Monthly Archives: July 2011

Something to look up to….

Atlantis landed very early July 21, 2011.  This is the end of the longest period of human space flight.  While the International Space Station still orbits, we have less control of our space transportation fortunes.  The landing of Atlantis was very uneventful, and for the most-part, quietly observed.  At the launch a few days ago, I provided a few memories from 30 years ago as the first Shuttle, Columbia, launched in 1981.  As the last mission lands for the last time, I can’t help but look at the present, and gaze to the future.  My memory was slightly flawed from those naive days in 1981.  I hope my view of the future is just as flawed and has some subtle, dare I say, pleasant, surprises.

It is fitting that the landing – the whole mission – of STS-135, went off without a hitch.  We got it right, just as the press, politicians, and much of the cynically vocal public have accused NASA of creating its own bloated problems.  NASA’s problem is that the vast majority of the time, we get it right…quietly.  When it goes wrong, or if people ask questions about why resources are necessary to get each detail right, then there are ignorant rants about waste.

I noted one person on Facebook this morning, paraphrasing an aerospace  periodical, sharing confidently that SpaceX was about to launch a mission later this year to the Space Station, achieving two milestones, docking with and resupplying the ISS in one fell swoop.  A fellow aerospace worker deadpanned that those in the know were just as confident that it wasn’t going to happen this year.  “If it was that easy, everyone would be doing it.”  It’s not.

As thousands of aerospace workers are turned loose, it will be interesting to see how they are absorbed into the workforce.  So far the word is that the petrochemical industry is waking up to the quality of the workforce.  In the wake of the BP oil spill last summer, many energy industry executives are scrambling to make prudent investments in maintenance, safety, and risk management.  The stories are trickling in about how veteran aerospace engineers, technicians and managers are making a positive impact bolstering the energy industry.  I’m not surprised.

NASA is trying to shift its resources to more fundamental investments in innovative space technology – automated exploration, advanced propulsion, efficient ground support processes.  It will take years to get practical results, but there will be something coming from it some day.  There are and will be too many creative, visionary, and stubborn people working on it.  I know the type….

The good news for my little institutional safety part of the NASA world is that when we wrestle with trying new stuff and tinkering with things that burn, go boom, or make sudden motions, there are challenges doing it in a way that doesn’t hurt people.  Keeping things from going boom, or more appropriately, avoiding the worst consequences when they do go boom, takes a lot of work from my folks.  We’ve got the hang of it, and we’re taking some prudent measures to avoid problems.  Been there…  Done that.

So, I guess it is fitting that, as the Atlantis mission came to a smooth conclusion, I was working on my new house this week.  We’ll be here for a while, so I might as well get the family comfortable.  We’ve got more work to do….  NASA has a lot of tinkering to do, much of it on the ground.  That’s where my job is….  Perhaps as my little girl gets going to school, we will have made some progress and we’ll be ready to go back up.  She will need something to look up to….  besides her daddy.

Staying Awake for the First Flight

It was late night April 11, 1981.  I was working on some homework, probably calculus, perhaps circuit analysis.  I watched David Letterman.  I really liked Dave back then (and now).  An acerbic, anxious comedian trying to make a name for himself in late night TV.  I knew the new Space Shuttle was going to launch for the first time about 5:00 am the next morning.  Do I go to bed, or do I stay up the next few hours to watch the dawning of a new era of space travel?

Well, I don’t remember how the few hours till the launch were passed, but I did stay up until the wee hours to see that historic event.  A struggling mechanical engineering student was witnessing his professional calling.  I was amazed!  This was a winged craft strapped to enormous solid rockets and a bulbous white propellant tank.  How could it fly?  I remember the news commentators saying that it would be a swifter ascent than the slow majestic rise we were used to with Apollo.  They went to great detail to describe how the vehicle would jump off the pad and spin around to get in the right attitude for its journey to orbit.  It got off and up….

What do I remember most?  I remember the loss of Skylab.  It was to be the first remarkable mission of Columbia.  Rescue the fledgling space station and begin the next phase of a permanent presence in space.  Instead the 1981 launch of Columbia was two years too late.  Skylab plunged to its fiery death over Australia .

I remember the 1982 landing of STS-3 on the gypsum flats of Northrup Strip near the White Sands National Monument.  A perfect landing marred by a fierce white dust storm immediately after Columbia came to a safe stop.  Another TV viewing while continuing my college struggles.  But the dream of a career in space continued, even as I struggled to pass thermodynamics.

