NASA STS Recordation
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Jennfer Ross-Nazzal
Kennedy Space Center, Florida – 12 July 2011
Today is July 12, 2011. This interview is being conducted with Jerry
Sheehan at the Kennedy Space Center [KSC] in Florida as part of the
NASA STS Recordation Oral History Project. The interviewer is Jennifer
Ross-Nazzal, assisted by Rebecca Wright. Thanks again for taking time
out of your busy schedule today to meet with us.
My pleasure. Today is one of those very rare not busy schedules.
The launch went off.
The launch went off fine. The mission is going extremely well. In
fact the guys at Houston [Texas, Johnson Space Center] even have time
to do some practical jokes. I just saw a picture they sent in. Gene
[Eugene F.] Kranz, on I think it was Apollo 13, and the original mission
crew. I never can remember the other guy’s name that was on
the off shift with Kranz on Apollo 13.
Glynn [S.] Lunney?
Yes, it might have been Glynn. You’re the history guys. You
know this kind of stuff. There was a whole black-and-white picture
with everybody with black pants and white shirts and skinny black
ties and the guys in the DAT [Damage Assessment] Team, who since there’s
hardly any damage or anything of interest on the Orbiter TPS [Thermal
Protection System] to work, all dressed up in white shirts and skinny
black ties and vests with Apollo mission patches on them. You can
tell it’s a good day in a mission when everybody has time to
act the fool, play a little game, play jokes on one another. Gene
Kranz came in so he’s in the new picture as well as the old
ones. That’s a good thing.
That’s a nice tie. Well, tell us if you would how you became
involved with the Orbiter Project in Rockwell.
How far back should I start? October 1950? Is that too far back? That’s
when my parents moved here from New York. Although the space program
was three months old [by then] out at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station
[Florida]—I’m not even sure it was Cape Canaveral Air
Force Station then. But in any case Dad had a sporting goods store
in downtown Cocoa [Florida], so I grew up in the area. Growing up
with rockets (somebody’s already used that title on a book or
a film), I strangely enough wasn’t enthralled in the business
and wasn’t really going to go into the space business, although
I always had a leaning towards math and science in school.
I got interested, as most teenage boys [did], in the ’50s and
’60s in cars and girls, not necessarily in that order always.
I was actually thinking about going to work for General Motors. Well,
they were a lot more interested in other people than they were in
me. About the same time, I started thinking about maybe I want to
have an actual job that pays something. It’s always good for
a life goal, I think.
[It] would have been my junior year summer in college; I went to the
University of Florida [Gainesville], was majoring in aerospace engineering,
and I made the rounds of all the contractors on Cocoa Beach. North
American Aviation, who had the second stage of the Saturn V lunar
rocket, and of course the Apollo Spacecraft, said, “Yes, I think
we can use somebody that’s going to be an engineer pretty soon.”
I got a summer job. Actually, the year before that I worked for the
[U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers. I was out of my league in construction.
But what do you need from a summer intern, right? Stand out in the
sun and count chunks of steel on the ground is good enough. So I had
a job with North American the summer of ’66. I came back after
I graduated in April of ’67. I started May 1st of 1967 and have
been working for the same company under five different names since
That’s unusual these days.
Very unusual. In fact I don’t know of anybody else in the organization
that has that kind of fortunate longevity. Anyhow, I worked just as
what we call an intern today. It was a summer job. [I] got exposure
to a lot of different engineering groups. I had a leaning towards
big picture kind of stuff. I wasn’t all that interested even
then in specific little pieces of hardware, parts of systems, or parts
of testing. I worked with a fellow in [what] today we would call it
an integration function. He was working on countdown procedures for
the Saturn V. So I worked that summer. Went back to school. I graduated,
came back here, got a job.
Curiously enough, North American made me the highest offer by about,
I don’t know, $100 a month. It was all of $720 a month in 1967.
I guess most people make that in a week and are still on welfare today.
I got a job. I started working again in that same integration group.
That lasted for about, oh, I don’t know, couple months. Then
I went into propulsion and spent essentially all the rest of the time
in the Apollo Program working propulsion either as a system engineer
or as a—we called them system specialists back in the day.
Along about late ’72 or so, I got asked by one of the fellows
who was in the test conductor organization—I guess it’s
actually properly called the Test Operations, I forget what formal
name it was too—to do some white papers on Shuttle preparations
for checkout and launch kind of things down here. At the time the
Orbiter really was supposed to be like an airplane. It had jet engines
on it for atmospheric flight. So I treated it like it would be an
aircraft test program, doing runs into the SLF [Shuttle Landing Facility],
landing approaches, navigation checks with the ground equipment, and
that sort of thing. Of course that all went out the window a few years
later when we converted to an Orbiter and Carrier Aircraft mode of
transportation across country.
Anyhow, that was probably just about the time that Rockwell won the
contract to build the first two Orbiters. They also got a Systems
Integration contract at the same time. [Down at KSC], we had just
finished up with Apollo 17, the last lunar mission.
I got a call from a fellow who had previously been a Test Operations
guy for Spacecraft for Apollo and had gone back to California to work
on the proposal for Shuttle. He called me and said, “Hey, how
about coming out and joining the integration group as a systems integration
guy working External Tank and other things.” I said that sounded
good at the time. I had a wife that was about six months pregnant
and a dog. So we packed up and moved to California.
I started working on Shuttle in January of ’73; I think the
last week in January is when we got there. Let’s see. We still
had [Saturn V] flight vehicles at the Cape. Part of my release to
get out to California in January was I had to come back in April for
the launch of the Skylab Booster. So that was actually the last [Saturn
V] launch crew I was on, because as far as we were concerned the first
and second stages were just like a lunar flight. You just went to
Earth orbit and stayed there with the lab.
I went back to California. The guys still had the smaller Saturn vehicles
that launched off the milk stool on the mobile launcher. No, I missed
the [correct name for that] program. It was the same thing but it
was called a Launch Umbilical Tower [LUT] at the time. So we had three
more launches, the Spacecraft guys did, off the LUT with the milk
stool on it. I never understood why they called it a milk stool, because
it didn’t have three legs, it had four legs. It should have
been a barstool. I guess that was politically incorrect even in the
’60s. In any case, the guys that stayed here had three more
launches for the Skylab missions and then another launch for the Apollo-Soyuz
Test Project. None of which I had anything to do with, because I had
a full-time job in California by then.
I[’ve] got to back up a little bit. When the Shuttle vehicle
was originally concepted, there was a lot of things that were at the
time undefined, like aeroheating environments and natural environments
that it would operate in. So the folks at Marshall [Space Flight Center,
Huntsville, Alabama], who were managing the External Tank proposal
and evaluating the industry responses, did not have a requirement
to, like we do today, preclude icing on the Tank. Those of us in the
business who were around in the Apollo Program remember pictures of
the Saturn V taking off from the pad, and all the sheets of ice raining
down the sides of the vehicle. There wasn’t a requirement to
preclude that from happening on Shuttle. In retrospect how the Program
could have missed that as a requirement is beyond me. I never really
did investigate why that was the case. I had the job to go figure
out what we could go do about it.
That obviously was not a new problem. It had been studied [before].
I found out that there was a paper in the Downey [California] technical
library [by] a fellow that, at the time I was involved, was working
for NASA at Houston, and he turned me on to the paper. At the time
it was written about cryogenically fueled or cryogenic propellant
launch vehicles. Actually I think most of his work was done on Atlas.
It was probably in the early to mid ’60s that he had done this
paper. His interest was in terms of flight performance, because obviously
if you don’t shake all that ice loose on the ground before you
take off you’re lifting more weight than what you had anticipated.
So his main focus was on performance. My main focus at the time was
on the damage that ice falling off the Tank could do to the Orbiter.
By that time the Orbiter’s Thermal Protection System had been
settled on as being silica tile. My friends at Marshall always called
it the glass slipper.
