NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Jennifer Ross-Nazzal
4 May 2009
Ross-Nazzal: Today is May 4, 2009. This interview with Greg Blackburn
is being conducted at JSC for the JSC Facilities Oral History Project.
The interviewer is Jennifer Ross-Nazzal, assisted by Rebecca Wright.
Thanks again for joining us this morning. We really appreciate it,
and we look forward to hearing more about the Avionic Systems Lab.
I’m wondering if we can start by learning a little bit more
about the laboratory. If you could give us a short history: when the
building was constructed, what its purpose was.
I did not start with the building here. It was in existence, when
I hired in back in 1980. I hired into this building here in opposite
corner for Irv [Irvin J.] Burtzlaff. He was my boss at that time.
He would be a good person to interview, actually, for this facility,
so I would suggest doing that, too, if you get the chance. He’s
retired now. I came right out of college. Went to Oklahoma State [University,
Stillwater, Oklahoma] and got hired here, so I was 22 years old when
I started here in Building 16. So I’ve been here approaching
almost 20, 30 years, I guess. Almost 30 years. So when I came here
to the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory, the SAIL, was actually
here already, as an existence.
At that time, we were doing an upgrade to the test control center
for that facility. So the laboratory had actually started already
to be in existence, and we were actually doing an upgrade at the time.
As I understand it, the lab started in other buildings and then migrated
over here to Building 16 to create a ground-based test facility to
check out the Shuttle before it flew. Check out all the hardware systems,
all the software systems, in a test rig that was as close to flight
as possible. It kind of exhibits the philosophy that you need to test
what you fly and fly what you test. All the hardware, the cables,
everything is as flight-like as possible, to the point where they
even gave this test facility a tail number. It’s considered
as close to flight as you can be, but in a test configuration. There’s
obviously no wings, there’s no engines, there’s no External
Tank—that’s all simulated—but as much of the avionics
portion of the vehicle: the black boxes, the computers, and all that
it takes to fly the Shuttle machine, is all out here in the high bay.
Do you know, by chance, how Building 16 had been changed as a result
of moving all these facilities here?
I really don’t, because it was in existence when I got here.
Irv will probably give you a sense of that. I believe this building
was used in a similar vein or at least similar testing to the Apollo
Program. This building has been here a while, dates back into the
Apollo Program, so it’s a multipurpose building. But it does
have the high bays that allow for the creation of these large test
facilities. But this has obviously been focused on Shuttle. A good
part of this building has been focused on Shuttle avionics testing
since the late seventies. This book here might have some history in
it—I’m not sure—but again, I really would probably
Ross-Nazzal: That’s a great contact for us to have.
Some of us migrated from KSC [Kennedy Space Center, Florida]. I believe
Irv started at KSC. A lot of this work, this kind of gelled together,
trying to figure out what NASA needs to make sure a Shuttle was safe
to fly and it actually was going to do the job it was supposed to,
and this kind of culminated in this Avionics Integration Lab. This
philosophy is now being taken forward, actually, for the Orion Program,
Constellation Program. We’re now building what’s called
a CAIL, which is a CEV [Crew Exploration Vehicle] Avionics Integration
Lab, but it’s going to be over in [Building] 29. But it’s
the same kind of thing, where you basically bring in essentially the
flight vehicle into a lab configuration, run it as if it was flying,
and check out everything. You simulate what you obviously can’t
do, since it’s not flying.
I did a lot of that in the early days, and that was kind of fun for
me, right out of college. I was writing some software at that time
for the control center, and it had the ability to launch the Shuttle
and watch the data run. You’d have the countdown, and then you’d
have the launch, and all the data would start to flow through all
the machines, and that’s exciting, even though it’s just
sitting right there. But it’s essentially the real vehicle,
with all the real software, all the real hardware, integrated into
one lab. That’s the main part.
The other part—I guess it was considered part of SAIL—is
the simulation. There’s a large simulation branch of activity
that supports the SAIL that simulates out-the-window scenes, for instance.
Like a trainer. It’s not a trainer facility, even though it’s
been used for training, because it’s very hi-fi [high fidelity].
