NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Gary W. Johnson
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Houston, Texas – 4 May 2010
Today is May 4th, 2010. This oral history with Gary Johnson is being
conducted for the NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project in
Houston, Texas. Interviewer is Rebecca Wright, assisted by Sandra Johnson.
This is part two. The first part of the oral history was started yesterday,
May 3rd, and Mr. Johnson is back with us again. We certainly thank you
for giving up two mornings to talk with us. We’d like to start,
before we move into [Space] Shuttle more, about your brief time as a
NASA test subject for the testing of space suits and related hardware.
If you could share with us what that was like and how you got to do
Johnson: Yes, it
was back when I was still in engineering working on Apollo. I had an
interest in learning more about the space operations and NASA had a
program where you could volunteer to be a test subject for testing of
suits, so I volunteered. At the time I did that, the program was in
the process of qualifying what they call the Apollo B suit.
This was before we were launching the missions with the lunar rover.
The original Apollo suit that the crews were using inside the Command
Module, when you pressurized them they’d basically straighten
you out. You couldn’t sit in a chair, because it didn’t
have what they call a waist convolute. So the B suit was designed with
a waist convolute so the crews could sit. Of course this was all designed
around the fact that they were going to be sitting in the lunar rover
and driving it.
They had to requalify the suit for that and I was involved in some of
the qualification tests. One interesting thing happened when I first
was in a pressurized suit. I’d gone through the verbal training,
but the first time I was ever in a pressurized suit, I thought, “Boy,
it sure starts to feel stuffy in here all of a sudden.” The tech
[technician] looked at me and he said, “You don’t look too
good.” Then he said, “Oh!” He forgot to turn on the
air. So I was sitting there all sealed up and no air or anything. Being
my first experience I didn’t really know, but I got to thinking
this doesn’t feel quite right.
Johnson: So he
turned on the air, then I said, “Oh, that’s great!”
The air flows right across your face in the helmet. It washes out the
CO2 [carbon dioxide]. For that particular testing you weren’t
in the liquid-cooled garments, you were mainly using air for cooling.
That was cooling you also so that was much better.
The testing really consisted of some pretty boring stuff. You went through
a lot of cycles. They’d have you do a certain motion with your
arms, and you had to keep repeating this X number of cycles. Then walking
around, and exercising the joints. Got to be pretty boring. The other
thing you also did was whenever they’re trying to develop techniques
for testing the lunar tools, or something like that, they used test
subjects in a pressurized suit to go out. In Building 5 they actually
had an item there, test stand you might call it; it was filled with
this dust-like lunar—it was a simulation of the lunar surface,
consistency of it. I was involved in some of the tests where I’d
take some of these core samples and a hammer, and while I was in a pressurized
suit I’d drive the core sample down, and work with the tools.
I’d help them work out the procedures and how long it took to
do those tasks. That was interesting. I’ve also got a series of
pictures they gave me that they were taking of me doing those items
in the suit.
I was always involved, like I mentioned earlier, in trying to think
of contingency procedures. One of them I worried about was what if you
land on the lunar surface in the Lunar Module and you get ready to start
the ascent engine and you reach up and you push the button and nothing
happens, something’s wrong with the switch or the contact. So
I developed a procedure whereby you could take, once again, one of these
utility contingency cables, and the crew would have to cut it out of
the connector and make it. Then also you’d have to do some work
outside because there’s the pyro [pyrotechnics] boxes to separate
the stage from the lower stage down below, and then also they could
connect up and go directly to the ascent engine to be able to fire the
pyros and fire it as a backup. To see if the crew could do that in a
suit, they used me as a test subject, since I had the procedure, to
use the surgical cutters and tools that they had, to see if [while]
in a pressurized suit I could indeed make up a contingency cable and
do the things that the procedure called out.
One of the steps involved crawling in the Lunar Module from the outside
in the pressurized suit, to get back in. When you go in the Lunar Module
you have to actually raise up, because there’s a bulkhead there
that’s over the ascent engine cover. So when you go in the Lunar
Module, as soon as you get through the door in a pressurized suit, you
got to raise yourself up and go in, basically stand up inside, then
Well, this was my first time. I went through the hatch, and I was going
in real slow in the suit, and I didn’t realize that my head was
up against that bulkhead. I didn’t raise up. The guys on the outside
were hurrying up, “Johnson, hurry up and get in.” I was
sitting there straining and pushing. Finally there was a guy inside,
he looked down to see what the deal was, and he said, “You’re
trying to push us over, you got to raise up.” So I raised up and
of course went along just fine.
Fortunately we didn’t ever have to use that procedure that I came
up with, but we’d written it up and had it available. The photographs
and the work we did there showed that yes, you could do that if you
really had to. That was a level of comfort anyway.
sure the astronauts felt better knowing that there was at least a contingency
Johnson: I was
a test subject all the way up until the beginnings where we were doing
work on the Shuttle program. I did do one in the vacuum chamber for
testing the walkaround bottles that the Shuttle crew would use in the
suit that they have when they’re getting launched in the Shuttle.
It was a small test.
That was really the last time I was involved in the test subject program.
After all, I was getting older then, getting busy with other things,
so I dropped out of the program at that time. When I was doing it before,
it always had to be worked around your existing work. But it was interesting.
The real thing I learned about it is how difficult it is to work in
a pressurized space suit.
Wright: The other
thing that you mentioned yesterday was your part in developing the SAIL
[Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory]. Could you share a little
bit more about what you and your team did when the SAIL was being first
designed and developed?
Johnson: Yes. At
that time I was working in Building 16 [Control Systems Development
Division], and it became apparent that with Space Shuttle being the
first spacecraft that was going to be totally automated with computers—and
we had the multiplex system and data buses —that it was going
to require an extensive setup.
We also wanted this system to be the actual wire links, to have the
equipment installed in the same locations in the avionics bays because
we wanted to be able to show what the EMI [Electromagnetic Interface]
effects would be. The physical locations, the routing of the wiring.
I was involved in helping develop that. Rockwell [Space Division] at
the time was the primary contractor to develop that facility and I was
involved in following the power distribution and the wiring. Then we
had simulators there and also there was a cockpit involved.
SAIL became very important for testing out all of the flight software,
and as far as I know it still is today tied into the [Mission] Control
Center such that if there’s any problem during the mission with
the avionics or the software they can go run those cases in SAIL. The
other thing it allowed us to do was the [NASA] Kennedy [Space Center,
(KSC) Florida] spacecraft people would come in here, and it was used
to check out the launch processing software that they had at the Kennedy
Space Center, because all of the interfaces into SAIL were also the
same data buses from the launch processing. So it was also a great test
bed for using that.
The actual flight crew astronauts came over and ran a lot of runs in
SAIL. It didn’t have the visual displays like the simulators did,
but all of the controls and all of the displays was the actual computers
and avionics and hardware, whereas you don’t have the actual hardware
like that in the simulators. Astronauts were used when we made all the
mission runs in the SAIL. So it was a very important facility, still
being used. They were planning for the Constellation Program to have
a similar thing called CAIL [Constellation Avionics Integration Laboratory]
like the SAIL. They did have something similar, not as elaborate in
terms of the layout, but they did have a facility out at our NASA [Sonny
Carter Training] Facility near Ellington [Field, Houston, Texas] where
the NBL [Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory] is. In the same building is the
software facility for the International Space Station, likewise set
up to run the avionics and the software out there for proving out for
The SAIL was the first one to really show the importance of a test bed
like that in the program. Of course there was a lot of emphasis on making
sure that system was right, seeing as we were going to be launching
the Shuttle with a crew in it for the very first time rather than going
through the unmanned [missions], like almost all programs in the past
Wright: Just briefly
yesterday you mentioned that you were the EGIL [Electrical Generation
and Integrated Lighting Systems] flight controller on the first Space
Shuttle flight, but you didn’t share much about what that moment
must have been for you to see a new spacecraft go up, something you
had been working on.
