NASA STS Recordation
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Eric S. Ransone
Interviewed by Jennfer Ross-Nazzal
Kennedy Space Center, Florida – 13 July 2011
Today is July 13, 2011. This interview is being conducted with Eric
Ransone at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, as part of the NASA STS
Recordation Oral History Project. The interviewer is Jennifer Ross-Nazzal,
assisted by Sandra Johnson.
Thanks again for meeting with us this morning. We surely appreciate
You’re welcome. No problem.
I’d like to start by asking you to give us an overview of your
I graduated from college in December of ’96, and I guess that’s
where the voyage started. As an unemployed college student, you send
out mass résumés. I think I sent out about three hundred
at the time. You try to remember where you sent them all, but sometimes
that just doesn’t happen. A starving-artist-type situation,
you’re just looking for anything that comes down the pipe. A
month later, things started picking up. I got a few interviews and
a few job offers and was about set to take a job offer with a company
called Ingersoll-Dresser in Chesapeake [Virginia] doing some marketing
engineering-type stuff when I got a call from a Mr. Don Mikuni. He’s
one of the Rocketdyne legends. He’s been around Rocketdyne for
a long, long time, and gave me a call and said, “Do you know
who Rocketdyne is?”
At the time I did, because I was very interested in the Shuttle as
a kid. At eleven years old seeing the first one go up, and that was
kind of my goal. I wanted to get into that Space Shuttle Program.
So, of course, I was focusing on the space program. He said, “Do
you know who Rocketdyne is and what we do?” I did know. “Are
you interested in coming out for interviewing in California?”
I said, “As long as you pay, because I’m poor, and I’ll
So he flew me out to California, and I hit a homerun in the interview.
I knew it. Then he said, “Well, are you interested? I know you’re
an East Coast boy. We’ve got a position in Kennedy.”
At this time, Ingersoll-Dresser was expecting an answer, so I called
them up and asked, “How long do I have to give you a reply?”
I had two other job offers, but I was focusing on them and Rocketdyne.
They said, “Well, we’ll give you a week.”
In the meantime I flew to Kennedy. That was January of ’97 and
coincided with STS-81 launch. It’s almost an unfair advantage
for them when you’re coming out here interviewing, and you’re
spending all day interviewing. I mean they really grilled me. I went
back to my hotel; I was beat, exhausted, mentally, physically, emotionally
drained. I thought, “Man, I hope I got this job, because I really
poured everything I had into getting it.”
Then I came back later on that evening and saw the night launch. I
saw it all the way to MECO (main engine cutoff), to where it was a
bright white dot just above the horizon. Afterwards I told a couple
of the guys who interviewed me, “I’ll work for beans to
They said, “All right. We’ll fly you back to Virginia,
and if we’re interested, we’ll give you a call.”
A few days after I got back to Virginia, Ingersoll called up and said,
“We need a response.”
I told them, “I’m sorry. I’ll have to decline your
offer.” I didn’t say why.
So then I was back to square one. I had no solid job offers, and just
keeping my fingers crossed.
A week or so later Mr. Mikuni called up and said, “We’ve
got an offer for you.” It was the best of both worlds. I’ll
go out to California, work out there for up to two years, learning
how the engine’s designed and fabricated out at the heart of
the factory out there and then eventually transition to Kennedy, which
was more than what I could ask for at the time. So that was the day
I got my big break, and on April of ’97 I hired in and started
the journey there, and it’s been an amazing ride.
I spent about a year, a little bit over a year, out at the factory.
I was mainly focusing on the “Combustion Devices” components,
the nozzles, preburners, injectors, main combustion chamber, heat
exchanger, and the powerhead. Learning everything about it from the
ground up, from the very small component pieces and parts, all the
way to the final component, how those things are designed and built
I was really getting down to the small first-level component build
of the engine, and got to see every one of those components that I
was responsible for built from start to finish, which for a Kennedy
employee, that didn’t happen often.
Most of the people would hire in straight to Kennedy and then cut
their teeth there and learn about the engine that way. If they had
a chance to go to California, they would. Where with us, it was kind
of a pilot program with me and another gentleman named Steve [Stephen]
Prescott, who was a turbo engineer, worked on pumps. He hired in and
did the same thing, and we both went through the process together
and came out here about the same time together. So I kind of got a
unique bond with him that we’ve been through a lot together
and learned a lot about the engines together through a unique perspective.
After a little over a year of seeing the West Coast, soaking in what
the San Fernando Valley had to offer, and what Rocketdyne taught me
had pushed me and pushed the limits on what I thought I could do.
You know, you’re coming out of college pretty green, not knowing
what to expect. So much information is thrown at you, and then you’re
given a chance to shine and show your skills, and I took every opportunity.
Then came the transition to Kennedy just in time to see another launch.
On April of ’98 I saw my first launch here at KSC, STS-90, and
it has been all downhill from there. It was great.
At the West Coast, everything is on the component level. They also
did engine assembly where they put all the components and pieces and
parts together. They did all that out at Canoga. You come out here
to Kennedy, this is where the rubber meets the road. You’re
literally in a fishbowl; everybody’s watching every little thing
you do. When you see that first launch go off and you’re part
of that team that helped get it off the ground, it really, really
sinks in how important it is what you do, from the moment that the
fires are lit and you reverse all the way back to where those first
components were built. The one quote that stands out in my mind is
from Wernher von Braun—who was kind of the grandfather of our
space program; everybody who works here, he’s their grandfather,
he’s the man—“Success in space demands perfection.”
It does. Another quote that comes to mind is from another Rocketdyne
legend, John Plowden, “Never turn your back on a rocket engine.”
Every little thing you do is very important because once those fires
are lit, there’s no turning back.
We do something that’s incredibly unique, incredibly demanding
at all levels, mentally, emotionally. It takes a toll on your family,
because there’s times that you’re here long hours. You
try to keep the job at the job, but when you go home, sometimes that
stress, it takes a mental toll on you, an emotional toll on you. You
want to give as much to your family as you do to the program, and
you try to balance that out. But it’s an amazing journey. It’s
sad that it’s coming to an end, but there’s been lot of
wonderful memories. There’s so much challenge. Every day when
you show up here, you don’t know what to expect.
I mean, granted, it’s the Shuttle. We’ve had 135 launches,
and people seem to think it’s like airlines taking off and landing
thousands of times a day all around the world, but it’s not.
There’s nothing that compares to it. Anything else out there,
nothing compares to what the Shuttle goes through from start to finish:
the operating environments, the pressures, the temperatures, the stresses,
everything. Everything is incredibly unique and demands an incredibly
unique point of view and approach to doing work on it. There’s
nothing out there, I feel, that is as challenging to work on than
the Space Shuttle Program here.
We know that the engine is the most complex engine that was ever built.
So walk us through how you process this engine and get it ready and
sign off and say, “Yea, verily, I say this engine is ready for
The engine’s really not ready to go until the paper stacks up
about as tall as I am, and it’s all bought off.
And that’s about six feet?
Yes, about six feet. The Orbiter, I think you’ve got to have
a mountain of paper before it gets off the ground. Essentially our
processing flow for the engine starts as soon as the Orbiter lands
and rolls into the OPF [Orbiter Processing Facility]. Once we roll
into the OPF, that’s our new processing flow of that engine.
So the first thing that we have to do within forty-eight hours of
wheel stop is there’s some bearings on the high-pressure pumps
that we have to dry from residual moisture after engine shutdown in
space. Moisture does bad things to metals. A lot of this engine is
made of materials that are low in iron, but there’s still corrosion
capability. Corrosion is bad. We all know that. It does some really,
really bad things to components, especially with pumps that spin over
30,000 rpm [rates per minute]. So you want to get that moisture out
as soon as you can. So we dry those bearings. It usually takes about
a day to dry those bearings.
Then after that, we wait for the Orbiter for a little bit to allow
us to get access to our engines, and they’re usually pretty
quick about getting us access to our engines. Then we do some preliminary
aft inspections while we’re in the Orbiter to see if there’s
any damage, and then we start the process of getting those engines
out. We do a controller power-up for a quick health check on it. Next,
the Orbiter hydraulics are activated and we gimbal the engines to
a “null” position. The actuators, the hydraulic actuators,
we have to lock those in place and null the engines to where they’re
accessible by the vehicle or the equipment that we’re going
to use to remove them. Then we get the engines ready to come out.
We ask for about six shifts of work to de-torque and demate the joints
to allow the engines to come out, and install the GSE [Ground Support
Equipment] needed to support the engine removal process.
So after those six shifts of work, Orbiter folks open up the OPF swings
and open up the OPF doors, and then we drive over our Hyster, which
is what is used to remove and install the engines. The Hyster is essentially
a big forklift on steroids that’s been modified by the Hyster
Company to do what we need to get done. It is another piece of unique
machinery here at KSC.
Initially, when the Space Shuttle was first flown and designed, they
weren’t thinking of taking any of these engines out. The engines
would stay in. We’d do our maintenance on the Orbiter and fly
them so many times a month, just like aircraft or an airliner. But,
again, falling back to how crucial or how critical the components
are and the demands that space imply upon them, the wear and tear,
we realized pretty quick that we got a lot more to do to those engines
to get them ready for flight than what we originally thought. Eventually
a few Rocketdyne KSC legends devised a method to remove those engines
from the Orbiter, using that Hyster, so that we can process them on
our own and get essentially the engines out of the way of the Orbiter
folks so they can process in parallel without us being in their way.