The Tank proposal from the Martin Marietta Company, who subsequently
became part of the Lockheed Martin conglomerate who today build the
Tank, did not have a requirement in their request for proposal to
preclude icing or anything else. They also didn’t have an ascent
aeroheating environment because the integration contract that Rockwell
had hadn’t yet defined that.
So they mention in their proposal that gee, we have enough insulation
on the Tank, foam insulation on the Tank, just like it is today, the
proposal baseline Tank. But it’s only a half an inch on the
hydrogen tank and none on the LOX [Liquid Oxygen] tank, which obviously
would create icing problems and performance problems. So they recognized
[that] in their proposal back to Marshall. They said, “Gee,
we need to do something to preclude icing, and we probably need something.
Once we recognize or are provided what the aeroheating environments
are, we probably need insulation on the top of the LOX tank.”
So I had a lot of work to do with the natural environment people,
defining what the design natural environments were going to be at
KSC. At the time we were still going to launch out of the Western
Test Range [Vandenberg Air Force Base, California], where it’s
very nice and wet and cold and foggy, and at KSC where it’s
just wet most of the time.
Those environments were conducive to ice forming on the Tank either
from condensing of moisture in the air, high humidity, or precipitation,
rain, or, on the West Coast, fog. So we knew we had—at least
we at Rockwell knew we had a problem that we needed to get the Program
to recognize and define a requirement that the Tank preclude icing.
So we investigated. Actually it wasn’t just the [External] Tank.
That would have been the easiest thing to do. Just to say, “You
guys on the Tank insulate everything so it doesn’t form [ice].
It’s never less than 32 degrees Fahrenheit anyplace on the Tank
under any environment that you’ll ever try and launch it.”
That would have been the real easy thing to do.
Obviously the folks at Marshall and the folks at Martin didn’t
want to take the weight penalty that would be involved in doing something
like that. So they were looking. As every element of the Shuttle had
a weight bogey, a weight allocation from the Program, they had one
which at the time didn’t include any insulation to preclude
ice. They weren’t interested in volunteering a couple thousand
pounds of insulation to help those other [Orbiter] guys. They wanted
to be directed that that is a Program requirement. Then they would
be able to increase their weight bogey and not have to take the weight
for [anti-icing] insulation out of the weight that they were allocated
for structure and other Tank systems.
So it took about—oh, it was at least six months or maybe a year
before we had briefed the Program with enough data that they actually
recognized that there was a necessity to recognize an anti-icing requirement,
I guess is the best way to say it. In the meantime we had looked at
all manner of ground-based and other systems that would help in the
on-pad environment at least.
The French, at about that time, had come up with a jet-engine-exhaust-based
system that precluded fog precipitation, high relative humidity in
the natural environment if you will, at one of the airports. It might
have been Orly [Paris airport], I can’t remember anymore. They
had buried or installed jet engines in—catacombs may be a little
too dramatic. They had put jet engines along the runway, below ground
but along the runway, and had ducted the exhaust so it blew out over
the runway. And that was enough to raise the temperature just a few
degrees and preclude fog on the runway.
At about the same time one of the NASA Centers that was big in aircraft
propulsion at the time—and I can’t remember, I think it
was Glenn [Research Center, formerly Lewis Research Center, Cleveland,
Ohio] was doing hydrogen fuel jet engines. I put two and two together
and said, “Gee, if we want to warm the environment around the
pad,” and we had this big umbilical tower next to the vehicle,
“why don’t we just put jet engines up the side of the
tower? Since we don’t want hydrocarbons depositing on the Orbiter
TPS and on the Tank and everything else we could just use hydrogen.”
We got hydrogen boiloff. It was a way out crazy idea, but it was an
integration of a technology that existed, a utilization that somebody
else had done, a use of a commodity that we had in abundance as part
of the boiloff, and was trying to preclude an impact on the flight
vehicles. The Tank wouldn’t need as much insulation if you could
warm the environment.
As it turned out everybody said, “Yes, right. Okay next page.”
But the last laugh I had was that when we were getting really close
to actually launching a vehicle off of SLC [Space Launch Complex]-6
in Vandenberg there was a lot of concern with hydrogen from the SSMEs
[Space Shuttle Main Engines] as part of their normal prelaunch operation.
They bled hydrogen off. [During] the start sequence of course you
start out with a fuel-rich mixture ratio.
[The hydrogen] got down in the exhaust ducts because of the shape
of the pad and the geometry and geography of the area. The pad basically
sat flush on the ground, and they had tunnels underneath to duct the
exhaust away. There was a lot of concern with accumulating hydrogen
in those tunnels and then it detonating and creating pressure waves
and damaging the aft of the Orbiter, similar to what we found out
here at Kennedy for a different reason. So they wound up putting turbine
engines down exhausting in the flame ducts to move the air through
there, because the exhaust acted as eduction devices that pulled the
air down through the top of the pad and out through the duct, and
of course with the controlled fire from the jet engines, you would
get any accumulations of hydrogen that would burn.
So the last I remember talking to the Program about ET [External Tank]
icing and foam insulation, I guess it was still a Program Requirements
Control Board at the time, a PRCB, that baselined I think it was about
1,300 pounds of additional foam insulation on the Tank to preclude
icing under the particular natural environments that were at the pad
here at Kennedy and at Vandenberg.
I was never welcome in Marshall after that. Actually that’s
being a bit facetious. The Marshall guys were not a great fan of having
an additional 1,300 pounds of insulation on their vehicle. Basically
I parted ways with that particular study of hardware development at
that time because the Program had recognized a requirement that it
had not had since the initial baselining. I went on to other work.
The Tank guys went on to other work.
The Tank guys I have to recognize, as the Program moved along, did
an absolutely fantastic job of managing the weight of their element
downward. I believe the baseline Tank weighed about 80,000 pounds,
and I think the ET-—it went from the baseline Tank at about
80,000 to about 70,000 [as] the Lightweight Tank. Then the Super Lightweight
Tank was like about 60,000 or even less. To take that much weight
out of a flight weight structure already is just amazing. My hat’s
really off to those guys. They did a fantastic job in controlling
and reducing the weight with innovative structural and material changes
in the Tank. So they got my 1,300 pounds back easy.
How did you work with the folks at Martin Marietta and Marshall? Were
you constantly traveling to Alabama and Colorado?
There was a resident External Tank guy at Downey, a Martin Marietta
employee. He was the local project engineering guy, program guy, whatever
you want to call it. He and I spent a lot of time together. Me trying
to understand exactly what the configuration of the Tank was, and
what our suggested requirements would do to the design of the Tank
and the construction of the Tank.
I took I don’t remember how many trips it was to Marshall. I
remember going to Michoud [Assembly Facility, Louisiana] for the CDR
[Critical Design Review] for the External Tank. I remember going to
Eglin Air Force Base [Florida] and the McKinley Climatic Hangar [at
Eglin] when we were trying to determine what the natural environments
would actually do to a bigger than laptop or desktop size test specimen.
I can’t remember whether it was Martin built it or the labs
at Marshall built a Tank that was maybe 15 feet in diameter and maybe
at least the same, maybe 20 feet tall, insulated with urethane foam.
As I remember, it had maybe some systems installed in it like a feed
line or something.
We actually had that sitting inside the hangar attempting to validate
the thermal models that the Martin designers had been using to predict
whether or not ice would form under particular environments over particular
parts of the External Tank. Actually it wasn’t anywhere near
a stretch of the capabilities of the hangar, because the hangar is
big enough to roll a B-52 into it and put it down to minus 65 degrees
with systems running, engines running. I think the temperature was
maybe 38 or 40 degrees with a 15-knot wind blowing. Big fan over there.
We had liquid nitrogen pumped into the building through the back wall
of the hangar and into the Tank and back out. So we had much better
than subscale development things that had gone on back in the labs
that were a proof of concept of what they would do to preclude ice
on the Tank.
The other thing, as a corollary to the fix-it on the Tank, at the
time the Orbiter guys, especially the Orbiter TPS guys working with
the silica tile TPS with the reaction-cured glass coating on it, they
[had] a “don’t touch me” kind of attitude. Almost
as bad as the Tank guys were, “Well, I don’t have a requirement
to preclude ice.” So everybody was very, very parochial.
