NASA STS Recordation
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
J. R. Thompson
Interviewed by Jennifer Ross-Nazzal
Huntsville, Alabama – 13 May 2011
Today is May 13, 2011. This interview is being conducted with J.R.
Thompson in Huntsville, Alabama, 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 to meet with us today.
We know you’re certainly busy, and we appreciate you giving
some time here in Huntsville. I’d like for you to set the ground
for us. When you became manager of the Space Shuttle Main Engine Project
in 1974, at what stage was the main engine at that point?
I believe it was around May of ’74 when I came aboard, and the
Shuttle engine at that time was about—they were several years
into the development, “they” being Rocketdyne. Then, of
course, Marshall [Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama] in the
laboratories out there were heavily involved as well.
We were on the cusp of starting to embark on the subsystem or component
testing, a lot of it planned at Santa Susana in California, right
outside of Los Angeles. It started out somewhat slow, primarily because
the work was behind schedule on the facilities up at Santa Susana.
They were called COCA [test] stands. COCA-1 was combustion devices,
and COCA-2 was turbo machinery. We struggled through the summer and
into the fall on trying to get the facility in shape. They were very
massive systems, very complicated. They had controls on them to simulate
the component being subjected to the requirements of the Shuttle main
engine. To make a long story short, it was very unsatisfactory. We
probably didn’t get more than a couple of dozen tests off. We
had several major problems, some fires with the facilities. For example,
in the lock system we had some metallic particles or pins that came
loose, and of course that created a fire.
This drug out. We were getting further behind schedule, and it was
costing a good bit of money so we looked very hard at leapfrogging
all of the subsystem tests and going straight to the engine system.
We called it the Integrated [Sub]system Test Bed, ISTB. I believe
by the spring of the next year we had assembled our first ISTB test
and embarked on that at [NASA] Stennis [Space Center, Mississippi].
It turned out to be a very successful undertaking; it allows us to
keep going. Any problems we encountered were real problems because
they were conducted on the engine itself, and we had to deal with
Several of the more significant ones [involved] what was called a
whirl in the high-pressure fuel pump. It was a subsynchronistic orbiting
of the turbo pump shaft within the bearings, and it was caused by
inadequate cooling of the bearings. They became soft and allowed the
rotor to orbit subsynchronously within the bearing cage itself. It
slowed us down for about nine months, as I recall, didn’t allow
us to get much beyond a couple of seconds into the engine test. We
ended up solving that problem by putting a little paddle—it
wasn’t any bigger than your thumbnail. A vortex was being created
without that paddle where the coolant flow dumped into the bearings,
and the introduction of the paddle disrupted the vortex and allowed
the cooling to get there.
That solved that problem and from then on the engine problems that
we encountered were somewhat typical of the development of a rocket
engine. We had some problems with turbine blades, several lines broke.
We had some injector elements burn through, and we had problems with
those. You sum all these up, and over the next four or so years prior
to the first flight we probably lost about 11 engines through explosions,
fires, and working through that development.
But the overall approach of abandoning all of the subsystem testing,
going directly to the engine, running head-on with the problems that
had to be solved—in retrospect I think was very satisfactory.
It was very fruitful, productive, and although the program was very
expensive and costly, it turned out to be an excellent product. The
Space Shuttle main engine has now flown successfully to orbit probably
almost 400 times, and I think this upcoming launch [STS-134] will
be over 400 times considering you’ve got three in every Shuttle.
It’s been very safe; it’s very high-performance. Looking
back on it, it was a real marvel.
That’s a great summary. Would you tell us what the requirements
were for the main engines when you became project manager, in terms
The performance on specific impulse was about 450 seconds. That really
wasn’t a problem, and that’s about the way it ended up.
I think it started out to be reusable on 55 missions and at a certain
thrust level of about 470,000 pounds of thrust or thereabouts. We
saw that early on we needed a little bit more payload or performance
out of the engine, so we backed off some on the number of flights.
