Back in the Saddle

My story with manned spaceflight starts with my parents and older brother.  Both of my parents were in college in the 1960s, the heyday of the US manned space program.  In the span of time between the last few bits of Dad’s sophomore year in high school to his last year in graduate school, we went from Al to Neil and Buzz.  The manned missions on the moon span another set of milestones: Neil and Buzz landed about six weeks after my parents got married, and Apollo 17 was on the way to the moon when my brother was born.

I'm pretty sure that this is Gene Cernan.
I’m pretty sure that this is Gene Cernan.

Then it comes to me.  I was born between almost equidistant between the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and STS-1.  I remember launches as a kid, but only one really sticks out from the rest.  January 28, 1986 was a tough day for NASA and the nation, really.  We lost seven astronauts that day, the first time that we had lost a crew off of the ground.  I was seven and in Mrs. Leach’s first grade class.  I lived in an Air Force town, and though the Shuttle program was well on its way — this was flight #25 in not quite five years — the presence of Christa McAuliffe guaranteed that the teachers in our school1 would be interested.

But we missed watching the launch live.  Again, this was 1986, so there was no Twitter to alert us to the tragedy, no cell phones with urgent texts, or anything else of that sort.  There was just a TV broadcast that was eerily silent.  Warning bells were going off in my head, even at age 7: someone is always talking over the launch, so why are we not hearing the NASA guys here?  About the time that I was close to forming these as cogent thoughts:

GPN-2004-00012

We were watching the first replay.  Mrs. Leach screamed, because she had met McAuliffe during the selections for the Teacher in Space Project.  ((Or so someone once told me.))  One of the other teachers had to calm her down.  I don’t remember if my classmates were upset, but I sure was. Somewhere after the fog of the rest of that day, two thoughts emerged: the fact that people were willing to risk their lives to explore space makes that important and I want to be a part of that, especially if that means that I can make sure that never happens again.

SaturnSometime in second grade or so, my parents got me this amazing picture book of photos taken by various NASA probes, most of them being from the two Voyager probes.  ((I have tried off and on to find this book at my house, because it’s one of those things that I would keep.  I sure wish that I could link to it on Amazon, because the discovery found in it made me really thirst for space exploration.))  The sense of wonder that this book (and others) brought to me was enticing: all of these worlds were out there for man to explore.

When it came time to return to space, I was two days shy of 10.  We were back! was the song in my heart.  I remember that my childhood best friend and I clipped every last thing that we could find from the newspapers — Dayton, Columbus, Cincinnati, and national — about the flight.  We geeked the fuck out about it.  That mission went off just fine, with minor hurdles with a flash evaporator and a radio antenna.

STS-26

I don’t think that it was ever really clear to me in primary school that, if I wanted to work in manned spaceflight, I needed to have stellar grades, especially in math and science.  I was that self-driven kid who cried over Bs on single assignments.  I was interested in everything,2 and my grades reflected that.  School was a game for me, and the rewards were A grades.  I wanted them, and I got them.  School came easily to me, and I won’t apologize for that.

My father retired from the Air Force in 1990, and in 1991, our family moved to Mississippi, with my brother off to college and me into 7th grade.  Years later, I would reflect that I was essentially ready for the academic rigors of high school in Mississippi when I arrived, but I assuredly wouldn’t have been socially ready for them.  I tried to throw myself into the subjects that I hadn’t already tackled in Ohio — at one point, I did know all of the county seats of Mississippi and could place all 82 counties on a map.  ((Those skills have atrophied.))  Nothing available to me was going to push me toward the goal of manned spaceflight, and the early 90s were not Internet-friendly in Mississippi due to its relative poverty and population sparsity.

I whiled away my time reading Tom Clancy novels and looking toward the future.  I wanted to attend The Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, which my father had heard about before we even left Ohio through his professional society.  It was the carrot at the end of the stick, and I would get there.  I took as many academic classes as I could in my first high school.  I was through the math curriculum in two years, knowing that MSMS had a calculus curriculum waiting for me if I could do all the prep work to get to its starting point.

