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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Space Nerds at the Beach: A Dispatch From the Aerospace Games

If you’ve ever watched the 2000s teenage-heartthrob movie Twilight, you know there is an iconic thunderstorm baseball game scene between the Cullen Family and other vampires alongside the mere mortal Bella Swan. Now, imagine that scene taking place on a sandy beach near the ocean with a bunch of engineer space nerds.

Watermelon eating, tug-of-war, human pyramid, and dodgeball. These are just a few competitions that are part of the annual Aerospace Games in Los Angeles, where employees and interns from SpaceX, Virgin Orbit, Blue Origin, Boeing, and NASA—among many others—compete for trophies and glory.

In late July, for the first time since before the Covid-19 pandemic, the "fun and family-friendly” games returned to Dockweiler Beach, hosted by 2019 winner Northrop Grumman, with "30+ companies, 6,000+ attendees, and ONE overall champion.” Hundreds of aerospace and Department of Defense workers are bused in, donning colorful T-shirts with their respective employers' names plastered on the front.

Home bases were set up bright and early. Companies budgeted for boxed lunches, and tables displayed satellite models and informational flyers. Walking alongside the tents, Ernest Yeung, a 42-year-old flight software engineer at Terran Orbital and a balloon toss competitor, reminisces: “Look at all of these companies that I applied to that rejected me!” Obtaining his master's in theoretical physics in 2014, Yeung had pivoted his career from academia after being inspired by Richard Branson and Elon Musk. He taught himself programming while driving an Uber for a year, handing out résumés at the SpaceX campus. Two years of applications later, he received his first yes from Virgin Orbit. Pride still remains for his previous employer, though he’s switched jobs and no longer competes in the relay races: “We were the third commercial space company to get to orbit after SpaceX and Rocket Lab.” The annual gathering at Dockweiler reminded him of his own journey.

“In a deep, personal, emotional way, I knew what it was like being on the outside,” he says. “For me, I just feel like I made it. I’m part of this community.”

Winning involves strategy, as one Reddit user posted in a 2016 thread: "SpaceX came in first place overall after stacking their tug-of-war team with factory floor workers!" The entire competition is based on a points allotment system, where winners receive 40 total points, with each team at second place and below earning fewer points in each game. Relay races have batting orders of sorts, designed to ensure that no one would get tired and that time isn’t wasted on player transitions. Even with all of this strategy, however, the goal for many participants is not first place.

“People don't want to win first place, because the first-place team has to plan next year’s Aerospace Games. So realistically, you aim for second,” says engineer Joan Marie Tubungbanua as she paints a red “JPL” stencil across a teammate’s face. For the past few years, SpaceX and Northrop Grumman have alternated hosting duties. The 22-year-old NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) system engineer and University of Southern California masters student works on the Psyche mission to explore a metal-rich asteroid in orbit between Mars and Jupiter, but today she was the wheel to the wheelbarrow duo in JPL’s lineup. Unfortunately, this meant that she inhaled quite a bit of sand.

“We didn't expect the sand to be as deep as it is on the actual beach. And so we definitely had to adjust our strategy a little bit,” chuckles Tubungbanua. Her teammate, 19-year-old Kruti Bhingradiya, a robotics intern at JPL and student from Gujarat, points out that while corporate bonding games like cricket are prevalent in India, the relay race in the United States was unique. “Yeah, I’ve never seen baseball bats before.”

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The morning began with seeding rounds for sports like ultimate frisbee, beach volleyball, and dodgeball. Each company can also have multiple teams based on their skill levels, developing gold- and silver-level volleyball teams who play to determine who gets to be in the afternoon playoffs. Larger teams even hold tryouts in order to solidify commitment.

Sipping water after losing in a knockout round, Sara Montecino, a 28-year-old SpaceX Starlink software engineer, recalls the dodgeball tryouts. “We went out to a field and all put duct tape numbers on.” While only eight people were needed to form a team, 30 people came out, she explains. She knew one of her fellow teammates, but she had never seen the rest before in her life. Some worked on Dragon, the company’s private spacecraft, while others worked on Falcon, the orbital-class rocket. Regardless of their role, at Dockweiler, crowds of her gray-shirted colleagues cheered her on. “It’s pretty isolated in terms of what projects you work on. People I've never seen before, they all just came to watch the games and cheer us on. So I think there's a ton of pride.”