I think it was 55 missions and 27,000 seconds, and we reduced that
to several dozen flights, but we increased the performance to 109
percent of the 470,000 pounds of the rated thrust, and that met the
performance requirements of that time on the Shuttle. It provided
the added performance for the shortfall in payload-carrying capability
the Orbiter had. It did reduce the number of times the engine could
be used, but I think looking back on it, we found that with all the
normal inspections and the refurbishment after several flights that
the engines were very robust and could be used a number of times.
Would you tell us how you thought about solutions or suggestions for
things like cost overruns, problems with the facilities which you
pointed out, budget shortfalls—all of the issues that you would
have to deal with as a project manager?
My counterpart at Rocketdyne was a fellow by the name of Dom Sanchini.
He was a very good program manager. Both he and I were focused on
the technical challenge, the solutions that we had to come up with,
and our job was to motivate and stimulate the team, both at Marshall
and at Rocketdyne. Cost was a problem, but schedule and having a technically
responsive product was higher at that time. There was a huge amount
of money being spent on the total program, so if the Shuttle main
engine was late, then that complicated everybody’s cost overruns.
So although the Shuttle main engine clearly overran its cost objectives
that were seen at the outfront, the real challenges during the development
program leading up to the first flight in April of 1981 was to be
able to produce as good a schedule as we could and had a product that
really worked. Particularly the latter was a highlight of the program;
it worked very well.
Would you tell us how much time you spent out at Santa Susana trying
to come up with solutions to the challenges that you were facing out
there at that facility?
I probably spent at least every other week. Sometimes I was gone for
several weeks at a time, but I think over half my time was spent out
at the Rocketdyne facility—not necessarily at Santa Susana,
that was the test area—but in Canoga Park [California] at the
Rocketdyne plant, and then a good bit of time at Stennis. I attended
a large number of engine-development tests that were conducted down
Tell us about the budget issues that you faced as the project manager
at this point, because the budget was much more limited than it was
for the Apollo Program where you sort of had a blank check. You had
a very small amount of money in comparison.
Yes, the budget was tight, but the sense I got from the leadership
in the program—who, by the way, probably the most focused was
John [F.] Yardley—I think the signal that he conveyed to myself
and to Sanchini was, “If you guys will solve the technical problems
and bring us in as close as you can on schedule, I’ll take care
of the money.” I think he probably moved some money around between
projects, probably helped the Shuttle main engine and cut some of
the external tank and the solid rocket boosters. That was the sense
I had at the time. Everybody spent a lot of time trying to forecast
funding requirements and the timing of that, but Yardley probably
took it on as a job in [NASA] Headquarters [Washington, DC], if Thompson
and Sanchini could stay focused on schedule and the technical product.
You’ve talked a little bit about testing. Would you tell us
how you laid out the testing program for the main engines? How did
you come to the idea of the ISTB, and how did you lay out the component
testing? Can you give us some idea about that?
I don’t really recall exactly who came up with the idea. I think
it ended up being an only option that Sanchini and I focused on and
discussed quite a bit because of the situation of the test stands
and the cost overruns that we were encountering there. It was looking
at all the facts and assessing that we were getting further behind
if we didn’t get going, and the only way to get going was to
jump on the testing of the engine at Stennis. The Stennis facilities
were ready, the engine components were well along and could be assembled
as an engine, although prematurely. But in the end, as I indicated
earlier, it seemed to work out very well.
I had read somewhere that there had been a discussion of whether or
not to test the engines at Tullahoma [Tennessee] or in Mississippi.
Were you involved in those discussions?
I recall there were some discussions early on because of the altitude-simulation
capability at Tullahoma, and we did have one of the test stands at
Mississippi configured with an ejector system to simulate altitude,
but it wasn’t that much of a trade or an option. It was pretty
clear the real focus was going to be Mississippi.
Would you tell us about some of the tests that you witnessed out at
Mississippi. Any that stand out in particular?
