A Life Entangled with NASA

 

Back to the Army again, sergeant,
Back to the Army again.
Out o’ the cold an’ the rain, sergeant,
Out o’ the cold an’ the rain.
‘Oo’s there?

A man that’s too good to be lost you,
A man that is ‘andled an’ made –
A man that will pay what ‘e cost you
In learnin’ the others their trade – parade!
You’re droppin’ the pick o’ the Army
Because you don’t ‘elp ’em remain,
But drives ’em to cheat to get out o’ the street
An’ back to the Army again!

— Rudyard Kipling, Back to the Army Again

NASA and I go way back. I remember sitting in a circle in kindergarten listening to Alan Shepherd’s first flight over the school PA, and watching John Glenn’s flight on a black-and-white TV in a first-grade classroom the next year. A year or two later – I am not sure of the exact date – I met Glenn at a pack meeting of Cub Scout Pack 101, in my hometown, Ann Arbor, MI.

At the time (I was either in second or third grade) I thought Glenn was visiting every Cub Scout pack.  Today I now realize it was because Professor Harm Buning (who taught aerospace at the University of Michigan) had a son in the pack. Glenn did it as a favor to the professor. (Buning had some fairly important involvement in Project Mercury.)

Back then, my hometown was space crazy (this century you can omit “space” from the description). The University of Michigan and Bendix in Ann Arbor were deeply involved in Mercury and Gemini. In Junior High, I and a bunch of like-minded boys followed astronauts the way other kids followed ballplayers. We even picked astronauts from the first three classes (the Mercury Seven, the Next Nine, and The Fourteen) to follow, as if in a space form of fantasy baseball. (“My” astronaut was Jim Lovell.)

The bubble burst by the time I reached high school. Those were the years of the Great Aerospace Bust, with the combination of the end of Apollo, cancellation of the SST, and the wind-down of the Vietnam War leading to a glut of newly minted aerospace engineers. PhDs aerospace engineering grads were pumping gas (this was back before self-serve gas stations were common) because they could not find better jobs.  (They were the 1970s version of the Starbucks “studies” major barista.)

In my senior year in high school, I decided to get an engineering degree in college. Friends told me I was nuts. There were no jobs in engineering. I told them companies would be screaming for engineers by the time I graduated from college because no one was majoring in engineering.

I considered aerospace engineering. I even talked to Professor Buning about it. (He remembered me from my Cub Scout days – his son and my older brothers had been buddies back then.) Ultimately I decided aerospace, especially the space part, was too much of a crapshoot. I instead decided to major in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, and design ships.

Except. On the basis of a single computer programming class in high school, I got a job as a computer operator, tending an XDS 930 computer in the University of Michigan’s Space Science building. It involved mounting and running data reduction tapes for a – you guessed it – NASA satellite (IMP-6). When that job ended I got one as programmer/operator in the Applied Mechanics Department. On another NASA contract. This time it was tending and programming a stone-age database of aircraft tire characteristics for NASA-Langley. It was not space – Langley was the Aeronautics part of NASA – but it was NASA.

I had had my NASA fling, or so I thought. It turned out I was right about the demand for engineers. In 1978-79 when I graduated there was a critical shortage of new engineers. When I received my Naval Architecture degree, I began applying to shipyards and marine-related places all over the country. I was going to be busy as a shipbuilder.

Except. I had interviewed for a job with Lockheed Electronics Company at JSC. On the interview signup sheet, it indicated they were interested in those with NAME degrees. I have a curiosity bump the size of a goose egg. I signed up for an interview to find out why JSC wanted Naval Architects.

It turns out the highlighting had been done by someone in the placement office who did not know the difference between Seattle (where Lockheed owned a shipyard) and Houston (where they did spaceflight ops). Since I was there I went through the interview process.

My training as a Naval Architect prepared me to do the matrix mathematics required for Shuttle dynamics analysis. They made me an offer.  Given Houston’s cost of living and Texas taxes, it was the best offer I got. I took it. It was an opportunity to live out my childhood dream of working with NASA for a few years. I could switch to offshore platforms (Houston was then building a lot of those), after my NASA adventure.

