NASA STS Recordation
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Alex McCool, Jr.
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Huntsville, Alabama – 11 May 2011
Today is May 11, 2011. This interview is being conducted with Alex
McCool, [Jr.] in Huntsville, Alabama, as part of the NASA STS Recordation
Oral History Project. Interviewer is Rebecca Wright, assisted by Jennifer
I want to thank you so much for letting us come into your home this
morning and talk with you. We know you began as early as 1954 working
with Wernher von Braun during those early days of the Redstone ballistic
missile development, and you worked through the Apollo era focusing
on propulsion, and into the [Space] Shuttle Program. There you served
as Director of the Structures and Propulsion Laboratory at [NASA]
Marshall Space Flight Center [Huntsville, Alabama, MSFC]. You led
the engineering design of the Shuttle’s propulsion elements,
and we want to talk to you about that today. We’d like for you
to share with us some of those challenges that you experienced during
those first days as you and your team members and your colleagues
throughout the agency and throughout the Center were trying to formulate
what the requirements were going to be for the propulsion system for
In 1970 they formed a task team here to do the Phase B studies. That
was done in conjunction with JSC [NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston,
Texas] and KSC [NASA Kennedy Space Center, Florida] in those days,
[NASA] Headquarters [Washington, DC], of course, was involved, but
we had contracts. JSC’s principal contractors at that time was
North American Rockwell and also General Dynamics. Our contractor
was McDonnell [Douglas] and Martin [Marietta Corporation]. We had
two competing contracts to look at the configuration, the different
systems that came out of Phase A studies.
I spent two years, 1970 to ’72, on the task team. They put together
a team of folks, and we had a manager. Your [JSC’s] manager
was Bob [Robert F.] Thompson, and that’s the reason today they
call J.R. [James R. Thompson] “J.R.” instead of “Bob”
Thompson. I still call him Bob Thompson, because eventually he got
into Shuttle, and that’s another story that we can talk about
later. But we worked a lot, and very close.
We had the Air Force working very closely with us also in those days,
because they had certain requirements in terms of what payloads they
wanted to fly, a lot of concern with cross range for landing, emergency,
etc. A lot of that work was going on. We had meetings after meetings
back and forth. The contracts were a lot of work; a lot of engineering
work was going on. There were many, many configurations that came
out of those studies. The name “Space Shuttle” came out
even before Phase A. Max Akridge came up with that. It was his idea
in pre-Phase A to call it Space Shuttle, so I’d like it to be
part of the record.
We worked on all these various configurations, and we had engineering
groups that worked with various engineering organizations within Marshall
and worked very close with the contractors, and we would exchange
ideas back and forth with our JSC friends and their contractors. There
was a lot of that going on. It was intense, meetings after meetings,
presentations, cost studies, you name it. That went on for some two
At that time we had what we call a flyback booster. It was going to
be another big orbiter, but the [Shuttle] Orbiter sat on top of it.
I don’t have that model, by the way. There’s a lot of
them available. We went through all the studies on that thing, and
it was going to really be a headache. I remember talking to Max [Maxime
A.] Faget, somebody concerned with jet engines, how do you protect
them coming back in during reentry. But, the bottom line is, we finally
went away from that about 1972 and went to solid rocket boosters [SRBs].
It was a lot simpler and cost-wise probably a lot cheaper. You didn’t
need to have a crew like we would have on a flyback booster, including
the Orbiter. There was a lot of trades that were done that said, “We
ought to go to solid rocket boosters.” Now, there had been some
studies going on, and you’re going to find out more about that
talking to guys like Gerald [W.] Smith and J.R. Thompson about the
different contractors. There were many contractors that could build
solid rocket motors.
The background to that, and I need to just mention this, the Air Force
had a program called the Titan in those days, and they had a contract
with United Technologies, Chemical Systems Division. They’re
in San Jose, California. They built the Titan rocket, solid rocket
motor, and that motor’s 10 feet in diameter and wasn’t
near as big as what we needed. We needed to go 12 feet for us to get
the performance in what we wanted to do. Their mission was more or
less strap-ons to a large tank that they used for high performance,
and of course they used it for missiles. Their background, just like
Thiokol, came out of the Air Force program. Thiokol had a lot of experience
with Minuteman [rockets], etc., so there was a lot of history with
solid rocket motors.
In those days, the Germans that came over were always thinking liquid
propellants, which are what we have with Shuttle; in other words,
the external tank and the SSME, Space Shuttle main engine. They called
them powder rockets in the old days, because they would use them on
mortars or bombs, so they didn’t particularly like the idea
of that. One of the bad features about them is you can’t shut
them down. With a liquid propulsion engine, you could shut it down
and continue to fly. With a solid rocket motor, the way you shut it
down, you’ve got to have some kind of explosive device in the
forward end of it to blow it out and neutralize the thrust. That is
not easy. In other words, it’s complex.
The other thing you like to be able to do is tailor the thrust when
you’re going uphill, which eventually we did with the solid
rocket motors for Shuttle. What you’re concerned about is going
through maximum dynamic conditions—or what we call max Q—forces;
if you can throttle it to get it back down like we do on Space Shuttle
main engine during ascent. You could tailor some of that with a solid
rocket motor the way you shape the forward segment, which we have
what we call a star. The burn rate and the burning area is different
up in that area, and it tailored the thrust going uphill to reduce
the loads. We throttle down on Space Shuttle main engine, and throttle
back up once we get through maximum dynamic pressure, and that’s
to alleviate the structural loads and concern on the vehicle, particularly
The solid rocket motor, coming back to about 1972, it looked like
that’s what we ought to do. We hadn’t done a lot of work
at that time. We did do a lot of work on Space Shuttle main engine.
That started way back in the late sixties, after we’d completed
Apollo and had worked on the F-1 engine and also the J-2 engine. Our
experience was real good coming from Saturn, using cryogenics. For
example, liquid hydrogen as a fuel, liquid oxygen for the oxidizer.
Rocketry 101—I’m going to tell you, and I always do this
with young people. In your car, you use gasoline or diesel fuel and
air. In the old days you’d mix it in a carburetor, and you’d
have a pump to put the gasoline into your cylinder, and you would
ignite it with a spark plug. So we had to have a fuel and an oxidizer.
We’re going up out of the atmosphere. The Germans always pioneered
liquid oxygen, liquid oxygen minus-297 Fahrenheit. If you go to liquid
hydrogen, you’re talking about minus-421. So cryogenics created
a lot of problems.
As you know today, at four-dollar a gallon gasoline, you want to get
more miles per gallon, and we call that specific impulse, the thrust
divided by the mass flow. The higher the specific impulse, the more
performance we get. In other words, going with liquid hydrogen, over,
for example, kerosene, we get at least 35-40 percent increase in performance.
Therefore, we want to stay with liquid hydrogen.
We’d had a lot of experience on the second stage and the third
stage of Saturn, a lot of experience there, and we knew what some
of the problems were, which we could incorporate with Space Shuttle
main engine, and then the same thing with the external tank that was
going to carry the propellants. I use the word “propellant”
in the case where we’re saying gasoline and the air and so forth,
because we use, in Space Shuttle main engines, liquid hydrogen, liquid
oxygen, which gives us high performance, no question.
The Space Shuttle main engine, today, is the most reliable engine
and the most experienced engine and the best engine that anybody on
this planet ever built. We’ve got over a million seconds of
test time, including the flights. That was back in 2004. J.R. will
tell you about it. J.R. was our manager on the engine, and I probably
ought to get to that in a little bit when I start talking about the
engine, because we had problems in early years on development of the
engine. This is in the early seventies, and we had a lot of problems.
We were blowing up the liquid oxygen pumps. Rocketdyne was our contractor,
which was part of North American Aviation. Same thing, they built
the J-2 engine and the F-1 engines for Saturn, good contractor, excellent
They built a facility up in Santa Susana. That’s in the San
Fernando Valley [California]. That’s where they used to make
westerns in the early days. Now it’s all populated. They had
a test site up there, and they were designing it to build this facility
to test pumps. The pumps have pressures of six and seven thousand
pounds per square inch. This was a new thing. They had to build a
lot of propellant lines, because they had high pressure systems to
carry the propellants. They had to weld those lines and had lots of
problems in doing it. In fact, a company in Texas was doing a lot
of the welding for Rocketdyne in those days.
