NASA STS Recordation
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Robert E. Lindstrom
Interviewed by Jennifer Ross-Nazzal
Huntsville, Alabama – 19 July 2010
Today is July 19th, 2010. This interview is being conducted with Bob
Lindstrom in Huntsville, Alabama, as part of the STS Recordation Oral
History Project. The interviewer is Jennifer Ross-Nazzal, assisted
by Rebecca Wright. Thanks again for taking time to meet with us today.
We certainly appreciate it.
I’m very happy to.
I’d like to begin by asking you if you could briefly describe
your career with NASA for us.
I was in the Army Ballistic Missile Agency when they transferred to
NASA [Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville], and worked on the
Army space program. I got in the Army through an enlisted draftee
program. I was drafted during the Korean War and, like many others,
sent here to work as an engineer. I worked here as an engineer in
the materials laboratory working on reentry protection [with] the
Redstone [rocket]. I worked on Jupiter-C [rocket], did a lot of coordination
of that program with Jet Propulsion Laboratory [Pasadena, California].
We did of course reentry work for that and put up Explorer I, the
After that I worked on some advanced space programs that we started,
never quite approved. Then the Army was asked to develop a large booster.
I took on the project engineer from the original Saturn I booster,
stayed with that for a number of years, and worked that for the first
three flights. I guess about that time I decided to leave NASA, left
for a few years, and came back about five or six years later. I was
asked to come back and work on the Saturn V program. I went into the
Saturn Systems Office, and I worked on contractor selection for the
Eventually I was asked to go into the [Space] Shuttle Office. I worked
a couple years on contractor selection before I took over as manager
of that. I stayed in the Shuttle Program as the program manager at
Marshall until ’85. I retired in ’85. Since that time
I worked on Shuttle to a great extent—I did some consulting.
I took over the solid rocket booster program at Thiokol [Corporation],
and worked as a division manager there until ’92. Then I retired
again. I’ve since worked as a consultant to NASA and to Thiokol,
and I worked on the Challenger [STS 51-L accident] problem and worked
on the more recent Columbia [STS-107 accident] problems as a consultant
to [Lockheed] Martin [Corporation] and for Marshall at that time.
That’s quite a bit. Tell us what your role was as program manager
here at Marshall managing those three elements.
We had all three elements. Plus we did the dynamic testing here. Also
did main propulsion testing at Stennis [Space Center, Mississippi]—we
were responsible. I was responsible for the management of that conglomeration.
We had sundry program managers at each of those project levels that
worked for me, and my overall job was integrating, see that they had
the right resources, the right people. Both [at] Marshall doing their
job of overseeing and also [at] the contractors. We visited contractors
considerably, suggested things for them. My job here at Marshall was
primarily to help these five or six managers see that they had the
right resources, evaluate their progress for the center director.
We worked with the Johnson [Space] Center [Houston, TX] and the Kennedy
[Space] Center [Florida] as well as [NASA] Headquarters [Washington,
DC], overall integration of these programs.
What role did you play with the main engines? There were a lot of
problems with testing. There were fires, there were budgetary concerns,
there were problems with the contractor—what role did you play
in all of that?
I worked with J. R. [James R. Thompson] and helped him, did several
reviews. We brought in some outside contractors to review the program.
We brought in Pratt & Whitney because of some pump issues, and
we actually got a separate proposal from Pratt for a pump to take
the place of the Rocketdyne pumps. We brought in Honeywell. As part
of our management of those programs we sent many Marshall people on
location, had some up at Honeywell for some time. I was just part
of the program. It was a team effort. You don’t find much any
one person throughout this program [who did it all by themselves].
I’m sure you find the same thing at JSC. They worked as a team.
We did too.
We had a very close management relationship to Rocketdyne. Sometimes
bringing in additional contractors to look at it doesn’t make
the contractor very happy. I think JSC has done some of that too.
My role was just to stay close. We made changes; we provided as much
help to J. R. in terms of the quality and the quantity of the support
he got from Rocketdyne. It helped his relationship with Washington.
If you want to describe it as something in private industry, it’s
a general management role where you’re managing some managers.
