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.

My Job Description As an Elevator Pitch … and More.

I’ve been thinking about this post for a bit over the last few weeks, because a lot of people—including many friends!—don’t know what it is that I do for a living. Bryan wrote yesterday about elevator pitches, and that gives me the framework for this discussion. As such: my job description as an elevator pitch.

I am a project manager for a medium-sized aerospace company. We build unpressurized cargo carriers that NASA uses to fly replacement units like storage batters for the solar panels and the gyroscopes that keep the International Space Station aligned up to orbit in the Space Shuttle. These carriers have to protect the cargo from the structural loads of launch and landing as well as provide active heating and passive cooling on-orbit for up to ten years.

Admittedly, there are a lot of technical terms in there, but in those three sentences, you’re either 1) interested to know more, 2) writing me off as a nerdy rocket scientist, or 3) glazing over and hoping that your floor comes up soon. But hey, let’s pretend that you’re #1 …

I’m a project manager. What does that mean? Well, it means I’m frickin’ crazy. Okay, that’s really not that funny; my depression pre-dates my job. And presuming that you read my Twitter stream, you probably worry a little bit for my sanity. I do, too. This week’s been long—I’ve worked my forty hours, and I was in my bed today at 3:00 p.m. for what I think was a well-deserved and know was a much-needed nap—but it’s been good in many ways. Things are coming forward.

That said, none of that describes what a project manager is being like, in my sense. It boils down to this, in my role: managing technical issues with engineering drawings, materials and process specifications, and aerospace quality standards while keeping the customer happy and reasonably well-informed … while working to maintain cost and schedule. I work both cost-plus-fee and fixed-price contracts, and I’ve got a good reputation for managing both [or so I tell myself at 0445 when I’m not really wanting to get going that day]. Simply put, like many engineers, I solve problems—but my problems go outside the standard, “How strong can we make this beam while keeping it under twenty pounds?” decisions that aerospace engineers are forever making.

I work for Teledyne Brown Engineering, which is a systems engineering company with a manufacturing background. [The Brown is from Brown Tool and Die.] I never, ever presume to speak for my employer, although I believe that I try to represent them well. I’m part of a small team that does this for the company, and we have a pretty solid reputation with our NASA customer.

Unpressurized cargo carriers are as weird as they sound. I started off in pressurized, rack-stored payloads—what you think of in your mind’s eye when you think of astronauts floating around inside the Shuttle or Station, in front of a floor-to-ceiling assortment of drawers, bins, and lockers. This lasted a couple years, and then we got busy working for NASA in building these carriers. I was a co-op then, and they needed someone detail-oriented who could figure out scheduling. My boss handed me the task to keep busy, and I got good at it. Too good, actually—I know am fairly intuitive with scheduling [to the point that I don’t put in as much time with Microsoft Project as I should], and once I showed an interest in the business side of this job, I was done for. Heh.

We’ve built carriers for: the big ISS batteries that store electrical energy captured by the solar arrays; the Control Moment Gyroscopes that the ISS uses to align itself without firing rockets all the time, various electrical boxes that do battery charge/discharge and current switching, and a bunch of other things that are harder to describe. Most all of these units are in the size range of “not really small enough to fit in a compact station wagon”, and weigh between 100-400lbs. They’ve got odd shapes and are delicate [especially the batteries], so you have to coddle them. For us, that means stiff, strong metal components that provide structural integrity while not weighing very much. [When Apple made big news about their unibody laptops, I was thinking, “Um, wow. Hogging out aluminum. Do that every damn day, y’all.”] And when it comes to active heating and passive cooling, these are the visible, non-structural things: black-anodized heating plates with thermofoil heaters glued to the back side, with big, thick, bright-white blankets around everything. [Ever notice that everything on orbit seems to be painted white? You gotta reject that heat when you’re in the sun, or you’ll cook.]

That’s my job, in a nutshell, as of early 2009. I’ve been doing the project management gig since late 2006 and the cargo carrier stuff since early 2002. I’ve touched countless items that have later flown in space: just today, I held a thermostat that probably cost the government more than my company pays me in a year. [Yes, it was in an ESD bag, and yes, I had a wrist strap on.] My job is fun, crazy, and maddening … and I love it most every day. [AND WHEN I DON’T MY FRIENDS HEAR ABOUT IT ON TWITTER BECAUSE OH MY GOD I HAVE TO VENT OR I WILL KILL SOMEONE.]

Eight Is Enough


Your narrator walks downstairs, aiming for a mid-afternoon pick-me-up from the vending machine. Arriving at the foot of the stairs, he sees a test rig surrounded by five people.

Co-worker, known for droll humor and dry wit: “It’s not rocket science.”

Narrator [hitches up belt]: “Well, that’s what I went to school to do.” [pause] “What are y’all testing?”

Co-worker: “How many people we can get to stand here, watching the computer.”

Narrator: “What’s your goal?”

Co-worker: “Eight is a successful test.”

Narrator: “Well, I’m gonna fuck it up and walk away now. Bye!”