They had a big fire up there, and eventually cost overruns and it
was really a mess. We didn’t get through a lot of testing, and
it was thought the best thing was to just test the pumps on the engine,
which we would do eventually anyway. So we used the engine as a test
The MSFC Center Director got upset with the manager with NASA and
the manager of Rocketdyne, and fired both of them. In 1974, we were
going through a reorganization and that’s when I was going to
be in charge of Structure and Propulsion. J.R. Thompson, worked with
us in the lab in Propulsion in those days. I had laid out four divisions,
and he was going to be division chief for Propulsion. His deputy was
Joe [Joseph] Lombardo. Joe was an MIT [Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts] graduate, finally ended up at
Thiokol after his NASA retirement. He came here with the Army and
came to work with us. Crackerjack Engineer. He was the deputy. I organized
three other divisions, but J.R. was going to be my division chief.
The Center Director said he was going to put him as manager of the
Space Shuttle main engine, so he was pulled out to do that job. I
was glad he could do it and was going to be able to get that challenge,
because I’d been involved in propulsion, and, of course, he
had too, but he’d been on some other things there, like crew
systems interface during Skylab. But, he goes over to take over the
engine. We moved Joe Lombardo in as a division chief.
The key is they made a change at Rocketdyne, a fellow named Dominic
[J.] Sanchini. He was a lawyer, but also an engineer, and went to
Southern Cal [University of Southern California, Los Angeles]. J.R.
went to Georgia Tech [Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia] and
the University of Alabama [Tuscaloosa]. Where I’m coming to
in this was leadership. We got the right kind of leadership, both
from the contractor and from the NASA side, and they’re the
only ones to this day, I believe that could have pulled this off on
the Space Shuttle main engine. For everything that we have at Marshall—I
don’t know a whole lot about the Orbiter, but it was probably
not any more complex. I’m going to show you some ball bearings
and a few other things from the engine and what that engine had to
do. It was a complete new design, and it was far higher performance
than what we did previously with the J-2. Without getting too much
in detail on that, I’m trying to give credit to J.R. and Sanchini
for their leadership.
Then we had leadership in the contractors at the lower level, engineering
and so forth, which NASA had also. And involved in all of that, we
always had people from JSC and the crew system that would interface
and work with us and participate with us, decisions and all the testing.
So we kept this testing going on.
In the meantime, we started looking with JSC at what we call the Main
Propulsion Test Article, MPTA. This is the flight configuration. If
you think about what the Orbiter looks like, think about the propulsion
system that goes with it, the feed lines, the pressurization, the
tanks, the engine, the manifold, how you fill and drain. That was
built and that was tested at our test facility, which is called [NASA]
Stennis [Space Center, Mississippi] today. That was a separate test
stand, a separate program. JSC participated in it. All this was headed
up by Bob [Robert E.] Lindstrom.
He was our first manager when we got into getting the hardware, Bob
Lindstrom. In fact, he was J.R.’s boss. His JSC counterpart
at that time was Bob Thompson, and the two guys hit it off good. In
fact, Bob still calls him to this day asking about his health. One
of your questions was how long have we been working together? Well,
it started because of these two guys; the two Bobs got their heads
together. It’s the leadership they had.
Of course, Bob Lindstrom probably told you he had managers for each
of the elements, and likewise eventually I had managers when I was
in Shuttle. And Gerald Smith ended up being one of the managers. George
Hardy was another one. I don’t know if he mentioned that to
you. There were several of them. There were some military retirees
that we had here also working with them, but Bob built a good organization.
They had some tough times out at Canoga Park in California. In fact,
J.R. had an office out there. I spent three months out there. J.R.
would come out from time to time, and his office was right next to
Sanchini’s, and we’d come out. I had a team out there.
We were trying to get the liquid oxygen pump developed. We’d
had all kinds of problems on that, and I had a team with my thermal,
stress, hydrodynamics, you name it, and we spent a lot of time there
in the plant.
Every afternoon at five o’clock, we’d go in Sanchini’s
office and get the entire team around the table. J.R. was in there
one time. Now, just to show you how it was, one of the engineers had
an almond farm and he’d bring almonds in. He’d roast them
and bring them in. It was the biggest mess. We’d sit there and
peel these things and eat almonds. Then they’d get in some deep
technical discussions, and some real knock-downs. This was healthy
for the program for discussing issues and coming to consensus.
Rocketdyne had a chief engineer by the name of Matt [Matthew C.] Ek,
a big tall guy, about six-four. He’d be in there representing
all the engineering, and J.R. and Sanchini would get into it. Then
sometimes Sanchini would get into it with engineering, and they’d
start cussing. I was in the Navy, I spent four years, and I know every
cussword there is, and I’m not proud of that, but they’d
get into it and I’d see these guys almost come to fists. And
J.R. and Sanchini would get into it. And guess what? That night, right
next door to the motel on Ventura Boulevard, here’s Sanchini
and J.R. eating pizza, drinking beer, like nothing happened, just
But I remember that one time going down the hall, Matt Ek put his
hand on my shoulder. He said, “Mac, you know, I’m sorry
you had to put up with all of this carrying-on, cussing and discussions.
You’re out here trying to help us.” I never will forget
he put his hand on my shoulder. It didn’t faze me, but he apologized
for all this goings-on. What I’m saying is we had an intimate
relationship with our contractor and with each other, and you could
say what you want and sometimes people maybe had to out-shout the
other guy. It was something else, but it worked good, and the leadership
was like that.
It was like that all the way to my last days on Shuttle. All these
guys that I worked with in the program always encouraged that. We
had a lot of good people. We’d have off sites [meetings] from
time to time. Wherever it was, we had lots of them. In fact, [Ronald
D.] Dittemore, the program manager, liked to play golf. We’d
go to these places. I didn’t play golf, but I’d enjoy
watching it. I’d take my wife a lot of times. It was team building,
so I spent a lot of time at this higher level of leadership and people
and how it’s made with folks.
I think a lot of it comes, really, from Von Braun and our days on
the Saturn. He was a hands-on guy. He’d come around and you
would see the leaders that way. They were all that way, hands-on people,
and they’d always walk around, see what the people, the working
troops were doing. They’d go to the shops. Von Braun would come
in and look on the drawing board. We had in those days a big drawing
board he’d want to look at. “Why don’t you do it
this way or do it that way?” And they’d say, “Yes,
Dr. Von Braun,” and they’d do it their own way after he
I’d go to Rocketdyne a lot of time with Von Braun. They’d
say, “Wernher, you think we ought to do it this way or this
way?” They’d want to know his input on some new concept
or something, get his idea. He was a good engineer.
But he had good leaders. He called it his board of directors of leadership,
and they would have these knockdowns in our conference room right
here in the tenth floor conference room, and they’d get into
some things. I saw him one time—I don’t know what kind
of cigarettes, a carton, a little box, he threw that thing across
the table at one of the other Germans and hit him. Didn’t hurt
him, but, they’d get into it. He had that way, and we learned
from that, the leadership. Getting good people around you, that was
the reason they picked J.R., picked Gerald Smith and all those guys.
In fact, we all worked together, all in the same place for a long
time, and we learned from each other.
Give somebody a task, give them the tools and whatever he needed or
she needed, and leave them alone, let them go do it. Let them stub
their toe. Let them screw up. When they do a good job, reward them.
So I think leadership, we’ve learned that from them. Shuttle
was that way, especially my early days on Shuttle, I saw that. Especially
with Bob Thompson from JSC, excellent leader, and then all the other
guys, Arnie [Arnold D.] Aldrich and the guys that I worked with over
the years, excellent people.