Savina Dhupar, a 25-year-old Deloitte senior consultant and previous Northrop Grumman aerospace engineer, highlights how the goal of the Aerospace Games is not only visibility for people who work at the same company, but for people who work in the industry. “We thought it would be a great way to market Deloitte’s offerings in the space force client world,” she says.

The Aerospace Games is also open to smaller contractors, who often come to the games with a slight disadvantage in numbers. This year was the first time PPG Industries, a global paint supplier, participated in the competition. Deanna Stockwell, a 24-year-old research chemist in PPG’s sealant department, donned gloves, sand socks, and a neon yellow shirt with a small blue PPG icon near the frocket before joining her tug of war team. She points out that while her company is not necessarily designing aircraft, a lot of its products go to clients like Boeing, SpaceX, and Lockheed, which makes the experience valuable for her and her colleagues.

“We’re the little glue in between. I’ve seen it all on paper for the customers. Now I see them [in real life],” explains Stockwell. Her teammate and PPG captain Courtney Roberts stood nearby, resting after a morning full of ultimate frisbee, the relay race, and dodgeball. Since the brackets were released for the Aerospace Games, she had to scramble to coordinate who would be placed where and when. “We had a lot of overlapping, and we don’t have a huge team,” admits Roberts, adding that PPG had to forfeit a couple of games due to numbers and parking challenges earlier in the morning. Substitutions for sports like frisbee can happen after a team scores a point; this privilege, however, is not afforded to smaller teams who don’t have backup.

In the midst of teams yelling “Lock,” “Heed,” “1-2” to develop a pulling rhythm in tug-of-war, spectators chatted on the sidelines. The Aerospace Games becomes a reunion of former comrades who may now work at rival organizations. After the Moog and SpaceX tug-of-war finals, Noah Ghede, a coordinator at a Moog warehouse, high-fived a former colleague who now donned a blue Northrop Grumman shirt. The Northrop Grumman teammates had stood next to him, cheering on Moog before they eventually lost to SpaceX. “Everybody’s competitive out here. It’s personal rivalries though,” Ghede jokes.

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If you stay long enough in the hot sun, you start to notice the underground trading. For engineers who spend many hours indoors, Dockweiler Beach’s daylong events provide the perfect opportunity for them to develop a farmer’s tan. Not for Millenium Space Systems though: They were the only team that arrived at the Games in hot-pink tank tops, which quickly became a hot commodity.

“It's actually a long-running tradition for Millennium that we come fashion ready,” says Dana Carroll, vice president of marketing. “The way that we tell people they can get these shirts is if they come work for us.” Around 3 pm after a day of games and swimming, many people began to walk around to different tents, inquiring about T-shirt trades. While some smaller teams were selling their shirts, others such as JPL have signs at their tents: “NO T-SHIRT TRADING.” Even so, earlier they had handed out free NASA temporary tattoos.

“I tried to get a SpaceX [T-shirt], but they won't take anything except this one off your back,” said one games participant. With 313 to 285 points, SpaceX eventually edged out Northrop Grumman for the champion title and the role and responsibilities as next year’s host.

As much as eternal glory and bragging rights are at stake, talent is too. The Aerospace Games cap off the summer experiences of many migratory interns in Southern California. The return of in-person events gives them more opportunities to shape their future. Daniel Nguyen, a 22-year-old materials process intern and volleyball team player from Rocketdyne, delayed his graduation from the University of Florida so that he could have a more in-person internship experience. Although he has appreciated all of the unique experiences and “enticing benefits,” in his words, like the Aerospace Games, he says he’s unsure of whether he wants to remain in the industry. “I just want to try other industries. As a materials engineer, I'm not necessarily too tied down to aerospace specifically.” For Xenia Estey, an intern at Honeybee Robotics who is currently hoping to transfer to a four-year university from community college, the games have given her reassurance to talk to coworkers beyond the cubicle. She says she’ll miss the weekly volleyball and ultimate frisbee practices. “They became part of my routine. I’ll be a little sad to see that go.” This sense of community may be one of the reasons why she returns.

As the day wrapped up, Jason Shi, a 20-year-old Northrop Grumman missions intern and rising senior at the University of Houston, walked by the JPL tent to inquire about submitting his résumé. While they weren’t officially taking submissions or job applications, he says it was nice to meet and talk to people in the industry he wanted to join after graduation. Throughout the day of de-stressing, several interns traded similar stories of their experiences working for different companies. “I don’t think this is much of a networking event,” Shi says, “But might as well, right? Companies are out here."

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