Here’s the second issue of the KM newsletter I wrote and published for the SSME KM team. This one was for January of 2006. The middle column has a couple of decent descriptions of “Lessons Learned” and “Best Practices.” What it doesn’t address, which is something many of us came to understand later, is that we don’t actually want “Best” Practices; which implies there won’t be any room for improvement, as “best” is a superlative adjective, which means it just doesn’t get any better than best. We, therefore, preferred to talk about “Better” Practices, which also fits rather nicely into the philosophy of continuous improvement. My apologies if this is boring.
Tag Archives: NASA
Yesterday was a very special anniversary. It marked the 29th year that has passed since OV-099, the Space Shuttle Orbiter Vehicle Challenger, experienced a catastrophic failure (what NASA calls a Crit 1 failure) during launch, which resulted in the loss of the vehicle and its entire crew. The day was also set aside to commemorate the loss of the Apollo 1 Command Module and its three-man crew during a test on January 27, 1967, and the loss of OV-102, the Space Shuttle Orbiter Vehicle Columbia, which disintegrated during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere on February 1, 2003, experiencing another Crit 1 failure and the deaths of all aboard.
It was a day to commemorate the loss of these fine people; a day to spend a moment of silence reflecting on the sacrifice they made in their quest to advance the knowledge and, I’d like to think, the purpose of the human race. Truthfully, though I became aware of it on my rocket engine company’s website, I completely forgot about it most of the day and was only reminded when I saw the picture I’m sharing in this post. It’s a picture of the two women who were part of the crew we lost with Challenger’s destruction 29 years ago – Judith Resnik and Christa McCauliffe.
I came across the picture because Ms. Magazine posted it with some information about these two very special women. They pointed out they were the first women to die in space flight. Judith Resnik was also the first Jewish woman to go into space as well as the second American woman astronaut. Christa McCauliffe would have been the first teacher in space. The death of these women means a lot to me and it should mean a lot to you as well. They died in pursuit of greater understanding, of advancing science. They also were in pursuit of education for the youth of not just America, but the entire planet, as well as the noble goal of space exploration and the known and unknown treasures it promises for our species.
These two deaths are especially bittersweet for me, as they were the catalyst that launched what would become my first and, apparently, only actual “career”. Almost one year to the day after Challenger exploded, I began working for the organization that designed and built the Space Shuttle Main Engine and on the document that would represent their portion of the Space Shuttle’s return to flight . . . and service to our space program. I don’t believe I would have found that job were it not for the explosion of that vehicle. I am neither an engineer nor a rocket scientist and, had nothing happened, there would likely have been no need for me.Due to the nature of the document they were preparing to justify a safe return to space flight, they needed people who could work with engineers and rocket scientists and help them input the results of their studies into a document that would satisfy NASA’s requirements of scientific rigidity and organizational accuracy.
Due to the nature of the document they were preparing to justify a safe return to space flight, they needed people who could work with engineers and rocket scientists and help them input the results of their studies into a document that would satisfy NASA’s requirements of scientific rigidity and organizational accuracy. I had the appropriate skills (low bar) and mentality (high bar), along with the need to work wherever the hell I could. 🙂
At any rate, I ended up working for what was then Rockwell International’s Rocketdyne Division. It subsequently became a part of The Boeing Company, United Technologies’s Pratt & Whitney Division, and is now GenCorp’s Aerojet Rocketdyne. I worked there for 21 of the next 23 years, temporarily leaving in a somewhat ill-fated, but important, return to a family business before returning until my retirement in May of 2010. After nearly five years, I am back working there and am hopeful I can make a difference.
That my good fortune is somewhat a result of the tragedy that cost these two women, and five other astronauts, their lives does not go unnoticed. I hope I honor their memory each day I do my job. I will never forget their sacrifice, nor will I forget the connection their deaths have with my good fortune. I have few heroes in my life. These two are at the top of the list.
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.
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’.
From Space to Sleep
Yesterday, a friend of mine, Luis Suarez, posted some information on Google+ about sleep, which elicited a fair amount of commentary (including from me) and, in the process, reminded me of a story that comes from my first days as a member of the Flight Operations team on the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) program.
I’ve written before about my feelings regarding meetings and their efficacy, which I tend to frequently question. However, this was a meeting where I might have been able to learn more about the job I was embarking upon. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out like I hoped it would.
SSME, MCC, HPFTP, HPOTP, LPFTP, LPOTP, MECO
The aerospace industry, like many others, is replete with acronyms. In addition, I was working at an organization that was primarily an Engineering company and I’m not an Engineer. After over two decades there I have often noted I am now covered with a reasonably thick patina of Engineer, but this was at the very beginning of my tenure and everything was new to me.
