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Tag Archives: space

A Career Change at 70

When I was in High School (1962 – 1966) it took me three and a half years to escape) there were no computer classes. Although there seems to be some disagreement on when the first personal computer was invented, even the earliest claim puts the date six years after I graduated. There was no such thing as a computer, let alone a programming or coding, class. Also, I did not attend university and, to my recollection, nobody I knew at the time was interested in computers or information technology. Actually, I was a terrible student and wasn’t interested in much of anything by the time I finished High School.

IBM Memory 50

The IBM Memory 50 Typewriter

Fast forward to 1974. Despite having no undergraduate education, I was able to secure admission to an accredited Law School, located not far from my home in the San Fernando Valley. I began in the fall of 1973 and the following year I managed to get a job in the law office of a sole practitioner in Beverly Hills as a legal secretary/law clerk. Shortly after I began, the lawyer I worked for purchased an IBM Memory 50 Typewriter. I attended a one-day class where I learned how to use it. This was my first introduction to anything resembling “computing.”

The office later upgraded to an Artec Display 2000, which had an LED readout of approximately 30 characters. There was no CRT display. It used two 8″ floppy disks and had a document/data merge capability that made it perfect for boilerplate documents, e.g. Pleadings, Interrogatories, Summonses, etc. It was a great leap forward in word processing.

Edward Ladd & Sons

The Family’s Wholesale Food Business

Shortly after graduating from law school I had, for numerous reasons, decided spending the rest of my work life around the judicial system was not something I really had my heart in and, after much gnashing of teeth and going over my alternatives, I decided to join my family’s wholesale food distribution business. One large factor in making this determination was my father suffering his second major heart attack. The business was supporting my mother and my sister, who was only 10 years old at the time. I felt the need to help the business grow, ensuring they would be taken care of if my father were to die . . . which he did eight years later.

Edward Ladd & Sons Jacket

Our company jackets. Logo design by me, jackets created by Cat’s Pyjamas.

After a couple of years, the business had grown substantially and, given my desire for another type of challenge, I once again struck off on my own. I dabbled in a few things, then joined forces with a couple of CPAs and formed a royalty auditing business, serving some very high-end artists. The company first purchased an Apple computer (I can’t recall if it was a II or a IIe but, based on the release dates of the two, I’m inclined to think it was a II). We later purchased a Northstar Advantage, which used the CP/M OS and two 160 KB, 5.25″ floppy disks. We also purchased a dot matrix printer and, in anticipation of taking the system out on the road, we had Anvil make a hardened case for the two, with room for cabling, paper, and instructions to be packed inside.

At that point our audits required us to visit the artists’ recording companies, and my first visit was to RCA records in the Meadowlands of New Jersey. Standard procedure for the record company was to stick us somewhere that was relatively uncomfortable, then bring us stacks of paper, which we then transferred to leger pages. Upon returning to our office in Playa del Rey, we would then have to transfer all the data to a spreadsheet; we were using SuperCalc on the Northstar Advantage, though we had started with VisiCalc on the Apple.

I suggested taking the computer with us when we performed audits, so the people who went out on the road could enter the numbers they received directly into an electronic spreadsheet, thereby saving a huge amount of time and stress. We were also using WordStar at the time for writing the narratives that would accompany our audit analysis.

My first experience with programming came when we were contemplating taking the system out on a European tour with Neil Young. I sat with my friend and partner, who had performed many a box office reconciliation, and we sketched out the different scenarios that were used to close out the night’s receipts. Doing so required the use of nested “if” statements, which determined the precise equation to use for each venue. Unfortunately, that same friend who had worked so diligently with me to create the formulae that would power the spreadsheet never felt comfortable with using it by himself and it never went out on the road.