Instead, I stayed at JSC for the next fourteen years, switching from vibration analysis to space navigation (also all matrix mathematics). I worked the Navigation Console at Mission Control between STS-4 and 61-C (the last mission before the Challenger disaster – a mission I was glad to have missed) and doing navigation development and analysis on stuff like the Aerospace Flight Experiment, the Tethered Satellite, and Space Station Freedom.

It was a rocket ride both up and down. I watched the projects I worked on swell to incredible sizes and shrink to almost nothing on four occasions during those years. Finally, when Space Station Freedom was canceled (and Freedom became another name for nothing left to lose), I bailed from space – never to return, I swore.

Except. The field I moved into was E-commerce. It, too, proved a rocket ride. It flamed out spectacularly in 2000-2001. A combination of the dot-com bust and 9-11 left me without a job. I had started writing by then, but that was too little. I spent nine months looking for a job watching the altimeter on my bank accounts unwind.

Then in 2002 Boeing moved their Shuttle engineering from California to Houston. Few of the California engineers were willing to relocate to Texas. (Admittedly, given Houston’s climate locating the Manned Space Center in Houston when they could have put it in pretty parts of Texas was Texas’s last piece of revenge on the US for having the temerity to have defeated Texas in the Civil War.) Someone tipped me off about an opening in Shuttle GN&C. At the end of my financial tether, I applied and got the job.

From 2002 to 2011, when the Shuttle program ended I was a Shuttle Rendezvous Navigation Software engineer. It was part of the Shuttle Guidance, Navigation and Control System (GN&C). By then the program was mature and this was all turn-the-crank engineering. It was not much fun. New development was almost non-existent. It was stuff like analyzing the effects of installing a cable from the Orbiter flight deck to the mid-deck to allow the Orbiter to land without anyone on board.  (As the astronauts huddled on ISS waiting for another Shuttle or Soyuz capsules to bring them home.) It was engineering chicken feed and people were fighting over it.

I stuck it out to feed my family, pay off debt, and build a pension for retirement. I would have left anyway except my employer had a retention program that would give me over a year’s pay if I got laid off when the Shuttle program ended. I rode the Shuttle program to the end, trying to strike a balance between being considered good enough to be retained (where I would not get the retention bonus) and doing something that would result in getting let go before the program ended.  I threaded that needle and left JSC a month after STS-135, the final Shuttle mission – with the retention payout.

This time I prepared a soft landing. I knew the supply of space rendezvous navigation software engineers far exceeded the demand for them. I recast myself as a high-end technical writer and found a job within a month of leaving space. I spent the next decade documenting all manner of fascinating things: autonomous oil well drilling systems, apartment marketing software, crude oil trading systems, airline reservation middleware, offshore platform and ULCC tanker operations manuals, call center software. I was never, ever, going back to NASA.

Except. In June I was contacted by a recruiter from an engineering services company supporting the Lunar Gateway program. This is a project to put a manned space station in an orbit near the Moon. (It is still technically orbiting the Earth, but near the Moon.) They needed someone to work on development of its GN&C system. At first, I did not believe they were serious. I figured the contact was a recruiter trying to churn out resumes for some upcoming NASA contract. I had been out of the space business almost exactly ten years.  Unless you are dealing with a mature system like Shuttle, being out of tech for a decade is like 100 years in dog years.

No. They were serious. Some folks there remembered me from my days at McDonnell Douglas and others at Boeing. There is a real shortage of folks with serious GN&C experience. Between Orion, Mars mission long-range planning, and commercial spaceflight – and a decade for the thousands laid off after the Shuttle program to age out or find other careers – it is like 1979 all over again.

It has happened before in aerospace. Back in the 1960s, Boeing had their first-string engineers working on the SST. Their second string was developing what became the 737. Then, Juan Trippe, who ran Pan Am came to Boeing wanting a double-decker airliner. Back then, when Trippe asked for something, manufacturers paid attention. Boeing put a scratch team together to answer Trippe’s request. It produced the 747, the definitive airliner of the twentieth century.