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If I hadn’t been accepted to MSMS, I would’ve just jammed my last two years of high school into one and finished a year early.  If I had, I would not have been ready for college, not in the way I was after two years in Columbus.  MSMS is a public, taxpayer-supported, statewide, residential math and science magnet high school for juniors and seniors.  For most of us who went there, it was essentially starting college two years early, but with far more boundaries on what we could and couldn’t do.3  Whether you were from a great school district in one of the bigger cities in Mississippi for from a dirt poor, rural district, MSMS was the route to top colleges and universities.  Deborah Fallows did the school’s mission justice with a piece for The Atlantic.

At that point, MSMS was about getting into a good engineering school for aerospace engineering.  I still wasn’t totally firm on what aerospace engineers did, but I wanted to be one4 anyway.  The plan was pretty simple: go to a school where I could co-op and work in manned spaceflight so I could have a leg up come graduation.

That plan totally worked.  It worked better than I could have imagined.

The University of Alabama in HuntsvilleIn August 1997, I enrolled at The University of Alabama in Huntsville, the unloved half-sister of the UofA system.  I studied aerospace engineering, finishing my degree program in seven full-time semesters (and one half-time summer semester) thanks to all of the advanced placement courses and articulation agreements that MSMS afforded me.  Those 7-1/2 semesters were spread over five years because I dove deeply into the co-op world.5

In August 1999, I stepped on campus at Teledyne Brown Engineering and started an engineering path.  I worked for a friendly aerospace engineer from Indiana named Scott.  Scott taught me a lot about being a good engineer, and I like to think that I was one because of his influence: sweating the details, working it out, questioning things, asking for second opinions when you’ve been staring at the problem for too long.

Courtesy: PopSci
Courtesy: PopSci

I worked on a lot of fun things early on in my career.  The big one was Space-DRUMS®, a reactor that provided a metal-forming environment on the ISS.  If you visit that link and scroll down to the fourth page, you’ll see the behemoth in all its glory.  I mostly worked with the argon gas system and the chamber’s interaction with the US Lab‘s vacuum system.6  Scott threw me in the deep end of the pool on it, but that was just fine with me.  You can pull up PopSci’s gallery of what DRUMS looks like if you’re interested.

Along the way, Scott left the company, and in that period of time, I got to work directly for my boss, Ed.  I picked up a little of Scott’s work,7 but at that time Ed was working on building unpressurized flight support equipment (FSE) to fly pre-positioned on-orbit replacement units (ORU).  Now let me de-mystify that with some images from a 92-page NASA briefing8 and eight years of FSE work.

This is an EXPRESS Logistics Carrier laden with FSE.
This is an EXPRESS Logistics Carrier laden with FSE.
  • Unpressurized: sitting outside the confines of the ISS, exposed to the environment of space.
  • Flight Support Equipment: hardware that helps other hardware do its work.  All of those blockish things are various ORUs (more on that in a sec).  They have to be brought up to orbit by a rocketship, which means a sound structural connection must be provided.  When stored “outside” in space, they have to be protected from the sun’s rays, hence all the white you see in NASA TV footage of spacecraft.  They also have to be protected with active heating lest the hardware freeze on the shadowed side of the earth.  Lastly, the payloads that use the FRAM system have access to command and data handling via Ethernet.
Columbus Experiment Pallet Adapter
Columbus Experiment Pallet Adapter
Look at all the places that we can stow ORUs!
Look at all the places that we can stow ORUs!
  • On-orbit replacement units (ORUs).  Stuff breaks, but when you’re a couple hundred miles above your home, it’s a little hard to pull over and fix things.  ORUs can be lots of things: batteries that are charged from the solar arrays and discharge their energy when the ISS is on the dark side of the Earth; the battery charge/discharge unit, which does that electrical switching; the control moment gyroscopes, which help provide attitude control to the station in the same way that you tilting your bike turns it; the ammonia pump circulators that keep the station cool; and many more.

Every time one of these components breaks — and they’re all pretty big, usually in the 3’x4’x3.5′ range — it has to be fixed by bringing in a spare.  The below video from NASA has an overview of ELC 1’s ORUs after a time-lapse video of its installation on station (04:12).

