NASA STS Recordation
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Robert H. Kahl
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Downey, California – 25 August 2010
is August 25th, 2010. This interview is being conducted with Robert
Kahl in Downey, California, as part of the NASA STS Recordation Oral
History Project. Interviewer is Rebecca Wright. Thank you again for
coming in from Palmdale [California] and meeting with us here at Downey
to talk about this project. We’d like for you to start by briefly
telling us about your career with [North American] Rockwell [Corporation]
and [The] Boeing [Company].
to Rockwell I was working for Lockheed [Aircraft Corporation]. That
program fizzled out and I needed a job, so I got hired on with Rockwell
at Palmdale on the Space Shuttle program. [I was] the 107th person
hired in at Palmdale for the program, with the understanding that
we had about 18 months’ worth of work. Here I am coming up on
36 years later still employed there on Shuttle. There are not too
many people that can say they spent their whole career on one program
or one project, but it’s been extremely rewarding. I hired in
there as a stock clerk working in the small stockroom warehouse, and
progressed over the years. I’m now the site director for the
Shuttle for the remaining effort that we have going on there.
were there at the very beginning of the orbiter builds.
[OV-101] was the first orbiter, and it was mainly just to validate
the flightworthiness of the Shuttle as far as the Approach and Landing
Tests [ALT] and things that we did. People probably don’t know
that the Enterprise was originally named Constitution. For the couple
of years that we were putting it together we never knew what it was
going to be called. During the President [Gerald R.] Ford [Jr.] administration
they were on a campaign to name the Space Shuttle, and he was a huge
Star Trek [science fiction television series] fan so then it became
Enterprise. It actually didn’t get named and identified on the
side of the vehicle until two weeks prior to rollout.
We first went to work there [at Palmdale Air Force Base Site 1 Plant
42 in California]. That is an Air Force site, and it had always been
military. When NASA negotiated the lease in ’72 for the Shuttle
program, we started working and modifying the hangar to accommodate
the Shuttle. If you look at a picture of the building, we actually
had to raise the roof to accommodate the vertical stabilizer and the
height of it to install it. We spent the first year just working on
building, facilitating it to accommodate the hardware.
One of the major first pieces of hardware that we ever saw was the
tires, and it was a big deal. We didn’t have any other hardware
but we had the tires. Probably the last thing you need, but it was
the first thing we got. I can recall everybody making a big deal out
of “Shuttle hardware arrives at Palmdale,” and pictures
and everybody getting all excited.
Then the components started coming in. The Shuttle is made up of a
variety of components and modules from different subcontractors and
whatnot. Of course the first piece of hardware we got was the mid-fuselage
from General Dynamics [Corporation] down in San Diego [California].
Then came the wings. Downey manufactured the aft fuselage and the
lower forward fuselage and the crew module. Then all the structure
components and electrical components and black boxes. The vertical
[tail] came from Fairchild [Industries].
It was pretty cool. We worked very very hard to get Enterprise put
together, and then on September 17th, 1976, we took it to Edwards
[Air Force Base] and prepped it for all Approach and Landing Tests
on top of the [Boeing] 747 [aircraft].
was quite an event in itself.
was an amazing event. I think after almost 36 years the real heroes
that need to be recognized on the Shuttle program were the pilots,
the astronauts that flew Enterprise for its first separation flights.
Because without validating it and taking it up to 40,000 feet, separating
from the 747 and gliding it for the first time into the dry lake bed
at Edwards—not knowing that it was going to glide, that the
flight controls and the brakes were going to work and it was going
to stop, and do all the things that it was supposed to do—the
astronauts and the missions we’ve flown and the [International]
Space Station is all great great stuff, but without that first ALT
team and Fred [W.] Haise [Jr.], [C.] Gordon Fullerton, Bob [Robert
L.] Crippen—those guys are the ones that really set the scene
for the things that we continue to do today.
you out at Edwards for any of the testing?
Kahl: I was
at Palmdale for the whole duration of Enterprise build, and then we
went to Edwards and facilitated Edwards. Built the mate/demate hangar
and the facility to pick up the orbiter and stack it on top of the
747, for the whole duration of the ALT program. I’ve been engaged
with every orbiter, every build, every modification that was performed,
whether it was at Palmdale or Edwards.
members of your family.
the people that we worked with have just been incredible.
was quite an undertaking, just moving the orbiter.
Kahl: We used
to transport it overland. We had a huge transporter that we would
put the vehicle on and literally transport it down city streets. I
can remember prepping the city streets prior to Enterprise’s
first trip down—used to be called Tenth Street, now it’s
called Challenger Way. We removed stop signs, streetlights, telephone
poles, trees to make it wide enough to accommodate the width of the
wings for a 35-mile overland trip out to Edwards.
I can remember that first day that we transported Enterprise. The
people lined up on the streets. The nucleus of the public didn’t
really know what the Space Shuttle was or what it was going to look
like. The oohs and ahs and the applause was—goose bumps, it
was pretty amazing. Then of course the rest is history because everybody
in the world knows the Space Shuttle and for the most part supports
the program. So it was amazing.
you part of the caravan?
Kahl: Oh yes,
absolutely. I had a couple different roles at the time. One, I walked
about the first seven miles. Then once we got out of town to unpopulated
areas I rode in one of the caravan vans. It was amazing.
Then the day we hit Edwards we worked seven days a week, twenty-four
hours a day around the clock, not only preparing the vehicle but preparing
the facility. We were still finishing the mate/demate hangar and the
lifting device, we hadn’t even completed that. Then the 747
came in, and we had to validate the 747 and the attach points for
the orbiter. The first time we picked the orbiter up and set it on
top of the 747 was a huge event.
