Tag Archives: Pratt & Whitney

Some Personal Space Shuttle History

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.

Obverse of My Turbo Team Award
Reverse of My Turbo Team Award

Time Stamp!

The RS-25, aka Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME)

Just thought I should mention today (Thursday, 14 May 2020) is the 10th anniversary of my retirement from Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. I’m still not entirely sure it was the right thing to do (accept the early severance package they offered everyone over 60) but her I yam!

Leading a Horse to Water

During my last eight years at Rocketdyne (which traversed ownership by The Boeing Company and United Technologies’ Pratt & Whitney Division) I was the Project Manager for an internal tool called AskMe. It’s original intent was to provide a method whereby people could find both experts and expertise, i.e. people with knowledge they needed or papers and other publications that expressed useful knowledge. I later came to realize what we were doing was using a social media tool.

During the entire eight years I worked on that system, it was a constant struggle to get people to use it. People clearly believed that sharing was not in their best interests. Either that, or they were too intimidated by the thought of putting their knowledge to the test of time, as the whole idea was to foster conversations that would be saved and could later be searched when that kind of knowledge was needed again.

At any rate, I tried lots of different ways of promoting the tool. This one, below, came about after I received an email (at home) for a penis enlargement product. I thought to borrow the concept and see if it flew. I have taken the liberty of blurring out my colleague’s face, as I’m not sure where he is and, frankly, I don’t even remember who he is!

BTW – Within a couple of years of my departure, much to the chagrin of many who had worked on it, the tool was gone. I’ll share later why I think this was so.

quicKMemos Vol. 1 No. 2

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.

Another Newsletter

At the end of 2005, I was still five years away from accepting an early severance package from Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne and then retiring a couple years early. I don’t think the Shuttle program had yet been cancelled, so everything appeared to be full steam ahead. I had been deeply involved in developing the concept of Knowledge Management (KM), primarily to the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) team—for which I was the lead—as well as for the entire organization, from its ownership by Boeing to a subsequent purchase and merger with United Technologies’ Pratt & Whitney Division.

So, there were two teams I was involved with: the corporate, enterprise-wide team, and the SSME team. I had convinced my management to start the SSME team before I knew there was a corporate team, and it was my primary focus of attention at the time. Starting in December of 2005, I published a newsletter for the team; a KM newsletter, ostensibly by the SSME KM team for the entire SSME program team.

When I returned to work for a couple of years at Rocketdyne in 2015, I was able to find pdf files of every issue of that newsletter, which we called “quicKMemos.” I’m am converting these pdf files into png files so I can upload them here. I’ll post them somewhat sporadically, no doubt, as I have several duties and obligations that are always tugging at my sleeve and demanding my attention. So . . . here’s the first one; Vol. 1 No. 1, December 2005.

NB – Check out the Eleven Deadly Sins of KM. They still seem relevant to me, though it’s hard for me to tell as it’s been nearly 10 years since I’ve been in a large enterprise environment.

Why Would We Wish to Waste So Much Talent & Investment?

Atlantis ascending - STS-27

Atlantis Powers to Orbit

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/

Why Are Some Large Enterprises So Darn Stupid?


Can you believe they blocked this?

Watch out for that fly

I worked for over two decades at a very large (and exceedingly ponderous) corporation. Actually, I worked at three of them without every leaving the location I originally hired in at. Although I worked at a company called Rocketdyne, it was a division of Rockwell International when I hired in. It was later sold to The Boeing Company and, in 2005 was purchased by United Technologies and became a part of its Pratt & Whitney family.

Each one of these organizations were not only capable of, but repeatedly dabbled in a level of bureaucratic numbskullery that I still find hard to fathom. I have yet to have it explained to me – at least in a way I can understand – why large for-profit organizations engage in activities that are guaranteed to hinder their ability to perform well or that cost far more than is reasonable. Frankly, I’m not sure anyone who’s directly involved in them can explain why it’s so, because I’ve never known anyone who said it was their job to slow down or squash anything . . . yet that’s exactly what happens in many instances.

The other day I watched a video shared with me and others by Euan Semple. I would link to the video, but it’s been removed by the user. I guess it was meant to just make the point for Euan mostly. Anyway, shortly after looking at it I came across a three-year-old email I had sent to a colleague. The video Euan shared was made by a student. It’s quite simple and shows how many of the social sites this college student wished to go to during the course of a day were blocked by the school’s policies. Maybe you’re thinking that isn’t such a bad thing, but I’m of the belief that people should be trusted first, as most are trustworthy. Should they betray that trust, then there might be consequences based on their situation. Spending 15 minutes on Facebook catching up with friends and family is not the same as spending an hour or two trading stocks online or visiting pornography sites. Wholesale domain blocking does not exhibit any level of trust at all and tends to alienate the majority of people who want access when they need it, but will not normally abuse the privilege.

Now to the rediscovered email. I’ll let it speak for itself. The episode which sparked it is not terribly important in my opinion, though it was important enough for me to memorialize and share it with a colleague whose mission was (and is) to steer the organization from simple-minded, one-size-fits-all policies and procedures. This is, I think, what it evidences. I hope you don’t think it too petty of me to point it out. I think this approach still dominates the thinking of the corporate world, as well as academia, as evidenced by the video Euan shared. What follows is my email.

I don’t know what to make of this. Well . . . actually, I kinda do. It’s kind of funny, yet somehow a bit infuriating. Allow me to explain. As you may or may not recall, the men’s room near my cubicle was recently finished and re-opened. One of the features they installed is those waterless urinals. I’ve only seen them once before, and each time I go in I make note of the name of the company – thinking to find them on the Internet so I can read something about the science behind them. Also, each of the urinals has a bee painted on them and I wanted to see if I could find something quickly about why (though I suspected I already knew). At any rate, I finally remembered to investigate both (after several weeks of forgetting as soon as I got back to my computer) and found what I wanted and decided to just click on Google images as well. The first picture was of a urinal with a fly – not a bee – painted in the sweet spot.

I decided to take a close look and clicked on the picture. Although I was able to see the picture, even open the full-size image, the website it was on (which appears in a lower frame in Google images) was blocked by Websense. What I find remarkable, ironic, asinine, stupid, foolish, and probably a dozen more useful adjectives is the category they chose to block it under – “Tasteless”. Tasteless!!!! Is there some sort of absolute scale on which that quality can be measured? It was probably the name, but what if the website was about caring for infants or puppies or god knows what? This I find not a little insulting. What children they think we are! Let’s not forget the further irony that I could, for all their blocking, see the image. Perhaps I should sue for negligent infliction of emotional distress. Here they made an attempt to insulate me from something as tasteless as this, and I was nevertheless forced to look at a painted fly in a vitreous porcelain urinal due to the incompetence of Information Technology and UTC Policy. I hope I recover. I hope I can sleep tonight.

There! I got it off my chest. Please realize this email was sent approximately 3 years ago, so some things (like Google’s positioning of images and their associated sites) have changed. If Euan’s friend’s example is any indication, however, other things haven’t changed at all. I don’t think this bodes well for any organization seeking to do its best work. My experience says it hinders creativity and innovation, as it blocks people from following leads and decreases whatever chances might exist for serendipity and loose ties to open up new avenues and approaches to solving problems.

%d bloggers like this: