Tag Archives: SSME

Some Personal Space Shuttle History

Thirty-four years ago next month I showed up for work at Rockwell International’s Rocketdyne Division. Having grown up in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California, I was familiar with Rocketdyne, as during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs the rocket engines they made, which powered the vehicles used to launch our astronauts into space, were all designed and manufactured not far from where I lived.

The factory was in Canoga Park, but the engines were tested at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, which was in the hills to the west of my home. I have vivid memories of seeing the night sky light up and hearing the roar of those engines as they were being tested. I also remember going out at night and lying down on our front lawn to watch Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite (launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957) go by overhead. I was ten years old at the time.

While these experiences didn’t cause me to pursue a career in engineering, they did serve to pique my interest in astronomy and space exploration. They also had absolutely nothing to do with my ending up working at Rocketdyne. My beginning there was entirely serendipitous. I was working for the temp agency, Apple One, where I had been temping at a hard drive manufacturer called Micropolis. Their business model, perhaps the industry itself, was somewhat seasonal and work for temps was boom and bust there. As had happened many times before (we’d heard about it and weren’t surprised when it happened) business slowed down and they decided to lay off the temps, who comprised the majority of the workforce.

That was on a Friday. That evening, my contact at Apple One called me and asked if I could show up at Rocketdyne the following Monday. I don’t remember the exact date, but it was in the middle of January, 1987, almost exactly a year after OV-099, Space Shuttle Orbiter Vehicle Challenger, exploded as it was ascending to orbit, killing all seven crew members.

I was to turn 40 years old later that year and of course I would show up. I needed to work. However, that it was Rocketdyne I was to show up at was something of a bonus, as far as I was concerned. I had known people who worked at Rocketdyne over the years, and it never occurred to me I could work there. I wasn’t an Engineer or a Scientist. I didn’t even have a college education, though I did have a Juris Doctorate, which I had earned eleven years before. I was the only person in my law school without a baccalaureate. None of that mattered as a temp (or what they called a “job shopper”.) They didn’t ask anything about my background or my capabilities. They just needed a warm body who could perform data input.

So, that following Monday I showed up to work at the plant on Canoga Ave. in Canoga Park. I had never worked at a really large organization before. In fact, with the exception of the temp job I had previously been working at, I had never worked anywhere that had more than a dozen or so people. Most places I’d worked only had five or six, at the most. Rocketdyne had armed guards at the gates. There were at least four entrances guarded by men with guns. It was actually a bit heady.

I ended up hiring in a year later and worked there until May of 2010, when I accepted an early severance package offered to everyone over the age of 60. I turned 63 the next month, June. I’m writing several memoirs, and my time at Rocketdyne will play a big role in at least one of them. However, my purpose here is merely to introduce one of the “awards” I received when I worked there.

I was not a big fan of individual performance awards, believing they tended to pit people against each other when, in fact, we needed to find ways to improve our collaborative and collective abilities. This particular award was given to each of the members of the Space Shuttle Main Engine High Pressure Fuel Turbo-pump team, who labored mightily to manufacture, test, and deliver 10 additional pumps for the program when Pratt & Whitney was unable to certify their alternate design. As our contract ran out, and we knew there would be no new business, the team had to wind down and members had to find other places to hang their hats.

You should note that everyone on the team received one of these shadow boxes, with a flag, a turbine blade, several mission buttons, and these inscriptions (see below.) I’m including the back, because our managers took the time to personally thank each person on the team; there were well over fifty, if memory serves. This “award” hangs in my home office. This coming May it will have been 20 years since I received it, and I’m every bit as proud of it now as I was back then. Plus … how often do you get to have a piece of rocket engine hardware and other space memorabilia?

PS – In case you don’t get to it (it’s on the back of the shadow box) that turbine blade traveled a total of 27,600,000 miles, mostly doing nothing after MECO (Main Engine Cut Off) on each flight.

