Shuttle Carrier Aircraft
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
E. Galinanes & Donald J. Swem
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Kennedy Space Center, Florida – 17 April 2012
is April 17th, 2012. This interview is being conducted with Roberto
Galinanes and Don Swem in the Vehicle Assembly Building [VAB] at the
Kennedy Space Center for the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft Oral History
Project. Our subject today is the mate/demate device [MDD]. The interviewer
is Rebecca Wright. Thank you both for taking time this morning, for
coming out to sit and talk with me. We’re going to do this as
a combination with both of your skills, and I appreciate your efforts
with that. Roberto, if you would share with us a brief history of
your career here at Kennedy.
Well, I started in 1984 as an electrical engineer for the crane section.
Ever since [then] I have been in the crane section. This July I’m
going to be 28 years with the United Space [Alliance]. I started with
Lockheed then it changed to United Space [Alliance]. The thing that
I most like, we cover so much, we cover the demate, we cover the pad,
we cover the VAB assembly, we cover the HMF [Hypergol Maintenance
Facility]. That’s what I like. That’s why I never requested
any transfer or anything like that, because I enjoy it.
Swem: I started
at Vandenberg [Air Force Base, California] back in 1980 with Martin
Marietta building SLC [Space Launch Complex]-6. I got transferred
out here after Challenger [STS-51L accident] in 1987, and I worked
in the design organization doing modifications and improvements on
the facility. Approximately, I guess, 12 years ago I transferred to
the cranes and door department, basically just to have a change and
be more field-oriented. I thought that would help my design career,
being more into the field aspects. We cover a lot of cranes. I would
say approximately 25, 30 cranes out here, bridge cranes that we maintain.
Then all the doors our group handles and repairs. I’m not talking
rollup doors. I’m talking extremely large doors. In the VAB
there’s 28 doors alone, vertical doors, and seven horizontal
doors, these massive doors. We had a lot of things. We’re constantly
putting out fires. I did go back to design engineering and realize
that I didn’t like sitting at a desk all day in front of a computer.
I missed being out in the field.
We’re teaching something. At least we’re teaching over
here to be more oriented in different points. Over there in design
he was only one task oriented. Over here we got him trained to multitask.
Roberto, tell me about the cranes, and how important they are to the
The cranes are pretty much the unit that we use to assemble the SRBs
[Solid Rocket Boosters], the ET [External Tank] and the Shuttle. We
put the payload in the OPF [Orbiter Processing Facility] for the horizontal
payload, and we use the 90-ton to put the vertical payloads in the
pad. They’re pretty much essential. If we don’t have it,
they cannot be assembled. That’s the bottom line on that one.
are some of the important attributes [of crane operators]? Or what
do you expect the people who work in the crane department? What kind
of skills are you looking for?
We’re looking at people that are capable of not getting nervous
when they’re picking up an orbiter. They can talk and [demonstrate
their] skill when they’re talking on the radios, especially
since the crane operator has to be the electrician, and they have
to be mechanical too. So they have to have their own skill too. They
have to be skilled in their own craft, separate from being a crane
operator. The people that work with us, they’re really nice
you’re picking up flight hardware or an SRB and you have a crane
problem, and the crane goes out, you have to go out there and fix
that very quickly. You need people in this group that can make decisions.
Not everyone can make decisions. They freeze up. They become afraid
of the consequences. You need people in the group to go out there
and be able to come up and make [decisions]. You do take calculations
into consideration. There’s risk factors, but you have to make
a decision and move forward. That’s a big difference. A lot
the responsibility of such expensive hardware. There’s no time
At least we haven’t dropped anything.
we have a good record.
Yes, maybe damaged a couple of things. But not dropped anything.
Swem: If you
drop an SRB, that’s it. Everything’s over. So you cannot
talk about the use of the crane with the mate/demate device. Can you
share what those steps are?
Yes. The MDD is a special structure that was designed for the Shuttle
to onload or offload, they call it, the Shuttle from the SCA [Shuttle
Carrier Aircraft], the 747. At the beginning, since all the Shuttles
were pretty much landing in Edwards [Air Force Base, California],
they had to onload it there in the Edwards MDD—or Dryden [Flight
Research Center, Edwards, California] they call it. And they have
to offload it here, every time they landed over there. I think they
did it 54 times over there. They land over there, and we had to offload
it here 54 times. Plus we had to onload a couple of the orbiters here
when they did the upgrades on the orbiter to California.
It consists of three hoists, one in the forward and two in the aft.
They call it starboard and port. They attach the sling, and they got
four attachment points on the sling that hook up to the orbiter. That’s
pretty much it. You just attach the orbiter, pick it up from the 747.
We back off the 747, and we set it down on the floor. Sometimes they
open the landing gears, and sometimes they put on top of the OTS,
it’s [called the] orbiter transporter [system]. They set it
down and take it over to the OPF or wherever it’s going.
make it sound very easy.
Oh, it’s easy. Plus you got other equipment. You got these SAPs.
They call it service access platform that are being used to attach
those points. They are being lowered. They’re big humongous
platforms. They have two attachments, and they have tubes in those
attachments so it will be a wind restraint. They don’t move
a lot. They’re just big safety chains that they would add on
as a safety factor, because they have a single failure point. If wire
rope fails, it will drop down on top of the orbiter. So we came out,
and they designed some big safety chains. The links are maybe four
very heavy. You can really pinch your fingers in them. It’s
just not a good system. One problem I saw when I first saw the winches
up there were that the two brakes were downstream from the drum. So
there was no real drum brake on it, which is not the best design,
but we lived with that design. That’s why they have the safety
chain as a backup, because we didn’t have a drum brake. On the
coupler side, the coupler was very old. From downstream on the gearbox
side, we had the two brakes. I didn’t really like that system
at all, but we dealt with it.