Those early years, at least in Apollo, we had some “hotdogs”
in the program. I don’t mean just some of the astronauts, but
from our own people. “Look at me.” When we got into Shuttle,
you didn’t have any of that. We got away from all the “hotdogs”
being number one, and trying to be in the forefront, and I think that’s
Now, that’s talking about the people. What I’ve seen,
too, is more and more once I got into Shuttle and when I came over
there and took over—I wasn’t the first guy. Bob Lindstrom
was the first guy that organized it, and there was two or three before
me, [Gene] Porter Bridwell, Bob Marshall. They had a lot of gals working,
particularly in the business world. But we had duties, program operating
plans. Now, I’m not exaggerating. Those gals would put together
notebooks that were several inches thick doing the cost and projection
for the fiscal year to put it all together. Now, I can’t think
of Jim’s last name. He was the cost guy that worked for Dittemore.
We would work with him. They would come up, and he would help us.
Each one of our projects had a business office.
I probably ought to stop right there and tell you how we were organized
in the project. I had a deputy, and then each project was autonomous.
I had four projects: external tank, solid rocket booster, solid rocket
motor, Space Shuttle main engine. It’s an outgrowth of what
Lindstrom had, it came down that way, and each project had its own
chief engineer. Each project had its own business office. Then they
had their own staff to help them. In other words, chief engineer has
a group, the guys who work in turbo machinery, guys that work combustion,
working nozzles, somebody works with getting all the hardware systems
In addition, each project had its own resident office, wherever it
is. For example, Martin Marietta was in New Orleans [Louisiana]. We
had a resident office there, full-time, that reported back to the
tank manager. Same thing at Rocketdyne; we had a resident office in
Canoga Park. In addition, we had a resident office in Stennis to work
with our contractor down there, plus the NASA people. And it’s
the same thing on the other projects. The SRB finally moved from here
[Huntsville] to KSC, and we had a project office down there. In addition,
we had another project office that reported to me, that supported
everything else going on down there beside SRB. ETs [external tanks]
in New Orleans, SSME in Canoga Park, Thiokol out in Ogden, Utah, Wasatch,
we had a team out there. Each one was autonomous.
When I talk about the program operating plan, when I first went, four
of them were managed by women, and I’d go to Washington with
these folks, and, I’m telling you, they’d go toe-to-toe
with those people up there in defending their budget, and what they
needed. They had spent weeks and weeks and weeks on that plan, and
they knew it better than anybody. I was really proud of them. My background
had been more in engineering rather than all the cost and business
aspects, so I depended heavily on them. I did have a business guy
on my staff that worked with me, but I was really impressed with the
way the women could do these things. I had one gal on the tank, she
had a Ph.D. working for her, and he came over from the Army. I think
he’s still working on the tank.
I think today, when I look back and I see, I think the lord made women
stronger than men. I know you appreciate that, but look at it from
another way. I think women can do things that men can’t do.
Well, for sure, bearing babies and all that. That’s part of
it, but I think it’s another thing, that women are far, far
better equipped. When you think about it, you go in where they’re
doing PC [personal computer] boards in some of these factories, it’s
women everywhere. Why? Because they’re good at details. My mother
used to knit. She got so bad with arthritis she had to quit, but women
can do things like that, and they’re good at it. I think it’s
the same thing in business aspects.
When I say they’re stronger, I mean spiritually, mentally, almost
physically. I don’t mean I can’t pick up as much as you,
or you can’t pick up as much as me. I’m talking about
how many do you know, the husband’s left, she’s got one
or two kids, but she’s able to raise those kids and live through
life. Think about how many men have had to do that. Probably ten or
twenty women compared to one man. So women can do things, I think,
and I’ve learned that. I’ve learned that about the women,
and I learned a lot, I guess, when I was in engineering.
Jan Davis, I don’t know if you know Jan Davis, our astronaut.
She worked in stress in my lab. In fact, I hired her, and actually
I helped her get into flying and scuba diving and getting her doctorate
to get into the Astronaut Corps. I was glad for her. When I see that,
and I see how good she’s done, and I get a blessing out of it.
I really enjoy seeing how young people learn from their professional
experience and how you’ve helped them develop, and I guess that’s
been my best thing I’ve enjoyed the most. I’ve been there,
done that, I’m not looking for this, or any more things. I could
take you upstairs and show you my study; all the walls are covered.
I’ve been there, done that, but where I really get my jollies
is when I see somebody do a good job.
And that’s the way it used to be when we’d go to Washington
for the business review. Our gals, they’d get up there and they’d
present, and they’d spend hours. We spent hours up there.
A guy from Headquarters got into it with one of our managers, Cary
[H.] Rutland. He was a solid rocket booster guy. It almost got personal,
and then they finally ended up apologizing to each other. Some of
these things can get out of hand, but the gals seem to be always cool,
not like the guys. I’ve never seen any of the gals lose their
cool and just go toe-to-toe, because they’d done their homework,
smooth. I think it helped us, too, with the program. They’d
go back to the program, they’d get support. I don’t know.
I think we men, we’re just puppy dogs around the gals, I guess,
we want to help them, and they could do things.
We had cost problems, no question, but they were able to get through
that working with the program. The program was, of course, JSC after
it was moved back to Houston from Washington, and they always were
able to work and get what we wanted. We were always well off there
and worked together because of the team. I don’t ever remember
interviewing or having to go to [Tommy W.] Holloway or Brewster [H.]
Shaw or one of those guys for something in terms of business or cost,
because they had done their homework and worked it out at a lower
level, which is probably good. They had more important headaches to
worry about, rather than me talking to them about that.
Then we get into the technical and start doing a lot of development.
First, it was solid rocket motor, a lot of testing going on out there
at Utah, full-scale tests. We didn’t do much here in terms of
testing until later, and it’s the same thing as on the pumps.
We didn’t do much here other than components.
You asked the question about testing, so let me touch on that, because
I think that’s important. If you look at the German team, that’s
what they really emphasize, and they brought that to us to this country.
Testing was important, most important, because there’s only
so much—now, you’ve got to think, back in those days,
the same way in our early days in Saturn, we didn’t have all
the nice computers we have today, high speed. We didn’t even
have these little handheld things. In fact, we used slide rules in
the early days on Saturn and graduated to Marchant mechanical calculators
and Fridens and eventually got the IBMs. Besides that, we didn’t
have the tools, the analytical tools that we have today, so you can
only do so much when you calculate or do predictions.
For example, I know in the early years on the tank, the tank was designed
for around 76,000 pounds, I believe it was, but we used a safety factor
of 1.4 to be sure, thinking you’d know all of what you had predicted
on the loads, etc. Then we went back and said, “We need more
performance,” so they were able to go back and look at a lot
of areas for well-defined loads, and they could reduce the safety
factor in those areas to 1.25, which saved weight. Every pound of
weight on the tank is another pound they get for the payload. That
was done in the early days, and that was what they called the lightweight
tank [66,800 pounds].
Eventually, we went for the high inclination for the Russians going
to the Space Station, which is 51 degrees. We needed more performance,
so they started looking at what we call a super lightweight tank,
which used aluminum lithium, much lighter weight and higher strength,
and was able to save some more weight, which is what we fly today,
aluminum lithium [58,500 pounds]. Now, for a while we had headaches.
They, in fact, almost lost the recipe for making this stuff, Reynolds
aluminum, and they had to go back through our materials people and
with the contractor, and finally worked that out, and that’s
helped. We didn’t have a lot of the tools in those days, but
we wanted to test.
You’d test on a component. For example, you build a valve. You’d
like to know how that valve works. You test it in water, but if it’s
in cryogenics, you’ve got to put it in cryogenics, not just
liquid oxygen. Most of the time they use liquid nitrogen, which is
minus-300-something, but you like to test in liquid hydrogen if you
can, because we got burned in Saturn on one of the missions.
This is before we flew Apollo 8, we learned this. I think it was Apollo
6. It was unmanned, one of the first Apollo missions, first stage,
and we were going uphill. We had longitudinal oscillations; we called
it pogo. We were able to identify what it was and we had discussions
and we were able to replicate that. Then in a full-scale test, we
had pre-valves very similar to what we have on the Shuttle, we had
a cavity there, and we could put gas and gas pocket to attenuate or
dampen that oscillation, and was able to prove that in Mississippi
tests on a hot firing. So we convinced ourselves that’s okay.
