Keeping his feet on the ground while his work sails among the stars

This Peñasco High School grad found a home at Los Alamos National Laboratory and ‘never left’

July 8, 2024

Vernon is responsible for the thermal-vacuum test facility, where delicate space instruments are exposed to the range of temperatures they will experience in space.

Not many people can say their work is beyond this world, but Vernon Vigil can. There are instruments on satellites in orbit today that he built with his own two hands — for verifying compliance with nuclear test treaties, better understanding the boundaries of our solar system and more.

Vernon's 33-year career at Los Alamos National Laboratory started as a co-op student when he was still at Peñasco High School and had no particular interest in space.

"When I graduated high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. But I got hired on here and I never left," Vernon says. "My career chose me."

In those 33 years, Vernon has always worked in the Intelligence & Space Research division. And he's never wanted to work for a different organization, either at the Lab or elsewhere.

An engineering technologist and co-team lead for one of the Integration & Testing teams, Vernon helps build, test and certify space-bound instruments designed by the Lab’s scientists and engineers.

"It's impossible to fix an instrument after it's been launched into space, so we really rely on Vernon's eyes, fingers and expertise to find and fix issues and build instruments that function in space for years or decades," says Ruth Skoug, a scientist in the Space Science & Applications group. "Vernon's contributions are critical to the success of every instrument he has worked on."

Always something new to learn

Walking through the Lab facility that is home to the Intelligence & Space Research division, Vernon points to an unassuming display case and describes the model instruments, going all the way back to Vela Hotel — the group of satellites the Lab helped develop to detect nuclear testing in outer space.

Farther down the hall, at another display case, Vernon delights in explaining CubeSats (small, modular satellites) and the "peapods" — like a spring inside a sleeve — that gently propel them from their launch vehicles into space.

Next he moves on to a fabrication shop, and then the Dynamics lab where instruments are tested on a vibration table to make sure they can survive a rocket launch. Then Vernon heads to a machine shop, the thermal-vacuum test facility and finally the clean room, where instruments are assembled and certified before being sent to partner organizations for satellite integration. In his time at the Lab, Vernon has worked in all these facilities and carries a deep understanding of what they do and why.

"I've never gotten bored because there's always something new to learn," Vernon says.

"For me, any day I have the opportunity to work with Vernon is a day that I'm glad I was able to spend time with him," says Benigno Sandoval, an R&D engineer in the Space Instrument Realization group. "Whether it is instrument assembly in the clean room, testing in the environment lab, solving problems in a meeting or chatting in the hall, Vernon makes my day brighter."

In this 2022 photo, Vernon applies temperature monitors to an HRS test unit inside the thermal-vacuum chamber.

An unexpected path

After earning an associate degree in electronics from Northern New Mexico College, Vernon began working in the fabrication shop of the Intelligence & Space Research division, helping assemble printed circuit boards for instruments that go to space in satellites.

Building PC boards requires a steady hand. Tiny computer chips with dozens of electrical leads need to be soldered onto boards the size of a notebook. Some of the soldering is done by hand, lead by lead, while some of the work has an innovative solution. That process, Vernon says, is a bit like toasting a cheesy sandwich in a conveyor oven.

Soldering paste is applied to the PC board and the chip is positioned on top of the paste. The board is then passed through a machine that gradually heats the board enough to melt the soldering paste without damaging the delicate components with thermal shock.

That comparison, and others like it, are Vernon's way of explaining complex processes to others — a skill he uses today as a team lead and across the division.

"Vernon is sought-after as an expert adviser in several areas he has worked in, and he is crucial as a contributor in just as many areas today," Benigno says.

A pivotal moment

Many engineering technologists in the Intelligence & Space Research division specialize in either electrical or mechanical work. Vernon excelled at electrical — and was motivated early on to learn and do all aspects of the instrument builds, from soldering to machining to assembly and more.

"Vernon is amazingly skilled at both electrical and mechanical assembly of delicate spaceflight hardware," says retired guest scientist John Steinberg, who has worked with Vernon for many years. "The fact that he has understanding and experience across the board is extremely valuable to [the division’s] projects."