You do what’s necessary, spend a lot of time in reviews of the
engine program. It really depends [on] what kind of problems they
were having. I’d participate in the technical review and provide
my own thoughts to both the Center Director and to J. R. It was a
team effort. I can best describe it by saying I was a general manager
of some very good managers. Sometimes you didn’t have anything
to do, but sometimes you were really busy.
What was the biggest challenge while working on the main engine before
I think the biggest challenge we had was the pump reliability and
life. I think that’s what we worked from a technical standpoint.
We had a number of problems but the high speed pumps were most difficult
and took the most effort. We brought Pratt in for that, getting enough
testing off. Rocketdyne did a good job. They had a great deal of expertise.
One of the advantages here in NASA, also at JSC, is when we started
the Shuttle Program we had the propulsion background of the Saturn
Program, Saturn-Apollo. So we had some very competent, qualified people.
Our program managers and our chief engineers on each of these programs,
whether it be J. R. or George [B.] Hardy or Jim [James B.] Odom—they
were as competent as the engineers; they were as competent as the
contractors in all cases.
We knew what they had to do. These people were very well qualified.
And a lot of, I think, our success was we had the expertise. The people
who had been through the Saturn-Apollo—they had been to war
so to speak, and they were able to do so. Same as JSC when Chris [Christopher
C. Kraft] was there. We had strong technical leadership at the Center
level and engineering level, and that gave us the right kind of reporting.
Our management understood what we were doing and what we were saying.
The engines themselves were one of the pacing items for the orbiter.
What sort of heat did you take from Headquarters and from the program
office itself at JSC?
We’d take a little heat from Bob [Robert F.] Thompson, but really
I don’t think you can call it heat. They wanted to know what
we were doing and understand what we were doing. Bob Thompson evaluated
us the same way he evaluated everyone. John [F.] Yardley in Washington
was a very strong technical individual, a good manager. We used to
have to call him up in the middle of the night every time we were
having a little glitch on the engine, and John called directly to
J. R. probably once a day, or quite often.
I don’t really think I’d call it heat, but they were watching
what we were doing. The fact that Yardley was a very strong individual
technically and managerially—you had a lot of respect for him,
as we did for JSC people, R. F. Thompson, and the people that were
there, Chris. We just had a lot of respect for those people. Worked
with them, and they worked with us. I think they respected us too.
Was your role to protect J. R. from some of that heat or some of the
discussions from Houston and DC, as the manager?
I would provide answers to these people too. I’d work with J.
R. and ask him questions [about] making technical decisions, evaluating
as much as anything the Rocketdyne people. We changed some management
people at Rocketdyne. We were talking to Rocketdyne. We went through
Rocketdyne corporate office to make changes at Rocketdyne, as we did
with Martin in the external tank.
Tell me a little bit about the testing program for the main engines.
What are your recollections of those events at the time?
I witnessed a few engines blow up. We did most of the engine testing
down at NSTL [National Space Technology Laboratories, later renamed
Stennis], and we would have a group of people down there. First half,
we would go through a test readiness review with Rocketdyne on each
of the engine tests. They had some very good test people down there
who later worked in development. We had our druthers, but we were
very happy when we got a good test. It was a struggle I guess you’d
have to say. I used to say when we’d have a test that we’d
have a little problem, the engineers would start working on the problem,
then by the time we got back to Rocketdyne they’d already figured
out what we were going to do next, how we were going to fix it. We
didn’t know how to fix it.
Was there ever a point where you thought that maybe this fantastic
wonderful engine might not work and might not be ready for the first
We didn’t say it was ready till we thought it was ready. We
had enough testing for the first flight.
How did you determine that it was ready for that first flight?
You listen to your people, you listen to Rocketdyne’s people,
and you make a judgment. There’d be some that think it’s
ready; some that don’t think it’s ready. In many cases
you just have to set a goal. You achieve these goals. That’s
one part of the puzzle that you consider. We brought in expertise
from other Centers, other contractors to look at our project too.