Well, the ones that stand out were all the ones that failed, because
they were most dramatic. As I recall, a major milestone before the
first flight was 65,000 seconds, having accumulated that much development
time. I think we finally exceeded that and got up over 100,000 before
the first flight, and a number of tests probably of more than several
hundred. But again, the ones that really stand out were the failures,
the explosions, the turbine blade failures, for example, that would
off-center the rotor and the LOX [Liquid Oxygen] pump would rub, and
of course you’d catch fire. These were all big deals. Every
time we encountered one of these, we were probably between the corrective
action on the test stand and then, bigger than that, the corrective
action on the engine that led to the failure. You were usually set
back one to two months, and so if you have 11 of those, as we had
in the program, that’s right there a little bit more of a year
of just assessing and redesigning and reconfiguring to react to some
kind of a problem. We basically, once we got into testing in Mississippi,
went around the clock, several shifts a day, including weekends, to
try to come as close as we could to the schedule that we finally ended
When there was a failure on the test stand, tell us what happened
from there. Did you take the engine back to California? Did you have
to do any work to the test stands themselves?
Typically after a significant failure we’d convene a failure
review board that consisted of engineering at Marshall and at Rocketdyne,
and that would be chaired by a senior engineer. They would do whatever
analysis they needed to do on a test stand, and then at the appropriate
time they would convene either at Marshall or at Canoga Park, and
then we’d remove the engine from the test stand. Usually it
was a 100 percent loss, although in some cases we did salvage some
parts. The test stand itself—I think most of the damage, with
a few exceptions, was pretty cosmetic and could be repaired quickly.
The program wasn’t slowed down awaiting on the facility to be
repaired; it was awaiting the redesign of whatever caused the problem.
You’ve talked about subsynchronous whirl problems with the turbine
blades. What do you think was the biggest challenge that you faced,
the biggest technical challenge, as you were working on this development
and testing of the main engines?
Probably solving the subsynchronous whirl problem in the fuel pump.
We were very surprised by that. It was tough to figure what was really
going on. The bearings were quite worn after just a couple of seconds,
so it seemed pretty clear that we weren’t getting sufficient
cooling to the bearings, but encountering this vortex was something
that stymied us for quite a while. It was finally solved by one of
our senior engineer’s cut and try. I don’t think at the
time we inserted that little paddle did we think it was going to fix
anything, but clearly the vortex was there, and it broke up the vortex
and allowed us to get the coolant to the bearing.
That was the most interesting problem, interesting because it had
a lot of facets to it. It slowed us down probably the longest, about
five or six months as I recall. It was the first big problem we encountered
and it caused us some early schedule problems. Everybody at that time
was very concerned that we couldn’t get the engine to run more
than just a couple of seconds. This coming on the heels of the decision
to go to the ISTB and avoid all the subsystem tests, started to raise
some questions about could we really tackle this thing. After we got
through that, other problems were similar to other programs, like
the J2 and the F1 [engines], the issues with turbine blades and injectors
and that kind of thing. It was that whirl problem that caused us to
pause a long time.
What was the media interest like in the Shuttle main engines as you
were facing all of these different challenges? Was there a great deal
of interest at that point?
Yes, certainly they were primarily interested every time we had a
major failure. “What does this mean to the schedule?”
The first Shuttle was launched in ’81, I think it was three
or four years late. I think the Shuttle probably paced that schedule
as well as the Orbiter. Both of them were struggling with some technical
issues. All the systems seemed to really mature, coming together so
we could seriously look at a launch about 1980, and from there on
we knew sometime in ’81 we’d get it off.
How were you able to follow the progress of the project, being as
you had work going on in California, work in Mississippi, and at Marshall?
How were kept apprised of all the different components and different
issues facing the engine? Did you have other management below you
We had other people in the program that were assigned to stay on top
of the various subsystems, and we had constant reviews, both at Marshall
as well as at the contractor site. Not only within the project, but
also within the Center that were Shuttle-focused, not only including
the Shuttle main engine, but the solid rocket boosters and the external
tank as well. Then we had a number of meetings and reviews with Headquarters,
so it was a very review-focused time. You were almost constantly in
some kind of a review or budget cycle or something else. It was a
very exciting time, looking back on it. A lot of pain, but exciting
What were your hours like during those years that you were the project
I’m an early person, so I would usually get to work around 6:30
and then leave in the evening sometime. On TDY [temporary duty], the
hours seemed to be a little longer. Down at the test sites, Stennis,
there were always things to do and be concerned about.
