Tag Archives: Rocketdyne

It Doesn’t Take a Rocket Scientist

Crosswalk Button

This is a switch, not a pump!

I saw a video yesterday of a dog figuring out how to drink from a device set on the ground. It had to be stepped on and held down, but the dog would stomp on it a few times before finally standing on it to keep the water flowing. It reminded me of one of my favorite stories.

Many years ago, when I first started working at Rocketdyne, we had a couple of buildings on the other side of Canoga Ave. from the main office and factory structure. People were always having to cross the street and there was a controlled crosswalk there for that purpose. I was always amazed to find engineers repeatedly pushing the button (like this dog’s doing) to get the light to change.

I kept thinking – though I never said it out loud – “you know that’s a switch, not a pump.” It might be expected of the dog; but, rocket scientists? Maybe they were accountants.

It’s OK, Beth. We’ll Carry On From Here

Beth Thompson

Farewell, Beth. You touched a lot of lives and will be sorely missed

I posted the following on Facebook two days ago and I want to share it here as a tribute to my friend and former colleague:

I am beside myself with grief. A couple hours ago I received a message from a friend who wanted to confirm what he had heard – that our former colleague and good friend, Beth Thompson, had passed away. I started frantically contacting as many people as I could think of, all the while hoping it was just some stupid Internet screwup. It was not to be. Apparently, while preparing to leave for work this morning, Beth suffered a heart attack and passed.

Beth was one of my first friends when I joined the Program Office on the Space Shuttle Main Engine program at Rocketdyne. Her good humor and iconoclastic attitude helped me ease into the corporate world, a world I didn’t join until I was 40 years old, and was ill-suited for. Along with many others I’m proud and happy to still call good friends, Beth was family. I still have the card she picked out for me and had everyone sign when I left for what turned out to be a short stint back in my family’s business. That was about 17 or 18 years ago.

She moved up to the Seattle area with her husband, Paul, and their three children, where she continued to work for Boeing, one of several major players that passed Rocketdyne around like a financial hot potato. This is tough to digest. My kids have seen me cry for the first time in their memory. People who are younger than you aren’t supposed to die before you do. It’s just not right.

We hardly saw each other in the past few years, but we liked and commented on each other’s FB posts now and again. At least I knew she was there and I got to see a little bit of her life and happiness. That is now gone and my world is poorer for it. Goodbye, Beth. I love you and will always remember how you brightened my world and the world of so many others.

Serendipity Runs Circles Around Causality

Funny how some things seem — given enough time — to come full circle. Although I have always seen patterns and complexity, as well as the intricacies of their interplay, I wasn’t introduced to the concept of Systems Thinking until I worked on the Space Shuttle Main Engine program at (what was then) Rockwell International’s Rocketdyne division. That introduction included being exposed to the thinking of Dr. Russell Ackoff, a recognized authority in the field. I was fortunate enough to spend some time with him, twice in Philadelphia, prior to his death in October of 2009.

Shortly after retiring from Rocketdyne in 2010, I was introduced to Dr. Lorien Pratt of Quantellia, LLC, who showed me a tool her organization had developed called World Modeler. I was excited at what I saw and hopeful I could somehow become involved with Dr. Pratt and her team. However, that was not to be at the time. I was provided the opportunity to more thoroughly investigate the tool, but I had made a conscious choice to refamiliarize myself with Apple products (after over two decades of living in the PC, DOS, and Windows environment) and World Modeler was not written to be run on a Mac. Furthermore, the PC laptop I had wasn’t powerful enough to do the math and drive the graphics required for running models in real time. I was hosed.

Decision Intelligence Technologies

Decision Intelligence Technologies

Finally, about six months ago I was contacted by Dr. Pratt, who asked me if I wanted to assist in writing a paper that described an effort in which they were involved with the Carter Center. I enthusiastically said “Yes!” I’ve done a couple of other things with Quantellia since then but, beginning a few weeks ago, I took on an entirely new and (for me) exciting role as a referral partner.

Right now I’m spending a fair amount of time learning Decision Science in general, and the process and tools Quantellia uses to help organizations understand complex interrelationships and make better decisions based on that understanding. As I’m doing this I watch videos, read blogs and articles, look for original research, and work on presentations that will help me educate others in this important approach to business and organizational operations.

So . . . here’s the full circle part. As I’m looking for definitions, or explanations, of Decision Science and its origins, I Google the term. The first two hits I get are to The Decision Sciences Institute and to Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Social and Decision Sciences. The third link is to a Wikipedia article on that same Department. In that article, there’s a link to Decision Science, specifically. However, it redirects to an article on Operations Research, which is where Systems Thinking originated. At the bottom of the page is a list of researchers under the heading “See Also”. One of the researchers, unsurprisingly, is Russell L. Ackoff. To me, that’s a combination of serendipity and years of working on better understanding how an understanding of systems can work to the benefit of any organization; actually, anyone.