You’ve got a real cockpit, you’ve got real cockpit displays,
but this is also augmented by some out-the-window scenes through the
windows, so you can get a feel of the flight of what’s actually
happening outside the vehicle. It’s not motion-based, though;
it’s fixed-base. Over in Building 5, they have the motion-based.
This is all fixed in one orientation.
Training has been a secondary benefit, even though some folks may
not think that, but it’s really an engineering facility for
the engineers to ensure that their systems indeed are doing the function
they’re intended to do. They also simulate a lot of the off-nominal
errors that could potentially happen, and try to stress the system
in all ways that you can think of. We’re talking about a very,
very complex machine; there’s lots of different things that
can go wrong on you. This facility allows you to do that in a laboratory
environment to see how the machine reacts to that situation. That’s
where a lot of fun is, too, for the engineers. Trying to figure out
problems or why the machine is reacting this way versus what you thought
it was going to do; whether it be a software issue or a hardware issue.
It’s how all that comes together. That’s why it’s
called an integration lab, because it brings both the hardware side
and the software that’s running in the hardware, how it all
Anyway, that’s a big part of this building, the majority of
it, that was managed from a people perspective, I guess. We used to
have, I want to say, around 50 civil servants that used to run this
lab, and in that initial phase, that’s what I joined back in
1980. Over the years, that has slowly migrated to the contractor,
and now it’s 100% USA [United Space Alliance] managed, straight
out of the Shuttle Program Office. The subtle difference there is
that SAIL used to be part of Engineering Directorate, mail code EA.
The EA organization is really not involved directly in running the
facility anymore. That’s what’s happened over the last
30 years. Does that make sense?
Ross-Nazzal: Yes, it makes sense. We talk a lot to the astronauts
who’ve done a lot of runs in the SAIL, but not necessarily people
who worked in the SAIL as engineers, so it’s nice to hear this
One of the big customers are all the subsystem and system managers
of the hardware, like the data processing system, the communication
people, the various systems that will come in and sponsor tests and
that kind of thing. It really is an engineering lab. But one of the
biggest things in the recent years has been just primarily focused
on the software changes. Amazingly, they continue to have GPC [General-Purpose
Computer] software changes that need to be checked out. Well this
is where it’s done, where again, you make the change, and they
bring that in and test it in this facility. The civil servants that
are responsible for the development of those software changes use
this facility as a testing—since they have certification—facility
to make sure that it’s ready to go before you fly it.
Ross-Nazzal: Tell us about running a test and certification. How long
does that last? Who does it involve? What’s the process behind
all of that?
It would vary depending on the type of test. It could be probably
a few days to a few weeks or even months, depending on the complexity
of what you’re talking about. There’s a lot of test planning
that goes on regarding the facility folks themselves on understanding
what the test is to the person that’s sponsoring the test, the
engineering organization system provider. Say they’re bringing
in the software to be tested, well they coordinate that test with
the facility folks and generate the specific procedures that need
to be done to execute the test. It’s very methodical, so there’s
a lot of planning that has to be done. So what the configuration of
the lab is, what needs to be on or off, the configuration of what
part of flight. Is it just during the launch phase; is it during the
landing phase; is it on orbit phase? Just trying to figure out how
to best test the piece of gear that you have that you want to make
sure it works. That’s a lot of test planning that’s done
with the facility back and forth.
Then once they get it all set up, it’s very analogous, actually,
to a real flight. Because you’ve got a control center, you’ve
got a test director that sits on a console, and then they execute
the test in a very methodical way based on the procedures that were
worked out with the customer. You end up running the test, you generate
usually a lot of data, and you record a lot of data for the customer.
Then that data set essentially produces a report of sorts, the supporter
report, for the test that was being conducted, just to verify. Then,
if you have problems, there is going to be some iterations, depending
on the complexity of the test. You may have facility-related problems,
or the new stuff that you brought in to test, may have problems with
that. There’ll be a lot of iterations back and forth. Is it
the facility, or is it the mod [modification] that was done? You do
this back and forth during the test. Depending on the complexity;
it could take a while.
I would definitely encourage, if you have the opportunity, to get
a tour. They could walk you through and show you the test control
center and then the facility itself just to get a rough feel. It’s
an amazing machine. Right now, we’re trying to get all our young
engineers to actually see the facility. What’s real cool about
it is that it’s got the skin of the Orbiter pulled away, so
you get to see the guts of the whole Shuttle. You get to see where
the racks are, where the computers are; you get to see all the wireways.
