Employee Q&A: Steward Observatory Mirror Lab Software Engineer Greg Gasson

His unique hobby was recently featured in a Super Bowl commercial.
Feb. 15, 2012
Greg Gasson shows how he sets up his computer to get to work in the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab. (Photo by Shelley Shelton/University Communications)
Greg Gasson shows how he sets up his computer to get to work in the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab. (Photo by Shelley Shelton/University Communications)

Name: Greg Gasson

Position: Software engineer for the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab

Number of years at the UA: 9 1/2

Favorite thing about working at the UA: The people and the project. It’s a great group of people, and the thing that attracted me to coming here is that I worked with another company for 11 years .... Then my boss left and came to work here .... Then another co-worker that I worked with came here, and then I left. ... We all enjoyed each other as employees .... And one by one we came over here. Seven of us left and six of us ended up here. 

What's your favorite kind of movie stunt? I think just doing something that most people wouldn’t even think about doing, wouldn’t even enter into their imagination. And I think for me it would be doing something and watching people’s reaction to it. 

Greg Gasson wrote the software that reveals the temperature and forces on the glass when his colleagues at the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab are running tests on giant mirror lenses. He talks easily about hardware, firmware and software. 

But there's another side to him. And if you watched the Super Bowl on Feb. 5, you probably got to see a sample of it. During the second quarter of the game, a commercial for the Chevy Sonic featured the automobile engaging in a series of stunts, including skydiving. That's where Gasson came in. He coordinated and filmed the aerial sequences in the commercial. (See other examples of his aerial video work on his website.)

What began as a skydiving hobby in the mid-1980s is more and more becoming a side career in aerial videography and photography for the 46-year-old. 

Karen Kenagy, program coordinator senior at the mirror lab, has said more than once that Gasson is the one employee she doesn't worry about when he has to climb around in the lab to fix things.

Gasson recently took time to talk to Lo Que Pasa about what he does for the UA as well as how he spends his free time.

What does your job entail?
I wound up as a troubleshooter with a good sense of electronics ... and when things break I try and figure out what the problem is and call in some other experts. ... (For daily work) I never know what I am coming up against, but lately what I've done are lots of laser tracking. Where we have spherical mounted retro reflectors, these three mirrors that are a corner cube, and when you shine a laser beam into it, it returns that laser beam to its source. So the laser tracker will basically measure either the time of flight – how long it takes the beam to go and come back – or it will count the number of fringes of wavelength for more accurate positioning. We are doing a lot of stuff. We are measuring the surface of the mirror. We are doing it that way (with lasers) because the mirror is not polished well enough that the optics can see the return image. ... So when you shine certain types of light on it, it doesn’t return that image because it is not smooth enough. So lots of metrology.

You do all that with computer software?
Yeah. We basically have software that runs on a Windows machine that runs a package called "spatial analyzer," which we use to collect the data from the laser tracker. ... Sometimes I’m writing software for collecting data from thermal couples, which are two pieces of metal that are welded together. And what happens is that if you have these two different types of metal and it is sitting there in ambient air or touching an object, the temp(erature) around it will make the electrons flow one direction or the other, so it creates a little electromotive force, and based on that you can get a relative temperature. ... You want to make sure when you are measuring that the mirror is within  0.1 degree Celsius isothermal, because if it is not then you can start inducing shape changes into the mirror just because of the temp differential. It can bend or distort the mirror figure.

How did you end up in this position?
Well, initially I was working in the ETS (Engineering Technical Services) department up the street. But when I found out about the mirror lab and its industrial-type setting, I like doing more than just software, and this was a great chance to get in and take things apart and figure out how things work and why things are broken. ... And, interestingly enough, when I first came here they didn’t know what to do with me because I wasn’t this software guy that would sit at my desk. I would pick up screwdrivers and take things apart. For a while, some of the managers were having a problem with that, and in time they realized I was more of an asset than a liability. ... We had a large polishing machine over there. (The main person in charge of it) was on vacation for two weeks and the thing went down. That's our bread and butter; we need to keep that thing going. I wasn't the perfect guy for the job, but I was the only guy willing to take a look at it. It took me a week and a half tracking it down, but I found the one loose wire out of thousands of wires in there. When I did that they were pretty impressed.

What kind of background and education did you need to do this kind of work?
I learned a lot of this from my last job where we made computer graphics boards and computers, which were used for scientific or military applications. And because we made the hardware it wasn’t debugged, and a lot of times there wasn’t documentation for it. So I got used to working in the dark, and I’m not intimidated by something if I don’t have a manual. So it wound up being a good asset here, because a lot of the stuff we are doing is cutting-edge.