Then we did three or four taxi tests with the Enterprise mounted on
top of the 747. Validated the brakes of the 747, and then we did some
flights with it. The orbiter has a tail cone on the back which is
for aero [aerodynamic] purposes. We did a couple flights with the
tail cone and without the tail cone. We prepared it for the first
separation flight. Obviously that was a huge historic event, the day
that we in August did that first separation flight [August 12, 1977].
So yes, part of it all.
you work with the teams out at Edwards, or did all the people come
from your facility?
Kahl: A lot
of the folks came from Palmdale. Some of the folks came from Florida
[NASA Kennedy Space Center]. Then at the time NASA was the prime contractor,
we had a lot of NASA folks both from [NASA] Dryden [Flight Research
Center, Edwards, California], from Edwards, and then from Houston
[Texas, Johnson Space Center] and Florida, that we engaged with.
As things grew, I grew. I became a supervisor, then a manager, responsible
for a variety of things. When the program was over we came back to
Palmdale and we all started working on [Space Shuttle] Columbia [OV-102].
Columbia was a totally different vehicle, because it was a space-rated
vehicle. Enterprise was just to validate the airworthiness of a flight
vehicle and demonstrate that it could do the things as advertised.
you mentioned you came back, started working on Columbia. Had you
previously started? Were there already components and [had] parts
Kahl: It was
coming in, yes. As we were doing ALT, a lot of the components were
starting to come in. We had a team of folks that were just receiving
the components and placing them in the hangar and doing some work
your teams pretty solidified from Enterprise to Columbia? Or did you
start to have more additions of personnel or replacements of personnel?
Kahl: At the
peak of Enterprise we probably had 300 people. At the peak of Columbia
we had at least 1,000. But it was a totally different aircraft. We
were developing tile, we were installing tile. Enterprise did not
have tile as thermal protection as a space-rated vehicle. It had foam
tile which simulated the appearance of the real tile. Columbia had
far more flight controls and instruments and components of a real
space vehicle—the APU [auxiliary power unit] system, all the
cooling systems for the LRUs [line/lowest replaceable units]. We had
to install all that; Enterprise didn’t have all that.
you find one of the components more challenging as you were bringing
was a whole lot more cumbersome to build because of all the added
flight controls. I would say the thing that was the most difficult
was the rudder/speed brakes and the vertical. Because Fairchild’s
efforts to build the vertical—and then when it came to Palmdale
our efforts to install the rudder/speed brakes, which is speed control
in the top of the vertical—the first time we did that was pretty
sporty. The payload bay doors and installing the radiators was pretty
The thing that most stands out—there’s miles and miles
of wire and miles and miles of tubing that goes from one end of the
orbiter, as in the crew module, all the way through to the aft fuselage.
The aft fuselage structure where the engines mount, it’s just
enormous. We fit-checked a set of flight engines one time because
[Pratt & Whitney] Rocketdyne Canoga Park [headquarters in California]
wasn’t far from us. We brought up a set of engines and fit-checked
them in Columbia. That was a pretty historic event.
It’s a huge forklift with a huge GSE [ground support equipment]
set up on the end that we mount the engines to, and then you lift
it up and put it in the rear of the orbiter. We validated all that
at Palmdale long before it ever went to the Cape [Canaveral, Florida].
That was a huge event, a lot of folks involved. The first time you
did something, there was a lot of folks engaged both from Florida
and Houston, because the work would eventually transition down there.
It was cool, it was good stuff.
you implementing the components as well as training these people from
Kennedy and JSC?
it was a huge learning curve for everybody involved, from the engineers
that designed it, from suppliers, the subcontractors that were building
hardware components, to the techs [technicians] that we had that were
installing it. You always have issues any time you do something for
the first time. Collectively it was a huge team effort to validate
something from an as-built to the installation standpoint.
I can remember the first time we powered up the vehicle and did checkout
of the orbiter. It was huge, huge. You have instruments for the very
first time, lights winking and blinking, flight controls doing what
they’re supposed to do, astronauts in the crew module, commanders
in seats—going through flight test simulation was huge. Seeing
landing gear retract and doors close and payload bay doors open and
close like they’re supposed to. That’s pretty cool stuff,
especially when it’s doing it for the first time. It was very
Then it became routine, because you knew it would work. You would
just go through to the checkout mode, making everything operational,
functional. Of course you had troubleshooting. Things don’t
work like they’re supposed to, and then you go into a troubleshoot
mode. Get the flight control engineers or the subsystem engineers,
depending on whether it was electrical or hydraulic or flight controls.
We had people come and stay forever. The one objective is to fix it,
and fix it right.
The thing I think was most interesting is people at Palmdale had an
unwritten agreement with the astronauts. That agreement was to do
the best job they could, to give 110 percent, to make sure that it
was the best orbiter vehicle that we could ever deliver because of
their safety. What was really really neat is the astronauts that were
assigned to the respective Shuttle lived at Palmdale, they were part
of the team. They knew the people, the workers, by first name. Their
job every day was to come in and be a part of whatever they were doing.
They were engaged. Go to a meeting, and they’re in the meetings.
They wanted to know what was going on, and they were just treated
like one of the workers.
