NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Jennifer Ross-Nazzal
Houston, Texas – 26 February 2003
Today is February 26, 2003. This oral history with Kenneth B. Gilbreath
is being conducted for the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project
in Houston, Texas. Jennifer Ross-Nazzal is the interviewer, and she
is assisted by Sandra Johnson.
Thank you so much for joining us this morning. We really appreciate
I’d like to start out with a basic question. Could you tell
us about your interest in engineering, as a child?
Well, that’s rather interesting when I consider that, because
growing up in a little country town in eastern New Mexico, a farming
area, I didn’t really know that I had too much interest in engineering.
I was very excited about athletics and was very intensely involved
in athletics all through high school, but sometime late in high school,
probably my junior year, I began to realize that I had a lot of interest
in chemistry and physics. Science began to become of some interest.
I recall before graduating from high school, I thought, “I might
like to go to New Mexico School of Mines [Socorro, New Mexico] and
be a mining engineer.” So that was probably my first thoughts,
really, about getting into engineering.
Ross-Nazzal: Were there any specific people or events that encouraged
you to go into that field?
Well, I had a good science teacher in high school, but, really, my
life’s course changed very quickly upon graduating from high
school, because at my age a lot of families were still in a rather
poor economic state. So I really did not have the financial ability
to go to college right away, so I enlisted in the Navy at age seventeen,
and it really was in the Navy that I became interested in technologies.
In fact, I went to an electronics school in the Navy for a year, just
out of basic training, and I found that very rewarding, very interesting.
I spent four years in the Navy, working with electronic systems in
And then you went to school at New Mexico State University [Las Cruces,
Yes. After leaving the Navy, I went back to my little hometown of
Portales, New Mexico, and I started pre-engineering school there and
went three semesters there. I met a nice lady and was married, and
then went to New Mexico State and was at New Mexico State three years.
Graduated in 1956.
After you graduated, you started working with Westinghouse [Corporation].
Can you tell us about your career with Westinghouse?
Well, actually, my career was rather dynamic, in terms of jobs that
I held right out of college, because I actually went to work for General
Electric [Company] right out of college, at Richland, Washington.
They were the managing contractor of the Hanford nuclear project facilities
there. So I spent a year there in Washington, and then joined Westinghouse
in Idaho at the National Reactor Test Station, training sailors to
operate nuclear submarines. Did that for about three and a half years.
How did you find out about the position at White Sands Test Facility
[Las Cruces, New Mexico]?
Well, by that time I had been through the ICBM [Inter-Continental
Ballistic Missile] programs, the Titan I and Titan II programs. As
those programs completed, there was a lot of us in this country looking
for new jobs, for different jobs. It turned out that the Apollo Program
was developing in the early sixties, so while I was working the ICBM
program, we kept track of what was happening in the Apollo Program
and what it looked like.
And then after I was transferred back to Denver [Colorado], and the
job situation in the ICBM business was very poor, because we had covered
the entire United States and probably other places in the world with
ICBMs, the Apollo Program was maturing to the point where they were
beginning to build facilities, and I learned of the one at Las Cruces.
I went down for a visit, took my family down for an Easter visit,
and while they were visiting family, I went over to Las Cruces and
visited the NASA facility.
The temporary site manager was a gentleman named Billy R. Gantz. Had
a good meeting with him, and within two weeks I had an offer from
NASA. I checked in there the first of May in 1964, to head up the
Electrical Engineering Branch of that field office.
Could you tell us a little bit about the facilities at White Sands
Test Facility when you arrived in ’64?
Well, it was primarily huge piles of dirt and a lot of dust. They
were working on both the lunar module facilities and the command and
service module facilities. North American [Aviation Inc.] was the
contractor for the command and service module, and the Grumman [Aircraft
Electronics] Corporation was the contractor for the lunar module.
The [Army] Corps of Engineers was doing the [facility] construction.
It was well along at the time I arrived, but we didn’t have
office buildings yet, so we lived in trailers. We were probably in
trailers for most of the first year that I was there. We moved into
the office facilities in 1965. Then we began activating the [test]
facilities in late 1965, and getting into actual testing. We began
testing on the command and service module before the lunar module
testing was ready, but they both then, very shortly, were running
By 1966, we probably had on the order of 1,200 people on site, probably
about 500 Grumman people and about as many North American employees,
and then, of course, the base support contractors. Zia Company did
our base operations support, just operated the basic facility.
You were the Chief of the Energy and Control Systems Branch. What
were your basic duties and responsibilities?
This had to do with all of the power distribution of the site, as
well as all the electrical interfaces with the test stands, the test
facilities, the backup power systems, all the diesel generators, the
uninterrupted power supplies, and all the communications systems and
the security systems and surveillance systems, like the video, and
almost anything electrical, with the exception of instrumentation.
There was a fellow named Mike [Michael J.] Hamilton who actually was
responsible for the instrumentation that was installed on the test
vehicles. My group did all of the power provisioning and the power
Previously you’ve mentioned the names of several contractors
who worked out at White Sands Test Facility. Can you talk about the
relationship between the contractors and the civil servants out at
I can say a bit about that. Initially, contractors, as you would expect,
are very independent. They came feeling that they knew more about
the project than any other group would, and rightly so. They’d
been involved in the intimate detail designs and all the test planning
and the system development, but it did take a while for them to realize
that NASA was the customer and we would be involved in and controlling,
in fact, the test planning, approving the test plans. So there was
a time required there to blend those two functions together, but they
accepted us probably within a year. So by the time testing seriously
began, probably in mid-’66 or in ’67, they understood
that we were part of the team, the test team, and it would be done
with our agreement and with our approval.
