NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Jennifer Ross-Nazzal
Houston, Texas – 27 March 2012
Today is March 27th, 2012. This interview with Kevin Templin is being
conducted in Houston, Texas, for the Johnson Space Center Oral History
Project. The interviewer is Jennifer Ross-Nazzal, assisted by Rebecca
Wright. Thanks again for taking time out of your schedule today. We
know that you’re very busy with meetings and getting ready to
Thanks for inviting me.
We’re looking forward to it. Tell us how you became a co-op
I was a student at Texas A&M [University, College Station], aerospace
engineering major. I heard about the co-op program in my first semester
freshman year. It all sounded great until the latter part of the conversation
where the co-op adviser said, “And it will add about a year,
year and a half to your studies.” Last thing a freshman wants
to hear, so I dismissed it at that point.
It wasn’t until my junior year, which is rather late for a co-op
to start. I had several friends in the program that were co-opping
with NASA, a couple with at that time McDonnell Douglas [Corporation]
here in Houston, and they really encouraged me to get involved. So
I applied, and I ended up doing three co-op tours between my junior
year and graduating. Did one in Mission Operations and two in Engineering
here in Houston, and really liked the work.
Always thought I’d graduate with a degree and go build aircraft.
Thought no way they’d hire me to do spacecraft, there’s
too many smart people here at NASA in that department for them to
consider me. But the co-op program was a great step forward in that,
and I’ve encouraged others since then to get involved with that
sort of thing. As a student, if any of them are like me, you seem
like you’re forgetting more than you’re remembering. It’s
like, “How am I ever going to become a good engineer?”
You get to work in that environment—and this applies more to
engineering—it’s just great to actually see how you take
the academic and apply it in the work environment, and do that concurrently
with your studies. It really helps.
So you came here just before Challenger [STS 51-L accident] in the
fall of ’85?
I started co-opping in May of ’84 and was offered a full-time
position before my last semester at A&M. I graduated in December
of ’85 and started full-time mid January ’86, so I was
on board as a full-time employee for two weeks when Challenger happened.
Did you have any involvement in the changes that were made to the
vehicle as a result of the Challenger accident?
They were trying to get back into a flight mode quickly because there
was a payload on that flight, a TDRS [Tracking and Data Relay] Satellite,
that they lost that they wanted to deploy. So one of the first tasks
that I was a team member on was to look at trying to fly a vehicle
without a crew to see if we could deploy a satellite. They were looking
as early as maybe the May timeframe of 1986.
Very shortly after that, they had zoned in on what the cause of the
problem was, the solid rocket booster and the hot gas getting past
the O-ring. They had looked at potentially putting steel bands around
the joints and putting a TDRS satellite on board, so I did some work
there to see what we had to do to automate a vehicle. A lot of stuff,
more steps to automate flight and deploy payloads than one would think
in something as technically advanced as the orbiter.
Of course we never flew that mission, but that was the first involvement.
I’m on board two weeks full-time and quickly thrown into something
like that. That led to my next task, which was to look at enhanced
crew escape options for Space Shuttle orbiters. We wanted to get back
into flight mode. We had an issue obviously on Challenger, and they
wanted to see if there wasn’t some way to provide the crew a
way out if they had another disaster.
The Challenger event happened during ascent, and the vehicle broke
apart due to aerodynamic loads after the external tank broke apart.
The forward fuselage came out somewhat intact. We’ll never know
exactly how much, but through video we could see that it was coming
out of the fireball. So the questions were could we have landed the
crew cabin and the forward fuselage?
[The crew module was] much bigger than anything we’ve ever landed
with people on board. We went to the military, and it’s just
bigger than anything they had any experience with, so we looked at
other means of getting the crew out of the cabin. I spent a number
of years working different projects with that. Most people are familiar
that there was a Phase 1 project that ended up with the escape pole
that we actually flew until the last days of the Shuttle program,
which was a bailout system. The vehicle has to be in stable flight,
you have to be able to depressurize the cabin, blow the side hatch
out, then deploy the pole, and then actually get to the middeck so
that they could bail out.
That was very limiting, so Phase 2 was to look at things where you
may not have as much control. It was very challenging though to get
seven people out of two decks on an aircraft or in this case a spacecraft.
There are some aircraft that have gotten as many as four people out
of two decks, so a lot of work with the military, with the Air Force
and the Navy, to find out what they had built in aircraft. Presented
our challenges, got input from them over the years.
We looked at different things, but you quickly run into issues. Adding
these systems to the orbiter affected its aerodynamics, it affected
its payload capability, and that’s before you even start looking
at the complexities of trying to sequence that many crew members to
eject if they’re in ejection seats.
A lot of work, a lot of things documented, but those all became technical
challenges we chose not to pursue. The cost to modify the vehicles
was so great that we determined that investing that money into some
of the areas that we saw the most need to increase safety, that might
cause an accident that you would actually want to get away from the
vehicle through one of these systems, it was better to invest the
money in those systems than it was to try and modify and put in an
It looks good on TV, and a lot of people have misconceptions about
what ejection seats can do. The most capable ejection seat the United
States has ever built, at least that’s publicly known, was put
into the SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft which flew at extremely high
altitude. That is the seat that NASA actually flew on [OV (orbiter
vehicle)-101] Enterprise during the Approach and Landing Tests for
the pilot and commander and on [OV-102] Columbia for the first four
But that seat’s capability maxes out around 85,000 feet of altitude.
We fly through that altitude on ascent in the Shuttle in [less than
two] minutes, so would you want to invest hundreds of millions of
dollars to put a system in that’s only good for two minutes
during ascent? It’s also usable during descent, but you have
to, again, get down to an altitude where it’s usable.
For instance, the Columbia accident [STS-107] happened at such an
altitude that ejection seats would not have been useful. Not everybody
understands that. You can look at it and say wow, “NASA had
the opportunity to put an escape system on board after Challenger
and they didn’t do it. Why didn’t they do that?”
