Tag Archives: SSME

Why You Don’t Want to Retire

When I joined the Space Shuttle Main Engine program at what was then Rockwell International’s Rocketdyne division, I had never heard the men in my life use the word “retirement.” The reason; they were mostly small businessmen who expected to work until they dropped dead. And that’s exactly what happened to every one of them.

At Rocketdyne, however, it seemed everyone I worked with talked incessantly about retirement. They also talked a lot about what they’d do if they won the lottery, but that’s another story.

A year later, I secured a position as a regular employee (I had been a temp; what they called a “job shopper”) and had to make decisions regarding my future retirement. Most notable of those decisions was whether or not to participate in the company’s 401K program. At the time, the decision was a no-brainer. The company matched employee contributions dollar for dollar, up to 8% of one’s gross income. It was a way to save up a fair amount of money as a nest egg.

Even so, I never saw myself as retiring; I felt I needed to work at something until I either died or was so infirm or incapacitated I wouldn’t be capable of anything useful. I fully expected to work at Rocketdyne until I was at least eighty, despite the fact I had little reason to believe I would live that long.

I ended up leaving what by that time was United Technologies’ Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne division. That was over seven years ago and I’m still not retired. I don’t expect I ever will retire and, frankly, the concept still means little to me. I do, however, enjoy some retirement income from that original 401K, as well as a small pension and social security. It’s not enough for me to stop working, but I really don’t want to stop. Here’s why.

Yesterday, Jeremiah Owyang posted a graphic on Facebook that caught my eye. It depicts a Japanese concept called Ikigai, which the people who live in Okinawa, Japan live — and live long — by. The concept translates roughly into “the reason you get out of bed in the morning.” It makes an interesting Venn diagram, as you can see below.


The “Sweet Spot” Most All of us Would Like to Achieve

I shared his post with the following comment:

I believe I’ve hit this sweet spot a couple of times in my life, most notably when I worked on the Space Shuttle Main Engine program. I’m pretty close to it now as well, working with Quantellia and machine learning. How about you?

A few of my former colleagues chimed in and one of them actually found the original article in which the graphic had appeared. It’s short and not that old. The title is “Why North Americans should consider dumping age-old retirement.” You can find it here if you’d care to read it.

This is what I think we should all strive for. This is the kind of balance that brings peace of mind and contentment. I’m lucky to have experienced Ikigai in much of my work life. In explanation of how I felt I was working on “What the world needs,” I later commented:

I should point out, especially, I believe we need to establish not merely a scientific outpost off-planet, but a cultural outpost as well. I have no doubt Earth will experience an ELE someday and we need to get established elsewhere, if for no other reason than to repopulate the Earth after such an event, and have a leg up recalling all that we’d accomplished until that unfortunate event. Perhaps we’ll be able to divert any asteroids or comets we discover heading our way, and such a place won’t be necessary, but there’s no way to be completely sure of our ability to avoid catastrophe. I, therefore, felt it was somewhat of a sacred duty to play whatever small role I could to get humans into space. It’s why the cancellation of the Shuttle program – when there was nothing in the pipeline to replace it – was so disconcerting to me. It was a big reason I accepted an early severance package offered to all employees over 60 (I was almost 63 when they made it).

Now, over seven years since my “retirement”, I’m still fortunate to be working on something I believe the world needs (though there’s considerable dispute over whether it will destroy us in the long run). The only place I fall short is in the area of doing what I’m good at. This is because I’m not a data scientist or a designer or programmer. I am, however, a reasonably good salesman and have other skills I’m bringing to bear on my work with Quantellia. I expect my studies and experiences will fill up this hole reasonably soon.

I do believe everyone should be able to approach Ikigai. There is much the world needs and, despite the predicted crisis expected when the machines take over the world and millions of jobs disappear, there will still be lots we can do to lead fulfilling lives. I am a supporter of universal basic income (UBI) and find Jeremiah’s closing words from his Facebook post instructive:

Soon, automation will disrupt Ikigai, in the looming Autonomous World, and we’ll need to reset what our “reason for being” is.

I’m betting that we’ll accept the imperfect arts, humanities, and engage in wellness and fitness for longevity.

I happen to go along with those who believe UBI will unleash creativity and entrepreneurship, though I recognize the pitfalls it may present as well. Regardless, there is a looming crisis and, frankly, my current efforts in selling machine learning services and products, is accelerating it. I doubt we can step back from the cliff, so it may be time to give everyone a kind of “golden parachute”; at least one sufficient to allow them a soft landing when that crisis arrives.


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 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!

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.