 

Space Shuttle Atlantis, on the pad for STS-122 (Mission 1E).  It didn't launch while I was there.
Space Shuttle Atlantis, on the pad for STS-122 (Mission 1E). It didn’t launch while I was there.

This work was a lot of fun.  All of the FSE in that video save for the grappler was built by a manufacturing team at TBE led by Ed.  My role at the time of this work would’ve been best described as a project controls engineer.  I would later go on to be an assistant project manager and later a project manager.  About a month ago, I found my old employee evaluations.  I guess that I was pretty good.  I even won an award from NASA during my time as PM.

Unfortunately, with the end of the Shuttle program, those of us in the unpressurized FSE world — and it was mostly the group I worked in at TBE, but there were other suppliers — saw our work go away.  NASA flew our hardware in Space Shuttles, and without a launch vehicle, we were at a standstill.  There wasn’t a lot of work out there to be had, and since I had been easing my way out of engineering and into project management, I decided to make the leap and try something new.  I had some personal things going on as well, and making a change seemed like a good idea.

It wasn’t.  I jumped, and you’re supposed to jump if you have a good place to land, but where I landed wasn’t good, and it certainly wasn’t good for me.  It ended very badly, and the next thing I knew, I was unemployed a week and a half before I turned 32.

It’s been a long slog from there.  As soon as the Republicans swept to power in the 2010 mid-term elections, I knew that government contracting would be a hairy, sweaty mess.  It was: hiring freezes, a barely-averted government shutdown, a debt ceiling crisissequestration, another debt ceiling crisis, and a government shutdown.  Add to that NASA’s indecision about what it wants to be post-Shuttle and post-ISS-Complete, and it was awful.

So I went back to school: a year as an undergraduate, and two years of graduate school since.  If I’d gone straight to graduate school — I didn’t think that I’d get in after bailing on a previous attempt — I’d be done by now.  So I was underemployed, which mostly meant that I was out of work entirely.  Let me tell you: that is one of the most demoralizing things you can be; I can’t really put it more strongly than that.  My MITRE internship was a lot of fun last summer, but it mainly served to remind me that I Could Still Do This.  I needed that badly.

In the last week of May, I found a job that looked interesting: Geocent SSE.  I knew someone at Geocent — the VP I worked for at TBE was a VP there.  I sent him a message asking for help.  I mean, at this point, the goalie is pulled.  I get contacted by a recruiter.  We talk.  She says that she’ll throw me in the pot later.

Two hours later, she says that Scott wants to talk with me on the next Tuesday.  That’s where he had landed one job later.  We met, found that we still have chemistry, and he filled me in on the job, which sounded amazing.  The next day, the recruiter called me to make me a verbal offer, which I happily accepted.  It took a month for it to become a written offer, but I accepted that one last Tuesday and have been running ever since.  I started today.

Ignore that this badge says visitor and has a different corporate name.
Ignore that this badge says visitor and has a different corporate name.

When Apollo-Soyuz was in orbit, President Ford had a bunch of questions for the astronauts and cosmonauts.  He asked Deke Slayton if he had any advice for would-be astronauts, seeing as he was the oldest astronaut yet.  “Decide what you want to do,” Deke replied, “then never give up until you’ve done it.”

I decided to be an aerospace engineer.  I did it.  1,508 days after I left, I’m back.  They’re going to have to drag me away kicking and screaming.


  1. and theoretically us students 

  2. well, not poetry and literary criticism 

  3. Alabama has its own school, and many of its alumni attended UAH.  Early in my freshman year, we all remarked that we had to make room check.  We laughed, and then we went to Waffle House. 

  4. minus the pocket protector, although I have learned first-hand why engineers use them 

  5. I took 35 hours my first year at UAH; I took 36 hours over my last two years. 

  6. Space gives you all the free vacuums you want, and it’s way better than the one at your local car wash! 

  7. which was weird, because I was not yet done with school! 