One of the things that we didn’t know is what would ice really
do to an Orbiter tile. One of the things we didn’t know was,
well what really is ice like, the ice that forms on a cryogenically
cool surface. What’s its density? What’s its typical size?
Etc., etc., etc. Is it really frost that gets wet and slushy, or is
it condensate that runs down over the cold surface and forms a really
hard, 60-pound-per-foot kind of ice cube? What would all of those
different things do to an Orbiter tile?
So one of the more interesting things that we did—we didn’t
want to get into a big expensive test program but we wanted to get
some actual ice-on-tile experience. ET icing and Orbiter impact was
principally an initial stage of ascent problem. So the vehicle isn’t
going much over a couple of hundred miles an hour. We didn’t
need supersonic things and that sort of thing.
I found out from some of my old buddies at KSC that Bob [Robert B.]
Sieck, who was a weather man during Apollo, I think, as I remember
the story, but had by that time gone into Test Operations down here
at KSC. He drove a race car. I drove kind of performance cars. I had
a Porsche 911S that I drove for years and years and years. So we hit
it off. I can’t remember who had the gem of the idea, but it
wound up with ice balls and frost balls and slush balls hanging from
kite string out at the SLF, a kite string hanging from a clothesline
basically. Bob Sieck driving his race car with a TPS tile mounted
on the roll bar into the hanging blob of whatever the test specimen
We learned what were the real-world reactions of ice balls, slush
balls, frost balls on Orbiter tile. So that confirmed that yes, there
was a real issue with allowing “theoretically forming”
ice to occur on the Tank, because it would in fact damage the tile.
The results of that were fairly well known because the tile guys,
in their development program, were off doing tests of damaged tile.
I’m not sure exactly, because I wasn’t really involved
with those guys at that particular time, but they were showing what
could happen to the tile and to the underlying structure. Certainly
one of the most dramatic test articles I ever saw in Downey was a
piece of simulated Orbiter structure with a tile array on it and a
missing tile that had been subjected to a wind tunnel test, probably
an arc jet tunnel test. The damage to the vehicle structure made a
very strong impression on anybody involved in the Program and confirmed
that you didn’t ever want to get into that situation.
It took about a year and a half I guess, before, as far as I was concerned,
I was done with ET icing and the requirement had been established
and I went off and worked other things. At the same time I was doing
the ET work, I was also working in Orbiter systems. One of the fairly
benign systems but one that was terribly difficult to get anybody
to take seriously was the system which purged the vehicle of hazardous
gases and chemicals pre-launch. In that same system they had the vent
doors that you still see today on the side of the vehicle that open
for launch to allow the air that’s inside the vehicle on the
ground to exit as you ascend. Conversely after you get through a high
heating zone on reentry and you’re ready to repressurize the
Orbiter so you don’t crush it like a grape since it’s
totally evacuated in space, the vent doors open and allow atmospheric
air to come in and repressurize the structure.
Then along with that there’s another aspect of that system.
Since the vehicle was basically going to be kind of like an airplane
that would sit on the ground, and exposed to rain and other types
of precipitation. Since there was not a requirement to preclude water
from getting into it, we had to figure out a way to get water out
of it, either by statically draining it down through the structure
and out the low points or by actively pulling it out of the pockets
and places where we couldn’t get drainage from.
That took a while to work that out also. The design guys were struggling
for months trying to get their system designed. They really didn’t
know how much air conditioning they needed to provide and how much
vent area they needed. Along about that time I’d gotten a transfer
from the systems integration group I was in, to the Orbiter Project
Office. So one of the first things I had to do there was to write—[it’s]
called an MCR. A Master Change Record, which really doesn’t
help much in the description of what it is, but it’s basically
classic project engineering kind of work. It’s a document that
you write to assign tasks and schedule and cost, if there’s
any involved, to gather requirements or design concepts, and lead
up to a design change. That was the first MCR I ever wrote. It was
MCR number 646. I think we’re on 35,000 by about now so there’s
been a few changes to the Orbiter since my first MCR.
The other thing I did in that same timeframe is— this was back
in the system engineering days—our group had the responsibility
for establishing measurement instrumentation requirements, measurements
on the vehicle, in the systems. Allocating, for lack of anything else
[to call it], a count of how many measurements which element could
have, because we had to integrate that with the capability of the
instrumentation systems that were on the Orbiter and the telemetry
systems that sent that data to the ground or recorded it, depending
on what kind of instrument it was. So I had a lot of interesting work
in how you design instrumentation systems for the location and layout
of where the actual instruments were on the vehicles to gather particular
Most of the stuff I was interested in at the time, or we were interested
in at the time, was not necessarily the performance data on particular
Orbiter systems, whether they be propulsion or life support systems,
reaction control, or flight control. That’s the basic temperatures
and pressures and positions of the actual hardware in the Orbiter,
in the Tank, or in the Booster. That was left to the designers of
those particular systems. But where you had surface temperatures and
pressure measurements on the outer skin of the Orbiter or on the Tank,
we pushed through the requirement to get the Ascent Air Data System
on the top of the External Tank, the little pointy thing which is
now the lightning rod, originally started out as an air data system
that gathered air data from the nose of the Tank. I learned a lot
from the folks that I worked with at the time there in Downey on doing
that kind of work.
Since I had been a KSC guy, since I had been a launch site guy, the
other thing that I wound up doing was working as an—jumping
back to my job as project engineer—interface to the launch site.
We had a fairly broad spectrum of things we were interested in and
worked on. Contamination control for payloads. I always laugh at the
naive little cartoons, conceptual drawings that were from back in
that day, basically a bare Orbiter in a big hangar. Somehow the payload
bay doors are open. There’s five or ten or fifteen guys walking
around in bunny suits. That’s ground turnaround. Today when
you go over to the Orbiter Processing Facilities, when there’s
an Orbiter in them, you’re hard pressed to even be able to see
the vehicle inside the access stands that are necessary for gaining
access either directly to the vehicle or to the inside of the vehicle
to do all the turnaround operations.
So I worked with a whole bunch of different people, most of them materials
and processes type people, who had experience in clean rooms. Of course
even I had worked in clean room environments here [at KSC] on the
lunar program. It’s necessary to keep particulate and hydrocarbons
and other things out of various systems, because they can cause either
damage or violent reactions with the media, whatever it might be.
So I knew a little bit, just enough to be dangerous, about clean rooms.
We had to come up with concepts of how you would process an Orbiter
in the Orbiter Processing Facility [OPF] that also needed to be a
class 100000 clean room, which is a pretty good clean room, that the
payload community was demanding of the system.
[This also] worked back to establish some of the purge requirements,
both inside the vehicle and from the facility, and ways to control
to a higher level the contamination, mostly airborne particulate kind
of stuff, in the payload bay, both in the OPF where the first payloads
were installed and removed, and at the pad. That design, the basics
of the Payload Changeout Room that’s on the Rotating Service
Structure, and the purge systems that go to maintain cleanliness of
that room for the highly sensitive payloads, some of which we can
neither confirm nor deny ever flew.
[The design drivers for these systems were] typically classes of payloads
like Hubble [Space Telescope] that are highly contamination-sensitive.
The success of those is based on maintaining cleanliness around them
on the ground and the facilities and the purge media that’s
provided for them. So I got involved in a lot of that too.
Were you working with DoD [Department of Defense] and some of the
Hubble people at that point?
No. That was way before I think Hubble even was a gleam in somebody’s
eye. We were working with typically the folks who had experience.
Of course there was a long history by that time, mid ’70s, of
both those kind we can’t talk about and other payloads from
across the river, launched out of Cape Canaveral or launched out of
Vandenberg. So the industry knew what was required in terms of environments.
We struggled to provide lower level requirements on ground systems
and airborne systems that would allow us to meet from an integrated
standpoint those kind of environments, which we knew the industry,
the communications satellite, the observation satellites would need
to maintain their functionality on orbit after being processed on
the ground in those kind of environments.