You’re just in awe of the number of wires, for instance, that’s
inside the Shuttle to interconnect all these boxes that are making
the thing fly. But it gives you an appreciation of what it takes to
build a spacecraft. That’s been another side benefit, is just
to help teach ourselves and our young folks, particularly, the complexities
of that. Because wiring, a lot of times, is not an overly exciting
thing, but if you don’t have everything connected, obviously
it’s not going to work. There’s a lot of weight associated
with that. Sometimes you hear numbers about how much the wires weigh,
and it’s a large number. Well, if you go out into the SAIL,
“Oh, wow, I can see why that’s such a big deal.”
But that’s about, in general, how a test would run. Again, Don
Magnusson over here, who runs the facility, would be a good person
to talk to also. He works for USA, and he could give you a very detailed
discussion of how the Shuttle operates. It’s been a long time
since I’ve actually been involved with SAIL. I mean, eighties.
Ross-Nazzal: Oh, really?
Yes, so I’m stretching a little bit here. But for me, I was
very lucky to get that kind of job because it was some really interesting
work and a special opportunity for me to get involved with that. I
didn’t even have a real good appreciation for it. I have a better
appreciation for the facility now than I probably did back then. Just
a great experience back then.
Ross-Nazzal: Tell us about your work in the eighties. For instance,
did you support the STS-1 mission or any of those flights in the eighties?
Yes. I got here in ’80. Obviously, that was just before STS-1.
I was an intern. I remember, actually, everybody in the facility got
a little plaque or thank-you or an award for supporting STS-1. I didn’t
even feel like I deserved it, because I just happened to be associated
with it. I didn’t have the blood, sweat, and tears for STS-1
in this facility. That really occurred before I got here. What I was
working on was really the support of the facility after STS-1 and
keeping the facility running. That’s a lot of work in itself.
We were working on, at that time, an upgrade to the control center
for it, but it had obviously been used and was being used previously
before I even got here, back in the seventies. That’s when the
SAIL facility was actually getting actually fully created.
Ross-Nazzal: Were there any times when there was a mission up, and
you had to do some sort of real-time support for any of those flights?
Occasionally. It can actually serve as a backup to mission control
if needed. But generally, most the work that goes on in the SAIL facility
is pre-flight. So your real time support is more in the context of
troubleshooting a problem. If they have a problem on orbit, say, with
a Shuttle vehicle in some way, they may come over and have the SAIL
guys run a test case to try to reproduce. One thing that comes to
my mind when you said that was, one of the things that the SAIL was
used for was, after [the Space Shuttle] Challenger [accident], trying
to recover data associated with that mission and play back and help
understand what happened during the launch of Challenger. But it’s
more in the context of troubleshooting a problem versus what you would
normally see during flight where you’re monitoring systems.
A lot of times, this facility will be on normal operations; it’d
be on standby support for the mission, but they may be working on
the next mission. Some change associated with the next mission, and
then switch back if needed. It’s not, a direct flight support,
in the sense that it’s tied up during the whole mission.
During the early days of the Space Shuttle Program, we were flying
some DoD [Department of Defense] flights. Did that impact the facility
Actually, quite a bit, from a security perspective. When I first got
here, I almost kind of laugh about it, because we were very open.
You could go anywhere. I can remember going over to Mission Control—what
is now the old Mission Control—and just sitting down at the
consoles. Just walk in the building and sat down and pretend like
I was there. There was absolutely no security that I can think of,
besides your own badge. Your badge basically got you in anywhere,
including this facility here in 16.
When the DoD came in with the DoD payloads, we had to do a lot of
upgrades, security-related upgrades, to the facility: routing of certain
wires and access doors, cipher locks on everything, and processes
to control data so that it’s not uncontrolled. That was a fair
amount of work that went on in the eighties to support that. Clearances
to work certain things. So there was a lot of restricted access. If
you walk around this building, you’ll see in the hallways what
looks like a big sewer pipe. Well that was associated with routing
out wires—so that from a security perspective—to meet
the needs of the DoD with regards to the routing of data. The control
center that I was working on, they created a secure conference room
that had special shieldings, that they could have private conversations,
and the people wouldn’t be listening in, that kind of thing.