So you are just learning as you go?
Yes, it was a good fit, and that is the way I learn. I learn by doing, not by sitting in the classroom.

Does the commercial work you do predate your working here at the UA?
Yeah, I made my first skydive on June 16, 1984. So I was skydiving and did that for 10 years where it was for fun and recreation. I did some stunt-type stuff and got a little bit of attention. Then a friend of mine asked if I would video her for an upcoming competition. At the time I had no interest in being behind the camera. I always liked doing the stunt work.

This was for a competition?
Yes, the (skydiving) world championships in 1994. Then she hurt her back, so we didn’t get to compete together, but another competitor needed a camera flier. So I teamed up with her and got second place in the world that year. I thought, OK, I’m done, you know, that was fun. But then the best freestylist in the world saw my work and potential. I was still kind of raw then. She asked me if I would be interested in filming her. And I filmed her. We won the world championship two years in a row, then she retired. Then I thought I was done, but then the best male freestylist asked me, so we teamed up for like four years. And then, I was videoing at the time, and I began to get interested in film. You know, movie film. So I saved and bought a movie camera that was around $25,000. That was a huge investment.

When was that?
This was 2001, when I got that camera. ... In 2004, I got my first commercial. It was a Nescafe commercial. ... And then in 2005, I got a commercial for General Motors ... We went to Dubai and filmed that, so were throwing minivans out of the back of a Russian cargo plane.

Does that take a lot of preparation?
Yeah. And the most important thing when doing that ... is picking a good team. Over the years, having been a competitor and knowing who is good in a competition circle, those people tend to be the best to work with. Because they are the ones that have trained all year .... Those are the kind of people you want when you are under pressure and you've got to get the shot. You know things have got to work. Because the nature of aviation and film, anything you do in film is crazy expensive. For the Chevy commercial it was $10,000 an hour to rent the C130 (plane). That was just for the C130. And then you have all the additional support crew and everything. It’s not like, "Oh, well, if we don’t get it, we’ll reshoot." Every shot and every drop has to count.

Do you find yourself working with similar people over and over again?
Yes. I always try and work with the same core team.

Have you done mainly commercial work?
Commercials and film. I shot the scenes for a Jennifer Aniston movie called "Management," with Woody Harrelson and Steve Zahn. ... It's been out for years, but it was of course my first feature film that I'm filming and it goes for limited release. It didn't even show in Tucson. It showed up in Phoenix, but I had so much other stuff going on I couldn't even get up and go see my movie. We did a feature film in Mexico, which just opened Sept. 22. The premiere was in Mexico City. We were going to that, but the Chevy spot came up and we filmed on that day so I didn't get to go to my premiere. That was the first one where I got opening title credits; I was the "Aerial Director of Photography." That was a big coup for me.

Have you ever done any music videos?
Yeah, we just shot one this summer for an indie (independent) band called Kid Savant. (Watch the video here.)

Is your only specialty the aerial photography, or are there other stunts you film as well?
That’s (the aerial) what I like, but what I would like to do is, because this is such niche work, I would like to do some helmet-mounted point-of-view type stuff. I think that would be great. Think about movies like "Braveheart" or these other epic-battle-type things. If you've got a steady cam, it's this big bulky thing that you're running around with. Or if you're doing it handheld there is a lot of motion. I think it would be perfect for these epic battle scenes, or chasing someone up and down a stairwell, or a rooftop scene. Where the actor would be jumping, it's something I could literally follow the actor with and he could jump into an air bag. I want to take the camera places you typically don't see it.

How do you expand into something like that?
It's word of mouth, and connection and meeting people. I did a Cheez-It commercial years ago, that guy knew this guy who happens to be the second unit director for James Bond. Unfortunately there is no skydiving in that, but I have established a connection. And so it is consistently working (with) these people, and one day it's like, in Hollywood, where you get that one job and you are set for life because people see it. ... I hope that happens.

Do you ever sleep?
All I do is work, sleep and skydive, or plan for skydiving-type stuff. No social life, which is kind of hard because my wife is very outgoing, loves to go off and do stuff. For me, go to work, go home, play with the dogs, do whatever, I don't want to go (out) on the town.

Where did you go to school?
I went to the Air Force academy in Colorado Springs. ... I got kicked out of the academy for failing two math classes. ... I went to Arizona State and was still doing terrible, so after six years of putzing through, (they said), "You have 90 credit hours so you have to pick a major." So I went through all the courses I had taken, and the degree I could graduate the fastest with was computational mathematics. It was a cross between computer science and math. In retrospect it was the best decision I made, because I beat the thing that beat me.