This particular meeting was a telecon with our NASA counterparts at a time when the U.S. Space program was recovering from the destruction of Challenger. The year was 1988 and we were approximately 8 months away from returning to flight; human flight, that is. Although the SSME was in no way implicated in the disaster, we had been using the stand-down to prepare a Failure Mode and Effect Analysis, as well as a Critical Items List (referred to as a FMEA-CIL). It consisted of breaking down the operation of our engines into discrete activities beginning with “tanking” (the loading of fuel into the External Tank) and ending with MECO (Main Engine Cut-Off).
To make a long story short, I entered a packed conference room designed to accommodate approximately 35 – 40 people. It was full, with every available seat taken, and there was a conference phone, on the other side of which was an equally packed room at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. I don’t recall the specific technical issues that were discussed at that meeting, partly because I really didn’t have the faintest idea what they were talking about – especially because of the prolific use of the aforementioned acronyms and technical jargon, as well as the use of numerous bullet charts and a dizzying array of graphics which, presumably, represented performance data of various sorts.
The Hypoglycemia Zone
I sat in the back, against the wall, and tried to follow along, anxious to learn what I could about my new job and what my organization was responsible for. It wasn’t long before I felt my head bang against the wall. With horror, and not a little consternation, I realized I had dozed off. To make things worse, I was quite certain I had begun to snore, as I have been shunned by many because of my snoring. I also noticed I received a couple of sidelong glances from my new colleagues.
Needless to say, I got up and left the room, delaying my education . . . and hoping I hadn’t been noticed by too many influential people. I never forgot that day and, throughout my over two decades career there, I was always conscious of the possibility of falling asleep during meetings, especially terminally long ones where incredibly arcane technical discussions were accompanied by the kinds of charts I grew used to, and which Edward Tufte so vociferously decried. In that more than twenty years I also witnessed an awful lot of people dozing during meetings, especially if they took place after lunch – in the Hypoglycemia zone.
I really think meetings are over-rated and we tend to have far too many that are unproductive and unnecessary. Is this the case where you work?
Photo Courtesy of Rational Supervision
Before you get your panties in a bunch, I’m not really advocating the complete abolition of meetings. I always loved getting together with 20 or 30 of my closest associates and spending the first ten minutes – of what always managed to completely fill the exact amount of time allotted to it – with banter about our kids, our pets, our plants, and our plans for retirement. Regardless, it always seemed to me there were just a few too many of them, and many were just . . . well . . . kind of unnecessary. So I’m just saying maybe we should consider there are meetings that are a complete – or near complete – waste of everyone’s time. Allow me to provide an example and, hopefully, I won’t piss off my former employer too much by sharing this.
Quite a few years ago I was a member of the High Pressure Fuel Turbopump team for the Space Shuttle Main Engine program at a famous, but not very well-known organization. [Pop Quiz! Who designed the engines that powered the Saturn vehicles to the moon?] At the time, another company was in the process of certifying their design for the same pump, as (Warning! the following statement may be hotly disputed by the parties, and they are only a partial recollection from a limited perspective) NASA had determined their (the other company’s) design was more reliable and, therefore, more safe. Unfortunately, this other organization was having trouble with some of their design and they weren’t meeting their certification and delivery goals. For this reason, we were given a contract to produce ten more high pressure fuel pumps.
For a length of time I can no longer recall (this was in the late 1990s, I believe, and the experience was somewhat painful), but let’s say it was around or over a year, we had a stand-up meeting every day to discuss what had happened the day before and what we wanted to happen that day. There were always between 15 and 20 people in attendance. However, on most days only a few of these folks actually had to be there. Unfortunately, it was impossible at the time for anyone to know whether or not they were needed without attending the meeting to see and hear what was talked about.
At the time, Macromedia had a product they called Generator which, as the team’s webmaster and web content volunteer learner guy, I had discovered. Generator worked with Flash to create animated displays. Among the things you could do with it was to create a ticker tape that would run a stream of updates at the bottom of an employee’s display. I knew nothing of “social” back then, but it sure seemed to me that having people update their activity through the use of this ticker tape would obviate the necessity for at least half (probably more like 80%, thank you Mr. Pareto) of the meetings we were having. This seemed a significant savings to me. Unfortunately, I might as well have been standing in the corner talking to it.