In 1985, the PBS series, “Nova”, explores the future of the space program.  I remember the narrator,  Martin Sheen, announcing that future DoD Space Shuttle missions would be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.  I used that knowledge to show interest and enthusiasm later that year with a college recruiter, Bob Steele, with the Western Space and Missile Center at Vandenberg.  I would call Bob on at least two occasions after the interview.  Finally, in May, as graduation loomed, Bob called back.

July 8, 1985, was my report date with the Western Space and Missile Center.  A GS-7 General Engineer, starting salary $23, 170 per year.  There were several rotations in various organizations.  I remember aggravating table top reviews of the Operations and Maintenance Instruction (OMI) for activation of the Orbiter Lifting Frame to remove the orbiter from the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft for transport to the Orbiter Maintenance and Checkout Facility.  We were going to launch a Shuttle from California!!!

But then in January 1986, I heard someone say the Challenger blew up.  I returned to my boss’s office and on the TV was a horrifying replay of the Challenger accident.  But we’re going to launch Discovery!  There’s work to be done.  Months later the inevitable news filtered down.  The California plans had been abandoned.  No!  Can’t be true!  We’ve spent too much money and made too many plans!  I like living in California!

I remember a good friend, Lee Mountfort, calling from New Mexico.  He had left Vandenberg some months earlier.  “Do you want to work for NASA?” he asked.  Well, yeah!!!  But I insisted that I grew up in New Mexico, and there’s no NASA in New Mexico.  He begged to differ with me.  They need safety and quality engineers.  I visited the little town of Las Cruces.  The home of the dreaded Aggies of New Mexico State University.  The little White Sands Test Facility lacked the space operations discipline that I had cut my teeth on at Vandenberg.  But there was something about the possibilities, the need and yearning for growth  and organization.

I remember reaction control system thruster testing at Test Stand 401.  I remember what seemed like endless tinkering to perfect water flush techniques to remove iron nitrate build-up in RCS propellant valves.  I remember a trip to Aerojet in Sacramento to buy off the rebuild of our OMS qualification engine.  I remember late nights digging through OMS/RCS qualification test reports to index the test results at the component level.  I got my Snoopy doing that.

I remember waking up at 3:00 am to drive out in the pitch black night to prepare for the mere possibility that the Shuttle would land on the white gypsum of White Sands Space Harbor.  It never did again.  The dust storm of 1982 was just too much of a bad memory to the Shuttle Program.

I remember meeting Laurel Clark when she visited our facility.  When I told her I grew up in Albuquerque she told me she went to school at Monroe Junior High in Albuquerque in 1973.  She said it had been torn down.  I knew that because I was there too the last year it was open.  Laurel volunteered to me that it was a difficult time for her.  Her parent had split up and she had gone to a number of schools over the years travelling between her parents.  This was an astronaut who had succeeded despite challenges at home.  This was a real hero who had overcome adversity to achieve a dream.  Shortly after that in 2001 I got to introduce Laurel to a crowd of fellow employees.  I found her Monroe yearbook picture and shared it with the crowd….  along with my own.  It was easy to distinguish the two — a straight-laced, smart young lady and the disheveled delinquent.  She signed a picture for me saying, “There is life after junior high.”  Laurel Salton Clark died on her first flight aboard Columbia on February 1, 2003.

I’ve met several astronauts before and since Laurel.  She was the first one who struck me as a real person.  They all are, but she was the one who broke the mystique for me.  She also represented to me why we have to keep sending humans into space.  Their adventures are what kept me going to engineering classes when it would have been easier just to quit.  I still have the images burned into my brain of astronauts saluting the American flag on the Moon.  But more importantly, I remember Laurel dressed in her working mom scruffies needing a private place to change into her flight suit for another in a long line of public appearances.  Their adventures in space are our adventures….

Today, July 8, 2011, some 30 years and 3 months after my late night watching Letterman, and exactly 26 years to the day since I started my civil service career at Vandenberg, Atlantis flawlessly launched toward the International Space Station.  There are thousands of stories just like mine, and millions of stories about young people pursuing math, science and engineering because they saw people in their upbringing achieving incredible things, like astronauts, in science and technology fields.

As Atlantis makes its way to the International Space Station for the last time, the American public has to understand what July 8, 2011, represents.  And they can’t let it slip away.