Well, your car doesn’t have ejection seats. Cars are dangerous,
but there’s a certain amount of risk you accept. You have seatbelts;
you have airbags. We have done things to mitigate risk in the Space
Shuttle system and that was to make it as safe as possible in flight
under certain flight rules.
So you looked at ejection seats, what else did you look at? Did you
look at the Apollo program where they had the [launch escape system]
to remove the crew?
That’s really where we started. We did see that the crew cabin,
the forward fuselage, had come out of the breakup more or less intact.
We realized it had been depressurized. It had too many penetrations
into the crew cabin to have maintained pressure integrity, and at
that point during Challenger the crew was not wearing a full pressure
That’s one of the things that’s led us to put [crew members]
back into full pressure suits after Challenger. If you notice, they
went from the blue jumpsuit back to a full orange pressure suit. That
was the first step. We wanted them in a pressure suit so that if the
cabin depressurized, they didn’t lose oxygen and suffer from
hypoxia and pass out. Small mitigating steps to try and allow the
crew to try to interact with the vehicle if a smaller incident happened.
You start looking at the weight. You go back to Apollo, and you’re
landing a capsule that was somewhere on the order of 12,000, 13,000
pounds under three very large parachutes. The loads, when they hit
the water, are substantial. They were lying on their back, because
the best way to take a high-impact load is either inward through the
chest or outward through the back. There was a collapsible structure
in there to actually absorb some of that load.
Look at the Space Shuttle, you’ve got seven people sitting up
in chairs. You could try to make it so that they landed on their back,
but the chairs themselves and their attach points weren’t designed
to take the kind of loading—if you could get it to the same
load that the Apollo capsule saw when it touched the water. Take that
and then multiply the fact that the cabin itself weighs 30,000 pounds
with all the avionics on board and everything that’s inside
that pressure module. If it has any forward fuselage structure around
it, it gets even heavier. So now the chutes you need to try and get
the touchdown velocity—to even the same point as in Apollo—have
to get even bigger or more parachutes have to be included.
You’re increasing the complexity of the system now, and again,
the structure wasn’t built for this. The cabin that the crew
actually sits in is pressurized; it carries no external loading. The
forward fuselage structure around it carries the loads. To subject
that cabin to these touchdown loads, you would have to beef it up.
So now you’re adding more weight.
You can just see these things are feeding on themselves, they keep
multiplying. You quickly get to the point where you go, “Well,
technically I could do this but I have changed the design of the orbiter
so much, I have added so much weight in the front end, that I’m
limiting what I can put in the payload bay. If I want to maintain
the capability I had before, I have to increase the performance of
the engines.” It just ripples through the entire system to where
you’re going, “It wasn’t designed for this.”
There are certain modifications I just cannot implement without losing
sight of what the original mission was for the airplane, that and
the cost. It’s one thing to know you want that. You make that
a requirement up front, and you build around it. It’s completely
different to have to come back and retrofit, and in this case it was
prohibitive. The technical challenges, while they might have been
able to have been overcome, coupled with the cost and what it was
going to do to the capability of the vehicle just made it such that
it was better to invest that money in other places.
Had there been planes that had been retrofitted that you looked at
that increased their safety margins after an accident?
We didn’t identify any. If you went back as far as World War
II, you see the first implementation of the original ejection seats.
The Germans had some ejection seat capability, but the design of the
seat was fairly crude. Aircraft in World War II had operational ranges
probably in the 20,000-to-30,000-foot range, so we quickly got away
from that because that wasn’t going to do us [any good].
You have to go and look at the most recent technology. That’s
why you go to the Air Force, you go to the Navy, and you say what
are you flying in your high-performance aircraft? You look at their
ejection seats, because their aircraft are now going to operate at
30,000, 50,000 feet, and much higher velocity. But still not the velocities
we’re going to see. We accelerate very rapidly on ascent and
are outside the operational capability of the ejection seats very
quickly from a speed standpoint.
Then you have the altitude issues. If you get above 10,000 feet, if
you don’t have supplemental oxygen the crew member would at
the very least pass out from hypoxia. If it’s very high altitude
they could die. You start having to augment that seat, then it gets
to the point where it can’t work. That’s why I referenced
the SR-71 seat, because the crew members there, if you’re flying
at 85,000 feet— it’s horizontal flight, not vertical;
they’re not going up, but very high velocity as well, high-performance
aircraft. What would that seat do for us? It’s the reason we
selected it to begin with, but we did not include the ejection seats
on Enterprise or Columbia for extremely high altitude or high velocity.
The concerns were more on approach. We had designed a whole new thermal
protection system that was going to be tested for the first time really
in flight. You have 30,000 tiles on the vehicle, and if you lose tiles
in a critical area and you have a burn-through you may have to get
out. Hopefully the vehicle gets down to an altitude where the seat
is capable of being actuated in saving crew members. You have entry
interface on return at 400,000 feet altitude, but the seat becomes
usable at 85,000 feet, so you have a ways to go before you can say,
“I hope it holds together, and then I can eject.”
You see the limitations on the technology we have. SR-71 ejection
seats are not really the most current. They’re just an example
of something that we flew and have examples of actually being used
at those altitudes and velocities and being successful in saving crew
members. That’s why we gravitate to that sort of thing, but
it really illustrates that the environment we work in when we do spaceflight
is so much different than anything else that’s normal for people
I mentioned cars don’t have ejection seats, but a better reference
than that is the airliners don’t have ejection seats. You put
130 people—or if you have a large aircraft you may have 400
people, and now with the Airbus 380 you may have 500 people in an
aircraft. They give you a flotation device in case you touch down
in the water, and that’s the extent [of the survival gear you
are given]. That and your seatbelt are your safety [devices] as you’re
sitting in this aircraft. They also have a much greater—I call
it scatter factor. They have millions of flights of aircraft throughout
the 100-plus years of flight. Takeoffs, landings—they’ve
experienced everything, so we have technology.
