83.9 F
San Fernando
Saturday, Sep 30, 2023

Endeavour’s homecoming

Mike Carlson Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, Canoga Park As a systems engineer on the space shuttle main engines, Mike Carlson likened himself to a general contractor. Just as a general contractor manages and oversees the tradesman building a house, Carlson did the same with a team of engineers for the large rocket engines developed and built at Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne that put the shuttle into earth orbit. “The engine performed flawlessly for 135 missions and I am proud of that,” Carlson said of the machine formally known as the RS-25. Carlson came to Rocketdyne campus in Canoga Park in 1988 when the engine maker was still owned by Rockwell International. He had recently completed graduate school in Chicago. The three main engines propelling the shuttle were powered by liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen and each was capable of more than 400,000 pounds of thrust. The engines were derived from the J-2 used on the Saturn rockets during the Apollo program. One of the goals of NASA was to have efficient engines that got the most out of each pound of propellant, Carlson said. “Other rocket engines are not as sophisticated as that,” Carlson said. There were 46 engines used on the shuttle program with each being taken in for maintenance and upkeep after each use. Each engine was designed to have 55 starts, Carlson said. “We have some engines that have more time than that, but we do not fly them when they get that old,” he said. Carlson said when people find out that he worked on the shuttle program, they often are curious about his work and pepper him questions. The arrival of the shuttle Endeavour to Los Angeles for its retirement at the California Science Center has created a buzz about the space vehicle. “They ask if I’ve seen a launch or if I’ve been up close enough to a shuttle and touch it,” Carlson said. While the shuttle orbiter may have stopped flying, the engines are still in use. NASA plans on using the RS-25 for the Space Launch System, its next heavy lift space vehicle that is still many years away from taking flight. Carlson continues to work with the engines as an integration engineer. “We have 15 of (the RS-25) that were ready to fly some more and we are going to build a 16th out of spare parts,” Carlson said. Frances Ferris Boeing Co., Huntington Beach Frances Ferris once was told by a second grader that she had the coolest job in the world because she got to be around rockets all day. “I told him, ‘Yes I do,’” said Ferris, a retiree from Boeing Co. Boeing hired Ferris immediately after she received an engineering degree from Harvey Mudd College, one of the Claremont Colleges in Claremont, Calif. She stayed with the aerospace company for 31 years and spent her entire career on the space shuttle program. When Ferris started on the program, she supervised the purge, vent and drain/thermal control systems, which handled the environmental controls of the unpressurized compartments of the orbiter. At that time, Columbia, the first shuttle built, already had been moved to Kennedy Space Center. In later years, Ferris visited Palmdale, where the orbiters were built, for testing on Challenger and Discovery. She held positions as Orbiter Vehicle Engineering chief team engineer, Orbiter operations cost account manager, non-avionics, and Orbiter vehicle operations deputy associate program director. Among the duties Ferris performed was modifying the shuttle orbiter for safety and performance. Those improvements included the inflight crew escape system that allowed the crew to bail out through a side hatch and the drag parachute system that slowed the orbiter on landing and reduced stress to the brakes and tires. Endeavour first demonstrated the chute system in 1992. “We did quite a few improvements to the thermal tile protection system,” Ferris said. “That was a result of the Columbia accident (in 2003) and makes it less vulnerable to debris.” She said one thing she has learned in her years on the program is that people were excited about the shuttles and always wanted to know more. “It is something that inspires people,” Ferris said. Ferris hopes that inspiration leads young people to take an interest in science and technology to generate innovation in those fields, much as the shuttle program had. “There is no way to build the International Space Station without the space shuttle,” Ferris said. “There would be no launch and repair of the Hubble telescope which is allowing us to see to the far edges of the universe and advanced the state of that science.” In 2006, Ferris was named a fellow of the Society of Women Engineers for her achievements in aerospace engineering and working to pro mote the goals of the organization. Al Hoffman Boeing Co., Palmdale Even after decades in the business, Al Hoffman is still in awe about the makings of a space shuttle orbiter: 2 million individual parts, 240 miles of wiring, 10,000 mechanical joints, and 24,000 pieces of tile. “I didn’t realize how complex a machine the shuttle was,” Hoffman said. “I have a great appreciation for American ingenuity and expertise.” Site manager for Boeing Co. at Edwards Air Force Base and NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, Hoffman began his career with Rockwell International on the B-1 bomber. He then went to Rocketdyne to work on the main shuttle engines and returned to Rockwell in 1989 to become a manufacturing manager during the building of the orbiter Endeavor. Boeing acquired Rockwell in 1996. Building Endeavour and doing upgrades on the orbiters at Palmdale required long hours. But Hoffman said he worked alongside people with a lot of pride and a lot passion about what they were doing. When the daily grind became too much, or a manufacturing challenge was wearing him down, a visiting Brownie troop or a school group from Los Angeles made the hard work feel worthwhile, Hoffman said. “To see the looks on their faces and see their interest reinvigorates you and adds to the importance of what you are doing,” Hoffman said. Visitors to the shuttle factory in Palmdale included VIPs as well, including the astronauts who would fly aboard the orbiter. Hoffman befriended John Young, commander of the first shuttle flight and a veteran of the Gemini and Apollo programs. Questions from visitors would range from those about the propulsion system to why the American flag at the front right side of the orbiter looked backward. And information about the tiles protecting the exterior from the heat produced during re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere always drew interest. “When (visitors) see the tiles they get the impression they are heavy like a brick,” Hoffman said. “We had one they could touch and it was light and fragile.” The return of Endeavour to Los Angeles created a lot of excitement among the Boeing employees who had been present during the orbiter’s construction. Hoffman was at Edwards Air Force Base to see the shuttle land on Sept. 20 and for its departure the following day for a flight around California before landing at Los Angeles International Airport. “Some people will say this is bittersweet,” Hoffman said. “I say it gives everybody a chance to say ‘This is what I did’ and ‘This is what I worked on.’” Rick Ladd Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, Canoga Park Rick Ladd grew up in the San Fernando Valley at a time when the skies would light up at night during the rocket engine tests done at the Santa Susanna Field Laboratory in the West Valley. Ladd was fascinated by rockets and the U.S. space program, but spent years as a small business owner and entrepreneur. Years later, he jumped at the chance to work for a rocket engine manufacturer. “I actually came by accident,” said Ladd, a Simi Valley resident. “I needed something to do, and I retired 23 years later.” During his career at the Rocketdyne, Ladd held a number of positions and retired as the head of the knowledge management, which required documenting information of employees who worked on earlier generations of engines. “When a new engine was being designed, the people who did the old ones were gone,” Ladd said. Among the projects he worked on was a failure modes and affects analysis document in the wake of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. The document was an attempt to understand what could go wrong and what the consequences would be in every stage of a shuttle’s service — from the loading of the propellant into the external fuel tanks to the cut off of the main shuttle engines following lift off. “By the time we returned to flight in 1988 with STS26, it continued to be document that was worked on for years and years,” Ladd said. Ladd retired from Rocketdyne in 2010, and since got his master’s degree in knowledge management from California State University, Northridge. He currently operates a consulting company. Ladd said his thoughts never wander too far from his former employer, who he believes was overlooked by NASA during Endeavour’s flight around California on Sept. 21. It always seemed that Rocketdyne was overlooked despite its contributions to the space program, he said. “I used to complain about it when working there, but I guess people tended to think of the customer as NASA,” Ladd said. “I tended to think of the customer as the American people.”

Featured Articles

Related Articles