Remember, it was built in 1960. It’s almost  years old.
So the weather here is not like in Dryden. It’s dry. Over here
it’s moist. We have the ocean right there. So we get a lot of
rust. So that MDD has been refurbished a few times and repainted because
of that condition.
was its first use?
I think it was STS-1 because they landed in Edwards, and they had
to offload it over here when they came back over here. They did it
also for the Enterprise too, I think.
of them were built in California and flown out here.
One of the other components of the MDD is the X-Y. They call it the
X-Y movement. The sling is attached to the hoist. Also they have tubes
to help with the wind restraint. They have some screw jacks that can
move that sling. You can move it in this direction, in the X and the
Y, and you can move it forward or aft. That’s to fine-tune all
the little movement that you have to do to be able to attach those
to the orbiter. So that’s how they do that. Also they have the
hydroset at the end of the hook. The hydroset, you can do really minute
movement on the load by using the hydroset. So you can move maybe
of an inch.
Thousandths of an inch with the hydroset. They have long strings that
they attach to the handles so they can pump it up or pump it down,
whatever direction they need to.
many people does it take?
I think it’s approximately about 70 people. Between the operational
people, the crew people, the crane crew people, and safety, and all
the other people that you have there. Heavy equipment. Approximately
Roberto was saying, there’s basically three major systems, X-Y
positioning system on a telescope. These tubes were telescoping tubes,
and we’ve had a lot of problems with them because sometimes
they would hang up when you lower and raise them. They would stick,
and all of a sudden release and pile-drive down and shake the whole
structure, which scared the heck out of us. So I came up with a device
that’d go inside the tube. The problem was you couldn’t
lubricate. You can lubricate the outside of a telescoping tube but
you couldn’t lubricate the insides. So I had this greasing tool
that would pump grease inside the tubes. We would lower it down. That
worked for a while, and then we had more problems with it. So we duct-taped
a bunch of spray cans together with lubricant sprays, and then screwed
down a piece of plastic with a threaded rod to push down on the little
sprayers, and then lowered it down with a rope, down inside the tubes,
to spray the inside of the tubes. Little ingenious things we did to
keep that from pile-driving and scaring everybody. It would shake
the structure, one of our little quirks about that.
had secrets about how to make it work.
have to come up with ways to make something work, because you don’t
have that opportunity to redesign. Is that correct?
have to live with [things]. It’s very difficult to redesign
a lot of things, because there are a lot of drawings you have to revise,
and you have to go through a huge process to revise things. There’s
a lot of paperwork.
At the beginning we were launching a lot, not compared to now at the
end. We did three at least a year. We were doing about five or six
a year. So it was a constant movement. Then we are involved through
the whole process of doing the orbiter, from the SRB, ET, and then
the Shuttle. As soon as it goes out of here the only thing you have
to take care is the payload—if it goes that way. If not, it
was already installed in the OPF so we didn’t have to worry.
It was constantly pop, one after the other one.
Swem: So you
don’t have time to do improvements all the time, because of
the schedule. Everything was so schedule-driven. We’re not talking
eight-hour days. We’re talking around the clock 24-hour shifts.
Swem: It was
there other tools or ingenious resource fixes that you can think of
that you guys put together during the timeframe other than the [telescoping
Swem: On the
MDD? Or on other stuff here?
first, and then you can do some other stuff.
The MDD is pretty much maintenance stuff that we had to [be] ingenious
on, because of the telescoping tube principally and the bad weather.
The other things they have been pretty good, other crane stuff.
Swem: I brought
my design skills where I could do a sketch real quick and get a shop
to make a part that we need to go out there and implement. That was
the nice part. I saw instant results. I liked that.
That’s why we’re going to keep it. We told him, “Hey,
you’re coming back—you’re not staying there.”
what other types of fixes did you do? Can you think of some more that
you worked on?
I was in design I did the brake modifications. Originally we [had]
a three 55-ton hoists that does the lifting. The original brakes on
it were these archaic solenoid-activated wedges that would spring-load
and shoot down every time there was an emergency stop that you had
to make. They would shoot these wedges into the flanges and wedge
the drum from moving. It was just very difficult to dislodge this
thing once it was activated. When I was in design they gave me that
project, and I came up with a giant disk brake, similar to a car disk
brake. You had a disk, and you had a caliper. I worked on that design
to install a caliper brake system as our emergency brake system on
the MDD. That was a successful modification that later I got to service
after I got to work with it.
That and the new pancake brakes.
Swem: We had
other brakes that were like the motor brakes. They were two independent
drum brakes. They were made of carbon steel and would constantly slip
and not meet the torque specs on them. I came up with stainless steel
disk brakes similar to a car, two of them in line with each other,
and implemented that design on the brakes. Eliminated the corrosion
problems since they were made of stainless steel.
have to forgive me for being so ignorant about it all, but sometimes
it helps because then I can ask those questions. The brakes were used
how in the MDD? Where were you applying? As they come up?
winching systems or hoisting systems have to have at least two brakes
on them. The reason why we added them is to stop the hoist when you
stop operating. Then you had an emergency brake which would lock everything
up. The emergency brake is designed if you lost power the spring-load
in the caliper would clamp down on the disk. The way it is is you
hydraulically pull back the brakes, so if you have a loss of power,
the valves would release, and the spring-loaded mechanical systems
would clamp on the brake. Very fail safe. All hoisting systems have
to have a minimum of two independent brakes for safety.