Johnson: That was
very exciting. I was on the orbit team. Chuck [Charles R.] Lewis was
the flight director. I actually watched the launch from home at that
time because the orbit shift wouldn’t come on until later. But
yes, that was very exciting.
We actually simmed [simulated] for two years getting ready for that
mission. I was over in flight operations in October ’79 and we
launched in ’81. We went through a long period of simulations
and training. That whole first team of us went through more training
than what the normal flight controller would get because we had all
At the same time we had gotten pulled off to do certification of the
simulation facility itself. We did a lot of work on that and they were
using us in that role. It was very exciting for me, because that’s
something even back during Apollo I always wished I had a chance to
work in flight control and the actual Flight Control Room. I was able
to do that and I had a good team, some of the best engineers supporting
me. Dennis [J.] Webb was my young engineer at that time, as my instrumentation.
We had an EPS [Electrical Power System] engineer [Richard T. Brown,
Rockwell International] and a power manager [Jerry D. Pfleeger, US Air
Force Major] and all those people supported me in the back room.
The flight STS-1 itself, fortunately for everyone, turned out to be
a fairly problem-free flight. In terms of having to work problems during
a mission, in that regard we didn’t have that much. It was mainly
you’d be attending to your data and everything worked out well.
But that still was very exciting.
Wright: We ended
yesterday with you sharing with us that while you were part of that
group you managed quite a few people that have come through the ranks
and are now flight directors. If you don’t mind, it would be a
good place for us to pick that up. You were mentioning some of the people
that you had as part of your team.
Johnson: Yes, one
thing I’d like to point out since I actually had gone to flight
operations from spending a lot of time in the engineering world. When
I was the DF4 [Systems Division, Mechanical and Payload Systems] branch
chief—that was the branch chief that had the RMS [Remote Manipulator
System], the mechanical systems and upper stage—I tried to impress
on the flight controllers the importance of getting out and seeing the
actual hardware, because most flight controllers don’t really
have a chance to do that.
In the case of the RMS area, there really wasn’t an engineering
support group for that per se. Dale [E.] Moore’s RMS area—Bill
[William D.] Reeves was one of his lead engineers for that—were
involved in the design reviews and did travel at my encouragement, and
actually did spend a lot of time seeing the hardware and seeing what
the RMS looked like and operated. I was always pushing for that, that
they get out and do that more and look at it and they’d be able
to perform a better job when they were in flight control.
Well, it just so happened when Bill Reeves was the lead RMS flight controller,
and I don’t remember now which mission it was, we had a mission
when they were checking out and getting ready to grapple the payload
to lift it out, the major payload for the mission. We had an indication
that the grapple mechanism was jammed. Actually when they were checking
ahead of time which would prevent you from going ahead and grappling
the payload and being able to bring it out.
The engineering people, the Canadian people [Canadian Space Agency]
that were responsible for RMS—everybody was looking and couldn’t
figure out what was really wrong with the thing. It looked like we weren’t
going to be able to pull the major payload out and do the mission. Well,
Bill had remembered, looking at the hardware and being involved in testing,
there was a little flex cable that when the grapple fixture moved in
and out this flex cable flexed all the time. It was mainly used not
for controlling the main functions, but for the instrumentation and
indications on the system.
Bill got to thinking. What if that flex cable actually broke and those
little wires opened up? I was in the SPAN [Spacecraft Planning and Analysis]
following it. Bill talked to me about it, and I went out there and we
all looked at the drawings. I told Bill, “Bill, I think you’re
right about this,” because if you opened up the circuit on those
circuits that were going through that flex cable, it matched all the
data we were talking about.
Bill said, “Well, I’m certain that must be the case. The
Canadian people indicated that yeah that could be maybe what it is.”
Bill then was able to give the go-ahead and that was just indication
we’d be able to go ahead and grapple that. So there’s a
case where a flight controller, having seen the actual flight hardware
itself, and able to use that information as a part of his troubleshooting
the problem actually saved that mission on that Shuttle flight. That
pointed out the importance of the flight control people not only being
involved in simulations and all the training they do, but if possible
to get out and see the hardware.
The other thing I mentioned was, especially when I was in the DF6 [Systems
Division, Guidance and Propulsion Systems] branch that one of those
sections was the propulsion section responsible for the RCS and the
OMS [Orbit Maneuvering System] propulsion system on the Shuttle, a lot
of the flight controllers that were in that group later became flight
directors. At that time it was Linda [J.] Hautzinger, who later after
getting married is now Linda Ham—I certified her to be a front
room ascent flight controller for the prop [propulsion] systems, which
is a critical position. She’d worked others through the system,
then later I believe Linda became one of the first female flight directors.
Very sharp lady.
In that same group there was [N.] Wayne Hale, Ron [Ronald D.] Dittemore
selected to be my prop section head. Bill [William H.] Gerstenmaier,
who is now up at NASA Headquarters [Washington, D.C.], was in that same
group. You had a very sharp group of people in that section. I was fortunate
the whole time I was working in flight ops [operations] to have the
groups that supported me and the various branches, very sharp, intelligent
Same of course applied in the early Apollo days as well. Everybody was
highly motivated. Back then you had to have a 3.5 grade [point] average
or better to even get considered by NASA to be hired on so everybody
that came in to work there was very sharp and intelligent.
Wright: Share with
us what you did after you were part of the flight ops.
I was there as the branch chief for that section, I got a request to
consider applying for deputy director of the Safety, Reliability and
Quality Assurance [SR&QA] Directorate. I did apply for that and
got selected by Marty [Marten L.] Raines. Marty Raines told me at the
time he selected me, “You always complained to us about our job
and quality.” This goes back to when I was doing all those wiring
inspections. I quite often was on to the quality people on things they
missed, and I’ve always been concerned about safety in that regard
ever since the Apollo 1 fire. I thought to myself if there’s anything
I can ever do in the program to prevent something like that I’d
sure want to do that, so I’ve always had that interest. Marty
said, “That’s one reason. You’ve been the most critical
of us, and always improving,” so he selected me to be the deputy.
That was in October of 1985, which was just before [Space Shuttle] Challenger
[STS 51-L accident]. I got a surprise shortly after I was there as a
deputy. One of the payload engineers came up to see me and said he was
really worried that the Shuttle program was planning to fly the Centaur
[rocket] as a liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen upper stage in the Shuttle
payload bay. The [NASA] Glenn Research Center [Cleveland, Ohio] and
Convair [Division of General Dynamics Corporation] out in California
was building the support equipment for that and were going to fly the
He was supporting taking the basic Centaur system through the Payload
Safety Review Panel for the Space Shuttle. They’d had a lot of
concerns about single-point failures in that system and the plumbing,
and he was frustrated because he’d been flagging that to the management
and nobody had done anything. It turns out that even though the payload
safety review chairman was insisting they needed to make changes, the
Glenn Research Center actually had gone to Headquarters and argued the
case. Here’s a case, the only time I know of, where Headquarters
was basically directing going ahead with the program, even though they
weren’t meeting the real safety requirements. He [the payload
engineer] was concerned that nobody had really taken a real hard stand
on that. One of the arguments for it was that the Centaur was a proven
vehicle that had flown on the unmanned flights. The problem with that
though is that the Centaur vehicle being built for the Shuttle had a
different shape, different tanks.
