Heritage and Hope

McDonnell Douglas was a very cool place to start one’s career. The place reeked with history and the promise of future technology. You could take a walk around the assembly hall where they were building F-4 Phantoms. I was around when the first F-15s and F-18s were rolled out. I walked thru the test building with its huge 24 foot vacuum chamber where Gemini and Skylab were built and tested. Famous astronauts walked these halls only a few years prior. My mentors were guys who built John Glenn’s capsule. What a place to be!

1977 MDC C12-1841-43 sm
McDonnell Douglas photo of 24 ft chamber

We built the Aft Propulsion System pods for the Space Shuttle orbiter. We were way behind schedule on that so they put everyone and their uncle on drafting boards to get drawings released. I worked overtime for months after only a year or so with the company cleaning up wire harness installation drawings. That was a pretty low point. Doing blueprints at a drafting table was not my idea of designing new spacecraft. The hours and work environment were not particularly motivating.

But eventually there came new programs to make up for that. We build a commercial electrophoresis experiment that flew on the Shuttle with the first non-government astronaut. Charlie Walker sat three desks over from me in the big engineering bullpen. He was also a hard core space enthusiast and he positioned himself to make three Shuttle flights. The Challenger accident put an end to that program, but we were still involved in very ambitious space industrialization concepts. I think the coolest thing was having “Advanced Space Programs” on my business card.

And perhaps the most ambitious program that I became involved with was the National Aerospace Plane (NASP), also known as the X-30. This was to be a single stage to orbit manned vehicle that took off from a runway and used multi-cycle engine technology to fly itself into orbit. What an audacious concept! I did trade studies and research to come up with the best electrical power system for an aircraft with no rotating machinery like traditional aircraft where you could tap power. That was where I learned to use a spreadsheet on a PC. I’ve been doing power system trades that way ever since. Of course that program tried to do more than the technology of the day would allow, so it eventually was cancelled. But it was fun.

1986 D4C-120811-1 9-86 NASP sm
NASP concept for runway to orbit

The St. Louis operation’s only real hardware in unmanned space was the Modular Power Subystem, part of NASA Goddard’s Multi-Mission Modular Spacecraft (MMS). Working on those programs (Solar Max, Landsats 4 and 5, TOPEX, GRO, etc.) firmly established me in the space power world. MDC St. Louis was never able to get into the satellite business, and eventually the MPS program started to fade. They tried to get involved in the Huntington Beach division’s space station work but that didn’t pan out, either. I did a nine month cross training stint in marketing but that never meshed well with my mellow personality and it soon became obvious that St. Louis had no future in the space business.