Sandia LabNews

Helping solve unique problems: Technologist Richard Simpson gets deeply involved in wide range of experiments


Richard Simpson

TECHNOLOGIST AT WORK — Richard Simpson (1384) places an acoustical sensor at a small lake Sandia built several years ago to do LNG fire tests on water. He has worked on numerous tests at the Labs in his 27-year career.   (Photo by Randy Montoya)

Sandia technologist Richard Simpson (1384) has filled a canyon with soap bubbles, shot photos of liquified natural gas (LNG) fire tests from a helicopter, floated balloons hundreds of feet in the air to calibrate cameras, chopped out pieces of a Cape Canaveral launch pad to haul back for tests, and hoisted a beer with Paul Tibbets, pilot of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan in World War II.

He also has been audited for buying such things as party bubble juice on his procurement card. “You buy 20 party bubble machines, they kind of wonder why. You buy 50 gallons of party bubble juice, and they really wonder why,” he explains.

Richard Simpson has a pretty interesting job.

“You’ve got very smart people you work with, people who are fun to work with, rewarding work itself, supportive and understanding management,” he says. “I’ve been really blessed to have the career I’ve had during my time at Sandia.”

Like many of Sandia’s technicians, Richard has a broad technical skills background “to where I can contribute in numerous ways to most any project.” A  Sandian for 27 years, he’s been deeply involved in some experiments from conception, design, and fabrication all the way through to test and analysis. Other times he’s called for only a particular expertise.

He says there are good days and not-so-good days in field testing, like freezing one February morning waiting for a test to go off. “There are times when we’re digging a trench for instrumentation lines. . . . Or, oops, this fitting over here leaks, followed by then conducting a once-in-a-lifetime internationally recognized large-scale experiment. So it’s from totally unglamorous to very exciting and technological.”

Joined Sandia after the Navy

Richard was born in Arizona to an Air Force family. He’s lived all over the world, but considers Albuquerque his hometown and wanted to return after six years of active duty in the Navy. He registered for the laser electro-optic program at what’s now Central New Mexico Community College before his last overseas deployment, knowing the course had a long wait list. He was discharged in 1981, just in time to start the program. When he graduated with honors, he was hired by Lovelace Inhalation Toxicology Research Institute, then joined Sandia and also the Navy Reserves.

He has worked on numerous projects over the years, including supporting Sandia’s reactor safety experiment programs, the Hot Cell Facility, and rocket propellant fire tests. Last year, he was given the responsibility of obtaining slabs of a Cape Canaveral launch pad and nearby asphalt for upcoming studies into the effect of burning rocket propellant impacting those surfaces in a launch accident scenario. Because every region uses different aggregate in cement batches, project leaders wanted concrete from Cape Canaveral to make sure tests accurately represent the likely fire environment.

Richard, who’d successfully coordinated with multiple agencies during tests in the past, went to Florida on a fact-finding trip. There, a buddy who worked in the area gave him a name to call. The man he contacted turned out to be the chief of civil engineering at the Cape, and within minutes Richard had permission to cut up part of a retiring launch pad. “Nothing beats starting at the top,” he says.

He worked with NASA, DOE, United Launch Alliance, the Air Force, and others at Sandia and Cape Canaveral to finalize agreements, set up heavy equipment, and finalize training and approvals. Then he had to find someone to cut 4- by 4-foot by 6-inch slices of concrete from Launch Pad 17A and others to package and transport it to Sandia and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Maryland, which collaborates with Sandia. He also got samples of asphalt from a road around the complex. “I asked them for permission, ‘Can I cut the end of your road off there?’” Richard says.

Bubble tests aimed at helping computer models

The bubble experiments were aimed at helping with computer modeling of jet fuel fire tests.

“Sandia had developed great models of fire, but in a computer model you must have boundary conditions,” Richard says, marking an imaginary boundary with his hands. “You have to tell the computer where to stop its computations; otherwise your fire’s going all over here” — waving his hands out of bounds.

But fire is subject to wind, and experts wanted to measure the swirling wind patterns in three dimensions in an area 20- by 20- by 1-foot thick, far larger than a conventional flow visualization field. “We wanted to be at a very large scale, so the engineers thought ‘bubbles,’” Richard says.