The big concern we had was there’s a common bulkhead between the
oxygen tank and the liquid hydrogen tank, and it would take very little
delta pressure across that to cause it to break and really cause a real
problem. Instead of having a direct delta P alarm system in there, that
if you were getting close to that pressure it would shut down the pressurization
system or try to safe systems, they had a computer program that tended
to try to manage the pressure in the oxygen tank and manage the pressure
in the hydrogen tank, and between these two pressures that you’re
managing, then try to make sure you met the requirements for the delta
P. But there wasn’t a direct measurement and that was the real
concern we had. Some sort of dedicated, different from the computers,
in case there was a problem with the software or something else. The
Safety Panel was insisting we needed to have something separate on that.
The other thing. When you were loading the liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen,
you’d be at the [launch] pad at the Cape [Canaveral, KSC Launch
Complex 39]. That loading was being done through plumbing through the
Shuttle and then had to go into the Centaur. The plumbing lines had
so little margin in them that if we suddenly had to stop propellant
loading when you’re loading the external tank, the hammer-type
pressure you get, pulse from suddenly shutting that off—the analysis
showed you had a very good chance you may rupture lines in the orbiter,
which would cause the loss of the Shuttle and the orbiter on the pad.
That was a big safety concern, that we didn’t have sufficient
margin in those lines.
At the time I wrote a letter. Jesse [W.] Moore was at NASA Headquarters,
and he was a great proponent of the Centaur in terms of wanting to launch
probes to the Sun and around, which is what Centaur was meant for. The
DoD [Department of Defense] was interested in being able to use the
Centaur as an upper stage as well, so there was a lot of interest in
making that system work. I wrote up that we were going to have a flight
readiness review for that mission. This mission was going to be one
of them following what was the Challenger. We were having this review
in January at the Cape, and I’d written up this letter before
I went down there arguing. JSC engineers and people had been working
with the Glenn people for a long time trying to get these changes in,
and nothing was being made. I got Marty Raines to sign it and I alerted
Arnie [Arnold D.] Aldrich [Level 2 Space Shuttle program manager] what
I’d done. Also the deputy director of JSC, [Robert C. Goetz]—I
let him know about it, I showed him the letter when we were going down
to the Cape on the flight for the review.
I got up at the meeting and mentioned that we had these constraints
that hadn’t been resolved and they would have to be taken care
of before we could say it was safe to launch or fly. At the time Jesse
Moore said, “Well, those look like they’re valid, but action
is assigned for you to go off and work at the Glenn Research Center
and work that out.” That’s what we’d been trying to
do for a long time, so we were wanting some sort of other decision.
That was the end of that.
Then, as we know, in late January we had the launch of Challenger. I
was in the Building 45 [SR&QA Division Offices and Technical Library]
sixth floor conference room. We stopped our meeting to watch the launch,
and of course we saw what everybody else was seeing on TV. I remember
some of the younger people in the room wanting to know what happened.
I told them, “Well, looks like an explosion. The Shuttle is lost.”
It was really pretty bad.
I later got assigned to an audit team to go [to the Cape]. Not only
reviewing everything and going through all the flight analysis, safety
and hazard analysis, but we did something similar to the NASA walk-down
inspection. We went and our team, which was supported out of the SR&QA
Office at NASA Headquarters, headed it up. We went out to every element
before we got ready to fly back, to make sure it was ready. We looked
at SRBs [Solid Rocket Boosters], we looked at external tanks, we looked
at the launch complex, we looked at the orbiter to assure ourselves
all the changes that were being implemented were being put to bear before
we made the first flight. Fortunately that flight went off well.
Meanwhile, Centaur was still listed to be launched in the Shuttle, but
after Challenger there was this renewed concern about safety. There
was a big review up at NASA Headquarters. At that time Dick [Richard
H.] Truly was the Administrator. I went up there representing SR&QA
and once again had all these issues lined out. Rick [Frederick H.] Hauck
was going to be one of the commanders for one of the programs.
Before that Headquarters meeting we had an audit out at Convair of the
Centaur system and GSE [Ground Support Equipment] associated and the
computer system, and I was out there involved from the SR&QA’s
perspective. I was reviewing, going through some of the paperwork, and
I noticed on some of the critical relay boxes that send the commands
from the computer that they’d had a bunch of failures in testing
in vibration. I didn’t see in the paperwork, any real closeout
that said that that hardware ought to be certified yet. Yet we had papers
that had been signed off by the people involved saying things were certified
and all ready to go, when it looked like to me we still had some open
problems that they had to fix.
I called the engineer in that was responsible for that system, and I
was quizzing him about we’ve gone through everything and you had
these problems. I said, “What’s the rationale for signing
that this is ready to go?” I could see [he]—this was a young
engineer—was fairly visibly shaken, and he confided that he was
forced to sign it by his management. I thought boy. Meanwhile I put
out an audit report that talked about a lot of these problems. I didn’t
mention anybody by name, but I did mention that I talked to this engineer
and how he stated to me that he’d been forced to sign this when
he himself wasn’t feeling it was ready to go.
We reviewed that with Glenn and the management. They took issue with
somebody “being forced to sign.” I refused to give them
the name of the individual, but I says, “It really did happen.”
Matter of fact, there was another young engineer with me who’d
heard that too so [I] had another witness. It was calling out a lot
of these problems, and other problems we found as part of the audit.
My report got leaked to the IG [Inspector General], the GAO [Government
Accountability Office]. They came in to talk to me about it. Then it
made some news. I suspect some manager at JSC that was wanting to kill
the program too did that. I don’t have any proof, but I know George
[W.S.] Abbey was very concerned about it, and he was in charge of the
astronauts at the time. I think George might have been the one to leak
the memo. Then the GAO came over and went through it and they came up
with the same conclusion. There’s a real problem here.
Then we had this meeting at Headquarters. I felt pretty good about it,
but I was really surprised when I was there because some people from
engineering had done analysis and actually had supported Glenn on factors
of safety and some of the things about the plumbing and the fact that
we only had a single shutoff valve instead of two and a few other things,
even though that didn’t meet our payload safety criteria. The
DoD was there, and the planetary guys were there. There was a lot of
arguments being made and there was a lot of scrutiny, but I still stuck
very hard to what we were saying. The astronauts themselves expressed
concerns, but they were somewhat resolved being on that. I didn’t
get a decision right then. I was a little bit concerned, but then I
heard later that Dick Truly had agreed that we were going to cancel
the Centaur program.
After that I talked to Rick Hauck and some of them. They said they were
convinced that one of them would have probably died launching that thing.
They were that worried about that system themselves, even though they
were reluctant to really express that. They were, as test pilots, willing
to go fly it. Management said that was the thing to do, but they were
really relieved that we finally canceled the Centaur program. I myself
was surprised that it took so much effort to cancel that program, particularly
after Challenger when we supposedly had all this high interest in safety.
Fortunately, as far as I know, since that time we’ve never had
a case where the Payload Safety Review Panel chairman has been pressured
into approving something that he really didn’t want to approve.
Wright: That was
quite a way for you to start your entry into the safety.