It’s OK, Beth. We’ll Carry On From Here

Beth Thompson

Farewell, Beth. You touched a lot of lives and will be sorely missed

I posted the following on Facebook two days ago and I want to share it here as a tribute to my friend and former colleague:

I am beside myself with grief. A couple hours ago I received a message from a friend who wanted to confirm what he had heard – that our former colleague and good friend, Beth Thompson, had passed away. I started frantically contacting as many people as I could think of, all the while hoping it was just some stupid Internet screwup. It was not to be. Apparently, while preparing to leave for work this morning, Beth suffered a heart attack and passed.

Beth was one of my first friends when I joined the Program Office on the Space Shuttle Main Engine program at Rocketdyne. Her good humor and iconoclastic attitude helped me ease into the corporate world, a world I didn’t join until I was 40 years old, and was ill-suited for. Along with many others I’m proud and happy to still call good friends, Beth was family. I still have the card she picked out for me and had everyone sign when I left for what turned out to be a short stint back in my family’s business. That was about 17 or 18 years ago.

She moved up to the Seattle area with her husband, Paul, and their three children, where she continued to work for Boeing, one of several major players that passed Rocketdyne around like a financial hot potato. This is tough to digest. My kids have seen me cry for the first time in their memory. People who are younger than you aren’t supposed to die before you do. It’s just not right.

We hardly saw each other in the past few years, but we liked and commented on each other’s FB posts now and again. At least I knew she was there and I got to see a little bit of her life and happiness. That is now gone and my world is poorer for it. Goodbye, Beth. I love you and will always remember how you brightened my world and the world of so many others.

Serendipity Runs Circles Around Causality

Funny how some things seem — given enough time — to come full circle. Although I have always seen patterns and complexity, as well as the intricacies of their interplay, I wasn’t introduced to the concept of Systems Thinking until I worked on the Space Shuttle Main Engine program at (what was then) Rockwell International’s Rocketdyne division. That introduction included being exposed to the thinking of Dr. Russell Ackoff, a recognized authority in the field. I was fortunate enough to spend some time with him, twice in Philadelphia, prior to his death in October of 2009.

Shortly after retiring from Rocketdyne in 2010, I was introduced to Dr. Lorien Pratt of Quantellia, LLC, who showed me a tool her organization had developed called World Modeler. I was excited at what I saw and hopeful I could somehow become involved with Dr. Pratt and her team. However, that was not to be at the time. I was provided the opportunity to more thoroughly investigate the tool, but I had made a conscious choice to refamiliarize myself with Apple products (after over two decades of living in the PC, DOS, and Windows environment) and World Modeler was not written to be run on a Mac. Furthermore, the PC laptop I had wasn’t powerful enough to do the math and drive the graphics required for running models in real time. I was hosed.

Decision Intelligence Technologies

Decision Intelligence Technologies

Finally, about six months ago I was contacted by Dr. Pratt, who asked me if I wanted to assist in writing a paper that described an effort in which they were involved with the Carter Center. I enthusiastically said “Yes!” I’ve done a couple of other things with Quantellia since then but, beginning a few weeks ago, I took on an entirely new and (for me) exciting role as a referral partner.

Right now I’m spending a fair amount of time learning Decision Science in general, and the process and tools Quantellia uses to help organizations understand complex interrelationships and make better decisions based on that understanding. As I’m doing this I watch videos, read blogs and articles, look for original research, and work on presentations that will help me educate others in this important approach to business and organizational operations.

So . . . here’s the full circle part. As I’m looking for definitions, or explanations, of Decision Science and its origins, I Google the term. The first two hits I get are to The Decision Sciences Institute and to Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Social and Decision Sciences. The third link is to a Wikipedia article on that same Department. In that article, there’s a link to Decision Science, specifically. However, it redirects to an article on Operations Research, which is where Systems Thinking originated. At the bottom of the page is a list of researchers under the heading “See Also”. One of the researchers, unsurprisingly, is Russell L. Ackoff. To me, that’s a combination of serendipity and years of working on better understanding how an understanding of systems can work to the benefit of any organization; actually, anyone.

I’ll be writing a lot more about Decision Science, including my understanding of some of its constituent parts, Decision Intelligence, Decision Engineering, Decision Modeling, and the power and value of our tools, World Modeler and DEEPM (Decision Engineering for Enterprise Project Management). I hope I will be able to clearly explain what it is we have to offer and, more importantly, what everyone has to gain by understanding it. The value exists independently of me or even Quantellia. We’ve just been at it for a while and can apply and employ the discipline both efficiently and effectively. Stay tuned.