You just try to get the best people you could get, both from the contractor
and JSC. A lot of JSC people helped us. Dick [Richard H.] Kohrs helped
us a lot; Aaron [Cohen] helped us. Max [Maxime A. Faget] did. A lot
of people did the review. A lot of this only on the SSME [Space Shuttle
main engine]. We got Pratt & Whitney in. We had some problems
with the handling of the motors and the tank. We brought Boeing [Company]
expertise into that. Technical reviewers came from our contractors.
If you thought you could get some better, extra expertise to help
when you really didn’t know what you were doing, you would bring
Did you start thinking about how you might redesign the engine after
that first flight? Or were there any problems with the engine?
I don’t think we had too many problems, not on the first flight.
We had a problem I think about the fourth flight or so. Only two problems
that I can recall. On an injector, if we’d gone much longer
we probably would have burned up the engine, and then we also had
a problem with shutting down an engine prematurely. Temperature gauge
was bad. Biggest problem we had there for a few flights was just the
correct temperature gauge and controller. Fortunately the [flight]
controller down at JSC shut down the chance of shutting two engines
down. If we had, we’d have dropped it in the Atlantic Ocean,
and she disabled the second shutdown, which was the right thing to
do. On that one we worked that very good detail. We were trying to
find the sensor to use on that flight. I spent about a month at Rocketdyne
just trying to help select the right sensor for it. The whole thing
is a team effort.
In fact we had three parties remembering our first flight. We had
one just two or three weeks ago now. We had over 100 people. We got
the same group back together to talk about the old times, talk about
our problems, and some of our successes. That team still sticks together.
In fact we also have a Shuttle buddies breakfast together once a month,
all together. We have 35, 40 people there too. I just mention this
as a way to [point out how] you really develop a team. Work on these
things, work together. There’s very little individual success—somebody
coming up with a brilliant idea, “Man I can fix that engine
or fix that.” A great deal is left to the project manager really
building their team. We had George Hardy and Jim Odom.
How did you build your team of these project managers?
Just work with them, try to help them. Most any manager tries, regardless
[of] what they’re managing, to build a team to work together.
You try to help them. You don’t really direct these people.
Some people may think being a manager is direction, but you’re
really there to provide the resources to help them and help their
relationship with the next level. We’d try to protect our managers,
often giving them the resources to evaluate their people, and giving
them new people, different people. You do a certain amount of things,
rewarding them the best you can. In government, [there’s] less
chance for reward. You select managers first, that’s your first
job, then you help them get a chief engineer. Works pretty good.
Tell us about your work on the solid rocket booster [SRB] and solid
rocket motor [SRM] when you were manager of the Shuttle Program Office.
It was much the same. We had two failures. One was the nozzle almost
burned out on one flight. We struggled with a solution to that. George
Hardy and I went out to Thiokol. I lived at Thiokol for about a month
while they worked that problem. And we’ve done the same thing
with J. R., a couple of us at Rocketdyne, the chief engineer also.
We believed very much in getting our technical and our management
team on site to really work close, know what’s going on.
Could you tell me the difference between the project manager and a
They’re entirely different jobs. They work as a pair really,
but in the end the manager makes the decision. Chief engineer provides
his evaluation, and he overviews the total program. The manager, at
management level or a looser level, he makes the decision. Many times
his decision is based on what the chief engineer says, what he recommends.
The chief engineer also brings the resources of our engineering organization
to bear on the programs. He manages all the engineers [and provides
an] engineer support level.
Can you tell us a little more about the testing program or the qualification
of the SRBs and SRMs?
On the SSME they set out initially to test every component before
they put the system together. Then they had a lot of pump testing
and had to build a new stand. They tried to take each component of
the engine—primarily the pumps, the injectors—and they
tried to build test capability to do that before they put them all
together as a system. We had a fair amount of trouble on building
the pump unit component test stand out at Rocketdyne. It took a long
time to get that facility going, had some cost overruns on it. For
the first testing of some of the systems on the SSME we put a system
together. We put a test engine together and that’s one of the
first [tests] we had on some of the components that were on that engine.
We did a lot of testing on the engine, and we had an engine here at
Marshall that we tested certain aspects of the engine. We had to use
the stands down at Stennis. On the engine testing we tested a fairly
low thrust level, then eventually built up to 109% of the engine thrust.
