JFM to the rescue

I started working in NASA’s mission control back in the days that dinosaurs roamed the earth and all computers were mainframes.  There was a quintet of IBM 370/65’s on the first floor of the MCC and we flight controllers weren’t allowed to touch them.  They drove small black and white data display screens which could only be changed by the high priesthood of computer programmers.  If we wanted to change a display, we had to carefully hand code sheets with the mathematical descriptions of what parameters we wanted to see and where.  These sheets were converted to punch cards (!?!) and entered into the machine by special personnel.  Mere mortals were not allowed in the processing.  In a couple of months, a software drop would include your display change, and a special time would be set up to check out the new displays.  Invariably there were errors and correction requirement sheets would be submitted, and then in another couple of months you might get the update.

It all seems so archaic now.  But that was the heritage of the Apollo era MCC when I started to work in the late 1970’s. 

During STS-1, as we hand transcribed data from those little black and white screens to use in our new HP hand calculators, I kept thinking how neat it would be if we could plug in one of those new Apple IIe computers into the data stream and get automated answers rather than those hand calculations we used.  At least we had moved past the slide rule era

In those early days of shuttle, a number of the younger, new flight controllers got together to organize a try to get “offline” minicomputers into the MCC.  Every time we tried an official request we were turned down – no money, besides, the MCC was good enough to get us to the moon, why does anyone need more?  So we plotted an unofficial flanking movement to the High Priesthood of computer programmers. 

And some time in those days I met a new, young flight controller, just out of the Air Force, working in the communications systems section:  John Muratore.

John was an energetic, clever, and articulate leader in our little group of malcontents.  As an electrical engineer, he was up on the latest and greatest minicomputer technology.  We found a common cause together and I developed a great deal of professional respect for John.

As it happens, he is one of the few Yale engineering graduates in the NASA world.  His patrician New England family didn’t really understand why he would study engineering over law or finance.  But it was a good thing that he did.

As it happens, the Flight Control management decided that I, a mechanical engineer (specializing in rocket propulsion) would make a great manager for the Communications section, where everything is electronic.  They told me that a manager didn’t really need to understand the technical details of the work but just to organize the team.  Sounds like a bad Dilbert cartoon, right?  Right.  John became my mentor for all things digital.  Tough job, that.

But the good news, as the supervisor I had some leverage to help crack open the barriers in the MCC.  We bought a “minicomputer” – just for offline work (!) and looked longingly at the new (primitive) local area network that had been installed in the MCC to provide data to the payload customers.  John and I hatched a plan to go into the MCC late one evening, pull up the floor tiles, run cables, and tie into the network with our minicomputer. Looking back on it, I am surprised we weren’t fired.  But it worked, proved the process, and reinforced the message that innovation – if successful – would be accepted!

As time went on, I collaborated with John Muratore on many shuttle missions and projects.  John was the INCO during the ill fated launch of STS-51L, an event that changed all of our perspectives.

John was selected as a Flight Director in 1992 – he was “Kitty Hawk” Flight (colors having mostly been used up).  He worked four difficult missions culminating in STS-61 the first Hubble repair flight.  After distinguishing himself as a Flight Director, NASA management selected him to lead the team to build the new mission control center.  No more mainframes with minicomputers hung off a peripheral LAN; a truly distributed system.  John had the technical and leadership abilities to pull off that huge project.  We moved into the new control center and never missed a beat, never looked back.  And John did it by a combination of excellent team organization skills and by completely ignoring the old and cumbersome processes that had constrained the old mission control center organization.  He called the team the Pirate crew. It really was.

Next, the NASA management needed someone to develop a revolutionary lifeboat for the International Space Station.  John was their man.  He was put in charge of a small, skunk works team to build the X-38, the prototype for the Crew Rescue Vehicle.  It was a huge challenge.  A new pirate team was formed.  They had their bad days – like the very visible parachute test that failed.  But through it all, John learned the skills necessary for systems engineering.  Even after the X-38 was cancelled for political reasons, we knew that John would be back with an even more important assignment.