It benefited both parties, the Orbiter folks and us.
Getting back to the process, once the Hyster removes the engines and
takes them back to the shop, that’s where our shop processing
starts. We unload the engines from the Hyster, put them in the horizontal
orientation. Then we do some more external inspections, looking at
the thrust chamber and at the exterior components of the engine, such
as the nozzle, some of the lines and ducts, insulators, harnesses,
electrical harnesses and things like that. You become the eyes for
the engine. You have to see what it is trying to tell you that is
Then we get into our early diagnosis of internal problems. The visual
inspections that we do, of course you’re looking for wear and
tear. That’s primarily what you’re looking for, bouncing
what you see against your acceptability pass/fail criteria. Then,
like I say, we get into diagnosing the engine. We do some internal
leak checks of the major systems, the fuel, LOX [Liquid Oxygen], and
hot gas systems. What we’re looking for is just gross leakage
of the systems to give us an indicator of what we might be looking
for problematic-wise later on in the processing. Sometimes we have
data from flight that are indicators of internal issues also. So we
have a pass/fail associated with the data and these internal checks,
and if anything is outside of that, then we know there might be an
issue in that system. We’ll get to what we do with that later
on down the line.
Then we also do our nozzle coolant tube leak checks. The nozzle is
comprised of 1,080 stainless steel coolant tubes that are coated for
corrosion resistance, and those tend to spring leaks because that
nozzle goes through a lot during launch startup and gets beat on as
far as pressures, temperatures, and other operating parameters. So
we do our nozzle tube leak checks to see what we have to repair since
it is reusable.
After we do the initial leak checks, we dry the engines. We did a
bearing drying while on the Orbiter. In the shop we dry the rest of
the engine components, the rest of the engine systems, with heated
GN2 [gaseous nitrogen] and run that for almost a day, a full day.
There’s a two-hour purge and then an eight-hour purge, and then
we do our drying dew points, where we measure how dry those engines
Once those engines are dried, we get into the bulk of the processing.
We rotate them up to the vertical orientation. We do some more system
leak checks, such as a mass spectrometer leak check of the engine
heat exchanger. Next we remove inspection ports and perform borescope
inspections of internal components of the high-pressure pumps, preburners,
heat exchanger, main injector, and powerhead. It is amazing what an
experienced person can do with a borescope, what they can see. Then
any component that needs to be removed or replaced for whatever reason,
we do it at this point. We do track a lot of components of the engine
for life based upon its history and design. We know how long they’re
going to last. In this vertical orientation any of those components
can be more easily removed and replaced. After components are removed,
we also do a lot more of our visual inspections, inspections of the
pumps, inspections of the pre-burners and injectors and internal components.
After all those inspections and component removals are completed,
we put the engine back together, bolt it up tight. Then we do some
more system internal and external leak checks to make sure all those
disturbed joints—because there are over three hundred joints
on this engine—make sure any of those three hundred joints are
tight and they don’t leak at all, just using helium and bubble
soap. Sometimes a mass spectrometer is used to try and catch small
leaks on specific joints in conjunction with the bubble soap leak
Then after those leak checks, we get into what’s called flight-readiness
testing in the shop, or FRTs. The external leak checks, we’re
testing the system integrity, if the engine is tight and put together
properly. The internal leak checks test integrity of internal components
and seals, as well as overall integrity of each system. The FRTs,
they judge the operability of the engine, if everything’s functioning
properly. We go through several tests basically checking every system
on the engine. We power up the controller and perform a health check
on it. Then we pressurize various engine systems, and do some additional
leak checks of some of these pressurized systems. There is a command
and data simulator (CADS) room, similar to the LCC [Launch Control
Center] firing rooms, where we can monitor data and send commands
to our engine controller. We monitor the sensors, making sure the
sensors are functioning properly. Then we cycle the hydraulic and
pneumatic systems and run several more tests. For example, we make
sure the actuators that rotate the valves on the engines are actually
doing their job, and valve position sensors are reading the percent
open that they’re supposed to be open when they’re supposed
to be open. The goal of FRTs is to judge the functionality of the
engine and all of its systems: fluid, electrical, or mechanical.
So after all those FRTs are completed, we know that the engine is
functionally sound. We’ve gone through a staged process to make
sure the engine is visually acceptable with wear and tear. We’ve
made sure the engine, as far as the components, the joints, the system
integrity is tight. The FRTs is a big milestone in the overall engine
processing, so when we say FRTs are complete, we know that engine’s
functionally sound. At that point, you’re probably about three-quarters
of the way through engine processing, with the completion of FRTs.
Then we rotate the engines back down to the horizontal orientation,
and then our last thing that we do is an engine encapsulation leak
check. Now, the engine encapsulation leak check is designed to check
anything that is in the Orbiter aft compartment. From where the nozzles
stick out of the Orbiter, all the way up to the gimbal, where it attaches
to the thrust structure of the Orbiter, all that’s encapsulated
in this “big can” piece of GSE. We pressurize the major
systems, and then we use a mass spectrometer leak check to test to
see if there’s any leakage in that can, and that’s a pass/fail
of one SCIM, or standard cubic inch per minute, leakage, which is
very, very, very, very incredibly tiny.
So when we pass that engine encapsulation test, that is our final
check that that engine is 100 percent tight and leak free. It’s
functional; the wear and tear is acceptable. So when we pass the engine
can, we know that when we install it in the Orbiter, up to that point
of installation, nothing’s wrong with that engine. We know that
with reasonable certainty that we’re going to give the Orbiter
folks and our customer a good, sound engine.
Then after engine encapsulation, we do some visual inspections to
see if anything was damaged during our processing in the shop. Then
that’s it. It’s ready to go, ready to install. We put
it back on the Hyster, take it over to the Orbiter, and install it.
How long does that whole process take from the moment the Orbiter
lands until you put it back in the vehicle?
Well, that depends on how bad those engines are needed. We’ve
turned engines around between thirty to forty days if there’s
been no issues, no LRUs [Line Replaceable Units] that we have to take
off. There’s been cases where the Orbiter was really, really
hot and heavy for an engine, had some issue, whatever, so we’ve
had to process one real quick. On average, I think we quote around
sixty-day turnaround for an engine. That’s average with tube
repairs on the nozzle, and if we have a small LRU, that’s what
we quote. Like I said, if the Orbiter folks, our customer, really,
really needs an engine quick, we dump everybody we have on that engine,
and it gets done real quick.
Do you work with other engines, or are you primarily just working
with three constantly, or do you have maybe six or twelve here at
Kennedy that you can work with?
Right now we have fifteen engines at Kennedy. We have all but three
in our engine shop, and those three are up in space on Atlantis. At
any given moment, the number of engines we work on is really primarily
dependent upon the people we have. Right now, we kind of are winding
down. We’ve cut heads. So right now we can handle about three
or four engines at a time. In our heyday when we had over a hundred
people here, it wouldn’t be uncommon to work on six engines
at a time in the shop, if we had six engines to work on.
The number of engines that we’d had at KSC had a roller coaster
over the years due to various issues. At one point, if I remember
correctly, around 2000 or so, we lost several engines because we phased
a certain model out, so our number of engines got cut nearly in half.
Right now we have almost a completely full shop. On average, we like
to say we can work on six engines, but now we’re down to about
three or four due to people constraints.
How many people typically work on a single engine at a time?
Again, that goes back to how important or how needed a certain engine
is, but it’s really constrained by how many bodies you can get
around that engine without getting in each other’s way. We can
have anywhere between three to six people working on an engine, depending
on where they’re at, what component they’re working on.
You get more than that, then people start getting in each other’s
Now, we do have certain instances where we are doing component removal
and replacements, where just due to the criticality of that component
R&R [Removal and Replacement], we’re going to put a lot
of eyes on that. So we’ll have up to eight people or so running
that operation to remove and replace that component, just because
you don’t want anything damaged, run into anything, check and
clears, and make sure that that component goes in properly or is removed
Who finally signs off on the paperwork that says the engine is ready
to go? Is that your assignment?
I have a small part in that. We have several checks and balances all
through this engine processing. Prior to FRTs in the shop, we do have
one of our “passport processes,” what we like to call
it here in our company. It’s called a passport process, but
it’s basically a decision-making point that makes sure that
everything is okay. We have what’s called an open-item review
prior to FRTs, where the engineer who’s in charge of those FRTs
basically goes through everything that we’ve done on that engine
up to that point to make sure that he or she is ready to proceed with
checkout, that the engine is assembled properly, nothing’s been
missed as far as configuration-wise, that the engine is configured
the way it should be, and that there’s no open work. That’s
our first passport. Once that passport is properly met, we can proceed
with checkouts. That’s the start of all these checks and balances.
After the engine has gone through engine encapsulation and is ready
to install, that’s where I come into play. Prior to engine installation,
I have what’s called an engine installation review. I have one
review with Rocketdyne in-house where basically I go through everything
that we’ve done to that engine, every variant of paper or every
variant of driver of work, whether it be nonstandard or standard work.