What else did I do?
You told me on the phone that you discussed which [direction] you
were going to put the Orbiter on the pad.
I had a peripheral association with that. For some reason which I
don’t understand, if I remember correctly in the original Rockwell
proposal, we had the Payload Changeout [Room, PCR]. I think it was
our idea. You always know a lot better than the guy who actually owns
the hardware which way to do something. I’ve found that bouncing
from coast to coast in this business. The guy on the other coast always
knows your job better than you do, whatever it might be. Anyhow, the
guys on the West Coast thought it was absolutely obvious that the
Apollo/Saturn pads ought to be modified with a fixed tower on the
north side of the pad, straddling over the flame trench. Up in that
tower you would have—I think it was called—I was about
to take credit for that but it was much before I was there, a “file
drawer” PCR. So that it would slide in and out, translate in
and out of this fixed tower. Of course the payload bay doors being
on the top side of the Orbiter where it was a lot easier to exist
thermally, that required the tail of the vehicle to be north when
the vehicle was at the pad, i.e. “tails north.”
So the KSC ground system design guys, whose job it was to implement
the design of the ground systems, didn’t like that idea at all.
I’m not sure I, even to this day, can understand exactly why.
I think they were worried about the ability to build a structure that
would bridge across the flame trench and then be able to support the
kind of loads that the tower would impose on the ground interface
or the foundation interface.
Their idea was basically what evolved into the Rotating Service Structure
and the Payload Changeout Room that is today at Pad A (and today at
Pad B, has just been recently demoed and pulled down). I remember
the arguments, the honest technical interchanges, you know those,
they sound like arguments a lot, about which was the better way. That
you weren’t considering this, and you haven’t considered
that. Back and forth and back and forth.
The proponents of the “tails north” lost the final battle.
The proponents of the “tails south” are in fact what you
see at the pad today. The structure that has to rotate across. I think
actually if I remember—which I don’t very well—that
was the main reason the folks in Downey wanted the tails north with
the fixed PCR at the back end, because they couldn’t figure
out how you would actually bridge across the flame trench. Where the
Rotating Service Structure rolls around now and rotates across the
trench on its own little dedicated [railroad] track out there.
I also don’t remember how we had proposed—we in Downey,
I hate to include myself in that group sometimes. One of the hats
on my hat rack is a blue hat that says “Downey” across
the front, because some of my friends in Downey had to remind me after
I moved back to KSC, “You were a Downey guy.” Anyhow,
I don’t remember how the payloads were actually installed in
that Payload Changeout Room at the north end of the pad. All that
kind of stuff was designed not to the nth detail but certainly conceptually;
that’s the kind of work that was going on in Downey and at KSC
during that period of time in the mid to late ’70s, early to
mid ’70s even.
I remember one day I was just walking down one of the hallways, and
this was early on, so it was a formative time when I was out there.
I was  or , I guess, at the time. There was a cluster of structures
guys around a drafting table. There [were] still drafting tables and
number two pencils, or at least number two lead and lead holders,
and triangles and T squares. They were discussing what the aft attachment,
that structural attach of the External Tank to the Orbiter—it’s
the great big huge truss structure that’s at the back end of
the Tank that winds up in 11-inch-diameter balls on that structure,
and then the Orbiter sits down [on them] with the mating sockets and
a two-and-a-half-inch bolt [which] goes through [them]. Well, at the
time there was some concern.
The original design was not a spherical one at all; it was more of
a conical structure with flats on the sides of the cone. I think the
idea at the time was that the conical structure with the flats on
it provided a more generous load path [for] the “push”
that the Orbiter was exerting on the External Tank. It was a simpler
structural [solution to the] problem. As the design of the mated Shuttle
was maturing, the separation dynamics guys realized that when it came
to separation, the Tank and the Orbiter, which are basically “centerlines
parallel” as it ascends, [but] as you separate, the Orbiter
peels off of the Tank nose first. Once we got cameras on the External
Tank late in the Program, that’s probably the biggest lesson
learned that future programs should have. Put cameras on the vehicle
from the get-go. You can learn a lot from just looking at pictures.
You see that today. As the nose comes off, it peels off the Tank and
thrusts away from the External Tank. They were worried that that conical
shape, which basically went up into a conical hole in the Orbiter,
had very little flexibility. The Orbiter would have to fly in a pure
plus-Z maneuver, which is basically keeping the centerlines of the
Tank and the Orbiter parallel. Then you got into off-nominal separation.
You get into things where you may get into recontact and whatnot.
So right there I spent probably no more than four or five minutes
watching these guys. If you think about what should a bunch of guys
designing a space vehicle look like in call it 1975 with pencils and
quadrille pads, that’s the way it was. They were just drawing
away. Say, “Well, look, this happens. What if we did this or
what if we did that?”
A guy named Vince [Vincent A.] Weldon actually was the guy who did
that. He was the head of the aft fuselage design, I think, at the
time. He said, “Gee if we just had a spherical ball that the
Orbiter sat on, you could separate nose first and get the vehicle
rolling off the back of the Tank. Those spherical balls would just
let the Orbiter pivot around them. Then you could separate off there.
Everybody said, “Yes, that’s true. Oh, okay, we just designed
the aft attach interface.” [Those are] some of those moments
that you remember.
I’ll give you another one. I remember I often was in engineering
review boards, either as spectator or presenter; mostly spectator,
infrequently presenter. I was in one one day when they were discussing
the design of a display in the cockpit for the crew to use. John [W.]
Young was there. The particular display was for something during RTLS
[Return to Launch Site abort]. I don’t remember the specifics
of which display it was and what the various design concepts or choices
or proposals were.
They went through all the various different presentations. Ed Smith
was the Chief Engineer for Rockwell. Aaron Cohen, I think, was still
the project guy from JSC, the NASA guy from Orbiter Project. He was
there for that particular thing. Ed and Aaron couldn’t come
to a solution so they turned to John. They said, “John, what
do you think? Which display would you rather have?”
John said, “I’m not sure, because if we ever do an RTLS
I’m going to be doing this.” He put his hands over his
eyes and went “aaa” all the way down. So that’s
the kind of things [you remember].
Another guy I worked with—you wonder what’s wrong with
these people sometimes. There was again an avionics thing. A fellow
that worked down here on Apollo actually, Paul Rupert was his name.
He had gone back to Downey before me. I didn’t know him when
he was down here, but he was down here, worked Spacecraft. He was
giving a presentation on some avionics thing, probably on the size
of the instrumentation system or something like that, because he worked
a lot of that kind of stuff. He was in the same general area I was,
[but] worked for a different boss. We both worked for the next level
He had his presentation going, and of course none of this on computer-driven
displays or any of that kind of stuff. This was back when you had
transparencies and viewgraphs. Everybody had to have viewgraphs of
their typically hand-lettered briefing charts back in the good old
days. I guess by then we were starting to use—how did we do
them? Did we use typewriters with big letters or something? Anyhow,
He was giving his presentation. Had a pointer. Everybody had the wood
pointer with the rubber tip on the end of it. He’s in the midst
of this presentation. Again Ed Smith and Aaron or somebody, the big
guys at the center of the big table, got into a discussion on some
minor point. Rupert was a little older than me but not much. He takes
the pointer and goes whack, whack, whack, whack on the table. He says,
“Wait a minute, I’m giving this presentation, not you
They jumped to attention, leaned back in their chair, “Go ahead,
Mr. Rupert, continue.” Just one of those little briefing techniques
you probably don’t read in the textbook on what’s the
best way to go about maintaining the attention of your audience. Anyhow,
[those were the] kind of experiences in Downey at the time.
Tell us about moving back here to Florida and what you were working
on when you arrived.