Second stage, we had an inadvertent shutdown on an engine. This was
before Apollo 8. So we start doing some testing, had a lot of measurements
of instrumentation, and bottom line, what finally happened was a flex
line, it’s a bellows line, and it was oscillating. It was oscillating
in flight. When you go up in flight, there’s no ice buildup
like you’d had when you’re testing on the ground. Liquid
nitrogen builds up from the air on the outside of the line and that
attenuates or dampened the flow and that line failed. A hydrogen line
that failed spewed liquid hydrogen. The engine shut down going uphill.
To finish that story on second stage, the pre-valves were crisscrossed
inadvertently and it shut another engine down also, so two engines
The third stage, which had one engine, went into parking orbit, shut
down, tried to restart, and it failed. The line had no dampening because
of the ice buildup. We proved that here in a vacuum chamber, testing.
We didn’t know that at that time, in terms of testing, but we
were able to test that and predict that’s going to happen. We
found a way to first replicate it and find a redesign to preclude
Before we leave that, Apollo 8 was coming up. George [M.] Low decided,
“Hey, the Russians are getting close. Maybe we ought to go circumlunar.”
They had a come-to-Jesus party out here. Donald [W.] Douglas was there,
and the only time I ever saw this guy. Von Braun was there. I was
present there in that meeting. All the leaders, [Robert R.] Gilruth,
all of them were here, George [E.] Mueller and his whole team, Sam
[Samuel C.] Phillips, and they were here to discuss our problems and
were we ready to go fly Apollo 8. We went through all the stuff in
terms of understanding the problem, how we fixed the problem, how
we replicate it, and how we proved that the new design was okay. They
all signed up to it, and that’s how we flew Apollo 8. They made
the decision. Of course, that was 1968.
But, people don’t realize today that Apollo 8 was critical for
Apollo 11, when you think about it, but it gets back to testing, and
there’s only so much you can test on the ground. When you’re
going uphill, there’s a lot of the aerodynamics—you say
wind tunnel, but some of that you can’t test. You do the best
you can, but testing is very important. You do it at the component
level, you do at the subsystem level, you do it at the system level.
Now, some you can’t do, then you instrument it when you’re
flying, so you get some learning. That’s why we put in cameras,
to fly and look at thermal protection coming off.
Testing is very important, and we learned that from the Germans. That
was their philosophy and their theory, always test, test the way you
fly if you can. Again, there’s some things that we just can’t
test till you fly, but then you try to cover, in terms of safety factor
or redundancy or putting in systems to preclude any kind of bad failure.
The thermal protection system, that was [Space Shuttle] Columbia [STS-107
accident], you had that problem. Now, we tested in wind tunnels, lots
of times, things that we did at Tullahoma [Tennessee]. So testing’s
important, very important.
I think another thing, too, that maybe I went over too fast, when
we got into Shuttle we had a lot of new analytical programs that we
were able to share with JSC and our contractors, ourselves, in terms
of design. They came up with a lot of what we call finite element
modeling, doing two-dimension and three-dimensional analysis on structures.
Since I’ve left there, they’ve come up with, in terms
of fluid dynamics, computation fluid dynamics [CFD].
NACA [National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics], the precursor
of NASA, did a lot of those research things in the early days, and
so we have those tools today. In fact, here in Huntsville, we have
several companies that do CFD analysis for companies they started.
Some of the guys that worked for NASA went off and started their companies.
But we have a lot of new tools, analytical tools, that we didn’t
have in early years for sure, in Saturn, Apollo, even Gemini, or in
early days on Shuttle. What you did is try to provide enough safety
factors, and provide enough redundancy.
When I went to safety and mission assurance, J.R. was our Center Director,
and that was in September 1986. We didn’t have a good safety
organization in those days. In fact, the safety guy had retired, and
we didn’t even have a safety officer at the Center, and I was
ready for a change to get out of engineering. I’d been there,
I think, 12 years, had been looking for a change, and I could see
the need. So he said, yes, he wanted me to. We got two or three people
that could help me, somebody that’d worked more in the avionics
and electrical field. I had a quality guy that had been there before,
and then some other folks, but then they were able to help me.
The first thing I do, I get on the phone talking to my JSC buddy.
I need a crew rep [representative]. Mr. Charlie [F.] Bolden [current
NASA Administrator] was my man. He was my crew rep in those days,
and I really appreciate that Charlie was able to help us on some things.
We got into a lot of risk-assessment stuff, and then—who’s
Code Q now?
Bryan [D.] O’Connor?
I think they’ve changed the names, but he is the Chief of Safety
and Mission Assurance [S&MA].
Before that George [A.] Rodney was [Associate Administrator for Safety,
Reliability and Quality Assurance]. He’s an old pilot himself,
and he’d tell me the story about when he worked at Martin years
ago, when engineering would say, “Hey, it’s ready to go
fly,” and he’d say, “Okay, come on, get in.”
He was the test pilot, but he wanted the engineer sitting in there
with him. He was Code Q during my days when I was in S&MA. His
deputy was from MSFC, Jim [James H.] Ehl. He’s still here. I
still see him from time to time out at the gym. He went to Headquarters
and then came back, in fact, he took my place when I left S&MA.
Jim Ehl, a good, solid guy.
He helped us put in what we called risk management, and a lot of analysis
went into looking at failure effects and how you manage these things,
and do you have enough redundancy. This was after [Space Shuttle]
Challenger [STS 51-L accident]; a lot of emphasis on safety, reviews
after reviews after reviews, checks and balances. We tried to do that
here at Marshall, reinvigorate what our safety and mission assurance
was, put in a lot of this risk-assessment stuff, put in things like
we did at Thiokol, what we called fingerprinting. They had a system
for their materials. All their receiving would come in, now what does
that equipment look like? What is it you buy? They used a lot of epoxies
and a lot of material things. How do you know that’s the right
stuff? What is the shelf life? When the materials would come in, they
had a database and they put a lot of procedures in place, things to
make sure that you know what you got and what you’re using.
The same thing when you get ready to use it, if the guy on the floor
has got to have quality there, and the shelf life on this material
that he’s using.
Now, was this quite a bit different from what you prepared for STS-1,
the things that you’re talking about?
Yes, this was all after Challenger, a lot of other things that we
put in place. There was a lot of reviews, too, and we’d have
some knockdowns in engineering. They’d say, “Here comes
the quality guy. Look out.” I tried to get our folks to understand,
“Look,” I said, “we want you to be a part of the
team and not going around playing ‘Gotcha’. You’re
not doing that. Tell them what it is when you find it and see what
you can do to make it better in the process.” It all boils down
to processes and with people, people trusting each other. In other
words, teamwork. This is at the floor level, not going around playing
“Gotcha.” And they had a little of that type of thinking,
some of the quality people in the early years. A lot of that changed
We had had a flight in early January , and there was some kind
of payload on there. I don’t even know what it was. They landed
at Edwards [Air Force Base, California], and they brought it back,
and it was at the Cape [Canaveral, Florida]. They said, “Hey,
McCool, we want a senior guy. You pull together a team and go down
there, look at this hardware and figure out where it was.” They
were always setting up teams to do stuff like that.
We fly down on our little King Air the day before they were supposed
to fly Challenger. We go to the O&C [Operations and Checkout Building]
and there’s the hardware. We look at it, get a plan, start figuring
out what we’re going to do and work with the KSC guys. Whoever
the payload manager was at that time, met us down there to see what
we were going to do.
The next day is the Challenger launch. I was not involved in the discussion
prior to launch. Of course, it’s January 28, 1986. They have
some boxcars across from the LCC [Launch Control Center], and I go
over there to stand up on the boxcars, and I have some binoculars,
and I’m going to watch the launch. That’s where I was
for Challenger. I looked—Rebecca, I’m getting goose bumps.
Really, I cannot believe. I thought a LOX pump, liquid oxygen pump,
had blown up, because I’d seen them happen just like that. It
happens instantaneous and it wipes out everything. Man, it’s
kind of weird thinking about that, but when I saw it, that’s
really what I thought had happened. Next thing I see, I see the motors
doing something like that, crossing [demonstrates].