Thanks For The Boost Rocketdyne!

Atlantis Ascends

Atlantis Ascends on Three SSMEs

Before I go any further, I want to explain why I use only the name Rocketdyne in the title of this post. During the time I worked there, it was owned by Rockewell International, The Boeing Company, and Pratt & Whitney – a Division of United Technologies. The video was produced by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne (PWR), but the flights and the engines depicted are from those three organizations, as well as others that preceded them. In reality, they are from the people of Rocketdyne; those folks who worked tirelessly to help boost humans and human artifacts into space and out into the cosmos. Without them, none of this would have been possible.

It’s important to note that Rocketdyne engines have powered virtually every American astronaut, with the exception of those who have ascended on Russian vehicles, into Low Earth Orbit and beyond. A large portion of the robotic exploration of the Solar System and its planets have depended on Rocketdyne’s engines to get to their destinations. The Hubble telescope owes its usefulness to the Space Shuttle, and the Apollo Moon explorers were returned from the surface of the Moon thanks in large part to Rocketdyne engines. Simply put, our Space Program would not exist were it not for Rocketdyne propulsion.

Now PWR has just released a new video and I would like very much to share it. I don’t know if others will get from it what I do. After all, I worked there, on the Space Shuttle Main Engine program, for over two decades. I could not watch the Shuttle ascend off the launch pad without having to choke back a tear or two every time. As a matter of fact, watching old launches still excites the hell out of me. I am proud. So sue me.

Even if you don’t resonate with the “hurling humans into space” part, the sheer taming of all that power should give you a little bit of a chill. Or you’re dead. Who knows?

Here is PWR’s latest release entitled “Proud”:

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



My First Encounter with NASA

How Meetings End Up

From Space to Sleep

Yesterday, a friend of mine, Luis Suarez, posted some information on Google+ about sleep, which elicited a fair amount of commentary (including from me) and, in the process, reminded me of a story that comes from my first days as a member of the Flight Operations team on the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) program.

I’ve written before about my feelings regarding meetings and their efficacy, which I tend to frequently question. However, this was a meeting where I might have been able to learn more about the job I was embarking upon. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out like I hoped it would.


The aerospace industry, like many others, is replete with acronyms. In addition, I was working at an organization that was primarily an Engineering company and I’m not an Engineer. After over two decades there I have often noted I am now covered with a reasonably thick patina of Engineer, but this was at the very beginning of my tenure and everything was new to me.

This particular meeting was a telecon with our NASA counterparts at a time when the U.S. Space program was recovering from the destruction of Challenger. The year was 1988 and we were approximately 8 months away from returning to flight; human flight, that is. Although the SSME was in no way implicated in the disaster, we had been using the stand-down to prepare a Failure Mode and Effect Analysis, as well as a Critical Items List (referred to as a FMEA-CIL). It consisted of breaking down the operation of our engines into discrete activities beginning with “tanking” (the loading of fuel into the External Tank) and ending with MECO (Main Engine Cut-Off).

To make a long story short, I entered a packed conference room designed to accommodate approximately 35 – 40 people. It was full, with every available seat taken, and there was a conference phone, on the other side of which was an equally packed room at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. I don’t recall the specific technical issues that were discussed at that meeting, partly because I really didn’t have the faintest idea what they were talking about – especially because of the prolific use of the aforementioned acronyms and technical jargon, as well as the use of numerous bullet charts and a dizzying array of graphics which, presumably, represented performance data of various sorts.

The Hypoglycemia Zone

I sat in the back, against the wall, and tried to follow along, anxious to learn what I could about my new job and what my organization was responsible for. It wasn’t long before I felt my head bang against the wall. With horror, and not a little consternation, I realized I had dozed off. To make things worse, I was quite certain I had begun to snore, as I have been shunned by many because of my snoring. I also noticed I received a couple of sidelong glances from my new colleagues.

Needless to say, I got up and left the room, delaying my education . . . and hoping I hadn’t been noticed by too many influential people. I never forgot that day and, throughout my over two decades career there, I was always conscious of the possibility of falling asleep during meetings, especially terminally long ones where incredibly arcane technical discussions were accompanied by the kinds of charts I grew used to, and which Edward Tufte so vociferously decried. In that more than twenty years I also witnessed an awful lot of people dozing during meetings, especially if they took place after lunch – in the Hypoglycemia zone.

I really think meetings are over-rated and we tend to have far too many that are unproductive and unnecessary. Is this the case where you work?

Photo Courtesy of Rational Supervision

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 –

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