Kahl: It was
peaks. We tried to run it five days a week but the complexity of the
program and the schedules, we worked a lot of seven-day weeks. We
would do a lot of off-shift type stuff depending on what it was. A
lot of schedule shift of people, could have first shift people working
second shift or third shift because of their job and the need of the
role. A lot of camaraderie, everybody just rolling up their sleeves
and doing whatever it took. People would just come and stay in their
motor homes [recreational vehicles] in the parking lot. We would have
barbecues in the parking lot. People wouldn’t go home, they
would just stay there. It was not uncommon for people to work ten,
twelve hours a day, go take a break, and then come back and go back
to work another four, five, six hours, whatever was needed.
this mostly on Columbia?
vehicles. During ALT testing out at Edwards during Enterprise, that
was huge. I personally took my motor home out there. I was weeks in
the parking lot and my wife would come and visit me. That’s
just the emphasis and the way everybody reacted to the needs and the
things that were going on.
was a time that you had a number of the vehicles all in parallel that
were being worked on. Can you share how that was coordinated?
example during the Columbia build we brought OV-099, which was Challenger,
to Palmdale. I was responsible for doing all the ground vibration
tests over at Lockheed, or “shake and bake.” We structurally
tweaked the vehicle, and Lockheed had this huge facility across the
runway where we did that. When we brought it back it became the flight
vehicle. The structure was so sound, and the data represented that
it was worthy of making it into a flight vehicle. So we disassembled
it, brought components back to Downey, and they started working on
the aft fuselage, lower forward fuselage, the crew module. We started
working on the mid-fuselage and the wings, and turned it into a flight
So we had two orbiters at one time. We brought Columbia back after
it had flown three or four missions and did what was called a mini
mod [modification], a AA [double A] mod. Basically it did some weight
savers, removing of some hardware. The Columbia originally had ejection
seats in it and we took the ejection seats out and reconfigured the
vehicle with different flight controls, had a lot of instrumentation
wiring that was no longer needed. From a weight saving standpoint
we removed a lot of wiring.
At the same time we had Atlantis [OV-104] going through buildup. So
there was a period there that we had Challenger [OV-099], Discovery
[OV-103] and Atlantis in and out of Palmdale in parallel with the
orbiter modifications which Columbia did in ’85. Then as we
got out of delivering Atlantis we were in a down mode, because originally
Atlantis was the last vehicle. A lot of the workforce went to the
B-1 [bomber program]; it was ramping up. The nucleus of our workforce
was able to just go across the runway and stay employed.
Then after the Challenger episode [1986 STS 51-L accident] we built
Endeavour [OV-105] to replace it. Brought the whole workforce back
and went into building and assembling the Endeavour. As the program
progressed [and] Endeavour [was] delivered, we became the center for
OMMs [orbiter major modifications], did that for quite a few years
until it transitioned down to Florida in 2001.
some about the modifications and how that was different than the original
builds, and how you were able to upgrade and update the different
orbiters for what they needed.
Kahl: I look
at it like a race car. You always want to go faster, you always find
a way to improve things. The modifications to the orbiters were mandated
based on the mission needs. To be able to do an extended mission we
had an EDO [extended-duration orbiter] pallet, which we put in the
aft of the fuselage that would take on more tanks to allow the orbiter
to stay up for 21 days. We modified the vehicles with instrumentation
and wiring and plumbing so that it would tie into the existing systems
to, when needed, put the pallet in to carry longer payload and stay
Thermal was always huge modifications. The thermal protection system
was always advancing to something new. We replaced tile with FRSI
[felt reusable surface insulation] because thermal characteristics
showed that we could use a different felt material and it would also
act as a weight saver. We did a lot of thermal protection upgrades
over the years. Almost every orbiter modification that we did to every
vehicle encompassed thermal type modifications and upgrades.
All the LRUs would always go through a series of software upgrades
and we’d have to pull all the LRUs out. A lot of the components,
like the APUs, would come out and go back to the subcontractors for
upgrades. Nosewheel steering was huge modifications. The drag [para]chutes—to
be able to land on the hard runway in Florida we did the design and
the development and installation of the drag chutes on all the orbiters.
That was a huge mod.
you can talk about the drag chutes. Were you very much involved with
the manufacturers as well? You said you designed them here.
Downey did the design, and we worked very close with the design engineers,
not only building the hardware but making recommendations on what
we thought would be a good way to install it. Drag chute has a jettison
mechanism in the back so we worked very close with them on the design
of that and location of that.
We always had engineers from Downey at Palmdale. They worked with
the techs as if the techs were engineers. They valued their input,
they didn’t treat them like they were just a tech. They used
suggestions and recommendations. A lot of times the techs were very
instrumental in design changes or fixes or repairs because of their
hands-on day-to-day activity. It was an outstanding working relationship.
A lot of times we would send our techs to Downey to work with the
engineers and vice versa they would come to Palmdale.
mentioned that the thermal protection system was always being changed
and enhanced, improved. But there were also some other elements that
were added, for instance the 50-foot inspection boom [on Discovery].
That was added one time as a change or as a modification.
the MPLM [Multi-Purpose Logistics Module] arm has always been a challenge.
The installation of that, where it mounts inside the mid-fuselage
among the upper sill longeron, the first time we installed it and
fit-checked it was pretty sporty. When we deployed it, it was an event
in itself. We worked during some of the enhancements for return to
launch with the MPLM and using the arm to do the inspections on the
We worked very close with the engineers on redesigning that whole
pedestal that it mounts to so that it could have more movement. Then
we worked very close with the contractors on the hardware. I even
had techs going to Canada working very close with some of the issues
that they were engaged with. That was pretty good to help that return
to launch initiative for the things that needed to be modified and
upgraded for the arm. We were very engaged with that.
you had two time periods where you had preparations for return to
launch. Can you share what the impacts were on your facility when
the fleet basically stood down?
Challenger happened the nucleus of the workforce was over at B-1.
They were devastated of course, like everyone else. But I think at
the time when [2003 STS-107 Columbia accident] happened is when we
really felt the impact from the people because of the loss. Not that
the loss was any different than Challenger, but I think it was the
way it happened and [more] people were viewing it on TV. We had a
lot of folks get some counseling and assistance during that period
to help them.