Johnson: Yes, that
was quite a way to start my entry. I was put on the frontlines. When
I went to work for Marty Raines, he was up in age and he said that he
didn’t like to travel. So any travel, like those trips to the
Cape or any travel involved or any of these audits or anything else,
I was the guy that was always going to be doing the traveling. Marty
retired after Challenger and Charlie [Charles S.] Harlan came over to
be the deputy [director].
Charlie came from flight operations. I’m glad Charlie, when he
came over, agreed to still have me as his deputy. Charlie Harlan stepped
in and did an outstanding job building up the safety organization. Before
Challenger the organization got to the point where we only had one manager
in SR&QA following what we called Level II, which would be the total
Shuttle. Then we had just a few other managers following the safety
of the orbiter. Everybody else was off working on the early Space Station
[Freedom] or other things. The funding for SR&QA had been scaled
way back so the organization itself wasn’t able to hire and wasn’t
able to be involved that much. After Challenger we got a funding increase.
The other thing that was done organizationally—I usually talk
about this. Before the Apollo 1 fire we didn’t have a separate
safety, quality assurance and reliability organization. In Apollo the
reliability and quality organization was a part of the Apollo Program
Office. Then there was a small Flight Safety Office headed up by Scott
[H.] Simpkinson. After the Apollo 1 fire, because of all the concerns
about safety and quality, [Robert R.] Gilruth [Manned Spacecraft Center
Director] came out and directed that the Manned Spacecraft Center [later
renamed JSC] will have an integrated SR&QA, safety, quality and
reliability assurance, organization that reports directly to the Center
Director, for the first time. That was put in place.
NASA Headquarters and the other space Centers, none of that was done.
Matter of fact, NASA Headquarters, the SR&QA function was a part
of the Chief Engineer’s Office. After Challenger, that was then
relooked at, because a lot of the criticism about Challenger was about
this lack of involvement, all the Centers, including NASA Headquarters,
were directed to make, just like JSC already had, an independent SR&QA
organization that reports directly to the Center Director, independent
of the program. That was done at [NASA] Marshall [Spaceflight Center,
Huntsville, Alabama], Kennedy—they all went through a major change,
put in new managers. Then the office at Headquarters likewise, and it
was called Code Q at the time. Had Code M for spaceflight and Code Q.
George [A.] Rodney was brought in from Convair, a famous test pilot
with them, a lot of experience, to head up the SR&QA [Safety and
Mission Assurance (S&MA)] Office for NASA Headquarters. He turned
out to be an excellent manager. We reinvigorated and really added some
teeth to the whole SR&QA organization. The funding at that time
was all independent of the programs.
Wright: Did the
Centers begin to exchange information on how safety was done at [each
of] their Centers?
Johnson: Yes. After
Challenger there got to be quarterly meetings with all of the SR&QA
directors that Charlie was involved in. There was a lot of telecons,
a lot of working together. All of the Marshall, Kennedy and Headquarters
as well as JSC got to know the other groups and worked real closely
together. That was a big factor really helping out. It’s unfortunate
that over those later years once again the budgets came into play, and
the funding for the SR&QA organizations was being cut back. This
was back during the time when they were even thinking about having the
Shuttle go commercial, before United Space Alliance and all that.
Charlie Harlan—I admire Charlie for this. He fought with Headquarters
and the program about these changes that were going on. Particularly
in the case of what was happening with Shuttle, where they were turning
everything over to the contractors and you didn’t have the independent
quality assurance checks. He was very adamant about doing that and wrote
a letter to Headquarters very critical of all of that. Unfortunately
it resulted in Charlie being removed as director, but he felt strongly
about it. That’s when John [H.] Casper from the Astronaut Office
came over to head up SR&QA [S&MA].
Also in that timeframe when Charlie was still there, we did have the
start of the Shuttle-Mir Program. Charlie asked me to be involved in
that. I was really interested in doing that, because it would give me
a chance to once again work with the Russians. I really enjoyed doing
a long time ago, and it’d been a long time since I’d met
any. That was a great program. I’d have to say that the Phase
1 [Shuttle-Mir] Program, working with the Russians was one of the programs
I think very highly of and enjoyed as much or more than about any other
program I worked on.
It had to do with several factors. The thing that was good about it
is we organized into working groups, which the Russians were familiar
with because we organized into working groups back during ASTP [Apollo-Soyuz
Test Project]. We used the same type of management structure. The working
groups would report to the Shuttle-Mir program manager and the Russians
likewise, and really we were able to develop our own policies. Me and
my Russian counterpart, Boris [I.] Sotnikov, developed the overall joint
safety policy for the two of us for the Shuttle-Mir Program ourselves,
and it got approved and didn’t have to go through a lot of things.
The Russians did a lot to match what we did. Since I was a deputy director
at the time, Boris Sotnikov was a deputy manager of the Russian program.
He was deputy to the manager Pavel [M.] Vorobiev, and they were like
a systems engineering group, which is probably the closest thing to
a safety organization. The Russians had a reliability quality organization,
but not a separate safety [organization]. That organization also was
responsible. Boris Sotnikov, my counterpart, was one of the main engineers
in the design of the Buran, which is their version of the Space Shuttle.
Matter of fact, Boris Sotnikov confided to me when we got to know each
other real well that they had copied the Shuttle. He said they were
actually directed by the Russian military to copy the Shuttle. The Russians
at that time were really basically scared to death that we were going
to take the Shuttle up and grab one of their satellites and bring it
back in our payload bay. So Boris Sotnikov with—it was called
NPO Energia at the time, and they later changed to [S.P. Korolev] Rocket
and Space Corporation Energia—they really preferred to design
their own Shuttle. But the military, because they were concerned about
getting something quick, directed them to copy the Shuttle because all
of the aerodynamic data and everything else had already been done and
cut down the development time greatly for the Buran.
That also meant this group of engineers was extremely knowledgeable
of the Shuttle. So when they were working with us—we were concerned
about the safety of the Mir [space station] and the Soyuz [spacecraft],
they were concerned about Shuttle. Well, they knew the Shuttle systems
very well. One of those became apparent in one of our early meetings.
Our engineers were giving briefings to the Russians on the Shuttle systems
as they had given briefings to us on the Mir, and one of the schematics
our propulsion engineer put up, one of the Russian engineers pointed
out a mistake in that drawing, and sure enough he was right. So that
opened our eyes up to the fact that these Russians know more about the
Shuttle almost than we do. They were a very sharp group, the Russian
engineers were, very knowledgeable. We were both willing to really work
The other thing I did probably more so than anybody else is whenever
they came to the US, I always invited them to our home. On the weekends,
even though we’re not compensated any way by NASA by doing this,
I would take them on trips to Galveston [Texas] to the beach, and did
a lot of social things with them, because when they were here they didn’t
have rental cars, they were pretty well stuck in their apartment. So
we always tried to do something with them.
Likewise, they were pretty embarrassed about what they had to live in
so they didn’t really invite us. I got invited one time to one
of the engineers’ apartments and the whole family was living there
together. We ate that evening on what we’d consider a coffee table,
but that was fine with me. They did take us on little excursions. They’d
get one of the Energia buses on a weekend, and they’d take us
out to Sergiev Posad, which is a monastery type area outside of Moscow
where there’s a lot of artists and things. They took us on a lot
of little trips, just like we would take them.
