Miles O'Brien

Reporting on space, science, aviation & tech.

The Shuttle Shokunin


This is adapted from a speech I delivered at the 50th anniversary dinner of the Kennedy Space Center on Saturday, September 22, 2012

KSC is The NASA Center Where Stuff Gets Real – and so do the people. Where else in the world of rocket science will you find guys with ponytails, tattoos and t-shirts who ride Harleys and drink pitchers of beer at happy hour?

I knew I loved this place when, about a dozen years ago I was with some workers in the OPF as they were putting in the main engines on Discovery. As they were turning the wrenches, one guy turns to the other and says, “righty-tighty, lefty-loosey – right?”

Now that inspires a lot of confidence in our space program doesn’t it?

Actually, “Righty-Tighty,” his compadres and his predecessors have done some pretty darned amazing things over the years.

They have changed shuttle main engines on the pad to avoid a rollback. They have cut through the aft bulkhead to repair a leak. And they have flown through many holes in the clouds seen only by the legendary launch director Bob Sieck. They have devised ways to patch holes in the insulating foam caused by hail storms and even amorous woodpeckers. And then they devised a brilliant system to ward off the little peckers – air horns. HORN, I am told, is a NASA acronym for “Horny Ornithological Removal Network.”

Speaking of the meeting of low and high tech: there are some great stories of classic KSC Kludges that saved the day or made the manifest.

KSC workers saw that the astronauts had a hard time zipping up their “pumpkin” suits after that last, crucial pit stop on the 195 foot level of the launch tower, so they fashioned a hook that allowed them to get themselves put back together  (and NASA-TV ready) on their own.

There’s a great innovation that saved a delay during the STS-122 mission. A radiator hose was bending the wrong way as workers tried to shut the payload doors on Atlantis. Pat Floyd went home and apparently got his inspiration as he sat near the pool. He went to his garage, got to work and came back to work with a tickle stick used by lobster divers attached to a pool skimmer…all wrapped in Kapton tape to make it official. It was just the right gadget – and right length ­– to guide the Freon hose into place without a kink as they closed the doors.

In July 2006, during the countdown for STS-121, the inspection team spotted a small crack in the foam that covers the external fuel tank. Engineers needed to make sure it was not the tip of the iceberg of a bigger problem, but the crack was obscured by an oxygen feed line and could not be seen directly from the tower. Normally, that would mean erecting a scaffolding rig that would make Dr. Seuss proud.

But Mike Young had a better idea. He went to his garage and fashioned a bendable 6-foot long tube – and slid a borecope camera through it. It was the perfect way to see around the corner, under the bracket and clear the crack – and the stack – for launch.

Visual inspections here are taken very seriously – Who can forget the infamous scrub of STS-92 in October 2000? You know, the loose – yet out of reach — three-inch pip pin on the platform. It was a potentially big hazard to the the shuttle’s fragile tiles an the main engines. After that scrub, Jeffrey Painter came up with a telescoping pole mounted camera to search inaccessible areas for loose pins and the like.

I learned my lesson about loose FOD, coincidentally, early in the flow for that mission. I was shooting a documentary and was afforded access to the business end of the vehicle—the Aft compartment—to shoot footage of some guys working in there. There I was like a mouse inside a car engine – crawling in around pumps, pipes and APUs – trying to keep track of my gear.

I thought I did, until the next morning when I walked back into the OPF, and at the Ops Desk saw a Ziploc bag with my name writ large on it. Inside: a small videotape – and a microphone clip. They were found by one of the workers in the Aft. The incident made its way to the Shuttle Program Manager’s office – and to this day, I hear about it. Oh boy do I hear about it.

“Miles was here” – Doctored image of shuttle aft sent to me after my infamous FOD event in 1999.

I used to feel really bad about it until I heard about emergency air pack that went missing during an inventory and was found in the Aft out at the launch pad. Good thing you guys have a system of checks and re-checks.