I’ll be writing a lot more about Decision Science, including my understanding of some of its constituent parts, Decision Intelligence, Decision Engineering, Decision Modeling, and the power and value of our tools, World Modeler and DEEPM (Decision Engineering for Enterprise Project Management). I hope I will be able to clearly explain what it is we have to offer and, more importantly, what everyone has to gain by understanding it. The value exists independently of me or even Quantellia. We’ve just been at it for a while and can apply and employ the discipline both efficiently and effectively. Stay tuned.

Seen a Spaceship Lately?

Have you ever watched the International Space Station pass by in orbit? I don’t know about you, but there’s something majestic, even magical for me just watching it fly overhead. A bright object moving at nearly 5 miles a second appears very fast, even at a distance of hundreds of miles away, and it is awe-inspiring to look up and know there are humans aboard. Several years ago I remember seeing the Station, a Soyuz capsule, and the Space Shuttle all pass overhead as they moved toward a rendezvous and docking. During that mission there were something like a dozen people silently flying by far above my house.

Since my retirement from Rocketdyne, and the cancellation of the Shuttle program, my interest has drifted away some. After all, there’s nothing quite like watching a large, powerful vehicle’s engines roar to life and lift it off the pad into orbit in less than ten minutes. The Station is almost invisible by those standards. It’s already up there and it’s passage is almost mundane. There’s no smoke and fire. It’s swift, but it’s silent.

Recently, I decided to add an app to my phone so I could find out when the Station was flying overhead. Not sure why my interest returned, but it did. The app I chose is called ISS Spotter. It’s free and has everything I need to observe the station. Here are the three views I use the most, though there are settings and a help screen available as well. The first one shows the Stations position and direction of travel (along the thick yellow line) from above and against a map of Earth. It also shows (the blue dot) your location; in this case, near Los Angeles. It has a couple of other bits of functionality, but they’re not relevant to this post.

Orbital map of ISS

Map shows current orbital position in real time

The second view shows upcoming passes over your location (which, btw, it determines automatically using your phone’s GPS, though you can also customize it on the setting page [not shown] if you know your coordinates [and you care]). I use the auto setting and it works just fine. It even adjusts if I’m somewhere else. There are other settings available for time prior to passage for alarms, minimum peak elevations, and others. There’s also a star rating to help you decide how much effort you may want to exert getting outside to view the pass. One star means a pass you might find meh, while three stars indicates even the Magi might be impressed. Note, the next one I’m planning on getting outside for has two stars. As you can see on this page, it will be at a visible altitude (at its highest) of 68° and will shine at a magnitude (visible on the third view, below) of -2.9.

ISS pass notification and alarms

Automatic listing of visible passes in next 7 days with settable alarms

The third view provides everything you need to know to actually find the station, even if you don’t make it out when it first appears. You can also see here that this pass will last a total of six minutes and thirty-eight seconds. Plenty of time to freeze your ass off if you’re anywhere affected by the Polar Vortex, which I’m not.

Compass view of Forecast Screen

Compass view provides direction, maximum elevation, magnitude, and more

I had forgotten, but I got an alarm this morning just in time to go out around 0630 and watch it pass. There were two things that struck me as I stood out in the backyard. When I first spotted it, the Station was well out over the Pacific and, minutes later, it was well over Nevada as I went back inside. In the approximately three minutes I spent observing, that orbiting outpost of humanity and science traveled nearly a thousand miles. The other thing, and it happens every time I observe it silently passing by overhead, was I could swear I was able to make out her warp nacelles.

Thanks For The Boost Rocketdyne!

Atlantis Ascends

Atlantis Ascends on Three SSMEs

Before I go any further, I want to explain why I use only the name Rocketdyne in the title of this post. During the time I worked there, it was owned by Rockewell International, The Boeing Company, and Pratt & Whitney – a Division of United Technologies. The video was produced by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne (PWR), but the flights and the engines depicted are from those three organizations, as well as others that preceded them. In reality, they are from the people of Rocketdyne; those folks who worked tirelessly to help boost humans and human artifacts into space and out into the cosmos. Without them, none of this would have been possible.

It’s important to note that Rocketdyne engines have powered virtually every American astronaut, with the exception of those who have ascended on Russian vehicles, into Low Earth Orbit and beyond. A large portion of the robotic exploration of the Solar System and its planets have depended on Rocketdyne’s engines to get to their destinations. The Hubble telescope owes its usefulness to the Space Shuttle, and the Apollo Moon explorers were returned from the surface of the Moon thanks in large part to Rocketdyne engines. Simply put, our Space Program would not exist were it not for Rocketdyne propulsion.

Now PWR has just released a new video and I would like very much to share it. I don’t know if others will get from it what I do. After all, I worked there, on the Space Shuttle Main Engine program, for over two decades. I could not watch the Shuttle ascend off the launch pad without having to choke back a tear or two every time. As a matter of fact, watching old launches still excites the hell out of me. I am proud. So sue me.

Even if you don’t resonate with the “hurling humans into space” part, the sheer taming of all that power should give you a little bit of a chill. Or you’re dead. Who knows?

Here is PWR’s latest release entitled “Proud”:

Rocketdyne Gets Snubbed Again!

