Thirty-four years ago next month I showed up for work at Rockwell International’s Rocketdyne Division. Having grown up in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California, I was familiar with Rocketdyne, as during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs the rocket engines they made, which powered the vehicles used to launch our astronauts into space, were all designed and manufactured not far from where I lived.
The factory was in Canoga Park, but the engines were tested at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, which was in the hills to the west of my home. I have vivid memories of seeing the night sky light up and hearing the roar of those engines as they were being tested. I also remember going out at night and lying down on our front lawn to watch Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite (launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957) go by overhead. I was ten years old at the time.
While these experiences didn’t cause me to pursue a career in engineering, they did serve to pique my interest in astronomy and space exploration. They also had absolutely nothing to do with my ending up working at Rocketdyne. My beginning there was entirely serendipitous. I was working for the temp agency, Apple One, where I had been temping at a hard drive manufacturer called Micropolis. Their business model, perhaps the industry itself, was somewhat seasonal and work for temps was boom and bust there. As had happened many times before (we’d heard about it and weren’t surprised when it happened) business slowed down and they decided to lay off the temps, who comprised the majority of the workforce.
That was on a Friday. That evening, my contact at Apple One called me and asked if I could show up at Rocketdyne the following Monday. I don’t remember the exact date, but it was in the middle of January, 1987, almost exactly a year after OV-099, Space Shuttle Orbiter Vehicle Challenger, exploded as it was ascending to orbit, killing all seven crew members.
I was to turn 40 years old later that year and of course I would show up. I needed to work. However, that it was Rocketdyne I was to show up at was something of a bonus, as far as I was concerned. I had known people who worked at Rocketdyne over the years, and it never occurred to me I could work there. I wasn’t an Engineer or a Scientist. I didn’t even have a college education, though I did have a Juris Doctorate, which I had earned eleven years before. I was the only person in my law school without a baccalaureate. None of that mattered as a temp (or what they called a “job shopper”.) They didn’t ask anything about my background or my capabilities. They just needed a warm body who could perform data input.
So, that following Monday I showed up to work at the plant on Canoga Ave. in Canoga Park. I had never worked at a really large organization before. In fact, with the exception of the temp job I had previously been working at, I had never worked anywhere that had more than a dozen or so people. Most places I’d worked only had five or six, at the most. Rocketdyne had armed guards at the gates. There were at least four entrances guarded by men with guns. It was actually a bit heady.
I ended up hiring in a year later and worked there until May of 2010, when I accepted an early severance package offered to everyone over the age of 60. I turned 63 the next month, June. I’m writing several memoirs, and my time at Rocketdyne will play a big role in at least one of them. However, my purpose here is merely to introduce one of the “awards” I received when I worked there.
I was not a big fan of individual performance awards, believing they tended to pit people against each other when, in fact, we needed to find ways to improve our collaborative and collective abilities. This particular award was given to each of the members of the Space Shuttle Main Engine High Pressure Fuel Turbo-pump team, who labored mightily to manufacture, test, and deliver 10 additional pumps for the program when Pratt & Whitney was unable to certify their alternate design. As our contract ran out, and we knew there would be no new business, the team had to wind down and members had to find other places to hang their hats.
You should note that everyone on the team received one of these shadow boxes, with a flag, a turbine blade, several mission buttons, and these inscriptions (see below.) I’m including the back, because our managers took the time to personally thank each person on the team; there were well over fifty, if memory serves. This “award” hangs in my home office. This coming May it will have been 20 years since I received it, and I’m every bit as proud of it now as I was back then. Plus … how often do you get to have a piece of rocket engine hardware and other space memorabilia?
PS – In case you don’t get to it (it’s on the back of the shadow box) that turbine blade traveled a total of 27,600,000 miles, mostly doing nothing after MECO (Main Engine Cut Off) on each flight.
PPS – Just to be clear, in these two photos (below) I’ve superimposed the award (from the front) on a picture of a shuttle night launch. It has a glass door, which I opened because it’s reflective and I didn’t want that in the photo, and digitally removed with Photoshop. I’ve separately added the two pieces of text from the back, without including the box, and superimposed them on that same night launch photo.