It was a fair amount of work, and it was very disruptive, but you
did what you had to do. A lot of that’s still in place today.
Ross-Nazzal: Oh, it still remains?
Ross-Nazzal: But you don’t use most of that?
Like I said all the access doors and stuff. Obviously the data itself
is not DoD data anymore, so you don’t have to worry about the
actual data itself. But a lot of the processes and the modification
of the facility, modification of how the wiring is routed and stuff
like that, it’s still as it was, because it doesn’t make
sense to undo.
Right. Has the facility been modified in any other way since the Space
Shuttle began flying?
That’s interesting. That would be a good question for Don. There’s
been modifications of sorts. For instance, the control center that
I talked about, the original one was downstairs on the first floor;
and the one I worked on, we moved it to the second floor; and then
there’s been a third upgrade in this time period, which is just
down the hall. So the function is the same, but they have upgraded
the support hardware. Some of it was very old, so you have to upgrade
these systems as needed. This is like the lab support hardware. So
I’m sure they’ve done a number of those types of upgrades
over the years.
The Shuttle piece, the core piece of the lab, is pretty much the same.
If there was an upgrade to an avionics box, black box, over the years;
they would have got it here, too. Those kind of modifications to keep
it current to the vehicle. A big one they did was the glass cockpit.
When they converted to essentially the LCD [Liquid Crystal Display]
screens that they currently have, they upgraded all the vehicles,
obviously, and then they upgraded this facility. But it still, just
in a broad sense, in my mind, when I walk through it, it’s very
similar to what we had 30 years ago.
Ross-Nazzal: Would you give us a sense of the building itself, the
different wings and what’s contained in Building 16?
The lab probably takes up almost half the square footage of this building,
probably. Maybe a little less than that. What’s nice about this
lab is that then it’s surrounded by the offices, so the engineers
that run the facility are here located next to the lab, so it’s
easy access. I always call it 16A; I think they labeled it 16N. This
is before I got here, but it was two buildings that were connected
together. There was a 16A and then a 16. So I got 16 annex, and then
the primary 16 that we’re sitting in now, where all the employees’
[offices are located]. There’s a little narrow wall connecting
the hallway between the two buildings.
The building itself has been, as far as I know, pretty much the same
for at least 30 years. There hasn’t been any major modifications
to this building. What does come to mind, there was an upgrade to
women’s restrooms over in 16A to provide more access for ladies.
Because this building was originally designed when there was probably
90-plus percent men, so the facility was designed around men, and
now it’s much more equal. So there have been those kind of modifications
to try to make it more useful, but the building itself is pretty much
the same forever.
But it’s shared with a number of organizations, though, in this
building, including my division. EV [mail code for the Avionics System
Division]; EG [mail code for Aeroscience and Flight Mechanics Division]
downstairs utilizes this building—they’re the GNC [Guidance,
Navigation, and Control] folks; the MS [mail code for Space Shuttle
Systems Engineering and Integration Office ]; USA, obviously, is here,
that supports SAIL. ER [Software, Robotics, and Simulation Division]
is in this building—they have all the simulators—robotics
division, simulation division; and then EP [Energy Systems Division],
the power guys have a Shuttle power lab that’s kind of a specialized
lab that’s here in the first floor of 16, primary 16, but that
does certification of power interface to the Shuttle. If you have
an avionics box and you wanted to get it certified that it indeed
can plug into Shuttle power and not disturb Shuttle power, and your
box will work off Shuttle power, there’s a specialized lab,
the power lab downstairs, that EP still runs. It’s a little
smaller facility, but it’s down here in the first floor of 16.
I’m sure Bill [William C.] Hoffman over there in EP could talk
about that. That’s been around a while. From a historical perspective,
I think it’s pretty much the same age as SAIL. I’m not
Would you tell us about some of these facilities? The electrical power
system test facility?
That’s the one I was just talking about.
That’s the one you were telling us about?
That’s just the one I was talking about.
Just wanted to make sure.
Yes, that is it. I don’t have any good history of that facility.
Scott Woodard probably would be a good one to talk to, also.