  8. Go on, Michael Terry, you want to read this. 

ISS: TRON-ized

Check out Christoph Malin’s sweet TRON treatment of some ISS DSLR data. The little jutting platform that you see going to the left in the first frame—and you see it a lot—has a lot of the hardware that my friends and I worked on over the years. Of all of them, the Pump Modules for which I managed the cradle builds are the two boxes on the top of that External Stowage Platform, visible in multiple spots for the white blankets with two black racing (okay, alignment) stripes on them.

Teledyne Brown Engineering Contributions to Ares I-X

In honor of Ares I-X launch day, my company has actually embraced YouTube. I’m a little stunned, but I figured I could bring the goods to you.

First off is Rex Geveden, TBE President.

Next is James Drake, one of my long-time colleagues, walking you through I-X. I’ve worked with James since November of 1999.

Last is Don Guerkink, one of TBE’s old hands and an all-around great guy, talking about his experiences with spaceflight across the years at TBE.

We’ve been in this business for 50+ years, since Explorer I. I’ve been here for ten years, and there are very few places I’d rather be—even if I didn’t get to do much more than watch from a distance as the Roll Control System was built up by a group led by my boss.


As always, all opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the official position of my employer. You knew that, but the lawyers make me say it.

Summertime Driving Playlist

Brandon and I are going to Florida this weekend to go see STS-127 lift off from the Cape. [I’m bummed that Nathan can’t go, since I crashed on his couch last time and everything.] I’m putting together the second episode of the GeofCast to be a summertime driving playlist, with the eye that the whole podcast will be under 80 minutes and the playlist itself under 74, so it could be burned to a CD. I’ve done a first cut at a list, and I’m sorta happy with it, but I’ll take suggestions: what would you put on a summertime driving playlist? Leave a suggestion in the comments.

Merry Christmas

Forty years ago today, Earth got a sense of how small it was in the Universe.

Apollo VIII Earthrise

It had been a terrible year: The Tet Offensive, the assassination of MLK, and the assassination of RFK. [We wouldn’t know that Nixon would be an unmitigated disaster for a few more years yet.] And up until August of that year, we didn’t think Apollo VIII would be any different than the other warmup flights for the Apollo series; but then the decision was made to have Borman, Lovell, and Anders transit to the moon and orbit.

Can you imagine that mission briefing? “Okay, boys. We’re going to send you [millions, er, ]hundreds of thousands of miles form Earth, right at Christmas, but you can’t go land on that hunk of rock. Have fun and ad astra per aspera.” I’d have been both honored to go and disappointed that I couldn’t go all the way.

Anders, Lovell, and Borman didn’t read American propoganda during their broadcast. They read the first few verses of the KJV translation of Genesis. I think they had it right—this was a moment for all of mankind, not just the American taxpayers who’d footed the bill to send them there. One may quibble that Borman’s move [it was his idea], repeated today, would go over like a lead balloon in this politically correct culture; I would instead argue that Borman was simply being true to himself and his faith.

I urge that you do likewise.

As I won’t be near a computer tomorrow … Merry Christmas from me to you.

Shit Happens—Give Heide a Break!

So I’ve heard a lot lately about Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper losing a gear bag on orbit in media outlets that normally don’t cover manned spaceflight, or only do so when we in the NASA community have a bit of a stumble. Shoot, it was in the top-of-hour NPR news rundown this morning, and it’s reputed as “one of the largest” losses of equipment in orbit—but, you’ll note, not the largest. [Who made the biggest mistake? Who knows outside NASA.]

Some will argue that losing $100,000 of taxpayer equipment is the story. Frankly, I’m afraid that it’s latent sexism, and that everyone wants to mock the woman who screwed up. That’s patently unfair—Piper is highly regarded in the EVA community for being one of the best; if she weren’t, she wouldn’t be assigned to fix the Solar Alpha Rotary Joint (SARJ) and be the lead spacewalker on a flight that has this many spacewalks.

As the project manager for some hardware that Heide will be working with on STS-126—including some contingency hardware I hope she never has to use ;)—I know that she’s got a hard job. Crew lose track of equipment from time to time, and in microgravity, what you drop doesn’t land at your feet. Is it a big deal she lost this hardware? Yeah, but she knows that. But the way I keep hearing the coverage, it’s more a big deal that she dropped it, and that sends a terrible message to any young girls and women looking to follow in her footsteps—that the media is going to make your life hell if you screw up, but is going to give the boys a pass.