To expand their knowledge and interest, we would hold some of our working
group meetings at other places. We held one of them at NASA Headquarters
so they got to go to NASA Headquarters. Boris Sotnikov, I asked him
one time what really impressed him about the Americans or the US, and
his answer really surprised me. He said, “You’re concerned
about handicaps.” You don’t see any of that in Russia. There’s
no special things on stairs or escalators, there’s no ramps, there’s
nothing they had over there, and he noticed that over here you always
had these special areas for people in wheelchairs.
The other thing is he said, “You respect your history.”
Of course we’d taken them to the Smithsonian [Institution Museums,
Washington, D.C] and gone to all that. He said, “History, whether
it’s good or bad.” I think what he meant by that is right
after the fall of the Soviet Union they trashed their statues of Stalin
and Lenin, and tried to undo all that. So I think that hit home to him
too. I thought that was interesting, because you’d expect “Oh,
your cars, your roads and homes.” But instead those two things
he mentioned. I thought that was very interesting.
Wright: It is neat.
most of my team was Rockwell safety engineers from California, we had
one of our Safety Working Group meetings out at the facility in California
[Rockwell Space Division, Downey, California]. Of course we even took
them to Disneyland and got a chance to see that.
Wright: How fun.
Johnson: Then while
we were there we also went up to Palmdale [California, Rockwell Space
Division Orbiter Assembly Facility]. At that time they were building
the Orbiter 105 [Endeavour] so they got to see the assembly. We also
took them to the [NASA] Dryden [Space Flight] Center, Edwards [Air Force
Base, California], as a tour. One of the tours there, they had out one
of the Blackbirds, the SR-71 spyplane I call it. We were there showing
them that and Sotnikov was able to tell me details of the materials
the plane was made out of that I never knew. So once again he knew a
As we got to know each other’s families and work and trusted each
other—they didn’t write this stuff down, but we confided
in each other quite a bit. One example of that, one time we were talking
about when it was the old ways. He said, “Did you ever know you
lost a photographic satellite over Russia in those early days?”
I said, “No, nothing was ever published about that.” Well,
in the early days we had these satellites that were like a big round
ball that had [spy] cameras in them, and they would overfly Russia and
take pictures. Back then we didn’t transmit the pictures; when
it came down on a parachute we had this airplane with a big grapple-like
thing behind it that would snag the parachutes, grab the satellite,
bring it in, then we’d review the pictures. Well apparently, even
though this was never reported by the [US] Air Force, one of those spy
satellites actually parachuted down, and came down in Russia.
Boris Sotnikov said he got an action from their spy agency, that they
needed to get a team together to go out and investigate that. So Boris
Sotnikov was heading up a team and it landed way out in Kazakhstan like
where they land stuff now. Then when they landed there, they found the
satellite all torn apart, torn up. Come to find out, it was this big
ball and the Russian manned spacecraft, the Vostok at that time, was
also a ball. It landed fairly close to a peasant village or something
so they thought a man was in it. They had torn into it thinking they
needed to get somebody out. Then meanwhile they found out that wasn’t
the case. It was humorous—they had taken stuff out of it, and
there was a lot of the film they exposed of course. They had pulled
the film out, and they found the film wrapped around one of the outhouses.
It had served to seal, to keep the wind from blowing through the cracks
in the outhouse.
Wright: Very resourceful
Johnson: Very resourceful
people. He said they found parts on tractors and all kinds of stuff.
He said they were disappointed the film was all exposed. But he said,
“We learned a lot. We were able to determine the focal length
of the cameras involved,” so they would know in the future exactly
what we’d be able to resolve and see. He said they were very surprised
that our avionics that we had in the satellite could operate in a vacuum,
because all of their avionics at the time was designed to still be inside
a pressurized compartment, not in a vacuum. So when they got back they
were directed to investigate developing their components that could
maybe operate in a vacuum also. He shared that with me, of course pretty
Wright: Your work
together received an AIAA [American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics]
award I believe in 1996.
Johnson: Yes we
did. We both received awards for our work from AIAA for the safety joint
work and we’ve written several papers for that part of the program.
We got to be a very close group, and we still stay in touch. We considered
each other family almost.
that time period you had some challenges with the collision and the
Johnson: Yes we
did. Thanks for bringing that up. We had the fire that occurred on the
Mir space station with the SFOG, the Solid Fuel Oxygen Generator system.
It burns, often referred to as burning the candles. It’s a mixture
of solids. Matter of fact, our people even use it on submarines. The
airplanes use it now. Where you pull the handle to operate the oxygen
on the airplanes, that’s actually a solid material in there that
burns, that releases oxygen. They used those in the Mir spacecraft to
generate oxygen if the standard oxygen generation system didn’t
work. They use electrolysis to generate oxygen from water, and then
they dump the hydrogen that comes out overboard. But when that don’t
work, or if they have a power problem, because that system used a lot
of electricity, then they would burn these candles to generate the electricity,
and they burned at a fairly high temperature.
In one of these cases, one of them had some sort of contaminant inside
of it that started burning. Instead of just heating up and decomposing
the chemical and generating the oxygen, this high temperature started
burning something, and it caught the actual stainless steel container
on fire. You had pure oxygen there so it was almost like a blowtorch
going on and also generated a lot of smoke. The Russians grabbed fire
extinguishers and tried to put it out. It was very difficult to put
out with an oxygen-burning fire; it’s a water-type fire extinguisher.
They did finally get it to stop, but meanwhile it’d done a lot
of damage there. Fortunately it didn’t breach the spacecraft,
but it contaminated the atmosphere. The crew had to keep their gas masks
on for quite a while breathing, try to keep that out. They took samples
of what the toxic gases might do.
Energia did an investigation. It came out almost like “This is
a random event and we don’t think it’ll occur again.”
Basically they didn’t know exactly what had happened. Well, we,
NASA, complained a lot about that, that that really was not an independent
group like we, NASA, would do to do that. You had the same company that
was responsible for the hardware and the problem that did the review.
The Russians did agree, and they turned it over to what my counterpart
told me is like our FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] lab or something.
That group went in and really investigated and repeated tests. They
couldn’t prove it, but what they were able to show—because
they reproduced it—was during the manufacturing process of these
cartridges the workers used these like surgical gloves, the rubber type
gloves. The feeling is that somehow a piece of one of those gloves got
left in one of those cartridges and that’s what caught fire. They
were able to reproduce with something like that in a cartridge, and
burned the cartridge, and the cartridge caught the metal container on
fire just like what had happened. So they were pretty sure that’s
it, but they couldn’t actually prove it since that was gone.
That came out, and it allowed them to make changes in their process
and watching for what they did there. At the same time they redesigned
and came out with a new system that’s used now in the ISS [International
Space Station]. Instead of having an impact, almost like a bullet where
you’d hit it and it goes off and starts the cartridge sometimes,
for ISS they developed a special electronic ignition which would be
much easier, and did a lot to improve the safety of that system. Initially
they still had the old type system on the first early part of the Space
Station, but now on ISS it’s got the new design SFOG system on
I think the Russians themselves learned the value in having an independent
group look at a major problem like that because that group was very
thorough, and they were able to come up with [the answer]. I was able
to go over and meet with that group and be a part of that. Frank [L.]
Culbertson, who was our manager at the time, had me go over and be a
part of that investigation.
Then later we had a case where the Progress [Russian spacecraft] had
a collision with the Spektr module on the Mir and caused a depressurization
which came very close to losing the crew. The pressures got down very
low. If it would have been much longer, they’d have been in real
trouble. Mike [C. Michael] Foale was the American astronaut on there
at the time. They were able to quickly put a hatch in place and quickly
seal off the Spektr module from leaking any more.
