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Tag Archives: Space Shuttle

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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We Don’t Need No Stinking Meetings!

The Ubiquitous Conference Room: Where Collaboration Goes to Die

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.


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/


A Personal Reflection on the Loss of STS-51-L (Challenger)

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.

 

Challenger STS-51L Mission Patch

Challenger STS-51L Mission Patch

 

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:

Michael J. Smith
Dick Scobee
Ronald McNair
Ellison Onizuka
Christa McAuliffe
Gregory Jarvis
Judith Resnik

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.


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