PPS – Just to be clear, in these two photos (below) I’ve superimposed the award (from the front) on a picture of a shuttle night launch. It has a glass door, which I opened because it’s reflective and I didn’t want that in the photo, and digitally removed with Photoshop. I’ve separately added the two pieces of text from the back, without including the box, and superimposed them on that same night launch photo.

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

Fear of Sharing

My wife would say I’m overly gregarious and too willing to share things about my life and experiences, and from all appearances, I seem to have spent much of that life being outgoing and transparent, yet I think I just realized that in actuality, I have always hidden much of who I am from others. Specific others, not everyone . . . and not about everything. Most of the things I’ve kept to myself over the years aren’t deeds I’m ashamed of or thoughts I’ve believed in and now think are wrong. It’s just that it wasn’t important for certain people to know about them.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

For instance, I never shared my experiences in the late sixties with the “Free Love” movement with my mother. Somehow, I felt she wouldn’t have appreciated learning why I refer to myself as a “battle-scarred veteran” of the Sexual Revolution. Similarly, when I first hired in at Rockwell International’s Rocketdyne division, to work on the Space Shuttle Main Engine team, I didn’t think they needed to know I had spent two months in Cuba in 1973 as a guest of the Cuban government. The list goes on.

When I became a first-time, adoptive father at the age of 55, I considered writing about the experience of adopting, but decided against it because I thought it stood too much of a chance of violating my children’s privacy. I’m still a bit conflicted over how much I can share about my experience for fear of sharing too much of their lives, and those things don’t belong to me alone.

Now that I’m less than a year and a half from my 75th birthday, I’m thinking it’s time to stop being so concerned about embarrassing anyone who knows or is related to me . . . and just write my truth and put it out there for everyone to judge for themselves. That is what I’m doing, but I’m also just realizing how seriously I have been hobbled by my unwillingness to risk bringing shame to my family . . . even though I’m hardly ashamed about anything I’ve done over the years. Sorry for some things, yes – because they hurt me or others I loved and cared about – but shame does not emanate from this boy.

Having recognized this serious impediment to telling my story, it’s now my job to overcome what it’s done to me over the years (it hasn’t perzackly helped me overcome “imposter syndrome.”) I can no longer embarrass my parents or grandparents; they’ve been gone for quite some time, and I need to get these stories out, regardless. Even if I live to be ninety, I won’t have to regret anything (which I likely won’t anyway) for very long.


Another Change of Pace

In my last couple of years in High School I took a lot of photography classes. Back then (this was in 1964 – 1966) there was no such thing as digital photos. Everything was film and darkroom work. I remember enjoying taking pictures at football games, using Kodak Tri-X 400 black & white negative film.

I had to take it into the darkroom and develop both the film and then use the negatives obtained from the film strip to project onto photographic paper, which we then developed ourselves in the darkroom. It involved a lot of banging around in the dark, getting used to working by dim red light, and lots of chemicals to develop, set, and finish the work.

I’ve long enjoyed photography and still enjoy using tools like Photoshop to tweak and improve photos; sometimes to create political memes from them as well. I recently started using the magnification app that came with my iPhone XR and I’ve realized I can produce some interesting photos by zooming way in on subjects that have intricate or visually remarkable patterns.

Several of the ones I’m publishing here should be fairly easily recognizable to most people. At least one of them requires a bit of engineering knowledge and, perhaps, familiarity with space hardware. A couple of them should be easy to discern. Two of them relate to cooking in one way or another. What do you see?


Time Stamp!

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

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


quicKMemos Vol. 1 No. 2

Here’s the second issue of the KM newsletter I wrote and published for the SSME KM team. This one was for January of 2006. The middle column has a couple of decent descriptions of “Lessons Learned” and “Best Practices.” What it doesn’t address, which is something many of us came to understand later, is that we don’t actually want “Best” Practices; which implies there won’t be any room for improvement, as “best” is a superlative adjective, which means it just doesn’t get any better than best. We, therefore, preferred to talk about “Better” Practices, which also fits rather nicely into the philosophy of continuous improvement. My apologies if this is boring.