The engine program was set out to do this testing by component. Same
as if you’d cook a meal if you could test each one then eventually
put them together. Hope it’ll still make a cake rather than
just half a piece of pastry or something. That was done really between
Marshall. It was actually part of the program, I think, for the bidding
of project. We specified that type of program I believe. I was not
involved as such with Rocketdyne. Pratt & Whitney protested the
selection of the engine with Rocketdyne but it was upheld for Marshall.
All the programs, we tried to use proven technology. On the SRB, the
cases were similar to what we had built before. We made some large
cases. Propellant was a propellant that was used on Minuteman [LGM-30]
and Peacekeeper [LGM-118 nuclear missiles], Minuteman primarily. We
had a lot of experience with the propellant.
We had a lot of issues both with Martin [Marietta] Company and with
Thiokol. In both cases size gave us a lot of difficulty. Martin Company
had welded these components together. They’d built a lot of
engines, but they hadn’t built one as big as the external tank.
And the same way with the solid rocket motor. Each segment was so
big, we mishandled a few segments, dropped them or something. Those
two things were size, whereas in the SSME it was primarily technology
Were there any complications with the testing of the SRBs or the external
tank that you recall?
Things went pretty smoothly compared to the main engines?
I don’t know if you’d say they were smooth. We had a lot
of problems with the tank. Not so much in the testing, we had a very
extensive test program on the structural testing on the external tank.
The idea was if we would really do a good job testing then we’d
know all the load situations. When it comes to redesigning the external
tank, which eventually we had to do, we’d know what’s
going to happen.
The solid rocket motor we didn’t have as much. We had some test
cases, primarily some insulation problems. We had some nozzle problems.
They were not technology problems; it was getting it done correctly.
In most cases size affected that, whether it be in the tooling, how
you put it together, or whether you’re putting insulation on
the inside. Again it was the nozzle primarily. We really had very
good luck with the propellant at Thiokol.
What role did you play in the decision to build the lightweight tank?
I was not even out there. I had retired before that.
What about the decision not to paint the tank white? Were you involved
in that decision?
Yes, I think that was before the first flight.
Can you tell us about that decision?
We took the paint off to save the weight. Initially designed was white
paint, then we just made it that muddy color.
Were you involved in that decision at all?
I’m sure I was.
I thought I would ask you just a couple questions about management.
Were there any decisions that were made by the [NASA] Management Council
that impacted the elements that you oversaw?
I think most of the program decisions at that level were made by Yardley.
I’m sure the Management Council, which was the Center Directors,
were involved and made decisions for their own programs, but I don’t
know if they were specifically Council decisions. They basically overviewed
the program, they made certain funding decisions. Basically the program
in those early years was in the hands of John Yardley.
Would you tell us about your relationship with him and working with
him on these components?
We had a good relationship with John. He wanted you to keep him informed,
and he expected you to call him if something was wrong or something
wasn’t right. I had a good relationship with John. He was a
good guy; I think he made friends with everyone.
What about your relationship with Bill [William R.] Lucas [Marshall
Center Director]? How did that work when you were manager of the Shuttle
Program Office, and he was overseeing the site?
I had a good relationship with Bill. We had worked together in materials,
and we’d been friends for many years. He was a good strong technical
[engineer]. I think we had a good relationship with all our contractors;
we had a good relationship with JSC. Although some people don’t
believe that, we had a good relationship with them, with KSC. We had
a good relationship with Headquarters. All in all everybody tried
to help each other.
I read somewhere that you were in charge of 20 Shuttle missions when
you were the Shuttle program manager. Would you tell us about the
role that you played when missions were getting ready and when they
were in flight?
I just managed what was going on, primarily by reviewing and understanding
the results of what was going on. We had flight readiness reviews,
and we required that they have a flight readiness review with the
senior management at the contractors. One thing we specified is exactly
how they would conduct the review. We knew all the big problems but
we required that they go back and review all changes for everything
that had happened all the way back to day one. That they re-review
them each time because you want to make sure that the change which
was approved some time ago all of a sudden wasn’t one of the
problems. We had a very formal specific review. We would then review
with JSC, and we had a review of our last review with the Center Director.