We had most of the Palmdale workforce engaged with supporting the
investigations. We had rooms set up, had folks from Downey and Huntington
Beach. I brought folks back out of retirement. Engaged with the investigation,
supporting the investigation. We worked six, seven days a week sometimes,
a lot of hours, helping with the data that was required and pulling
historical data out of archives and packaging it with the subsystem
engineers. Reviewing the data and putting together and recapping the
events that took place, and then sent that data forward. We were very
engaged there for a long time with the investigation. I think that
helped the workforce for those who struggled with what had happened,
and it was a good thing.
you prepared the orbiters for return to flight in that in-between
time, were you able to do additional modifications that you had hoped
to be able to do to the orbiters while they were waiting to return?
Every orbiter came back to Palmdale for two things. One was OMM, the
orbiter modifications, and the OMDP [orbiter maintenance down period],
which was more of an inspection of the vehicle. As we did the structural
inspections of the vehicle knowing what areas we had to go into to
access to do the structural inspections, we would incorporate mods
at the same time. So we did a lot of upgrades based on the investigation
and recommendations for return to flight, as well as validated the
structure of each one of the vehicles for corrosion.
Corrosion has always been an issue. The elements in Florida really
invoke a lot of corrosion, so we would validate the structure and
do some repairs where needed. Some of the mods were very lengthy,
some of them were very short, just depends. Once an orbiter came back
for maybe its second or third time there was less mods to do, so the
majority of the work was doing OMDP type inspection type structural
validations. Probably the biggest mod we did was the glass cockpit,
the multi [-functional electronic] display system [MEDS]. MEDS was
huge. We literally gutted the crew module and put in whole new flight
controls, which was really really cool stuff. You power up the vehicle
with whole new flat screens, touch screens. Especially with the astronauts
who were assigned for that next mission being there, it was cool.
must have been exciting to watch it transform.
Kahl: We would
have what we called power up parties and/or delivery parties. If we
did something significant, like a huge milestone in the program, we
would host onsite pizza parties and lunch parties and just shut everything
down, feed the guys, and tell them thanks for a good job.
mentioned a couple times about validating. Could you pick something
out and give us an example of what the process was to have to validate
to make sure it was ready to go?
job, from a Palmdale standpoint if we built it for the first time,
prior to delivery, was to validate all the systems in the orbiter.
We could actually fly the vehicle in the hangar. We’d do a full
functional checkout. We would validate all the systems, whether it
be flight controls, whether it be power to APUs, run the landing gear,
run the elevons, run the body flap, validate the actuators, the speed
brakes and the vertical. We would do a preflight and validate all
the systems prior to delivery to Kennedy. Then Kennedy would go in
and install the engines and some of the hypers [hypergolic fuel systems]
and go through a validation. We would check out the entire vehicle
and then fix any anomalies that we had and try to deliver a flight
vehicle ready to go, put gas in it at the Cape and launch it.
That is a huge task in itself, because a lot of them were vendor parts.
So you’re constantly pulling stuff, sending it back to the vendor.
They’re troubleshooting it, then it comes back in. You put it
back in, you go back into a checkout mode. A lot of it was constantly
juggling schedules so that you could continue to do other things and
then go back into testing that component when it came back in and
rescheduling those activities. Sometimes off shifts, off hours or
on the weekends, whatever it took to deliver and maintain schedule.
did the evolution of different types of technology assist you in your
it was a learning. The cool thing is that we were part of it. We were
part of something that was designed in the ’70s, and then through
the ’80s things changed and through the ’90s technology
changed. We were part of incorporating that and/or making inputs to
changes as things developed. That was the cool thing.
All the subcontractors involved that built various components and
pieces of hardware—as things changed they were making changes
to their hardware, which meant we had to go change the way their hardware
talked to the hardware in the orbiter. So we had to go make modifications
to the orbiter. Whether it be electrical wires or plumbing, we may
have to go replumb something to hydraulic changes. I think it was
excellent because it’s an evolution. That’s the whole
thing about Shuttle. When you think about it, today it’s still
technology one of the most advanced flying machines we’ve ever
had, and it’s still flying 35 years later. And should still
be flying for many years to come, but we ain’t going to go there.
sounds like things worked so well, and [were] so well orchestrated,
but you also mentioned that you had to do some troubleshooting. Are
there some examples that stand out in your memory?
Kahl: I can
recall we couldn’t get the landing gear to work. Engineers and
our guys scratched their heads for days. It was a valve, but it was
a valve that was not supposed to be a problem. It turned out to be
a real problem. Probably the biggest troubleshooting issues we had
were LRUs. The LRUs are computers, and the software in those computers
sometimes didn’t play with the systems that they were supposed
to. IOPs [input/output processor] and GPCs, general-purpose computer,
a lot of times didn’t like to talk to each other. That, early
on days, was the most frustrating.
Even during the ALT days, the flight controls we had out there were
[the] first wave computers that had ever been used. We must have pulled
those computers 100 times. Every time we had a problem we had to pull
the computers. They would go back to Ham [Hamilton] Standard or Sundstrand
[Corporation], the vendors. But it was part of it. When you’re
developing software to do things that a human would normally do, that’s
much did it impact on how you made the decisions to move things in
and move things out of your operation?
Kahl: We did
things real time because the facility wasn’t facilitated with
a whole lot of room. So as components became available—like
the mid-fuselage came in, we had to go right into the bay and set
it up. The wings came in, we had to go right into the station for
the wings and get the wings positioned to go in the bay. Aft fuselage
came up from Downey, it had to go right into the mate station to get
mated to the mid-fuselage. Same with the lower forward fuselage or
crew module. The assembly area was also the final assembly area, and
it was the mate area. Payload bay doors, when they would come in from
[Rockwell Tulsa], we had a work stand to put them on because the next
thing they did was get installed. So things had to be scheduled in
a way that you schedule them when you’re prior to installing
them or need them.