As a result, we developed very effective team relationships, both
with Grumman and with North American. There were some difficult personalities
in the beginning, because they felt like they had come to do this
job themselves and they didn’t need our assistance, but later
they understood that we did have a role, that we had to be there,
because we were the direct interface back to JSC at that time, which
was MSC at that time, Manned Spacecraft Center [Houston, Texas].
Could you talk to us about the relationship between White Sands Test
Facility and the Manned Spacecraft Center at that time?
At the time that I had the Electrical Branch, there had been two sort
of interim managers of the site. Those two fellows didn’t stay
very long. One of them was named Wes [Wesley] Messing. There was a
fellow from Houston that came out briefly. But Marty [Martin L.] Raines,
a retired Army colonel, was appointed as the WSTF [White Sands Test
Facility] manager. That probably happened in late 1965, so he was
the manager all through the major testing era of the facility, up
He had a direct interface back here to the Center. For a while, it
was the Propulsion Division, which was headed by a fellow named [Joseph]
Guy Thibodaux, whom I believe you have spoken with sometime in the
past. But then matters began to expand beyond just the technical propulsion
testing. There were a lot of administrative relationships that had
to be developed on budget and contracting and procurement. So I think
his interface, then, became more directly attached to Center management,
to the Center Director, or to the Deputy Director of the Center, or
to the Director of Administration here at the Center.
Do you think that that relationship has changed over time?
Once the relationship developed to the point where it was [generally]
recognized that WSTF did [much] more than just technical propulsion
work, [MSC] then recognized [WSTF] as a rather diverse [technical
operations] management [capability]. Then it was that the Center knew
that various [functions] at the Center had to work [closely] with
WSTF, and I really don’t think that has changed a great deal
since that time.
I became manager of the facility in 1969, after the Apollo landing.
Of course, the intent, in general, across the agency for a brief time,
was to phase the facility out. But at that time it was my personal
experience that I worked with the [MSC] Director’s office very
directly. I had a technical assistant at that time, Mr. George [W.
S.] Abbey, [on] whom you probably have a lot of data. [We also] worked
with the Director of Administration, who at that time had procurement
and budgeting. [Additionally, I] worked with the Director of Center
Operations, who I later became closely associated with because of
our facilities requirements and construction of facilities requirements.
That was Mr. Joe [Joseph V.] Piland at that time.
The [working] interface [with MSC] had several facets; it was not
just a single interface. But it was very effective, [we] had a good
relationship with the Center Director’s office, and then various
other directorates as we needed them. And our technical fellows in
propulsion testing and the instrumentation had direct interfaces back
here with their technical counterparts, as required. And, of course,
Guy Thibodaux’s division was one of those, the Propulsion Division
here at the Center.
Tell us about the relationship between the Army and the White Sands
Test Facility at the time. What was that like?
I had a very good relationship with the Army [and] the various commanding
officers; I knew them personally. We would be invited, myself and
others, to special events at the White Sands Missile Range [White
Sands, New Mexico], special launchings or special ceremonies honoring
someone over there. If we needed helicopter support on our side of
the mountain range, … the Army never failed to [provide excellent]
support of that type. Being separated from them physically and geologically
by a mountain range probably made our relationship smooth and effective.
We were not a thorn in their side much of the time.
In the early days when we had a flight test program over there, we
had a special group there from the Manned Spacecraft Center that organized
and managed the entire flight test program. That was in 1964 and ’65.
They had their own interface with the missile range. Then when that
program was completed, which was the testing of the Earth landing
system and the emergency landing system for the command module, they
phased out and came to the Manned Spacecraft Center, [while] we stayed
[at WSTF] for the propulsion testing.
Could you tell us about the work atmosphere out at White Sands Test
Facility while you were out there?
I spoke earlier of a bit of an abrasion early on, and that probably
was due to a [few specific] personalities, but that smoothed out and
we had a very effective relationship with both North American and
with Grumman [as well as] within our NASA organization. Our NASA staffing
was never very large out there, something on the order of fifty people,
but we were close; we all knew each well, personally; and became a
very effective strong team, even though [we were organized] into four
teams. But we had very few people in each team, [we] were using contractors
to get the job done.
We had a nice relationship among all the NASA people. We had great
NASA annual picnics and Christmas parties and dances. There was a
strong spirit of camaraderie. It was a good time. I think you would
find probably in the careers of most of those people, they would say,
“That was a bright time in my career.” It was a fun time.
It was an exciting time, because they knew they were doing something
that was most unique, something that no one else had ever really considered
seriously attempting, and they knew that the potential [for significant
accomplishment] was great.
And then, of course, every success we experienced, it just excited
everyone [on to] greater successes. It was a great time and a great
team. And also the same was true in Grumman and in North American.
Once they began to accomplish very positive results in systems development
and testing, they all found it very rewarding.
There was actually a tragedy that occurred, the Apollo 1 fire.
How did that impact the White Sands Test Facility?
Well, you know, the agency was blindsided by the magnitude of the
incident, of course. First of all, we had never suffered anything
like that. Most people working in the agency probably had never really
experienced anything of that nature, and then here the whole world
had a magnifying glass on this incident. Suddenly the agency realized
that we [had] so many things in the command module [that could] burn
[in the] oxygen environment.
So the reaction was extremely swift, and the investigation was done
quickly and thoroughly, and it clearly revealed that something had
to be done significantly in terms of redesigning and reequipping the
inside of the command module [with] different materials. They needed
a place to do a lot of materials testing, to determine the real characteristics
and qualities of various materials. And there really weren’t
[many materials test labs] existing, in terms of government facilities,
and particularly of this nature, of pure oxygen environments, and
then at [various oxygen] pressures [and] at very high temperatures.
We had a laboratory area with good shop facilities, manufacturing
facilities, shops that could react very quickly. We were chosen to
start some materials testing, and we developed test chambers, built
our own test chambers, developed all the gas flow and distribution
control systems, the instrumentation systems necessary to test materials,
to see when will a certain material burn [and] under what conditions.
