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Apollo Veterans Bridge Generation Gap to Mentor Young Engineers

On the front row of the Pearl Young Theater at NASA Langley Research Center, Milt Silveira and Tom Modlin talk quietly while they await the start of a meeting at which they will impart wisdom gleaned over the past four decades.

The NESC Resident Engineer team

The Resident Engineer team is flanked by (top row, left) mentors Tom Modlin and (far right) Milt Silveira, among others. NESC head Ralph Roe (third from left) is in overall charge of the program.
Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

They are mentors, and behind them, scattered round the auditorium and ready to listen, are "resident" engineers who weren't yet born when Silveira and Modlin were working on Apollo. The engineers are part of NASA's future, and they are supporting the Constellation Program to build the next generation of spacecraft for human exploration.

Department heads from Langley, and Johnson Space Center, Glenn Research Center, Kennedy Space Center and Goddard Space Flight Center chose the Resident Engineers to work and learn in a program that allows them to do something important and new. The space shuttle, which launched its first mission 26 years ago, is the last time NASA built a human space vehicle.

"We're building a new rocket and crew vehicle," says Ralph Roe, director of the NASA Engineering and Safety Center and the person with overall responsibility for the Resident Engineer program. "I've never done it."

Says Tim Wilson, NESC deputy director and the person directly in charge of the Resident Engineers: "Most of us at NASA have had little opportunity to design new hardware."

TK Mattingly, a former astronaut in the Apollo and space shuttle programs and himself a mentor, is the father of the Resident Engineer program. "The only way to learn is by doing things," he says.

Mattingly's vision was to run the Resident Engineer program much as a hospital does its surgical residency: from the bottom up, adding responsibility until the resident is ready to operate under the eye of an experienced surgeon.

"My son went through a surgical residency," Mattingly says, "so I had the vicarious opportunity to learn how they train surgeons. They're not taking chances with anybody's life, but failure has to be an option, or you won't ever learn."

With that in mind, NASA chief engineer Mike Ryschkewitsch directed Roe and NESC to gather a group of people who are early in their careers to work on the Max Launch Abort System (MLAS). The primary launch abort system and the MLAS are designed to allow the crew of the Orion space vehicle to escape in the event of launch difficulties. The MLAS is a secondary system to provide risk mitigation.

Roe and Wilson outlined the criteria used in identifying people who would benefit from the mentor program.

"We deliberately targeted folks who had five to 10 years of experience, because we wanted to let them have hands-on experience in designing something," Wilson says. "At the same time, we wanted to get their outside, fresh look at things."

After selecting at least two candidates from each of the five centers involved, Roe and Wilson determined what the residents would do and assigned them to MLAS sub-leads. The young engineers also formed their own team to determine the test article's instrumentation and a timeline for MLAS, which is due to be tested in September at Wallops Island, Va.

Resident engineer Sarah Quach works on the computer while teammates look on

Sarah Quach, who works in launch services at Kennedy Space Center, works at a computer while Resident Engineer lead Gary Dittemore, a shuttle flight controller at Johnson Space Center; Omar Torres, who works in Electromagnetics and Sensors Branch at Langley, and mentors Tom Modlin and Milt Silveira look on.
Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

"We wanted to give them tasks that were really important," Wilson says. "They are too valuable a resource for us to bring them here and have them make photocopies. It's an important piece of work, and we're taking a hands-off approach: 'You guys go and do it.' "

The knowledge and experience the residents are getting aren't available anywhere else.

"It's amazing and almost surreal," says Gary Dittemore, a shuttle flight controller at Johnson Space Center and the Resident Engineer team leader. "We're working with the people who wrote the books (engineers study in college). It's come full circle."

One of the goals of the program is to combat the perception of a "brain drain" at NASA, that time is taking away the people who pioneered the nation's space exploration.

Another goal is to give the residents a perspective of work done throughout the agency at all centers. "I was at Kennedy for the first 16 years of my career and didn't know anything other than what I did at Kennedy," Roe says. "Being exposed to something like this across the agency would, I think, be a great thing."

The residents agree.

"If you only work at one center, on one program, you don't really understand everything else that's going on out there," says Sarah Quach, who works in launch services at Kennedy Space Center and has been assigned to the avionics and instrumentation team with MLAS. "It helps give you a better sense of what NASA's all about."

Adds Wilson: "It gives them a network of people, of contacts at other centers. … The network itself is worth its weight in gold."

The newness of the work impresses the residents.

"It's exciting, switching from a research project to a project in which we're going to build something and actually test it," says Omar Torres, who works at NASA Langley's Electromagnetics and Sensors Branch and is applying that sensors knowledge to MLAS's instrumentation package.

"And I think the excitement is going to build up as the actual test subject takes shape."

The mentors are impressed with their charges.

"The young engineers in the program are a lot smarter than we were, a lot better trained," says Silviera, pointing around the room to Resident Engineers, most with laptops open, checking data or e-mail. "They have a lot better capability."

And they are cognizant of the technology gap between the Apollo and Constellation programs.

"When we did an analysis, it took a long time," Silviera says. "We didn't have computers to use or programs already written for us."

Adds Modlin: "They're good with the tools they've got, (but) they seem to overlook the fundamentals. They trust the computer too much. Sometimes I'll take out a pad of paper and rough out a problem and show them where they might have missed something."

The residents aren't the only ones learning.

"These guys kind of keep us out of a ditch, based on lessons learned," Roe says of the Apollo-era engineers. "We've got guys like me with 25 years of experience working with guys with 40 years of experience. And we've got these guys with 5-10 years of experience working with both groups."

There are two bridges across two generation gaps, spanning the divide from NASA then, to NASA now, to NASA future.

"What we're trying to remember is what we did 40 years ago and why," Silviera says. "And what we're trying to do with the young engineers is to keep them from making the same mistakes we made."

Jim Hodges
The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center