezed through the narrow gap between the HVAC unit and the underside of the roof, and then I was out there, in space. The cellulose insulation was like a big soft bed. I could hear the rain hitting the roof a few inches above my head. But nestled in the insulation like a worm, I was warm and dry.

Unlike real astronauts, I didn't have to worry about drifting away into space, but there was the possibility that I could fall through the ceiling, so I took my time wriggling along the length of the house.

I stopped once to clean space dust off my goggles and readjust my breathing mask.

At the end of the house, I found the leak. The cap had come off the end of the duct, and it was blowing cold air out into the attic. I dug around in the insulation and found the cap, put it back in place and secured it with duct tape.

After the duct was repaired, I began low crawling back across the foreign landscape. I could see Christine's flashlight in the distance -- mission control.

I descended down the space shuttle ladder to Planet Earth feeling like a hero. I was covered in insulation, and Christine disappeared into her bedroom to find me a clean shirt. I was hoping for a NASA T-shirt and maybe a promotion to flight captain. Instead, I got a running T-shirt and a beer. But the genuine gratitude from a real NASA aerospace engineer made it worth it.

-- Adele Levine, Wheaton

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