Now that this occurrence has faded in my rearview mirror, I can look at it a little more rationally. At the time, it was just one of numerous ways in which I saw us spending far more money and effort than necessary to get things done (don’t get me started on how click-to-talk phones could have sped up the flow of components through the shop). It wasn’t to be.
Although I’m no longer in that world (corporate, that is), I have good reason to believe things haven’t changed much in all this time. I know they hadn’t by the time I left (May of 2010). Are you still having meetings that accomplish little other than to fill up the hours? Here’s a suggestion. Read the book by Patrick Lencioni – “Death by Meeting: A Leadership Fable“. It’s a great business book masked as an entertaining fable, in the mold of Eli Goldratt’s “The Goal“. See if you can’t turn your meetings into what they should be, a vital and invigorating component of running an organization rather than a time-wasting drag on everyone’s energy and enthusiasm.
As long as I worked at what is now called Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne we referred to NASA and the Air Force as our “customers”. For nearly twenty years I worked on the Space Shuttle Main Engine program and we always called NASA our “customer”. In the last few years of my employment there, when my awareness of – and interest in – social media brought me to learn as much as I could about what was available and how it might be of benefit to my company, I began arguing for a different approach. I believed, still do, that the real customers of companies involved in space exploration are the American people, those who pay the taxes that were used to pay our salaries. I still believe this is the case, and I still await the evidence of an enlightened approach to engaging them.
In the meantime, I just received an email request to take action and I want to pass it on in the hope some of you who read this will consider taking action; very simple, virtual action. I believe it is imperative for the human race to establish not merely a technological presence in space, but a strong cultural presence as well. I don’t believe it has to be dominated by the United States. In fact, I would prefer it be an international, world-wide effort to ensure the long-term survival of our species. Nevertheless, what is currently happening here is the gradual wasting away of our talent and our industrial base to continue leading the effort. I will no doubt write more about this as it is near and dear to my heart.
What follows is the text of the email, which comes from the website I’m asking you to visit and consider using to send a letter of support to the President, your U.S. Senators, and your Congressional Representative. I’m also including the link below the text so you might take action if you’re so inclined.
I’m concerned about the future of the United States’ role in space. Investments in our nation’s space programs will have a direct impact on our future economic strength and ability to remain a space-faring nation on the cutting edge of technology. I urge you to make a strong commitment to maintaining the U.S. as the unsurpassed leader in space.
For decades, U.S. leadership in space has been recognized across the globe. However, that position is perishable, and continued national leadership will be vital for our future. Therefore:
- It is important to establish a long-term national space strategy that factors in civil, national security and commercial interests in space. Our national strategy must also cut across all agencies that have a stake in space. Without a national strategy, America risks a future where the workforce and industrial capacity needed to maintain U.S. leadership and competitiveness in space is seriously – and in some cases irreversibly – degraded.
- It is important for our future global competitiveness, leadership and innovation in space that budgets and funding remain stable and robust. Appropriate funding must accompany strategic goals to meet established objectives and sustain a strong and progressive space industry.
- It is important to support policies that maintain a healthy and vibrant space industrial base that employs technically-skilled American workers. Modernizing our nation’s export control policies – so that U.S. industry can compete on a level playing field – is one step in the right direction.
- It is important to recognize that the space industrial base drives technological development important to our economy and national security. Our national strategy must identify and seek to preserve the space capabilities critical to meeting our national goals.
The United States stands at a critical juncture between past accomplishments and future ambitions in space. The rest of the world is not waiting. Yet there is uncertainty about the future of U.S. leadership in space; our workforce is facing upheaval and layoffs and the U.S. space industrial base is at the brink of losing our competitive and innovative edge.It is absolutely critical that our nation’s decision-makers work together to show the leadership needed to keep our space efforts robust. I urge you to make addressing these issues a national priority.
Here is the link to send this letter. Thanks for considering it – http://www.spaceleadership.org/
I was rooting around in the garage the other day; not really looking for anything in particular; just looking to remind myself of things I keep around. I have lots of “keepsakes” from my life. Not collectibles . . . hardly, but little things that remind me of events I’ve experienced in one way or another. It could be a ticket to a Lakers’s playoff game (against the Celtics, no less), a “Nixon, Humphrey, Wallace – Three Strikes and You’re Out” button, or a bar mitzvah boy decoration that once sat atop my birthday cake over 50 years ago.