We go through check by check and say, “This was done, and we’re
okay with that. This is done, we’re okay with that. It’s
complete or it’s not complete. And why is it not complete? If
it’s not complete, are we okay to install the engine?”
Once I do my in-house review, then I actually take that to our customers.
Everybody’s a customer. Anybody you work with that asks you
to do something, that’s your customer. Well, our primary customers
are NASA and United Space Alliance, and ultimately the taxpayer. They’re
our biggest customer. They’re paying for everything we do here,
so we want to make sure we do it right and that they get the best
value for what they pay us to do.
So once I take the engine installation review to our customers, I
basically verify that when we go to install those engines, they’re
going to be what you asked for and that everything was done according
to all your standards and according to all of our standards and that
nothing’s been missed. And if so, why, and is it okay to proceed
if we have some open work. That’s our next check and balance
in signing off these engines. There are others throughout the engine’s
travels here at KSC.
Then you fast-forward to just before launch. In the month before launch,
we have what’s called flight readiness reviews [FRRs], and that’s
where you get a lot of people together from all across the nation
at various levels of various programs, whether it be the contractors
and also the customers: NASA, United Space Alliance. We have two FRRs
that we primarily bless the engine for launch. One, we have our own
internal program FRR dealing with the Space Shuttle main engines [SSMEs].
That’s our first signoff internally that those engines are good
to go, where we as a company, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne [PWR],
go through that entire set of engines up to that point of the FRR—what
was done on those engines, if there’s been any other issues
on any of these other engines that might affect that upcoming launch,
how we’ve addressed it properly, and how do we prove that we
are okay to launch those engines on that coming mission.
We have three people from our company that sign off. You have a Safety
and Mission Assurance Manager for Rocketdyne Rob Sobieski; you have
the Chief Engineer for Rocketdyne Doug Bradley; and then you have
the Program Manager for Rocketdyne Jim Paulsen sign off on our behalf
at the SSME-level FRR; and then you have our NASA counterparts from
Marshall [Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama]. You have the
NASA Marshall Safety and Mission Assurance John Thompson. You have
NASA Marshall Chief Engineer Katherine [P.] Van Hooser, and then you
have NASA Marshall Program Manager Jerry [R.] Cook. Now, once those
six people sign off on our program-level FRR, they know that those
engines are good to go; we’re good to launch.
Then the next FRR is the big one where you’re talking NASA [Headquarters]
Washington, D.C., Johnson Space Center [Houston, Texas], Kennedy Space
Center, all the sites involved with the Space Shuttle program. All
those guys get together and the launch director, the Shuttle Program
manager, all them get together and at that top-level FRR, and they
go through every system, Orbiter, ET [External Tank], main engines,
etc, and bless everything for launch. And that’s your final
signoff. Once that final FRR is complete, then you know we’re
good to go. There’s a lot of checks and balances.
Tell us about your relationship with all these partners. You’ve
got Marshall in Alabama; you’ve got the Program Office in Houston;
you’ve got United Space Alliance out here and also Houston.
What’s the relationship like with all these different groups?
I really have no issue with any of them. I think we have a great working
relationship. Everybody knows that you’re in it for one common
goal, to get that Shuttle and those astronauts off the ground safely.
In the case of Columbia [the STS-107 accident], they bring back to
light that once the launch is over, you’re not done, so you
do have to get them back down to Earth safely. So everybody knows
that that’s your common goal.
As far as individual groups, whether it be Orbiter or external tank,
MPS [Main Propulsion] Systems, everybody has their own goals as far
as their own operating means and standards, their own program-level
goals, and things that they have to look out for. Sometimes there
is a little conflict because when the vehicle is completely integrated,
everybody’s fighting for schedule time to get their work done.
And taking that into mind that everybody’s got their own things
that they have to do and their own worries, still you’ve got
to remember that, (a), we’re all people. You’ve got to
treat each other like people. There are some people out there that
seem to miss that point. They don’t like to treat others as
they like to be treated. I don’t subscribe to that mentality.
I like to make sure everybody gets treated as humans first and then
look out for your own component. Then also keep in mind, (b), we’re
all in it for the same goal. You’re here to launch the Space
Shuttle safely and land it safely. Those astronauts are your number
one priority, to get them up and down safely.
As far as working relationships with the various Centers, I think
it’s great. There are some misunderstandings on certain levels
as to what each group understands what each other does. Not everybody
at Marshall knows everything we do here, but I don’t know what
everybody does at Marshall either. I don’t know what they need
to do to get their job done to where they can interface with me, and
I don’t want to assume that.
Then as far as working on the component-level—the folks here—I
think it’s great. Working here at Kennedy, I’ve had also
the opportunity to work at California with the factory and then travel
to various Centers, it’s a great group of people that work on
the Shuttle Program.
That’s probably what I’m going to miss the most, their
level of professionalism, their dedication, their skill, their knowledge,
I mean, you name it. Plus you’ve got quite a lot of personalities
out there, a lot of jokesters. You’ve got to have thick skin
to work on this program sometime. If you can’t take a joke,
you might as well walk out right now. It’s hard to find all
those ingredients in one job. I feel like I’m truly blessed
because I work at a job that’s incredibly unique, with a group
of people that are incredible, any and all of them. It’s not
just within Rocketdyne, because we are a very tight-knit group, almost
like a family atmosphere here, but it’s also the rest of the
Shuttle Program. Like I said, everybody’s got their own personalities
and everybody’s got their own way of doing things. You say tomayto,
I say tomahto, but you take that into consideration and respect them
for who they are and things just go a lot smoother when you have that
You told us about your training out in California. Tell us about the
training for some of the technicians out here. Are they specialized
in a particular component like nozzles or turbopumps, things like
A lot of the technicians, most of them have an aviation background
or aerospace background. Some of them have military background where
they gained that experience there. So they do have some previous expertise
on highly technical and mechanical systems. A lot of the guys who
are here at Kennedy came from old space programs. I don’t want
to say “old” space and make them sound old, but you know
what I’m saying, historical space programs.
Yes, from Apollo, for instance.
Yes, the Apollo days and stuff like that, Santa Susana field labs
[California], Stennis Space Center [Mississippi], where they worked
on hot-firing the engines, the various engines, and so they transitioned
here. It’s almost like a one-to-one. Where at Stennis the engines
don’t go anywhere, they stay in the stand; here it’s a
mobile test stand that goes up in space. Some of us like to joke around
that the Orbiter is our mobile test stand, because the engines have
been run for years before they got on an Orbiter.
That’s the one thing we have to benefit from, is that these
main engines from the very get-go have been running at Stennis Space
Center testing, up until 2009. So we literally would run these engines
till they break. Sometimes they were meant to be broken, sometimes
we didn’t expect it, and in either case the goal was to learn
from whatever happened at Stennis and apply it here.
Those technicians, they’re a great group of guys, great group
of people, guys and gals. There’s been women technicians who
work here, and they held their own. They’re no different than
any of the others. I would like to say that for the record I think
Rocketdyne has probably the best group of technicians out there, and
I’m going to gloat, because I don’t think there’s
anything that they’re incapable of. I would trust them with
Tell us about the work that Stennis Space Center would do on the engines
before they came to Kennedy.
They would beat on them, in a good way.
Yes, get on there with a big hammer, [demonstrates].
Essentially what Stennis’ goal is, when they’re not testing
development engines, when we would send them a flight-ready engine,
they would basically make sure that engine is good to go on an Orbiter.
They put it through its paces. The engine would be assembled. In the
past, it would be assembled in the Rocketdyne facility in Canoga Park.
Recently, the past five engine assemblies were done here at Kennedy.
After the engine is assembled and goes through all the checks and
balances that we do here, we send it to Stennis and they put it in
a test stand and essentially fire it up, light the fires, kick the
tires, and run it through the whole flight program. If it’s
a flight motor, it just goes through the flight profile, up to 104
percent, same throttling and everything that the Orbiter folks would
do when it’s in the Orbiter on the way up.
After the hot-fire, they essentially do what we do here. They pore
over that engine with a fine-toothed comb, looking at every little
nook and cranny, checking every system, system integrities, functionalities,
and operation parameters. These engines produce a mountain of data,
pressures, temperatures, shaft speeds, stuff like that, and they pore
over every ounce of data to make sure that that engine functioned
the way it was predicted to, because, again, it goes back to development
of those motors. These engines have over a million seconds of hot-fire
time, which is incredible, given the fact that it’s a reusable
motor, that it’s essentially what they would consider a booster
motor or a first-stage motor. All that history allows us to very closely
predict what each engine, each component is going to do during flight
With a million seconds on those motors, that’s a lot. With those
million seconds, you have all kinds of learning opportunities, little
golden nuggets of learning. This engine is constantly talking to you,
constantly, constantly. Whether it’s during operation or when
it’s sitting still, it’s constantly telling you what’s
going on with it. Whether or not you’re listening is key. Whether
it be a piece of data that’s out of the norm or whether it be
a piece of hardware that doesn’t look normal, it’s up
to us and the folks at Stennis and also the people at Canoga and Marshall
and other sites, everybody as a team, to say, “What is this
engine teaching us and how can we improve upon that?” Stennis—that’s
part of their key role. After they hot-fire that engine, they work
together as a team with Canoga Park, Marshall, and others and say
that, “Okay, this flight engine has passed the rigorous hot-fire,
the green run of that engine, and it’s okay to go on an Orbiter.”
