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Sandia National Laboratories' quality engineer Dulce Barrera, left, and team lead Kylen Johns worked with managers and other team members to face the challenges caused by COVID-19 while working on the Mobile Guardian Transporter Prototype 1 test vehicle.
Sandia National Laboratories' quality engineer Dulce Barrera, left, and team lead Kylen Johns worked with managers and other team members to face the challenges caused by COVID-19 while working on the Mobile Guardian Transporter Prototype 1 test vehicle.

Bringing together a team, whose lives have taken a dramatic turn due to challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, requires incredible leadership. And leading the team building the next generation of secure nuclear transport—called the Mobile Guardian Transporter (MGT)—under a tight deadline towards a required test, takes a special kind of person to accomplish such a feat.

Enter Systems Engineer Kylen Johns. While much of the rest of Sandia National Laboratories started to work from home this spring, that wasn’t an option for the Mobile Guardian Transporter Prototype 1 team. For the past three years, Johns has led the team of approximately 25 engineers, technicians, and designers to ensure the prototype trailer is instrumented and ready for a full-scale crash test this summer at Sandia’s rocket sled track.

The MGT is the next-generation secure transportation system and its development is a critical element of NNSA’s nuclear deterrence modernization program. As a high-profile project with an array of stakeholders, the complexity and pressure of the task was already high. Even with the state of New Mexico’s stay-at-home order and the effects of the virus on everyone’s daily lives, Johns and her team thrived.

This project was already a challenge due to its scope and complexity; add on the challenge of COVID-19, and the progress that Kylen and her team are making is truly extraordinary.

Daniel Wilcox
Mobile Guardian Transporter technical basis manager, Sandia National Laboratories

“Kylen’s positive attitude and proactive leadership have been key to the team’s success during this pandemic,” said Daniel Wilcox, MGT technical basis manager.

“This project was already a challenge due to its scope and complexity; add on the challenge of COVID-19, and the progress that Kylen and her team are making is truly extraordinary.”

Much of the crash test preparations take place in and around the test vehicle inside a high bay on the campus. The inherent close quarters of the work make progress difficult in the current pandemic environment. The test is critical to Sandia’s mission, and it is an NNSA priority.

The first couple of weeks were difficult and morale suffered, Johns said. Team members were nervous and struggled with how to implement social distancing and safely carry out their work. It was difficult getting on site during that time, and some team members needed to work from home because they or family members were at higher risk of infection or were caring for children. About 15 people were working in the high bay on a daily basis, but the project lost ground.

Asset security and WMD response management, in conjunction with validation and qualification management, industrial hygiene and environment, safety and health personnel, developed and communicated guidance to the team to enable continuing hands-on work in a COVID-19 environment.

Johns and her team worked to implement that guidance, safely updating their processes and procedures to keep everyone safe and get the work done. The virus meant the group required an ample supply of gloves, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies, and it meant wearing face coverings, setting a two-person limit in the trailer, spreading out the work in the high bay as much as possible and wiping down surfaces multiple times a day.

“We created our own new normal and took it upon ourselves to not only protect ourselves but our coworkers,” she said. “Once we had a process flow and [personal protective equipment], the stress just fell off and everyone at that point felt a lot more comfortable.”

Johns said that once the team figured out a pace and preferred communication styles, everything moved forward. The team was able to make up for lost time and accelerated the remaining schedule. Cargo loading was completed per the project plan, and the team is currently on track to deliver the test vehicle to Sandia’s Tech Area 3. Validation and qualification personnel are also on time with associated test preparation activities.

Learn more about NNSA’s Office of Secure Transportation and how NNSA is keeping government-owned special nuclear materials safe and secure.