Because it’s more routine, you can plan for contingencies and
try to work out of it. Plus you have multiple engines. You lose one
engine, you can still fly on the other engines or engine. You can
also glide. The Space Shuttle doesn’t afford you any of those
things. During ascent you lose engines, you’re not going to
make orbit and you have to do something different. During entry, you’re
a glider, and if you don’t have the energy to make the runway
that you’re shooting for, you’re going to do a crash landing
someplace. The vehicle is not designed for that, it’s not designed
for crash landings as some aircraft more or less are.
The parallels are there to an extent, but other than the fact that
the orbiter has wings and does gliding entry, a lot of the environment
is different. It’s hard sometimes for folks who don’t
work on the systems to understand those differences until you sit
down and explain it to them. It makes sense on the surface to look
at all these systems, but when you look at what you’re trying
to get away from [you quickly see that the available systems don’t
help a lot.]
We did look at some extraction systems. There are actually seats that
were used in some helicopters and some slower fixed-wing aircraft
that had a rocket that would launch from behind the seat, and there’s
a lanyard that the crew member wears and it yanks you out of your
seat basically. But again, it’s slower aircraft. It’s
helicopters, so that’s even less capability than the ejection
seat. We did look at them, because they’re lighter too, so if
we could bail out maybe we could extract from the vehicle. But it
just didn’t offer enough, not nearly as much as the ejection
seat, which is what we gravitated to.
I should also say that one of the things we did look at was modifying
the crew cabin to make it, in one extent, an entry vehicle. If it
was high enough up that it would have enough capability to go through
some of the thermal environment—not all of it, not enter from
space necessarily. But that was even worse as far as the weight impact
on the vehicle, and it was quickly discounted because the modification
was such that you needed to design that first, build the spacecraft
around it. You couldn’t retrofit that into the orbiter.
Tell us about testing that bailout system. Were you involved in that
No, Phase 1 was going on more or less in parallel, when they decided
to go with the pole system. They had a couple different ideas. They
actually had some extraction rockets they looked at mounting around
the crew cabin hatch that would pull the crew member out, and then
they had the pole system. Those tests were going on under Phase 1,
and that was worked with the military. They modified a C-141 aircraft
and had volunteers sign up to bail out of that vehicle and look at
trajectories. That happened in parallel with the work I was doing.
I was doing Phase 2 which was trying to expand that escape envelope
with more capable systems.
It’s all fascinating. Did you work with [James P.] Bagian and
Steve [Steven R.] Nagel on this?
I worked with Steve Nagel. He was my crew member representative on
Phase 2, and he and I worked together on that for a number of years.
I know it meant so much to him. When we interviewed him he talked
about that. That was his greatest accomplishment, I think.
You learn a lot. Steve spanned both programs. I was fairly new, and
I looked at the responsibility I was given to lead those teams at
a young age. It illustrated what my co-op adviser had told me all
along, that at NASA you may not get as much money to start but you’ll
get the leadership sooner. Unfortunately we had a disaster that thrust
people into those roles at that point.
I’m sitting on this team and I’ve got an astronaut, and
I’ve got an engineer from Rockwell [International] who had 40
years of experience and was a Navy pilot, thinking, “I’m
supposed to lead these people?” I remember having a conversation
with Steve one time because he had flown. I look at it from my non-pilot
standpoint, and I go okay, I’m doing an abort and I’m
flying back to the Kennedy Space Center [Florida] on a glide. I can
see the beach and the runway, and Houston radios up, says, “You
don’t have enough energy; bail out.” I said, “You’re
going to see that beach and try to make it, right Steve?” He
said, “Absolutely not. We train, and if Houston says I better
do something, they know what they’re talking about. I will follow
that direction. I will bail out.”
It really showed me how important it was for the engineers who design
the systems and the flight directors/flight controllers who operate
the missions to really have their stuff together, because those crews
are relying on you. That’s the way they practice, and it’s
the way they fly. At an early age again learning that just really
was an eye-opener.
Steve was a great person to talk to. You get all kinds of different
characters over there in the Astronaut Office. He was just such a
good guy to work with, very easy to talk to. For the reasons you’re
designing a system not a good project, but a good project to be involved
with because of the people that I was working with throughout those
What did you work on after this project concluded?
I hired into the Engineering Directorate, and I was in advanced programs.
We worked a number of different things throughout that stint. One
of the notable ones that I moved on to after that was something called
the liquid flyback booster that Max [Maxime A.] Faget, believe it
or not, had introduced to Arnie [Arnold D.] Aldrich at [NASA] Headquarters
It was a concept [to] replace the solid rocket boosters with liquid
boosters [that] had a deployable wing. [The flyback boosters] would
fly back to the Cape [Cape Canaveral, Florida], and it would be easier
to restore them because they wouldn’t be dropping into salt
water, having to be broken into segments, and shipped back to Utah
[Morton Thiokol, Inc.].
I think the initial response from folks was “That’s a
crazy idea. Let’s go show that that’s a crazy idea.”
I got pulled into a tiger team working for Jay [H.] Greene. …
When I say tiger team, I think there were five of us working this.
My job was to do the ascent performance analysis. We had two weeks
to go get our numbers and show why this wasn’t a good thing
to pursue. “Let’s put this to bed” type of direction.
The first sets of numbers I ran, and I went back to Jay Greene, “We
might want to look at this. This has quite a bit of performance in
it if it’s buildable.” This had nothing to do with the
fly-back portion, this was just the ascent performance portion. Interesting
to watch that we go from initial direction, which is trying to show
why this is not feasible, to six months later we’re making a
presentation at Headquarters to Arnie Aldrich on why this is something
we ought to pursue. Very interesting, got to interface with Jay Greene
every day. We had a status meeting every morning with him to show
what we had done the day before, leading up to that presentation.