We got there very quickly. There may have been a limited effort at
Marshall Space Flight Center [Huntsville, Alabama] at that time, but
we moved so much more quickly, that soon White Sands Test Facility
became the major materials test facility for the agency in correction
of the  problem. In particular, Dave [David L.] Pippin was our
manager of the laboratories at that time, and he was a very fine technical
fellow and he was able to develop some amazing control [and instrumentation]
systems. At the same time, he had some good contractor support [that]
developed the mechanical systems and all of the ignition systems.
In a very short time we were actively involved in materials testing,
and [literally] tested thousands of materials, and we not only tested
them for their flammability qualities, but for their odor testing
[and toxicity]. We even had odor testing teams. One of the prizes
that you would receive for doing odor testing would be a coffee cup
that had a little skunk on the side of it. [Laughs]
The agency [quickly] established that certain materials had to be
changed out in the spacecraft, and those materials had been tested
by that time. White Sands continued an extensive materials test program
for many years and [even] tested materials for other agencies—Department
of Defense, Department of Army, others. It probably became the premier
materials test facility for that type of testing in the United States,
and I presume that those facilities still exist today.
They do, yes.
For a time, you were actually Chief of the Laboratory Branch. What
role did you play in all of this?
Yes, I did. I became chief of the laboratories, probably as a result
of this accident. I left the Energy Branch and went up to the laboratories
and took that over, and [with] Dave Pippin, put all the systems and
the ideas and the designs together. I [spent] a year as manager of
the laboratories during the processing of much of the [materials]
testing, and [worked closely with] David. David Pippin worked for
me while I was there, but he continued to run the detailed testing.
He was just an exceptional [technologist], he was absolutely the right
person for that job at that time.
We had good contractors, and they were really committed to the job.
The engineers [and] technicians were bright, they were interested
in the project, they knew the severity of the accident, they knew
the criticality of their work as it related to correcting the problem,
and everything had to be done quickly. So we had a very productive
eighteen months of materials testing in preparing for the redesigns
and getting the new materials into the spacecraft.
What were your thoughts when Apollo 7 finally went up and returned
Oh, it’s like so many of the successes. You had a lot of nervous
moments and thought about it a lot, but [we] were absolutely delighted
and elated when it occurred, when it had been successfully completed,
[the pride of] the whole agency and nation and perhaps much of the
world [peaked] when we landed in July of ’69 on the Moon. In
fact, I recall a neighbor across the street called me about two o’clock
in the morning, and they had landed and Neil [A.] Armstrong was walking
around, and he called me and says, “When is NASA going to do
something exciting?” [Laughter]
We were all very pleased and very excited every time we experienced
a new success. But, you know, the  accident, probably throughout
the agency and certainly through the Manned Spacecraft Center, focused
every individual’s attention on what they were doing, in terms
of doing it as thoroughly and to the absolute best of their ability
for an extended period of time, and that led later to the resolution
of problems as they arose. They analyzed them and corrected them in
a more precise way, in a more thorough way.
Did you have any duties during the Apollo missions themselves?
No, not really. We had ongoing testing all the time. We followed the
missions very closely, but we were not operationally involved in the
mission. We were not involved in any of the communications with them,
and we had our own backlog that we were always working on. We were
delighted the launch had been made, and we knew they were up there
and we were tracking them. We had a little auditorium, probably [held]
about 120 people or so at White Sands. We had the missions on video
most of the time, so people could come to the auditorium and kind
of see what was happening in the missions, in the flights. That was
something that everyone was interested in and everyone did go to kind
of check on, see how things were going, as they could.
But we, at the same time, had our backlogs and our work to do, so
we had tests going on up at the test stands all the time. There were
refinements on many of the propulsion systems, the reaction control
systems, which were the attitude control systems of the spacecraft,
of both the command and service module and the lunar module. So there
was a lot of continuing work went on on that after the first launches.
Before you became manager of the site, you were Chief of the Engineering
Yes. After I left the laboratory, I came back and took over the Engineering
Branches and was in that job for several months to a year. That was
kind of an overview job of all of the operational systems of the Center,
not only the electrical systems, but all of the mechanical systems,
fluid distribution systems for the test stands and the basic facility
operations, all the water systems and all the building maintenance
and the operations. The facility maintenance and operations contractor
worked for the Engineering Office.
There were a couple of times that NASA attempted to close White Sands
Test Facility, and in 1970 it seems like they were about to close
the facility. What were your thoughts about that at the time?
Well, I did think about that quite a bit. I was the manager at that
time. Marty Raines had [transferred] to Houston and had become Director
of Safety and Quality Assurance. The direction that I was receiving
and obviously implementing was that, yes, we were going to close the
facility, so, transferred about half of our employees onto JSC in
1970. You have talked to a number of those people that came down at
We maintained an operating staff then of about twenty-five people.
But during that ensuing year, during ’71 in particular, plans
began to come together for the Shuttle spacecraft, and the engineering
and development people who were associated with propulsion on the
Shuttle recognized that they were going to have to do some propulsion
testing on the smaller engines of the Shuttle, on the attitude control
So they said, “Where could that be done?” The looked at
Marshall Space Flight Center and at [John C.] Stennis [Space Center]
in Mississippi, and I think there were even some considerations for
maybe doing some small-engine testing perhaps in Florida. But it became
quite clear very quickly that NASA already had possession of some
rather significant and very good test facilities for engines of that
nature, and we had vacuum chamber capability for testing engines in
a vacuum, and we had atmospheric test stands.
So during ’71, the decision was beginning to materialize in
the minds of some of the technical people here, and probably in NASA
Headquarters [Washington, D.C.] as well, that “Maybe we’d
better not close that test [facility] just yet. Let’s pursue
this requirement for the testing on the smaller engines of the Shuttle,”
and they did that.