There was some involvement by the National Research Council with the
main engines. Can you talk about their involvement and their suggestions
to improve the main engines?
I think they first got involved back in the days of the subsynchronous
whirl. Perhaps the [NASA] Administrator [Robert A. Frosch] or John
Yardley asked the National Research Council to take a look at the
Shuttle engine because of the criticality, and it was problem plagued
at that time. The Research Council appointed Professor Gene [Eugene
E.] Covert from MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge]
to head a team or a panel. They came down to Marshall on several occasions
and out to Rocketdyne in Canoga Park, got heavily involved in the
program, offered advice, reviewed status and progress, and eventually
were satisfied with the outcome. They were very helpful.
You didn’t find that particularly challenging, working with
another group coming in and having some oversight?
No. I mean, probably your first reaction is, “Oh no, not another
one.” But once you get through that, we worked well together.
It was not contentious, there was no tension as I recall. It was just
a tough problem and we welcomed the help.
Tell us about your relationship with John Yardley, who was AA [associate
administrator] for Manned Space Flight at that time, and his impact
on the main engines.
I really liked John. To me, he was the glue that held the Shuttle
Program together, and it took a toll on his life too. John was on
the road quite a bit. He was very tough, he was very demanding. I
mentioned I usually came in early, six-thirty, seven o’clock,
but wherever I was, I could expect a call from John at seven o’clock
Washington [DC] time. So if you’re out in California, that’s
four o’clock in the morning, and he knew where I was and he
stayed in touch. It was tough.
I understand that you tested the engine with a number of flaws to
prove its worthiness at some point. Did he approve of those ideas?
Yes. Probably the best way to say it is he tolerated it. He wasn’t
particularly enamored with the idea—as you’re into the
certification program within about a year of the first flight, where
there’s a lot at stake—of testing the engine with cracked
turbine blades. But we had confidence in what we were doing. For example,
on the turbine blades the crack grows at a certain rate. Even after
we inspected the blades, we knew that a small crack could develop.
If you lost a blade in flight and you imbalanced the rotor, particularly
on the LOX pump, it rubbed, you were going to have a major explosion
and you’d lose the Shuttle. There was a lot at stake in terms
of knowing the rate at which the cracks grew, at which they became
critical and broke.
So we felt we had to develop that confidence, or we were just going
to be rolling dice. If we could run the tests where we had everything
on the table, a lot at stake, and prove that it was safe and there
was plenty of margin and the design was robust, then John bought into
that. I don’t think he ever really felt comfortable with us
doing it, because if you had a major failure in late 1980, you would
never have launched in ’81, and there were a lot of eyes and
pressure on the program at that time. But it was a step that a number
of us felt that we had to go through if we were really going to stand
behind the Shuttle engine.
Tell us about the Management Council and its impact on the Shuttle
main engines. Did it have any influence over, say, how much testing
you had to do or proving the main engine’s worthiness before
that first flight?
Certainly they were heavily involved in that and wanted to know the
progress and why the local project managers felt that it was safe
enough and the testing was adequate enough to fly safely, and so they
monitored that progress pretty well. I would say they were very active
as an oversight, and, I might add, tolerant, patient as we worked
through some of these problems. I found the NASA management system,
and particularly the Marshall management system, people like Bob [Robert
E.] Lindstrom, who I worked for, and Bill [William R.] Lucas, who
was the [Marshall] Center Director at that time, to be very supportive,
patient, but also very demanding, just like John Yardley was.
Tell us about your relationship with Bob [Robert F.] Thompson at JSC.
What was that relationship like?
