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Launching Rockets for NASA

Coolest Job in the Navy

All Hands is starting a new feature series entitled Coolest Jobs in the Navy. We begin the series with Gunner's Mate 1st Class Brenda Reis, White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, who launches rockets for NASA!

Reis, originally from Houston, Texas, joined the Navy to get a college education and to travel the world. Since joining she has seen Hawaii, Italy, Asia, Australia, France, Norway, Belgium and Hong Kong. What she wasn't expecting to see was Venus, Jupiter and the Sun.

But when you work with NASA, anything is possible.

"When we launch the rockets, some of the experiments have cameras and we'll get feedback from the payload [the research part of the rocket,]" said Reis. "It will be displayed on our monitors here at the block house showing us Earth, Venus, Jupiter, and even comets that pass by or the sun."

Reis is amazed at what the rocket is able to collect and at the data it is able to send back, especially since it is only a 15 minute journey from start to finish. But Reis didn't become a Gunner's Mate to launch rockets.

For a Gunner's Mate, the normal job is to work small arms and crew-served weapons. Reis began with the missile systems first and then began to learn the small arms weapons and crew-served weapons, later becoming a crew-served weapons instructor, and getting the Naval Enlisted Code for VLS (Vertical Launching System.)

While stationed in Gaeta, Italy she was watching the Discovery Channel. During an episode of Top Guns, she saw White Sands highlighted. They were testing guns and rocket shots.

"I thought, oh that would be pretty cool to do," said Reis. "When I was up for orders I saw White Sands Missile Range and I knew I wanted the job."

When Reis first arrived she worked assembling missiles that were being tested for ships in the fleet. Then she was chosen for rockets.

"The FC1 (Fire Controlman first class) I relieved, he saw that I was a motivated Sailor and that he thought I was responsible enough that the command would endorse me being the safety observer and I stepped up to the challenge," said Reis.

Eventually Reis was the one turning the key and initiating blast off!

"[Turning the key] came about with lots of training from the person I relieved ... doing boards and qualifying for it," said Reis. "Going through a board with our explosives safety officer, our project commander our XO and our commander - our OIC - and getting the stamp of approval that yeah, we trust you."

This is the 18th Launch Reis has done and she said it never gets old. She has invited her family to her 19th and final launch, and even after having done it 19 times, she's still nervous about turning the key.

"I am so nervous, what if I don't get it on zero, what if I mess up, so much emotion, and we have to stick with the count," said Reis. "One of the things they told me to calm my nerves is when I hear the countdown starting at 10 to tap my foot to keep with the count, and that will calm me down so I won't lose the rhythm of it."

Reis said it's crucial to turn the key at exactly zero because the experimenters are on a strict time limit to capture what they need.

"Either a comet passing by at the exact moment by the sun, or the planet Venus that they need to capture at that time, or weather or whatever it is relating to that experiment we have to be precise to make sure that they get the information they need to make their experiment successful," said Reis.

Different universities have scientists that need to study different parts of the solar system and the environment. They contract out to White Sands, and Reis and her team help them by preparing the rockets for launch and monitoring the experiment from start to finish.

"When we come out to the launcher we try to talk to the experimenters to know what their research is about, it's important to us to know exactly what we're trying to help them capture," said Reis.

Reis is also given a ground safety data package and flight requirement package, but prefers just spending time talking to the experimenters, getting to know them and asking them to explain the rocket science.

"The most exciting part of my job is that nobody else does this, I'm the only person here from the Navy who does this, and I enjoy that, I can brag all about it," said Reis. "I'm the one who turns that key and sees that [rocket] go away and I'm like, I helped build that, I have a cool job."

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