Tag Archives: turbopump

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

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.


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