Same with hardware. All the hardware that Downey built down here for
us, we actually stored the hardware down here and then brought hardware
to Palmdale as the schedule need was in advance. We kept the real
estate up in Palmdale for the hardware that we needed and warehoused
it all down here. We had a lot of scheduling shuffling. Scheduling
was a huge activity. The finance guys and the scheduling guys and
logistics of all of it was a day-to-day operation and communication
with vendors, suppliers and of course Downey.
me about your evolution within the program. You’ve talked about
the orbiters and you’ve talked about mods.
I hired in, I hired in as a stock clerk, and then a year later I’m
out at Edwards as a supervisor on ALT. I got responsibilities that
I didn’t think I would ever have. We just continued to grow
with them as the program grew. I came back to Palmdale, had a team
called production control responsible for all the hardware. Then that
migrated into owning the procurement guys and then having all the
scheduling folks. The next thing I know I’ve got all of that
along with the finance guys. Then I got all the engineers working
for me. Then I’ve got the thermal guys, all the tile guys, working
As things grew, you’re a family, and people would work together.
Didn’t matter who you worked for, what mattered was how you
integrated the different skills so that they could all work together.
As the program grew we all grew together, and people adapted to roles
and responsibility very very good. We had some great synergy with
the different disciplines of techs and interfacing with their day-to-day
your jobs take you down to the Cape and to the other [NASA] Centers
been to the Cape quite a few times, not from a work standpoint. Whenever
we would deliver an orbiter, my job was to go down to the Cape and
go through a turnover review, recap all the activity on the vehicle
with the different subsystem engineers at the Cape what we were handing
off to them. Sometimes there were squawks that we just ran out of
time to fix. I would bring whatever folks were needed down there to
help them understand the squawks.
Then as the program grew what we started doing towards the tail end,
especially through the OMM stage, was we would bring those folks from
Florida to Palmdale. We’d bring them in for like the last two
months of prepping the vehicle and testing the vehicle. So they were
engaged with the things that were going on and far more knowledgeable.
Once they got back to the Cape they could go right to work.
found that to be of benefit?
outstanding, yes. We had an excellent working relationship with Rockwell
and then it went to Lockheed, and obviously evolved into USA [United
Space Alliance]. Still today we work very close with them. They still
look at the folks at Palmdale as part of the team. They haven’t
forgotten us yet.
good. How are you involved with the retirement?
Kahl: In 1972
when NASA negotiated the lease with the Air Force up at Palmdale,
at Air Force Plant 42, the lease agreement was such that when NASA
was done they had to put the facility back the way they found it.
Over the 39 years NASA has had the lease with the Air Force, we’ve
made a lot of changes to the site. I’ve removed roughly 15 buildings,
and doing refurbishment to the buildings that are staying, and prepping
the site for October next year to terminate NASA’s lease and
give it back to the Air Force. We’ve had a working relationship
with the Air Force and NASA to transition the site for retirement
back over to the Air Force,
Huge task left to do for next year is the actual Shuttle hangar itself.
All the facilitation things that we did from work stands to integration
of test consoles, next year our whole task is just to go gut it. The
way the lease agreement is, you have to strip it back to four bare
walls. We have a machine shop and a tank farm and we will be demoing
[demolishing] those next year to hand the keys back over.
The only thing that they don’t want us to do is where we raised
the roof; leave the roof, that’s fine. The overhead cranes and
those things that we put in, we don’t have to do anything with
that. But for the most part the facility is being gutted and put back
the way it was in 1972. The reason is the Air Force has a need for
an empty hangar, because there’s so many programs at Palmdale
relative to Lockheed and Northrop [Grumman Corporation] and Boeing
that need hangar space for aircraft. It’s not real accommodating
right now to put an aircraft in, or multiple aircraft. That’s
why they would like us to take it back to the bare walls.
We’ve got to demolish the center work stands.
those be broken apart for other [uses] and passed on or will they
just be terminated?
it’s just huge steel structure type work stands. They’ll
be cut up and hauled off to scrap metal. Just like we did with the
orbiter lifting fixture. The orbiter lifting fixture, originally Vandenberg
[Air Force Base, California] was going to be a launch site/landing
site, so the orbiter lifting fixture was placed over at Vandenberg,
and then when they scratched that I brought it to Palmdale. We used
it to support the delivery of Endeavour, and also all of the orbiters
coming in for OMM. We’d be able to fly the 747 with an orbiter
right into Palmdale, take it into the OLF [orbiter lifting frame]
and then take it off the 747 and go right into the hangar. Then when
we were done we’d take it back out, restack it on the 747 and
send it home.
The orbiter lifting fixture became an icon because you could see it
throughout the valley. If you were flying into Palmdale or up on a
hill looking at the Air Force Plant 42, one of the huge things you
noticed was the lifting fixture. A lot of people would say, “What
is that huge fixture?” Of course when we told them what it was
they would relate to it. But last year [we] cut it up, hauled it to
scrap metal, it’s gone. That’s what we’ve been doing
for the last four years, just transitioning the site to hand the keys
back over to the Air Force in October 2011.
make it sound like it was such an easy thing to do to move the orbiter
lift fixture to there. How did you manage to move that? Can you give
some background on how you were able to transfer that?
Kahl: It wasn’t
easy. There was a huge effort to disassemble it at Vandenberg. Fifty-two
semiloads of equipment and the structure we brought to Palmdale. Then
about a 14-month effort to go facilitate it and erect it and validate
it before we used it for Endeavour. Huge undertaking. Once again,
the right people in the right jobs. We had dedicated guys we put on
it. Hired one of the guys that worked for the crew that put it in
Vandenberg to help us disassemble it, hired him to come help us put
it back together.
kind of time period were you looking at to accomplish this?