That emergency brake that he’s talking about, it’s activated
mainly by the overspeed. We have an overspeed in the system that is
calibrated to a certain rpm [rates per minute]. If it goes over that
rpm, then it shut off the power, and drop[ped] out the solenoid on
that caliper. Then it’s set up in the wheel.
you ever have to use it?
No, but it got activated by nuisance trips. So we decided to go ahead
and change the wedge system to the disk brake system, because it was
easier to dislodge them completely. It was a good design; it was nice.
like it was very valuable—not just for the hardware but of course
for people. Or vice versa, not just for people but for the hardware.
Yes, we have to create it for the overall system. We have to create
a special tool. It was like a fork to get in there. Sometimes you
even had to bump the hoist to be able to dislodge the wedges in there,
it was so hard. It was steel against steel, so it was really hard.
it was a pretty lame design.
for 1960, huh?
Yes. It worked fine until we finally came up with that solution. It
was a good solution.
you remember when you integrated those brake systems in?
Swem: It was
in the mid ’90s, I think. Yes, ’95 let’s say.
They did the modification in Dryden but they didn’t do the other
brake modification over there, because over there they didn’t
have the problem with the rust. So that was taken care of. We only
did half of it.
a modification was made at Dryden, was it also made here?
Swem: I think
it’s more like the other way around. Here first and then [there].
Yes because we do the maintaining. But it was operated by the ops
people [at Dryden]. Over here we do the maintenance [and] operate
the system too.
you knew the system inside and out because you had used it. Tell me
about the weather and the corrosion.
He can tell you a lot. He worked a lot of it.
tell you what. In California you have the desert and no salt. The
MDD out there is pristine. The one out here, it is a constant battle
with rust and corrosion. Not only does it affect the structure and
the steels, but it affects the electronics, the breakers, the electrical
system, even our wiring gets corroded. It gets brittle. Constant battle.
Just very difficult. That’s one of our most difficult facilities
to maintain, because it’s a frame structure out in the weather.
We have hurricanes and things like that.
constantly gets penetrated. We have birds, thousands of birds.
think it’s a roost?
sit on that. They go on it pretty much. Their droppings are corrosive.
It’s just a very difficult facility. Be honest with you, as
much attachment as I have with it, the last one goes off--.
you have a regular maintenance schedule?
you tear it down?
No, we have an operational and maintenance procedure. The operation
[and maintenance instruction] mainly tells you how to operate the
system and all the whistles that the system has. We have a maintenance
procedure that we do quarterly, semiannual, and annual PMs [definition?].
Then we do a load test every year. I think since Challenger they came
out with, they call it the file six requirement. It’s a database
that they created after Challenger that any critical system that [has]
a requirement would be put into that database. So it have to be signed
every 365 days. It had to be done that way. So the load test, when
we pick up that weight, the total weight of the hoist, the 100% load
test, we test each brake individually. We test the emergency brake,
verify that it holds, and also holds at 150%. So you don’t choke
the load if it’s activated.
Regular maintenance on the wire ropes, on all the electrical components,
and everything. So we keep a constant maintenance all the time. No
matter if we use it or not. Then before every use we do a good preop,
because the system is not used that constantly like the cranes over
here that we use more. The preop there takes about maybe two, three
days to get that done. So before we did Discovery we took pretty much
a whole week because we haven’t used that one for a long long
time. The weather has been nice, so it has been operating often. Everything
worked fine in this onload that we did for Discovery.
I guess on a couple sides you were busy, because as we were walking
in you mentioned that Discovery had been kept in the VAB.
do you mind walking me through the last couple weeks or however long
it was that you actually started moving Discovery toward [ferry flight]?
Discovery was moved out of OPF-2 because it was completed. So they
moved it to High Bay 4. NASA did that, because they don’t have
another bay, because the other bay was rented to commercial people.
They put it there, and they said, “Hey, now we can show it to
people.” So they got tour buses coming into the VAB, and they
could walk through for the tour people so they can see Discovery in
High Bay 4. That was something nice extra that the tour people got
to see. They were pretty close, maybe 25 feet from the orbiter.
nice, that is close. So you babysat with her for a while.
you mentioned about a week before you went out to the --
To the MDD.
checked it all out.
We did the preop on the hoist, on the SAP, and the X-Y system. So
we did pretty extensive [tests]. We didn’t want them to have
any hiccups. We know that there was a lot of people watching us and
looking at it.
guess on this onload you had a few more observers, I guess, than normal
because of its destination.
Yes, and TV, it has been recorded and everything. Everything was recorded.
OMI [Operations and Maintenance Instruction] systems, we have monthly
maintenance that we do, and we have semiannuals every six months that
we do, and then we have our annuals. The annuals are more extensive,
deeper maintenance that we do than the others. Then our 100% load
test where they bring these great big weight cages. They have these
great big 10,000-pound plates that they shove in like a deck of cards.
For each hoist connection we pick up these great big weight cages.
It’s quite impressive. Do our testing.
used for weight?
plates. I would say like two-inch-by--.
They call it like a test cage. They slap those [in] and put them on
top of it.
them in like cards. Two-inch. I would say they’re like six-by-ten
maybe sheets of heavy heavy plates that they slide into a square frame,
steel structural frame. Then we attach to that, pick it up. Three
of them for each hoist. There’s three hoists. People forget.
There’s two on the aft component of the sling setup because
that’s where all your engines are. Basically your heaviest,
like 60% I would say of the weight, is in the aft portion because
of the three main engines and the OMS [Orbital Maneuvering System]
engines and the fuel cells. The front portion of the Shuttle that
we pick up is just one hoist. That’s much lighter because there’s
not as much components in there.
you always test for the maximum load?