It was very good. It was on par, I thought, to the relationship I
had with John Yardley. He was a very strong leader, got heavily involved
in making sure that he understood what the problem was that you were
working, and he was comfortable that we were going about it in the
right way. That was a good relationship; it was a good oversight.
Headquarters was Level Zero, Yardley was Level One, Thompson was Level
Two. The projects, like the Shuttle and the Orbiter and the main engine,
were Level Three.
You mentioned the Management Council was particularly patient as you
were working through some of these challenges. Did you ever feel any
pressure to meet certain schedules or meet certain costs at any point?
There was a lot of pressure, but you just did the best you could,
and if you had a cost problem, you had a cost problem. You couldn’t
save costs and solve the technical problems at the same time. I could
have been fired a number of times. I mean, there was probably a lot
of reason to do that, but they were patient and probably in the end
had to ask, “Well, if we fire him, who are we going to get?”
Yes, who wants to work those hours? Tell us about the certification
of the main engines for that first flight and the flight acceptance
The certification program was probably inspired more by John Yardley.
At the time, I think he brought his airplane experience with him.
This was much in advance of the certification program. You had to
write down what the criteria was, how many engines you were going
to use, no failures, how many tests, how long. You couldn’t
wing it; you couldn’t test and then all of a sudden at the very
end decide we were ready. You had to write down, and then once you
wrote it down he had to approve it, and he usually added something.
It was a very strenuous program.
I think before the first flight we completed two ten-test series of
engine testing at the normal thrust and then the 109 percent thrust.
No failures, no anomalies or you had to start over. That’s where
we introduced some of the flaw testing that he got quite nervous about,
because we were doing that as a part of the formal certification of
the engine. You’re going to run these tests with flawed parts,
and you can’t have any problems. You had to be right.
Yes, that’s a pretty gutsy move.
Then the acceptance testing was, as I recall, very successful. All
three of the first flight engines were conducted without a hitch,
and then, of course, all subsequent flight engines went through an
acceptance series. I don’t recall any real problems in the acceptance
testing after the basic design had been through that torturous certification
Talk to us about that first flight readiness review that you participated
in for STS-1.
Well, it was the first one, so there was a lot of attention. It was
a very important review. It was very thorough, perhaps somewhat tense.
There was no one part of it that stands out. I don’t recall
any particular focus on the Shuttle engine, other than, “Now
you’ve had eight years of testing of this thing and you’ve
had a lot of problems, have you solved them all?” And, of course,
we had the results of the certification program and testing to augment
everything we had said at that time. It worked out very well.
Tell us about the minutes before the launch. What was happening at
launch control? Were you at one of the consoles monitoring that main
Yes, I went in that night. It was before midnight, I think, and George
[B.] Hardy, who was the project manager of the solid rocket booster,
rode in with me. I remember coming over the causeway and looking out
at the launch pad and it was all lit up. I mean, the whole sky was
lit up, and the realization that “This is it.” And we
launched later that morning.
Any trepidation as the main engines—?
Oh, I had plenty. You know, while you’re sitting there listening
and watching that launch, all your past failures run right through
your head. It was a very stressful time, but rewarding as well.
Did you have any sensors on those main engines for that first flight
that you were able to get data as they launched?
Yes, we had a lot of instrumentation, everything we had during acceptance
tests, so we knew how they were performing. They performed very well.
There were no issues, there was no spurious data that got us all upset
during flight. It was very nominal.
Were you at Edwards [Air Force Base, California] or at the Cape [Canaveral,
I was at the Cape for launch and went out to Edwards for touchdown.
Were you at the Cape when they pulled out the main engines and looked
I probably got reports of that, but I wasn’t there for any inspections
after it got back to the Cape.
Were there any changes made to the main engines following that first
Sure, there were some. They were normal upgrades or improvements of
a valve or of a seal, nothing that was dictated by the last flight.
There was no change of that type.
How long did you serve as project manager once the Shuttle started
For several years, from 1974 to ’82. I was a manager of the
Shuttle engine for those eight years, and then after that I became
the chief engineer at Marshall. So I was still involved in the Shuttle
engine, all of the Shuttle elements then for another two years, and
then I went to Princeton [University, New Jersey].