Somewhere during those X-38 days, John acquired a green flight jacket which he covered with patches.  We got to see a lot of that flight jacket over the next few years.

After the Columbia accident, the entire NASA shuttle management team was reassigned.  Bill Parsons, as the new Program Manager, asked for advice on the new team.  One of the most critical jobs would be the head of systems engineering and integration; and there was only one choice:  John Muratore.

It was John and his team, as much as anybody, that stitched together the plan and the tests and the analysis that allowed us to return the shuttle to flight.  Aerodynamics, solid mechanics, electronics, video, everything came under his scrutiny.  Those were intense days in 2004 and 2005.  But we made it successfully to flight largely through the efforts of the SE&I team – lead by John Muratore.

After John left NASA, he has dedicated himself to teaching a new generation of engineers the principles and practices which make good systems engineering.  I hope his students appreciate the critical role he played at NASA – always coming to the rescue of the agency at a critical time.

Now, I read that John has been asked by the SpaceX team to come to their rescue – to ensure that their systems engineering and especially the tricky software part is good enough for the challenges of space flight.  They couldn’t have asked for better help.  From all accounts John is truly respected in the SpaceX organization and has been hugely influential in their preparations for flight.

When the Falcon and Dragon fly Saturday morning – on their way to the historic first commercial cargo deliver to the International Space Station – no small part of their success will be due to John Muratore.

Good luck and happy landings, old friend.

About waynehale

Wayne Hale is retired from NASA after 32 years. In his career he was the Space Shuttle Program Manager or Deputy for 5 years, a Space Shuttle Flight Director for 40 missions, and is currently a consultant and full time grandpa. He is available for speaking engagements through Special Aerospace Services.
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19 Responses to JFM to the rescue

  1. Ed Fendell says:

    Wayne : You sound like John’s Public Relations Expert. I hired him, and if you remember you replaced me in the running of that section. If you are implying that my thinking was a old fashioned approach, you need to think back what kind of organization I left you, and what kind of people were in that organization, and what they had already done and were capable of. Yes John is a great engineer, and I am sure he can help Space X. Remember when John came to JSC he was an AF Captain who had graduated Yale, and he did not know beans. He learned from his mentors and the system and culture we older troops had created back in the beginning. As I recollect you came to us as one of those and learned the same way. Look what you turned out to be. Yes, you could help Space X also.

    • waynehale says:

      Gosh Ed, I certainly didn’t mean to imply that your thinking was old fashioned – far from it. Rather my rocks are cast at GDSD, they were the keepers of the old technology. Remember that great satire about ordering pencils from them?
      John and I and all the other new troops learned a LOT from you and your fellow Apollo veterans, make no mistake about it. And none of us knew beans about anything when we started.

      • Dave H. says:

        As Sheldon might ask, would you like some aloe vera? I look forward to your take on Shuttlebration.

  2. Ron Smith says:

    I was never really sure why the X-38 was cancelled other than to save a few dollars, and then OSP was started with the same requirements pretty much. I hope SpaceX listens and learns from Mr (or is it Dr?) Muratore. I know that many people in my generation have a tendency to not listen to the wisdom and practices of those before in the work place, and I at least do my best to listen to experience

  3. sully says:

    Interesting. Thanks.

  4. Guy Gardner says:

    Thanks Wayne. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember that the first time I met John (I think I was serving as Capcom), he really impressed me with his out-of-the-box thinking of whatever his idea was at the time, then amazed me with with his expertise in accomplishing it. As a result, I’ve always enjoyed seeing John’s name show up over the years in various NASA endeavors as I follow the program from afar.
    Glad to see he’s now in both education and helping out at SpaceX.

  5. cgn38DAVE says:

    Please try to blog more often. Your stories are great, and well told.