Yes. 100%. If we do a modification in the brake system, in the path
of that brake, we will have to do 125% load test, just to verify the
integrity of the component and [that] everything worked fine. Then
we continue doing the 100% load test on that one.
for Discovery’s route last week, she left early Thursday, I
think, morning. Wednesday morning?
No. Saturday morning. They took it out at 4:30 in the morning. We
left the doors open the night before in High Bay 4. The weather was
good, maybe cloudy but they didn’t care if it rained. The orbiter
people came in, and heavy equipment came in. Put the threshover plates
[in]. I think at 4:30 they were pulling it back. By the time the crane
crew got here, it was already parked underneath the—they took
in the wheels. So they tow it all the way back to the OPF. So from
there on by 7:00, yes, they were ready to go.
you just reported down to the SLF [Shuttle Landing Facility], is that
what it’s called?
To the MDD, yes.
you tell me about that morning? I understand you had weather again
that caused a little issue.
Yes, we were there and everything was good. We got the system working
fine. Even though it was windy we started doing the process. So we
went ahead and lowered the sling, and then we attached the forward
attachment point first. The orbiter is a little bit in an inclined
position. The nose dips more than the aft. So you have to attach the
forward attachment first because if you lower the sling completely
it will hit the on spot in the back side. So the sling [has] to be
crooked just like the orbiter. Then what you do after you finish attaching
the forward attachment point, you pick up the orbiter from the front
side only, about four feet to make it level. Then you can lower the
aft connection points so you don’t hit the on spot and come
down. Then before you do that—you lower it to that position,
then you have to lower the big platforms, the SAP platforms, to help
the technician to access the attachment point in the aft.
one thing I’d like to point out is that the lifting connections
and the mounting connections are two different systems. Lifting connections
are pretty much barrel receptacles on the sides of the orbiter where
the sling swings down and inserts into the sides, and they screw them
in, and secure them to lift it. On the underside is where you make
your other connections to the 747. What I found interesting was that
it’s very much similar to the way the orbiter is attached to
the external tank.
Yes, exactly the same.
exactly the same. So it’s designed the same way. Basically the
747 has become like an external tank. Same proven setup. The aft portion
of the two connections on the underside are good and front the nose
They call those what? The monoballs? Yes they’re called the
monoball, I think, the ones in the aft.
forward one is basically just to hold the nose down on the orbiter.
It doesn’t have any forward and aft loads. So just basically
hold it down on the top. But I always found it interesting, it was
similar to an external tank. It was, I thought, very ingenious that
they did that.
gives the go-ahead when the orbiter is parked in there? Who actually
says we’re ready to go?
We get the move director. That’s mainly people from the OPF.
They’re the ones that tow the vehicle out and park it and say
hey we’re ready to go. That’s where mainly we receive
the orbiter from. We just follow the procedure, and we just operate
the hoist according with the procedure. Then pretty much it’s
follow the procedure from there on, unless we have an issue—one
of the brakes damaged or one of the motors [fail]. We have a couple
of incidents that have happened. We had to replace a motor one time.
We had to change a brake one time with the orbiter hanging in there.
So it has been a couple of things that make it interesting.
get yourself in situations where you have to do unorthodox things
because the risk factor of a storm coming, and you have to lower down
the SAP platforms. We open up the panel, and we take an insulated
screwdriver and a glove and push in the contact or the coil felt on.
Just hold that in manually to lower that SAP down so they can keep
moving with the process. So you do things, these inside stories, where
you have to make decisions and take a somewhat calculated risk.
Another thing that the SAP have designed in it was the stuff to hold
the sling in case the weather gets really bad. How do you call those?
The big barrels.
the 50-knot wind tensioners or something like that.
It’s a wind restraint that attach[es] from the SAP platform
to the sling. So that will restrain completely. Since the SAP has
tubes, the telescoping tubing, and the sling has telescoping tubing,
that will attach both systems together to make it hardly movable.
It will be pretty good. It will restrain up to 50 knots, no?
Swem: Up to
50 knots, yes.
They’re good up to 50 knots. It got so bad with corrosion that
we have to pretty much eliminate that. The spring inside, we opened
it one time.
into a solid chunk of rust. They’ve been refurbished once, but
we hardly use them at all.
I think we used it one time. One time that we did that we had to restrain
it for bad weather that was coming in, but after that we have never
used it before.
there been occurrence of when you’ve been out either getting
ready to offload it or onload it that weather has come in and that
you’ve had to stop operations?
Well, this Saturday. Yes this Saturday we hook[ed] up everything.
We lifted the front, and we were lowering down. We attached the aft,
and then we had to stop there. We were supposed to pick it up so we
can get the 747 underneath. We [could not] do it because of wind restraint.
The wind was coming from the southeast at 26 to 28 knots. The tolerance
is 16. If the wind comes from the east I think 16. You can put more
wind straight from the front because it doesn’t move the orbiter.
So we had to stop. Safety shut us down. We had to get wood cribbage,
how do you call those?
We had to put the cribbing in the front wheel about four feet high
and lower the front a little bit. So we set the front wheel in there
and lock[ed] it up, and [left] the orbiter hanging in there halfway
until the next day. So he took over the next day, and they were able
to finish it.
it went very smooth Sunday. We completed everything pretty much ahead
of schedule. Worked out well.
safety issues like on Saturday, was there more of a concern for the
orbiter or more concern for the people working?
For both. For both, because you got a load that is doing this. [Demonstrates]
back and forth.