The recurring theme here is of an extraordinarily passionate, proud, meticulous workforce that embraces a philosophy that is lost on many Americans. Here they take tremendous pride in everything they do – and for all the right reasons.

The Japanese call this shokunin kihitsu. Literally translated: the craftsman’s spirit. But that doesn’t do it justice. Those who ascribe to this way of life take pride in everything they do. In Japan, sushi chefs, fishermen, and carpenters all practice their craft— no matter how seemingly menial—with a driving sense of obligation to work to their utmost for the good of all.

And here is an essential point: shokunins make something for the pure joy of it; carefully, beautifully, and to the best of their ability. It has nothing to do with fame or fortune. It is nothing short of an unyielding pursuit of perfection. At KSC, they have mastered a trade that demands it  – and they have risen to meet the challenge time and again.

Endeavour and her sisters are now officially on the ground for good. Like you, I have a lot of mixed emotions about this.

Given the amazing public reaction to the piggyback barnstorming, you have to wonder why we didn’t do more of those during the program… Who knows, the shuttle program might still be in business if NASA flew more missions to the far reaches…of Peoria.

But what strikes me the most is the way the workers all conducted themselves as they wrote the epilogue to this great, epic story. They sent their babies away to their retirement homes with the same pride, passion and meticulous attention to detail that they employed when the orbiters were headed to space.

And that is why I am proud to know them – and call so many of of them my friends. They are the shuttle shokunin. Budgets will rise and fall – programs will come and go – but no one can ever take that away from them. No one.

Sure, geography and orbital mechanics make KSC indispensible. In fact, if you had to consolidate NASA from ten centers to one, this is the only place that you could choose. You can’t get to space from Cleveland.

But as KSC turns fifty, we celebrate much more than an accident of geography. We celebrate – we venerate — the minds, the hands, the accumulated knowledge and the ingenuity that made this place great for fifty years, and will for as long as we continue to go to space. We might be getting to space with a new approach to contracting, but without KSC – and the fifty years of accumulated knowledge discovered here – there would be no New Space. In this business, everyone stands on the shoulders of giants.

To paraphrase President Obama: Elon Musk didn’t build that – not on his own. He had a lot of help from the KSC workforce, their predecessors, and even though it is not in fashion to say it, the federal government.

Once upon a brief slice in time, that government was led by a man who said “we choose the moon…because it is hard.” Maybe we will find a leader with that kind of vision again some day.

Indeed it is my hope that in 2062, they will wheel a 103 year old me to the hundredth anniversary dinner – at the “Kennedy Mars Port.” Maybe by then, I will finally have gotten a chance to take a fiery ride uphill on a craft assembled, maintained, prepped and checked by the best our planet has to offer – the shokunin.

And while I am taking that ride to space – I won’t worry for a moment that they missed a single thing…I probably will be scared to death that I left a lens or a microphone back in the aft!

Terminal Count: What it Takes to Make the Space Shuttle Fly from Miles O’Brien on Vimeo.

  • John P

    Excellent read. The Right Stuff. If only more workers and students took such pride in their work.

    • Roland Miller

      I did a good bit of photography of the orbiters during decommissioning. I was extremely impressed with the workers attitudes. Even though they knew the shuttles would never be launched again they held to the flight FOD standards. One day, one of the spacecraft operators said to me, “We’ll, we just finished removing the oxygen system, so I guess the patient has stopped breathing. I realized that they were having to cut wires and strip out components–basically killing the thing they had spent their careers caring for. Heartbreaking.

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  • CY

    Great post, thanks Miles.

  • Catherine Redard

    Thanx Miles, for such a heartfelt tribute to the Shuttle program workers. I am sending your speech to my own Shuttle shokunin who machined the SSMEs for over 20 years at Rocketdyne in Canoga Park, Ca.( Too bad they weren’t honored with a flyover , outrageous!) . Thanx again, our space geek hearts beat in tandem. CR