You’ve talked to us a lot about the big rig. That’s where
the wires are and things. Is there anything else that we should know
I don’t think so, actually. I should mention, analogous to the
power lab, we have the JAEL. That’s over here in 16. In my mind,
it’s kind of a mini version of the SAIL. What does that stand
for? JSC Avionics [Engineering] Lab, I believe. That facility does
some specialized testing on GPCs, MEDS [Multifunction Electronic Display
System, glass] cockpit, kind of pre-work prior to the Shuttle SAIL
lab, and kind of augments that test capability. But it’s analogous
to the same kind of test function, just a smaller version. SAIL, to
me, is the primary facility.
Ross-Nazzal: You mentioned the simulators before, but is there anything
we should know about the High-Fidelity Engineering Simulator or the
Asset Entry Shuttle Engineering Simulator?
Back in the early eighties, those were all in the same division of
responsibility, and that’s now ER, so I would probably visit
with some folks over there to get some of that history. Andre [J.]
Sylvester, actually, who works in this division came over from ER
and is now supporting us for the Constellation work, test facility
work, can probably give you some good background and good history.
He’s a little bit of a history buff of sorts. He’d probably
be another good one to interview for what has happened here in 16,
if you get that chance.
I really wasn’t personally involved in on that side of the house
as much as more watching from afar and seeing some of the products
that they developed. You develop, obviously, some skills and capability
out of this in the early eighties. When Space Station was starting
to be talked about, one of the things that we started to create in
this building was some of the early avionics displays and control
cockpits ideas, just to formulate how a Space Station would be actually
designed and built. A precursor to Space Station was also in this
building, based on some of the skills and work that came out of the
SAIL, which would include some of the simulations.
They started to simulate Space Station. We started to simulate a cockpit
that I was involved with to interact with that simulation. You start
to get a feel for what that vehicle’s going to be, because it’s
very, very different than the Shuttle. Very complex, too. What’s
amazing to me, sitting here, particularly with this last flight, I
think back during those days of the eighties and some of that early
prototyping and some of the ideas that were just being formulated,
being talked about, about what a Space Station would look like and
how it would be designed. As an example of that, even back then, they
simulated the mobile transporter on the Station, this transporter
that moves the arm around, on like a railroad track. I can remember
us simulating that back in the early eighties or mid-eighties timeframe.
I’m thinking, “Wow, really?” Here we are, 30 years
later, and all that is pretty much there. It’s just pretty amazing
to see that it actually happened. So a lot of the early prototyping
and ideas were also done in this building, that shaped some of the
thinking and requirements, essentially, that drove what’s now
flying in the Space Station.
Does your building have to be reconfigured at all for each new mission,
or depending on which Orbiter you’re using?
The SAIL does reconfigure to match. Mainly, I believe that would be
software. The loads would be matched to the vehicles. The hardware
itself is pretty much the same. The vehicles are very close. But there’s
not any major reconfigurations that have to be done that I’m
Ross-Nazzal: Do you have any idea how long that might take if a change
had to be made, or is that relatively quick?
That’d be a good question for Don over in the USA side. I think
it’s in the hours of time.
They could be testing, say, a new software load for one mission and
then be asked to go to another one. So they have the ability to switch
and reconfigure the lab so it supports, say, the next mission, for
instance, [STS]-125. If they were testing [STS]-127 configuration,
they have the ability to reconfigure rather quickly to something’s
that considered to be valid for [STS]-125.
That reminds in my mind, also, the configuration management of the
facility is key, meaning this is not a facility just casually managed.
You’ve got to have tight controls on everything, because otherwise
the integrity of the hardware and software systems is compromised.
It’s extremely important that you manage very closely any changes
that go in the facility. There’s this day-to-day work, but you
don’t want to mess that up, because you’re trying to certify
that this hardware and software is indeed ready to fly. You got to
take that very serious. There’s a lot of CM, a lot of configuration
management over the test facility, just like the real vehicle. Obviously
you don’t go into a Space Shuttle and start rewiring things,
Or if you need to go in there and change something, you do it in a
very controlled way. You preplan, you figure out what you need to
do, and you coordinate it very tightly so that you know exactly what’s
been done to the Orbiter. The same thing here. It’s treated
the same way. So that’s a big part of what goes in to make a
lab like that run and operate successfully, is the proper control
of the facility itself. Otherwise, what you test is not what you’re
flying, and you could have very wrong results. You want to be able
to stand behind the test itself, because a lot of the test runs are
essentially driving final decisions that the Shuttle is certified
to fly. You’re basing that judgment on a SAIL test. To give
you that warm feeling that yes, you’ve done everything you can
to make sure that the hardware is ready to go.