Well, everybody’s in shock and we go back and we meet in the
LCC, all of us over there, the leadership. I go over there, and everybody’s
in the room, and I think it was midnight before we got away from there
to come back home. Everybody’s thinking that it was the engine
that had blown up. In fact, the guy that was the manager on the tank,
he worked for Lindstrom, he wanted to buy drinks on the plane for
the engine guys when we were coming back. I came back with them. We
had the system set up with the contingency teams to investigate the
The next morning, my team—I was the inertial upper-stage [IUS]
team. That’s the Air Force, and we had two solid rocket motors
with a payload in there, and it was a TDRSS [tracking and data relay
satellite system]. I was the team leader, and I had to get all the
team together, plus the Air Force, plus their contractor, Aerospace,
all of them had come in, because we thought maybe one of those motors
blew up. We had two solid rocket motors in the payload bay, and we
had to exonerate those. We did that in about five days. The guys came
and we worked around the clock to get them, and we settled that.
February 9, [Robert L.] Crippen called. He was down at KSC and in
that area, and they wanted to set up a team to work with the Navy,
identifying the hardware. The Navy was already out there doing bottom
searches. I get on the plane, go back down there to the Cape and plan
to stay. I had, I guess, five, six people I took with me.
We didn’t get involved in anything with the Orbiter. They recovered
the engines. We went over and looked at them, but we started working
with the Navy. They set up shop on the Air Force side. I can’t
remember the Navy Captain’s name, but he was the superintendent
of salvage. I really looked up to him. He was tough as nails, and
he knew what he was doing. He had a contractor. In fact, the contractor
works in Houston [Steadfast Engineering].
The ships were already out there doing side scan sonar, back and forth,
and they would take these traces and they’d send them in by
courier, and their contractor could look on there and identify certain
things. They had the USS Hyman G. Rickover nuclear research sub [submarine],
118 feet long, and it had cameras. He could stay under water for two
weeks. We had another one called a Johnson Sea Link [submersible]
out of Fort Pierce, Florida. That’s Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical.
They do hydrographic research studies; very good, excellent cameras,
just like a helicopter bubble, and it carries a crew of three. One
of my guys would go with them, and they’d identify a certain
area where a piece of something, the solid rocket motor is. Remember,
they blew it up. It was all fragmented from the range safety system,
and here we’re trying to find the hardware that caused the problem.
They would see something and they’d send the ship down, and
he had underwater photography. Then they’d send these images
in. We had about six TVs up there to review, and I had my people sitting
there to identify what you could see. Another thing we were concerned
about was hazards, because we had hypergolic fuel in the aft skirt,
and we had range safety [explosives], so you had to tell them if there
was anything safety-wise for them. We’d try to identify [debris].
I’d say, “What about this? What about that? Do we want
that?” They started picking up [debris] for us. I guess we were
doing that maybe at the end of February.
I get a call seven o’clock in the morning from KSC, and they
said they believe they have found the piece and recovered it. They
had a North Sea salvage ship, it was out about forty miles, with a
hundred-ton crane. I said, “Yeah, let’s go.” So
they lined us up to go out on a Coast Guard cutter, another person
and myself, just the two of us, that Sunday morning.
We go to Port Canaveral to get on the boat, and one of the crew said,
“Hey, it’s going to be rough out there today.”
I said, “You got anything to put on the back of my ear [patch
for sea sickness]?”
“No,” he said, “but I can give you a Band-aid to
make you think you got something.” [laughter] So we go to the
drugstore and get some Dramamine.
We go out there and there’s this big derrick on this salvage
ship. The next thing I know, they’re putting out a twelve-foot
Zodiac [rigid inflatable boat] with an outboard motor, and this coxswain
gets on his rain suit and life jacket, and I’m about to wet
my britches, I’m telling you, golly. We get in that pontoon
boat and go over to the ship, and I look up and here’s this
Jacob’s ladder hanging out the side. He said, “Grab a
hold of that thing. Climb up.”
I’m hanging on, and I’m the first one. When you make it
to the steps, it’s just two ropes hanging down. I said, “Leon,
hold that bottom ladder down. Hold that board, it’s twisting
on me,” and I’m so nervous. Then I get up to the top—it
looked like a hundred feet up there; it wasn’t that far; thirty
feet or whatever—these arms grabbed me and lifted me over the
rail. First thing I say, “Where’s the head?” In
the Navy that’s a restroom, so they take me there.
We go down on deck and there’s that big chunk of steel, and
it was the forward part of the motor, and you could see where the
5,000 degrees—remember, now, inside that motor it’s 5,000
degrees, and it’s chafing that metal, cutting that metal—and
you could see where it was. We had cameras, started taking a lot of
pictures, and then we tried to take some measurements. We had a tape
measure and got a big piece of cardboard, and we just traced what
it was and then took all that back. We spent about an hour on the
boat, and then the coxswain came back to retrieve us.
He got sick as a dog, Leon did, my buddy. I didn’t get sick,
but the captain told us to go stay in his cabin—he had TV. I
didn’t even want to watch TV. We got back about midnight to
the port, and I told Leon, “We’re going to have to be
there early in the morning.” Because all those guys, J.R., Bob
Crippen, all of them, they wanted to see. They told the ship to bring
that in, and in the meantime, they developed the pictures, the film.
Sure enough, it was the part that failed!
We located it over on the Air Force side. They set up a separate hangar
for us, because a lot of times you have propellant still there and
it has saltwater on it, it can leach out and it can be hazardous.
Some of the Rogers Commission [presidential commission investigating
the accident] came over to look at it, I remember that, and we spent
a lot of time with them.
Then after that, I left, came back, and that’s another story,
but the Air Force blew up a Titan in California, and I went out to
that. In the meantime, all our folks started doing redesign, and we
can talk a little bit about that if you want to.
This is an O-ring [demonstrating]. That’s the O-ring, and it’s
a Viton [fluoroelastomer]. You can pinch it. See how hard it is? Now
imagine in the wintertime, cold, cold weather. You don’t have
that problem in Houston like we do. Your car has been sitting outside,
it got down low temperature, and your tires get real hard, and that’s
what happened with the rubber. Well, that thing goes around, and it’s
12 feet in diameter, remember. Multiply that times pi to get the length.
Let me first show you what we got here. This is the way the design
is. This is actual size and everything. This is where the pin goes.
Look good. You can see the O-ring. See the O-ring?
That’s the O-ring. Now visualize, this is the tank coming around.
This is just a slice out of that tank. It’s 12 feet in diameter,
and that’s from here over there. That’s the diameter.
This goes all the way around, and that little O-ring is to keep the
hot gas—inside it’s 5,000 degrees temperature. What is
the propellant burning? Let me back up just a second.
You got a big igniter on top of this thing. It’s another solid
rocket motor, and it’s like a doughnut. Visualize a hole in
a doughnut. There’s a hole in the middle, and here’s this
hot gas coming down, igniting all this propellant, so it burns from
the inside to the outside, 5,000 degrees. Now, there’s insulation
inside the tank, but it doesn’t take long if you get past all
What happened, if you remember, on Shuttle, T minus six minutes, we
light off the SSME and the whole vehicle does this [demonstrates shifting
movement]. Have you seen it? See where the engine’s on the rear?
They’re asymmetrical to the center line of the Orbiter, so the
vehicle rotates over twenty-one inches right at ignition, T minus
six seconds, it does this. When it did that, it unseated one of these
O-rings. “Pfft.” Here comes the hot gas, spews on the
hydrogen tanks. It started the failure. Now, the reason I know that,
we have film now to prove that. They saw the flame impinge on the
tank, actually. That was after the fact that they developed that,
so that was the problem.
For redesign, they went to something called—the same thing that
I was showing you there, and it has three O-rings. It’s triple
redundant. In fact, on the first test, what we did at Thiokol, we
agreed, let’s score this seal. In other words, just put a scratch
on it and see if the hot gas can get past it. J.R. was there, and
a group of us went out and we had to climb up this ladder, put your
hand up on the motor case after the firing to see if it was hot, or
if it was warm. When they disassembled the hardware, sure enough,
it still worked good. So that’s the way we’ve been flying.
Now you say why did you design it this way originally? That’s
the way the Titan did. That was our experience in those days, so we
went to something like this. There’s four segments that you
put together. There are no welds in these cylinders, about a half
inch thick, and you can almost see it there, the thickness. High-strength
steel. The chamber pressure is about 1,000 psi, 1,000 pounds per square
inch inside. You got high pressure. This is the pin [demonstrates].