Yes, back and forth. Even though it’s going to a machine, you
don’t want to damage anyhow.
you know what, they’ve had data basically on side loads from
wind. People forget that when you have that huge tail rudder and the
side of the orbiter, you have a wind of let’s say 10, 15 knots,
you have about 4,000 or 5,000 pounds of force from that wind. It’s
basically a sail like on a sailboat. A lot of loads.
a tail that big, you’re right. So you were finished on Sunday,
long does it normally take if you don’t have weather conditions
or a brake having to be replaced?
Usually takes between 14 to 16 hours pretty much from the beginning
to end. It all depends. This was beautiful weather even though it
was windy Saturday. We didn’t have any mosquitoes. You didn’t
have nothing that bothers you, because sometimes it gets so bad with
mosquitoes on there it’s unbelievable. You have to put one of
those screen jackets so the mosquito wouldn’t bother you. It’s
unbelievable the amount of mosquitoes.
of my fondest memories of the MDD is I had to operate—it was
a 24-hour shift. Had to come in at 7:00 and work 7:00 in the morning.
It was drizzling rain. It was in the middle of August and hot, drizzling
rain. I was glazed over like a doughnut with Deep Woods OFF. The winds
were coming and going, but I remember the floodlights. We have five
stadiumlike floodlights, and it was at night in this drizzling rain.
They were swarming around the floodlights, the mosquitoes, and they
created like a vortex around these floodlights. I was staring saying,
“Oh my God this is unbelievable.” That was a rough shift,
going through that night and all day.
don’t know what the use of mosquitoes is, but they’re
horrible, they’re just horrible. Tell me is there a difference,
a risk factor in operations procedure when you’re doing a night
Well, you have pretty good lighting in there. I don’t see any
difference. But [it] all depends on the people you got working there.
You have to be conscious of what you’re doing and getting pinched
or whatever, doing hoisting or whatever. That’s the main thing,
Swem: I remember
one time I was watching, just observing. It was a day I was looking
in. I noticed when they were raising up one of the cords that was
attached to the side of the orbiter that came down, and they had tied
it off and forgot about it. This electrical cord is what operates
the wheel landing gear. See, what happens is when you remove the 747
and you’re lowering the orbiter down close to the ground, the
landing gears are up. They forgot to untie this thing. I noticed this
cord was there. I called an all stop, and we went out and untied this
cord that activates the landing gear. It’s neat to watch because
you’re watching the bottom of this orbiter. They press the button
when it’s about I guess 15 feet or 20 feet off the ground. All
of a sudden you hear this sound, and all three landing gears drop
instantaneously. Then they can proceed to lower it. That’s one
thing. You have to observe. Take responsibility and look at things
and see what’s happening.
Even though it’s not your system, you have to be aware of it.
You have to be aware of everything. Anybody can leave something tied
off to anything or forget about it, and that’s why you have
to be there watching all the time.
you all have to work so closely together.
That’s the main thing. You have to work together as a team.
started out by telling me that it’s so important that people
that work within your team understand they have to be able to make
We have that in the operational procedure. You have to be conscious
of what you’re doing in the cab on the hoist. You have to be
watching the amp meter. They have a selsyn indicator. They have to
be watching that to make sure that they’re going the right direction,
because sometimes you have an issue that can go back and forth. The
E stop. I have to be always watching the load and listening to the
radio. So he’s the backup for the communication system. So if
he sees that the cab people talk to the ground controller and he doesn’t
hear them talking, he calls a stop right there. He can E stop that.
He can shut down the power of the whole hoist. So they have to work
as a team. That’s the main deal there, work as a team, and make
sure that they’re doing it safely.
of the more challenging parts of the job as a system engineer [is]
that we have to follow a paper system. We are dictated by paper a
lot of times. If we have a problem in the field, you have to run back
here to your office, to your computer, and initiate a problem report.
So you’re balancing doing this as fast as you can and dealing
with any computer problems.
then contacting your NASA folks to get their approvals on what you’re
doing. You don’t do anything without getting NASA approval and
contacting your NASA folks. I have to say that our support team with
the cranes people, the NASA folks, have just been awesome working
with us and being very pliable and understanding our paper problems
and things like that that we have to initiate the PRs [Problem Reports].
Sometimes we don’t have time to fully write it out. We get a
Swem: We verbally
talk. Communication with the NASA people. You establish a good trust
between each other, and they know your reputation. Can save you so
much time in trying to dot all the Is and things like that in your
paper and to keep the process moving. Because you’re on a schedule,
and you have weather elements and things like that you have to consider.
That was real important, and I’ve been very pleased with our
group of NASA people that we work with.
the mate and the demate where is your crew located, physically?
They’re operating the hoist pretty much. They have two E stop
observers, one for each, the port and the starboard half hoist. They
have an operator on the cab. Plus we got ground controllers too, to
watch the operation. Those are the same people when they’re
doing the SAP movement. They leave one of the E stop and the hoist
system with the operator in the cab. The other people go and do the
lowering and raising of the service access platform. So they’re
always doing something, moving from one system to the other one depending
on the move director instructions—whatever he needs.
they’re up and down.
Up and down, moving the things just to get it aligned properly. Whatever
the move director tell us to do, we’re there to support him
pretty much until we’re done.
there more challenges with the mate compared to a demate, or is it
just about the same?
Yes the mate, because if you have the orbiter on wheels like they
did over here then you have to pick it up. You have to retract the
landing gears. Anything can happen. One time we spent—I don’t
know, maybe half a day, because the hydraulic unit, something happened
to it. It was a little switch that they forgot to put.
They couldn’t get it to work. So stuff like that happens. Maybe
one of our crane men started acting on us, start tripping or whatever.
Everything changes. So everything is a challenge. But you get more
familiarized and without fear to go in there every time you do it
more and more and more. It’s just hey you take it like it is.
get better through repetition. Plus we learn little quirky things
about our system, about the MDD, through time. When I first started
that was my first system that I had to work. You learn through time.