[I was in California] almost five years, not quite five years, I went
out in January ’73, and by the end of ’77 we had hardware
a-building in Palmdale [California]. I unfortunately didn’t
get the opportunity to spend much time in Palmdale. Went up for rollout
of Enterprise when it first came out of the hangar. My two kids by
then were three and four, two and three, something like that. The
organization was building down here [in Florida], because of course
at that time we were supposed to have flown the first flight in March
of ’78. That was the Program date for years and years and years,
although all the elements were having their problems. The Rocketdyne
engine guys were having problems with things staying together. The
Booster guys had problems with the combustion instability and chugging
in the Booster. The Tank guys were struggling to get Tanks that actually
had the same thickness foam on them. The Orbiter guys were struggling
with the weight of the vehicle.
In fact Enterprise was built and delivered. I think it’s a little
bit of history revisionism or whatever it’s called, where you
decide later on what history really was rather than what really happened
at the time. The performance requirements on the vehicle were such
that the structure that we built Enterprise out of couldn’t
ultimately meet the performance requirements.
The idea always had been that we have a vehicle that was stripped
down for the approach and landing tests, the gliding tests, the separation
tests from the 747, with and without the tail cone attached. We would
use that vehicle for the aerodynamic test program at Edwards [Air
Force Base, California], and then it would go back into Palmdale to
modify it back up to orbital flight capability. Between the time that
Enterprise came out of the hangar—I’m sure it was known
well before then—and we got Columbia designed and built, the
Program realized it would be too much work to modify Enterprise’s
structure to allow it to go into orbital flight and meet the 65,000-
and 32,000-pound payload requirements of East Coast and West Coast
So now you only can find that Enterprise was never intended to go
into orbit. It was always an aerodynamic vehicle. That’s not
exactly as I remember history, but then I didn’t take good notes
I guess. Anyhow, the entire Shuttle Program hardware delivery guys,
including KSC and the facilities and the processing areas that would
be used for the various elements, were behind schedule.
In late ’77 the family and I went up to Edwards to see the first
free flight test of the Orbiter coming off the back of the 747, another
lasting memory. We’re in the desert, Edwards Air Force Base
in the middle of the Mojave Desert. We’re all lined up, parked
in our cars, on the hill. There’s some typical California kid
next to me in a big fancy pickup truck and a ski boat. I’m not
sure exactly where he was coming from or where he was going but he
was going to watch the first Shuttle Orbiter make an aerodynamic flight
that day with that vehicle.
So we watch that. I think we went back to the LA [Los Angeles] Basin
for not very many days or weeks, and then we headed back across country.
Some of the guys, who had worked here during Apollo and had transferred
back to Downey before me, had transferred back to Florida again before
me. I was going back down there to join them. The same big boss, Bill
Edson, who had requested me to come out and work on integration stuff,
was the guy that was heading up the organization down here. So I came
back, and we worked.
One of the real shortcomings of the Shuttle Program, and another one
of those hard lessons that needs to be learned by the next project,
whatever it might be, is that there was very very very little integration
of requirements between projects. Specifically what I mean is that
as the Orbiter Project recognized that particular pieces of hardware
may have failed qualification testing or they just didn’t work,
and modifications were engineered and new hardware was built and delivered,
they did that almost in a vacuum of the particular project, typically
Launch and Landing KSC guys, what they needed in order to make the
hardware change. Typically everybody thinks “Oh, I’m going
to make a change to the hardware. I need an engineering order.”
Well, along with an engineering order you may need test requirements.
You may need Interface Control Document [ICD] changes, because you
now need different services or fluids or physical interface to the
Ground Support Equipment [GSE] may have to change the box, the electrical,
fluid, structural thing on the ground. You may need flight software
changes depending on if it’s an active component in the vehicle
that depends on the computer interface to work. [That] may have to
Nobody had a system which accumulated all these various elements of
a change together so that the poor engineer at KSC who was responsible
for implementing the hardware change could say, “Here, Mr. Software,
you got to do this; Mr. GSE, you got to do this; Mr. ICD, you got
to do this; Mr. Facility Guy, you got to do this. Mr. Test Requirement,
you need to put this in the test procedure so when we check it out
it’s got the right requirements in it and you’re looking
at the right leakage or voltage or temperature or pressure or whatever
the change had to do.”
So I knew about that kind of stuff from my experience in Saturn. The
guy I worked for, Glen Torrey, [also] had done similar kind of things
on Apollo. We knew what we at KSC as the Launch and Landing guys now
needed from the various Projects. This wasn’t a thing that was
unique to Orbiter. All the other elements had similar kind of things.
We struggled mightily for a couple years first off trying to get the
flight hardware guy, who actually designed it [to provide the other
elements of the change]. He didn’t care about another vignette
from an Engineering Review Board out there. I remember “Oh,
well, we don’t know how to do that exactly, but we’ll
let the Cape guys worry about that.” It was kick the can down
the road. “I’ll change my hardware and make it work.”
The guy at the launch site or the processing site can go figure out
how to process it, how to launch it, how to recover it, or how to
do whatever it is you had to do because the designer really didn’t
know how to do that right then.
That by the way—personal opinion—is part of the problem
with the Shuttle Program. Many, many, many times I remember, “We’ll
let the guys at the Cape figure that out.” The guys who designed
the hardware weren’t responsible for assuring that the hardware
could be processed and launched in the amount of time that the Agency
was publicizing as [to] why Shuttle was going to be so much cheaper
They weren’t responsible for making sure that the processing
timelines, which fundamentally sold the Program, could be met. It
wasn’t their job. It was the guys at the Cape’s job. Now
obviously when you’re designing a spacecraft or designing any
product it needs to meet the basic functionality requirements first.
It doesn’t do much good to design a rocket that can’t
lift off the ground because it’s too heavy for the thrust that
the engine systems give it. By the same token, if your design of your
hardware is so expensive to utilize that it costs—pick a number
on what it costs for Shuttle to fly a mission; it’s either $250
million or $1 billion. I’m sure there [are] people that can
prove either number, but without argument it’s expensive to
process Shuttle. My opinion is it’s expensive to process Shuttle
because the guys who had to design the flight hardware weren’t
responsible to also demonstrate the processing of that hardware within
the timelines that were allocated to meet the mission model, which
ultimately reflected in the dollars per pound to orbit figures that
the Agency was quoting.
Did you actually think at the time when you were working on the Shuttle
Program that you could see 50, 60 launches a year?
I absolutely, positively knew that we would never ever make the 160-hour
turnaround. In [the] Space Shuttle book [Space Shuttle: The History
of the National Space Transportation System] Dennis [R.] Jenkins [shows]
a pie chart of the allocation of the two-week turnaround with little
cartoons of what’s happening to the Shuttle parts and pieces.
The Orbiter lands and that’s about a ten-minute slice. Then
the Orbiter [is] processed in the OPF, and that’s about a two-
or three-day slice. We absolutely, positively knew that that would
We all did “wink-wink,” “nod-nod,” “yep
sure,” that’s the timeline. But that’s the timeline
that was required to get the mission model to get the launch flight
rate to get the cost per pound figures that the Agency was using with
the Congress to show how cheap and efficient Shuttle was going to
We got the magnificent flying machine part really well. We didn’t
do too well on the processing and turnaround times and the expense
involved in doing that. I remember a lot of times where you’d
hear, “We’ll let the Cape guys worry about that,”
whether it was a test requirement or how to interface with a piece
of hardware to do a checkout. That wasn’t their priority as
designers. Their priority as designers was to get a piece of hardware
designed which would fly to orbit like it was supposed to do.
Tell us about being vehicle manager for Columbia. Were you its first
To have a little bit of continuity in the story, Glen and I stumbled
[around] and put this change processing system together. When we were
done with that, I then got to work on the vehicle, the first Orbiter
that was delivered to KSC, Columbia.
It was delivered about when the launch was supposed to occur, as I
remember, March of ’78. We didn’t launch of course until
April 12th of ’81. So there was a lot of time to work vehicle
processing problems, modification, implementation problems. So I left
my job, or left the business system that we had established for working
modifications, whether they be hardware, software, test requirement,
[to others in the office] and [started to] work as the vehicle manager.
