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This is Us: Shirley and Jim Savarino

Jim:  In the Marines I was a technician and then went to a small ultrasound company that was bought by Phillips, and that’s where I met Shirley — she was interning there. Although I was working as a technician, in my heart I’d always been a physicist. That interest was noticed by the physicists there and they pulled me into their group and encouraged me to study physics. After completing undergraduate studies in physics, I followed Shirley to work in aerospace in Southern California.

Shirley:  Almost my whole career has been in aerospace. After I graduated from school I worked at TRW where most of my assignments were on the NASA satellite contracts. In 2001, we decided to move to West Virginia, where Jim is from, to raise our daughter. When I was looking for work, I found there was this small branch of NASA that was hiring. It was a good fit because I had already worked in aerospace in California and specifically on NASA projects.

Jim:  And I guess I got my NASA job from a Christmas party! Shirley introduced me to a guy who decided to hire me from a conversation we had at a company party, which led to me working for them, too.

Shirley: I work for NASA’s Independent Verification & Validation Facility. After Challenger crashed, one of the findings from the board was to increase analysis on software, even though software had nothing to do with the incident. It was understood that there is so much that software controls, NASA wanted a separate set of eyes reviewing it. That’s what we do.

We get to work on the coolest projects. We have a team working on the Space Station, all the major Mars missions, and the new future manned mission.

Jim: I worked on the Phoenix mission which landed at the Martian north pole. I also worked a little on the Curiosity rover mission, satellites for Earth climate studies, and solar system exploration missions. The Curiosity rover launched in November of 2011 and landed on Mars in August, 2012.

Shirley: One of my favorite projects was working on Curiosity. You see, a typical spacecraft has anywhere from 30,000 – 750,000 lines of programming code. Curiosity had several million of lines of code. So it was not only a cool mission because it was going to Mars, but it was also very complex, and software had an extremely large role in it.

Jim: Getting to Mars is tricky because you can only launch about every two years. It’s far away and you want to launch at the perfect time when you arrive out there when it’s closest to the Earth in its orbit.

Shirley: And it takes about seven to eight months to get there. Our daughter was attending Florida State, so we visited her for Thanksgiving and then all went to the launch in November. Curiosity landed on August 6th, and we were invited to JPL/Cal Tech to watch the landing with everyone who worked on the project. We were all in an auditorium that had a feed from the NASA control room on a big screen. The Curiosity had a seven-minute landing sequence and it was by far the hairiest part of the whole mission! This is because Curiosity is bigger than other rovers so air bags wouldn’t work and JPL had to design new techniques.

Jim: And it did stuff that no other landing craft did previously! It was a very exciting time to see our work come to fruition.

Shirley: The landing was really scary. And even though it takes seven minutes, it took about thirteen minutes for the signal to come back to Earth during the Curiosity landing.

Jim: So by the time we were watching it start on the feed, in reality it had already finished.

Shirley:  The landing was all software-controlled. So to be part of the IV&V team, we could – in our minds – say “Okay, that part deployed, that part of code worked!” [To Jim] But remember the guy sitting behind us?

Jim: Oh, yeah!

Shirley: He was responsible for one of the pyro sequences and when they got to that, we just heard this audible “PHEW!” from him, like “My part worked!”

Jim: It turned out that everything worked, and it landed beautifully.

The Savarinos have lived in Oakhurst since December, 2016. Shirley continues to work for NASA remotely, and Jim has retired to concentrate on his music. He is a singer/songwriter and appears at various venues around the community.


This is Us is a series of local profiles with first-person stories, written in a way we can get to know the people in our community on a little deeper level. Click here more information about this series.

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