You put it together. Now this was a Titan pin. This is what our pin
looks like—it’s an inch in diameter; larger than the Titan,
and they tap them in with a mallet. There’s many hundred to
go around the circumference of the segments.
See how they put it together? Now, they got a crane; it’s actually
suspended there, and it takes it around there and they tap these in,
and that’s where the pin is. That pin I just showed you is right
That was the design. They experimented with different kinds of rubber
for the O-ring. It was almost two years before we got back to flying
because of the redesign and testing, and then we had to convince ourselves
that we’d done the right thing. Now, lots of testing was done
to go back and prove that the design’s going to work.
STS-26 is the first time we flew the redesign. That was in September
1988. I never will forget, my wife—that’s going to stay
in my mind—found out she had ovarian cancer, and we took the
family and went out for that launch. It was going back to flying in
1988. We were down there for that, and everything turned out good
after we saw the hardware. Then she went in and had her operation
and had to have chemo. She’s cured, 1988, from those days. I
never will forget that. That was our flight, 1988, September.
It was traumatic for me when you see what happened. It was just something
else. Golly. I think at first it was a bad decision. They shouldn’t
have tried to push to fly. We had flown earlier, a few weeks earlier
in January 1986.
Let me back up just a second. In January of ’85, we had a DoD
[Department of Defense] mission, STS 51-C. I didn’t tell you
all about that. It was a DoD mission and it was successful, but we
had ice out there. We stayed at a motel there in Cocoa Beach [Florida].
My wife and I went down. They had water sprinklers for the grass and
they were all just solid ice. It was January of ’85. Challenger,
in January 1986, was just as bad. We didn’t have any problems
on STS 51-C.
What was one of the biggest things that you had to overcome? And maybe
discuss some of the evolution of the propulsion system from when you
first were putting the requirements together until you left the program.
What were some of the major changes that occurred through there?
The one we talked about was the redesign on solid rocket motor, putting
those changes in for that, that was a big challenge for us there.
Space Shuttle main engine, we had a lot to do there, because you asked
about upgrades and the safety. We spent a lot of time and a lot of
money and a lot of effort with Rocketdyne, first on looking at how
we change the engine, make it safer. Now, again, I can’t overemphasize
when you take a pump, rev it up to 35,000 revs, that fuel pump develops
over 70,000 horsepower. You think about horsepower for your car, or
how many railroad engines or how many Hoover Dams and those kinds
of mechanical systems.
Here was a big challenge, to say can you make it safer. There’s
several ways that we looked at. If you take just the nozzle, if we
opened up the throat—now, appreciate you have the combustion
chamber—the higher the chamber pressure, the better performance.
Then you think about a molecule up there where you’re burning,
come to the throat, and it’s doing Mach 1, and then it goes
supersonic as it gives up temperature and gains velocity. You want
that. Well, we looked at opening up the throat to reduce the pressures
in the system. Now, you lose a little performance, some of the miles
per gallon I was talking about.
We were able to do that and open the throat up. What you’re
trying to do, ease up on some of the systems so they’re not
operating at their higher pressures and higher temperatures. That
was one that was done and it was done successfully, we’ve been
Another one, and I cannot remember the Administrator’s name.
He was the administrator during the Challenger time.
Jim [James M.] Beggs.
Thank you. Beggs. I couldn’t remember that.
I was in his conference room and one of our people that was there
making a presentation, but he was really making a point, and I don’t
know what it was. He wanted to try to get Pratt & Whitney. Pratt
& Whitney has always been involved, and I knew them in World War
II, in engines, then they were in jet engines. Good at rotating machinery.
He wanted to get them under contract. Of course, Rocketdyne had the
contract, but he told us, “You guys see what you can do to get
what we call alternate turbo pumps.”
Now, think for a moment. Here you got a contractor, i.e., Rocketdyne,
he’s built this complete system. You say, “Wait a minute.
Time out. We want to put some other pump. We got this other contractor.”
Just think about that for a moment. First you had to deal with the
psychology of this thing. He didn’t like it, and we, of course,
were a little bit concerned ourselves. You got all the interfaces
you had to deal with. Pratt and Whitney, if you go back and look at
history, they protested when Rocketdyne got the original contract
for the Phase C D, and held it up being able to start work.
We got going with them, and was able to work all these interfaces
with both of them, and they had a lot of new ideas. If you take the
fuel pump that Rocketdyne had, the way they fabricated it, they had
a lot of welds. Some of the welds were even difficult to inspect.
You do x-ray and nondestructive evaluation to look at the welds. You
always worried about one of the welds coming loose. You have high
pressure inside, 7000 psi inside. What’s going to happen? Just
like that it’s gone. They came up with precision castings; a
new idea, new concept. How’d they know? They’d been working
casting for turbine blades for years and years. They had new concepts.
That was going to be a big gain in terms of reliability and safety.
So that was the first one, was for the fuel pump, the casting.
Another big one that they pioneered, and I’ve got a little example
I’ll show you here, was using bearings inside the pump. This
is a roller bearing [demonstrating]. It’s made out of steel.
It’s called 440-C steel. Feel this one. That’s a silicon
nitride. It’s a ceramic bearing. That’s a roller bearing.
This is a ball bearing. Take a hammer, you can’t even break
that with a hammer. It doesn’t care anything about the temperature
What we used to do in the early days, we had to take the pumps off.
We’d fly the first test, take the pumps off, put new bearings
in, and have to overhaul the pumps. We just worried. With the alternate
turbo pump with Pratt & Whitney, and our folks did a lot of work
in developing this technology here, this silicon nitride bearing is
very expensive. In fact, I went to a couple of companies in Germany
where they make these and they showed us how they do it. You wonder
how they make a round ball, and you have two plates. These are diamond
wheels. They use industrial diamonds and grind them between, and that’s
how they make them round. Of course, it’s a very precision operation.
I’ll show you one problem. Feel this one. That’s steel.
Feel this one. This is a round one like that too. That’s a ceramic
bearing. They use them in chemical processes like acids. If you put
acid on this steel, it’d eat it up, so we had those bearings
and we’ve been flying those. Our folks did a lot of work out
here at our material testing, bearing testing here at Marshall to
support Pratt & Whitney on this new technology. That’s helped
us. That was a big change when we put both pumps on.
We’ve been flying several years now with the pumps, with the
bearings and the new turbo pumps. The Space Shuttle main engine today
flies with the Pratt & Whitney pumps. That doesn’t matter,
because they bought Rocketdyne, by the way. Boeing didn’t want
Rocketdyne, so that’s part of the same company. We’ve
been flying for many years now the fuel pump, we started earlier on
it. Then we went to the LOX pump after that.
J.R. can give you all that background about the alternate turbo pump,
but it’s worked out better. It was a big challenge. I spent
a lot of time on the engine. I think the engine really was probably
the hardest thing for all of us in terms of technology and technological
If you look at another one that I hadn’t talked to you about,
but if you just take the J-2 engine, that’s what we flew on
Saturn. You had an oxidizer pump and a fuel pump, and both of them
had propellants that came to one combustor. That’s just a combustion
chamber. Hot gas comes out, drives a turbine that drives the pumps
and takes the propellants from the tank, forces it in the combustion
chamber. You ignite it with a spark plug, like your car. It’s
a more exotic spark plug and exciter, and the pump will start going.
You bring propellants in there to do that.
The Space Shuttle’s main engine is what we call stage combustion,
a complete new cycle. In the past (J-2) from that turbine I told you
about, combustor and everything, you discharge all that gas overboard,
so you didn’t get the performance that you could have. In stage
combustion, each pump has its own combustion chamber or what we call
a pre-burner. You bring the two propellants into it, and each one
operates individually its own pump, stage combustion. It goes in the
main combustion chamber, and those exhaust gases come in there also.
You don’t waste anything and you get the additional performance.
A big change in technology to go to that. The temperatures are higher.
You worry about the loads on the turbine blades. You think about a
little old turbine blade has got like seven and a half tons’
load on it, with centrifugal forces.