He started with his usual cost-effective method, modifying something off-the-shelf for Sandia’s needs. In this case, that led to a battery of party bubble machines on towers in a canyon where Sandia does burn tests. Then he shone a large spotlight, the kind the Olympics uses to follow ice skaters, into a large spinning mirror he built. That technique reflected back a foot-thick wall of white light so flow patterns were visible to 3-D cameras shooting the region of interest.

“Stuff was happening way beyond that, which was captured on the wide-view cameras,” Richard says. “We had bubbles all over the canyon.”

The tests went off between midnight and 4 a.m. when wind conditions were ideal and the background was black. “So in the middle of the night I’m up there spinning up the large 1,000 rpm mirror, turning on the light, creating this wall of white light, starting up the party bubble machines. . . . Quite a beautiful sight,” he says.

Camera techniques developed for different jobs

Nowadays, because he’s developed specialized camera techniques, much of his work is macro, time-lapse, and high-speed video. Project engineers call him when they need imagery in a thermally harsh environment, such as documenting an experiment in Sandia’s solar furnace or weapons component burns. For such situations, Richard fabricated cooling housings for cameras.

He shows a video of a test item engulfed in flames. “We actually had a camera in this environment, right down in the bottom of a 1,000-degree Celsius test cell,” he says.

“Sometimes it’s not just a harsh environment, but a long-term harsh environment,” he says. Richard works with filters, mirrors, or different camera speeds — whatever’s needed. “If you can’t do it with filters or mirrors or jacked-up frame rates, you have to just understand a situation and put enough cameras on it that you can get the footage,” he says.

He shows a composite video, shot from different angles, of another test to study radiant energy and determine the hazard distance around a large LNG fire on water. He again worked with numerous groups to help set up imaging, including Kirtland’s Special Operations Command for two helicopters to fly photographers and Sandia Video Services videographers to document the tests. He also coordinated with Sandia photometrics experts in staging high-definition and high-speed cameras at various points on the ground — from spokes running east, west, north, and south from the test pool; from a control bunker a mile away; from a site 4 miles away off Kirtland. Thermal instrumentation was set up close to the pool and at various distances along the spokes.

Sandia built the pool for the tests, scraping out a shallow hole the size of a football field, using the dirt to build a reservoir to hold the fuel, covering the reservoir with concrete-capped aluminum, and running a concrete pipe from the reservoir to the pool, Richard says.

A cold snap froze the pool two nights before the large test, and technicians had to go out in a rowboat to break up ice. “These guys truly had the Sandia can-do attitude, doing whatever it took to get the test off,” Richard says. He tried to help by breaking up ice along one edge, taking the opportunity to shoot some video of them power-rowing while breaking through a field of ice. He laughs at the memory.

Balloons become calibration image

Richard also came up with a way for the photometric team’s cameras to measure the height of the flames. “We had to have a calibration image for them,” a giant yardstick to scale the camera lenses in advance. Anything higher than 500 feet has to be cleared with the Federal Aviation Administration, so Richard came up with a balloon array that tethered at 499 feet, with an 8-foot diameter yellow balloon at the top and smaller red balloons attached at 100-foot divisions along the line. “I talked to the (FAA) guy on the phone; he was OK with it. He goes, ‘Nope, 499, I don’t even want to talk to you,’” Richard says.

Then there’s drinking a beer with Paul Tibbets. Richard helped with media relations when what’s now the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History hosted the 509th Composite Group reunion on the 50th anniversary of the 1945 atomic bombing of Japan. Tibbets asked Richard if he planned to come to the crew’s suite for a drink afterward. Richard remembers his response as “Yes, sir, General.” At one point everyone went quiet while watching television coverage of the anniversary, complete with a classic photo of the crew in World War II next to the Enola Gay. “Seeing these guys 50 years ago, and standing next to them, I was just so humbled and honored to be there,” Richard says.

He recalls some griping once during the hard work of setting up a test. “I go, guys, guys . . . later on you’re going to look back on it and you’re going to say, ‘That was pretty cool.’ That’s it with a lot of the programs. It’s rewarding, very rewarding, to know the data that you’re producing has national and at times worldwide significance in the scientific and engineering communities.”