All three of these items have powerful memories associated with them, though each was quite different in the degree to which those things I remember actually affected my life. All three have also faded with time so , interestingly, the one that seems to have the strongest memories is the Lakers ticket. I suppose it makes sense. Even though it’s been over 25 years since it happened, it was the first time the Lakers ever beat the Celtics for the championship. On the other hand, though politics and religion have always played a major role in my life, my everyday existence has not been impinged upon too much by governmental activity and I’ve been an atheist since I was 16. Basketball, however, comes back around every season to refresh the wounds and triumphs and, even though I don’t watch many games any more, the finals are always exciting.
I didn’t actually come across any of these items the other day, but I did come across an item which has more meaning for me – in many ways – than all three of the others combined. As I opened up a piece of old decorative pottery someone once gave me, I found the medallion I’ve pictured below. I suspect most everyone who might read this post is familiar with the Challenger disaster but, just in case some aren’t, the Challenger Space Shuttle Orbiter, one of five orbiters to once exist in the NASA fleet, was lost in an explosion during launch on January 28, 1986. Clicking on the picture will take you to NASA’s official site for this launch. This month marks the 25th anniversary of what was both a national, nay, human tragedy and the beginning of a new life for me.
Finding this medallion at this time seems somewhat serendipitous to me, as it neatly intersects with so much of my life these past 25 years. Let me explain and I will try not to bore you.
When Challenger exploded I was working in Century City, Los Angeles, California at a litigation support firm. Our business was to organize the information available from mountains of questions (called interrogatories in the legal profession) and their answers, as well as transcripts of real-time examinations of witnesses and parties (called depositions). The two main cases we were involved with were family battles over empires worth hundreds of millions of dollars, so there was a lot at stake (silly and humorous as it was to me).
There was a grill and pub inside the building I worked in, which I frequented for lunch and a couple of adult beverages in the evening whilst waiting for the Northbound insanity on the 405 to subside. This generally took a few hours, but it was a congenial place and I enjoyed the company of numerous denizens. Sometimes I would eat dinner there as well. It wasn’t like the sports bars we have today, but they had a television in there and, now that I think about it, I believe it was the only one. There were no flatscreens, no HD, etc. After all, it was 1986. A long time ago . . . in terms of consumer technology, at least.
When I heard the news, though I now wonder how it traveled so fast without Twitter to carry it, I immediately left my desk and went down to the pub. I can’t recall if the TV was on when I entered, but it was certainly on shortly after I got there. I watched in horror as the news showed the explosion of Challenger over and over and over and over and . . . well, you know . . . over. To this day, I can’t stand to watch it again. Without even closing my eyes, right now I can see the two solid rocket motors splitting off, yet continuing to ascend under power after the orbiter disintegrated. It was a horrendous site and it cost the lives of seven intrepid souls, including the woman who would have been the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe.
These seven people gave their lives that we and our children might more fully live ours. They deserve to be honored and I wish to acknowledge them here:
I have long been a space cadet (in more than one sense 🙂 ) and I am a staunch supporter of our space program, as well as one who strongly believes we must establish a cultural – not merely technological – presence in space and on other worlds. When I was a boy living in the middle of the San Fernando Valley, I vividly recall hearing the sound of the Saturn vehicle’s second and third stage engines (the J-2) being tested at Rocketdyne’s Santa Susanna Field Laboratory and seeing the sky above turn red over the hills to the West. I also recall laying on the grass in front of our home and watching Sputnik go by overhead when I was 10 years old. I dreamed of going into space; still do, though I have no real expectation of doing so other than in my imagination.
A year after Challenger was destroyed, thanks to a bit of serendipity (and Apple One), I found myself showing up as a temp worker on the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) program’s efforts to return to flight after the disaster. Although the SSME was not a factor in the tragedy, the team was using the resultant stand-down to re-assess the likelihood of one of the three engines which are responsible for lifting the shuttle into low earth orbit (LEO) failing at any time in a mission.
A year later, despite not being an Engineer, I found myself working as a full-time employee of Rockwell International‘ on the Flight Operations Team of the SSME. Last year (in May), I took an early retirement package offered to those of us 60 years and older. It’s been about eight months now since my separation from the place I worked at for most of a 23 year period and the 28th of this month will mark the 25th year since these seven brave astronauts perished on a cold, wintry Florida day. I find it ironic (and painfully humbling) to realize their deaths intersect with the birth of my first real career (I had been in many small business until that point, some as an employee, others as a partner) and now this anniversary comes so close on the heels of my leaving. Although I grieve for having left the place I thought I would work at until I dropped dead, I still find an even larger hole in my heart for having lost the crew of Challenger, as well as the vehicle that killed them.
If you have a special memory of these people or this tragedy, I hope you’ll share it somewhere during this anniversary.