Pisses me off.

Obama’s Space Platform

I received a PDF of Barack Obama’s space platform, and I think I should make it available here: Barack Obama’s Space Platform.

All such platforms have “code words” that let interested parties know what the candidate believes. As I work in the industry, I’m probably a good person to help decipher those for you. After all, I was ready to not vote for the man because of his views, just as I voted with my job four years ago. So, here are some thoughts that came to me as I read through the PDF; if you’ve got questions after reading the below, feel free to ask in the comments!

  • Initial cut is promising, as he mentions Kennedy. Whatever else his other failings, NASA nerds love JFK.
  • The Challenge states the problem pretty well, but it tries to argue that this is a Bush problem; yes, and no. How this Administration has funded NASA hasn’t exactly made me happy, but hey, it’s better than the Dan Goldin years. Obama’s campaign is right, though, that cuts in NASA’s non-exploration tasks have been far too drastic—and I say that as someone who firmly believes that manned exploration is very important and hates the robots über alles attitude of JPL.
  • I like the idea of pushing NASA science to help us understand things here. That’s honestly the truth, and the cuts made were too drastic. Plus, it fits into Obama’s larger mindset of where this country needs to go.
  • Reviving the NASC can’t hurt, and will probably help.
  • Re: Closing the Gap: You can call this a flip-flop, but I just don’t care—recognizing that you were wrong and that there are better ideas is something we haven’t seen out of the White House in far, far too long. [And I’m not just talking about Bush 43.] Also, the words about “foreign space capabilities” means “Russia”, for those not playing at home. Since, oh, that tiff with Georgia, we’ve all wondered about that around here. [And not just because some rednecks in Lower Alabama were polishing their guns, thinking the Red Bastards were about to invade Dothan.]
  • Obama’s ISS stance is, “Hey! We built a big lab! Let’s use it for science!” Well, yes. ISS has always been about engineering, on-orbit construction, and international cooperation [except with those pesky Chinese, who won’t be allowed to dock], but when you’re done with it … dammit, it better be about more than providing The Big Picture with pretty photos of hurricanes. But after saying all that stuff about “foreign space capabilities” before, Obama notes that ISS was also a jobs program for Russian rocket scientists in the 1990s. And that, folks, is probably why the Iranians can’t nuke us today.
  • Human space exploration: he wants ESA or JAXA to make a manned push so it’s not just us, the Russians, and the Chinese. Makes sense. I prefer JAXA—the Japanese make better aerospace decisions. [Note: my company and my group specifically work with JAXA contractors.]
  • Robotic exploration: let’s make California happy. [Okay, so it’s also a very good idea.]
  • Studying the Earth: let’s not lie anymore about global warming not being legit. But I also hope that “no political interference” means Dr. John Christy still has a voice at the national table.
  • Aeronautics research: This has three benefits: the stated one, giving Ohio and California NASA centers something to do, and gets Glenn way the hell out of manned spacecraft design. I would comment more, but … that would be imprudent. Anyhow, NASA has centers of excellence, and Ames and Glenn should do their jobs instead of being forced into realms with which they are unfamiliar just because Bush only funds VSE.
  • International Cooperation: Be nice to ESA, keep space de-weaponized, and be wary of the Chinese. All worthy goals. Also, seems ideal towards keeping the Russians involved and engaged, which is a good thing for overall relations.
  • New Technologies: Yawn. NASA’s PR machine sucks about noting the benefits, and it’s cliché to say “derived from NASA technology!” I don’t think anyone gives a damn anymore because we don’t do anything exciting.
  • That said, the bits about ITAR restriction relieving are good [and not just because it makes my task as an Export Control monitor easier; hell, it’ll probably get harder as the rules change], and pushing the skill-base expansion is my main point from my screed back in March: “Raiding NASA’s budget to fund education is like sponsoring the US Olympic Team but then not sending them to Beijing this summer.”
  • Education: always important. I ended up in this field because I was excited about it as a child and focused my entire academic career towards it. I find far too many of my peers these days to not have that same … drive. That scares me some.

