Space Shuttle Memories – Engineer at NASA

July 20, 2011

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The following is a remembrance of the United States Space Program as I have lived it. I will restrain from naming specific people except historic figures and the actual crews of missions I have witnessed or supported. My qualifications for writing this memoir are; a BS in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas, three tours as a Co-operative engineer at the NASA Johnson Space Center, and nine years as an engineer supporting the Space Shuttle and Space Station programs for what eventually became the United Space Alliance (USA) on the Space Transportation System Operations Contract (STSOC). For those who are interested, technical summaries of each Space Shuttle flight can be found at the NASA web site. All NASA manned missions can be viewed in the archive.

The year 1986 was very eventful for me. I was going to graduate from the University of Texas with a degree in Aerospace Engineering. I had more that a year of experience from working three tours as a coop at NASA and my prospects could not look brighter. Starting in January, things got interesting. I had only had one interview when the Space Shuttle Challenger was lost and all shuttle missions were grounded. I had several interviews cancelled as support contracts for the space effort were delayed. Then the congress started pushing back the military build up that President Reagan had been driving, so more interviews got cancelled as aircraft orders dwindled. Things were looking bleak from the employment point of view.

I had two job offers when I graduated; one from my coop division at NASA and one working for what was then Rockwell Space Operations Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of North American Space Craft Corporation. Both jobs would support the Space Shuttle, with the NASA job also supporting the Space Station. The other job paid more and also offered more opportunities. For better or for worse, I chose to work AT NASA not FOR NASA.

I was working on the Space Transportation System Operations Contract (STSOC, pronounced STEE-sock). STSOC was manned with people from many companies, the biggest partners being Rockwell, Bendix and Unisys. I worked supporting the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL). While I was there, the SAIL consisted of two engineering articles, the Shuttle Test Station (STS) and the Guidance Test Station (GTS). The STS was a full mock up of the shuttle (less wings and engines) with every piece of electronics, cabling and hardware in place. The GTS was only a cockpit. We simulated or stimulated every function of the Shuttle. Every “vehicle” that had a set of General Purpose Computers (GPCs) was given an orbiter designation. The Challenger was OV-099, Columbia was OV102, the STS was OV-95 and the GTS was OV-63. Many of the OV designations were planned but never built. The challenger was never intended to be a flight vehicle, but the simple addition of engines allowed NASA to have one more flying ship to complete their task.

My arrival back at the Johnson Space center on the opposite side of the table of the NASA personnel who I had worked with the year before, also marked the return to the original numbering scheme of shuttle launches. I started working on STS-26. I was in the Simulation group responsible for the math models that simulated or stimulated the various avionics that control the Shuttle. We could provide electrical inputs that would simulate what the avionics would experience in flight, or we could simulate the entire piece of equipment. There were many math models, from main engine thrust, to aerodynamics, to the Remote Manipulator System, to the Inertial Measurement Units. I worked on most of these models throughout my carrier. The SAIL was used to verify the software loads for each mission. We provided a real time simulation of all shuttle functions. Astronauts, usually not the ones assigned to the mission as they were busy with other training, would fly our rig and evaluate the operations. In this way I met even more of the astronauts and became friends with some.

The SAIL worked two 8 hour shifts every week day, with graveyard and weekends for maintenance to fix, clean and install equipment. During missions, we were on call around the clock, receiving downlink data during launch and landing to be an extra set of eyes on the performance of the vehicle. As a simulation engineer, I had to work on the models and support the testing. Our work area was not in the control center, it was in the bowels of the computing lab. We monitored strip chart recorders to make sure both the shuttle software and our simulation were working properly. My time as a simulation engineer in the SAIL encompassed the missions STS-26 through STS-68 (the 65th flight).

When I was young, I had dreamed about flying in space and all the wonderful places we would explore. That dreaming seemed to end when NASA moved its focus from the Moon to near Earth orbit. During my time working what could be described as the first half of the shuttle program, I was part of a re-expansion of the exploration mission. There were missions to Venus, Jupiter, and around the Sun. There were also the deployment of some of the great observatories; the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (GRO) and the Broad Band X-Ray Telescope (BBXRT). Although it was a job, it was still an adventure.


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