Space Shuttle Memories: Leaving 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.

Many things had changed by 1994. The shuttle program was marching along with successful flights following successful flights. I had gotten married and had two children and a house. Things were looking good, but at work not really moving up. Every so often I would regret my decision to work on the STSOC contract rather than join NASA directly. Since I was still working at the same NASA site I had cooped with, I visited with the people I had worked with and looked at job options. The political climate was changing, and budget cuts were driving more “efficiency” at NASA. That meant that the contractors, like Rockwell and Boeing, had to lay people off without reducing the work that had to be accomplished.

I was a simulation engineer in a group that had already been reduced down to ten people. All of the lower performers had already been let go, we were down to the core of people who could do the job well. We were tasked with reducing our head count by 10%. I was the only white male left in the group, and even if I had been obviously better qualified than other members of the team (I was not), the corporate members of the STSOC team had been sued multiple times for racial and sexual discrimination practices in hiring and employment. I went searching for a new job.

I found one only about forty feet from my desk. The Mechanical Engineer for OV-95 (the STS of the SAIL) and OV-63 (the GTS of the SAIL) was retiring. I took his place. Each Orbiter Vehicle had a Mechanical Engineer and an Electrical Engineer assigned to plan, and carry out modifications to thier space craft. The duties were separated by the tools needed to perform the task. If the task required standard tools such as a wrench or screw driver it was a mechanical job. If the task required a specialized tool such as a pin extractor or a soldering iron, it was an electrical job. That meant installation, airflow and power were my concern, wire bundles and computer connectors were the electrical engineer. I sat next to and worked with the electrical engineer every day. He was an older man who had been hired as an electrical technician when the assembly of the SAIL had started in 1976. My boss had moved to Houston to supervise that construction. As THE Mechanical Engineer, I was protected from down sizing.

The fiscal year defined as 1995 (October 1994 to September 1995) was one of the fasted paced years of my life. When I had been a simulation engineer, I had noted that after each flight there had been a bevy of activity in the rig on off hours, often preempting testing and getting me off a second shift or two. In the hardware team, we had bursts of around the clock activity to get those modifications completed. If there was not testing, large amounts of money was considered lost. There were only six missions during that fiscal year, more I do not think I could have handled. We swapped out the General Purpose Computers, added the first Global Positioning Satellite receiver and planned the installation of new color displays. The shuttle was moving from the cutting edge of the 1970’s to the tried and true technology of the 1980s.

Seeing that the attitude at NASA was changing from exploring the new frontier with bravado, or proving out the newest technology as fearless test pilots, to basically repeating the same tasks with the same tools told me that my part of the space program was at an end. It would take 15 more years before the shuttle program did actually grind to a halt, but I did not want to be the one turning out the lights when everyone else was gone. In October of 1995, I left NASA, I left Houston, I left Texas. I have always looked back with a sense of pride for what I did accomplish, but never with regret. I now stand outside of the space program and what I see is still grand. I will not say that the experience did not live up to my expectations, it was different. Many things were not as glamorous as imagined, but the humanity that makes up the space program, both here in the United States and in the World in general, is inspiring.


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