Then you came back as the Center Director, I understand. Would you
like to talk about your years as Center Director at Marshall?
I’ll just say a little bit. I was up at Princeton during the
Challenger [STS 51-L] accident, and Dick [Richard H.] Truly, who was
the associate administrator at that time, asked me to come back and
head up the NASA investigation supporting the Rogers Commission [Presidential
Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident]. So I took a
leave of absence up at Princeton and was down at the Cape for that
early summer after the accident. Then after that was over I returned
to Princeton for several months, and then Jim [James C.] Fletcher
[NASA Administrator] asked me to come back and be the director of
Marshall. I knew the people, I knew all the elements. I had been removed
at the time of the accident, I was up at Princeton, so from that standpoint
he was satisfied that I could do it.
It was a very challenging time. The Center was going through a lot
of rebuilding. It was very hurtful for a number of people to be involved
in something like that, but they settled down and focused on the job
that had to be done. We redesigned the solid rocket booster, the capture
ring, and the O-ring design. And, as a matter of fact, introduced
into the re-certification of the solid rocket boosters the concept
of putting the flaws in the [design]; we actually cut the O-rings.
In the design, when the solid rocket motor pressurized, the flange
would tend to close and clamp down and squeeze on the O-ring, as opposed
to working in the opposite direction. It was that feature that gave
us confidence that even if there was a flaw in the O-ring, it would
be pinched and would not leak, so we actually introduced the flaws
in the re-certification of the joint that failed during the Challenger.
That was a concept that came out of the engine certification program,
and of course you know the results. STS-26 was the first flight after
that, it was very successful. There haven’t been any problems
with the solid rocket booster since then. I was at the Center until
’89, and I really enjoyed the years working with people and
recovering from that very tragic accident.
There had been a great deal of criticism about NASA’s safety
culture, and I’m wondering, would you talk to us about how you
stressed the importance of safety at Marshall Space Flight Center?
Well, the Center, going back through Apollo, as well as Shuttle, was
very safety-conscious. Probably what I would say is that when you
come to this culture thing—people had seen O-rings before, they
hadn’t failed catastrophically. From that standpoint, they perhaps
became comfortable with an anomaly in proceeding, because it hadn’t
bitten them. But you can’t do that long. You’ve got to
introduce problems. Again I come back to testing with a flaw. You’ve
got to assume that there’s some problems with the parts or with
the components. They’re not perfect, and that even in that condition,
your design is such that you’ve got plenty of margin and robustness
That was a real lesson that I learned out of the Shuttle main engine
and I think carried over in the way I looked at problems as we re-certified
the solid rocket booster and as we looked at other problems while
I was at the Center and at NASA. An example—I wasn’t at
NASA at the time, but the foam that came off of the external tank
at the time of the [STS-107 Columbia] accident, it didn’t come
off for the first time; it had come off before. That was an area that
was at Marshall, but it was [NASA] Johnson [Space Center, Houston,
Texas] and Headquarters where they got by with it last time, so “Maybe
it’s okay.” You can’t do that.
Communication was also a serious issue that the Rogers Commission
examined, and I understand that you really opened up communication
at the Center.
Yes. I worked very well with Bill Lucas, and I never sensed that he
stifled communication, but I think probably some did see that. I never
felt it, but it was something that I felt when I came back to the
Center that we had to address. We tried to emphasize that. Not shoot
the messenger, make sure that everybody communicated whatever problems
they were aware of or bubbled up. We spent a lot of time—[Thomas]
Jack Lee, who was my deputy at the time—we spent a lot of time
trying to foster that environment.
Is there anything that we haven’t talked about, about the main
engine in particular, that we may have overlooked that you can think
No, I think we’ve covered it.
Okay. I thank you very much for your time today, it was wonderful.
Very good. I enjoyed it and hope it gave you what you needed.
Absolutely it did. Yes, thank you.