So, reading this policy document makes me think that Obama has it right. If anyone has access to McCain’s space platform, I’ll go through it the same way. I think it’s safe to say that I’m wholeheartedly behind Obama at this point, and this makes it easier for me.

Obama and Manned Spaceflight

If I believe NPR’s David Kestenbaum—and I generally do—then Barack Obama’s views on manned spaceflight have cost him my vote. I recommend listening to the entire story, but the blurb listed on NPR.org is very telling:

Advocates of NASA’s plan to return to the moon are concerned that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has said he will raid NASA’s budget to fund education. While the issue of space exploration hasn’t gotten much attention this campaign season, it is a topic on which the candidates do differ.

Raiding NASA’s budget to fund education is like sponsoring the US Olympic Team but then not sending them to Beijing this summer. Admittedly, I’m quite biased as someone who works in manned spaceflight, but space science is one of the few endeavors that mankind has left that is, on the whole, quite positive. Sure, there are negatives—one reason NASA will continue to get funding is fear over the Chinese space program, and the International Space Station largely has justified a jobs program to keep Russian rocket scientists from going to work for Iran, North Korea, and China—but that we’ve gotten the world’s nations to push together for this quite lofty goal is impressive. That we won’t let the Chinese be a part is sad, to be sure, but that’s something that talk-with-your-enemies Obama would support, right?

When I posted about voting in Alabama’s primaries last month, I was leaning Obama. Hillary’s desperate tactics in the face of Obamamania have pushed me further in his direction. But just as I did in 2004, I’ll vote with my job, even if that’s “fucking idiotic” to some. Admittedly, part of the reason that I like both Obama and McCain is that they don’t seem to fall into the “you’re stupid because you disagree with me” argument. I’m fairly convinced that either candidate would make a good President; I hope you’ll understand why I’m likely to make the choice to vote with my job.

[I mean, I guess that, now that I’m management, my skills are portable, but … I do kinda like this shit. I mean, I did get one of NASA’s highest honors last year. 😉 ]

Me and Atlantis




Me and Atlantis

Originally uploaded by Geof F. Morris

Well, this is as close as I’ll get to seeing Space Shuttle Atlantis lifting off. The Shuttle’s Engine Cut Off sensors—which NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has derisively referred to as “Launch Prevention Devices”—has again delayed the launch of STS-122, this time waving off the Saturday attempt. I got the phone call about an hour ago, and at that time, I indicated that I’m going to drive back tomorrow. Thus ends my attempts to see STS-122 lift off in person.

It was a good week, though. I wasn’t really in to all the rah-rah crap that they wanted to do, because I didn’t see that as a big deal. But it really kinda is. I’m fired up to get back and keep doing the good job that I’m apparently doing at work, because it’s really easy to feel that What I Do Is Important.

Having several days to hang out with Josh was great. We’re certainly different than we were sixteen years ago, but we have such a strong bond from growing up and a like-mindedness that allows all those years to melt away quite quickly. As a military brat, you grow up thinking that you’ll just have these friends for a year or four until you go on to your next base; it sucks, but you learn to adjust. But this week, Josh and I have proven that all the reasons for which we were friends for seven years are the reasons we will still be friends at 70.

I was struck by something Josh said as we walked out to get lunch today: “[This week]’s been just like when we were kids.” I think he meant in two ways—not only us being friends, but in the kicking ass and taking names that we did growing up. And yeah … it has been like that.

To my parents: thanks for all the time and energy you invested in me being a smart, hardworking kid over the years. They’ve paid off, but you’ve known that for a while. [Mainly when you didn’t have to pay too much for my college education. 😉 ] To my friends, thanks for putting up with some of my … weird obsessions about work. [And with sometimes putting it above my relationships with people, because I certainly do that.] To my colleagues, thanks for making me look good, because y’all deserve this award even more than I do. And to my bosses, thanks for the chance to try—because it was as much a chance to shine as it was a chance to go down in flames.

And to Atlantis: get off the ground, will ya? The DCSU FSE hardware we built this year needs to get off the SSPF floor, and it can’t do that if you don’t go. So GO!