When I came to JSC in 1979 at the back of my mind was the hope that someday I could participate in the return to the Moon. I figured it would be ten years before that began. Instead, the US settled for lesser dreams. Now, a few months before I am old enough to start collecting Social Security, quit the day job, and do nothing but write books, I am offered a free ticket to ride the dream of my childhood and early engineering career.

To quote Tennyson’s Ulysses:

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

I have a good-paying, secure tech writing job that I could ride for as long as I want.  It is fun, even if it is not challenging. I would actually take a pay cut to accept the position offered. I can live with that. Even at a lower salary, I will earn enough to pay my bills with a healthy surplus. I have five books under contract that have to be delivered before July of next year. One is almost done, but doing the other four while working a new full-time engineering job will be a challenge.

What would you do?

I decided to take the job. I start July 26.

I am terrified that I will fail. It has been ten years. I am writing this on my 66th birthday. I fear I may have lost a step or two.

And yet . . . what if I succeed? What if Lunar Gateway becomes this century’s 747, the program that went so well it is held up as an example. What a way to end a career. To do some work of noble note ere the end. Too many people cripple themselves by taking counsel of their fears.  I’ve never been afraid to fail before. I have succeeded before and failed before. Why should I fear another failure now?

Fifty-two years ago today a 14-year-old me watched Apollo 11 blast off to the Moon. It was the best birthday candle ever for a teenage boy.  That boy is still inside of me. Tonight before I go to bed, I will down a shot of bourbon and recite Montrose’s Toast:

“He either fears his fate too much,
Or his desserts are small,
Who dares not put it to the touch,
To win or lose it all!”

Or, to return to Tennyson:

Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Wish me luck.

Published in Technology
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There are 17 comments.

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  1. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Seawriter:

    Wish me luck.

    Absolutely. All that and a prayer or two.

    • #1
  2. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    The beginning sounds a lot like the beginning of my career. After an aerospace engineer convinced me that aerospace engineering was risky because “your career lives and dies on government projects,” I majored in computer science with an emphasis on engineering. I got out of school just as Jimmah Carter had ended his term leading the country based on First Daughter Amy’s wise counsel. Some nutty actor who had played second-banana to a chimp was taking over. I landed a job writing embedded software. With an aerospace company. Where your career lives and dies on government contracts.

    C’est la vie.

    • #2
  3. aardo vozz Member
    aardo vozz
    @aardovozz

    Hard to pass up something you’ve always wanted to do. Good luck!

    And Happy Birthday 🙂

    • #3
  4. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Seawriter: I decided to take the job. I start July 26.

    Fantastic!

    • #4
  5. Dave L Member
    Dave L
    @DaveL

    Awesome! 

    • #5
  6. Patrick McClure Coolidge
    Patrick McClure
    @Patrickb63

    Go. Don’t look back. Stand or fall, you will have tried. Praying for you.

    • #6
  7. Ole Summers Member
    Ole Summers
    @OleSummers

    “He did not know he could not fly, and so he did”

    “He’s one of those who knows that life is just a leap of faith

    Spread you arms and hold your breath and always trust your cape”

    Guy Clark

     

    Have a good flight :)

    • #7
  8. Jeff Petraska Member
    Jeff Petraska
    @JeffPetraska

    Wow.  Good luck and great success to you, Seawriter!

     

    • #8
  9. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Good luck.

    • #9
  10. EHerring Coolidge
    EHerring
    @EHerring

    Wow! Congratulations!

    • #10
  11. Jules PA Member
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    Seawriter: Wish me luck.

    Ah, Seawriter, you do not need luck.

    You are made, and your life’s journey, is for such a time as this.

    Obiwan you are our only hope. 

    Blessings and success. 

     

    • #11
  12. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    Light that candle. You’re on your way, José. 

