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Measuring mission success one nanosecond at a time

John Isel, 30th Space Wing Precision Measurement Equipment Laboratory quality assurance evaluator, adjusts a pressure gauge, Nov. 17, 2016, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The PMEL directly impacts mission success by ensuring continuity across the base for all measurement apparatus. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ian Dudley/Released)

John Isel, 30th Space Wing Precision Measurement Equipment Laboratory quality assurance evaluator, adjusts a pressure gauge, Nov. 17, 2016, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The PMEL directly impacts mission success by ensuring continuity across the base for all measurement apparatus. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ian Dudley/Released)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --

In a small office, in a remote corner of Vandenberg, there is a laboratory devoted to metrology, or the science of measurement.

The Precision Measurement Equipment Laboratory contains temperature controlled rooms filled with bizarre looking apparatus designed to calibrate and fix everything from a pressure gauge to an atomic clock. The temperature and humidity controlled rooms stay at constant temperatures varying by less than a degree, depending on the equipment they house.

“The PMEL calibrates approximately 8,000 items per year,” said Michael Yakowenko, 30th Space Wing PMEL quality assurance manager. “From that, the quality department samples approximately three percent and re-inspects them, as well as performing over-the-shoulder evaluations on technicians and evaluates lab processes for efficiency and effectiveness.”

Specializing in the repair, calibration, and modification of test, measurement and diagnostic equipment, the PMEL specialists also perform voltage, current, power, impedance, frequency, microwave, temperature, physical-dimensional, and optical measurements.

“The lab has a base-wide inventory of over 13,000 items of test, measurement, and diagnostic equipment and we process roughly 670 items per month,” said Joseph Allegretto, 30th SW PMEL manager. “The lab supports over 130 owning work centers on base and other CONUS bases with about 40 different customers including United Launch Alliance, Boeing, Lockheed Marin, and the National Reconnaissance Office.”

Providing base-wide continuity in measurement apparatus, the PMEL ensures everything meets the often rigorous standards for the equipment. 

“The PMEL is the base-level link for measurement transfer and maintains self-sufficiency for all systems in the Air Force,” said Allegretto. “We provide a traceable measurement result whereby the result can be related to a reference through a documented unbroken chain of calibrations, each contributing to the measurement uncertainty.”

Despite having such a small shop, the crucial work that is done ripples into every job on base, directly and indirectly.

“Many judgements and decisions are made from measurement data in all areas of the mission,” said Yakowenko. “The folks handling the rocket fuels rely on accurate measurements of pressure and flow to perform their mission safely, and install calibrated relief valves to protect systems from over-pressurization. The people at the tracking stations rely on accurate equipment to give them the frequency and power to properly align transmitters. The missile maintenance troops need accurate torque wrenches and test equipment to properly maintain and service missiles. The vehicles that transport rockets and payloads need accurate weight and balance to prevent damage to high value cargo. We also calibrate things like a firing pin protrusion gauge that security forces use to ensure the firing pins of their weapons are in the proper position and not worn.”