Category Archives: Aero

Gene Kranz

Recent photo of NASA's very own Gene Kranz.
Image via Wikipedia

Tonight Gene Kranz, the famed NASA mission controller played by Ed Harris in Apollo 13, came to speak at UT and I was able to make it. I went with low expectations because I didn’t know much about him other than what I had seen in the movie, and just wow. This man is awesome. The speech was really inspiring and gave me renewed pride in being an engineer and being an American. It was that kind of speech.

Before Kranz came out, one of the professors involved in bringing him to speak at UT introduced some of the students and people present in the audience, and he did one of the coolest things that I’ve seen at any speech. He had the veterans stand to be recognized, and then he asked the military members awaiting a commission stand and be recognized. I’m proud of America, and I’m proud of my service, and I think its awesome that he gave credit to the military’s future leaders.

Mr. Kranz spoke for over an hour, most of it spent walking us through his thoughts and decision process during the Apollo 13 mission. Based on what he said I believe that the movie is pretty accurate (I’ve seen it dozens of times). What really came through in his speech, that I hadn’t noticed in the movie, is the amount of trust and cooperation between the team members. He pointed out a couple of times when he made a decision in the interest of moving forward, that some of the other engineers disagreed with, but once Kranz announced the decision the whole team got on board and worked together for the benefit of the mission. The whole story is inspiring, but hearing it from the perspective of this man in particular is something that I won’t soon forget.

When he was done he got a standing ovation, which he was apparently uncomfortable with because he quickly had us sit back down for a question and answer session. This was my favorite part of the event, the questions were great and he had some very good answers. I don’t remember all of the questions, but here are the ones that struck me.

He was asked if he was pleased with his portrayal in movies. He said that he thought Ed Harris did a great job, and that the story line of Apollo 13 was pretty accurate, with one notable exception. In the scene just after they realize the extent of the problem a few of the engineers state that such and such can’t be done. In the movie Harris (playing Kranz) blows up and says something along the lines of “failure is not an option”. Tonight Kranz said that he would never blow up at anyone who was within his authority, he wouldn’t allow himself the luxury of emotion or losing his cool when leading his team. I thought that was particularly insightful.

Someone asked him what he thought of NASA’s decommissioning of the space shuttle and planned absence from spaceflight. He said he thinks this is a travesty because America needs awesome challenges to inspire and bring out the best in its people. Leaving a gap in the flight plan also means forgetting things that we’ve fought hard to learn.

When asked what he thought of privatized spaceflight, he said “its the greatest thing since canned beer.” There is nothing like advancing technology to stimulate the economy and capture the attention of the world.

My favorite response came when he was asked how he found or acquired the leadership skills to bring out the absolute best in his team. He said that he grew up in a time when his father’s generation fought in WWII. He and his peers were too young to go, but looked at his parent’s generation as heroes which challenged him to achieve something great. Then in the early days of supersonic flight men like John Stapp, Joe Kittinger and Chuck Yeager risked their lives for advances in aviation technology. During Project Mercury John Glenn climbed into an Atlas rocket, and at that time three of the first five of them had exploded on launch. Everyone at NASA had a clear understanding of the risks involved and chose to participate anyway because we saw the greatness within the goals. This brings a very clear focus that is difficult to achieve in any environment. Kranz said that he’s spent a lot of time ruminating over his career and isn’t able to point to any one thing that makes him a leader, but that he does recognize that he wanted to live up to the greatness that he saw in his father’s generation and believed that he could.

I just can’t express how awesome it was to hear Kranz speak. His involvement in Apollo 13 and NASA makes him an American icon, and his story is definitely inspiring. I was tempted to skip because I had homework to get done last night. I’m really glad that I didn’t.

Space Elevator

In one of my classes I was assigned the task of writing a feasibility study of an engineering project with a team of students. My team chose to write our document on the space elevator. It was really fun, this project is ambitious, but after reading and writing on this subject for the past six weeks, I believe that we could see something like this within the next 50 years.

I asked my team for permission to post our report here, they were gracious. I worked with Aaron Seitz, Amitesh Parikh, and Sean O’Brien. We were asked to write as if we were a company within the industry, so we chose SpaceX. Our report is below.

One note of clarification, all references to SpaceX are fictitious. I have no reason to believe that they are suffering any financial difficulty, or are in need of new ideas. It was part of the assignment to presume that we were writing this report for an executive engineer within an actual company.

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Fly To Space

I just found the coolest flight simulator. If you’ve enjoyed playing with flight simulators, then you’ll love this one.

Are you tired of flying around in the atmosphere? Ready to experience flight beyond the reach of gravity? Of have you wanted to fly the Space Shuttle during re-entry? Well now you can. And the best part is, its FREE! That’s right, its free to download and play with. And, it gets the Lenwood stamp of approval! That doesn’t come too easily, you know.

Orbiter

I found out about it from one of the professors in my department. What’s cool about this simulator is that it was written by a bioengineer (Martin Schweiger). It really is a quality piece of software. It becomes even more impressive when you realize that it was developed by someone that presumably doesn’t specialize in orbital mechanics.

Dr. Griffin

This afternoon Dr. Michael Griffin, NASA‘s administrator, came to speak at UT. I was fortunate enough to be able to hear him, and it was fantastic.

He spent 30 minutes laying out his vision for the next 30 years of space exploration. I won’t go into the details, but his plan includes a large amount of lunar exploration, during which time we’ll be honing our skills and technologies, and then use that knowledge to pursue Mars. I have to say I think his plan is wise.