By the end of 1971, they really had made that decision that we’re
going to keep the facility open for that purpose. Now, we may just
hold it in abeyance for a while, not re-staff to any great level,
because we’d gotten to a total staffing of around two hundred
people, about twenty-five or thirty NASA people, and then some contractor
staffing, just to take care of the operations of the utility systems
and the care for the facilities, the maintenance and operation of
the facilities, and take care of the test stands.
By January of ’72, that decision had been made somewhere in
the technical structuring of the Shuttle Program, probably by Max
[Maxime A.] Faget and Guy Thibodaux and others, because Max Faget
was the primary architect of the Shuttle, for MSC.
So then they began to think about re-staffing and reorganizing, how
to do this. Well, I was not a propulsion person by background. So
they transferred a gentleman from here named Jesse [C.] Jones. Jesse
had developed a test facility here. He had had an early test facility
over at the Ellington field, the old Ellington Air Force Base [Houston,
Texas]. The Air Force had allowed NASA to come in and develop a little
area over there, and he had done some early fuels testing and perhaps
some propulsion testing. The thermochemical test area here at the
[Johnson] Space Center [was completed in the early ‘60s], and
he was the manager of that facility for several years. So he was a
logical person to come and manage a propulsion test facility.
And at that time General [Frank A.] Bogart had come to NASA. He was
the Associate Director [at MSC], which really meant that he was responsible
for all administrative support to the Director of the Center. He had
become my principal interface, and he and I became rather well acquainted.
It was his idea for me to come down here, so when he asked me to come
down in the spring of around 1972, there was really no way to say,
“No, I’d like to stay in New Mexico,” even though
I was a native of New Mexico and loved it.
It turned out that he was right, and it was a great thing for me and
for my career, and the right thing for the agency, because the fellow
they sent out there to be the manager of a propulsion facility was
much more well qualified than I, and the types of things that I came
down here to do, I was more qualified to do that than propulsion.
And I came down the first of
April in 1972 to become Joe Piland’s deputy.
Could you tell us how working at the Manned Spacecraft Center differed
from working at the test facility?
Oh, yes, there was a lot of difference, all right. Of course, your
interfaces throughout the organizations multiplied manyfold. We were
such a small group out there, that it was kind of like working in
a small kitchen where you can reach everything. We knew everyone personally.
You’d see everyone eye-to-eye. But [as I] came to MSC, and it
was a huge organization at that time. In fact, our civil service organization
in the Center Operations Directorate at that time was about 500 civil
service people, and in the order of 1,200 [to] 1,300 contractor people,
perhaps even more at that time, probably closer maybe to 1,500 people.
So you had all of those organizational elements to learn what they’re
doing and who it is that makes things happen and why things happen
the way they do. And, of course, all the rest of the organizational
elements of the Manned Spacecraft Center, which I really didn’t
know very many of those people. All the engineering divisions worked
for Max Faget, and then [many divisions] over in science, and all
of the flight operations and the aircraft operations. Of course, I
came into a job, then, that was responsible for all of the facilities
that all of those people used.
What were some of the major projects that you headed up as Deputy
This was after Apollo and before Shuttle was real well defined, so
we weren’t building very many new facilities at that time. We
were doing some modifications of a lot of buildings, and particularly
as Shuttle became more defined. We began to get into a lot of the
requirements for a lot of offsite space, so we were modifying, acquiring,
or leasing, and acquiring buildings just like the building that you
reside in here in Clear Lake City [Texas]. And we would have to modify
a lot of that space to accommodate the Shuttle organizational elements
that were being pulled together, NASA and contractor, and we were
beginning to make a lot of laboratory modifications [on site].
Then as Shuttle began to develop, our manufacturing shops, which was
part of the Center Operations Directorate at that time, began to do
a lot of special fabrication work for the engineers that were driving
the Shuttle Program. And, of course, in the early part of the seventies,
the Skylab Program was very active, and our manufacturing facilities
of the Center Operations Directorate were very intimately involved
in that, and played some major roles in some of the incidents that
we had in flight there.
The one that you may know about is, we had had some damage on launch
and in flight, and had to have a sun shield. Jack [A.] Kinzler was
heading the shops, the Manufacturing Division, at that time. They
were called Technical Services Division. He was very personally, and
his people were very much involved in resolving that problem, along
with working with some of the engineering people.
Later we began to build facilities as the Shuttle Program matured
more, but we built the first water immersion facility. We modified
Building 29. The portion that we modified had been originally designed
and built as a big centrifuge for the astronauts to be spun up into
for high-G testing. They never did use it very much. So it became
a large open facility that was available for something. So that’s
where we built our first water immersion facility. And years later,
in the nineties, they built the current facility over near the Ellington
Field, and you’re familiar with that. But the facility in Building
29, the water immersion facility, is still used for some training
I was trying to think of other major projects that we built in those
days. One of the most rewarding projects that I personally was involved
in just before my retirement, actually, was the [construction] of
Building 4 South, which was a new housing area for the astronauts
and many other support people, a six-floor structure, about a 240,000-square-feet
facility. It was fun to work with all of the people, the astronauts
included, that were going to be living there and using it, with all
the flight operations units. That building turned out, a very successful
project, and I’m sure is still fully populated today.
We modified every building on the Center. In fact, during the eighties,
and I guess early nineties, probably eighties, we flew some sensitive
flights for the Air Force, for the military, and we did some significant
modifications to the Mission Operations Center for that. Those were
some of the most [unique] modifications that we did.
We did build Building 17 in the mid-seventies or so. It was primarily
for the Science Directorate. It’s kind of hard to recall just
when some of those things did happen. I know Building 17, eventually
one area in it became the home for the Center’s communication
system, as we changed over from old-fashioned communications, hardwire
kind of systems, to the computerized systems that they have today.