Even today, in a different company and a different organization, they
still basically have the vehicle manager position. Typically the Engineering
organizations are very stovepipey. They’re typically organized
as fluid systems and structural systems and avionics systems and Thermal
Protection Systems for Orbiter. There’s very little communication
between those stovepipes.
Now as you get up into the management structure of those stovepipes,
ultimately there’s typically a guy at the top that’s a
Chief Engineer or Director of Engineering or some kind of majordomo
up there. But there’s very little communication between the
groups at the working level.
So what the job of the vehicle manager was is to provide the interface
between the Operations guys who are laying out schedules of what work
has to do be done [and] when in order to meet particular milestones
by interfacing with the Ops guys that set up those schedules and track
and revise those schedules as needed [and the Engineering teams].
The job of the vehicle manager—or it may be called a senior
engineer or the vehicle mother or father—the job of that person
is to interface between the Ops guys and the Engineering groups to
make sure the appropriate priorities in Engineering are established
and are understood so that the operations schedule, tasks on that
schedule, can be supported and completed on time.
That’s the day-to-day [stuff]: what does it take to recover
the vehicle, safe it, inspect it, download all the stuff from last
mission, upload the new stuff, do the new checkout that’s required,
and process the vehicle on to the next stop in the flow. The vehicle
manager also has to worry about modifications that have to be done.
Unfortunately, I have no earthly idea how many modifications we did
on Columbia for the first flight, but I’m guessing it had to
be thousands. There were lots of hardware at the time which wasn’t
meeting its hardware development schedules either because it just
wouldn’t work or because it was slow in getting it to work.
There was some hardware that we’d contract with vendors to deliver
a particular piece, like a nut or bolt or simple little piece of hardware,
and it wouldn’t meet its specification requirements. It was
too soft or too short or too hard or too long.
It wasn’t what we needed. So in each one of those cases the
authority from the customer, the Orbiter Project customer, the NASA
customer, the change authority was in one of those Master Change Record
things I told you about earlier, the MCRs. Some project office guy
in Downey would have to write an MCR and say, “Okay, we’ve
got to go get a different bolt from a different vendor. We got to
go build a different piece of hardware or a different system, a different
component.” Each one of those things would then come down here
with a thing called a mod [modification] kit which was the new piece
of hardware, whether it was a nut or bolt or flash evaporator or an
APU [Auxiliary Power Unit].
The vehicle manager would be one of the first guys down here that
would be sensitive to that [change] by communicating [daily] back
with his counterpart on the West Coast. We’d know that component
X flunked or the bolts were the wrong thing or the wire was not insulated
properly or whatever the problem was. We’d know that was a forthcoming
change. We’d go to the Ops guys down here and say, “Hey,
we’re going to have to change the whizbang.” Whatever
it might have been. “There’s a new mod coming. So we need
to work that into your schedule. Maybe you don’t want to do
that test today because next week we’ll give you a new piece
of hardware which will invalidate all that testing. Maybe you want
to do the test to make sure that everything else around that piece
of hardware works like it’s supposed to work. Then we’ll
repeat the test with the new piece of hardware after we put that in.”
Those were the kind of things that went on on a daily basis during
STS-1 processing with Columbia. It was a very, very interesting—challenging—but
very interesting job. The best job I ever had. You had nobody working
for you. You were the guy responsible to make sure everything worked.
If it didn’t work, then the head guy was going to come to you
and find out what did you screw up that the right decisions weren’t
made early enough in order to accommodate whatever change was going
to happen, which rolled downhill into some schedule impact.
Part of that job also was getting the engineering requirements, all
of them: the hardware change, the test requirement change, the software
change, the GSE, the ground, the facility changes, the ICDs, everything.
Putting that package together, giving it to the engineering group,
who was responsible to go implement that change in requirement or
hardware or test or whatever it was.
The engineers would go prepare implementation paper. Of course everybody
used paper then, handwritten with a black pen. Press hard, you’re
making three copies on this triplicate form. I was responsible to
get those requirement packages out to the engineering groups that
had to go implement them and then collecting their work paper and
taking it to the change boards. Mainly the change board we had, because
the vast majority of the stuff we did was hardware changes which had
very few test requirement or software changes associated with them,
but there were some.
So I was the Rockwell guy that was responsible to pitch, to receive
approval from the authorizing Agency. Pitch. We had a site boss that
[said] “I don’t want you guys using pitch. That’s
like you’re trying to convince somebody that you’re not
doing something wrong.”
We had to pitch the changes to the two major customer guys that were
here: the KSC head of the vehicle processing organization, the local
NASA guy—that’s when we were still here working as a processing
contractor in the early days—and the JSC resident rep, who was
representing the NASA Orbiter Project Office at KSC. So I’d
be responsible to know what the change was that we had, why we were
making it, what the impacts of that would be in terms of hardware
and software and test requirements. That’s why it was so important
to develop that business system ahead of time.
So when they said, “Isn’t this going to change test procedures?”
You had to have an answer other than “Gee, I don’t know.”
I’ve been there; I know that answer very well, but only [used
it] once or twice before I learned [to come with the correct, complete
So I would pitch the change to Charlie [Charles B.] Mars, who was
the NASA KSC guy, and Archie [E.] Morse, who was the JSC resident
office guy. I don’t think [I’m] overstating it, [but]
we had a wonderful rapport together. We understood what our jobs were;
both Charlie and Archie were old-time NASA guys that had come up through
their respective organizations. I think that was probably the [same]
jobs they had during the Apollo Program. Both of them were Apollo
We had a wonderful rapport together. We knew what we were supposed
to do. Ninety-nine percent of the time I was prepared. It’s
always good to be prepared when you’re trying to convince somebody
to do something. That job forced me to know how all the little pieces
fit together into the big picture because those guys were experienced
enough to ask questions like what’s the impact to schedule;
what’s it going to do to test requirements; why haven’t
I seen software changes that go along with this; you’re adding
a new component that has a new measurement on it, where’s the
change to the data bank which tracks all the instrumentation? It was
really challenging and really satisfying kind of work.
I’m sure I’m only remembering the good times. But boy,
I can’t remember right off the top of my head where Charlie
or Archie [ever] said, “Absolutely positively no, get out of
here,” [where] I didn’t suggest ahead of time that maybe
that was the answer that they should have. I remember a couple of
those where it is typical. Again, a lesson learned kind of thing for
a future program: the payload bay door linkage has little things on
the ends of all the pushrods in the mechanism called rod end bearings.
It was a case of we bought a component from a vendor and the specification
requirements on the component required an ability to withstand a particular
load through that bearing. The acceptance tests of those didn’t
meet it. It was way off. So my friends in Downey invented this new
MCR and designed or procured new parts and accumulated a mod kit and
sent them down here and said, “Oh, you got to.” Gave us
engineering to accomplish the [switch and] changed all those rod end
bearings out. Fortunately [this] was another case where I’d
done my homework.
Charlie, I think, asked, “Why are we doing this?”
I said, “Same story. Part received from vendor didn’t
meet the requirement.”
He said, “I guess we got to go change it.”
I said, “Not exactly.” The spec [specification] requirement
was to meet a 1,000-pound load before you push the bearing out of
the rod end. The vendor had delivered ones that would only withstand
100 pounds. You say, holy cow, it’s only making [X %]. I was—one
of the rare times, pat myself on the back—smart enough or suspicious
enough to go call the guys in Downey and ask them just exactly what
did that part see in flight.
They said, “Oh, it’s only seeing about ten pounds.”
So we had a part that was supposed to meet X. It only met a tenth
of X but that was ten times more than Y which was the load it actually
saw. The job to do this change, you basically had to disassemble all
the drive linkage in the payload bay doors and then do all the rerigging.
It would have been weeks if not months to get that done. I suggested,
“Perhaps you gentlemen, as the NASA representatives, don’t
want to approve the implementation of this because we have a margin
of ten to one on the actual loads. We really don’t need to change
the existing hardware.” We certainly need to change downstream
because somebody else, somewhere else on the vehicle may decide to
use that same piece of hardware in a totally different system. They’re
looking at the spec, and it says it’s good for 1,000, so maybe
their [flight] load was 900 or 1,000.