So they mirror a lot what we do here, just at a different site and
that their test stand stays on the ground.
Do you have to check the engine once it comes back from Stennis?
Yes. Once they send it to Kennedy, we do some visual inspections and
pump torque checks, among other things, just to make sure that it
didn’t get damaged during shipping, and that’s the main
thing. After we do that, it’s pretty much good to go. We don’t
really second-guess their work that often. There might be something
that comes up data-wise in transition or in hindsight that, after
looking with a larger magnifying glass, that, “Oh, well, we
might not be comfortable with that.” Then so we might be tasked
to do something off nominal or unusual here. But for the most part
when Stennis does their job and they sign off on that engine, they
have a review that they do prior to accepting that engine into the
flight program. They have another passport-type review that essentially
accepts it as a flight motor. We don’t like to second-guess
that. That’s enough of a passport process and enough scrutiny
to say that once that engine is delivered to us, it’s good to
Tell us about what role you might play after you’ve installed
the engines. They’re ready to go for flight. The Orbiter leaves
the OPF and goes into the VAB [Vehicle Assembly Building] and it rolls
out to the pad. Do you ever have to do any sort of processing or watch
the engines as it moves through these various stages?
Yes. If we could, we’d like to put bouncers with a big stick
around the engine and tell people, “Don’t touch them.
Don’t touch them. Don’t touch them. Hands off.”
But we have to trust that anybody and everybody who is around those
engines would respect those as flight components on the Space Shuttle,
just like we wouldn’t go up and poke the Shuttle. There’s
that degree of trust that every group out here on the Orbiter has
with each other, that when you’re going to be doing work around
somebody else’s component, you’re going to treat it just
like you treat yours.
Yes, in a nutshell, we do a lot of functionality checks. After the
engines get installed, one of the first things that we do, we check
the pump torques, the low-pressure pumps that get bolted to the interfaces
of the Orbiter. We want to check those torque checks to make sure
the shafts and the various internal components of those low-pressure
pumps haven’t bound up for whatever reason.
Then we do our interface leak checks on the joints that interface
with the Orbiter. We pressurize those and make sure those don’t
leak. That’s obviously very important. You don’t want
any leaks in the aft. Then we do quick engine controller checks. We
do hydraulic checks of the thrust vectoring system of the Orbiter
that gimbals our engines. We make sure that everything is functional
there. That’s all in the OPF after we install. We do that work
in the OPF. We also do some visuals and just kind of “mother”
the engines, look over them while they’re in the Orbiter’s
Then when we go to the VAB and the Orbiter gets mated to the rest
of the stack, or the vehicle, the tank and boosters on the MLP [Mobile
Launch Platform], we do some system integrity checks there and do
some visuals there. Not much work in the VAB. The Orbiter’s
only in VAB, on average, a week, but now since we’re winding
down and due to personnel constraints, the Orbiter was in the VAB
for about two weeks.
After the Orbiter rolls out to the pad, then we do a lot of work out
there to the engines. Once we get out on the pad, usually the first
thing that we do within a few days of rolling out to the pad is we
do another FRT, a flight readiness test, similar to what we do in
the shop. But since we’re integrated with the Orbiter and the
Orbiter systems, we’re bringing more people into play, so it’s
not just us “playing” with our engines. There’s
the Orbiter folks and the MPS groups, among others, that are in on
these FRTs. So, again, it falls back to making sure all those systems,
the MPS systems that feed the engines, and the engines themselves,
are all functional and operating the way they should and that none
of those systems leak.
We also do what’s called a helium sig test, in essentially the
aft compartment. Everything that’s in the aft compartment as
far as propulsion systems that feed the engines is pressurized, and
then we run a mass spectrometer and we check to make sure there’s
no leakage in the aft, because any leakage in the aft is a bad day.
Potentially you can lose the Orbiter and the crew, so you don’t
want any leakage in the aft. After our helium sig, we do some other
system checks also.
Then we’re kind of playing a waiting game before we can go in
to get the Orbiter ready and the aft compartment ready to go up in
space. We do what we call aft closeouts. They’re inspections
of the entire aft of the Orbiter, and we also do some inspections
of the external areas of the engines. We do some minor processing
of the engines, what we call MCC [Main Combustion Chamber] polishing.
The Orbiter, while out at the launch pad, is exposed to a very corrosive
environment since it is right on the Atlantic Ocean. The MCC thrust
chamber of our engines is made of a primarily copper-based alloy that
in the past used to oxidize; you can get some surface-level oxidation
that would slightly affect the performance of the engine as far as
the boundary-layer flow and coolant of that chamber. If you have any
interruptions of that, you can get flow turbulence causing hot spots
on those chambers and affect the life of that component. Repetitive
hot spots can also lead to material cracking where liquid hydrogen
used to cool the MCC leaks out. So we go in there and we polish off
all that oxidation to ensure that does not happen. Recently we developed
a purge of the entire thrust chamber, the nozzle and MCC interior
spaces, that has nearly eliminated the oxidation of the MCC surfaces.
We still polish the MCCs, but it goes a lot quicker now.
Then we’re marching towards putting that aft door on. We do
a lot of visual inspections in the aft compartment, some where we
bring in offsite folks from California and take photographs of everything,
in parallel with the rest of the Orbiter folks who are in the aft,
like the aft compartment; the MPS groups, all them guys are in there
doing the same thing. It’s coordinated chaos, if you can call
it that. It’s like a ballet where people are not as graceful
as they would like to be, but they’re all dancing together,
and, like I said, with the main goal of everybody making sure their
components are good and we’re respecting what you do as long
as you respect what I do.
Once all those system inspections and aft closeout checks and everything
are complete and signed off, then we put the aft door on. That’s
usually, we like to say, within a week of launch, but it all depends
on our evolved schedules, when they want those doors on. We put those
aft doors on and do a last system check of that aft compartment and
the doors, and then we’re done. Then we march towards launch
Are you in the firing room the few days before launch?
Only if I have to be. I’m not one of the folks who light the
fires. I’m there only if something bad happens, which if I don’t
have to go to the firing room, then that’s a good day. Because
what I would be there for is if something were to happen, if we abort
on the pad or we have a return to launch site [RTLS] or an abort to
one of the overseas sites, then I would have to be part of that team
that would coordinate what we would do and when we would get it done.
I’m there during launch; I’ll be sticking my head in and
out, but I’m not sitting at console. It would have been nice
to do that, but my career path took me elsewhere. I don’t mind
that. So if I’m not needed on launch day, that’s a good
So you get to go to the river and watch?
Yes. I’ll have to pack my bags. There’s days I’ll
have to pack a big suitcase in case we have to go overseas. If we
have to go overseas, I’m on the plane within twenty-four hours.
The first time I had to pack for that, the gravity of that responsibility
really sunk in. I’m like, “Man, if I’m taking this
bag and throwing it on a plane, then chances are I’m probably
going to be coming home looking for another job after that, too.”
That’s interesting. Why would you have to go over there? To
If they have to abort to a transatlantic or a TAL site, transatlantic
landing, usually that means we didn’t do our job. If we have
return to launch site, that means, okay, something happened prior
to the solid rocket boosters coming off, and we can theoretically
land back at Kennedy. So it could be an engine problem, it could be
whatever, an Orbiter issue for RTLS.
Well, when you get to the point of transatlantic landing, in my opinion,
that means there’s something that we as main engine group, as
a main engine team, didn’t do, because one or more of those
engines are not going to allow that Orbiter to get to orbit. It could
also be an Orbiter issue that they felt they can’t get up there
or they don’t want to go up there, but my personal opinion is,
it’s something that we’re responsible for. It could be
a tank issue, but that has much lower probability in my opinion.
If it goes over to transatlantic landing and lands at Istres [Air
Base, France] or Moron [Air Base, Spain], your main goal is to try
to find a way to get that Orbiter back on United States soil, because
it’s not like you can just light the rockets and fly it over
here. You’ve got to find a way.
There’s not another launch site over there.
It’s going to be a logistic nightmare to get it back over here.
So that’s the prime goal. When we land over there, more than
likely we would have to take the engines out. It all depends. They
have plans, but I’ve been told that our goal would be to take
engines out, so we would have to ship the Hyster over there and somehow
get all that back over here, because they don’t have a way to
get that Orbiter on top of a 747 over there. They don’t have
the means. But you never know. You never know what can happen. Thankfully,
we’ve never had to deal with that, and with the last launch
up, we never did. So we all did our jobs to avoid that.
Your résumé indicated that you were streamlining a lot
of chronic processing issues. Can you tell us about some of those
issues that you worked and how you helped to streamline that?
There’s processing issues and then there’s hardware issues.
As far as processing in the engine, everything you do on that engine
is a process. You can make that process as long as you want, depending
on the scope of your view. So the process of overall engine processing
or the step by step, that’s rather long, forty to sixty days
or whatever it is we quote. But then you also have small processes
as far as each little test you do, each little inspection. Each one
of those is a sub process.