That project was typical of a lot of engineering, you’re going
to introduce and be a part of a lot of concepts that never come to
fruition, but the people you encounter in working on these things—it’s
enjoyable to work with them and definitely educational.
Were you looking at the original studies that came forth for the Shuttle
program? Originally of course there was that idea that the Shuttle
was going to be a two-stage [vehicle], completely reusable. Did you
start looking at those studies?
Slightly different. If you look at those original concepts—we
had some of the wind tunnel models in the office I worked in, where
the external tank that we have today was really the core of a winged
vehicle. The first stage booster was going to have enough engines
and a tank such that when it was expended, it would fly back to the
Kennedy Space Center and quickly be turned around and refurbished
and flown. This was a little bit different; this was a modification
to the current system. They weren’t looking to change the Space
Shuttle main engine, so the external tank needed to still be there
because that’s the fuel for the main engines. It was just to
look at replacing the solid boosters.
We did look at previous studies that had looked at replacing solids
with liquids, but not recovering the booster. That stage would just
go into the ocean and be discarded. It was a modification of that
more or less, because we started with some of those original design
boundary conditions and then added the wing and an engine to try and
get it to fly back to the Kennedy Space Center.
Why wasn’t the idea eventually adopted?
It was fairly complex. We weren’t losing money in recovering
the solid rocket boosters, but it wasn’t the big money saver
that it was envisioned to be either. A lot of things factored into
that. If you go back to the early ’70s when the Space Shuttle
was proposed, they thought they’d be flying somewhere on the
order of 60 flights a year, so you were flying every two weeks or
so. The turnarounds were you land, you taxi over, you throw another
payload in the bay, you close it up, you stack it, you go fly again.
Reality was that we weren’t doing that, so the flight rate didn’t
support the savings you would get by recovering these boosters.
There was some thought given to just discarding the boosters and continuing
to procure new segments and make it a one-way from ATK [Alliant Techsystems,
Inc.]. You’d get loaded segments down to the Cape, you’d
stack, you’d fly, you’d throw them away. That was the
major reason, that again, you’re adding complexity. You have
a wing and an engine that had to start, and the flight rate just didn’t
really support doing that. If we ever increased the flight rate they
thought they’d go back and look at that sort of thing.
Did you face any adversity from Morton Thiokol at that point, for
wanting to change the system?
It never got to that point because this was an internal study. It
went to the associate administrator, and the considerations were given.
If it had progressed I envision that we could have, but it never got
Were you working with the SRB [solid rocket booster] project or was
that entirely a JSC effort?
It was just JSC. A lot of it had to do with different phases of the
design. I don’t hear people refer to it as much today, but they
may still use it in certain circles. You had Phase A, which is the
initial phase of any design project, and this was considered a pre-Phase
A. Very small team. You weren’t covering all the details; you
were doing enough to say, “Do I even want to spend any more
time going forward on this?” This little tiger team was this
handful of people. Got enough information that said you can get the
performance you want and more.
We had so much excess performance that it was possible that we could
have eliminated some abort modes on ascent, maybe not do the transatlantic
abort. If the weather was bad in Spain that day, you didn’t
care because you had excess margin. You could actually just do a return
to launch site [abort]. So attractive features, but again when you
weigh the pros and cons, you look at the attractive features coupled
with the cost of designing a new system. You have to prove the new
system. You had some complexity with the wing and the jet engine that
you would then have to also include fuel for and do an air start.
It was just deemed not worthy of further work at that point.
I also ran across a paper that you wrote about an OMS [orbital maneuvering
system] payload kit.
That was actually part of the original design I did. The orbital maneuvering
system, the OMS system, is the most noticeable feature on the orbiter.
It’s the bug-eyed pods on the back end of the vehicle, but also
the forward reaction control system has the same propellant and thrusters
in it. It’s what you do to move around in orbit. There are two
orbital maneuvering system engines on the back that actually do the
orbital insertions and the deorbit burns. Those are the bigger thruster
engines. Then you have a series of reaction control thrusters that
do more of the fine steering.
At the beginning of that project we had a parallel project in NASA.
The orbital maneuvering vehicle, the OMV, was going to fly in the
payload bay. Its main mission at the beginning was to go up, be deployed
from the orbiter to get the Hubble Space Telescope, and then bring
it back down so it could be serviced. The scientists who conduct research
using Hubble want the telescope as high up as it can get, to get it
out of microgravity and to also decrease the amount of drag it sees
so it doesn’t come down in altitude as fast.
The orbiter is limited in how far it can go, so it’s deployed
as high up as it can be, but then later when you want to service it
you have to be able to get the two together somehow. This OMV was
envisioned as a way to push the telescope as high as you want it to
go—within its limits—and also a way to bring it back down
for servicing. That project was being developed, and the cost and
schedule were going a little bit long and a little bit high.
If you look back in some of the original design papers, there was
this thing called the OMS kit. That utilized the same tanks that were
used in the OMS pods. They would go in a cradle, and it would sit
in the aft end of the payload bay. You’d put them in in pairs,
fuel and oxidizer, and you could have up to three pair of these tanks
in there. This would then be tied into the aft orbital maneuvering
If you looked at Columbia, it was actually built with the feed lines
coming to the aft payload bay. They were in place. It was the only
vehicle, I believe, that was built with that in mind, because it was
the first flight vehicle that came out. So it wasn’t something
new, it was more of an ascent performance equation.
What we did is basic research. Calling McDonnell Douglas, who built
the OMS pods, to verify we had enough tanks available to build a kit.
We did. They looked at the structure. Easy. It’s simple structure,
just holding tanks. Then could we plumb it back into the system? At
least on one vehicle we could. The thought was we could modify others
if we wanted to.
Then you just start looking at what could the vehicle do with this
extra fuel. We showed pretty quickly that we could get to the altitudes
that the orbital maneuvering vehicle was going to go to. Now you’re
bringing your crew with you, you could go to where Hubble was. You
could service it, and you could leave it. You could actually deploy
it a little higher and then come back down. I wasn’t high enough
to be aware—I think it may have played some role in the cancellation
of the OMV. I’m not saying it was a major influencer, but it
certainly did open some eyes. There was a simpler way of doing the
same mission with the orbiter.