Really, the engine, I think, was the biggest technological issue that
we had to deal with and getting to where it is. Here we’ve been
flying all these years and the engine’s been wonderful, and
today it’s the most reliable system that we’ve got on
Shuttle, and I don’t know why we’re not continuing to
use it for whatever new vehicles we’re looking at. That was
probably the biggest one, using the pumps and then doing some of the
other mods [modifications] that we did on the engine.
There were some other changes we made. We have a computer on the engine,
a controller, we call it. It’s the controller that has all the
intelligence to operate the valves, sequence the valves, and get the
propellants at the right time at the right place, all the components
on there. It’s the brain, if you will, of the engine. We modified
it a couple of times, increased the memory and what it can do in terms
of making measurements and getting information for us.
In addition, we’ve gone to what we call a health monitoring
system that’s a part of that. It takes instrumentation temperature
and accelerometer, particularly accelerometer, measures vibration,
and it has built inside—we’ve been flying this, by the
way, for safety, and it can shut itself down just like that if they
see certain critical levels. That’s what our advanced health
monitoring system did for us. When you ask what upgrades have been
made for safety, that’s probably the biggest one, particularly
on the engine. And it’s been working well. We haven’t
had any problem with it, reliability .999, way up there. The Russians
never built anything on that.
The one downside, on the nozzle we have tubes coming down that are
cooled by liquid hydrogen and come down to a manifold down below and
turns and goes up another tube, and into the chamber. These tubes
are put in together, and they’re tapered. There’s about
a thousand of them, and the worker has to assemble them precisely.
We talked to the Russians, how do they do it, and they had a large
manifold on the outside. The tooling they have is as big as this room
to make this equipment. They don’t use tubes like we do.
Tubes are lightweight, a lighter weight than what they use, but they
have huge castings, and then they weld these things together. We looked
at their technology a few years ago, went over to see if that was
something we want to do here. They wanted to sell it to us, and it
is just a nightmare, a mess for the tooling, and so we never pursued
it. It wasn’t going to pay off. It would cost so much just for
that. They were willing to sell us that technology.
By the way, you know, the Atlas V uses their engine. We use Russian
engines today. I don’t know if NASA uses them. The Air Force
is using it, the two RD-180s, I think it is, their two engines for
the first stage on their upgraded Atlas. The upper stage is liquid
The engine, I think, is the key; it was our most technological system
that we had, and we just were lucky with all the testing that had
been done for years and years and years. In 1977, I used to be a runner,
and I learned how to run in 1977. That’s during Easter. We went
to Mississippi for tests. We weren’t getting there. Congress
and OMB [Office of Management and Budget] was holding our feet to
the fire to be able to test at rated power level for sixty seconds,
and we just had all kinds of problems. McCool’s back down there
for months with a team, and J.R. was the boss then. In fact, Rocketdyne
sent their boss down there with us to get that test off, and they
finally got to that milestone to be able to do that. We’d been
having problems with the hardware components, working close with them,
and they finally were able to get to it, and we were a part of that,
being help for whatever we can to do that because that was difficult.
We stayed in a motel, Ramada Motel, so that’s when I started
running and had sneakers, 1977. In 1994, I quit running because I
had surgery in both knees from all my running. I kept a diary and
I got up 10,000 miles in those days. When we’d go out to Canoga,
and I’d take my shoes, and I’d go with Sanchini and some
of the guys at lunchtime—I can’t think of the college
there. They had a track, and we’d get out there and run. Of
course, we could take a shower there. Every time I’d go to the
Cape, I’d always take my shoes with me, run on the beach, but
at my age I had to slow down, so I just bike.
You talked to us about your involvement after Challenger. Were you
also involved during the time of the Columbia accident?
Yes. That’s another story, and I need to share that with you
a little bit. That’s another bad one. We had had reviews, and
it’s kind of touchy. You asked about the readiness reviews.
We had gone through all that, and we’d had problems with the
thermal protection system, and we’d had reviews ourselves with
our contractor and with the program. Then we went to the Cape and
had the big one with all the Center Directors and the board. We went
through the FRR [flight readiness review], and we’d convinced
ourselves we’re about ready to go, and then we all come back
home and get ready for the launch, and I go back down there for the
This is kind of a personal thing I’m sharing with you. I go
over to the health club, it was in O&C, and I do my two miles
or whatever on the treadmill, and I notice my badge is expired. So
I asked the attendant, I said, “What do I need to do to get
a new badge here?”
He said, “Well, sit down. Let me take your blood pressure.”
He said, “You’ve got a problem.” He takes it again.
He has a gal come out and take it. And everybody, “Oh, we got
to send you to the Med Center.” Two days, L-minus two.
I get kind of worried and I’m uptight. The reason I’m
uptight, my engine manager, who worked for J.R., but he worked in
my shop, he had had a problem down there, his heart was speeding up
quite some time before that, and he goes to the same family doctor
I go, and I call him, “What do we do?”
“Take him to the emergency room.” So I did. I took him
to Cape Canaveral, put him in a hospital for five days, and I stayed
down there with him.
I’m thinking the same thing, “McCool, if you’ve
got a problem, you need to go home.” This is a true story. I
called the crew that flew us down on our plane, and they were going
to Washington the next day to get somebody to bring them down. I said,
“You mind dropping me off at Huntsville?”
“Yeah, we’ll do that.” So they dropped me off. I
didn’t go back for the launch, L-minus one, and I wasn’t
there for the launch, but I was up there watching it on TV the next
day. I forgot when the launch was now, because the seventh was when
I went in and I had four bypasses. I had major blockage, I found out.
Well, I didn’t give you the whole story, part of it. My family
doctor sent me to a doctor at Mayo [Clinic] in Jacksonville [Florida],
a cardiologist, with the records, and he recommended I go in and have
the bypass. High blood pressure. It was major with four bypasses.
But I was not there for the launch [January 16, 2003], but I was here
and I saw it.
I missed that and got involved in all the subsequent investigation
and after that with our people. In fact, there was a [William C.]
McCool, Willie McCool [no relation], I never met him, that was on
the flight, the pilot. I didn’t meet any of the crewmembers
there. That’s a whole other heartache I’d hate to deal
with. I just wish I could have done or known something, and not say,
“Let’s go fly.” Just say, “Time out.”
Because you could do that. You could do it in FRR. You don’t
want to wait that late. You could do it at the launch, sitting in
the LCC. I always had to give them my okay, but I was not there for
that one, for the launch.
I was in the FRR and the board had heard from everybody, including
our people, our contractor, my project manager, Jerry [W.] Smelser.
It was a thermal protection problem, stuff peeled away and it hit
the Orbiter, and then that was—I just—I don’t know.
I tried to do what I could, that was to try to get back to flying,
but it was just the next year, January 2004, when I retired.
I don’t know if you ever been to Michoud [Assembly Facility,
New Orleans, Louisiana] where the external tank is manufactured. They
have robotics in this chamber and they spray in thermal protection
system. That stuff’s pretty thick on there, and you need that
to preclude the boil-off of liquid hydrogen, and that part works out
good. They were able to develop all the procedures, which was not
easy, and our materials processing people really helped us on that
and developed a lot of the techniques to do that here at Marshall.
In fact, Martin people came here for that. Then the close-outs, where
the liquid oxygen line runs down the side, that’s all applied
hand-done and is where they had problems, where you had close-outs
and where you had penetrations coming through the thing.
I remember climbing up on the tank. They had tanks all around the
place in the factory there. You go up and look and see what they’re
doing, and they’d have their bunny suits on, their masks and
gloves. I always worried about that since then. While we have been
flying, I worry, because we have cameras now looking at particles
coming off. You don’t want it to come off, hit that fragile
tile on the Orbiter. That was another thing I just have to carry to
the grave with me, that and Challenger, the bad, bad experiences of
my life when I look back, and I just ask myself and think about it.
I didn’t tell you about a good friend of mine. He was a launch
director down there. You ought to get his input. Gene [James A.] Thomas.
Do you know Gene?
No, but we certainly would like to talk to him.
He was a launch director on Challenger. I met him when I transferred
into S&MA, a very deep, spiritual person, and I developed a real
close relationship with him. What a wonderful person. General Forrest
[S.] McCartney was the KSC Center Director, and I still call him General.