At that time we transferred that communications function from the
Center Operations Directorate to the Data Systems Directorate, and
that occurred in the early eighties.
You sound awfully busy.
We were very busy. And, of course, jokingly, we were often referred
to as the people who did all the ash, trash, and garbage functions
of the Center, but we took all of that in good humor. We took care
of the grounds and all the security function and all the transportation
and the logistics, the warehousing and the shops and the printing
and the library, which many, many changes have occurred in many of
those areas since 1995.
All those things are important in running a Center.
I’ve always referred to them as base operations support functions,
and those functions just have to be done by someone. Well, it turned
out that I was a guy that enjoyed doing those kinds of functions.
And the fellow that I worked for, Joe Piland, when I first came to
MSC in ’72, he was also that kind of person. He liked general
management, general operations, and enjoyed having a lot of different
things to do.
But fortunately we had a lot of people at the Space Center that were
very talented and enjoyed doing a very specific thing and were very
good at it. It just took all kinds of people to make the Space Center
operation effective and successful.
Let me ask you a couple of questions. You talked about some of the
facility changes that you made on site, one of which was the change
in the Mission Control Center, so that you could support Air Force
flights. Could you talk about your role in dealing with the Air Force
in making those changes?
My specific role, I was at a bit of a distance, and intentionally,
and I kept myself in that position. I had a very capable security
officer at that time, a gent [gentleman] named Everett [D.] Shafer.
He had an extensive background in security, and he was very effective
in working with the Air Force, he and a few of his Security Branch
people, and had excellent working interface with them.
So I never tried to delve into the details of “Why are we doing
this? What is the mission going to accomplish? Why do we need to modify
the building exactly in this way?” But what I was concerned
about was maintaining the integrity of the core facility, not destroy
it in such a way that it would not be useful for NASA in another application
one day, and also to be sure that the Air Force provided funds in
the proper amount for the need that they [were] defining and that
we could get it done on time to support the flight schedules.
So I kept my interface primarily with my security officer and a very
limited number of Air Force, two or three key people in the Air Force,
and one of those reasons being funding. One of the individuals [in
particular] was strictly for funding, [and] he knew where Air Force
money [was and] how it could be made available to NASA. And then I
had a couple of other Air Force people that occasionally did need
to discuss a bit of the nature of the facility and the operational
requirements within the facility. I stayed on the outside of the locked
doors, by intent, and it was better for the Air Force and better for
our security people, and it worked out nicely.
I did have one security person that worked inside the [flight control]
organization operationally, stayed with our NASA flight operations
people and the Air Force operations people all the way through the
critical missions, and that person was committed and dedicated to
that, and became a part of the flight operations organization, really,
for several years. That person was the interface with NASA security
in what we needed to do and what we could agree to, and that became
a very effective arrangement. By the way, that person happened to
be a woman.
That was something that I wanted to ask you about. During the seventies
and eighties, NASA was trying to recruit more minorities and women
to work in their work force. What was your role in doing that?
Well, I was obviously aware of what the Center and the agency was
trying to do and what we needed to do, in terms of employment opportunities
and diversity. My role was to—and I did work very closely with
our HR [Human Resources] Department in hiring people. We hired a lot
of terrific women and various minority groups during that time. But
even prior to that time, we had a basic core of very talented, committed,
dedicated women in our organization. Our organization was of a sufficiently
different nature that we could employ a lot of women. We had a lot
of lower-paying jobs, so we had a lot of technician people, a lot
of technician fellows and women, all across our divisions—Logistics
Division, Technical Information Division, in our shops. And we did
manage to integrate women into our shops.
In our print plant, the assistant manager of the print plant was a
woman. The Logistics Division Chief was a woman, a woman named Elsie
[M.] Easley. She was just a classic of a hardworking person that was
bright and had just worked hard and learned the business and happened
to be good in managing people, so she became Division Chief. Could
very well have been the first female Division Chief at the Center.
Of course, her Logistics Division had a lot of women in it who were
materials managers at all levels.
And then in Engineering, we began to hire a lot of women, and not
only just in specialty fields of like environmentalists, [but all
technical disciplines]. … [As for] environmental engineers,
we were able to hire some very capable women in those positions. …
In fact, a civil engineer that I hired in about 1978 or so, I just
saw her very recently and she’s still there and still running
some civil engineering functions in the facilities design world. Many
of our administrative assistants in the divisions were women.
I found that women were realizing that they were seeing opportunities,
that they had never had before, so they were willing to try for them
and to work harder and commit themselves to them, and as a result,
they progressed and they did terrific jobs. The Center Operations
Directorate, by the time I retired, probably had about 200 women out
of a staff of 400. So across the board it was almost fifty-fifty.
And then minorities began to [experience] some real success in the
eighties, [and we began] hiring some good minorities. I hired several
from Prairie View A&M [University, Prairie View, Texas]. And one
of the fellows progressed just steadily to become a branch chief in
design, and just did an outstanding job in the Electrical Facilities
Design Branch, and did some very complicated jobs. Of course, he’s
But in all functions we had some good minorities. We just had an overall
good experience. Very few problems and disappointments on the part
of minorities. Most of them were very pleased that they came to our
directorate. And then after gaining experience in our directorate,
many of them had the opportunity then to move on over into perhaps
more attractive and exciting work elements of the Center. And I was
glad to see that.
I know that you had been given credit for some of these recruiting
efforts. I know you won an award from the Federal Women’s Program
and from the EEO [Equal Employment Opportunity], so I thought I would
ask you about that.
I did, and I enjoyed doing that. I enjoyed seeing people succeed.
I enjoyed building teams and seeing them become effective team members
and then seeing them reap the rewards of that personally, their personal
satisfaction of being an effective team member and making friends,
just see them make friends [with] their professional associates across
the Center. It turned out to be much better than many of them had
ever thought they would have opportunities to experience.