Kahl: We did
it all in 14 months. That was a huge task, because the footing that
each one of the poles, uprights for the OLF—they were like 60-foot
in the ground, and they were 8 feet around rebar. We not only built
the rebar on the ground, then we had to crane them up in the air and
put them down in the hole, and then pour the cement around them. That
was a huge task. Multiple cranes to erect it and put it together.
was quite a sight to see.
sight was the first time we picked up the orbiter and unloaded the
orbiter at Palmdale. That was a huge event not only for Palmdale,
for everybody involved, because it was another historical evolution
of the program. Now we could bring vehicles from Florida to Palmdale
and send them right out of Palmdale, no longer have to take them overland
like we used to transport them to Edwards. So that was a huge savings
for the program and a huge event for being able to transport vehicles
back and forth to California more expeditiously.
it your idea to move that piece?
Actually a very dear NASA friend Ed [Edward M.] Vonusa. Ed was the
resident Downey guy but he was also responsible for Palmdale and at
the time Vandenberg. He proposed when they were going to get out of
Vandenberg—“What are we going to do with it?”
“Well, we’ve got room at Palmdale,” and off we went.
That was the right thing to do. The other thing that helped sell transitioning
it, moving it from Vandenberg to Palmdale, was the community. The
city of Lancaster [California] was continuing to grow. Twenty-some
years later the efforts of transporting it down like we used to out
to Edwards became more and more difficult because of the structure
and housing and the community. That was an easy sell once we were
transitioning into the OMM business. We actually had to go take a
different route. Tenth Street, which is now Challenger Way, because
of the buildings and housing we could no longer go that way so we
were looking at other options. Then of course you would have to still
go remove telephone poles and streetlights.
must have been quite a sight to watch the first to fly off.
it was super. What’s cool is Air Force Plant 42 is huge, and
all our competitors are on the runway too. So when we would bring
an orbiter and/or we were to deliver an orbiter, everybody—Lockheed,
Northrop, everybody—was out on the runway watching what we were
doing. It was always a cool thing. The whole world supports the Shuttle.
I just think it’s an amazing flying machine.
is, it is. You were in an interesting position because you were at
Palmdale but you dealt with so many different entities, NASA and the
contractors and of course your own employees. What types of communication
systems or processes did you use? You were talking about the scheduling—how
were you able to make sure that all the information got to everybody?
Kahl: I had
a huge staff of people. We worked very close with the procurement
organization and the subcontractors. Not only did I have staff that
communicated with the respective subcontractors, but we also had schedule
reviews with them to understand where their schedule position was
for the hardware. Huge scheduling organization task to take the hardware
that was being built in Downey to come to Palmdale. The subcontractor
hardware that was being built all over the nation, sometimes that
hardware got incorporated into the hardware that was in Downey coming
to Palmdale, or straight into Palmdale.
We took the orbiter and broke it out by forward, mid and aft and then
by components and subsystems. My production control staff would break
out the hardware requirements, and then we would integrate that with
the scheduling staff as far as our integrated schedule needs for when
we wanted to have the structure ready to accept the wiring, the plumbing
and the component that plugged with it from the supplier and/or from
We had a huge integration of scheduling activities for all the components
that went not only inside the orbiter but on the outside of the orbiter.
Constant daily dialogue with subcontractors, procurement organization
and the Downey folks down here. It was a huge task, never ending.
We would have daily, weekly and monthly reviews. Every Friday I was
in Downey for a program review with the hardware they were doing with
us. Every Monday I had not only the Downey folks at Palmdale but I
had vendors, subcontractors there, having program reviews with the
visibility of their hardware needs and when I needed it.
There was constant dialogue of the build process. It was hectic and
vocal at times. The thing about bringing everybody to Palmdale—I
can’t build it if I don’t have the hardware. So they have
a whole different perspective when they come to Palmdale and get a
feel for your needs and they can take it back either to their factory
or Downey and understand we got to get them this part because they
really need it. Because they can see the big picture of the schedule
impact when things don’t come together as planned. Huge huge
When you look at what’s encompassed to build an orbiter—thousands
and thousands and thousands of pieces of hardware, from the nuts,
bolts, screws, washers to the structures to the tile to everything
it takes to build the vehicle. Huge undertaking. We did it, we did
it numerous times.
We do the same thing with the modifications. We would take all the
known modifications and integrate those mods just like we did from
a build standpoint. We would take and schedule things in a way of
disassembling. While you were disassembling and doing those structural
inspections we would integrate the mods, then test or validate the
mods before we closed those bays back out to go back to the Cape.
Another huge task.
occasion when you were working on the mods did you find areas that
you or your technicians suggested to be modified?
Kahl: We would
always find squawk areas where you would go in and something wasn’t
what it was supposed to be for whatever reason. You would come across
a broken bracket or some structure deficiency, or you would find corrosion.
Corrosion was a big deal, we would always find something corrosion-wise.
You have to stop, go fix it, and then go back in and start incorporating
But that’s what you were supposed to do. From the inspection
standpoint that was a good thing, at least in my eyes, because you
were finding things and fixing things to make it better. Then those
same things for the next vehicle that came in or the next mod. Depending
on the criticality, you would immediately go check it at the Cape
or it would become an inspection or a requirement for the next one.