That investigation showed that—it was really a bad thing to try.
The Russians were trying a new experiment. As part of wanting to try
to save money, they were taking—the Progress vehicle is one they
get rid of after every mission—they were taking some docking system
electronic hardware off of the Progress to see if you could strictly
dock the Progress manually, and be able to do it from a further distance.
There were several factors in the review of things. One is that that
electronic device would transmit data back to the operator telling him
how fast it’s going and so forth to be on his display, along with
the visual display that you use to allow the vehicle to come in. The
other thing, because that equipment was off, also they were running
a test where the Progress vehicle was further away from the Mir station
than it normally would be for when the crew would take over and manually
dock. Also, the orientation was such that it was against the background
of the Earth where you have the clouds and so forth. The reason I mention
that is the visual display. When the Russian was manually trying to
direct it in, it ended up coming in too fast and he didn’t have
this distance data to really tell him. Strictly having to go on the
camera views. It turned out it missed the station and came in and hit
the Spektr module and damaged it and careened off and caused a leak.
Tom [Thomas P.] Stafford—a special commission was put together
to go investigate. Tom himself, as we all know, was well versed in docking,
an expert. He commented that this view that the Russian cosmonaut had
looking back at the Earth and trying to maneuver in to dock was bad
because he remembered back during the Gemini program he had trouble
docking with the Agena [target vehicle]. When it was against a similar
background he had trouble seeing it. So he said number one that was
bad. Number two, trying to do a docking without having this data to
tell you how close or how far away, what the proper orientation was,
was very bad.
So there was a lot of factors. Initially Energia once again came out
and all the blame was put on the cosmonaut. “You didn’t
do your job right.” Tom Stafford brought out all this other information.
An independent Russian group [worked for TsNIIMash] was part of Tom’s
group as well. They came up with all this other information that says
he was put in a position where it was almost impossible for him to try
to do the right job. And also not being able to train on that system
for quite a while was part of it. Nowadays [the Russians] actually have
the capability to train on a simulator and practice Progress dockings.
The last Progress docking just now to Space Station was done manually
because the automatic system messed up. But they have the proper data
as well as the visual to do all that with, and the Progress is in a
close distance. We’ve been doing that fine.
I was sent over by Culbertson to sit in on the big review they had at
Star City [Russia, cosmonaut training center] during that investigation.
Part of that was presenting the history of the training on that cosmonaut,
what all he’d done and what his scores were. I was real impressed,
because that’s an area that we probably should do more of on the
NASA side that we don’t do, where we track the number of errors
and mistakes in training on the simulators and keep track of that data
in terms of qualifying an individual to fly and his background. The
Russians were able to show the complete history of what training he’d
had, and what errors he’d made in that. They also had a good database
of what errors crews had made in flight.
Nowadays when we, NASA, want to do probabilistic risk analysis or safety
on the hardware, there’s always a concern about wanting to put
in the human element on doing this analysis. What’s the probability
of a crewman making a mistake or error? Well, the Russians have the
data. Matter of fact, my Russian counterpart told me one time about
10 or 15 percent of all anomalies they’ve had in flight are attributed
to crew error. Bryan [D.] O’Connor one time asked me, when they
were really getting ready to do some of these renewed PRAs [Probabilistic
Risk Assessments], if we have any information on crew error for spaceflight.
I just was able to tell Bryan, “Well, this is the figure the Russians
use.” Bryan himself was thinking. He said, “That sounds
You talk to almost any Shuttle crew, and it’s just fortunate we
haven’t had something cause a real problem, but there usually
has been a case where we’ve had a few errors. There’s been
a few cases that are known in terms of a problem with a payload or something
else, but we still don’t have a database that keeps track of all
that. Even though you want to keep it private, that’s something
you really want to do—also for those errors to help you with the
design. Remember I talked about the Skylab 4 case where those circuit
breakers were located close together. There needs to be a capturing
of these crew errors to help with the future design of spacecraft. I
personally would think that we ought to do like the Russians do. We
ought to record those in-flight anomalies and problems that the crew
have and keep that in a database somewhere to be used for future designs
and make reliability estimates on.
On the Spektr module we then ended up developing a patch for that. Going
in the crew was able to patch that, and we pressed on with the program.
Turned out to be a very good program, learning to operate—this
is one interesting thing though about when you deal with the Russians.
They don’t rely on a lot of written material and a lot of their
training is done orally. All their tests are done orally. In the school
system they have there’s very little hand writing, it’s
all oral lecture and then oral tests involved. As a result, every one
of the Russians you run into has a fantastic memory. You tell them something
one time, and they instantly remember it, know exactly what to do. It’s
just the opposite in our culture where everything’s written, all
our tests are written. Somebody tells me a phone number, I’ll
quickly forget it. If somebody tells me a phone number and I write the
phone number down, even if I turned that over and didn’t see it,
I’ll remember that phone number all of a sudden better. There’s
something about that writing and feedback that we’ve grown up
with in all our schools. Well, it’s just the opposite for the
Russians. Their training has all been oral so they’ve developed
this capacity that you tell them something once, that’s it.
How that really came home to us is when I was talking to Shannon [W.]
Lucid after her mission. Shannon was up there on the Mir, and she said
two Russians were getting ready to go out on EVA [Extravehicular Activity],
and she was going to have to look after the Mir systems, and she said,
“Oh, in case they call from the ground, what do I need to do in
here?” The one Russian rattled off and showed the switches you
got to throw, do this and this and that and so forth. Shannon said,
“Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Let me write!”
“Oh you’ll remember that, you’ll remember.”
In other words the Russian’s concept was he felt like telling
her one time was sufficient because over there that’s all it is.
Shannon, just like us, “Wait a minute! I want to write that down!”
She had to write it down. After the flight Shannon was telling me that
they talked about this, about how they’re different cultures.
That’s what brought this out to me, that we in our culture, we
have to write something down to not only maybe look at it, but that
actually causes us to remember it better. Whereas in their culture they
just tell you one time and that’s it. I noticed that also when
we were working with the Russian counterparts.
Of course they were very dependent on their senior engineers knowing
everything because of that. Well, some of those, as they got older they
were passing away. So the Russians now have recognized the need to capture
and write down to be able to pass on the training. They do more of what
we do now just because they had a big case here lately where over the
years now some of their senior-level people that went all the way back
to the early part of the program passed on and they’re suddenly
left without that background and information. So they’re doing
a little bit more of that.
I tell young engineers, particularly if they’re going to work
with Russians, there is this culture difference, you need to remember.
One is they’ll probably not understand why you can’t remember
things when they tell you something. Number two, it’ll be a case
you wonder why they never can give you anything written, or it’s
always got to be a verbal telling you about their system or something
else. Bonnie [J.] Dunbar and our [astro]nauts that first went over there
had a real struggle because there were these oral lectures and these
oral tests that they do over there, and that’s just totally different
than what we do, so it was a real struggle for them. I thought that
was very interesting.
Wright: That is
neat. Interesting. When the Stafford-Utkin group [task force led by
Thomas Stafford and Vladimir F. Utkin, head of TsNIIMash] began, did
they involve you in any of the workings? Or were you just part of the
end result with the report?
Johnson: I made
presentations to the Stafford-Utkin group. Utkin was the Russian side
of that. I gave presentations to them on what we knew had happened and
what all we had done with our safety documents. Any of our safety assessments
we did were all safety assessments done on the Shuttle docking with
the Mir, but that same group did review all that also. The Russian side
wanted to be sure.