His vision includes opportunities for entrepreneurs to support NASA’s projects in a variety of roles. This means that Blue Origin, SpaceX and others will have a part to play in NASA’s plan. This is the same agency which effectively squashed Beal Aerospace a few years ago, so this is fantastic news!

I thoroughly enjoyed his presentation. He said a lot of things that I found exciting, but there was one salient quote. A professor asked a question that prompted Griffin to talk about education.

NASA’s role in education is to pursue technologies that are exciting enough to motivate kids to stick with the hard subjects and pursue technical degrees so that they can come participate in these thrilling projects. We have not done a very good job of that for the past 35 years.

I wanted to stand up and start singing! President Bush did a great thing when he appointed an engineer (Griffin holds no less than 5 advanced degrees in engineering) to this position. He’s the right man for the job. I just can’t say enough good things about Dr. Griffin.

I’ve been saying for a while that I don’t want to go to work for NASA. Dr. Griffin changed my perspective. If he’s still the one in charge when I graduate, I’ll submit my resume.

Rocket Racing

I just found out about another very cool thing. You may recall the name Peter Diamandis, he’s the guy that started the Ansari X-Prize in which teams were competing to get the first private rocket into space. Burt Rutan’s group won with SpaceShipOne. If you’re a reader of this blog then those names should ring a bell.

Well, Diamandis is moving on to other stuff. Just this morning I learned about the coolest thing ever. Rocket racing. Have you ever watched NASCAR? Me either. But what if they were literally flying? And they had flames shooting out the back? And they were doing over 320 miles an hour? I could probably get interested in something like that.

NASA’s Mistake

Um, I can’t let this go without comment. Yesterday NASA’s administrator, Michael Griffin, was interviewed by USAToday. In that interview, he admits that the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station are mistakes. I completely agree.

This is the best move NASA has made in 30 years. The Space Shuttle program is a failure. The program has launched just over 100 times, and they’ve lost two craft. Would you get in a car that blew up once every fifty times you drove it? By contrast, Russia has continued to use the same technology since their space program’s inception over 40 years ago, and they’ve never lost a single ship!

Last weekend I was visiting with some folks and someone quipped in a disapproving voice that we’re going back to the moon using 40 year old technology. I kept my mouth shut, but it was tough for me. I wanted to yell, “have you even paid attention over the past 20 years!?!?”

Merging the best of shuttle and Apollo technology is absolutely the right direction for NASA. I’ll say more about going back to the moon in another post, but I couldn’t let this go.

See, while NASA has been putting time, money & energy into the shuttle and space station programs, other countries have started their own space agencies. There’s more than 30 of them around the globe. Oh, sure, you’ve heard of the Chinese and Japanese space agencies, but how about Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Spain, Norway, Sweden. Even Finland has one! Finland!

Now, there’s a lot of people at NASA that would like for you to believe that we’re working cooperatively with all of these agencies, and that’s true, partially. We’ve been working together with them on the space station. But what about planetary exploration? Um, no. We’re competing with them.

See, someone is eventually going to fully explore the Moon. And Mars. And beyond. And the first one that does gets to claim the resources that they find for their very own. Remember the exploration of the Americas? Like that, only planetary.

The good news is that NASA has experience, and a lot of the other players are still learning. This is why it makes such great sense for us to apply what we’ve learned through the shuttle to the Apollo technology from years ago.

Its all very exciting, really. If you, like me, want to keep up with what’s going on, NASA Watch is a great website which tracks what they’re up to.

Flyer

Yesterday was the greatest day of my year, I went flying with a buddy of mine. We’ve been talking about going for a couple of months, and it finally happened. He rented a Piper Cherokee and we flew to Houston and back. YEEE HAW!!!

Its been four years since I last flew, and I had forgotten how much fun it is. Playing with all of the navigation equipment and radios, talking to ATC, seeing buildings and land from above, the cooler air up there, watching the sunset from altitude… its just freakin awesome.

I got to fly the plane for about 45 mins, and it was just incredible. It came back to me faster than I thought it would (not that I did anything spectacular or challenging, but still). I expected to be uneasy, and after a couple of minutes I remembered what it feels like to hold altitude and heading, staying clear of clouds, etc.

I’m thirsty for more. About a month ago I found out about a university flying club that makes flying more affordable for students, but I haven’t had time to look into it yet. Maybe in May.

Return To Space

Lots of buzz in the space realm lately. NASA announced last week that they plan to resume shuttle opps in May with a Discovery launch, and that’ll be followed by an Atlantis launch in July. This is good news for America.

NASA has taken a backseat to everyone over the past couple of years. Since the Columbia tragedy other countries have taken the lion’s share of supporting the space station. And SpaceShipOne has stolen the spotlight for the past year by winning the X-Prize competition for privatized spaceflight. And since then several companies have begun working towards taking passengers into space.

I think everyone has heard of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic by now. Just yesterday I learned of Rocket Plane, Inc, an Oklahoma company that plans to do the same thing. This industry has been gaining momentum for the past couple of years, so it seems likely to me that other companies will join in soon. NASA has been the world leader in space exploration for decades, it’ll be really interesting to see how they respond to this.

I’m really glad to see the shuttles flying again. It might be worth a road trip to go watch the launch in Florida. And please let me take this opportunity to remind you that I am really freakin excited about being an aerospace engineer.