A recent trip through parts of Mississippi led to conversations at breakfast with a former NASA engineer. The conversation was actually rather one-sided (I mostly listened, he mostly talked), but entertaining and insightful.
This particular engineer especially enjoyed the problem-solving aspects of his work, the hunt for clues to identify cause and effect, the challenge of devising a practical solution, and the satisfaction (and sometimes surprise) when that that solution or engineering design succeeded and performed beyond expectations.
Along with stories about trouble-shooting assignments he’d worked on, the engineer shared anecdotes about the various Apollo missions, including Apollo 1, in which three astronauts died in a sudden fire, and Apollo 11, which first took men to the moon’s surface.
The Apollo 1 fire occurred on January 27, 1967, during a launch pad test of the command module. Lt. Col. Virgil I. Grissom, Lt. Col. Edward H. White, and Roger B. Chaffee died in the fire. Many months before the accident, some of the astronauts, including Grissom, and some of the engineers had safety concerns about the Apollo capsule testing conditions, particularly the use of pure oxygen in an enclosed chamber and various design features of the capsule.
The investigation of the Apollo 1 fire found deficiencies in design, manufacture, installation, rework, and quality control in the electrical wiring of the command module, along with numerous other problems. The review board then made specific recommendations to modify and improve the capsule, testing procedures, manufacturing processes, and quality control. Making those needed improvements delayed the program, but also greatly increased the odds that it would succeed.
The engineer emphasized that simple problems that could be easily fixed, if put off or ignored, resulted in bigger problems that were harder and more costly to resolve. Likewise, what appears to be a complex problem might have a relatively simple solution, although sometimes unorthodox.
July 20, 2009 will be the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing. Most of the world’s population was born well after the event. Achieving President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of that decade was a remarkable engineering achievement, but also a tremendous project management accomplishment.
In January 2004, President George W. Bush announced that the United States would begin a new program to send Americans to the moon by 2020, and eventually to Mars.
For those who might travel to the moon in the future, some of the surviving Apollo astronauts recently shared insights to help with training and preparation. Among their suggestions: practice everything so you don’t have to make it up as you go.
For the NASA engineer, the Apollo program was “the best job I ever had.”
We should all be so lucky.