That brings up an interesting item. When the Russians were first coming
over here and we were explaining to them how we were going to dock with
the Mir space station, we told them the crew was doing it manually.
They got very concerned and wanted to know why we did that, what were
the controls in place. The young engineers here at JSC involved in that
couldn’t understand why the Russians didn’t trust our manual
docking. So I explained to them the case that happened during ASTP.
Nobody over here remembered that. I said, “Look, let me explain
to you why the Russians are so scared of manual docking. We almost did
them in in Apollo-Soyuz manual docking. That is the reason. You need
to understand that and spend the time trying to show them everything
that’s involved to train our crews and what cues they have.”
Eventually we were able to convince the Russians that our manual docking
was going to be safe and not damage the Mir, but there was a lot of
review. For a while I pretty much had to go around and talk to the engineers,
because our young engineers couldn’t understand because we’d
been doing manual dockings all the time. “What’s the big
deal about this?” There was nothing written in the ASTP reports
about the crew mistakes made during the docking. Also the major impact
it had on the Russians, the fact that it really did come close to damaging
their spacecraft and causing real problems.
heard it said that the Russians were very glad to see you because it
was a familiar face. So many of them were still in the program from
ASTP but so many of the Americans had moved on.
Johnson: Yes. I
was about the only one, you’re right. That allowed me a lot more
access. They trusted me sooner and knew me better because they knew
my background well from having worked together. Even though most of
the engineers that were in my direct Safety Working Group were different
than the ones I worked with back then—which were still working
there—and I did meet them, had them over and really enjoyed getting
with them. They were still in their design areas of the electrical area
like I had been back then. Because I was involved in the program they
knew I was one of the working groups, I’d been in Baikonur, worked
with others. The Russian ASTP managers knew of me. Yes, that was a big,
big help. That was a great help. It turned out, particularly later in
Shuttle-Mir and Phase 1, I was the only member of all the entire group
that had worked Apollo-Soyuz.
At the time I finished working with them and turned it over, which turned
out to be 2003 as part of Space Station, my last trip over the Russians
gave me a big farewell retirement thing. At the time I was working with
Pavel Vorobiev because he was the safety chairman for the Space Station
work. They presented me with a Sputnik [first satellite] medal, which
is a pretty high medal for there, and a big certificate. It was about—and
I hadn’t really realized it at that time—30 years of working
with them. They had on there 1973 to 2003, and they also had put down—they
call it Soyuz-Apollo, Mir-Shuttle Phase 1, and ISS. They had all those
programs listed on the certificate. I thought that was really something.
I don’t know of anybody else in the NASA side that received something
outstanding. How was working with them with ISS different from what
you had experienced before?
was I’d almost say a little bit of a rough transition for all
of us working group chairmen that finished up Phase 1 and went to ISS.
We had developed and worked up a lot of lessons learned. We developed
a lot of procedures for working safety certificates for the safety of
the cargo and experiments going up, and everything we’d done made
sense to follow those same processes over at the Space Station.
When we initially went over to the Space Station people—of course
they had been working with the Europeans and Japanese, and everybody’d
been going by the NASA processes, NASA safety. They didn’t want
to have anything to do with all what we’d learned with the Russians.
It was very frustrating for the Russians too when they were trying to
certify, because the NASA side for Space Station had not developed processes
for how we take stuff up as far as crew supplies, cargo, experiments
and get them to jointly certify—all of a sudden the Russians came
in the ISS and said, “We got part of the Russian segment, you
got to certify. We are part of the safety certification, it’s
not just the NASA Safety Review Panel.” The NASA side didn’t
have any way of dealing with that.
We finally were able to convince the Space Station safety people, “You’re
going to have to develop a process similar to what we have here, otherwise
you’re not going to get anything done.” They eventually
did, but initially it was almost like we got thrown out of the room
when we were trying to tell them this is what had worked with the Russians.
That group was very much “Well, we’ve done it this way and
you do it our way or the highway.” Which is unfortunate. NASA
has got a bad habit of one program not using the lessons from the past,
and that was happening here. But in this particular instance, particularly
with the Safety Working Group stuff, that pretty much ended up having
to carry over, number one because the Russians were pretty much not
going to operate unless it was similar to that, and number two NASA
didn’t have a process in place of that. So the process used in
ISS now is very close to what we ended up having.
Things would have gone a lot smoother, been a lot better, if they’d
stepped up and adopted what was doing. You can talk to almost any of
the working group chairmen that worked Shuttle-Mir and Phase 1—Rick
[Richard W.] Nygren or any of those guys will tell you that they went
through the same thing that I did, but in terms of their areas when
they started working with the ISS people. The other thing that was fortunate,
and it helped a lot with our working group getting credit for being
one of the better ones. I was the one NASA point of contact from the
start of the Shuttle-Mir, even carrying over to Phase 1.
The other problem with the other working groups was turnover. The other
working groups went through chairmen almost once every year. The Russian
culture is such, they’ve got to know you and work with you and
your background before they’ll even start to begin to trust you.
The problem with the other groups was just about the time you get to
that point where they can start working with somebody, NASA would come
in with some new engineer or somebody new to work with them. That’s
been a real problem.
We never were able to convince NASA management they need to do that.
They’re still doing this for several reasons. Working with the
Russians, particularly where you start out new like that, that’s
difficult. They’re very “nyet.” They’re very
tough negotiators. So it can be very frustrating if you’re not
very patient and get to know—remember, it’s all frustrating
for the Russians if they got somebody new that’s inexperienced
trying to deal with them.
As a result a lot of those people in those positions didn’t want
to be there very long because it was a very difficult, tough job, and
would move on also. In the future as a lesson of that, once you develop
a good working relationship, try to keep people in place, particularly
if you’re working with somebody like the Russians or that culture
that depends heavily on that. We were also fortunate during the Shuttle-Mir
Program or Phase 1 Program that someone like Frank—we really had
two managers. We had Tom [Tommy W.] Holloway in the beginning and Frank
Culbertson throughout that. It was not a lot of turnover for us. In
some of the Phase 1 Program working groups, like in the operations group
or some of the others, quite often there was quite a bit of turnover.
Then, like I said, those other working groups often didn’t do
all of the social things that we did with them to get to know our counterparts.
Wright: And you
stayed with the safety area until you retired.
Johnson: Yes, stayed
with the safety area till I was retired. When John Casper came in, he
was going to have a new deputy. At the same time George Abbey asked
Charlie Harlan to do another job. [George Abbey] was wanting to convert
the Center to ISO 9000 [International Organization for Standardization
management system standard] that Charlie had worked extremely hard to
get the Center to do, so he wanted Charlie to head up that office. Charlie
was a little upset, but I convinced him that he was the right guy to
go set that up, which he did for a while. Matter of fact, Charlie is
still working now, fairly busy.
Wright: That worked
Johnson: Yes, it
worked out well, he’s doing well. At the same time George Abbey
called me in. He said, “You’ve worked so well with the Russians
and done so much with them. I’m naming you deputy director of
Russian projects.” I had that title while I was with John Casper,
then John left and Yolanda [Y.] Marshall came in. At that time I was
changed to be the associate director for technical and that’s
when we were wanting to improve on our knowledge, lessons learned. We
didn’t have a very good training program for our new SR&QA
people so I was involved in helping develop the training materials if
you were going to be a safety engineer, quality engineer, reliability
engineer, and then training materials for how the Center was organized,
the history. Then that’s when we developed these case studies
for the [Space Shuttle] Columbia [STS-107 accident] and Challenger.
