Personal story of working on the EMU system for the astronauts and NASA
A few weeks ago, an Associated Content friend of mine, Kay Whittenhauer, published an article about “Space Program History: 5 Events Everyone Should Know”, and one of the ladies that commented on her article intrigued me.
I previously worked on the commercial side of the business for the Aerospace Division at Hamilton Sundstrand in the technical engineering group, but the folks that worked on the floors above and below me, worked on the space suit, the space shuttle, and other space missions.
Was that an astronaut that just went by, or am I imagining things?
We occasionally would have an astronaut or two in the building, and I just found the work that these folks do, to be fascinating. To be frank with you, I have always harbored a secret. I wanted to work for NASA but I sucked at math and there was no way I could get up the gumption to send in my resume.
Imagine my delight, when Danielle agreed to do an interview with me, and I found out she had had the same dream as I did, but she received a totally different outcome than I did.
So here is my interview from a fine lady I have just met through a mutual friend. Danielle just happens to be another one of those people that I admire and am drawn too. I just had to learn more about her experiences and I’m glad I did. Here is a woman who had a dream, did what she needed to do, and pursued it.
What did you go to school for, and how did you end up in the “space” program?
I have a B. S. in Aerospace Engineering from Boston University and a M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Rensselaer.
I was in first grade when the Space Program bug bit me. (I guess that’s age six, right?) We were reading our Weekly Readers and I became mesmerized by photos of the Space Shuttle. I instantly decided I wanted to be an astronaut! It sounds so silly now, because all little kids want to be astronauts. Back then, people thought I was wacked, mainly because I was a girl.
I followed that dream goal all the way through college and beyond, even though my eyes have always been too bad. I hounded NASA for 10 years and still have my personalized rejection letters in which they began begging me to stop applying!
I don’t regret going down that path. I got to work on the U.S. Spacesuit program, (referred to in the technical community as the Extravehicular Mobility Unit or EMU Program) which was the next best thing.
Everything fell into place like a puzzle. Prior to working at Hamilton, my first engineering position out of college in 1987 was at Textron Lycoming, where I learned Reliability engineering from the ex-Navy engineers working there.
An opportunity came up to work on the EMU Program in the Reliability and Safety group at Hamilton Standard (now Hamilton Sundstrand) only 2 years later. So working on the EMU Program was my second engineering job out of college. I consider myself very fortunate!
What were some of the highlights of your career there for example, what systems did you work on and what were the risks if the system failed, etc?
All of the components in the EMU were ranked by criticality according to what would happen if each one failed. Any component or system that could cause loss-of-life or that could fail after only one malfunction was ranked with the most crucial criticality.
As a Reliability and Safety engineer on the program, my job was to keep track of any failures within the entire spacesuit and oversee design changes that might impact criticality.
My department also was responsible for recommending changes that would make components safer and more durable. For instance, Hamilton Standard implemented a change I suggested to the EMU glove design after a near critical pressure bladder tear was caused by a sharp Gimbal edge. We replaced the sharp edge with a blunt one like the end of a turkey wishbone.
One of the best highlights of my career on the EMU Program was when my fellow Reliability and Safety engineers and I got to watch and oversee space walk missions in a control room at Hamilton Standard. There were other crucial engineering support groups like Design and Systems there, too. There was a red phone in that room and when it rang, NASA Mission Control wanted an answer fast! I remember many a proud moment when a mission concluded successfully before our eyes in that room.
Meeting many of the astronauts was very cool, too. I still have pictures and autographs from a few of them! I also got to try on the spacesuit once. It weighs close to 300 pounds here on Earth. It was like having a refrigerator on my back and I instantly bowed over! They had to keep me attached to the hoist to keep me upright!
What did you like about working in space vs. what you didn’t like (culture, politics, pay, people, materials, layoffs, resources, support, deadlines, communications, other?)
While working on the EMU Program, I was privileged to work with one of the most brilliant multi-discipline engineering teams in the country at the time. My boss and his boss were so esteemed that the brass at NASA would call them personally to discuss issues on the Space program! I was very fortunate to be able to have such brilliant men for mentors!
I would have stayed on the EMU Program forever, if I thought it was possible. I was approaching the age of thirty and had noticed engineers in their thirties and forties suddenly let go in rounds of lay-offs in the 1994-1995 time frame. The fact that my only engineering experience was in the aerospace field, scared me. I was afraid I would not be able to find another job with such a narrow scope of work under my belt if I was let go.
So, in 1995, I decided to take a Reliability engineering job in a completely different arena-working on the Army big guns at Lockheed Martin.It practically broke my heart to leave my beloved EMU Program and my colleagues at Hamilton Standard! Still, I felt that leaving on my own terms, however, was not as crushing as if I had gotten laid off from there.
What other kinds of education did you get to support your position?
As I previously mentioned, I learned Reliability engineering from the ex-Navy engineers at Textron Lycoming, my first job out of college.
I can honestly say that that knowledge-base formed my career. Even after leaving Hamilton Standard, it was my knowledge of Reliability engineering that landed me my subsequent positions. At the time, there were no formal college degrees in the subject, so it was perfectly acceptable to learn from ex-military experts in the field.
Now, many colleges recognize the importance of Reliability engineering and one can actually obtain a degree in it.
Has anyone ever called you a “rocket scientist” – and what kind of personal response do you have to the phrase, “you don’t have to be a rocket-scientist” to do this!
Yes, it’s funny. People I went to high school with still call me that. At my ten year reunion, everyone was calling me that, but by then I was actually working on the EMU Program then! Now, in retirement, I try to make a joke when I am referred to as a rocket scientist by replying, “I’m just an ‘enginerd’ at heart!”
What do you miss most about working in this field now, what do you miss the least?
I miss being responsible for the EMU and making sure the astronauts are safe. I miss my mentors and colleagues, though I still keep in touch with my former boss from Hamilton Standard about once a year. I don’t miss the bureaucracy of Corporate America. No matter how good a job one does, one is always replaceable.
Anything else you would like to share?
One of my first articles, “Logan’s Run: How the Show’s Theme Impacted My Life,” pretty much sums up why I left engineering. You can find it at the following link: http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/1411281/logans_run_how_the_shows_theme_impacted_pg1.html?cat=9
I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank you, Kay, for giving me this opportunity to speak about my days on the EMU Program! I really appreciate it!
My friends, if you haven’t yet gotten a chance to meet Danielle Olivia Tefft, please do check her out and show her some page view love. I have certainly enjoyed getting to know her, and I’m sure you will too.
Experience of Danielle Olivia Tefft
Kay Whittenhauer: AC, Space Program History: 5 Events Everyone Should Know