The narrator retrieves his quarry and returns to the scene, finding a sixth hanger-on standing near the test rig. “Seven!” The narrator turns to head back up the stairs, and seeing a co-worker, makes an about-face.



12 Hour Day

12 Hour Day

Originally uploaded by Geof F. Morris

Somewhere, some Daylight Shifting Time proponent is thinking:

“Hey, dude. Not only did you get to see the sunrise today, you got to see the sunset, too! What a great workday!”

I want to find that asshole and punch him in the face.

[Why, yes, I rather do need a vacation. Why, yes, I’m a bit bitter that the one I had planned to take starting on Wednesday got screwed up. Why do you ask?]

Leap Day 2008

Hey hey hey, we shipped some flight hardware … on Leap Day. This has been a possibility for a solid six weeks, and I’m giddy that it happened. Mostly, I’m just tired and want to sleep for about six weeks. But I’ve still got four programs and two proposals to manage [a third ships out this afternoon, huzzah]. I don’t know that life is gonna slow down much for me until March ends, but … I sure hope so. I kinda miss having the energy and passion to write.

Further Proof That I’m Insane

The NASA teleconference system always asks for the same thing before joining you to the call: “Please state your name, followed by the pound sign.” No, most mornings, since we’re a staff meeting, I say, “Teledyne Brown, Huntsville” or “Huntsville” or “TBE Huntsville”, because we’re the only group from our company and city tying in. As you’re joined to the conference, some of the numbers ring out, “[recording of what you’ve said] is now joining.”

This morning, I responded, “Puddintane! Ask me again, I’ll tell you the same.”

There was a brief delay, and then everyone laughed. But I could tell that they really wanted to throw shit at me.

I have considered other options:

  • James Tiberius Kirk, captain of the starship Enterprise.”
  • Various politicians. Were I Frank Caliendo, I’d do it with impressions.
  • “Who has two thumbs and doesn’t give a crap?” Only to see if someone responded, “Bob Kelso“.

The nuclear option is, of course, “YOUR MOM.”

Some days, it’s a wonder that they put me in positions of responsibility.

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!

Space Flight Awareness Honoree

There is no way to post this without tooting my own horn, so … blow, baby, blow. I’m a Space Flight Awareness Honoree.

[Yes, my reaction to this was, “You’ve gotta be kidding me. I’m just management! I don’t do anything!”]

I’ll be down at KSC first week in December for 1E. I’m allowed to take a guest with me; obviously, I asked Doug right away, but he’s not sure that he can go. Anyone interested? Preference given to people I know, especially single females. 😉

Update, 14 Nov: I have someone to go with me, and because folks have asked and I found out yesterday, there were 275 Honorees in this cycle. [And no, I did not get a Silver Snoopy. Those come from the crew, and I don’t do the kind of work that would ever merit getting one. I work with plenty of people who have them, though.] Now Mom can honestly tell people that her baby boy is one in a million, seeing that we passed 275 million folks in this country quite some time ago. 😉

“Nothing happens until you start.”

Co-op: [hands me data] “Here’s everything I have. The first couple sheets are exact quality records, the next two are photocopies of build paper, and the rest is all stuff I wrote down on an indentured parts list.”

Me: “Excellent! Just the kind of data that we need.”

Co-op: “How do you want me to organize this?”

Me: “Well, we need weights and part numbers.”

Co-op: “We’ve also got serial numbers …”

Me: “Good point. Just … get started with the data entry, and the organization will come to you. Promise.”

And that’s the truth: faced with a blob of data that you know only in part, you’re best to get it all entered and then figure out how to make it pretty. You could spend a half-hour with a plan for all this, and something on page 47? Gonna kick your ass. Better to just get started.

[And now my co-op is going to see this on Facebook, since I import notes there, and she’ll know that I care. ‘Cause I do. ‘Cause she’s kicking ass. I’m just trying not to tell her too much so she won’t get complacent. ;)]

It’s About the Interactions

So come around 10:30 this morning, I was a little annoyed: I’d killed all of yesterday, with all of its bad travel [ask anyone who follows me on Twitter, they were tired of my tweeting about travel], and traveled here for a two-hour meeting where I didn’t learn anything that I didn’t already know about this design last month when I was in town. My first instinct was to see if I could get out of town and back home, but there were no flights that were not ridiculously expensive. And hey, taxpayers, I’ve already spent enough of our money making this trip, so it made no sense to spend a lot more money coming home.

So instead, I decided to take lemons and make lemonade. I proceeded to have a terribly productive afternoon purely by being a short walk down the hallway from all the people I interact with here in Houston, rather than playing phone tag with them. Not in their cube? No worries, I’ll go touch base with someone else and come back later. I touched base with about a dozen folks on five different projects.

All in all, it ended up being a good day, especially for the big hardware delivery we shipped the first half of two weeks ago and will ship the second half of tomorrow.

And no, it wasn’t cool just because there was NASA TV on the TV in conference room with a crew in orbit and docked to ISS, moving around the hardware we spend a couple thousand hours a year each worrying about, but that helped.