At Rocketdyne we’ve been pretty proactive as to not wait for
something to happen to make us do it better. You know what I’m
saying? We’ve been pretty proactive to find out how we can always
improve. Listening to the engine. Again, when the engine tells us
something, well, then we sit back and think, “Well, what did
we do wrong? Did we do something wrong as far as Kennedy here, or
was it a design issue, or fabrication issue?” As far as Kennedy
processing, it’s about looking all around at what we do. How
can we trim time and do it better, not necessarily faster, but mainly
to do it better and safer and increase the quality, because it’s
all about giving your customer the best value. So you’re always
looking at how you do it better.
Now, an example of that, it kind of is process, but it also is hardware-related.
The engine nozzle, can be a thorn in our side at times. Out of all
the components, it doesn’t move, it doesn’t spin, it’s
a stationary nonmoving component, but it gets beat a lot. During the
engine startup, there’s a shock transient that runs the whole
length of the nozzle, and as that shock transient reaches the end
of the nozzle or the exit, that nozzle really, really just gets distorted
and that puts a lot of stresses and strains on it. It’s an incredibly
lightweight nozzle for its size. It goes through a lot of temperature
changes. The fuel comes in that cools the nozzle at cryogenic temperatures
less than or colder than negative-400 degrees Fahrenheit, but by the
time it actually gets done with cooling a nozzle, it’s incredibly
hot. So the outside of the nozzle theoretically is cryo [cryogenic].
You could touch it, but the temperatures that the inside of nozzle
sees are over 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. So it goes through a lot of
temperature changes. Over 3,000 psi [pounds per square inch] running
through that nozzle, a lot of pressure, through very thin materials.
Due to all that combined, the tubes spring leaks all the time, all
the time, and it’s not something that we’re proud of and
it’s not something that it was meant to do. It’s not a
design flaw. It’s just inherent to how that nozzle operates.
So we’re constantly, constantly trying to find out ways to fix
those nozzles better, quicker, and make sure that those repairs are
So one of the things I was involved with post-Columbia was we looked
at all of our leakage criteria on that nozzle, pass/fail criteria
in certain zones in certain areas of the nozzle, what can we live
with, what can we not. One of the things I did is every leak check
of every nozzle of every flight, I compiled.
Literally a needle in a haystack is what you’re looking for,
tedious, but it was part of what we wanted to do. The goal was to
further refine our leak check criteria, our pass/fail criteria of
these nozzles to preserve the life of them and operability and repair
ability. In a sense, it would help you accept and/or repair these
leaks better with a better pass/fail. So that was one way, refining
Another thing that I was part of a team was a nozzle thermography.
It’s what we call a nozzle thermography leak check. It’s
kind of hard to explain, but the thermography leak check system uses
an infrared camera to try to find leakage on a nozzle, because when
you’re looking at the coolant tubes on the hot wall side or
where the thrust is, where the actual fire is, those are easy to see.
They’re right there. But on the other side, where those coolant
tubes are bonded to the structural jacket on the ‘coldwall’
side, you can’t see that leakage. Based upon some of our engineering
science, shall we say, that we employ, you can kind of get an idea
from the area where it’s at, but the goal of the thermography
was to use that infrared camera and find out where that leakage was
that you can’t see. So in a sense, you’re using this infrared
camera to look through that coolant tube material to look for a spot,
a signature, that says, okay, you’ve got a leak there. I was
part of that team that helped develop that process.
In the past when we would have to find those coldwall leaks, we would
have to cut open tubes, and cut and cut and cut, and isolate that
tube. “Oh, the leak’s still there.” Okay, cut another
one. Isolate that tube. “Oh, leak’s still there.”
There’ve been times we’ve cut over thirty tubes, and that
repair would drag on for weeks, weeks, and weeks. There’s been
times that we’ve never found that leak, and we’ve had
to buy it off or find some way to accept it, and there’s been
cases where we’ve lucked out and we cut a tube once and found
it and fixed it.
Now, the whole idea of the thermography was to eliminate all those
tube cutting. You’re still searching, seeking with this camera,
but you’re not cutting tubes. It’s real quick to just
take a shot. “Oh, it’s there.” Cut it open. “We
I think that was a pretty interesting process, and I was proud to
be part of that team. It was with Marshall and Canoga Park, and with
us folks here at Kennedy and Stennis, all of us worked together, engineers
and technicians, we all worked together and fine-tuned that process
with the goal of making these tube repairs a lot quicker so we could
get that engine back on line, that component back to being a flight
asset. So that was just engineering science. It was pretty cool.
Another example of a processing problem I had a part in resolving
is how we deal with contamination. Contamination in a rocket engine,
or in any other fluid, mechanical, or electrical system for that matter,
can be deadly. It can block coolant passages, interrupt fluid flows,
short electrical systems, and just generally do very bad things. You
try your best to control contamination or FOD [Foreign Object Debris]
from its source, using a preventative measures and procedures. No
matter how hard you try, internal systems can get contaminated, whether
it be from external or internal sources. This is where reactive or
passive measures come into place; how well can you find it and get
it out after the fact? After you find something, document it, remove
it, and verify the system is clean, you have to get back to active
means of approaching the problem. Where did it come from, how did
it get there, and can it be prevented? Can we do what we have been
doing better? It’s the idea of continuous improvement; do not
wait for a problem to happen. I was part of a team that helped improve
and expand our active approach to contamination or FOD. One measure
was to borescope inspect components and/or systems after a component
or joint is demated, before its replacement is installed or mated,
and after the installation or mate is completed if possible. Our new
active approach greatly reduced the occurrences of unacceptable contamination
or FOD noted in the engine. I was proud to be part of that team.
Finally, there is the risk assessment process we use at PWR. Everything
we do here is a process. There are generally two types: a nominal
process, or something you do regularly, and often and an off-nominal
process. These are processes that are done very rarely, on a contingency
basis sometimes, or new processes altogether. I was part of a team
that helped develop an Off-nominal Risk Assessment Checklist, or ORAC.
The ORAC is a VERY comprehensive list that is meant to be a mind-jogger
of sorts, forcing you to look at that off-nominal process from all
aspects and “outside the box:” tooling, ergonomics, hazards,
actual work steps, everything. What is it, how is it done, why are
we doing it, what are the results of actions taken in the process,
what are the risks that may hinder achieving 100% success? We look
from start to finish of the entire process. If there are any issues,
constraints, risks, and so forth, the ORAC drives you to address them
and put any fixes, mitigations, or such in place BEFORE you start
any work. This way you give the people who will be performing these
off-nominal tasks the best chance of success, you do not set them
up to fail. The new ORAC process has worked very well, and I am glad
I had a part in developing that.
There were a number of improvements made over the years as you’ve
worked on the program to the engines, like the Block II engines, the
advanced health management system. Can you tell us how those changes
impacted processing or the work that you do here at KSC, or if it
did at all?
Primarily the modifications to the engine that we’ve done ever
since the engine was first designed and built back in the seventies
and first flown in ’81, all the way up to now, all those phases
of modification of the engines were primarily based upon reliability
and safety of the engine. So as far as processing, how it affected
our processing, in most cases it helped us. In some cases, we went
backwards, but it really didn’t matter because you’re
not really worried about the processing, you’re worried about
the safety. That was our ultimate goal.
Again, it falls back to these engines were constantly, constantly,
constantly tested, and when they broke, we did find out why. We didn’t
leave a stone unturned if it didn’t give us that answer. We
would search and search and diagnose, and when the engine would break
or something would happen, if we would have to take a component offline
and cut it apart to look at cross-sections of welds or look at grain
structures of pump blades, we did it. Because, again, the ultimate
goal was you wanted zero failures because you didn’t want anything
to happen to those astronauts. It’s not so much you’re
worried about the company reputation. That’s a byproduct of
worrying about the astronauts. Your goal is what your customers ask
you to do, and you fulfill it to the best of your abilities, and if
you can’t fulfill it, then you keep doing it until you can.
You keep working at it until you can. Failure is not an option, you
know. We want nothing but 100 percent success.
So, going back to the modifications of the engines, as something would
break and we would learn about that, we’d say, “Okay,
we need to modify that to fix that,” and that’s what we
would do. Primarily some of it was based upon manufacturing ability
to get those engines built quicker and the components built quicker,
but mainly it was reliability and safety. So we would phase that in
as we would learn.
So the first engines that were flown, I’ve forgot what they
were called. I called them Phase Ones, but I think they were baseline
or FPL engines, full power-level engines. I forgot what they officially
called them. Those we flew up to the Challenger [accident, STS-51L].
After the Challenger incident, all the lessons that we’ve learned
at Kennedy, at Stennis, at Marshall, at Canoga, at West Palm [Beach,
Florida], at the Honeywell facilities, all the people that contributed
to that final product of an SSME, we had a lot of things we wanted
to improve upon, so we did a phased approach after Challenger.
The first modification was after Challenger. It was a Phase Two engine.
That was primarily controller software and controller reliability,
taking into consideration some of the things were learned from Challenger
and other lessons learned. We also did some minor improvements to
other components, mainly how they were built, not how they functioned
or how they performed. Flew those a lot.