Another Newsletter

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

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

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

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


RAIDI

Robot and Human hands touching

I have no doubt I am a very lucky person. Although I do not have an education in any science, I was able to spend approximately two decades working on the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) program at Rocketdyne (through four major aerospace corporations). I spent a lot of time working with some of the brightest rocket scientists (for realz) as well as world-class engineers and scientists in literally dozens of disciplines.

Since my retirement from (what was then) Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, I have worked intermittently with Quantellia, LLC, an artificial intelligence / machine learning software development firm. Needles to say, I have no formal education in any computer field, with the exception of two Visual Basic classes I took at a nearby Junior College. I was introduced to one of the co-founders of Quantellia shortly after my retirement. She showed me a tool they had been developing called “World Modeler”. It was the most exciting thing I’d seen in a long time, and I was especially impressed with how it brought a highly systemic approach to modeling and forecasting in complex situations. I ended up writing several papers and a bunch of case studies for them.

In 2015 I returned to work at what was then Aerojet Rocketdyne (still is, for now) where I worked on a small rocket engine program for a little over two years. After leaving, I started doing some selling for Quantellia and, beginning in March of 2018, I became the company’s Business Manager, a position I’m still working at.

Last year we held a summit, in conjunction with SAP Global Services, at their Labs in Palo Alto. It was called the “Responsible AI/DI Summit.” In this context AI stands for “Artificial Intelligence” and DI stands for “Decision Intelligence.” One of the main purposes of the summit was to discuss how we can develop artificial and decision intelligence such that we concentrate on using them to solve humanity’s most “wicked” problems, rather than merely work at developing apps, the main purpose of which is to make money for the developers, investors, and entrepreneurs involved in the business.

Below are some of the folks who worked on the Summit, including me (the long-haired guy in the middle of the back row). Also, here’s a link to this year’s second Summit – Responsible AI/DI Summit 2019, as well as a link to the RAIDI Blog.

Quantellia and SAP folks who worked on putting it all together

As I learn more about machine learning, artificial intelligence, and decision intelligence, I will work at sharing my knowledge and understanding of these tools, and the issues they raise. I know the people I’m working with are dedicated to serving humanity, not merely milking it for profit. That pleases me and I hope we’ll be able to prove we’re doing the right things to ensure such service continues to exist and grow.


Random Memorabilia

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.


Nu? So Where’s My PhD?

Here’s an award I received when I was working on the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) program back in the day. NB – This was a few years after I hired in and Rocketdyne was then owned by Rockwell International, before it was purchased by Boeing, then United Technologies, then Aerojet (current owner).

It’s entirely possible I awarded this to myself. If only there was a way to be sure.

Actually, when I first hired in (after being a “job shopper”, a temp, for a little over a year), I did take a great class on how the SSME operated . . . still operates as today’s slightly modified RS-25, four of which will power NASA’s Orion spacecraft, providing 2 million pounds of thrust and working with a pair of solid rocket motors to generate a total of 8 million pounds of thrust. Orion—also known as SLS (Space Launch System)—is being built to return humans to deep space destinations, including the Moon and Mars.


Sport of . . . Old Farts?

My father took up golf late in life and he wanted me to golf with him. I was 15 years old, which means he had to be about 38. He wanted me to golf right-handed, but I was a dominant southpaw and I refused to do it. Reluctantly, he got me a left-handed beginner’s set of clubs. I even took lessons—if memory serves, I took one lesson from Cary “Doc” Middlecoff at what was then called The Joe Kirkwood Jr. Golf Center . It was on Whitsett Ave., just North of Ventura Blvd. It’s now called Weddington Golf & Tennis. Read the second paragraph at their website’s home page for a little history on the site.

Cary “Doc” Middlecoff, somewhere near his heyday

My golfing did not last long. At 15 I had started to surf, which seemed so much more challenging at the time. Besides, golf was for old men and surfing was a young person’s sport. I gave up golf, though I hung on to the left-handed beginner’s set of clubs the old man had purchased for me. I even used them once-in-a-while to hit a bucket o’ balls.