Ross-Nazzal: How have operations at the facility changed since STS-1
to now much more complicated missions?
The biggest thing, I touched on already, at least for us, has been
the amount of Engineering Directorate oversight in the middle of operating
the facility. When I first came in, we were heavily involved. NASA’s
civil servants were heavily involved in the development and operation
of the facility. What’s happened over the years is the number
of civil servants involved in the actual facility is very minimal.
Over the years, it went down to one person, Bill [William F.] Ritz,
one EA person, and then that eventually was then eliminated. So as
far as I know, there’s really no civil servants in the day-to-day
operations. It’s just the program office as a customer deals
with it. The amount of civil servant oversight has just been drastically
reduced. USA does a great job running the facility, but that’s
a big difference in what’s happened in the last 30 years. Like
I said, it was an entire division, the division of civil servants,
that ran the facility.
Ross-Nazzal: Did they then become contractors and work for USA?
Well, at that time, we had Lockheed. They were the engineering support
contractor at that time. When we did shift, a lot of them did shift
over to USA from Lockheed. But the civil servants pretty much went
off and did other things, just like myself. Just scattered into different
jobs, primarily with, say, Space Station. That’s what really
drew me away from the facility, was the emergence of Station. I worked
that a number of years.
You mentioned that the big rig has a tail number. What is that tail
I think it’s OV [Orbiter Vehicle-095]. Yes, I’m pretty
sure that’s right. You can confirm that with Don.
Ross-Nazzal: We’ll have a chance to go through it, and you’ll
also get a chance to edit your transcript, so don’t feel like
this is your last opportunity.
Sure, not a bit. Cool.
Ross-Nazzal: I think you’ve answered most the questions that
we have. You’ve given us a number of names of people that we
should talk to. Is there anyone else, in your mind, that we should
Well, Don is good, and then Irv. Irv Burtzlaff, I think, would love
to talk about the early days of the facility. I would have said Bill
Ritz, but he passed away recently. But Irv, he might even have some
information, written information, that might be good. This document
here does provide some background, a little bit of background, if
you want to take away and read. It’s kind of built in the days
It does give some history, some background description of the facility.
So when you’re trying to write what this facility does, this
would be a good source of information, and feel free to borrow this.
Ross-Nazzal: Great. Absolutely. We will.
But like I said, Irv, I think he’s still available, and Barbara
[G.] Shock here has his contact info if you want.
Ross-Nazzal: Okay. Is he still in the area?
He is still in the area.
Okay, great. Now, you mentioned that USA is the main contractor that
supports the facility, and Lockheed supported that before them. Were
there any other main contractors?
Well, that was before USA existed. We’re talking Lockheed, and
then it was Lockeed-Martin, supported back then. Then the USA contract,
the operations contract. The Shuttle Program, during this time period,
went from development flight. You know, the first four flights were
very much development. They had the ejection seats in there. It was
just very, very new. I’ll never forget that landing, really
that first flight, when John [W.] Young and [Robert L.] Crippen jumped
out of that, and they were just like little boys, running around.
It was cute. But that first probably couple years, actually, few years,
it was still very new, but then it transformed into an operational
phase. To the point where they were going to totally hand it off to
the commercial sector at one point, and that never really happened.
When the Challenger happened, that caused a rethink. This is a very
complex, very dangerous mission, every single time.
But over that time period, though, that’s what caused this SAIL
facility to migrate over to the operations contracts that were being
put in place, and just that thinking. So that was a natural progression,
including the contracts that supported it, so we just kind of evolved
with that. Plus, with the emergence of the Space Station program,
that was a drain on the Center. So you got to do both programs. You
start in the early eighties and seventies very focused on Shuttle.
