The Race to the Top

Updated: Mar 18, 2021

How to get ahead without really trying.


It was late 1980 and the NASA elves were busily assembling the Columbia Space Shuttle. Uncle Ed was in charge of assembly, safety, quality control,

basically completing the build and final mating to the booster rockets. Anything that happened inside the cavernous Vertical Assembly Building prior to roll out was done under Ed’s thumb and his no-nonsense gigantic brain.

When the shuttle transferred to the “crawler”, the massive powered skateboard that carried it to the launch site, all responsibility switched to Ed’s fueling and launch co-manager. They both reported to the big wig overseeing the entire project, perched high atop his office in the Vertical Assembly Building.

I have the utmost respect for all of Ed’s accomplishments, but, all the while realizing that he is human after all.

In the early stages of assembly there was a problem with the heat shield tiles assembly. As they glued each one carefully, following the placement protocol mapped out precisely, double checking serial numbers and quality control certificates and then standing back to admire their craftsmanship, some of them fell off!

Clunk! Clunk? “CLUNK”#^&#\??!

According to the tile manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, each of the baked 6”x6” silica squares originally cost NASA about $10,000 per square foot installed. That’s $1000 per tile and $1500 installation.

Often, Ed would come home from work and complain about the things he was allowed to share, that had happened that day.

He worked ungodly 14-hour days with a 126-mile round trip commute. Dinner, very often was KFC standing at the kitchen counter constantly wiping the grease from his fingers. This nightly ritual included a glass of cold milk with 2 fingers of scotch to help him get to sleep quickly.

When assembly was complete, we hosted a roll out party for Lockheed’s biggest wigs from headquarters to celebrate this milestone. Ed sprang for 20 cases of Budweiser iced down in a Rubbermaid 55-gallon trash can. I think we also got a meat and cheese platter from Publix. Quite a memorable night for all.

I heard some stories about Ed that they retold jokingly.

The first was his solution for the falling tiles. “Tell the workers they are not allowed greasy fried chicken for lunch anymore”. They said that inspiration came to him over dinner one night.

And second story was about an electrical problem that caused the entire operation to shut down. Ed’s boss yelled at him, he yelled at his foreman, they yelled at the workers.

Stuff does flow downhill, sometimes with great success. One of the workers found the faulty part, came running to the foreman, he took it and quickly delivered it to Ed.

Electrical Engineering genius that he was, he promptly rolled up his sleeves, took the part and started sprinting up five flights of stairs. Stopping just long enough to reach behind a soda machine on a landing to get some dirt and grease to spread on his now sweaty arms and shirt. Bursting into his boss’s office he held the broken part up high exclaiming “I’ve got the problem right here”’.

All hail the conquering hero.

Ed, we miss you dearly.