Ross-Nazzal: That’s wonderful. It’s wonderful you could
make that sort of an impact on the Center.
I have to say, I had probably greater opportunities to do that than
most managers did, because some of the organizations, they simply
had to have a very precisely trained specialist to go into a job,
to a particular job, and I had much more latitude. I could allow people
to generally develop into a job and develop their expertise there.
Let me ask you about a couple of other things that I know that you
handled as Director of Center Operations. STS-3 actually landed out
at White Sands Missile Range, on the Northrup Strip, and I understand
your organization helped transfer equipment and hardware out to White
Oh, yes. That was very unexpected, even though we knew we could do
it. My transportation officer at that time was a gentleman named Dave
[B.] Homer. Fortunately, he had a wealth of experience and depth in
transportation capabilities and services that were available throughout
the government, and he knew how to interface with other government
So when that occurred, he had to move very quickly. It was staggering,
the amount of equipment, lifting equipment, hauling equipment, that
had to be moved a hundred miles up into the desert from the closest
area where any of that equipment existed, and that was in the El Paso
[Texas] area, and maybe some from Fort Bliss [Texas], and there was
a limited amount from the White Sands Missile Range.
They had to set up housing and move all of the hauling equipment and
all of the lifting equipment. You’re talking about lifting the
Shuttle. There’s no built-in cranes or anything out there, so
you had to lift that onto a 747 later, for removal from the desert.
So it was an exciting, challenging time for my Transportation Branch
that was handling that. I did not go out on that. We had re-staffed,
by the way, White Sands at that time, so we had a lot of very capable
people out at White Sands that worked for Rob [R.] Tillett. You have
talked to several of those people that were there at that time. So
they were intimately involved and intensely involved in getting ready,
like twenty-four hours [per day]. I mean, they didn’t have much
time to get this done.
So my transportation people were principally the ones that were interfacing
with them and moving all that big equipment out there, and then getting
the Shuttle equipped in such a way that we could pick it up and put
it on the 747 after the 747 came in, and then get it on back to [Cape
Canaveral] Florida. But that was very challenging.
And then right in the middle of all that, they had one of the worst
sandstorms the area had ever seen. It was more than a duststorm; it
was a sandstorm. If you’ve ever seen any of the video after
that landing, it was just unbelievable how bad two or three days were,
because it was in the spring of the year, which is the high-velocity
wind times for that missile range area. And, of course, it’s
a white powder. It is just blinding when the wind whips it up. Everything
they had there, including the spacecraft, was full of dust. After
they got it back to Kennedy [Space] Center [Florida], they [were]
a long time in cleaning everything up.
That was a time, that was an occasion when a lot of people, as they
say, rose to the occasion and got a lot of significant things accomplished
in a very short time. But we had great support, as you do in national
things. At that time we hadn’t flown too many Shuttles, so the
nation was still very much focused on the Shuttle flights. So everyone
that we approached for support—at the missile range, in the
Department of Army, Fort Bliss, wherever we needed to go, contractors
in El Paso—everyone responded very quickly. But fortunately,
as I indicated, Dave Homer was an individual who had had many years
of experience in handling all kinds of big, heavy equipment, and knew
how to get things done quickly. So we were fortunate to have him.
Sounds fortunate that you have so many deputies you could call on.
You were also involved in the phasing-out of the Ellington Air Force
Base procedures. Could you talk a little bit about that?
I was. The city of Houston, along with the Air Force, formed a committee
composed of representatives from the city of Houston, the business
communities, the Air Force, and NASA, and I became the NASA representative.
Since we were talking about facilities and real estate, it was logical
that I would be named as a member to that committee. That committee
functioned for eight years, and it was obvious from the beginning
that the facility would serve what appeared to most of us future needs
of the city of Houston quite well. But a complication developed in
the process of those eight years, where the city of Pasadena [Texas]
wanted some of the action, so, legitimately, we could not ignore their
request, but that did delay the real estate transaction substantially.
But eventually the resolution was that Pasadena agreed to accepting
110 acres on the north side of the Ellington Field property. That
included the old golf course, which was a nine-hole course at that
time, and additional acreage to make up the 110 acres. That land took
them up to where the Beltway 8 is currently, and that became part
of city of Pasadena. And upon reaching that agreement with them, at
least Pasadena and the mayor of Pasadena was comfortable with that.
Then that left the rest of the property then for the Air Force to
decide what’s the best interest of the government as well as
the community. They decided that the Air National Guard would stay,
and the 147th Air Guard Unit is still there, and the Coast Guard would
build new facilities and take an additional piece of property at the
north end of the flight line. And NASA would take the properties that
they were occupying at the south end of the flight line, plus Hangar
990, which we had acquired a few years earlier from the Air Force.
It was further up the flight line. That was sort of a thorn in [the]
side [of the Air Force] for a while, because the city of Houston really
would like to have had that facility.
But we had [some] large aircraft. Our zero-G aircraft [was] operating
from up there, as well as some U-2 aircraft at that time. We needed
a large hangar for the protection of those, and [servicing of] those
aircraft. Plus, there were about ten or twelve acres of land associated
with it, [which afforded us] reasonable ramp space for those large
NASA retained that piece of property, plus the two big hangars at
the south end of the facility. The city of Houston, then, took the
rest of the property. Of course, since that time, the Coast Guard
moved into nice new facilities, and the UPS [United Parcel Service]
has come in by NASA and has a nice flight support facility there.
Most of the old buildings across the property have been torn down,
and they were all early 1940s vintage barracks, and various [support]
At some point, Grumman had an office building [constructed], and it’s
the big black glass office building that exists there today. I don’t
know who uses that. Eventually Continental Airlines [Inc.] came in
and put their express terminal in the old [Air Force] flight operations
All of that sounds rather simple, but it took eight years. It was
very politically loaded. The politicians supporting the people in
Houston and in Pasadena were very sensitive about it. They wanted
to get as much as they could. And, of course, our NASA position was
very firm. We knew exactly what properties we needed to retain, so
that really was done rather smoothly.