So I said it’s fine that they provide the engineering and change
the drawings and provide new hardware in the logistics systems but
we didn’t have to take the two weeks or three months or whatever
it was going to take to do the modification to the actual flight hardware
on Columbia. They were going to pick it up in line for the next vehicle
that was to be delivered, but it wasn’t necessary for us. That’s
the kind of thing that the design side of the Agency didn’t
tend to worry about. “Oh, this is wrong, I’ll do the good
engineering thing; I’ll fix it.” But they didn’t
consider what the implementation of the fix would do to the processing
schedule. We were already two years down; we didn’t need to
be another year down doing all this “nice to have” things
that aren’t really necessary.
Tell us about the tile and the headache that it posed for you as vehicle
In truth, the tile was such a problem on STS-1, and it had so many
hundreds of people working on it, I didn’t worry about it too
much. Let’s see, [did] he start out that way? I think he did.
The supervisor of the tile group, at least the engineering group,
was a guy I went to college with and worked in the propulsion group
on the S-II stage. He took over the tile organization. As I remember
he was in propulsion or something on the Shuttle side. The site director
down here was impressed with his ability and wanted him to work tile.
He had the biggest organization of engineering and quality and tech
people trying to solve problems. I think every one of the 32,000 tiles
that were on Columbia had something wrong with it. As long as he had
that force of people working, when he said they were ready, I figured
they were ready. I didn’t need to worry about helping him or
getting personally involved with that.
As it turned out, as we approached OPF rollout for the first time,
there was a monumental amount of work paper that [we handled]; we
got a whole bunch of transferred work from Palmdale. I think every
tile was removed and installed a couple times while the vehicle was
here. So there was just a horrendous amount of paper that had to be
all reviewed. Each piece had to be reviewed and verified that it was
in fact complete and all the work was done. Just the clerical work
of doing that took another army of people. It certainly seems like
it was more than a week [before rollout], but maybe it was only a
week. Everybody in engineering and just about every other organization
that wasn’t already working on tile got handed a piece of paper
and [were told], “Here go verify this work is done and it’s
completed and it’s closed up through the quality assurance systems.”
So that’s all a blur to me anymore because we worked so hard
and for so long to get [finished.]
Every day the rollout day out of the OPF was coming closer and closer.
Everybody kept saying, “Yes, you are going to make that rollout
date.” So it was a very highly pressure-packed few days or weeks,
whatever it was, in making sure all that paper was properly accomplished
and closed and in the appropriate accounting systems to make sure
that we knew in fact we had done everything we needed to.
Tell us about that first launch. What are your recollections? Or the
first attempted launch even. Did that pose any challenges for you
as vehicle manager?
Not really. When the vehicle got out of the OPF 90% of my work was
done. Very little to do in the VAB (Vertical Assembly Building) where
the Orbiter and the Tank and the Boosters all came together. Or [more
correctly], the Boosters started and the Tank came to them and then
the Orbiter came to the set.
Certainly [now] at the end of the Program all that work [is] very
well understood, [is] very repeatable. It [takes] the same amount
of time to do it. [But], in the very early days it was a little different
because we did a lot more testing, a lot more inspections. It always
amazes people today who joined the Program late, that we [once] ran
APUs powered by decomposed hydrazine in the OPF, inside the bay. Today
you can’t do that. I said, “You may not be able to do
it today but we certainly did it then.” We installed ductwork
up through the structure and through the roof of the OPF and ran the
APUs and the hydraulic pumps and moved aerosurfaces around just like
we had good sense. Too many people today are frozen by the current
interpretation of safety and other requirements that preclude them
from doing stuff like that.
In any case, to get back to your question, the VAB mating the vehicles
correctly was the biggest thing happening over there but that was
pretty much controlled by the structural, mechanical, and propulsion
guys. Avionics had a little bit of work to do there mating the umbilicals
for the first time. [We] did a lot of testing. Then rolled out to
the pad. Did more testing out there. Serviced the storable propellant
successfully the first time. Had a little bit of a problem the next
I’m not sure that anybody actually thought we’d launch
the first time through. I had been through all the launches of the
Saturn V either as an off shift guy in the control room or a launch
crew. So I had a little bit of experience about how complicated and
how difficult it is to get all that hardware to work the first time.
We cut off for a general-purpose computer problem as I remember. Came
around the second day and zip, zoom, there it went, all the way down.
“Well, something’s got to happen now. Something’s
got to happen now. Something’s got to happen now.” Went,
marched right down through T-zero just like we knew what we were doing
and launched. Obvious exhilaration in launch, which is why this business
is so attractive to the adrenaline junkies that work in it and can
[make up for] the rest of the things that come along with that.
The aural and physical sensations that you got from Shuttle were quite
different from Apollo/Saturn. Apollo/Saturn was loud and rumbly and
slow and majestic to take off. I was not in the firing room for the
first countdown; I was outside. As I remember, we were over on the
northeast corner of the VAB. The noise was significantly different.
Everybody says, “Oh that’s the Boosters making that sound.”
I don’t know how you separate which piece of the hardware is
making which particular noise when it’s 180 dB [decibels] or
whatever; it is loud. I know I turned around a couple times just to
make sure the siding was staying on the side of the VAB. It was significantly
louder. It was a different kind of noise. I always tell people if
you’ve never seen one or heard one before it’ll sound
like [beats on chest] on your chest. The pressure waves or acoustic
load is bouncing off your chest. Of course that’s rattling all
the structure that you may be near.
They went up and flew around and landed. Another fond memory is John
Young coming down the steps at Edwards and almost dancing around the
vehicle. He was so visibly excited and happy at the performance of
the vehicle. I don’t know, maybe given the other story about
what he was going to do during RTLS, maybe he was just so happy he
lived through the experience that he was elated.
I still get a kick out of watching that little snippet of film. I
guess it’s film. I’m not sure we had video in the day.
Of he and [Robert L.] Crippen doing the walk-around on that first
vehicle recovery. He was just overwhelmed I guess.
How long did you serve as vehicle manager?
Well, I skated along in the best job I ever had for years and years
and years. Funny how the community is so small. Back on Apollo, the
Spacecraft guys had some problems with the propulsion systems on the
spacecraft. The site director at the time Tom [O’Malley] wanted
one of those hotshot S-II guys to come down and help his poor propulsion
people solve their problems. So I was the anointed “hotshot
propulsion guy” that got sent down to Spacecraft. For the first
time I met a fellow named John Tribe who had responsibility for the
SPS, the Service Propulsion System, the big engine on the back of
the Service Module and all the Reaction Control jets on the Service
Module and the Spacecraft.
Thinking back over the years, I’m always amazed at how—courteous
I guess would be the best word. He’s inherently a gentleman,
but I can’t imagine if I was up to my eyeballs in alligators
I wouldn’t want some hotshot kid coming down and telling me
how to drain the swamp. He was very, very accommodating and friendly
to me. Of course they were doing everything right that they had to
do. It was just like any other accident. All the holes in the Swiss
cheese lined up, and [they] ran into a problem.
Terrible design of the hardware, by the way, and its unforgiveness
[to] minor errors in processing that you make, typically. About 20
years later, John is the head of Engineering on Shuttle. He says,
“Okay, Jerry, it’s long enough. You’ve been vacationing
as a vehicle manager for long enough. It’s time you get into
management.” There were a couple guys that had left the Program.
John wanted me to take over the Project Office and all the rest of
the vehicle managers. That was in the mid ’90s I guess.
Then I had an opportunity to pick as my successor as the vehicle guy,
curiously enough, another guy I’d gone to school with at Gainesville
and had worked on S-II with [Al Seraphine]. So he had a long track
record that I was very familiar with and knew he was eminently qualified
to do the job. So I had the opportunity to name him as my successor.
I had then responsibility for the Project Engineering organization
and the Configuration Accounting organization that was a little bit
of a different slant on things than I was familiar with.
