Saturday 30 January 2016

Shuttle Challenger & Patriotism

Apologies in advance, this hasn't been to the editor as it is a part of my personal story and I wanted to state it as seamlessly as possible from my head, even if maybe grammatically incorrect and somewhat incomprehensible, all are minor details when compared to controverting a publicly claimed fact about the cause of the space shuttle Challenger Disaster.

What I am about to tell you I don't know if it is meant to be, was, or was not, classified, but I know it was subject to clearances that I didn't have, and, it won't jibe with what I've been told (as I didn't watch it) is the public story about the Challenger Space Shuttle “O-ring.” I am going to figure that after 30 years has passed, where for some it won't matter, I can post this one of few things I did for my country, as merely my personal account.

I don't recall how they contacted me, nothing nefarious or mysterious, I just don't remember how an old friend who was an Electronic Engineer for a company in Orange County California contacted me to explain he was working on a project for some company, and that he talked them into having me take a look at it since they had come up against a brick wall. He wouldn't go into any details and just asked me to come down to their office.

I arrived, they took me to a meeting room, and the first thing they brought up is the Challenger disaster that occurred at least a month prior, this meeting may have been 2 or 3 months later, and how their company was a subcontractor to Morton Thiokol, that their subcontract is to design and build a system to use NDT, Non-Destructive Testing, to analyze the O-ring. My first reaction, as I'd been a mechanic too, was disbelief. In my head an “O-ring” is a rubber grommet of some sort that usually fits in the lip of something to form a seal, so I naturally thought that's what they were using NDT on (A quick search at writing of this article instantly brought up an article suggesting the same, http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1986/12/10/morton-thiokol-getting-off-easy/).

NDT uses a transducer that physically transmits electrons at very high frequencies, 10 Gigahertz or greater, through a medium such as water, and, transmitting the signal through material submerged in the water, and then similar to radar, using the “echo” to create an image, like an X-ray, of the thing being tested, probably more similar to ultrasound since it is considered ultrasonics. You can imagine that I almost started laughing at the idea of using NDT on rubber grommets, I believe I asked, not to seem completely oblivious, “how many of these rubber O-rings are on the shuttle?” That's all I could think of for justifying some project to use NDT on them, a mass scan of thousands of them at once.

I was taken into a room, probably the size of 6 or so 4 car garages all together, and in the middle of it was a circular track inside a tank that I later learn is to hold the water. It was then explained to me, “The O-Ring will sit on this track [that I recall being around half-elevated in the tank], and then a device will take a stepper motor, manipulating, x, y, z, and theta to run a transducer at a 90-degree angle through each one of the weld holes prior to the O-ring being welded on the bottom of the main fuel tank for the large booster rocket. The theory is that one of the welds was cracked prior to the O-ring being welded on and that this leaked fumes causing the shuttle to explode.”

Now they got my absolute attention, though still in disbelief that I am there, so I asked, “Okay well you guys look like you have this all under control, what do you need from me?” And then they explained, “We've been working on this for 2 and a half weeks, Morton Thiokol is losing $250,000 a day. The military gave us this stepper motor controller.”

The stepper motor controller looked like it had been in a war and then stored for 20 years, more like some early stereo equipment. Though it was solid state, it was as though it had some of the first transistors ever made. It was about the size of an original IBM PC with twice the weight, mounted on a rolling cart. In retrospect I figure it was probably loaded with technology to avoid interference or lacked being subject to some forms of interference due to its age.

They continued, “Morton Thiokol requires us to use this device, which is also required by the Military. We need to interface it to this computer here (showed me an 80386 DX running at 40 Mhz) using a serial cable. This stepper controller doesn't support any speed beyond 9600 baud [1/6 the speed of a 56k dial-up modem].”

They then pulled up a program written in BASICA, typed a command to the stepper motor controller and pressed enter, and a set of different characters appeared a second later, and my Electronic Engineer friend explained to me, “This is supposed to be an echo of the text I sent the stepper motor controller, it's a way to authenticate and verify the command sent and this controller requires echoing the command, which can be logged, before acting on the command sent.” I don't recall what command he sent, it seemed to be just some text to echo back to show it wasn't working. I decided to type in “Bozo” and hit enter, a second later the reply came up with a mix of characters you couldn't think derived from Bozo.