Eventually, Vernon became part of the team that not only helped build an instrument to be used in space but also delivered it in person to the host facility. This was a pivotal moment in Vernon's career. He got a glimpse of the bigger picture and knew he wanted to be part of it.

"I never got to see the launch, but I got to see the other parts of what the instruments go through," Vernon says. "When I was in the fab shop, just doing that part of it, the PC boards would come in, I'd assemble them, they'd go away, and I never got to see the completed instrument. This instrument was one of the first I got to see from beginning to end, all the way to delivery. That was the launching pad for me expanding my skill set between both electrical and mechanical."

Vernon worked hard and got involved with the other side of the process — not only PC boards, but also building and testing the instruments themselves.

"Vernon is a wonderful colleague to work with," says Magdalena Dale, an electrical engineer. "He is patient, calm and levelheaded even during late days in the environmental test lab. He often has novel assembly solutions and completes meticulous assembly work. His skill in design, assembly and test has resulted in our flight hardware being delivered on time under tight deadlines."

A calm demeanor and a steady hand

Now, years later and with a remarkable depth and breadth of knowledge, Vernon is responsible for conducting thermal-vacuum tests to ensure that the delicate instruments the division designs and produces can survive the harshness of space. In the thermal chamber, instruments are exposed to the range of temperatures they may experience.

"You don't get to space without going through that room," Vernon says of the thermal-vacuum testing facility. "So I get to see almost all of the projects that go through the division."

Vernon does everything from setting up the thermal chamber to installing the instruments and making sure all the electrical connections in and out of the chamber are correct to running the test itself, Ruth says. "These tests are long and often tedious, but Vernon puts in the time required to get them right. And he does all this with a smile. I don't think I've ever seen him get upset when things go wrong, he just moves forward to find a way to fix the problem and keep the project moving."

Vernon in the clean room, assembling instrument components for the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe mission, a multi-institution collaboration that aims to investigate energetic particles' acceleration and interaction of the solar wind with the interstellar medium.

One area in particular that requires a temperament like Vernon's is the clean room — the final step for space instruments built at the Lab. Working here requires protective coveralls, hairnets, face masks and grounding lines to protect the instruments. Recently, Vernon helped build and assemble components for the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe mission, a multi-institution collaboration that aims to map the boundary between our solar system and the rest of the galaxy. IMAP will launch in 2025.

"On space programs, we are so often dealing with unexpected or unsolved problems while under heavy schedule pressure," John says. "But Vernon is calm and steady in the storm — working deliberately, professionally and skillfully to fix the problem at hand."

Vernon is always thinking of better ways of doing things and what's possible to do, Ruth says. When met with the challenge of ultra-thin carbon foils about 50 atoms thick, Vernon developed the skills to handle them, the eye to know when they do not meet standards and the methods for incorporating them into the instruments.

A lifetime of knowledge to share

Vernon's favorite part of his job now is sharing his knowledge.

"In the amount of years I have left, I hope to give away all of my knowledge and make myself obsolete so I can sneak out the back door quietly and nobody misses me," he says.

His calm, confident manner is contagious. If Vernon is teaching you something or explaining a concept, it is evident in his face and his voice that he genuinely wants to help you understand.

Jonathan Deming, a space instrumentation engineer who joined the Lab in 2005, says he's been heavily impacted by the quality of Vernon's work.

"I came in with a master's degree in electrical engineering, fresh out of school, and I was learning a lot from Vernon. He had the practical, hands-on experience," Jonathan says. "What really stuck out about him was the quality of his work — it was always to perfection. And he never rushed despite being very fast at what he did. He would go at the pace he needed to get things done ‘right' instead of ‘right now.'"

"As a team leader, I'm not here to tell my team what to do, I'm here to make their jobs easier," Vernon says. "I'm here to support them and help them navigate whatever speed bumps or hurdles they're hitting. … I can't say that I'm more proud of one project or the other. When you spend so much time and care putting them together, it's like a piece of you goes into them. They all have a piece of me."