Yesterday I noticed I had a voicemail from late Friday. It turned out to be from someone at PRO-Unlimited, the organization that handles temps for Aerojet Rocketdyne. She said she was calling about the position I interviewed for a week ago last Thursday. I won’t know for sure until I can return her call tomorrow, but I’m pretty sure this means I’m getting the job I really wanted.
I’m beyond excited to think I may return and work on the same engine (RS-25, formerly the SSME) I worked on for over 20 years and that it will once again be hurling humans into space.
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!
I found this piece of historical info about the—shall we call it “first half”—of the Shuttle program in one of my collections of “stuff.” Note that it ends with the Challenger disaster, which happened almost a year to the day before I was hired in (initially as a temp) at Rockwell International’s Rocketdyne division, working on the document that would prepare the SSME (Space Shuttle Main Engine) for the return to flight on September 29, 1988. Note also, as engineers are wont to do, the word “Incident” is misspelled at the bottom of the sheet. Color me unsurprised. OV-105 (Orbiter Endeavour) is also not on the list at the very bottom of the page.
I don’t imagine this will be terribly interesting to anyone who isn’t a bit of a human space flight geek like me but, as I have said recently, I need to memorialize some of the things I’ve kept over the years. They may not be of value to anyone but me—hell . . . they may not even be of value to me—but I want to get them scanned or reproduced and put out into the aether, for my sanity and possible future use.
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.
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.
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.
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 ledger 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.
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 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Since my retirement from Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne in 2010, I have spent quite a bit of energy on developing work as a social media marketer for small business, a business manager for an AI software development firm, and as an editor/proofreader for a number of business books and a couple of novels, as well as a two-year return engagement at Rocketdyne from 2015 to 2017.
I have decided to stop actively pursuing business in these fields and am now positioning myself to be a writer. I have done quite a bit of writing over the years, but I’ve never really attempted to make any money at it; at least not specifically. I’m starting out with a couple of memoirs and, currently, I’m studying the craft, creating a detailed outline and timeline, and honing my skills as a storyteller. Pretty sure I’ll be writing some fiction as well.
The views expressed herein are those of the author. Any opinions regarding the value or worth of particular business processes, tools, or procedures, whether at his former place of employment, at a current client's enterprise, or in general, are his responsibility alone.