Then in the early seventies, you had the shutdown of Apollo, and then
you transition the workforce basics to Shuttle. Well, Shuttle is long-term,
and all a sudden, you drop in Station—very complex program,
very complex machine, again. Then, now what we’re facing is,
“Oh, by the way, we want you to work Constellation, too.”
You got three programs right now, which is a real stretch on the organization.
Also, because of that overlap, that caused—almost forced—NASA
to do business a little bit differently. You end up having to essentially
contract out more and more of the Shuttle job. It was definitely influencing
Ross-Nazzal: The only other question I have is, in addition to this
document, do you have any other documents or memos or letters or anything
that might be helpful to us as we put together a history of the facility?
I’d have to think about that. There’s that plaque. See
Ross-Nazzal: Oh, yes.
That’s the one I mentioned earlier. That’s the one I got
for STS-1, and I felt very embarrassed to get that, because I had
just got here. Because I didn’t feel like I had contributed
all that much. But that one, I really like.
Oh, yes, that’s nice.
I’m sure there are a few of those around. Nothing comes immediately
to mind, actually. I keep this out for grins almost, and as a history
thing for myself, to remind me of those days. But down here in this
cabinet here, see those little consoles of cardboard up there?
Those are about 30 years old. When I talked about the upgrade of the
control center for SAIL, I was involved in helping Lockheed, at the
time, design those new test consoles for this new control center.
I kept getting questions: “What are these things going to look
like? What are these things going to look like?” I think the
PDR, the Preliminary Design Review, I think—one of the design
reviews that we had—I just said, “Crap, I’m just
going to make it out of cardboard.” That essentially is to scale,
based on the drawings. I just keep those. I’ve kept them all
these years. I don’t know why. But I just kind of laugh at them
every time I see them. But I built those when I was in my early twenties.
It accomplished what it—because now everybody knew exactly what
it was. Needed a 3-D model.
Yes, that’s great.
It’s kind of funny, though.
Tell us about why there was a decision made to build this new control
I think it was based on—that would be a good question for Irv,
actually—an operational need and more capability, make it easier
to operate. Again, this kind of evolved, to make it better and easier
to run the facility. Also, probably update hardware that might have
been out of date, that kind of thing. That’s why they did the
other upgrade, more recent one, because all the stuff that I worked
on was very hard to maintain. For any test facility, that’s
one of your big challenges, is particularly if you’re having
to support like a Shuttle hardware—which is old in itself, and
you can’t really change that—but then the systems that
connect up to it, those start going out. We had a lot of VAXes [32
bit computer systems] around, deck VAXes, and those computers have
essentially disappeared. The company that produced the computers that
I worked on back in the eighties, that company disappeared.
When that starts to happen, it’s very hard to maintain the hardware,
to test laboratory hardware. Again, this is generic, to all labs.
So then you have to upgrade, and then you have to get the programs
convinced that they need to upgrade, because that’s going to
cost money. A lot of times, we have a lot of systems still around
that we haven’t been able to successfully convince that you
need to pump some more dollars in there to upgrade this machine, because
it can be kind of expensive. So then you’re limping along on
these old support systems.
That’s the typical problem of any facility, and that’s
just part of what I was involved with, was just upgrading it to a
little bit more capable, more flexible, more general purpose. I guess
when I look back on it, it was really laying the foundation for the
long haul, because this was going to be a long program, so you needed
a facility that was a little bit more permanent in the sense of its
capability and flexible to do the tests that you need to do it. There
was probably also, I imagine, some lessons learned from the early
buildup on what you really needed. So when they went through that
phase, saying, “I’m sure it would be nice if—.”
We started to design all that into the new system.
Ross-Nazzal: Do you recall when that opened?
That went operational in ’81, ’82 timeframe. I think it
was after STS-1. I’m forgetting.
Ross-Nazzal: Do you know when the most recent change occurred?
That’s within the last five years. Don would be able to give
you the exact date on that. This thing right here came from that original—
What is that?
That’s a kind of a tidbit of strange things to show you how
things were so tight money-wise when we were doing this new control
center. It looks like a core sample. One of the challenges that we
had when we were building this new control center was that we didn’t
have enough money to put in a false floor for this new control center
that was down the hall here. So one of the NASA guys in the office
says, “Well, why don’t we just drill holes in the concrete,
and we’ll just run our wires above the first-floor ceiling”—like
right about here—“and then just route the wires up into
those racks, those consoles?” So that’s what we did. In
this building, you’ll see some people have these, and there’s
one that’s about that big around, too. But we had a company
called Holes Incorporated, come out—they still exist today;
I’ve seen them around. You can see that it has the linoleum
tile on top of it.