The next phase, if I remember correctly, after Phase Two, we did a
Block I. Block I was first flown in 1995. We brought in a new high-pressure
oxidizer turbopump. The high-pressure oxidizer turbopump spins at
over 30,000 rpm and delivers a very dense fluid, liquid oxygen, to
this engine, and it goes through a lot to get its job done, a lot
of stresses. It takes its toll on that pump. Through the years of
flight and development, they found out a way to make that pump better,
one of which was using different bearings, an improved bearing material
on that pump. It’s also with manufacturing ability of the pump.
Overall, the goal was for that pump to improve its reliability and
safety and make sure that it did what our customer asked it to do.
The new pump had increases in safety, reliability, and life or useage.
Also with the Block I engine, we incorporated a new powerhead design
where it went from five ducts that transferred the gases from the
pumps, the turbine ends of the pumps. It delivered the gases from
the pumps to the main injector to be burned for combustion. It went
from five ducts to four, three ducts on the fuel side down to two;
mainly reduced turbulence, and with the reduced turbulence you had
reduced pressures and temperatures. That helped the life of the engine
and reliability of the engine, and also helped things kind of upstream
of those ducts with the pumps, mainly with the pumps, allowed them
to increase their reliability and lower their operating parameters
and less stress on them.
Then if I remember correctly the final major thing that we incorporated
in the Block I is a single-tube heat exchanger. The heat exchanger
is a component on the oxidizer pre-burner where the high-pressure
oxidizer turbopump is, and what that function of the heat exchanger
does is it turns liquid oxygen to gaseous oxygen so it can pressurize
the external tank. The single-tube heat exchanger design eliminated
a lot of welds, thus increase in safety and reliability. Again, all
the modifications of the engine go to safety and reliability of the
Some of the modifications, we’re trying to squeeze more performance
out of the engine. The thrust-to-weight of this engine is incredible.
The reliability, the efficiency of the engine is incredible. The Isp
[specific impulse] is a function that measures basically the overall
performance of the engine. It’s pretty high for that engine.
It’s one of the highest of all the rocket engines out there.
So with all the modifications that we do to this engine, we are trying
to squeeze performance out as much as we can, it’s like trying
to wring out a dry sponge, but all these mods [modifications] mainly
revolve around safety, reliability.
1998 we went to a Block IIA. What we did is we incorporated a large-throat
main combustion chamber. The main combustion chamber is part of the
thrust chamber. You have your injector that combines and burns the
gases to produce thrust, and then it converges to the main combustion
chamber throat, whereas once you get past the throat of that combustion
chamber, that’s where your acceleration of your hot gases start
to product thrust, and then downstream of the throat you have your
diversion region to produce thrust and rocketry science takes over
We increased the throat of the main combustion chamber I think around
10 percent from the small-throat to the large-throat configuration,
and what that did is, again, reduced your operating pressures and
eased the load, so to speak, of everything upstream of that. So your
pumps, your powerheads, everything, it reduced all the stresses and
strains on them. Again, all these mods are going to safety, reliability,
helping the engine do its job better. I think that was it that we
did in the Block IIA was just the large throat.
Then, finally, we did a Block II mod, which is what we’re running
now. Everything we’re running now is Block II, and that is incorporating
a redesigned high-pressure fuel turbopump. Those are made by us—we
are now part of the Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne West Palm Beach
campus, and the folks down in West Palm Beach are the ones who are
designing and fabricating and assembling those pumps. With the redesigned
high-pressure fuel turbopump, it borrowed a design cue from the redesigned
high-pressure oxidizer pump with a new bearing, a silicon nitride
bearing. It’s a ceramic material, harder and lighter than the
older material, more reliable, less wear, so your safety and reliability
of that pump does get increased.
They also redid some methods on how they’ve produced the blades
of that pump. They noted over the years that they had some issues
with grade structures, and they went to a casting. It was actually
primarily around dealing with eliminating welds of those blades. Again,
when you can eliminate a weld or how things are joined, it increases
reliability and safety again. Again, it all is around reliability
and safety of the component in the engine.
Those are our mods, so that’s what we’re flying now. We’ve
been flying them since 2001. It all revolves around lessons learned
throughout the entire thirty years of the program and everybody listening
to what the engine is telling you. If there’s something wrong
and you can’t find why, then you’re not listening hard
enough, you’re not looking hard enough, so you don’t stop
till you find that last stone that tells you that answer.
Well, you’ve been highly successful.
Thank you. Thank you. It’s not just me, it’s everybody,
but, yes, thank you. On behalf of Rocketdyne and the main engine team,
I thank you.
Tell us about the Space Shuttle Main Engine Processing Facility. I
understand that was built, I think, in ’98 or so. Tell us about
what it contains.
It contains a lot of good people and a lot of good hardware. That’s
our baby. We used to process engines in the VAB. That’s when
I hired in. We were still processing in the VAB when I transitioned
to Kennedy. It was interesting. We didn’t have quite the space
we needed. Everything wasn’t as ergonomically sound as you would
like, but we got the job done.
So, prior to ’98 we pitched the idea to NASA that we would like
to have our own standalone facility. Mainly we needed some space,
but also primarily to get us out of the VAB where there’s a
lot of ordnance, the boosters and stuff like that that are stored,
basically for the safety of employees and everybody involved, just
get us out of the VAB, let the people who do work in the VAB just
be the booster and tank folks, and when they mate the vehicle, let
that happen at the VAB. So we did.
After a few years of building and troubleshooting the shop, they opened
it up in ’98, and all the lessons learned from Stennis Space
Center and the Canoga Assembly Facility, where they would assemble
the engines back then, were incorporated in the shop. So what we have
there is roughly about a 35,000-square-foot facility that can process
rocket motors, specifically designed for processing rocket motors.
We tailored it for the main engines, as far as crane height for example,
but we can process other motors there.
As far as what the shop contains, we have our drying ovens there to
dry the entire engines after flight and the control panels and fluid
hookups and everything there, and then we also have floor space to
do horizontal processing and a huge high bay to bring in our giant
steroid tractor, the Hyster. Then we have vertical stands where we
can rotate up to six engines into the vertical and process six engines
at a time vertically. Then we have a lot of floor space to use as
we please. We have pressurization panels where we can pressurize any
system of the engine, whether it be in horizontal or vertical orientation.
We have electrical interfaces to where we can hook up the engine avionics
and electrical systems to power up the avionics and electrical systems
and troubleshoot as necessary and also simulate how those electrical
systems would be used during flight to make sure they’re functional.
Also we have areas to process some of the GSE that we use. There’s
fifteen engines here in Kennedy, but there’s hundreds of pieces
of GSE that we use to process the engines, and without the GSE we
wouldn’t get anything done. So we’ve got to maintain our
GSE just as stringently as we maintain the engines. That’s about
it. We’ve got a couple cranes in our shop that can pretty much
lift a house off the ground if needed and, like I said before, a lot
of characters running around looking at engines and doing their job
as best as they can.
Are there any hazardous materials that you handle out in that shop?
Not as hazardous as some of the stuff that the Orbiters work with,
like hypergols, but we do have a lot of hazards. In the case where
the engine’s in the vertical and we have to pressurize an engine,
that thrust chamber becomes oxygen-deficient atmosphere, so you have
to treat that accordingly. That’s a hazard you have to take
into consideration. Then you’re running pressurization, so you
have to handle your pressurization lines accordingly, because if one
of those fails, it could be a bad day for somebody. You have heavy
lifts, so that’s another hazard we have to contend with, so
you don’t want anybody under suspended loads. Then you also
have electrical hazards, fluid hazards. So there are plenty hazards
in there, just different from what the Orbiter deals with.
Then you have hazardous waste, byproducts of what we do. We do use
various chemicals, adhesives, and various materials that you just
can’t toss in a trashcan to go to the dump. You want to make
sure those are disposed of properly. We do have procedures and processes
for those, and storage and disposal of your various hazardous commodities
that we have throughout the shop. And everybody’s trained on
hazardous waste disposal and hazardous waste handling and all the
various hazards we may encounter. Everybody’s trained on that,
so if you’re going to work in the shop, you’re going to
know what to look for and you’re going to know how to deal with
You talked about some of the work you did after the Columbia accident.
Was there other work that was going on that impacted the engines themselves?
As far as the Columbia investigation, we had a small group of folks,
including myself. Our goal, our primary responsibility, as debris
was brought into Kennedy, we just identified it. “That’s
main engine’s. That’s ours,” and we’d get
it out of the way because they knew pretty quick we had nothing to
do with that. Although we were part of the Orbiter, we did what we
could do to help that Orbiter team, that investigation team, get their
job done. It was primarily just to get out of their hair and let them
do their job. So really our only responsibility, was just to identify
debris that was ours and get it out of the way.
As far as results or follow-on from the Columbia investigation and
incident findings and the stand-down during the Columbia prior to
Return To Flight, we pretty much were proactive. We were actually
very proactive, and we looked at everything we did here. We have paper
that allows us to work on the engines and tell us to do certain things
during our processing of the engine, and we stood down every piece
of that paper, and “stood down” meaning that we looked
at every page, every step, every word, every buy, every warning, everything.