Sinclair ZX81

My Very First Computer, the Sinclair ZX81

It was also around this time I purchased a Sinclair ZX81, which was a small computer that had a membrane keyboard and used a cassette recorder to save programs on. It also had its own OS, as well as its own version of Basic, which I endeavored to learn. The first program I wrote, which took me all night to complete, counted down from 10 to 0, in the center of the screen. It then plotted a single pixel (resolution was 64 x 48) at a time, starting from the bottom and, after reaching a height of six pixels, began plotting another pixel above the previous six and erasing a pixel from the bottom of the stack, until it left the screen at the top. This required me to learn how to use either (I don’t recall the exact commands; it’s only been a little over thirty-five years) nested “if” statements or “do while” commands.

Fast forward to 1984, the year my father died. Shortly afterward, I returned to help my brother keep the business going. We purchased a more advanced Northstar Advantage, which had a huge hard disk that could store 5MB of data! At the time, we also purchased a copy of dBase II, which was one of the first database systems written for microcomputers. I taught myself how to write systems using their programming language, which I wrote using WordStar. I wrote an entire accounting system for the business. My favorite component was the preparation of a deposit ticket, where I laboriously emulated the workings of a calculator in allowing for numerous methods of inputting dollars and cents (whether or not a decimal point was included) was the real differentiator and sticking point for me but, after much trial and error, I figured it out.

Unfortunately, my brother and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on the direction the business should go in and, after a while I left again, this time taking temporary jobs to keep me afloat. It was during this time I worked for a while at a litigation support firm that used a DEC minicomputer and several of the earliest versions of the Macintosh. All of my work with computers was novel for me, as I never took any classes — with the exception of that class I took to learn how to use the IBM Memory 50 typewriter. I taught myself how to program through reading and doing, sometimes taking dozens of iterations to get a bit of code correct.

In 1987, I had been working for a company that made hard drives (Micropolis). Their business was highly seasonal and, on one particular Friday, all the temps got summarily laid off. I was using Apple One at the time to send me out on engagements and, thanks to my willingness to show up wherever, and whenever, they would offer me a job, I got a call from them on that very Friday, telling me to report to Rocketdyne the following Monday.

By this time I had been shifting my focus from working under the hood, to figuring out how to best use the systems and tools that were rapidly evolving as business tools. I was beginning to focus more on business results with whatever was available. My first responsibility at Rocketdyne was to enter text I received from Engineers into a document called a Failure Modes and Effects Analysis / Critical Items List (FMEA/CIL). It was in direct support of recertifying the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) for eventual return to flight after the Challenger disaster.

SSME

SSME Hotfire Test

It was a strange task, as the document was clearly text-based, yet we were using a spreadsheet to create it. I suppose it made some sort of sense, as the company was an engineering company and that’s kind of how engineers see the world; in numbers, rather than words.

I also worked with a stress engineer on creating an app (we didn’t use the term back then, but that’s what it was) that could be used to predict crack propagation and its effects. I was unfamiliar with the equations behind the program, but my job was to use dBase II to create an interface that allowed for data input and crunched the numbers. It was fun and was successfully used for some time after that.

One year after joining as a temp (referred to as a “job shopper”) I hired in full-time and began working with the Flight Ops team. It was exciting and I spent much of my time massaging telemetry data from hot fire tests of the SSME. I received flat files from a Perkin-Elmer mainframe and eventually ported the data to Microsoft Access, which allowed for further massaging and reporting.

In October of 1988, a little over eight months after hiring in, the U.S. Space Program returned to flight with the successful launch of Discovery. At a celebratory event that evening I met one of the managers of the Program Office. As we talked and he discovered my background, he offered me a job. I did some research and talked to my current managers, who advised me to take it, which I did. As time went on, I moved further away from anything resembling coding and, eventually, wound up concentrating on the use of software and computing tools to increase the effectiveness of me and my colleagues.

Not quite 22 years later, I took an early severance package (which was offered to everyone over 60) and retired. I would turn 63 less than a month after leaving the company. In 2015, I returned as a contractor doing something I had done nearly 20 years previously. I spent the next two years (until February 17 of 2017, to be exact) providing program scheduling for two small rocket engine programs.