So another fun project. This is where I gravitated to, I really enjoy
propulsion. That was what I liked in college, so when I did ascent
performance it was looking at the fire and smoke end of the vehicle
and trying to see what can we do, what payloads can be put into orbit,
what can we do when we get there. Orbital mechanics are what I gravitate
What were some of the other projects you worked on until you went
out to Palmdale [California]?
It was a lot of advanced concept work. We were always looking at what
the follow-on vehicles would be for Shuttle. I remember in the early
’90s we had the First Lunar Outpost work, so I got to work early
design for a vehicle to put the payloads in orbit that you’d
want for deploying an outpost on the Moon.
We looked at it from the standpoint of going back to the Saturn V
[rocket], the largest vehicle the United States had ever built, in
terms of its throw-weight, and what kind of payload it could put into
orbit. If you look at the Space Shuttle system and you look at Saturn
V in terms of mass to orbit, they’re not that far apart.
If you look at the Apollo program, Saturn V had to put its third stage
partially spent, plus the service module, plus the command module,
and then later the [lunar] lander into a low Earth orbit. About 110
nautical miles, and it was putting well in excess of 200,000 pounds
into that orbit. Not everybody would agree that that’s payload,
because we tend to think of payload in current terms of things in
the bay of the Shuttle orbiter, but if you just look at throw-weight,
how much can that rocket put into orbit, that’s what we started
You look at the Space Shuttle system, and what are you putting into
orbit? When the main engines stop firing, what’s going to orbit
is the orbiter, whatever’s in the payload bay of the orbiter,
the crew, plus the external tank. Now the fuel is expended, but both
the external tank and the orbiter and its contents are in the same
trajectory. When you couple all that weight together, you’re
looking at something on the order of 230,000, 240,000 pounds. Comparable
to the Saturn V, so we started with that.
I used to take people out to the Rocket Park at JSC and make them
stand at the front end where the command module was and look down
for the length of a rocket. I go, “Just to get this command
module and that service module to the Moon and back you need that
big rocket behind it right there.”
Things haven’t advanced. Chemical propulsion is still pretty
much the same. We run our engines like racecar drivers do an Indy
car. They’re redlining if you will. They’re running them
at peak performance to get every ounce we can to orbit and to do useful
things with it once we get there. If you’re going to put an
outpost on Mars, you’re not just taking a lander to the surface,
you’re not just taking a lightweight rover, you’re trying
to take habitats, you’re trying to take supplies. You need to
send up a lot of weight. If you’re bringing it from the surface
of the Earth, you’re trying to bring a lot of weight.
You would rather not do that in 50,000-pound chunks. You’d rather
do it in 200,000-pound chunks if you can. Real quickly you gravitate
back to well, is that a Saturn V class vehicle, is it a modified Shuttle?
We looked at things like Shuttle C, for cargo, where you took the
wings off. It’s not that we’d modify an orbiter, we would
build a cargo carrier. It would look a lot like maybe the fuselage
without the wings. Just carry cargo up, because you weren’t
trying to recover the cargo so you didn’t have to reenter. Also
by taking wings and landing gear off, which you didn’t need,
you were adding that capability to the cargo weight.
We did studies like that to try and offer up different means of getting
the weights up. [NASA] Marshall [Spaceflight Center, Huntsville, Alabama]
was also doing some parallel studies at that time on heavy-lift vehicles,
so we were complementary. We worked on the First Lunar Outpost with
that. Another fun one, another one where propulsion and orbital mechanics
Who were some of your mentors when you first came in?
I mentioned Jay Greene, really enjoyed working with Jay. Jay was and
is just so technically competent. You run into people like that in
this program. I know I have forgotten far more than Jay remembers
on a given day. Bill [William H.] Gerstenmaier is another one like
that, just very very smart person. Attention to detail is mind-boggling
sometimes when you’ve made a comment a few weeks before and
you think nobody heard that, but Bill heard it. It registered with
Bill. Just good people to work with.
Those are leaders, and then there’s numerous people that I’ve
worked with, just coworkers throughout the program that have helped
me learn. I was in a meeting this morning, and we were talking Enterprise
readiness for ferry. A lot of the structural issues that came up were
because I worked in Palmdale with Julie [A.] Kramer White. She is
a structures expert, knows a lot about corrosion. If I had not had
that tour in Palmdale and worked with Julie, I have no doubt I would
not know nearly what I know now on structures and corrosion issues.
Those are three I can think of offhand.
Tell us about that tour and going out to Palmdale. Was that a choice
It was, I volunteered for that. I saw an advertisement come around,
and apparently they try to always get a couple of systems engineers,
as they call them, to rotate to Palmdale. For those that aren’t
familiar, Palmdale is where the initial integration of the orbiters
took place, the build. We had various contractors build sections or
pieces of the orbiters and then they were all brought to Palmdale
and put together.
The original manufacture of the orbiters was done at Palmdale and
then subsequently that’s where maintenance was done. It’s
depot maintenance, similar to the airline industry. At certain time
intervals or cycles you have to take aircraft offline. In the case
of depot, it’s a major inspection. You’re going to open
panels up; you’re going to take parts off to get access. You’re
going to do major inspection to make sure things are okay.
Space Shuttle system is modeled a lot around the airline industry.
I think Pan Am [Pan American World Airways] was actually one of the
original consulting groups with NASA to try and design the Space Shuttle
system, because they knew this reusable system would need maintenance.
Supposed to be every three years or eight flights an orbiter was taken
offline, sent to Palmdale where it can be powered down, parts removed,
and major inspections done. That was a JSC-led effort at Palmdale,
and they would advertise for systems engineers who might want to rotate
out and spend the duration of that inspection period with the vehicle.
