NASA Engineer Norm Chaffee on Importance of Writing Skills for Engineers
January 19, 2006, Johnson Space Center Oral History Project Interview of Norman H. Chaffee
Norm Chaffee, NASA rocket builder and propulsion engineer
Click below to hear how Norm remembers the day they almost froze the rocket fuel on Apollo 13.
Now read Norm’s account about why writing is so important to an engineer and NASA.
Excerpted from NASA ORAL History Site: June 22, 2012
Original Interview Date: January 19, 2006
But it was a highly disciplined process, and when you test something like that that’s dangerous. You don’t just go out on the spur of the moment and say, “Well, let’s unhook this joint and see what happens,” or, “Let’s try this.” So everything is done by written procedure. So you start out with a schematic of all the equipment that’s going to be out there, and then you figure out, “What is it I want to happen?” And you go through, and you define, “Okay, I’ve got to close this valve. I’ve got to open this valve, and before I open the next valve, I want to read the temperature and the pressure to be sure things are the way I think they should be. Then I open this one, but then I got to go back and close this one. Then I want to read the pressure on the relief valve to be sure that’s okay.”
So you get all these steps and procedures. You write all that down, so you assign somebody. So you go, “You write the procedure for how we’re going to do this.” Then that gets reviewed by at least one other person, sometimes two other people. Then once they think it’s okay, it gets reviewed by a team, including a quality person, and a safety, reliability, and quality
assurance person, and that kind of stuff. So there’s multiple levels of oversight here, and they may say, “Well, at this point, we need to stop, and the quality guy needs to go in and stamp that this is okay,” or this kind of thing. “How long has it been since we calibrated this pressure gauge? Is it going to be in calibration during the entire period of this test, or do we need to change that out?”
Then there’s a whole series of what ifs, emergency situations. If this happens, what do we do? If this happens, what do we do? If this happens, what do we do? That’s kind of an engineering natural, except I learned that many engineers don’t naturally think logically like that always. Some of them, they’re so entrepreneurial and excited. They just want to jump from the idea to the end result. Oh no, there’s fifty steps between here and there. We’ve got to figure all this stuff out.
So what it does is instills in you this very disciplined, step-by-step what am I trying to do, what does each step that I want to do require, and how do I describe it such that you can’t do it wrong, and now how do I write it down so that nobody can misinterpret what it is that I meant. What checks and balances in here do I need for the quality guy to say, “Yes, you’ve done that. I’ve put my stamp on it,” and this, that, and the other. This is a very important skill for an engineer.
When I go and talk to schools now, one of the things that I emphasize when I’m talking to kids that want to be technical, is you have to be a good writer, and by writing, I don’t mean fiction. I mean, you have to be able to very explicitly figure out what it is you want to do in a step-by-step process and write it down so that somebody can follow your instructions and get it right and not hurt themselves or somebody else or this kind of thing. When I first started doing education outreach after I retired in the end of ’96, the second or third year I was doing it, I got a
call during Engineers Week from some school, and they said, well, this English teacher wants somebody to come out.
I said, “Oh, I’d love to do that,” because English is a critical skill for engineers. So I talked to this gal over the phone.
She was apprehensive about, “Well, what can you do?”
So I said, “Well, do you do writing in your class?”
“Yeah. Well, yeah, that’s part of it.”
I said, “Let me come out, and I’ll teach the kids how to write something that’s not a story.”
So I went out, and this wasn’t my original idea, but I took a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, and a knife, and went out there and said, “Okay, kids. I’m a Martian. I don’t have any idea what a peanut butter sandwich is or a knife or anything like that. I want you to write me a procedure to make a peanut butter sandwich, because you want me, as a Martian, to try and enjoy a peanut butter sandwich.”
They said, “Oh, yeah, that’s easy.” So all these kids start writing. So you give them twenty minutes to write a procedure.
Then the teacher selects one and says, “Okay, well, now we’ll try Johnny’s procedure and see how that works.”
Well, Johnny says, “Take knife. Dip into peanut butter.” So I’d take the knife and grab it by the wrong end, you know, try to—you know, he didn’t say, “Open the jar of peanut butter,” so I try to stick the wrong end of the knife through the lid of the peanut butter. “Put on bread,” so then I tried—it didn’t say take any bread out of the wrapper or anything like that.
So pretty soon, you do some of these—they’re all wrong; they leave out details—pretty soon the glimmer begins to go through, “Oh, I didn’t think about that.” It’s a very educational
thing. The teacher loved it, and I ended up doing several of those, because the word kind of got around that this was a neat thing that kids could really relate to that promoted disciplined thinking as well as complete assessment of a situation and that type of thing.
So one of the things I’ve really enjoyed as a retired person working with teachers and kids is the ability to take my experiences and my continuing excitement about space and space exploration and that kind of stuff, and bring that in a way that, for most kids, can turn on their excitement. You can’t get them all. When you go to a classroom, there’s always a few whose heads immediately go down on the desk, and they go to sleep. They’re not going to be interested in anything. But your reward is to look around and see these bright little faces and the excitement and the lights going off above their heads and that type of thing, of thinking about, “I can do that.”
Anyway, the facility was important, and the way we protected ourselves was a very disciplined process. That has to be the case in any—you know, over the years there’s been a number of accidents at the Center where people were even killed because of a breakdown in that discipline. I remember back in the eighties there was a battery that exploded over in the crew systems area and killed a technician, because they just hadn’t paid attention to the first process they were using.