Made sure that, okay, are we happy with that? Well, why not? Could
we do that better? Well, how so? Well, if we implement a change, how
do we know it’s going to work? So it’s around this whole
plan, do, check and act type thing. Whereas, okay, you have some requirement
that tells you to do something that our customer wants us to do, and
it’s reflected in all the standard work paper. Well, you have
that requirement. Well, then how do we document that requirement?
How do we satisfy that requirement? How do we do it? Then once we
do it, how do we know we did it correctly? How do we verify that we
did it correctly?
So it’s a constant loop, and that loop is never really closed.
It’s never really done. Once you satisfy the requirement, you’re
always looking at how to do it better. During that Columbia stand-down,
we went through every inch of that paper, everything, to find out
how we can do it better, how we can document it better, how we can
plan it better, how can we do it more safely, because we have a kind
of a mentality down here, of course. Safety, it’s not just a
procedure, it’s a culture. You’ve got to live it, you’ve
got to breathe it, just as easy as you can walk and talk at the same
time. You don’t think about it; it’s just in your blood.
You’re always trying to figure out how to do it safer. So we
did some of that after Columbia.
We also looked at things using this mentality of “we don’t
want to set people up to fail.” That’s key, because everything
here that we do is a process, and everything has a procedure attached
to that process or a requirement attached to that process, or basically
paperwork. If we’re putting this piece of paper out on the floor
and telling somebody to go do it, we take stamp warranty very, very
seriously here. When you stamp off that piece of paper, that in a
sense goes back to what we were talking about earlier. How do you
know that engine’s ready to fly? Well, when you put that stamp
on that piece of paper that says you did that step correctly, that’s
one little step towards ensuring that engine’s ready to go.
So we looked at “are we setting people up to fail?” When
we tell them to put that stamp on that paper, are they going to do
that job right that properly reflects all these mountain of requirements?
We stood down all of our paper. It wasn’t just engineers. It
was the technicians who do the work; it was the quality folks who
verify the work; it’s the safety folks to make sure that it’s
being done safely; it’s the configuration folks who were making
sure that when that engine’s back together, it’s the way
it’s supposed to be. So all these people stood down all of these
pieces of paper.
We also looked at not just individual pieces of paper, but the overall
processing of the engine too. How could we do it better? How could
we do it safer? We were just very proactive. We didn’t wait
for somebody to tell us. We did it on our own. So by the time we did
Return To Flight, we improved things. I wouldn’t say considerably,
but we did our job better. We gave our customer more value, so that
According to your résumé, you’ve implemented quite
a few significant ideas or techniques to help improve processes like
the Lean principles, reducing process steps, lead time. Can you tell
us about some of those things that you’ve implemented?
Well, I can’t take 100 percent credit for a lot of these things,
because we do everything as a team here.
One of the things, our nozzle encapsulation, I can’t really
take the credit for this. One of our technicians had an idea. Instead
of using the old method that we would do that would employ basically
taking a big—it’s kind of hard to say—just a bag,
and attach it to a certain area of the nozzle that we can’t
see the coolant tubes and leak-check it. He came up with the idea
to use a hard fixture with a known volume and attach it to the side.
I was part of a small team that kind of got that going, but that mainly
is his credit. I don’t want to steal his thunder.
Another thing that we do as far as looking at Lean principles is we’re
constantly looking over processing data and looking at if we have
repetitive issues, well, what can we do about that? We have Corrective
Action Boards, Preventative Action Boards, again, paper stand-downs
and stuff like that, so it’s all just kind of part of a team
environment where we’re working towards that type of stuff.
Another thing, I wouldn’t say it’s not necessarily Lean
principles, but it’s a byproduct of our operating system that
we use here at Pratt, is using some of these Lean tools to look at
data. We looked at, again, our nozzle. We kept getting leaks in certain
areas over and over and over and over and over and over again throughout
the recent history, and, again, keep looking until you find that one
stone that you overturn that gives you the answer. We used the various
Lean tools, analyzing the data that the engine’s giving you,
whether it be operational data, inspection data, or nonconformance
data, in this case.
We did some trending and noticed that it was in a certain area. We
asked, “Well what do we do in that certain area of that nozzle
that might cause that?” We narrowed it down to some processing
that we thought was helping that nozzle, and it turned out it was
hurting it because of a sponge. It was all revolving around a sponge
that we would use to put a corrosion inhibitor on that nozzle to prevent
corrosion. In fact, it was accelerating corrosion. Eventually we found
out that when they packaged it and sent it out to whoever would buy
it, they would treat it with something that was incredibly high in
chlorine content, and chlorides and metals don’t like each other.
Chlorides tend to accelerate corrosion rather rapidly, and it turns
out the chloride levels were like more than one hundred times the
concentration of the ocean saltwater. So what we were doing was putting
corrosion accelerant on the nozzle.
So through the Lean principles and our various tools that we employ
here at Rocketdyne, we found that it came down to, like, a $5 sponge.
We eliminated that sponge and things got better, and we eliminated
our leakage that would happen over and over again. So that was an
example of the use of one of the Lean tools.
Another thing that I kind of helped as part of the team to employ
is a tracking system. Our customer has, per engine, over around two
hundred OMRSDs (Operational Maintenance Requirements and Specifications
Document), or OMRSD requirements. Those are basically what they want
per contract done to this engine and prove that we’ve done it,
to say that they want that engine to fly.
Well, we had a way to track those, that we internally would track
them. I was part of a team. One of the things that I helped do was
implement a web-based system that’s a lot more user-friendly,
to allow us to personally, as our Rocketdyne group, to go in and say,
“Yes, we did this. We satisfied that requirement,” before
we would get to our engine installation review and take it to the
customer. The final tracking of that, the official tracking of those
OMRSDs, is done by United Space Alliance. They’re the ones who
go off into their database and say, “Yes, Rocketdyne did it.
We are okay with that engine.” This was kind of our own check
and balance to make sure that we did that. Then any nonstandard processing
we would do to that engine would add on more requirements, and that’s
what one of my jobs is, is when we go to do nonstandard processing,
I would make sure those requirements are added to our processing list
and then verify it as done.
I’m not going to take credit for any one thing, because there’s
really not much that we do here individually. It’s always a
team effort. I’ve been part of several teams that do a lot of
good work to help this engine and help us do what we do here. So I
don’t want to just raise a flag.
You mentioned the last, I believe, five fabrications of engines occurred
here rather than in California. Would you tell us why the switch,
why suddenly move across country?
Primarily they wanted—“they” as in our Canoga Park
team, wanted to shut down that facility where they did engine assembly.
Since a lot of what we did here at that time and also at Stennis is
very similar to almost doing a complete engine assembly from the ground
up, because there’s not a single component that we can’t
remove and replace here at Kennedy. We can tear an engine down to
where all the components are off and rebuild it if needed. So in a
sense, when Rocketdyne program management wanted to shut down that
facility, we raised our hand and said, “We can do it.”
We went over there for the last couple of engine assemblies and also
watched what Stennis did, as far as development engine assembly, and
tried to figure out how to do it better, how we can do it better,
as far as within our means. And then we started.
We ended up building an engine faster, less man-hours and less time
and money than what Canoga would do. I don’t want to implicate
anyone at the Canoga Park facility. It’s not that they did anything
wrong. It’s not that they were not looking outside the box to
improve their processes. It’s just that they were operating
within their own means to do what they had to do. And we got down
here and certain things freed up for us and we had a little bit more
control of our own destiny down here as far as what we can do. Be
proactive, again, to figure out, implement new ideas, and that’s
what we did. It was quite an experience.
When did that take place?
Oh, jeez. I was afraid you were going to ask me about that one. I
can’t remember exactly what year the first engine assembly was.
I would like to say it was around 2001, 2002 timeframe, but don’t
quote me on that one. I’ll have to double-check my resources
on that one. Turns out it was in 2005 when the first engine assembly
at KSC happened.
We did build five engines here, and four of those engines did get
flown. The last engine that we built here, Engine 2062, was the last
engine ever assembled for the Space Shuttle Main Engine program. Unfortunately,
prior to that engine being completed, we didn’t have a test
stand to green-run it at Stennis. They shut down a test stand at Stennis
in 2009. So it’s an engine that is built, ready for a test stand
and ready to fly on whatever they’re going to bolt it up to.
So what are you going to do with all these engines that are here at
KSC? Are they destined to go to museums, or is Rocketdyne going to
use them on some other system?
I don’t have a garage big enough, so I’ll guess they’ll
have to stay here or somewhere else. That’s a good question,
a very good question. We are still waiting for that decision. We’ve
heard they’re going to stay here. We’ve also heard they’re
going to go to Stennis Space Center and stored there. Don’t
know. We’re still waiting for that decision. Still waiting on
a lot of decisions. And it’s not so much Marshall making their
decisions. They’re bound by Washington, D.C. So that decision
chain goes about as far up as you can go, waiting for it to happen.
So that’s about all I’m going to say about that. I’m
not very happy at the lack of decision, but I’m not going to
blame any of my Rocketdyne teammates and I’m not going to blame
any of the Marshall folks, because I know they’re bound by what
they can do. So you know where that blame is going; it’s Washington,
What are some of the more memorable missions that you helped work
on or witness?