Last month I turned 70. I recently signed a referral partnership agreement with an organization I worked with a few years ago. They specialize in machine learning (ML) though I was unaware of that back then. My primary responsibility will be selling their services and, when possible, any product they may create. In order to be effective, I am now studying statistics and ML, partly to better understand what it is I’m selling and partly because I’m fascinated by the algorithms that power these efforts.

I do worry that my comprehension is somewhat hampered by, if not the years, the considerable mileage I’ve managed to accumulate. There’s also a minor problem with my “just don’t give a shit” attitude about a lot of things. Nevertheless, I will persist. I intend to share what I’m learning but, as with most things these days, it may be sporadic and somewhat unfocused.

I do believe machine learning is going to drastically change just about everything humans do and I’m well aware of the disruption it might entail. I don’t however, believe that to be a show stopper. We’ve opened Pandora’s box and there is no closing it. Let’s roll!

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NOVA’s Opening Makes Me Feel Optimistic

I love the PBS documentary series, NOVA. The fact that it’s entertaining and informative, oddly enough, is not what makes it stand out for me, though. It’s the introduction. The music is beautiful and uplifting. It inspires, even if only momentarily . . . and it never fails to do so. Here’s the best video I could find of it. Don’t let the title fool you. It’s only the latest version we’re interested in, so here’s the very end of what is a somewhat longer video.

 

There’s another bit of the intro that speaks to me as well. It happens at 1:11 and, unfortunately, it passes way too fast. I don’t expect others will relate to it quite like I do. After all, I spent over two decades working on the Space Shuttle Main Engine and am a lifelong space cadet — in more ways than one. When I see that astronaut floating in space, it almost chokes me up. It’s kind of bittersweet, though, as living down here the majesty of what we’re capable of achieving is somewhat offset by the mayhem we’re creating all too frequently. Nevertheless, at least for a few seconds, this picture — combined with the music — is wonderfully moving. Here’s the pic. I watched the video full screen and grabbed this piece.

Screenshot 2016-07-05 17.22.56

Float like a butterfly, sting like the Borg.


Commemorating Humanity’s Brave Explorers and Pioneers

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.

Challenger women astronauts

Judith Resnik and Christa McCauliffe a couple of days prior to the fateful launch of Challenger.

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.


Heading Back To The Ol’ Homestead

Truth to tell, I never wanted to retire. I grew up around men who worked until they dropped dead and I had every intention of doing the same. This was especially so because I wanted to be part of humanity’s return to the Moon and our venture to Mars. It looked like that was not to be when the Space Shuttle program was winding down and those of us working on the Shuttle main engine (SSME) – and other rocket engine programs – who were over sixty were offered a decent severance package, which I accepted. I believed it was the best of several not optimal choices.

Asteroid Strike of Earth

It’s happened before. It WILL happen again.

Today I received a package from the agency that handles contract workers for what is now Aerojet Rocketdyne, and it looks like I will be brought back and will have the opportunity to be a small part of our space program once again. This is no small thing for me, as I have long considered it an absolute necessity for humans to establish not merely a technological, but especially a cultural presence off this planet; if for no other reason than the statistical certainty there will be an extinction level event before long. As long as the only presence we have is on this rock, it becomes a binary event. Having at least a seed colony elsewhere could make all the difference in terms of our ability to come back from such a catastrophe.

To say I’m excited is a bit of an understatement. I had pretty much come to the conclusion it wasn’t going to happen and I’m quite capable of dealing with that possibility. Assuming it works as planned, though, is like a lagniappe; an extra helping of dessert I wasn’t expecting. To think it came about because of a chance conversation with an old colleague at an event held by our children’s elementary school is really sweet.