  6. keithcowing says:

    The pirate flag I hung in the window at McMoons (Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project) at NASA ARC was directly inspired by John’s display of a pirate flag during the X-38 days.

  7. John Goodman says:

    A rarely mentioned phase of Mr. Muratore’s career was when he served as the Chief of MOD’s Reconfiguration Management Division, before he became a Flight Director. His portfolio included overseeing the preparation and testing of flight software for each shuttle mission. I was working in software testing on the contractor side. It was a very difficult time, going all the way back to the STSOC transition. Mr. Muratore’s challenging questions forced us to better understand our tasks and the software we were responsible for. He cut the Gordian knot of bureaucracy and pushed through a significant upgrade of the flight software reconfiguration computer system. This upgrade increased productivity, improved product quality, and raised employee morale. The time I spent working for him was a good preparation for future challenges I would face in the Shuttle Program.

  8. Beth Webber says:

    As always, a great story about the people who make NASA work. Thanks!

  9. John David says:

    Wayne, one thing is clear, to me anyways, is that you should write a book all about this stuff. Really enjoyed this!

  10. noofcsq says:

    Thank you for the great write-up on John, he’s one of the best I had the occasion to meet at NASA. Felt really bad for him about X-38 especially which did what it was supposed to do, was needed badly, and got shot for all the wrong reasons. He can be an enormous help at SpaceX, which is a difficult corporate culture for most to endure, but I think John’s more well suited than most for it. I wish him all the best.

    You underplay the story of the battle of the mainframes vs minicomputers at NASA – many forget the “NASA overuse of computers” nonsense, where Goddards redundant computer complex was used to justify waste of computing resource, as if they had overbought – which they had not. Some GSA idiot got the idea that there was only a fixed amount of computer resource that would ever be used, and increasing computer resource that was going on was simply a sign of waste that had to be trimmed back, not that we were doing more and more that meant that more resource consumption was a “good thing” (as I haranged certain branch cheifs). You’re mention of expecting to be fired for violating the computing sanctum is an oft repeated one. Thousands of stories – it was almost as if one spent half the time evading blame in order to get the job done with the other half of your time.

    So to justify even a minicomputer for a while was a lot harder than a new FTE – something people nowadays could never imagine. LAN’s were another battle, in getting away from terminals (not to mention the reams of 132 column fanfold paper and boxes of 80 column puch cards, and the racks of 9 track tapes of dubious integrity/format).

    Wayne keep up these great remeberances – so much has been lost in the collective memory that needs to be recalled.

  11. Always interesting to discover news about who SpaceX is hiring. In the early days, they were a traditional startup, hiring only recent college graduates. Nowadays, they’re only hiring very well known people with decades of experience, lots of education, & military service. It’s not much different than the astronaut core. Hope he enjoys living in LA.

  12. Troy Heindel says:

    Thank you Wayne. It’s a great memory for me, as a member of the original RTDS team. You told the story well. I remember pulling those floor tiles. It was a privilege working with you, John, and all the other dedicated engineers in the NASA family. Anyone who has worked with John should recognize he is a one of those rare individuals who envisions and leads change. It was an adventure within an adventure, with a small margin for error, and there is no irony that great things give way to other great things.

  13. Just exactly what was the STSOC Transition? I have a cup celebrating the 5th anniversary of it (1986-1991), but don’t know what it was.

  14. Jed Deaver says:

    I’m not sure if you maintain this blog any longer. I found this just now looking for information on Mr Muratore. He’s been an anonymous hero of mine for decades.

    I read the story somewhere years ago about how you’d patched into the network and he organized a team that ported the old mainframe code to a lone laptop. I’m not even sure what details I have right about the story, but I just loved the idea of shaking things up. I found an article on the pirate paradigm today and in looking around for information on that, found Mr Muratore’s name and then your blog.

    Hope all is well with you and I just wanted to say how inspired a young kid was at one time by that story.

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