A number of years after that, as they always say on the resumes, I
moved up through ever more responsible positions of management and
wound up being director of Orbiter Engineering for Boeing, at least,
What does that entail?
I always got to start out with a very complicated organizational structure
discussion because it doesn’t make any sense otherwise. The
Boeing Company as the OEM, the Original Equipment Manufacturer, of
the Orbiter through the years has wound up with a contract with the
United Space Alliance [USA] organization. We are responsible for sustaining
engineering on the Orbiter. There’s the [Boeing] Orbiter Engineering
part of that, and [we] are matched with a USA and of course NASA organizations
We have [this] responsibility for Orbiter Engineering, [and] we [also]
have a responsibility for Systems Engineering and Integration, and
we [also] have a responsibility for Logistics Support. The Logistics
Support is kind of part of Orbiter but not exactly. So it’s
easier to describe it as three different organizations. I [provide]
under the Orbiter Engineering part of that [three-part] organization
our product that we “sell” to our customer: Orbiter hardware
and software systems expertise. I haven’t tracked it probably
for five years but the last time I tracked it my employees had on
average 17 years of experience in Orbiter design or processing. So
I have very, very senior, experienced experts in all the vehicle systems.
Our job is to support the processor, United Space Alliance, in resolving
any design problems which they may have, or any problems which come
up as discrepancies that have to be repaired not in accordance with
a particular engineering drawing. Those things are called MRs (Material
Review). Repair and salvage of the particular hardware is one way
to think of it.
Then I have flight software experts that assist in any questions that
may come up in that [area. These] organizations again are the traditional
stovepipes: fluid, propulsion, avionics, structures and mechanisms,
and handling. [Handling is treated as a “system”] because
the Shuttle Program has a significant amount of handling [huge pieces
of flight] hardware; we’re stacking a 727, 737-size airplane
on the side of a huge External Tank which is mounted between two Solid
Rocket Boosters. So there’s some pretty specialized hardware
and techniques that go along with that.
Then I have the Thermal Protection System and materials and processing
support people that go along with that. So we’re the [design]
experts. We’re supposed to know everything there is that can
possibly happen to the Orbiter in either a normal processing mode
or in any kind of either hardware or test anomaly solving any particular
problems that require our fairly unique knowledge of all the Orbiter
When did that capability move from California to KSC?
In about 1995 I think. For a history buff I have a terrible time with
[dates]. That [Christopher] Columbus guy, when was that, 1400 and
how many? I have a terrible time with dates, but I think it was along
about there, about 1995. The whole idea was to move the sustaining
engineering capability—unfortunately we only did it with guarded
success—to move it out of California. At the time at least the
argument went that most of the new design engineering was done. We
were sustaining rather than engineering new. We were sustaining the
engineering. So it was to move either to Houston where it would be
close to the Orbiter Project Office customer, both the NASA and the
USA customer, or [KSC]. In particular systems like structures and
TPS are the best two examples where it’s highly unlikely that
you’re going to design new hardware for those systems, but you
have lots of processing issues to deal with—dings and dents
in the structure or corrosion repairs you[’ve] got to make.
Or in tile you[’ve] got gap fillers and putty [repairs] and
the whole litany of other things that go along with [processing] TPS.
In case of both systems, typically those are things you fix almost
real-time on the floor (the processing area), wherever you might happen
to be. So it made sense that that sustaining engineering group came
down to KSC rather than stop at Houston.
Get them next to the hardware where they would do the most good. There
were a couple other areas like our wiring experts that came down here.
That was especially obvious when we had the loss of the AC power bus
to the engines, which affected mainly the engines on STS-. Eileen
[M.] Collins’s flight when we lost the power bus—one of
the redundant power buses to the SSMEs because of a short from damage
to wiring in the wire trays in the midbody, which kicked off a—we
always called it wiring summer. We spent six months of inspection
and repair in the wiring systems, the however many hundreds of miles
of wire we have on the vehicle, to make sure that we didn’t
have any similar damage that could cause real problems.
Most of that [engineering expertise]—some of it was retained
in Huntington Beach [California], but we got some of it here. The
expert in wiring installations came here so he would be able to address
the problems real-time on the floor. “Eyes-on” kind of
thing. It doesn’t do any good to have a fantastic expert 2,500
miles away when the problem comes up at 3:00 a.m. Sunday morning on
the floor of the OPF. That guy 2,500 miles away is of questionable
use, no matter how smart he is. That’s another kind of lesson
learned for future programs, that there probably ought to be a conscious
decision by the program management that says gee, here’s either
traditionally the kind of things we have problems with, or after a
flight or two or three or seven say, “Okay, we’re continuing
to have these kind of problems in processing and this kind of support
is necessary, so we really ought to move that kind of support.”
If you can’t move the entire design Agency to the launch site
then you ought to selectively pick out the guys that can give you
the most help in the processing and put them next to the rocket ship
where they can do you the most good in fixing problems as they come
Do you think that was helpful for the return to flight after Columbia
Absolutely, yes. It’s been my experience that you can’t
help but develop some relationship with people that you work with
every day. If you have to wait, “Oh, I can’t call Joe
because he’s not in for another three hours, and I got to leave
early today, a half hour or so, to get my kid from school,”
you wind up with about two hours that you can talk to people on the
West Coast. That’s not conducive to really expeditious handling
of issues and problems and solutions. So it really helps to have those
kind of folks on site or readily available.
Even folks in Houston. You’re still an hour away. Although we
have wondrous video and photographic kind of capabilities now that
we’ve never had before, Jerry Sheehan doesn’t think there’s
any substitute for putting eyes on the hardware, boots on the ground,
to figure out what’s really going on. Hopefully the next programs
will recognize that early enough to make enough of a difference early
in the program.
Rebecca, do you have any questions for Mr. Sheehan?
No, other than probably just something a little bit more generic.
The years that you spent here. You mentioned earlier about having
to start moving some things around. Are you planning to exit out of
the Program as well?
About a year and a half ago when the Program was supposed to last
only about four, six more months, I was ready to retire. The Boeing
Orbiter Program Manager, (he and I again developed a wonderful working
relationship early, years and years ago) said, “You are going
to stay around to the end of the Program, aren’t you?”
I said, “I was planning on retiring.”
He said, “Gee, would you please, just for me, stay around?”
He might not have said it exactly that way but that’s the way
I remember it. Stay around until the end of the Program.
I said, “Okay, John [Mulholland], just for you. Just because
you’re a nice guy I’ll do that.” That was a year
and a half ago. Yes, along with the wonderful choice of parents I
made, I made a wonderful choice of which program to follow when, and
carefully calculated it so that it would be done when I was ready
to retire. So I can gracefully step out of this job without affecting
anything other than my own self. So that worked out wonderfully. Since
I’ve been around this area since 1950, at least for the foreseeable
future, my wife and I will stay around here. One kid is still in college.
The other kids [have] jobs or jobs and family. All that is taken care
of too. So it’s not like “I got to stay around here because
I’m 60 years old but my two-year-old has just gone into daycare.”
I know cases like that. Not mine, but cases like that. So yes, I’m
pretty well set, if I have enough empty boxes to put all the memorabilia
and other stuff in. I don’t know what I’m going to do
with it when I get it to the house though. There’ll be some
sorting of what’s really important—well, everything’s
really important. Going to have to build another big room on the back
of the house with lots of wall space I guess, just to hang stuff [on].
Sounds like you’ll have a project to keep you busy.
That’s for sure. That’s what the little red car is. That’s
in the garage with a fuel pump that doesn’t work. So that’s
one thing [to fix]. The choo-choo train stuff has engendered an interest
in building live steam locomotives, water and fuel and heat and exhaust
and chuff-chuff sounds and whatnot. So I [also] do that [now]. Not
to the level or extent I want to, but in about another two months
that will change. Yes, it’s been a hell of a ride as they say.
Interesting, challenging. Few heartbreaks hither and yon. But for
the most part I’m not sure I’d want to change much.
Well, thanks for taking us along for the ride. We appreciate your