I saw that advertisement, thought that it looked interesting, but
didn’t know how serious I’d be about it. This was an instance
where having worked with Jay Greene before came into play. At the
time I saw this and looked into it, Jay was head of the Orbiter Project
Office in Shuttle. Did not interview with him, I interviewed with
a different individual. But that individual spoke to Jay, and Jay
said, “Kevin would be great for the position.” So when
I walked in the office and was told I had the position, it was a shock.
Another one of those fascinating things—when you come from Houston,
you have some flight hardware around you, but you don’t see
it all put together like you do when you see the flight vehicle. You
go 1,500 miles away out to Palmdale, and you have the orbiter in the
bay. Two engineers from Houston and several NASA engineers in residence
there would work the duration. Where any anomaly would come up, they
would need to consult with the Rockwell and then later [the] Boeing
[Company] engineers—this was in the days before United Space
Alliance—to resolve whatever the issue was and to sign off on
it when it was finally done. So you got to see a lot of paper, a lot
of traffic. You’d go down to the TAIR [Test and Inspection Record]
station where they’d record NASA signatures. It was great, because
the TAIR station was right at the nose of the orbiter on the ground
floor. If you had any question about what was the problem that was
being described, you just walked right out on the floor and went to
the station. You’d find the engineer or technician who could
help you find and put eyeballs on the issue. Some of these things
required us to step back and get a subsystem manager back here in
Houston involved and work through issues. Others were easier.
Signed a lot of paper, basically, approving things or working problem
resolution. The engineer on the scene that could help relay information
to folks who maybe were back here in Houston trying to work the issue.
We used to have the Rockwell engineers down at Downey, California,
who could drive up at times and help us resolve issues.
That OMDP, Orbiter Maintenance Down Period, was [OV-105] Endeavour’s
first. It was and continues to be the baby of the fleet. It had flown
11 missions already at that point, and it was going through its first
maintenance period. Started in summer of 1996 and concluded in the
spring of ’97.
Again, learned about some systems that I wasn’t quite as familiar
with. I was not a structures-oriented person, I was a propulsion person.
I learned about structures while I was there and about corrosion and
the inhibitors we have installed to try and preclude corrosion. Then
when we do encounter it, what we do to clean it up and make the vehicle
That was also a period pre-International Space Station. We knew that
was on the horizon, and we had brought the Russians into the mix.
The Russians cannot launch spacecraft that get any meaningful payload
down to the inclination that we wanted to fly our Space Station on.
When you launch out of Kennedy Space Center, if you launch due east,
you maximize the amount of payload you put into orbit. That was our
original plan for Station. The Russians couldn’t come that far
down and bring anything meaningful, so we agreed to increase the inclination.
But as you swing further north you lose payload capability, so one
way we were trying to overcome that was to lighten up the spacecraft.
That included redesigning the external tank to lighten it up, and
lightening up the orbiter. We did a lot of that through changes to
the thermal protection system. Having flown a few flights, we knew
where we had margin, so we knew where we could reduce that margin
a little bit by thinning out some of the blankets. There was a lot
of removals of blankets and reinstallation of different thermal protection
on Endeavour. All the vehicles were going to go through that, but
I got to see that firsthand with Endeavour.
Tell us about the structural inspection and what you learned from
being down there that you would apply later on when you were in Florida.
As I mentioned before, you have to remove a lot of systems to get
access to others, for instance the removal of the wing leading edge
so you can find and look at the wing leading edge spar. Things like
that to do visual inspection. Others aren’t quite so easy to
get to. We had to remove tiles on the lower surface so we could remove
antenna access covers, so that we could then use something called
a borescope. You see it in spy movies now, and at the time it was
a NASA leading-edge technology. It’s a camera with a light on
a flexible tube that you can put into confined spaces and record what
you’re seeing. That’s as close as you’re going to
get to actually viewing certain areas in the forward fuselage and
other areas of the spacecraft.
During the inspection period, the vehicle was powered down, so while
you were doing the inspections you could also do major mods [modifications].
I think we took advantage of every one of these OMDPs to modify the
vehicles in some way, and I’ve already mentioned one where we
were changing the thermal protection system. Sometimes, too, it would
be internal. We started out the orbiters with mechanical systems in
the flight deck for the pilots to visualize. Then we eventually advanced
to where you had the glass cockpit, looks a lot like the current airliners.
I think a lot of people might have been shocked—up until the
early 2000s some of the vehicles had the mechanical balls and different
things like you’d find in some of the smaller private aircraft,
maybe Cessnas still have that. The visual that people have when you
say NASA is high tech, cutting-edge technology, and if they had gotten
on the flight deck and seen that they’d go, “This isn’t
what I thought it would be.”
We put the glass cockpit in the vehicles later. It wasn’t during
this period on Endeavour that I saw this, but I later saw it on Columbia
and others. I remember thinking, when I saw it power up, “Now
the vehicle looks like a spacecraft.” And you do that during
That was a major modification that could have been done at the Kennedy
Space Center, but it would have taken up a processing facility. At
that time we had four orbiters, and three Orbiter Processing Facilities.
So another good reason to take the vehicle away from Kennedy Space
Center was to get it out of that mix so that you weren’t interfering
and tying up a bay. The bay at Palmdale had all the work access platforms
that you needed to get access, so it just made sense to send it up
and do that sort of thing. Both inspections and major mods were done
at the same time.
You mentioned corrosion. Endeavour was actually suffering from some
corrosion at that point?
Corrosion for NASA—what we worry about makes others laugh. General
[Michael C.] Kostelnik—it was called Code M for [what became
the Space Operations] Mission Directorate, and code M had Space Shuttle
in it—had come from the Air Force and had done maintenance on
aircraft. So he had us do what he called a cross-check with the Air
Force to see what their maintenance procedures were versus what we
did. We started out by going to Warner Robins Air Force Base in Georgia.