There were a lot of good things that came out of doing OMDPs and the
structural inspections because you were able to go revalidate things
that you normally wouldn’t go look at because you assumed it
did the International Space Station impact your work on the orbiters?
it helped us. We had a machine shop at Palmdale, and early stages
of Space Station they had trouble with hardware and we were low with
work for our machine shop. I built a ton of hardware for Space Station,
over 10,000 parts. But the coolest thing that Station did for us was
when we modified the orbiter for SSPTS [Space Shuttle Power Transfer
System]. When the orbiter was docked to Station, orbiter could plug
into Station and get power from Station to Shuttle, which was a huge
modification and pretty sporty work. Then we modified all the vehicles
Over the years they would need certain pieces of hardware and we had
the skills and equipment, and they would come to us. Station was a
good thing for Palmdale, it was great. When Station was in trouble
our machine shop guys just rolled up their sleeves. They worked seven
days a week, ten, twelve hours a day, whatever it took to help them
get the hardware they needed to support their schedule needs.
I always like to refer to the guys as a seasoned work crew. They built
the hardware. They either built it in Downey and then they moved to
Palmdale or they were engaged with it from an assembly standpoint.
If we needed a piece of hardware I usually had the guys go right to
work on it, because they knew what they were doing. They’d been
there, done that before. We were sometimes behind the gun because
somebody needs something, they need it now, and they didn’t
know they needed it till yesterday or the day before. We were in reactionary
mode, but that’s where the guys like to be.
mentioned about starting to move the facility into retirement. Will
you be working on preparing the orbiters in any way to retire them?
Palmdale right now is done as far as supporting the vehicles. I have
a few techs that do what’s called tip/load and angle. Where
the 17-inch disconnect on the orbiter side mounts to the tank side,
we do an alignment. My guys are the only ones that have the skills
to do that and they’re trained to do it, done it forever. Once
we fly that last mission here, which I think is going to be June 28th,
2011, then those skills go away. I have about 20 folks left at Palmdale,
and those are the folks that are for the most part supporting getting
rid of equipment and the facility things that we have going on.
quiet there now, isn’t it?
Five days a week, forty-hour-a-week job. I’m liking it, not
too bad. I’d rather be building hardware and doing some cool
stuff, but it’s part of the wave to come. Houston is going to
feel it, Florida is going to feel it.
I had a bunch of folks a few weeks ago, both NASA and USA and Boeing,
in for a site review on the T&R [transition and retirement] efforts.
I said, “I don’t think too many people realize it, but
you NASA have had this lease for 39 years. Over the four decades almost
all the players have come and gone.” The people that are involved
with the transition don’t have a clue what’s taken place
not only the last 39 years at Palmdale but the 35 years or 40 years
in Florida and Houston, because all those people are gone. I think
I’m one of the fortunate ones to say I’ve been here the
were there when the hangar door opened, and you’ll be there
when the hangar door closes. You’ve seen the whole life cycle
there. Do you know of any others that you’ve worked with that
you came in with or served with you?
I have a couple folks that have been there the whole time too. Our
quality manager Gloria Castellano has been there the whole time. I
just gave her her 35-year award. A lot of the techs that were there,
we have them working other programs right now at Palmdale, the high
desert we have for part of the Boeing flight test engineering community.
We have 12 different flight test programs between Palmdale and Edwards,
so I was able to move most of our workforce over to different programs.
We haven’t laid off—very very few people. The ones we
did lay off wanted to retire anyway, so that worked out. The nucleus
of our workforce is employed doing other stuff. They’re still
around, I still have about 65 percent of my skilled workforce. I could
bring them back if the program needed something. We’re not totally
out of business yet, but we’re almost there.
want to see if there are some things that we haven’t talked
about that you’d like to talk about before we close.
Kahl: I think
I’ve been a very fortunate individual. Do a lot of cool stuff
for the community, very very involved with community and Space Shuttle.
Go to grade schools and talk to kids about they should be an astronaut,
give a lot of souvenirs away. Sponsoring here in a few weeks a Salute
to Youth program with Lancaster and Palmdale and all the other aerospace
companies up here. We bring in all the high school students and we
have recruiting officers [for] the Marines, the Army and the Navy.
Just try to motivate kids to turn off the headphones and get interested
in something that’s cool. We work very close with the Antelope
Valley College. Jackie [L.] Fisher [Sr.], who’s the dean [superintendant/president],
gets really engaged with us. There are a lot of great programs over
there—try to get these kids to look at the next wave of Space
Shuttles and do something.
I have been very fortunate to be a part of probably what will go down
in history as one of the most amazing flying machines ever ever built.
To be able to say that over the years the Presidents of the United
States that came to our facilities, and celebrities—I talk to
my grandkids sometimes and they’re like, “Really, Grandpa?”—they’re
like 16 and 17. That’s pretty awesome.
you get to go to any launches or landings?
I’ve been to the Cape numerous times. I’m going to the
next launch here in November [STS-133]. I’ve been out there
for every landing at Edwards, because I still support the program.
I go out there from the Palmdale standpoint, I bring skills and techs
back on all these years, what do you consider to be the most challenging
aspect of your role in the Space Shuttle program?
the personal side. You get so wrapped up in work and what you’re
doing. It’s not your work and what you’re doing, it’s
what it’s going to do. I probably took away from family time
back then worrying about building the Space Shuttle. That’s
okay, my kids are cool with it.
I think the astronauts are the coolest guys on Earth. They come in
and they just want to be a part of what’s going on. They buddy
with the people, they have a lot of friends, they make new friends.
What was really neat is over the years as they would come back to
Palmdale for whatever reason they wouldn’t forget your name.
I hadn’t seen that guy in ten years and he remembered my name.
the things that you look at, and you always value and treasure forever.
There’s Gordon Fullerton. Gordon Fullerton lives in Lancaster,
and he is just an incredible man. We were out at Edwards, ALT, ’77,
’78; today I can see him and he’s like, “How you
doing, Bob? Haven’t seen you in ten years.” A lot of cool
people at the Cape. You don’t see them every day, but when you
do see them they remember who you are and the things you’ve
done. When I hang it up here in a couple years, that’s probably
when I look back and say, yes this has been cool.
do you feel has been your most significant contribution? What have
you been glad you’ve been able to do for the program?
always had an attitude, I probably learned it from my father—if
you’re going to do something give it 100 percent, if you’re
not going to give it 100 percent, don’t do it. That can-do attitude.
