Space Nerds at the Beach: A Dispatch from Aerospace Games

If you already have watched the movie about 2000s teenage girls Dusk, you know there’s an iconic stormy baseball game scene between the Cullen family and other vampires alongside the mere mortal Bella Swan. Now imagine this scene taking place on a sandy beach near the ocean with a group of space engineers.

Eating watermelon, tug of war, human pyramid and dodgeball. These are just some of the 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.

At the end of July, for the first time since before the Covid-19 pandemic, the “fun and family” the games returned to Dockweiler Beach, hosted by 2019 winner Northrup Grumman, with “30+ companies, over 6,000 participants and ONE overall champion. Hundreds of aerospace and Department of Defense workers are bus input on colorful t-shirts with the names of their respective employers pasted on the front.

The home bases were put in place very early. Businesses budgeted for packed lunches and tables displayed satellite models and informative flyers. Walking along the tents, Ernest Yeung, a 42-year-old flight software engineer from Earth orbital and a ball-tossing competitor, recalls, “Look at all those companies I applied to that rejected me!” Earning his master’s degree in theoretical physics in 2014, Yeung had pivoted his academic career after being inspired by Richard Branson and Elon Musk. He taught himself programming by driving an Uber for a year, handing out resumes on the SpaceX campus. Two years of applications later, he received his first yes from Virgin Galactic. The pride remains for his former employer, although he has changed jobs and no longer participates in relay races: “We were the third commercial space company to go into orbit after SpaceX and Rocket Lab.” The annual gathering at Dockweiler reminded him of his own journey.

“In a deep, personal and emotional way, I knew what it was like to be on the outside,” he says. “For me, I just feel like I’ve 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 piling up its tug of war team with factory workers!” The entire competition is based on a point allocation system, where winners are awarded 40 points in total, with each team in second place and below earning fewer points each game. Relay races have batting orders of sorts, designed to make sure no one gets tired and 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 team that won first place has to plan for the Aerospace Games next year. So realistically you’re aiming for second place,” says engineer Joan Marie Tubungbanua as she paints a red “JPL” stencil on a teammate’s face. For some years, SpaceX and Northrup Grumman have alternated hosting duties. 22 year old NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) systems engineer and graduate student at the University of Southern California works on the psyche mission to explore a metal-rich asteroid orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, but today she was the wheel of the JPL range wheelbarrow duo. Unfortunately, that meant she had inhaled quite a bit of sand.

“We didn’t expect the sand to be as deep as the current beach. And so we definitely had to adjust our strategy a bit,” laughs Tubungbanua. His teammate, Kruti Bhingradiya, 19, a robotics intern at JPL and a 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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