Ross-Nazzal: Yes, it does.
They punched a bunch of holes, and it was very loud. That was very
loud, and I can remember that. So if you go into the old control room—they
moved it—you’ll see a bunch of holes in that floor. Well,
it was because we couldn’t afford the false floor, which we
would typically do in a lab, and then run the wires under the false
floor. So our false floor is actually this concrete.
That was creative thinking at the time. I thought it was a funny tidbit
of sorts. But then they actually moved the control center around the
corner to another location, and they put a false floor.
Ross-Nazzal: Got the money this time?
Yes, got the money this time. That was always the challenges at the
time, was trying to do as much as you can with the budget you got.
Ross-Nazzal: I imagine it was a challenge.
I’m sure it still is.
Still is. It’s age-old, and it’s always this wrestling
match between the engineering organization and the program office,
since they’re the ones that control all the funds. We want to
do one thing, and they don’t have enough money to do that, so
there’s this see-saw back and forth, and hopefully you get to
the right middle ground on any decision. But being good stewards of
the program’s money has always been what we try to do, not just
do it to do it.
Do you have any questions, Rebecca?
No, just was going to ask if you had any more thoughts, any more personal
thoughts you’d like to share about the building and the fact
that how vital it is to the program?
It’s very easy to say that the Shuttle Program would not be
the success that it has been if it wasn’t for this building
and what’s in this building, and the people that are in it and
the facility. Not everybody appreciates that, to be honest. It’s
the traditional challenge, is to convince the powers that be that
you need an avionics integration–type facility. If you were
to see the facility and see how complex a machine it is, and you go,
“Wow.” You can’t just build it and then go fly it;
you just can’t. It won’t work. The risk is way, way too
high. I have true, huge appreciation for the avionics integration
and test side of the program and what it reveals and the problems
that it can help solve, to make sure that you wring everything out
before you fly, and then troubleshoot, too.
Can you think of an episode or an event that you guys troubleshooted
or even one that you tested before it flew that it’s really
good that you had that opportunity to do it before someone took it
It’s been so long. That would be another good one for Don. He
probably could give you a pretty good laundry list of things they’ve
discovered over the last 30 years. That would be a good thing. I’m
thinking more in general of assurances too, that it does indeed work.
It’s just mandatory. We’re having that battle right now
with the CEV Program. The new facility is getting cut, delayed, and
it’s just not right. We get to these arguments of what the true
rationale is for the facility.
But from an engineering perspective, the integration job, when you
put all this stuff together and hook it all up, it’s just a
mammoth kind of undertaking, and very complex. I’m amazed at
every Shuttle flight. That’s why I like this poster—it’s
a little bit outdated—of all the Shuttle patches and all the
Apollo patches. But it gives you a sense of how many times the Shuttle
is flown. You tend to forget how many times the Shuttle has flown.
I mean, over 100 times. Knowing what it takes to fly each Shuttle
and the violent launch to the violent reentry, it’s just incredible,
from an engineering perspective. But this facility was very much instrumental
in making all that happen and making all those patches happen. Testing
out the software, testing out the systems, to make sure that they
accomplish what it needs to accomplish. Just about any engineer that’s
involved in the development of the systems would say the same thing.
But Don would be a real good one to give you that history of over
the years of how that’s evolved. He’s been involved in
that facility for a while.
Touch base with Barbara, and she’ll have all that contact info.
Maybe it’ll help you with some information for the CAIL.
Yes, that’s true. Actually, we are trying to get the SAIL guys
involved in the CAIL facility.
That would make sense.
That’s another one of these natural migrations that’s
already started. As the Shuttle retires and that job goes away, then
the Constellation and the CEV, CAIL, job is emerging. I don’t
know if you’ve seen it over there. It’s way under construction.
But that’s going to be exciting to see put in place. Looking
forward to that.
Well, we thank you for sharing your time with us this morning—
—and your information about the SAIL.