what are you going to do with your life?

Titanum Electron Gun is key to space simulator. Engineer, James Stephens, checks new Caltech gadget.
How did my dad know what he wanted to do with his life? How did he know that he wanted to be a mechanical engineer and build rockets? That question is an oversimplification. He didn’t really build whole rockets but he worked on bits and pieces of rockets and on the robots and astronomy satellites that rode up into the sky on those big tin cans. Still, he always made it sound like he knew exactly what he wanted to do in life and he went right down the mechanical engineer path through school, to work at Rocketdyne, and on to The Jet Propulsion Laboratory of Caltech. I suppose that the glamour of things that are new, bold, and uncharted helped make it an easy decision to pursue rockets and space stuff.

I am in my forties now and I still don’t know what I want to do. I bought into in the whole do-what-you-love thing but it has never really gotten me anywhere that would look like success to most of the people walking around on this rock. I am happiest making things with my hands (the engineer homunculus in me throwing its weight around) but what things I get a kick out of making is always changing. So how does one get the $$ out of that? I’ve never really found the way to make my talents into cash. I suppose I should have gone to art school but I just didn’t want to jump the hoops. I suppose I should have followed the engineer path, but it seems to me that engineers don’t have the fun they did in the age before CAD/CAM and all the computer screens. Sitting in front of a glowing screen all day makes me cranky. It just doesn’t hold up to the tales of early rocket engineers tinkering with hydrazine and living on the edge.

This beats the heck out of an exploding rocket, no?
Digression Warning: skip this bit if you don’t get a thrill from tales of chemical stinks and medicinal serendipity. According to anecdote, use’ta be, in the early days of rocketry and super volatile liquid fuels there was no sophisticated way to check for leaks in the completed and fueled up rocket standing out on the launch rig. A tiny little leak would be a baaaaaad thing resulting in certain disaster. You want all the rumbling flame to shoot out of the nozzle on the tail of the rocket, you see. If anything is squirting out in the wrong place it tends to screw up the works and make everything into a big flame ball that goes nowhere fast. Fortunately the hydrazine in the liquid fuel smells like ammonia. (Don’t quote me on this. I’m running on anecdote and my cluttered and fogged memory here, not on any sort of expertise.) It’s toxic as all get out in larger doses but someone had to be the canary in the coalmine. One person with a good nose and the short straw would have to go out to the launch rig, climb a ladder, open a little door on the side of the rocket, and sniff. No ammonia stink? Thumbs up, it’s launch time! So tonight, let it be Löwenbraü. “Where’s the medicinal serendipity?” you ask. Guess what? Hydrazine is a chemical precursor to thorazine a.k.a. chlorpromazine, an antipsychotic drug sometimes used to reduce effects of a bad LSD trip. Better living through chemistry and the canary feels aaaall riiiight.

Dad was a thoroughly practical space engineer, a loud-mouthed critic of manned space flight, and the fly-in-the-ointment of every hair brained NASA pork barrel project. I don’t know for sure if his boosterism for robotic spacecraft and his practicality was something that grew in time or if he came right out of school swinging the fists of practical testing and fanatical belief in building spacecraft the way Ford cranked out Model Ts. It is telling, however, that one of his early big projects at The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was building a testament to practicality, the Molesink, also known as The Molecular Sink Space Simulation Laboratory. That’s a mouthful. He kept the black sign that labeled one of the steel doors opening into the big room filled with huge vacuum pumps, tanks of liquid nitrogen and liquid helium, and pipes running every which way patched here and there with ape shit* (that one I’ll have to explain later). Long after it went out of use and was scrapped, dad was proud of the big space-making machine that gave him his hernia. We still have the sign. It makes the shop in the garage seem more important.

Galileo's broken umbrella
The nuts and bolts of basic mechanics are tweaked by the very low pressure, intense cold, and ionizing radiation of space. The simplest assumptions made about mechanical parts or electronic devices down here on the ground are often poor designs for spacecraft. Lubricants for moving parts turn into horrible glue or worse they disperse, coating everything with a nasty muck. Materials cold-weld together in unpredictable ways, and plastic polymers just plain freak out. Armed with the Molesink and its threatening almost-like-space torture chamber dad would tear gaping holes in the blueprints of impractical and poorly designed spacecraft long before they could get into space and fail where no one was watching or taking notes. What was so practical about that? The big idea was to make a little bit of space here on earth to find out what was going wrong and to learn how to do things right on the cheap. It costs a whole lot less to wreck your electronics in the Molesink than to send them into space and then sit and wonder what went wrong. This may seem obvious but lots of obvious things get buried in the clumsy machine of NASA. Pork projects get arbitrarily farmed out to companies with no practical experience in a particular field and the same old mistakes are made anew. When the Galileo spacecraft’s main antenna failed to unfold my dad lamented the loss of the Molesink shaking his head. Stuffing a prototype antenna in the Molsink and opening a can of space whup ass would have prevented the whole embarrassing mess by proving the design sucked rocks. Lots of dopey mistakes plagued NASA in the 80s and 90s. The Hubble Space Telescope went up with out anyone trying out the optics. There was a terrible lack of attention paid to proponents of practicality like Dr. Fly-In-The-Ointment Stephens.

Dad worked on lots and lots of projects in his time at JPL, but he was slowly moved out of the nuts and bolts stuff. Eventually he was part of the Technology Affiliates program. It was intended to take new technology and inventions produced by NASA folks and make them available to private companies in need of innovation. Dad criticized the Technology Affiliates program for trying to find a problem for a given solution when he should have been finding solutions for problems. In his own time dad had a little business doing just that. He called himself the technology pimp, hooking up hard-up companies with willing, able, and well-endowed engineers, chemists, and biologists. I think dad had more satisfaction in his pimping work outside of JPL where he could fit solutions and people to a particular problem rather than doing it all backwards at JPL.

I need to dig in the dad box and find the documents so I can get the details right but I think there is evidence that he wasn’t totally happy with his position at JPL in the later part of his career. I think he really liked being the technopimp but the Technology Affiliates program didn’t bear much of fruit. There are a few letters regarding dad being turned down for a promotion/raise in the last few years of his time at JPL. Maybe he was just trying to get a higher salary locked in for a better pension, but I wonder if he was just burned out by the bureaucracy and silliness. I wish I had had the mind to ask. There are lots of things I never thought to ask… like, “How in heaven’s name did you know what you wanted to do?!” Was it all just a ruse? Maybe he was just faking the whole time and he never was that confident of where he was going.

not the right shade of grey
*So, what the hell is ape shit? Nope, didn’t forget. It’s a really tenacious thick grey clay-like stuff used to patch up insulation on cryogenic plumbing. At least that is what my fogged brain remembers. It comes in a big rounded log like an ape pooped it out. We had one of those logs in a drawer in the garage up to just a few years ago. Maybe that was what made dad so sure about what he wanted to do… engineering was just an excuse to say things like, “Hey Joe, toss me another log of ape shit. There’s ice on this bitch kitty.” Don’t know what a bitch kitty is? That too will have to wait.

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