A lot of guys call him Forrest. He’s named after Nathan Bedford
Forrest, the Confederate general. He told me, “I had to find
another job for Gene.” He put him chief of safety at KSC. He
was the launch director on Challenger. He really got close to the
crew and emotionally torn up. He’s written a book. I can show
you the book if you want to get a copy of it, and he tells about what
he did and what he went through. He talks about a lot of spiritual
things. We had a close spiritual relationship.
I remember when we got ready to fly in ’88, Gene said, “We
were holding hands, and you and I were praying. You and I were praying,”
and he’s right. I look at people like him and I look at the
crew guys that I’ve known over the years, and they inspire me.
Like John Glenn. He’s just my hero, a lot of others, though,
being close to Brewster Shaw. When I see what they go through and
then what Gene went through, and I think, well, maybe that was my
scar I had to carry, like Paul the Apostle. We don’t know what
his pain in the side was. Maybe those two losses—I don’t
know, losing the Columbia after Challenger, thinking we were all fat
It’s probably good. The hardware is telling us something. It’s
a little bit like your body. You know, your body tells you when you
start getting an ache here, an ache there, and you need to slow down
or change something you’re doing. There’s no question
after this many years, it’s getting tired. Maybe it is, it’s
nostalgic to me, to have to retire and live all that. I wish they
could continue. Enough’s enough, probably.
You were involved with the propulsion system for a lot of the Shuttle
I know you talked about the success of the engine, but what do you
feel overall has been the most significant accomplishment from the
Shuttle Program, especially at the beginning when you were trying
to put out the expectations of the vehicle?
The first, the hardware. Just take the hardware, and being able to
fly that many times over and over and over. Recall, now, after Saturn
everything went in the water. We wanted to have a reusable vehicle,
which we did, not the tank, and we knew that was going to be a headache,
but still it turned out everything else worked well, worked exceptionally
well. You look at how many hundreds and hundreds of people that’s
been involved in this over the years, how many crewmembers, not just
our country, foreigners, been involved in space. I look up there,
it’s coming over every ninety minutes, Space Station, just look
and think about how you were a part of all that, of history, and what
When I look at that and see the satisfaction, and the one, this picture
right here, it’s flat on this wall here, was Endeavor in 1992,
500 years after Columbus discovered America, getting ready to fly
its maiden flight. Every time I see that picture now, I say, “Hey,
Mac, maybe we’re going to get it. We’re going to make
it. The Endeavor’s going to make it next week.” That was
its maiden voyage.
Rick [Charles Richard] Chappell, Dr. Chappell, worked with us out
here, good friend, and he got me to meet Walter Cronkite when he came
here for a von Braun ceremony one time. He found out the three ships
were down off the Florida coast down there. He organized and tried
to get them to come by the Cape. When I see here’s the launch
complex, rotating structures pulled back, and that lightning tower,
and there she’s sitting, getting ready to fly, maiden voyage,
and here’s going to be the next to last one. Now, to me, man,
that is something!
Now, another good one, because I told you about John Glenn—can
I talk about Apollo for a minute?
All right. Let me go back. I’m digressing, but where I’m
coming to is John Glenn. That’s when I first met him, after
his flight in 1962. In those days, after the Russians had already
put up [Yuri] Gagarin, and here we were playing tail-end Charlie.
[President John F.] Kennedy was on the hot seat, so far as his problems
with the Russians, the Cubans, the Cuban Missile Crisis, etc., and
von Braun had an input to that. I can show you a letter I have a copy
of that I got years ago. He had an input about going to the Moon.
So Al [Alan B.] Shepard goes and flies up and down, suborbital, May
5th, 1961. Kennedy talks May 25th, the State of the Union, and commits
to go to the Moon. Now come along to when John Glenn goes. We had
nothing to do with that. That’s all JSC and Air Force hardware,
Atlas. We didn’t know how we were going to go to the Moon. Von
Braun’s team wanted to go—there’s three ways you
can go to the Moon: build a rocket big enough, launch it and go straight
to the Moon; have another one and go Earth orbit rendezvous; or the
last one go lunar orbit rendezvous. So they were going back and forth.
Von Braun’s team, the Germans, said, “Let’s go Earth
orbit.” They’d done a lot of orbital mechanics. So he’s
going to go to Houston. At that time, there wasn’t a JSC; still
the Space Task Group. Gilruth and a few of his key people that had
gone down to a motel they’d rented in Houston. I don’t
even know where. I couldn’t take you there if you give me a
million dollars. I don’t know where it was. In those days we
didn’t have the jetport you came in on. There’s a place
called Airport Road, it’s right in town in here. That’s
where the airport was in ’62, in those days. Somebody had a
B-26, an Army B-26, that they leased for us to go. Von Braun and two
other guys and myself go down. He lets us read his speech going down
on the plane. He proposed to team up with Bob Gilruth and get Headquarters
and all these science committees to go LOR [lunar orbit rendezvous].
John [C.] Houbolt, from Langley, is the guy that came up with the
concept of lunar orbit rendezvous.
We go down there and talk about some studies first. I covered the
propulsion stuff. My boss, Dr. [William H.] Mrazek covered all the
structure and the vehicle. Ludie [G.] Richards covered the avionics.
Von Braun got up and gave his speech. When he got through, all I remember
is that this dining room, everybody’s clapping, because he wanted
to team up with Gilruth. Once the two leaders agreed, it wasn’t
much longer that NASA Headquarters science committees made the decision
to fly lunar orbit.
Sitting next to me at the table is John Glenn, and I’m awe of
him. I’m getting goosebumps right now thinking about it. I’m
just in awe of this guy. I’m coming back to the other thing,
but in 1998, he flies on STS-95 as the oldest astronaut. I always
wished he’d been able to fly on the Apollo. He probably would
have liked to, but it’s like the military does with a fighter
pilot. They did this in World War II. After a guy has been shot down
so many times, they’d put him back as an instructor, take him
back, sell war bonds. They figured next time that he’s going
to—and that’d be a worse thing. It could have been the
same thing with John. I don’t know that. That’s just my
He’s flown now, that’s enough. But then he gets his way
to fly on Shuttle, which he did, and in fact, I know the [Shuttle]
commander was a little upset about that, because he’s getting
all the limelight instead of the crew. He didn’t want that,
but he wanted to fly. John [W.] Young told me one time that John Glenn’s
the only guy he ever saw could do a one-arm pushup. Think about that.
My buddy John Young. That kind of thing is to me just a personal thing.
When I see he was able to fly the second time, then a Senator, still
dedicated and married to Annie [Glenn]. Read his autobiography sometime
when he talks about it.
Have you read it? Especially he’s talking about the other guys,
the hotdogs down at KSC with their Corvettes, and why he didn’t
get to fly on the first mission of Mercury, but he did fly the first
time in orbit, not suborbital.
Another thing, too, I think as a people, of what it’s made,
it’s done so much for the people. Everybody, all of us, we’ve
been a part of history. It’s an inspiration to the young people.
I’ve been going to the Space and Rocket Center. I don’t
know if you have been there, this one, the one we have here. When
I talk to them, I give them talks there, and every year I would do
a thing, what the Germans called the von Braun Forum. All the Germans
died on me. I’m down to three, so we haven’t done this
since 2009, but I talked to them Monday, and I’m going back
Friday and see what else I can do just to inspire the kids, because
young people come there, come there in schools. We bring them in school
buses, all over the country. We’ve got the [US Space and Rocket]
Center, and it’s probably a little larger than the one you have
next to your Center [Space Center Houston].
I did get a chance to go to that one time for an award. That’s
where I met the President George H. W. [Bush], or the boss. I got
his autograph. John Young was the emcee. John introduced the president.
The president, I think, got some kind of recognition, too, but he
wasn’t the president at the time. He was being recognized. Of
course, he lives in Houston, unlike Sonny [George W. Bush], who lives
Yes, he lives in Dallas.
I think we’ve covered most of what we wanted to ask, because
we talked about the components and talked about Challenger and Columbia,
evolution of the propulsion system, and that’s what we wanted
to hit on. You talked about safety. You studied pretty hard before
we got here. I think you did it.