I was walking past the newsstand the other day and I saw the Popular Science issue with the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster Anniversary (Vol. 193, No2, Feb. 16). I asked myself, ‘How did I end up as a Systems Test Engineer?’ I wanted to be an astronaut! As a kid I launched model rockets (still do sometimes), doodled space ship designs and wondered what electromechanical systems would be needed to survive in space. In grade school, I read Jules Vern and Isaac Asimov and wrote all of my essays, research papers, or term papers on Skylab and the Space Shuttle. My favorite TV character was Scotty from Star Trek. I don’t know what Scotty did in the engine room. I did know he was an Engineer, worked miracles, and there had to be duct tape involved.
On my quest to become an astronaut, I did a little research. I found most astronauts were Naval Aviators and Annapolis graduates. When it came time to apply to the Naval Academy I realized I really hadn’t prepared very well for my future career as an astronaut; so I decided to just enlist in the Navy. I was just beginning my training to become a Nuclear Power qualified Machinist Mate when a wonderful thing happened. They decided to allow a school teacher to fly on a Space Shuttle mission. There was still a chance! Maybe someday I could still become an astronaut! Then, the fateful day for Challenger occurred. With a puff of smoke, a terrible boom and that image of two solid rocket boosters lazily tumbling away as debris showered down, I realized that there probably wouldn’t be another Christa McAuliffe opportunity. As each generation has that national tragedy which affects them and helps define who they are, this was one of mine.
I will probably never get the opportunity to fly in space, but I did get to qualify as an Engineering Watch Supervisor on board a nuclear powered submarine. It wasn’t actually a spaceship, but it was pretty close. I got to live the life of Scotty, getting the AC restored as we sat on the surface at the equator, fixing the evaporator so we could make water for the plant (and to drink, but the nuclear power plant came first), and creatively fix a multitude of things with bits and pieces of hardware on hand that kept our thirty-year-old submarine on station to complete our missions during the cold war.
Those days are long gone, but with programs like the Enlisted Educational Advancement Program (EEAP) and the Montgomery GI Bill, I was able to complete my Bachelors degree in Mechanical Engineering. My first job after graduation was as a design engineer on the Advanced Seal Delivery System (ASDS). I later found out I was working on a boat where some of my Navy buddies were crew members. I lived in fear of being that Morton-Thiokol Engineer that didn’t yell loud enough when something wasn’t quite right. I could not have lived with myself if ASDS didn’t keep a surface to dive ratio of 1. I moved from design engineering to test engineering. I figured I could stop something from leaving the plant if it wasn’t quite right. The Challenger disaster and my friends were my motivation to keep the covenant of the blind faith.
Today I find myself preparing to start launch tube qualification testing for the Trident submarine Ohio Replacement Program (ORP). I guess this is the job I have been training for all of my life and will probably take me to retirement. I am not going to be an astronaut; however, through my life’s experiences, I understand the blind faith that a crew has in her ship. A trust that the designers designed it to specifications, manufacturers machined the parts to the drawings, the multitude of people across our nation did their part to supply all of the specified components, and the shipyard, with hundreds of contractors, installed and tested the systems to meet the performance specification. Those sailors (or astronauts) have that blind faith which enables them to do their job and to come home safely. This is an unspoken sacred covenant. This is not what I set out to do, but this is life. It is what happens while you’re planning on doing something else.
I had the Space Shuttle, a couple of 640 class submarines, and the Enlisted Educational Advancement Program with the GI Bill to get me where I am. Today’s youth had 911 and the Columbia disaster to help shape their futures. While the youth are planning on being astronauts, help fill that financial gap to get them an education in Fluid Power while they are planning on doing something else. Visit our webpage (www.FPEF.org) and donate to the FPEF. What did you want to do when you were 8 years old? I am sure your first choice wasn’t designing, building, or maintaining fluid power systems to keep the faith between designer, builder, and end user. How did you get to where you are today? What help along the way did you have financially or from a mentor? Write to me, Randy Smith, at chairman@FPEF.com and tell me about it. I would love to hear your story!
Randall D. Smith, CFPHS, Northrop Grumman
2016 Fluid Power Educational Foundation Chair