Like okay, it’s doing this. This is not operating. Oh yes it’s
that solenoid on the brake. So you run over there and you know there’s
a red solenoid, [it] has a history of going out. They burn out after
a while, and you know exactly where to go. So you learn through time.
Yes, you can start troubleshooting from your desk. Say okay, yes,
I know what it is. Pretty much you can write the paperwork pretty
good too, because of the experience you have. So it makes it really
nice to have the experience on anything that you do.
many times do you think you’ve mated and demated an orbiter?
Well, I started in ’84. They landed over there 54 times, plus
the one in White Sands [Space Harbor, New Mexico]. From that maybe
half of it, or a little bit more than half.
you do the [OMDPs, Orbit Maintenance Down Periods]? Would you help
load them go to back out and come back in?
Yes. Well, that was when they did the upgrades on the orbiter. They
had to be sent back to California, Rockwell. So they had to be onloaded
and sent back to Rockwell for that.
many have you been involved with, Don?
Swem: I guess
I started 11 years ago and pretty much all the ones. To count them,
I can’t really count them. It’s just I guess about 10
or 12 maybe.
No, I think more than that.
than that? I lost track.
guess they’re all the same, but yet every one is different every
time you do it.
Well, it all depends. At the beginning they were all landing in Edwards.
So you knew that you were going to use the MDD. Then later on they
said, “No, we save $1 million every time we land here. So hey,
why don’t we start using KSC?” Then they start using KSC.
But sometimes the weather here was so bad that they still had to use
Edwards. So the people that go to Edwards, sometimes they were sent
the same day. They said, “Hey, you have to get your stuff, get
a military plane, and take you off over there.”
did your crew go to Edwards?
No, we don’t operate over there, but we support engineeringwise
with the hoist and things like that, mechanical, electrical.
Yes, he went there one time to do a load test, no?
I was out there for—they had that other structure—what
was that called?
Oh. The frame.
OLF [Orbiter Lifting Frame].
The lifting frame that they use in White Sands.
Sands and Palmdale [California].
Swem: It was
interesting. I went out there to decommission that and take it down.
I was looking at everything. Everything was just in perfect condition.
I was like—[demonstrates].
like it’s a shame to take this facility down, because everything
was working so well.
what will happen to the mate/demate here I guess after Endeavour leaves?
I don’t know.
Swem: I hope
they demolition it to be honest with you.
Swem: It needs
it. It’s seen its day; it has absolutely seen its day.
Yes, it has been there for what,  years pretty much.
be glad to see that—believe it or not—taken down.
Unless they come with something similar to the orbiter, something
that they can use. I don’t see any other reason for that at
Swem: I think
it would have been a lot better if they had enclosed it somewhat,
keep the weather off it.
it ever move? Has it just always been at the SLF?
Always been on the apron. On the ramp over there on the northeast
part of the ramp. Pretty much at the end of the runway where the Shuttle
facility office are.
Swem: I have
a little bit of a funny story. I was out there, and we changed the
wire ropes. That was one of the mods [modifications] we did out there.
Then they also painted the facility, top to bottom. We had a contractor
come out and paint this, removed all the rust. So I was going back
out there to do a follow-up on the painting. Here’s this beautiful
facility. At the top there must have been I would say about 35, 40
buzzards sitting up there, already messing up the facility. I was
mad. I went up the stairs, all the way up to the 100-foot level to
these buzzards that were sitting on the handrails. They would not
claimed their spot.
Swem: I was
probably four, five feet away from them waving my arms, yelling at
them, and those buzzards looked at me like, “Who the heck are
Hey, this is wildlife here.
Swem: So basically
they won that battle.
did you mention snakes get in there as well?
Oh yes snakes. Like he was telling [you]. We have—it’s
like a little room that was at the 100-foot level. They use it for
antennas and communication and something like that, but at the end
they took all that stuff out. There was wasps; there was snakes. Anything
gets in there, and storage in there.
way for a snake to go.
must have been 100,000 wasps in that side of that room. You look inside
through the window, and you can see the nests on the ceiling. They
would come out and bother you. You’d be working and these wasps
would be all around you. So I was really glad when they took that
down. Then also we had a brake cover, a box. We noticed inside the
box there were some baby rabbits or something so I didn’t want
to disturb them. They were in a little area underneath it. It seemed
like they wouldn’t hurt anything, so I left it. Came back the
next monthly maintenance. There was a big snake in place of the baby
is elevated, right? These snakes go up this elevated platform.
Swem: Oh yes.
There were a couple times in the Shuttle program that flights were
halted, after Challenger and after Columbia [STS-107]. Did that timeframe
allow your group to make any other modifications on your operation?
We did all the modifications on all the cranes, specially revised
all the OMIs [Operations and Maintenance Instructions] to make sure
that we covered everything that we were missing, that didn’t
[we] miss anything, especially on the process of the SRBs and all
that stuff. It was a huge change. We used to mate an SRB [in] what,
maybe four hours or something like that. After the [Challenger] and
all that board came through, it takes maybe a day and a half or two
days. So all the process of stacking and demating completely changed
in there. From being in an open environment we went to totally enclosed
in the platforms, covered the whole thing and put AC in there when
you’re doing the mating for each SRB. So everything changed
completely. Then the design of the SRB changed to the two rings, instead
of one. It was almost two and a half years, something like that, that
we went through a bunch of stuff.
the cranes went through a lot of modifications. We looked at our limit
switches and things like that. We had a lot of design modifications.