I should also point out I am only going back as a temp, a contractor, and I have no reason to expect this employment will go on for long. In fact, I’m hopeful it will turn out to be more part time, but on a long-term basis, if that’s at all possible. I like some of the other things I’ve become involved in and I have a few obligations I need to conclude as well. l believe it can all be worked out in the next couple of months. I know I’m committed to making that happen. I hope everyone I’m working with is flexible enough for this to be a good thing for all of us. There’s nothing like the ol’ win-win.


Want Something to Worship? Try This

Instead of attending services — whether in a Church, Synagogue, Mosque, or Temple — watch this. It’s far more powerful than any scripture I’ve ever encountered.


A Dichotomy of Tears

After my retirement, I determined to make this blog one in which I could write about both professional topics and personal topics, which meant I would share my thoughts about the many things I find of interest. It also meant I planned on writing about my feelings and experiences over the years. It hasn’t been easy, as I’m quite certain some of my thinking is not mainstream and — in some cases — is certainly frowned upon by some sizeable chunk of the population. Nevertheless, I keep plodding along and, in that spirit, I share here something I posted on Facebook recently.

Two things brought me to tears the other day. The first was the ending of the current episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Just knowing what has been accomplished by my fellow human beings; the incredible discoveries and wondrous inventions that have accompanied our ever-growing knowledge of the workings of the universe takes my breath away at times. The other evening was one of those times. They were tears of ineffable joy.

Japanese Umbrella

A Miniature Wagasa (Umbrella) made of Camel Cigarette Packs, Toothpicks, and thread by my Mother-in-Law, Taka Shitara

The second was being reminded of the terrible injustice wrought on the Japanese people who were living in the U.S. when Pearl Harbor was attacked. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law, as well as many of my wife’s extended family, were “relocated” in internment camps. Many lost everything they had worked so hard to accomplish, much of it never to be regained. They were not the enemy . . . and they did not deserve the treatment they received, nor did those who stole their property deserve what they gained. These were tears of inconsolable anger and shame.


To The Moon, Alice!

Moon Colony

Some Day This Should be all Ours

The other day a friend of mine posted an interesting item on his blog, Global Neighbourhoods (love that other side of the pond spelling) and asked on Twitter if anyone had read it. I saw the tweet because it was ported over to my Facebook news feed. I answered I hadn’t, but would shortly . . . which I did. Shel makes an interesting point that, regardless of how one may feel about Newt Gingrich – and we both agree we wouldn’t vote for him even if Hell froze over – his idea about establishing a colony on the Moon isn’t such a bad one. Consider that President Kennedy’s call to put a man on the Moon preceded an unprecedented growth in innovation through the technologies that needed to be developed in order to accomplish the feat required by the Apollo program.

Shel goes on to ask that we think about what such an endeavor might mean for us, regardless of the situation we are in right now. As he says:

“It seems to me, that what makes us unique from other animals is that our entire history is based on going beyond what we have done. Before we consider the benefits or catastrophes, we simply have to see if we can do it.

“Why should man walk on the moon? Because some day, we can build a colony on it? What will we do then? Look around and see what else we can do, where else we can go, we can learn more about the moon, and thus about the earth and our universe and how life got to here and anywhere else that it might exist.

“And yes the cost is huge at a time when people are losing their homes. But to me, the cost is an investment, one that will create a great many new jobs that may be more appealing than the manufacturing our current president seems to be focused upon.

“What we learn along the way will give the world new technology that is likely to pervade into computing, science, medicine, earth sciences, the classroom and places that we cannot yet imagine.”

I responded the next day in a comment. As of the date of this posting, it still says it’s waiting moderation but, hopefully, by the time most read this it will have been posted. Suffice it to say I agree with Shel’s assessment of the technologies it will create and that it is an investment. I also have another, long-standing reason I believe we should go back to the Moon and establish a permanent presence there, which I have set forth in my comment. I have also written about it several times in various posts on this blog. I encourage you to read Shel’s post. Tell him I sent you.

Photo Courtesy of Dallas1200am


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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