Wright: You were
still with NASA when Columbia fell.
Johnson: Yes, I
was still with NASA. I was in that capacity as associate director for
technical. I wasn’t as heavily involved in the return to flight
activities as I had been back in the Challenger days. Actually that
was also the impetus for doing these case studies, the Columbia case,
and the emphasis on needing to do the training to improve our skills,
SR&QA. That’s what initiated trying to work on all that.
Then after Columbia we got into this trying to do safety culture change.
I will say there’s been some things since Columbia that have bothered
me. Even before Columbia, when Space Station organized they developed
their own S&MA Office separate from the independent directorate
office, which always created an element of confusion between that office
and the directorate office. It felt like they had responsibility to
support. After Columbia, Space Shuttle program did the same thing, developed
their own SR&QA Office. Instead of being independent, the funding
before Columbia had gone away from being independent and was a part
of the program. They’d started these cutbacks like I pointed out
in the past.
That continued on after Columbia so instead of relooking like we did
after Challenger and strengthening and making sure that the budgeting
and the organization was independent of the programs for the SR&QA
organization. Unfortunately—and even the CAIB [Columbia Accident
Investigation Board] had indicated that should be done—we’re
in a position now to where the programs have their own S&MA offices.
It’s a smaller office, you still have the directorate office,
but the programming was supposed to be set up as a separate pool of
money at Headquarters which would be separate from the program that
would fund the SR&QA organization. The problem with that is the
programs had reviews as to how much money goes into that fund. And the
accounting systems that came in place before Columbia, and they’re
still in place after Columbia, regardless of where you worked you had
to list a task number for what you’re charged to, and some of
that would go back to support the programs. So the way we stand right
now, SR&QA organizations, my perception is they’re not really
independent-wise from the budget, like we had gone to after Challenger.
The organizations now themselves are not independent. They have created
what they call a chief safety officer for the program, independent supports.
There’s been some things done, some of which I think is good.
The NESC [NASA Engineering and Safety Center], safety group that’s
up at [NASA] Langley [Research Center, Hampton, Virginia] now that does
independent engineering analysis has been a good group and they’ve
done some good work and good studies. I’d say that’s been
a plus that’s come about after Columbia. I know from working with
the people and being in the organization there’s still confusion
about responsibilities between these program S&MA offices and the
directorate line organization S&MA offices. Hopefully that won’t
cause us problems. I have that concern.
Wright: I know
you mentioned Bryan O’Connor a couple times in our conversation.
Does the NASA Headquarters safety officer also have a lot of impact
on what you do at the Center?
Johnson: Yes, Bryan
takes a very active role. I’ve been very impressed with Bryan’s
work. I know Bryan very well, not only from back when he was an astronaut.
Bryan got put in charge of safety from the Astronaut Office right after
Challenger, and was involved in that. The other thing I forgot to mention—when
we were building up the organization after Challenger, we brought over
Charlie [Charles F.] Bolden from the Astronaut Office to be our safety
Charlie was outstanding. He helped bring in a lot of the people and
being a former astronaut attracted a lot of young and energetic and
very sharp people to come into the Safety Division. He developed it
and had it running very well and very rigorous. The problem was when
Charlie came over—he was a delight to work for. He was a super
guy to work for. George Abbey had said, “You’re only going
to be able to have him for three months,” or whatever it was.
After that time period Charlie Harlan and I both argued with Abbey trying
to get him to stay on because he was doing such a great job. He really
enjoyed it, and wanted to do that and would have liked to have stayed
on, because it would be a while before he they were going to fly again.
But George said no. So he left. That I think has helped, because Charlie
Bolden has always had a concern, a little more so, about safety.
Going back to Bryan [O’Connor]. He was involved in that, and then
later went off to work in the commercial field with a company that does
probabilistic risk assessment, Futron [Corporation]. Then came back
in to be the agency head for S&MA, and has been good. We stay in
touch. I’m presently a technical consultant to the local SAIC
[Science Applications International Corporation] for S&MA that’s
still involved in some of the training type materials and case studies
as well as supporting this Orion [Constellation Program crew vehicle]
standing review board for S&MA. Bryan, about three months ago, sent
out a request wanting to know what all we’d done for the safety
of the Soyuz to have astronauts involved.
He’s trying to develop what we need to show safety-wise to put
astronauts on the commercial vehicles or how to make them safe. He directed
the SAIC to have me, because he knew I’d gone all the way back
to Apollo-Soyuz. I just finished up about maybe less than a month ago
a 50-page report for Bryan that covered the history and what all we’d
done. It’s called “Soyuz Safety: Lessons for the Future.”
[NASA/SP-2010-578 - NASA Astronauts on
Soyuz: Experience and Lessons for the Future, August 2010] NASA
astronauts on Soyuz, lessons for the future. It covered the history
of Apollo-Soyuz, which we’d done a lot.
There was a brief program that NASA had while we still had Space Station
Freedom where Congress had directed NASA to go over and work with the
Russians to use the Soyuz as an ACRV [Assured Crew Return Vehicle] for
the Space Station Freedom program. There was a group of NASA people
that actually started working with the Russians on the Soyuz a little
bit before we formed the Shuttle-Mir Program. Then shortly there was
the Shuttle-Mir Program, which didn’t last too long, because Shuttle-Mir
was supposed to be just sending Norm [Norman E.] Thagard up one time
to dock with the Mir and be up there. Then we’d take a cosmonaut
up on the Shuttle, which the first one went up when Charlie Bolden was
commander of the Shuttle flight.
Before that program really got going real well, it became what they
called the Phase 1 and got extended to where we’d do ten of these
missions and get all this training and knowledge that we could relate
to Space Station. At that same time, that’s when the Russians
were going to be a part of the Space Station. It was no longer Space
Station Freedom, it was International Space Station with the Russian
segment being a part of that.
That report covers the history of that Phase 1 and also ISS. It talks
about the fact that a lot of the acceptance we did back then was because
the Soyuz launcher and the Soyuz spacecraft had been flown a lot with
the Mir, so we knew it was fairly reliable. But we did a lot of formal
safety analysis of the vehicles and that was pointed out. The point
in the report is that there’s a trade. Matter of fact, we have
a chart at the back. Says a trade. Depending on if you have a lot of
flight experience with like Russians or someone else, then you don’t
need as much NASA oversight or involvement to assure yourself it’s
safe to fly. On the other hand, if you have very little flight experience
and it’s someone brand-new, then you need to have a lot of NASA
oversight or review and requirements in place in order to assure yourself
it’s going to be okay. Of course the basis of this report—and
I understand it’s been like a best seller up at Headquarters—is
using information from that and developing their thing for the commercial
operation that they’re going to be doing. So in that regard I
still stay in touch with Bryan, mainly for action items.
great that you’re able to use all your knowledge still from then.
I know that you walked in with notes. Are there some other things that
you have that we haven’t had a chance to talk about?
Johnson: No. I
believe we pretty much covered it all. I can send it to you electronically
or have a copy. It’s pretty much what I was using, I went through
take it and put it with your other things. Thank you. It was all very
Johnson: That was
my sheet for my memory jogger when I gave my report. I actually covered
a lot more with you folks.
Wright: Well, I’m
glad, because I figured you’d have more time for more details.
This will be good, happy to do that. Thanks again for being here.
[End of interview]
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