Mike Gilbert Named AIAA National Engineer of the Year
Energy was there from the beginning. You don't get to build a rocket often, even in NASA, and Mike Gilbert was excited about it.

Mike Gilbert
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Mike Gilbert at his desk.
Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

Energy was there at the end, when Max Launch Abort System flew from Wallops Island last July 8 with Gilbert in the control room.

Possibilities are still being considered for uses of the MLAS data collected that day. Its impact could end up outside NASA, given the shift toward commercial space launch capabilities now encouraged by the agency.

"With NESC here at Langley, and others at the center who understand escape systems, we feel like Langley might be able to leverage that to help the commercial folks figure out how to do an escape system that works for them," said Gilbert, whose performance as chief engineer for the MLAS project has been rewarded by his being named American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) National Engineer of the Year Award.

In the 103 weeks between planning and July 8 launch of MLAS, energy came from everywhere. Particularly, it came from young engineers called "residents" who were brought to the MLAS program as apprentices and given important work on the project.

"The resident engineers had a lot of energy," said Gilbert. "They really wanted to 'go do,' and sometimes steering them a little bit was really important."

The resident engineers, drawn from six NASA centers, had 5-10 years of experience each. With MLAS, they were tasked with building the vehicle's data instrumentation system.

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"They made a very significant contribution to this activity," Gilbert said. "They had to go from design to procurement to bench tests, integration to checkout to getting the flight data post-processed and boiled down to the engineering data that we were interested in seeing."

Perhaps as important, they set an example.

"Their energy infected the whole project," Gilbert said. "It helped keep some of the senior engineers who have been around for a while motivated to keep up. Sometimes the residents got out ahead of us."

The young engineers presented an interesting balance to a project that had them at one end of the experience continuum and veterans of the Apollo program at the other. In between were engineers from the NASA Engineering and Safety Center.

"I've never seen a project or been involved with a project that had that level of variation in experience and age and maturity," Gilbert said. "Everybody benefited from it, really."

The Apollo veterans asked questions stemming from history, the resident engineers asked questions stemming from inexperience. The NESC engineers had to hustle to answer the questions.

Gilbert's job was to "focus on the engineering aspects of the technical issue that was facing us," he said. "We had two great project managers in Ralph (Roe, NESC head) and Tim (Wilson, NESC deputy) to work the management issues."

Gilbert concentrated on questions such as what kind of design would get the required results? What were those desired results? What was the risk? How do you manage that risk?

His job also was to see that systems throughout the rocket were integrated, "making sure that something that was done in one area wasn't going to mess up something done in another area," Gilbert said.

As MLAS went together, there were inevitable problems. One kept Gilbert on the road for more than a month and required reintegration of much of MLAS.

"Another thing in my job as the chief engineer, and in the end it was the biggest thing, and that was to troubleshoot technical issues as they came up," said Gilbert. "It was to get the test vehicle built correctly.

Along the way there was an "eyes on the prize" mentality. Many NASA projects are so long term that people who start them aren't around to finish them.

MLAS was different. That was both its difficulty and its reward.

"Those opportunities are infrequent, but being there at the start of the planning and working it all the way through to the flight test and then working out the post-flight data analysis was very rewarding," Gilbert said. "You live for those kinds of experiences."

Before dawn on July 8, in the control room at Wallops Island, Gilbert and Wilson chatted, seemingly calm. There had been rehearsal after rehearsal and what was left was up to MLAS.

At launch, the calm went away and telemetrics ticked off benchmarks of the flight. "We cheered," Gilbert said. "Then a couple of seconds later, we cheered again ... and then again five seconds later."

And on it went through the 57-second flight. A perfect ending to 103 weeks of work.

Nine parachutes that brought MLAS down and into the Atlantic Ocean, triggered by 16 pyrotechnic events, signaled the success in a spectacular way.

"That the vehicle flew as we predicted and intended is probably the biggest success," Gilbert said. "It went in the direction we pointed it, went as high as we wanted it to, a little higher, actually, but well within the bounds of what we expected the vehicle to do."

Jim Hodges
The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center