In any event, after around 6 and a half hours time I ascertained that the problem was that the stepper motor controller had a 1khz processor, and that it was taking around 1/5th second for this processor to process each character of the text we sent from a 40 Mhz processor. I modified the program with a routine to send each character of the string one at a time with a “For I = 1 to 1000: Next I” in between each character send, once the entire string was sent a Chr$ (13) was sent for enter, and then the string echoed back exactly what was typed, eventually I could lower the delay loop to “1 to 200” and get the same result, I had used 1000 as a starting point.

Well, they were shocked that I had been there less than a day and figured out what had them baffled for 2 and a half weeks, and they then explained they were authorized to pay me well for my time. I was taken away from the Engineers and the other workers by one of the owners of the company, up to their business office to see a document entitled “Presidential Purchase Order” at the top, with a red stamp that I believe said something like “Clearance Required” at an angle of around 15-30 degrees, with text underneath it reading something like this:

“America's Space Shuttle Program is vital to our defense and national security. Determining the cause and devising a solution for the Challenger disaster is absolutely imperative, and I, George Herbert Walker Bush, authorize use of any and all means necessary to get our Space Shuttles flying again ASAP.”

Signed “George Herbert Walker Bush” in pen, a genuine wet signature in blue ink.

I scanned it again a few times, pretty amazed, pretty shaken by learning I actually worked on something that mattered, that meant something to my country. I had never been raised for any of that, taught the exact opposite by a Progressive family, Progressive parents, and a Progressive educational system throughout my life, and only starting, at the time of the Challenger Disaster, to investigate the truth of what I'd been told and believed most of my life that I now know was entirely wrong, even anti-American. I’m sharing all of this to illustrate how important one event can be in one’s life, how significant it can be to change one’s character.

So they said to me, “you've really saved our fat from the fire so make out your invoice for whatever you want.” And I explained instantly, “Well, I have a simple hourly rate, I was here for 6 and a half hours, so all I ask is what I normally charge for my time.” They immediately raised an eyebrow, and asked, “Are you sure? This type of thing doesn't happen often. I am planning to frame that Purchase Order when this is all over as I've never seen one before.” And I replied, “Yes, I am absolutely sure. I wouldn't feel right charging any more than what I walked in the door expecting to charge for my time. I am just glad I was able to help.”

Yeah sure, it may seem as though they're exploiting the situation, and that's what I thought at the time too. Yet, as he said, it doesn't happen often, and, again in retrospect, I believe he meant that there was a greater opportunity for me to work on other things like this, and by paying me gratuitously for what to them was a marvel in comparison to their struggle for 2 and a half weeks that would have gained me notice by the major contractors and other sub-contractors, so I could do this work, which I greatly enjoy, a lot more often. Understand, I didn't realize this at the time and instead thought of it as exploiting the situation, short-sighted and not realizing that I could have been problem-solving all over the country, a recommended vendor, that maybe I could help solve a lot of things that, though likely, and not from such a horrific disaster as significant as this, would be significant to my country.

So I handed him my invoice for $227.50 and he handed me a check immediately.

I had no clearances, and anyone who wants to dispute that this welded ring the size of 6-4 car garages was the O-Ring that failed, believe what you want to believe. Sure my memory is foggy after 30 years and, as I am well aware clearances were required, I've deliberately “forgotten” a few minor details and remembered a few of them differently to assure I do not compromise those who were involved, should this happen to still require some sort of clearance to disclose. This American company gave me a great opportunity to help my country, which was followed by more over the course of the next few years, and I begrudge them nothing, wish them no ill-will whatsoever. However, the O-ring that had been welded on to hold the main booster is the O-ring, and I believe 30 years after the Challenger Disaster it's only right that the American people know exactly what “O-ring” failed on the Challenger Space Shuttle, and without any apologies from this innocent computer programmer who was brought by a good friend to help a company charged with figuring out a system to secure future shuttle launches will not have the same problem. My efforts on their behalf forever changed me and are a significant source of my pride in being an American and for the honor and privilege to do something meaningful for my country.

Looking back, this was the beginning of my turning point, the beginning of me becoming a Conservative, which was finalized shortly after 09-11-2001, http://changingwind.org/index/news.php?item.299.

As always, May Jesus Christ, King of kings and Lord of lords, Bless you and I thank you for reading and sharing this,

Toddy Littman

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