They have the big cargo aircraft there. They talked to us, and they
had some of the same problems we were having at the time. This is
the early 2000s that we were there doing this check.
They talked about Kapton wiring insulation becoming brittle. “Hey,
we’re having that problem with the orbiters.” “What’d
you do to fix it?” “Well, we completely rewired the aircraft.”
“Well, we can’t do that. What are we going to do?”
But a good exchange of information.
And when they came to the Kennedy Space Center we briefed them in
on what we were doing. I remember having a presentation where we were
projecting up on the wall, of course a greatly magnified picture,
and we were talking about a corrosion pit that we had found on the
wing leading edge spar, and we had to remedy this. For scale we had
a quarter next to it, and this pit is much smaller than the diameter
of the quarter.
One of the Air Force personnel was like, “You worry about those
things?” We go, “Yes, we have to.” Because there
is no off ramp for an orbiter. When it’s flying and something’s
failing, it usually happens quickly. It’s a very dynamic environment,
you’re moving very fast. We plan to not fail. We put redundancy
in there. We put systems that fail safely on board so that we don’t
have catastrophic failures where we can envision something going wrong.
This gentleman had seen Air Force aircraft that had enough corrosion
that if you pushed hard enough it would push through the skin of the
vehicle. Well, we will never get to that point on the orbiter.
It’s all relative. We work in a different environment. We had
to worry about things. We did not want a stress point on that spar,
so if we found just the smallest bit of corrosion we would remedy
it, where they may have let something go for a while. It’s just
a different environment. In retrospect, maybe I’m tainted now
because I’m used to working in this environment. I find things
like this on my car and I want to fix them right away, where it probably
doesn’t need to be fixed.
Did you face any challenges while you were working out in Palmdale?
Nothing overly technical. We had some scheduling issues, we had different
human interaction issues that were going on. Very few NASA people
resident at one of these things. It’s a government facility
but it’s contractor-operated. It’s on an Air Force plant,
and it was Rockwell. During the time I was there, Boeing was completing
its buyout of Rockwell, so it actually converted in November of 1996
to Boeing. Same personnel, just changed badges. One of the individuals
that I knew out there had worked for Rockwell for 30 some odd years,
and the conversion happened, so he got his 35-year pen from Boeing.
Probably wasn’t happy about that.
Well, he laughed about it. He had spent virtually no time actually
under the Boeing flag. We worked with our contractor counterparts,
but they really led the effort to a large degree. We would spend time
on the floor. We wanted to understand issues because we were the direct
interface with subsystem managers, the civil servants back in Houston
or in Florida.
We were trying to come up with a means to make it easier for the technicians
to remove the RTV, the room-temperature vulcanized silicone rubber,
that is the bonding agent for the blankets, the thermal protection
system on the surface. It’s a red rubberized material that when
it has cured is stretchy, but when it’s on the surface it adheres
pretty well. We had very thin facesheet aluminum in certain places
on the upper surface of the wing. No grinding could take place, you’ll
wear through the surface quickly. We had no intention when we built
the vehicle of removing vast quantities of these blankets, so here
we are removing large surface areas. We’ve got a lot of this
RTV, and we’ve got to remove the RTV before we can put the new
We had these poor technicians up there using water and different agents
that wouldn’t wear on the aluminum to try and remove it. We
saw lots of instances of things like carpal tunnel [syndrome] and
a lot of folks going to the clinic, because it was just very very
labor intensive. We had an agent or two that we were trying to bring
on board to soften up that RTV to make it easier to come off. One
of them was a citric acid based agent. You could tell when they were
using it because the bay smelled like oranges. It smelled really good.
We had small quantities we had brought in just to try on little surfaces.
Julie Kramer White was there with me, and she and I would go down
at times and interface with the technicians because we were just curious,
“Is it working? Does this help?” Some of the engineers
there at the time would see us down there going “They’re
down there telling our techs [technicians] what to do.” We weren’t.
We were just curious to see if it was working, because if it was working
we were going to try to expedite getting more of this agent in there
to help move things along. It’s funny how people assume things
are happening, or how when you tell the story from one person to the
other things get twisted around.
I remember having to sit down with the engineers and their supervisor
to explain what it was we were doing. We ended up having more or less
an all hands [meeting] with these technicians and the engineers to
explain the relationships. I realized during that meeting the technicians
had no idea why we were doing this modification. I thought, “Hey,
let’s do a brown bag.” If they want to come in and sit
down at lunch, I’ll be glad to sit here and explain why we’re
doing some of the modifications to the vehicle. There’s a good
reason to do this; we’re trying to lighten the vehicle because
we need to fly a higher inclination so the Russians can join us in
this International Space Station.
I think it’s more meaningful if you understand why you’re
doing what you’re doing, how that’s improving the system.
That was something that came out of it. Definitely [an] enhancement
to my career, because it helped me to understand how people perceive
things, how you have to communicate and try to be as clear as you
can in communication. Make sure that everybody’s involved in
the decision so that you don’t run into those situations where
people misinterpret actions. Not that I still don’t walk into
some of those things, but a good experience, good thing to learn from.
What were workdays like out there? I think Julie mentioned that they
were running three shifts a day, is that correct?
When we started out it was single-shift. We worked early. We started
at 6:30, went 6:30 to 3:30. Schedule is always a big thing when you’re
working missions. It seemed more [relaxed] in Palmdale because you’re
away from the flightline, away from the launch pad. Obviously we wanted
to get the vehicle done on the schedule we had advertised, because
we needed to get the vehicle back to the Kennedy Space Center to put
it back in flight status.
We didn’t ignore schedule, but you can start off where you do
single-shift operations, and you reserve your second shift or even
your third shift, which is the overnight shift, for doing things that
require bay clearances. To shoot X-rays you couldn’t have people
around, so you would have a minimal crew come in on third shift to
do X-rays or that sort of operation.
