If you ever seen the teenage heartthrob movie from the 2000s dusk, you know there’s an iconic thunderstorm baseball game scene between the Cullen family and other vampires alongside the mere mortal Bella Swan. Now imagine this scene is set on a sandy beach near the ocean with a bunch of engineering space nerds.
Watermelon Eating, Tug of War, Human Pyramid and Dodgeball. These are just a few competitions that are part of Los Angeles’ annual Aerospace Games, where employees and interns from SpaceX, Virgin Orbit, Blue Origin, Boeing and NASA – among many others – compete for trophies and glory.
In late July, the “fun and family-friendly” games returned to Dockweiler Beach for the first time since the pre-Covid-19 pandemic, hosted by 2019 winner Northrup Grumman, with “30+ companies, over 6,000 participants and ONE overall champion.” .” Hundreds of Aerospace and Department of Defense employees are wheeled in on buses donning brightly colored T-shirts with the names of their respective employers on the front.
Home bases were established bright and early. Companies planned packed lunches, and satellite models and information flyers sat on tables. Ernest Yeung, a 42-year-old flight software engineer at Terran Orbital and a participant in the balloon toss, recalls past the tents, “Look at all these companies I’ve applied to and they’ve turned me down!” Yeung, the Received his Masters in Theoretical Physics in 2014, had shifted his career from academia after being inspired by Richard Branson and Elon Musk. He taught himself to code while driving an Uber and handing out resumes around the SpaceX campus for a year. Two years later, he received his first yes from Virgin Galactic. Pride in his former employer remains, even though he changed jobs and no longer takes part in the relay races: “We were the third commercial space company to come into orbit after SpaceX and Rocket Lab.” The annual meeting in Dockweiler reminded him of his own journey.
“In a deep, personal and emotional way, I knew what it was like to be outside,” he says. “For me, I just feel like I made it. I am part of this community.”
Winning requires strategy, as one Reddit user wrote in a 2016 thread: “SpaceX came in first place overall after stacking their tug-of-war team with factory workers!” Received 40 points, with each team in second place and below receiving fewer points in each game. In relay races, there is some kind of batting order to ensure that nobody gets tired and that no time is wasted changing players. But despite all this strategy, for many participants, first place is not the goal.
“People don’t want to win first place because the first-place team has to plan next year’s Aerospace Games. Realistically, you’re aiming for second place,” says engineer Joan Marie Tubungbanua as she paints a red “JPL” stencil over a teammate’s face. In recent years, SpaceX and Northrup Grumman have taken turns hosting duties. The 22-year-old NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) systems engineer and University of Southern California master’s student works on the Psyche mission to study a metal-rich asteroid orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, but today she was the wheel of the wheelbarrow duo in the cast by JPL. Unfortunately, she inhaled quite a bit of sand as a result.
“We didn’t expect the sand to be as deep as the actual beach. And so we definitely had to adjust our strategy a bit,” Tubungbanua smiles. Her teammate, 19-year-old Kruti Bhingradiya, a robotics intern at JPL and student from Gujarat, points out that while loyalty games like cricket are common in India, the relay race was unique in the United States. “Yeah, I’ve never seen baseball bats.”