Endeavour's Final Mission

The SCA, Endeavour (OV-105), and chase plane shortly after departing Edwards AFB

I must admit to being a little mystified that NASA hasn’t chosen to fly over and salute Rocketdyne today. Every main engine that powered every Shuttle flight into orbit was designed, manufactured, and assembled primarily at the Canoga Avenue campus. I know they couldn’t fly over every place where components were made in the country, but they’re flying over the freaking Hollywood sign and Universal Studios! Rocketdyne’s campus is just a few miles to the Northwest of those locations. How hard would it have been?

I have often lamented the fact that Rocketdyne never saw fit to advertise itself much. Whenever there was a launch of an Atlas or Delta vehicle, the vehicle manufacturers and integrators always had their names and logos prominently displayed. I am willing to bet very few people in this country even recognize the name Rocketdyne. Do they know every American Astronaut (other than those who’ve flown on Russian missions) was lifted into space by a Rocketdyne engine? I doubt it.

Mercury, Gemini, Apollo. All those flights were powered by Rocketdyne engines. The Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) was powered off the Moon’s surface by a Rocketdyne engine. The Space Shuttle Orbiters would never have made it to LEO were it not for the Space Shuttle Main Engines. The SRBs (Solid Rocket Boosters – or Motors, SRMs) only burned for 126 seconds before separation from the vehicle stack. The Main Engines continued burning for approximately six more minutes, depending on the mission. The SSME was – and still is, as far as I’m aware – the only reusable and fully throttleable rocket engine ever designed and flown.

Anyway, today marks what for me is a very sad day. It should be sad for all of us, IMO. This is the final flight (albeit strapped to the back of the SCA, a specially modified 747) of the last of the Orbiter Vehicles that served us for well over two decades and, unfortunately, we currently have nothing to replace it. The ISS is still on orbit, but we now have to hitchhike there aboard Russian rockets. There’s really no way to tell how long it will be before we return to space.

It also reminds me that I was put out to pasture, though nobody’s suggested ensconcing me in a museum :) I didn’t realize how much retirement would affect me. I’ve enjoyed having time to be with my children, who are eight and eleven. I’ve also enjoyed working at building a modest service business supplying social media marketing for small businesses. However, in this economy that has turned out to not be a very useful business model and, once again, I find I must reinvent myself. Today I’ve decided to wallow a bit in my grief. Grief for the symbolic end of the Shuttle program, on which I labored for over two decades and grief for the symbolic end of my usefulness as a human being, which is what retirement sometimes feels like.

Rocketdyne Logo

The Original Rocketdyne Logo

One more thing. In my opinion Rocketdyne deserves better. I know people whose entire lives were dedicated to the space program. They worked tirelessly; lived and breathed the concept of space travel and exploration. And those engines played a major role in putting Endeavour (OV-105) on orbit. Just sayin’.

Good Bye Endeavour

Endeavour (OV-105)

Endeavour flying over Stennis Space Center on her way to Los Angeles

Space Shuttle Endeavor (OV-105) is on the way to her new job at the California Science Center. She is scheduled to arrive at LAX on Friday after completing a flyover of several landmarks, including The Griffith Park Observatory and Disneyland (Disneyland?). I’m conflicted over whether I should drive to Griffith Park or, perhaps, to Malibu – where she is also scheduled to fly over. Parking could be a real pain.

As a young man I used to go to LAX, park in the lot of the Proud Bird Restaurant, and walk down Aviation Blvd. to the East end of the runway. I could stand there and watch the planes come in for a landing, at times only a hundred feet or so over my head. It was exhilarating. Maybe I’ll do that.

I spent nearly half of my adult life working on the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) program at Rocketdyne in Canoga Park, California. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley and have vivid memories of the many rocket engine tests that took place in the Santa Susana Mountains to the West of where I lived. I would go outside and could hear the roar and see the sky lit up. Those engines helped take us to the Moon. It was magical.

I came to Rocketdyne quite by accident and, even after I started as a temp (what they called a “Job Shopper”) working on the return to flight efforts after the Challenger disaster, it took a while for me to realize I could work there. Not being an Engineer, it somehow never crossed my mind that I could find a place in the organization. I ended up spending 21 years there – in a 23 year period (taking two years off in an ill-fated attempt to return to a family business) – working primarily on the SSME program. Endeavour was the replacement vehicle for Challenger, so I am somewhat emotionally tied to her. Half my working life!

In 2010, I accepted an offer of early retirement, which was made to those of us who were sixty years of age or over because the Shuttle Program was coming to an end. It wasn’t quite over, and I had always joked that I would be the one to turn the lights out at the end. I expected to work until I dropped dead, maybe around 80. It didn’t work out that way. I still miss being a part of the space program and seeing Endeavour on her last flight is dredging up a flood of emotion I’m not sure I’m prepared to handle.

Thankfully, she’ll be very close by and I can take my two girls to see her. Fare thee well, Endeavour. I am eternally thankful I was able to play a small role in your voyages. I wish you well on this, your final mission.

Photo Courtesy of Mike Malinzak




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