The further into the flow you got, if you saw that you were having
some things pop up that were causing you to burn some of your margin
on your schedule, we would go to second shift. Then the last couple
weeks we were working around the clock. Trying to do everything, close
out as much of the anomalies as you can. You wanted to transfer as
few problems back to the Kennedy Space Center to close out as you
could, as they did when they sent the vehicle to Palmdale. They didn’t
like to send it out with what we called “open paper,”
things that they started that we had to finish. And vice versa, that
we would start at Palmdale and they’d have to finish. And you
wanted to make the schedule also, so you had more folks on board working
round the clock at the end than you did at the beginning.
I remember as the rotational engineers, Julie and I got to do the
tours. Those were always scheduled in front of the flow for second
shift. We would bring Lancaster [California] City Council through
at 4:00 in the afternoon, and Julie and I took turns doing the tour.
One would be the lead and would do the talking, and the other would
be the shepherd dog in the back end. I enjoyed talking about the vehicles
and liked giving those tours, because it was a chance to talk to folks
who didn’t have that firsthand knowledge. It was a lot of fun
to give tours.
So very different from your job here at JSC.
Definitely. You can talk about things here at JSC. You can go to the
Rocket Park and you can look at things we did in the past, there are
vacuum chambers here, there’s flight hardware here—but
it’s more spread out. It’s harder to look at an actuator
and get excited than it is to look at an orbiter and go, “That
thing has been to space.” Well, the actuator has been to space
too, but you recognize the outer mold line [of the orbiter]. That’s
what you gravitate to and want to talk about.
Having that exposure to the flight hardware on a consistent basis
was a career changer for me, because I’ve continued to want
to gravitate back to that. Having started in advanced programs, which
is paper studies—you’re doing concepts, but they’re
not real and you knew that a good many of those would never come to
fruition—all the way to the other end of the spectrum to where
you’re working on a flight vehicle that is going to space. In
my case I was doing maintenance on one so that it would return to
flight status, but still you felt a different connection to the program
than you do when you’re looking at enhancements and you’re
1,500 miles away from the actual flight hardware. It’s different.
So I’ve come back from that experience and definitely encouraged
folks at every turn to try to get close to the hardware in some form
or fashion. Whether it was going to White Sands [Test Facility, New
Mexico] to do tests on flight hardware or [NASA] Stennis [Space Center,
Mississippi]. You could do test on engines there or get around the
integrated vehicle at the Cape. You can’t measure how valuable
that experience is.
Earlier you mentioned that this was like an aircraft depot. Would
you talk about working conditions out there, what things were like?
More relaxed in Palmdale than it was at Kennedy, and rightfully so.
You’ve got a vehicle at Kennedy and a processing facility. A
lot of times powered up, a lot of activity. There’s a lot of
activity going on at Palmdale too, but when you power down and you’re
doing inspections, you don’t have the distractions of being
on what I call the flightline all around you. It just feels more relaxed.
There was rigor there—I don’t want to make it sound like
folks didn’t pay attention to detail, because they definitely
did. The paper processes that were instituted at Palmdale were the
same as those used at the Kennedy Space Center, because the paper
had to transfer back and forth.
But I went from working in Houston where I wore a tie every day, to
being encouraged to not wear that tie and wear things where I could
get dirty. I was going to go out on the floor, and I was going to
be poking my head into things and looking at things firsthand with
an engineer, with technicians. Very different. I sent a note back
from out there to a coworker who asked how things were going, and
I made some comment to the effect of what I was doing and going out,
working on the vehicle. I say getting dirty—it was a clean environment,
but you’re getting your hands on. Ended the statement, “And
can you believe they’re paying me to do this?” Because
I felt like I would have volunteered to do it just to have the experience.
So you worked in groups of three with a Boeing engineer, JSC [system
engineer], and then a tech?
Your interfaces in my position were usually engineers. It would be
the Boeing engineer who was a subsystem manager, and usually somebody
in Houston who was a civil servant subsystem manager. But you also
got to know a lot of the technicians really well, so whenever you
did need to examine something you almost always had the technicians
there because they gave you insights that the engineers maybe didn’t
I would even take the opportunity when I could—not that we could
ask them to do everything—to pull a tech to the side and ask
them what they thought, how should we do this, or what do you think
might make this system go together a little better. We had reasons
for doing things in the sequence we did. Sometimes it was open for
debate, but it’s always good to get the insights.
I like to work on cars. I get a manual and it’ll have a picture
in there, and it says to put a wrench in a certain place and do something.
You’re back there looking at the hardware and you cannot do
what the picture says. The hands-on experience is different sometimes
than what you get [on paper]. This is what I was describing before.
When you’re 1,500 miles away and you have a drawing—I
had that discussion a couple times with an engineer going, “It
says you can see this.” “Well, I’m here to tell
you I’m looking at it now, and I can’t.”
That’s why the technician is so important. They’re the
people who actually have to do the procedures, take things apart,
put things back together. A lot of those folks in Palmdale at the
time had been there for the build, and they had a lot of ownership
in those vehicles. The way the system worked out there was that a
vehicle would come in, they’d have 9 months to maybe 12, 13
months worth of work to do on that vehicle. The vehicle would leave,
and there would be a gap. Three, four, five months before another
vehicle would show up. A lot of them would have to be laid off and
find other things to do. Where I come from that would be I’m
finding another career, because I need consistency, I need to know
where the paycheck is coming from.
These people came back in numbers that I couldn’t believe. 80%,
85% of the people would return every time. They’d find something
else to do because they wanted to work on those orbiters. They would
refer to them in the possessive, that was their vehicle. They built
that vehicle; they maintained that vehicle. That ownership was really
something to see.
Again, another thing that changes how you view things. You get a real
respect for the workforce when you’re around them, and you see
the pride they take in their work. It’s not just a paycheck
to them. They wanted to be involved, they wanted to do it right, knew
the right way to do it. It was good to get their insights.
I think this might be a good place for us to stop.
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