Well, the first launch, STS-81, when I was a green college kid that
was broke and eating Ramen noodles. It was a night launch, and it
was in January. STS-81, saw it go all the way to main engine cutoff,
and it was a bright dot about an inch or so from the horizon. That
was incredible. I mean, it’s night sky. I think it was like
four a.m., so it’s still pitch dark out. When our main engines
lit, you saw a glow. The boosters lit, you saw a bigger glow. When
that vehicle lifted off the pad, it was like somebody turned on the
lights, and it was amazing, amazing. Then the booster separated and
you saw this ultra, ultra white dot of the main engines still kicking
strong, doing their job, pushing all the way to main engine cutoff,
or MECO. I was sold. I was sold.
Like I said, I told a gentleman named Jim Tibble, who was sitting
in this firing room and he ran me out—he was one of my first
managers here—I told him I’d work for beans, and told
my other manager, my other boss there that gave me my opportunity,
Mr. [Eric P.] Gardze, “You guys can just low-ball me. I ain’t
going to care. I’m signing on. You’re going to have to
kick me out if you don’t want me.” That was one.
Shorty after I first transitioned to KSC, I attended my first top-level
FRR, where representatives from the astronaut office attend. This
was back in 1998, 1999 or so. John [W.] Young was the astronaut representative
at that FRR. Another hero I looked up to. Well, during a break I approached
him. Before I could ask him for an autograph, he very politely asked
me if I could print out a certain chart from the last presentation.
I told him, as politely and courteously as I could, that I was not
responsible for the charts. He lit up his astronaut legend smile,
laughed, shook my hand and apologized for thinking I was the “chart
boy.” He signed my FRR program after that. I made the mistake
of telling some coworkers what happened, so then I became John Young’s
“chart boy.” I could think of many worse things to be.
I have the program in my memory books.
John [H.] Glenn’s launch, STS-95, that was one, because that
was a really, really good moment for the program, gave us a lot of
good publicity. People started remembering what the Shuttle was about,
because you had a national hero going back up to his home in space.
He has a home here on Earth, but his real home’s up there. That’s
where he belongs. We sent him back up there, and we were in a big-time
fishbowl here for that. The stress, the tension, you wanted to get
this 100 percent perfect. You want to get every launch 100 percent
perfect, but this is an icon that I looked up to when I was a kid.
I got a chance to meet him and shake his hand. He’s going on
the Shuttle, the engines that I worked on. I was just like, “Wow,
that’s super cool.”
When that got off the ground and he got back down safe, that was quite
an accomplishment. Like I said, it was a fishbowl here. Your manager
was saying, “Hey, just do your job. Just do your job. But get
it right. Get it right. We want it to go right. We want it to be perfect.”
Like I said, no different than any other launch, you want them all
to be perfect and all safe, but it’s John Glenn. That was one
memorable launch from a positive aspect.
Then there is STS-93. Right after engine start and liftoff, several
of the cockpit warning lights lit up. Eileen [M.] Collins was the
commander for that mission. The Orbiter was screaming that something
was wrong, and very wrong, potentially deadly wrong. It seemed to
me that her voice broke only for a fraction of a split second, as
I am sure it would happen to anyone when they first realize they may
be meeting their maker, but then she was solid as a rock, a real “Cool-hand
Eileen.” The Orbiter got into orbit safely, but not without
issues. There were two big issues that mission. Orbiter wiring that
caused a short, which knocked out some of our abilities to monitor
and control our engines, and a little metal pin that hit our nozzle
coolant tubes causing a major fuel leak resulting in a low-LOX engine
cutoff, before expected and planned MECO, of all three engines. If
the engine runs out of the fluids it pumps and uses during operation,
that is a real bad day. Well, that little metal pin, only about a
half inch long and pretty narrow, was knowingly installed in one of
our engines as part of a planned engine maintenance procedure. I installed
that pin. Even though the SSME Program accepted a small risk that
the pin may come out during operation, because the program felt the
probabilities of that happening were slim to none, and approved its
installation, it still made me feel horrible because I installed it.
Well, after that mission we discontinued use of those pins and any
engine that may ever need them. So not only did my loose pin put the
astronauts at risk, it took engines out of the program as flight assets.
Great. Those were very solemn days after that happened. That was a
memorable launch from the negative aspect.
Another one, I think it’s STS-101, if I remember correctly.
That one was a morning launch in May. Because there’s the unique
differences of STS-101 and STS-108. 101 was a morning launch, if I
remember correctly. Yes. The sun was thinking about coming over the
horizon right when we were getting ready to launch, so you get the
gradients of colors when you’re looking at the eastern horizon,
when the sun is starting to warm up and telling you it’s getting
ready to come over the horizon. You have the darks and then it gets
your sunset colors. The backdrop prior to T-zero was just amazing,
it was gorgeous, just a whole spectrum of vibrant colors.
Then you have liftoff and it lit up the sky, but since the sun wasn’t
over the horizon, you’re still kind of dark and the plume had
a dark tone to it. Then as it got up after a certain point, that plume
hit the sunlight and lit up. It just went from the dark, dark gray
of the plume being not lit, as if it were like an evening or night
launch, and then it just suddenly got lit up as white and as brilliant
as you please. And you can just hear the crowd go [gasps], “Wow!”
Then you had the shadow effect streaking towards the west of the plume.
So the lower half is dark, not lit. The upper half is lit. The Orbiter’s
lit. Keep in mind you have that beautiful spectrum of your purples
and pinks and everything, and then it’s lit in shadowing.
STS-108 was kind of just the opposite as far as time of day. It was
an evening launch. The sun was setting. Sun was already behind the
horizon or under the horizon, so in the west you had the sunset colors.
In the east it was dark, getting dark, getting black, and the Orbiter
was cloaked in darkness. As it lit up, it lit up the eastern sky.
As it went up, it was cloaked in darkness minus the plume, and then
got to a certain altitude where that sun that was over horizon was
able to light it up. Again, it was the crowd moment, [demonstrates],
and this time you had the plume and vehicle shadow pointing to the
east. It was amazing. Those were two of the most visually amazing
memorable launches. I probably burned out my camera taking pictures
Then you have Return To Flight, STS-114, all those years of post-Columbia
work, a lot of emotions, a lot of emotions. I’m getting a little
emotional now. Those were the most memorable missions.
And then, of course, this one. I wasn’t here onsite for the
launch, because I wanted my family to take part in it. I took them
to Kars KARS [Kennedy Athletic, Recreation, and Social] Park, an employee
park nearby. We went camping in an RV and was able to have my wife
and two boys, one going on three, who just loves rocketry, loves his
dad; my enthusiasm has kind of infected him. He’s all about
rockets. He’s been to the Visitors Center several times. He’s
seen launches from Orlando [Florida], which is where we live. But
we wanted to be closer than Orlando, so brought them here. Memories
of a lifetime right there. All thirty years of the program and then
fourteen years of my life went up with that launch, and it was quite
an amazing time. Quite an amazing time. I’m sorry; I got a little
That happens to all of us. I think it’s a sad moment.
Thank you. Thank you. I think that would be it.
I was going to ask you if you had anything else that you had written
down. I think we’ve gone through my set of questions.
I was going to talk to you about my first Dryden [Flight Research
Center, California] trip. When the Orbiter can’t land at Kennedy,
it lands at Dryden, and I was able to go out there. It was kind of
like the cradle of aviation out there, one of the cradles of aviation
out there, and see the Orbiter where it first used to land. STS-1
landed on that lakebed. To go out there, because I was really geeked-up
to go out there and see that. Then you do your job, and a week later
the Orbiter is heading home to Kennedy, but just to be part of Dryden
history and processing the Orbiter and seeing the desert, going from
lush green to brown barrenness and just everything. It was February
when I went out there. People think, oh, desert in February, no big
deal. I didn’t have enough clothes. I felt like I was naked
on the runway out there. It’s cold. You’re out there in
Antelope Valley near Palmdale [California]. I got introduced to desert
wind out there, and I didn’t like it, and it was cold. It’s
all just wonderful memories. That’s about it.
What do you have to do when it would land out at Edwards? For main
engines, what’s your responsibility there?
Mainly we do some basic inspections, some real, real cursory inspections
to see if there’s anything wrong with the engine that would
not allow it to go back to Kennedy, and then it’s just mainly
we’re tucking the engines to where we can put the cone on and
allowing those engines and the MPS systems and the fuel-feed systems
and oxidizer-feed systems and all the internal systems of the Orbiter,
they have to be pressurized on the way out. So we have to make sure
that our engines can hold that pressure, that the integrity of those
engines are where we want them to be. So those are our main priorities
out there, to make sure we are configured for the ferry and that the
system integrity is there for the ferry, and that’s it.
The Orbiter folks have got the lion’s share of the work out
there. They have to get that Orbiter configured. There’s a lot
more configuring for them to do to get it to work and go back on that
747 and come out to Kennedy. We just try to stay out of their way.
Sandra, do you have any questions for Eric? All right.
Thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate it.
You’re welcome. No problem. I enjoyed it.