Fast forward 31 years. I had been working at Rocketdyne for maybe three years. My first year I was a “job shopper”—a temp—working on the FMEA/CIL* document for the Space Shuttle Main Engine program, in anticipation of a return to flight after the Challenger disaster. I then was hired in as a full-time employee, working in the Fight Ops team. I was fortunate enough to be in the Rocketdyne Operational Support Center (ROSC) when Discovery lifted off from Kennedy’s Launch Complex 39 on September 29, 1988.

I had helped design the layout and overall configuration of the ROSC, and being there for that launch was my reward. I didn’t know enough about the operational parameters of our engines at that time to understand exactly what I was looking at that morning, but the room was filled with displays showing engine performance as Discovery lifted off and ascended on its approximately 525 second flight to LEO.

Flight Patch for STS-26 | Return to Flight after Challenger | Space Shuttle Orbiter “Discovery” | OV-103

That evening a bunch of us went to celebrate the successful launch and our nation’s return to space flight. We were elated . . . to say the least. We went across Victory Blvd. to a restaurant called Yankee Doodles. Somehow, I got into a conversation with the person who turned out to be the Manager of the SSME’s Program Office and, once he found out what my role had been (and that I had a Juris Doctorate; a Law degree) he offered me a job. After some discussion with my current management, I decided to take it.

It wasn’t long before the team I was now on decided to have a golf tournament, and they of course wanted me to play. Not because they knew anything about my golf game (how could they?) but because they needed warm bodies to show up on the course, as well as pay for the round, prizes, and food. I was reluctant; after all it had been over 30 years since I’d actually played and, in fact, I don’t believe I had ever played on a full-size course.

I decided to give it a try. I don’t remember what I did for clubs because, by then, I had rid myself of that old beginner’s set. I remember going to Simi Hills Golf Course and hitting some balls. Honestly, I can’t quite remember where that first tournament was played, but I know I got hooked . . . bad. I had my uncle’s friend make me a set of golf clubs and I began practicing with a vengeance. I cobbled together a newsletter for the course, filling it with ridiculous and comedic stories. I showed it to the General Manager and told him I could do that for them every month.

The 18th Green at Simi Hills Golf Course

He told me to go ahead and, shortly after, I was hitting as many balls as I wanted on the range and, a bit later, going out on the course with the GM and the Head Pro – getting tips and playing lessons for free. I eventually was able to play for free as well, as long as I didn’t try to abuse the privilege by playing during peak hours. Within a fairly short time I had my index (similar to handicap) down to 12. I was well on my way to becoming a single-digit handicapper, but it was not to be.

I started having back and hip pain and, even with going to a Chiropractor and seeing my doctor about it, nothing was helping. Little did I know what was coming. Just before New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1999, I had an attack of sciatica that had my wife calling 911 to have me transported to the nearest hospital. I was on crutches for a month, and a cane for two months after that. I still experience numbness/tenderness in my left foot and don’t expect it will ever entirely heal.

Fortunately, I eventually found Robin McKenzie’s wonderful book, “Treat Your Own Back” and, after religiously doing the stretching he recommends, for weeks, I was back on the course and healing rather nicely.

Now, I don’t remember if it was before or after my back problems, but I became good friends with one of the professional golfers at Simi Hills, and he was involved with a company called Golden Tee. They had opened up a practice facility at Moorpark College and were planning on building a new golf course in the hills just below the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library here in Simi Valley.

Me and good ol’ Paul What’s-his-name practicing our putting

As you may surmise from the graphic I’m including in this post, I had a really sweet deal with Golden Tee. Unfortunately, the guy on the left of this picture (his first name was Paul; I don’t remember his last name, and I think he’s moved on to that 19th hole in the sky. Suffice it to say, things got real ugly. I found the record of a court case where Golden Tee sued the Ventura County Community College Board . . . and lost. Actually, I think it was right around this time I experienced my bout of sciatica and, shortly thereafter, decided (along with my wife, of course) to adopt our first child . . . but that’s another story.

* Failure Mode and Effects Analysis/Critical Items List


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