There was a gentleman that headed that, by the name of Thompson, who
was a retired reserve Air Force general, and he was working in Houston
with a steel supply company. The reason he was selected, he knew everyone
in the city of Houston, plus he knew everyone in the Air Force, and
he knew many of the politicians. He did a good job on that, but it
was very slow, very deliberate action. The culmination was effective.
Everyone was satisfied when it was over, but it did take eight years.
I attended a lot of meetings in downtown Houston over those eight
years. But it was well that NASA did retain the properties that they
held there. It has served the agency extremely well.
You seemed to be involved in a number of negotiations. You also worked
with Harris County, negotiating an easement for a public road through
Oh, yes. Actually, we had two of those. The first one was the road
that today you know as Space Center Boulevard, which curves around
the north side of the Space Center. For NASA and JSC, it was primarily
a buffer zone back behind the thermochemical test area and behind
our logistics area. It was wooded, primarily, but we needed a traffic
pattern that connected NASA Road 1 from the vicinity out of the lake
back over toward University of Houston-[Clear Lake, Houston, Texas]
and that area.
NASA didn’t need it as such, even though it probably benefited
our employees to a great extent, but the county obviously they saw
a real need for this. So we did negotiate with them, and they incurred
all of the costs associated with it, all of the road construction,
the street construction, the drainage, all of the fencing on both
sides of the highway. We granted them some sixty-seven acres or so
of land, which was a narrow strip all the way around the north side
of the Space Center.
The Space Center was about 1,650 acres originally, so that little
piece of land was extracted as a right-of-way and granted to Harris
County. It has worked out extremely well. I still travel it occasionally
and take a look at it to see how it’s doing, and it has served
the area quite well. But the agency incurred no cost associated with
that, and I still believe it was the right thing to do.
Tell us how you were able to maintain the level of excellence at JSC
with diminishing budgets.
Well, you know, that is indeed an interesting question, and one that
[we] were faced with every year as budgets changed. Starting after
the Apollo Program, budgets tended to change every year and in a negative
direction, even though the Shuttle Program came along and maybe we
experienced some stabilization in budgeting there for a while in our
areas, particularly facilities support functions.
If you’re far enough away, like in a Headquarters budget position,
you don’t attach a premium value to [the facility] element of
the budget. You say, “Well, let’s cut that budget a little
more, let’s cut this a little more. That’s just support
We were experiencing that through the seventies and even into the
eighties. We found that [in] the era of the Apollo, we were determined
we were going to make this project a reality. During that time, budgeting,
resources, staffing were not critical concerns. So in many areas,
we did indeed have more resources than we probably really needed if
we exercised astute management and we looked at our functions critically.
And that’s really what we began to do during the seventies.
In fact, as an example, when I joined the Center Operations Directorate
in 1972, the grounds care function had thirty-five man-years associated
with it, [which] was organized labor, unionized labor, [resulting
in] hourly rates [which] were much elevated, relative to doing grounds
work over here in Clear Lake City [Texas]. We had thirty-five man-years
Just as an example, we trimmed that over a few years down to about
seventeen man-years, so about half. And I found that, in many other
functions, and, of course, naturally, a sensitive issue that you encounter
is, the people in your organization that you hold responsible for
a particular function, sometimes they find it very difficult and they’re
not willing to take a risk and try to do a function as well, but do
it with some significant less resource.
So that was always a continuing challenge and one you had to probe
and pursue with your managers. But with time, we were able to penetrate
most functional areas, whether it was the shop’s support services
contract or your printing contract or your construction services.
You always have a construction contractor on site to modify your office
or to modify a laboratory. But each one of those elemental functions,
as you start breaking them down, we found softness.
In fact, in a very short time, within the first couple of years I
was here, I persuaded our administrative people to change our style
of contracting from a huge umbrella contract, one contract that had
all of the functional elements underlying, into a number of independent
contracts. And we did that, and that was the significant reduction
that we were able to achieve.
As you broke it down, then, and put competition into each functional
element, it made a lot more administrative work for us in NASA, because
I had to appoint Source Evaluation Boards for each one of these contracts,
and those people weren’t excited about going out and doing all
of that [work]. But then when you opened that functional element up
for competition, lo and behold, some contractor decided that he sees
a way that he can do that job for 150 man-years instead of 200 man-years.
So we did that incrementally, across [the directorate].
That system prevailed up until the early nineties, and it may have
been changed to some extent after my retirement, but it meant that
I had to devote a lot of personal attention to each contract. I had
to know how it was operating. I had to know the managers and the key
people of each contract. My premise was that if you break it into
a smaller element, then we, NASA, had better visibility into it. We
could see how the work was being done; we could see how busy the people
were; we could see how many people were really required to do it;
we could better see the quality of how they were doing [the job].
There was a counterargument that said by introducing so many independent
contracts, freestanding contracts, that you are also introducing a
lot of administrative overhead. And there probably was some element
of truth to that, but the competition seemed to have [also minimized]
So that’s really how we made it through the late seventies and
through the eighties, because the budgets decreased tremendously during
that time. But a lot of NASA people did a lot of hard work as technical
managers of those contracts, and squeezing every bit of productivity
out of those contracts that they could. We had a lot of good contractors
who tried hard to do the job well and to do it at a good price. In
our incentive-based contracts—the fee structure is such that
contractors are often not incentivized to save money, so we had to
work very closely with them to help them understand how it was in
their best interest to perform the task at a certain cost level and
a certain level of manpower.
What do you say let’s take a little break.
Sure. That sounds good.
recorder turned off.]
You retired in 1993. Can you share with us why you decided to retire
at this point?