Over the years—and I think that’s how I grew to where
I’m at today—I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,
but somebody wanted something done I’d say, “I’ll
do it.” Never did it before in my life, didn’t have a
clue, but I’d go figure out how to do it. My staff, it’s
“you call, we haul.” It’s like you know he’s
going to tell us to do it anyway so let’s just go do it.
Even today, because I think it makes people grow. If you don’t
want to grow you’re not going to excel. I would just give my
guys more and more to do, knowing that they had the technical ability
to do it, even to go figure it out. Just go do it. From the versatility
standpoint, that’s how Palmdale became very versatile in multitasking
things and doing things.
We have a lot of union personnel. We were able to take a lot of classifications
and consolidate them into a multitask classification because that
individual could do multitask things. That was a huge struggle with
the union. “You’re displacing.” I said, “No,
I’m not laying him off. I’m just giving him more to do.”
Today we’re still versatile in those areas, and we’ve
taken it to other programs. I fought hard for that, and when the people
want it, it’s an easy win because it’s their livelihood
and their careers that you’re saving and/or advancing to go
do other things. We were able to multitask the techs in a skills mode
that not only kept their job but it expanded their role. My philosophy
is if I can build this and I can assemble it and I can put it together,
why can’t I test it, why can’t I plug this cable in here
or open this valve and turn hydraulic fluid on and why can’t
I do all that too? We won that battle. When you really really sit
back and say, what have you done for the last 35 years, there’s
no way you can capture it all.
We had some terrific early Rockwell leaders. Bob [Robert G.] Minor,
Rocco [A.] Petrone, Dan Brown. You go to school on their approach
to things and their philosophy. Unfortunately a lot of those folks
are gone. I was fortunate enough to work for people who pushed me
to do more and gave me things to do because they felt I could do it.
That’s been my personal reward I think. “Give it to Mikey,
he’ll figure it out,” and we do.
having to close up shop down here, you must have some mixed feelings,
watching all you built to go down.
sad, but it’s part of life, it’s part of retiring. I tell
my guys, “When we’re done with this and you guys go retire
you can say, ‘I retired now because I retired the Shuttle.’”
Just put a little different perspective on it. Change is good. I’m
not sure retiring the orbiter is good, because I think we should fly
them until we have something to replace it. When it’s operational,
then retire the vehicle. That’s my personal two cents’
worth. I think the program should fly these Shuttles for another four,
five years or however long it is till whatever’s going to replace
it is operational and flown once or twice. Then go retire the vehicles.
I think you would see the astronauts and the whole program far more
supporting that than the approach that’s going on today. I’m
an American—we don’t ask nobody to do anything for us,
we do it ourselves. That means we ought to fly Shuttle to support
Station. We need to carry payloads up and carry astronauts up, we
should be the ones carrying our astronauts up. Not somebody else.
We shouldn’t rely on other countries to do things for us. I
don’t think we should be relying on people for especially what
we have going on Station. I’ve been through the modules in Houston,
and I think that those guys that are up there need to be applauded
The concepts for replacement vehicles for Shuttle—they should
be designing something new, but I still say unless you get the old
graybeards in here, talk about the things we’ve been doing,
lessons learned and how you can go apply the technology of the Shuttle
and the way we built them, the way we assembled them, the way we test
them and all the things that the Cape does. Everybody’s off
doing their own thing right now, and you’re going to go through
this huge evolution of testing to prove something that if you got
a few old other folks involved that can help shorten that build cycle
or that test cycle or that learning curve. I don’t see it, I
don’t see it. It’s probably not my problem, but we’re
all paying for it.
I think Atlantis
will fly one more time. I think that’s a given, it’s a
good thing. And I think that between now and then there’ll be
more flights added too.
I think you asked me will the orbiters be safed or decontaminated?
No, we don’t do any in California. We don’t do any safing
or decontamination of vehicles. All that’s done at the Cape,
which when we bring orbiters to Palmdale for any type of mods or inspections,
they would always safe the vehicles in Florida. Remove the hypers,
remove the APUs and ammonia boiler tanks and all those things, and
safe the vehicle prior to coming to Palmdale.
I really don’t have a clue where the orbiter is going to go.
Everybody is campaigning for them. I think that once the orbiters
are done flying, probably 2013, maybe 2014, you’ll see the orbiters
going. I think it’s given that one is going in the Smithsonian
[Institution National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC]. Edwards
Air Force Base has a museum. They’re on a huge campaign to put
Enterprise in that museum because of the things that Edwards did for
the ALT program, which makes a lot of sense. All the vehicles out
there that are in the museum today are all flight test aircraft. I
don’t know if they’re going to win that, but I think for
the program it would be the right thing to do.
like to see Enterprise come home?
necessarily come home, I just think it’s the right place for
it because of Edwards’s involvement during ALT, both the Air
Force and NASA, and the things that took place out there. It’s
just if you look at history, that’s where it started. So why
not preserve it there? Which one will go in the Smithsonian?
think Discovery is the one.
heard rumors, Discovery. That’s the right place for it. As far
as the other two, if I was a Floridian I’d say, “I want
one in Florida,” if I was in Houston I’d say, “I
want one in Houston,” if I was in California I’d want
it in California. I think they ought to keep them in the OPFs [Orbiter
Processing Facilities] and keep them flying myself. I would love to
be retiring, watching the Shuttle go out. That’d be the coolest
be nice for you. Well, thank you for today.