That’s when they changed the brake system we talked about earlier
from the wedge to the disk brakes.
Also we did the demate. We had a flow all ready to go after Challenger.
They didn’t launch that one. We had to demate everything, completely.
So we took the orbiter out. I don’t remember which orbiter.
We took the ET out. We took the SRB, disassembled it completely until
the program decided what to do for return to flight.
of the other people that we talked to this week were the marine operations
that went out and got the SRBs, and also brought you the tank. So
it’s interesting sitting in here listening to you talk about
those pieces as well that you do. You’re everywhere, aren’t
Well, that’s what I like of this. What I like most is troubleshooting.
I love troubleshooting, finding out what’s wrong with this,
whatever happened. So that’s why I’ve never been to management,
because I don’t like to be a paper pusher, be pushing people
around. I like to enjoy what I do. So I get involved with my drawings
and whatever and I enjoy that. That’s my passion.
you have a favorite story about troubleshooting?
Well, at the beginning, yes. We were doing a lift, one of the SRBs.
I was new here. I finally started second shift by myself. We have
a problem on the 250. I didn’t know the system that good. I
spent a lot of time troubleshooting that one. It was not in the drawing,
the part that was having the failure, so I couldn’t find it.
It was an amplifier fuse. It was a tiny thing that was attached to
the box, but it was not in the drawing at all. So I [could not] figure
out what in fact is going on in here. We [held] that segment there
for almost overnight, trying to figure out [a solution]. Finally next
day the other engineers came in and said okay, that’s it. Right
there they found it. It was so simple, but you get so into it trying
to see what’s going on. I missed it completely. But you learn
from your mistakes. People didn’t like having that segment hanging
there for so long. So they talked to me. I said, “Hey, I’m
sorry, but it was not in the drawing, I [could not] figure it out.”
I was brand-new with the system. It was something sad in a sense,
but it helped me improve myself.
but if it’s not in the drawing it’s hard.
Yes. So we fixed it and we put it in.
Swem: I have
a good story. Roberto, when I was new, and he was showing me some
of the X-Y out at the MDD. We were operating it. Just to see how the
screw jacks [operated]; these big screw jacks push the frames from
side to side, forward to aft. We were operating. All of a sudden we
heard this big loud noise. What had happened was that they did an
electrical modification downstream for the power coming in. Now you
have three-phase power, which basically is three lines coming in.
Well, downstream they reversed one of the lines.
They changed the rotation.
changed the rotation of the motor. So we bypassed the limit switch
and we what they call two-blocked the screw jack and broke one of
the connections. That’s what kind of things can happen that
you don’t see. You’re operating it, and you’re thinking
you’re going in the right direction. But downstream somebody
reversed some electrical connection [that] causes the motor to run
in the opposite direction you’re thinking you’re going.
They were modifying the power input into the whole MDD structure.
When they put the phases back in there, they didn’t put it in
the right place.
can apply to anything. If you have something that you think is running
in one direction, it’s running the opposite direction, its electrical
phase has been switched on.
lots of things that can go right and lots of things that can go wrong.
not only on your system, but downstream that affects you that you
didn’t know about.
Telling you about the story about the longer it takes. The safety
involved in it is unbelievable. All these changes involve more safety
stuff. They make it longer, but it was really safe the way we’re
doing [it]. Then I looked back. The way we were doing it before—we
were kind of crazy doing it that way, when we were mating SRBs together.
We have a crane that we can microinch, 40 thousandths of an inch per
minute. You can’t see that crane moving hardly. Just stay there.
We can do that for three hours. The requirement for the new mating
was—[it] started [at] 50, then changed to 200 thousandths inches
per minute, and then [went] back to 50. You see that mating. It goes
through those rings, the O-rings, so smooth. Before we just kind of
put it together, and then okay, come down. It was something completely
don’t realize how difficult this mating process of the solid
rocket segment [is]. Basically they’re just similar to soup
cans that you stack on top of each other. You have several of them.
Not only [do] you have to worry about mating. You’re lifting,
and they’re so heavy. What 180--?
tons. That where you pick it up on the sides distorts the canister,
the steel sleeving. They have a device in there that they look at
how it’s distorted, the circular ring at the bottom. You have
to adjust for that. It’s so precise. They use lasers, the SRB
folks, to correct it. They actually pull differently at the top.
From the fixture.
Swem: On the
fixture to affect the roundness to mate up perfectly at the bottom
using lasers and all types of high-tech equipment. That’s how
difficult it is to align that. You figure per SRB you’re doing
at least what, your aft, your aft center, four, five connections on
one SRB. You’re doing two. Then multiply that by how many Shuttles
Shuttles. So you got multiples of connections. We never had—excluding
Challenger—well, we mated it up properly. It was just basically
The frozen part over there and the weather.
weather affecting it and so on.
We never got that frozen part. It was really cold that day.
Swem: My point
out here is that we did that many critical connections and have a
perfect record. I’m kind of proud of it.
On the crane side at least.
Swem: On the
The only thing that happened one time was in the RPSF [Rotation Processing
and Surge Facility]. Remember we [had] a failure in one of the load
cells on the crane. We damaged the clevis on one of the SRBs. We pulled
too much on it. That was one time. But one in so many, I think we
have a good record.
it’s so important for the next person that comes through. Is
your process different on the MDD? Was it different than the process
the use out at Dryden? Or did you copy the process pretty closely?
I’ve never been there. So I think they use pretty much the same
thing. Same OMI, the same.
It’s an operations instruction or maintenance instruction, whatever
you want to call it. They call it operations and maintenance instruction,
going to take a second and look at my notes and see if there’s
something else, if you’ll do the same so that we don’t
miss anything. Pretty much what you’re saying, the mating and
demating have remained the same. The processes remained the same for
all those years.
no different on the fact that there are two SCAs? They mate the same?