Well, yes. I had been in the same job essentially for twenty-one years,
since coming to Houston in 1972, because the Deputy Center Operations
Director was [generally] the same job as the Director of Center Operations.
And I’m sure when you interviewed Grady [E.] McCright, he probably
would have told you the same thing, because he was my deputy for a
good long while. … Our responsibilities were parallel and of
the same nature.
I had been in the job long enough, but I had thoroughly enjoyed it.
But I did find the last couple of years that I had done most things
many, many times before, and I thought, well, that must be a sign
that you’re approaching time for retirement. And I did have
about thirty-five years of government service, so I thought that’s
just about enough. And I was age sixty-three, and there were many,
many things in this world that I had not ever had an opportunity of
doing. My wife had retired the year before from teaching, and her
situation, of course, was the same, many things that she had never
really had an opportunity to do.
That last year that I worked, I formulated some plans about traveling
and all, that I would like to do, and we set about to do those after
I retired, and it has been a very fast ten years. In another month
it’ll be ten years. It has been exciting at times and just tremendously
rewarding, satisfying, and enjoyable. We have traveled extensively,
primarily in Europe, and traveled with groups of friends, most of
whom are NASA retirees of one type or another.
My grandchildren have been growing up during that period of ten years.
At this point I have two granddaughters who will soon be fourteen,
in another month, and two grandsons who are nine and twelve. So the
nine-year-old has grown up essentially during that time. I’ve
spent a lot of time with him. Two of them live in San Diego [California]
and two of them live in London [England]. So we’ve spent a lot
of time in England and a lot of time in France, Germany, Italy, Spain,
Portugal, and Scandinavian countries, and we’re continuing to
do that. Have one coming up in a month [to Belgium and Holland].
Sounds like fun.
It has been. My wife and I both realize that we’ve been very
fortunate, both retired, with reasonably good health, and in a position
to do those types of things. I would not do it differently, and I
do know that some people have found it very difficult to leave their
professional career. But it’s just a decision that we all have
to individually examine and see how that weighs out against the rest
of your life.
I had some people who worked for me who were so dedicated, and their
job was the principal part of their life—you’ve mentioned
one of them here this morning—that it was just not the right
time in their life to retire. And many of them are still there, and
that’s great. If that’s the fulfillment of their life,
well, that’s what they should be doing.
But on the other hand, I’ve known many NASA people who have
done similar to what I have done. In fact, I had an interesting experience
in Paris [France] one day. My wife and I went into La Samaritaine
for lunch, which is a big department store with a restaurant, and
walked in and met Chris [Christopher C.] Kraft and his wife having
What are the odds?
He had been in Paris two weeks at that time, and we had just come
from Scotland with our daughter, who lived in London, and back to
her place, and then from her place we’d gone into Paris. And
here’s Chris Kraft, finishing his lunch, smoking a cigar. [Laughter]
So we had a good visit.
But that’s kind of how our retirement has gone. Now, a lot of
people, some of the fellows I play golf with—by the way, we
do play golf—but some of the fellows work part-time. They work
twenty or thirty hours a week. But [while working] I found that I
had never had an opportunity to play golf. In fact, when I met Chris
Kraft in Paris, he said—he knew I’d been to Scotland—he
said, “Did you play golf?” Of course, the weather was
horrible in Scotland, so I didn’t, even though the Scottish
do play golf in terrible weather. He enjoys playing golf, and I’m
sure he has enjoyed his retirement very much.
I would hope so.
I always encourage people to seriously consider retirement when they
reach that point in their life, because mine has been very fulfilling,
very rewarding. Very pleased. Did it at the right time. And also I
felt like as I left, I left it in very good hands. Could not have
had a more capable replacement than Grady McCright. If you track his
career, you can see how well he has done, everywhere he has been.
In fact, I hired him out of college.
So, anything else?
I have two questions for you.
What do you think has been your most challenging milestone in your
career at NASA?
Well, due to the nature of my work, I had such a diverse workforce,
doing so many different things, that it required so many different
types of people, that probably team-building, team-reinforcing, developing
the spirit of teamsmanship and personal commitment on the part of
the employees to their unit, to their functions was probably the most
Of course, we had a lot of challenging budget requirements through
the years. We spoke of that earlier. But, really, molding teams of
people together, molding people into teams, and then teams into teams—in
fact, I think that’s one of the things [at which] NASA has excelled.
But in my case, in a very general support services function like I
had, you just dealt with so many different types of contractors, types
of government employees, and you had to have all of those working
together, working smoothly together, knowing each other, and having
common objectives, and accomplishing those objectives, and then taking
satisfaction from having been a part of a team and having accomplished
I certainly was no strong technical person, so I never really participated
in any of the fantastic technological accomplishments that NASA has
made and is still making today. But the organizational functioning
support, supporting those people who were doing a lot of those unbelievable
technical things was very rewarding for all of us and for the teams
that we had in Center operations.
What do you think was your most significant accomplishment while working
Well, I’d have to say it’s probably essentially the same
thing, [that] is building [and] keeping together a strong, well-blended
organization that supported what the Center needed to have done, and
doing that effectively and efficiently, and doing that at the best
cost levels. [A major accomplishment was assuring] satisfied customers
over in the technical and operations world, the Flight Operations
people, the Engineering Division people as they were developing systems,
and all the things that we had to do for them.
That would be the most significant thing, and [I] was delighted to
be a part of the NASA team doing that, just contributing in that way,
being sure that we were all successful and it was done well. So that’s
how I felt about it when I first went there and that was the way I
felt about it the day I left.
Well, great. Do you have any more items you’d like to share
with us? We’re getting close to the time that you would like
No, I think we’ve just about covered the whole thing. I appreciate
the way you did the interview.
Great. Well, we enjoyed hearing about your career.
Well, thank you.