Then I guess it was the Management Council and John Yardley.
I think the reviews were very thorough. Both we and JSC at that time
had strong technical people in management when Chris was there and
Bill Lucas here and John Yardley. They’re three pretty tough
guys to get through a review. Max participated a lot, and so did Jim
[James E.] Kingsbury here at Marshall. Each organization had strong
engineering capability, so each of them conducted a review. You tried
to make the review as thorough as possible. We established what each
project would do for each review, exactly what they would look at,
what they would report on, and how they’d have to certify that
was okay. We had some good reviews. I think to a great extent the
fact that we had the Center Directors in our reviews—normally
the contractor senior management would come in too and present to
us in the Center. Any big problem, like whether a pump was going bad,
you knew that was an issue.
We required that each program carry their ten top problems, and they
would have to report on that each time we had a review. We had a lot
of intermittent reviews with the Center Director. He reviewed what
we were doing, which was his own in house as well as the contractor.
I think the Center Director reviews were very important to us. In
recent years I know they’ve cut way back on the Center reviews.
I don’t know exactly why.
Can you pick one or two of your most favorite flights from the Shuttle
program? Any that stand out, maybe STS-1 for instance?
Well, the first one did because we didn’t know how it was going
to go. We knew we could fire the engines, get them started, get the
solid rocket booster. But we didn’t know how that thing was
going to fly, whether it was structurally capable. I remember the
Were you at the Cape [Canaveral, Florida] when the mission flew?
I went for the first flight, yes. I’ve been there for a lot
of them, 50 of them or so. I remember when I left the flight control
room. It was about 10:00, 11:00 in the morning. I went over on US
[Route] 1 and stopped and bought a six-pack of beer. I told that at
one reunion back here and Crip [Robert L. Crippen] came up to me and
he says, “Bob, that’s what I did too, I got in my truck
and headed back and had a six-pack of beer.” Mine was Budweiser.
I don’t know what Crip’s was.
One of the interviews that I had read, you had talked about the issues
with the external tank insulation. You knew even before Challenger
that that was an issue, that it was falling off. Can you talk about
that and what ideas you had come up with to resolve that issue and
how it was being worked before Challenger?
We really hadn’t worked it a great deal. The issue really was
we didn’t realize that a piece of foam, which was pretty lightweight,
would hurt the orbiter. We assumed that much of the damage on the
orbiter was due to stones and rocks out at Edwards [Air Force Base,
California] and also down at Kennedy, that a lot of the damage we
saw was just dirt. We didn’t really have any damage on the tank
to my recollection that would indicate some loss of tile such that
we’d overheat the thermal structure of the orbiter.
We didn’t really consider, at least when I was still there—we
had some come off after first tanking test. It was an integration
question primarily; it was a question between ourselves and the orbiter.
We never put the two together, that it would cause damage or catastrophic
failure. I don’t know exactly why. I’ve never gone back
and looked at the testing of it, but basically an integration question.
Are there any other technical issues with the various components or
issues about testing that we might not have covered that you thought
we should discuss?
I think it was pretty thorough. I think you’ll find many of
the issues, much like the external tank foam with the orbiter flight,
was an integration issue. To some extent I think some of the other
issues they had with the solid rocket motors coming off would have
been an integration issue. The two big issues were the orbiter brick
or the TPS [thermal protection system] and the engine. They were the
two controlling problems.
What do you think your biggest challenge was while working as manager
of the Shuttle Program Office?
Just pulling everything together. The total program was a big issue.
I worked hard on the engine. We may have to change people; sometimes
changing people is not a lot of fun. Just keeping abreast of what’s
If you had to pick one greatest accomplishment while you were the
program manager, what do you think that that would be?
Getting the team pulled together and getting that job done. We made
some good management decisions. We changed some people in some of
the contractors. They were tough decisions to make—you really
can’t consider that an accomplishment. Just getting the whole
team to work together, getting it all done.
Rebecca, do you have any questions for Mr. Lindstrom?
I think he’s covered it all very well.
Glad I was able to help you.
Yes, well, thank you very much for taking time to meet with us.