Innovation without consultation can create calamity
By Myron J. Boyajian, Contributing Editor
Early in my career, I worked on rocket engine tests at the Rocketdyne Laboratories in the beautiful Santa Susana Mountains of California. Projects in my department included tests of liquid fuel rocket engine combustion chamber configurations, fuel-injection nozzle designs and some really bizarre fuel combinations.
As a young engineering assistant, my detailed tasks included test set-up, passivating fuel lines so the reactive fuels combusted in the engine and not in the pipes, and reduction of data from oscillograph recordings to numeric form in order to calculate “C-star,” a measure of engine efficiency.
Data reduction was interesting, but was made tedious by the need to handle dozens of feet of rolls of oscillograph tracings. Pressure, temperature, etc., signals were conditioned by vacuum-tube equipment that magnetically drove tiny torsionally suspended mirrors that reflected a beam of light onto photosensitive graph paper. The amplitude of each variable could then be directly read from the long charts. Because the charts rolled up at inopportune times or rolled off the desk, I devised a hand-cranked roller to pull the charts under a clear plastic scale so I could quickly pick off data points. My simple innovation saved time, but more importantly, helped accuracy because I didn’t lose continuity reading a long chart that had as many as 10 variables. I was pleased to get a company commendation and proud to get a round of “attaboys” from my co-workers, lads I regarded as a bunch of bright innovative people in their own right.
But my expectation of working on thundering rocket blasts on this particular day was dashed by an order to prepare catalyst pellets, probably the most tedious and dreaded job in our department. Made by soaking absorbent ceramic, pea-size pellets in a brilliant purple potassium permanganate solution, the catalysts were then dried and packed in stainless-steel containers. The catalyst was used in the Redstone missile, a short-range ballistic missile.
During initial flight, its engine hungrily swallowed some 44,000 lb of liquid oxygen and alcohol/water in about 90 to 120 seconds. After engine cutoff, the missile continued to loft upward and then coast downrange some 200 miles. Fuel pumping chores were handled by a steam-driven turbo-pump, the 1935 brainchild of American scientist Robert H. Goddard, and refined by the developers of the World War II V-2 rocket. In the Redstone, compressed air forced about 70 gal of 80 percent hydrogen peroxide into a cylindrical vessel containing a bed of catalyst pellets. The peroxide decomposed into a furious stream of superheated steam and oxygen that spun the turbo-pump.
Tired of the day-long chore of measuring, weighing, soaking and baking to prepare the batches of pellets - and with the sound of all the attaboys from my data analysis roller innovation still ringing in my ears - I made a paper design of a semiautomatic system to weigh, soak and dry the pellets. I directly pitched my idea to the division project/suggestion review committee. They accepted my idea with its potential to cut pellet production time by 50 percent or more, and insisted that our research group leader proceed with the project. Life looked good until my boss came down on me like a ton of bricks.
My innovation, submitted with a bit of hubris, but without any review, became a calamity when I discovered that it seriously damaged my boss’s efforts to sell management on a new steam generator that would have eliminated the hated task of pellet production altogether. Barely containing his anger, my boss explained that my idea of a new catalyst bed consisting of a micro-etched stainless-steel screen showed promise, but he now had to redirect management’s enthusiasm for my pellet system back to the other, more beneficial concept. Chastened, I resolved to review any further brainstorms with my fellow engineers.