    • #12
  13. GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Malpropisms Reagan
    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Malpropisms
    @GLDIII

    Mark,

    What a similar arc to our careers with NASA. However I found that the work was far more steady with the unmanned missions. When I started in 1980 the average project was 3 years from SCR (System Concept Review) to launch. Now they seem to be a decade stretch, which makes it hard to get a variety of mission experiences. I still have various pieces of my intellectual thermal designs and hardware efforts flying on sensors that are either orbiting the earth, (looking down, looking up), roving around on Mars, and one little instrument heading out of the solar system after in took pictures of the Planet Pluto (Neil DeGrass Tyson can stuff it). Most of the stuff was spec-ed for a 5 year life span. I have a few sensors that are still operating fine and were launched in 1999.

    I am submitting my retirement papers next month for an end of Dec “launch”. Thirty four of those year were as a NASA employee, the rest were with contractors. I don’t think I will be doing any moonlighting after I pull the plug. However a lot of my younger colleagues are asking if I would reconsider since I seem to have a few skills that no one in our organization feels comfortable taking over. I think they will manage without me, there are no indispensable engineers.

    III

     

    • #13
  14. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Ma… (View Comment):
    the Planet Pluto (Neil DeGrass Tyson can stuff it)

    But you’re not holding a grudge.

    • #14
  15. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Ma… (View Comment):

    Mark,

    What a similar arc to our careers with NASA. However I found that the work was far more steady with the unmanned missions. When I started in 1980 the average project was 3 years from SCR (System Concept Review) to launch. Now they seem to be a decade stretch, which makes it hard to get a variety of mission experiences. I still have various pieces of my intellectual thermal designs and hardware efforts flying on sensors that are either orbiting the earth, (looking down, looking up), roving around on Mars, and one little instrument heading out of the solar system after in took pictures of the Planet Pluto (Neil DeGrass Tyson can stuff it). Most of the stuff was spec-ed for a 5 year life span. I have a few sensors that are still operating fine and were launched in 1999.

    I am submitting my retirement papers next month for an end of Dec “launch”. Thirty four of those year were as a NASA employee, the rest were with contractors. I don’t think I will be doing any moonlighting after I pull the plug. However a lot of my younger colleagues are asking if I would reconsider since I seem to have a few skills that no one in our organization feels comfortable taking over. I think they will manage without me, there are no indispensable engineers.

    III

    Can’t blame you for retiring. Given what you have achieved, you should be satisfied with your career. Both my late father-in-law and late wife got hardware into space (Bill Potter on Ulysses and Janet on LDEF.) Me? A bunch of paper studies that went nowhere. Module integration on the Space Station Freedom and GN&C specs on the Aeroassist Flight Experiment (both cancelled).

    The opportunity to do GN&C development on a lunar project has been a long-term dream. When they started recruiting me, how could I say no?  (I know I could have, but I would wonder for the rest of my life if I could have succeeded at it. At least this way I will know.) 

    My plan for my life was to quit the tech writing day job at the end of this year and spend the rest of it writing books. You know what they say. If you want to make God laugh, make plans. I have two more books to deliver this year, three on contract for next year, with two more book contracts promised which require delivery late in 2022. I was hoping to write seven or eight in 2023. Now I have to reassess all of this. I still need to write the books under contract while working a challenging full-time engineering job.

    I will probably slow the pace of the uncontracted writing to accommodate my new realities. Put in a minimum of three years on this before becoming a full-time writer. Donald Westlake wrote that it is almost a requirement that an author have no alternative to being a full-time writer in order to succeed at it. He listed authors who had careers as hot authors go cold and burn out. The ones who came back to writing were those who had no where else to go. The rest started a new career (I remember only two – one as a law professor, another as an insurance executive) that proved so attractive they never returned to writing.  

     

    • #15
  16. GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Malpropisms Reagan
    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Malpropisms
    @GLDIII

    My branch supplied a lot of the thermal coating samples for LDEF, which given the unfortunate shuttle accident became the VLDEF (“Very” Long Duration Exposure Facility). We got a lot of great data from that mission.

    • #16
  17. Raxxalan Member
    Raxxalan
    @Raxxalan

    “Fair winds and Following Seas”.  

    • #17