Yes, pretty much.
Swem: I think
the only difference was the one brake issue, and then the one out
at Edwards has an elevator.
Everything that comes from the West Coast comes with elevators. You
remember the OPF, the platform in OPF-3. They come with an elevator.
Over here we don’t, we have to walk.
you share with me how different it’s going to be when they offload
Discovery and onload Enterprise? What the operations are going to
be at [Washington] Dulles [International Airport, Virginia]?
It’s going to be contracted. We’re not going to be involved
in it, at least United Space Alliance. We still have heavy equipment
engineers going over there, because they’re going to be using
mobile cranes. So they’re going to have to have a fixture similar
to the one that we have here, hook it up by two mobile cranes. They
have to do the same process: pick it up, take the bolts out, pick
it up, remove the SCA, and then land it, put it down, open the landing
gears and set it down on the floor. But it’s tricky. They’re
trying to get the cranes. I think they’re 500-ton cranes. They’re
going to try to get it with the operator, the people that do the operation
constantly every day. It’s not worth it to send an operator
from here that doesn’t know the crane. That way they know the
cranes pretty good. So that’s the way they’re going to
be doing the offloading over there in Virginia.
a mobile boom crane.
you nervous? That somebody’s touching your orbiters? How many
times you touched them, and they’re yours, and somebody else
is going to do that.
At least they’re going to be shown for everybody now.
good. Well, Roberto, do you have some other aspects or some other
notes or thoughts?
No, I pretty much covered everything that we have here. We have pretty
much covered everything.
do you have some other things you’d like to add or something
you can think of?
Swem: I think
we covered it pretty well.
We feel proud of working over here. We didn’t like the way it
ended, because we didn’t have a solution for taking astronauts
to the Space Station. But hey, we have to live with it and keep on
going. We’ll be here until they throw us out of here.
all of us. You’ve got to keep the cranes happy, right?
Yes. That’s mainly why we stay here, for the T&R, for transition
and retirement. Also NASA wants to keep the cranes ready to go. So
we have another contract besides the T&R that was called code
capability to do the maintenance on the VAB and some modifications
they want to do for the vertical door that he’s getting involved
in, the whole group is getting involved. It’s pretty neat. We’re
doing a lot of work, even though we’re doing only T&R. But
we have some other stuff. It’s good and keep us busy until the
a lot of infrastructure rebuilding, especially in the VAB. We have
all those 28 vertical doors which are 90,000 pounds each. They’re
basically elevators, because you have counterweight systems with them.
We’re modifying those lifting systems. They’re basically
like a lifting system.
And what are you doing? Installing a disk brake with a caliper.
a new caliper disk brake.
There he goes again.
all that experience.
We have an old what they call dog system that bites into the rail.
They sag and inadvertently grab. We have a lot of problems with those
so we’re modifying the lifting system. People forget those vertical
doors are elevators, because you have these huge counterweights which
are 4 by 4 by 30 feet long approximately, 80,000-pound deadweight
that help lift the doors up and lower them down. We’re doing
that big modification, United Space Alliance, as our last big job.
We took on a contractor role.
good. I’m sure the VAB has got a lot of years ahead of her.
Oh yes. Pretty much they repainted everything. They changed all the
steel that was rusted pretty much everywhere.
we’re keeping the building in pretty good shape. We’re
doing a lot of work on it. You can see out in the transfer aisle all
the stuff they’re hauling off. Every day it fills up, and they
haul off the trucks. It’s amazing.
All the stuff that has been staged in here in the building.
amazing. I mean probably hundreds of tons of just accumulation of
stuff in here.
I talked to the guys that are doing it. You have stuff in here that
has been 30 years old that they haven’t used it but they store
it in here. Now they have to throw it away finally.
if you don’t have anything else to add. I’m just curious.
Do you name your cranes? Do they all have names, your equipment?
Yes, names in the sense that we call it by the tonnage. Tonnage and
crane one, crane two, or depending on the location they are. We call
the MDD the MDD, mate/demate.
you cross-train all the folks so that they can work on crane one or
crane two? Or do you have specific operators?
Well, at the beginning we used to cover 24 hours. So we have engineers
on first shift and second shift. So the second shifter will have to
be more knowledgeable pretty much because he’s by himself. Whenever
we have to cover 24 hours he will have to stay 4 hours. The guys in
the morning have to come in 4 hours early. So we cover the third shift
that way. So whoever’s in second, you better get moving, because
something happens, it’s going to be on your watch.
the last mechanical guy in the group. So I have to cover everything
pretty much, all the cranes that we still have and all the doors.
I think as we lost people you accept more responsibility, and you
have to cover more. We’re multitasked now.
He’s the only mechanical left. I’m electrical. We got
three more electrical. Pretty much we have a lot more problems with
the electrical parts of the crane than the mechanical. So that’s
how we did it. But we’re helping everywhere. Helping with the
door mod. We’re just here just to cover everything. It works
thing I have to say, the 325-ton cranes are very complicated cranes.
The amount of computers. We’ll have the length of the bridge.
Half of it with cabinets stuffed with electronics and programmable
logic computers and controllers and watchdog controllers. When those
things start giving us trouble, it is unbelievable how difficult it
is to troubleshoot some of the problems we have.
A lot of software. You have so [much] software involved in it. That’s
why we’re getting more younger people in that part to help us
with the computer stuff.
has a life of its own.
Yes, that’s right. You got it right.
thank you both for spending the morning with me. Appreciate it.
Thank you for letting us [have] this opportunity.