In the winter of 1979, I was a second year Mechanical Engineering student at Virginia Tech. On one of many frosty February mornings, I trudged across the frozen Drill Field for my 8:00 am ‘Introduction to Control Systems’ class. I arrived early and took a seat in the shadows, half way back on the far-right side of a lecture hall that could seat at least 300.
As I settled into my seat, I thought to myself … “I’m done. This is just too hard.” I had been a middle-B student in high school. But now I was competing against some of the smartest young people in Virginia, if not the whole country. At the same time, I had to work nights at an restaurant in town to pay for whatever part of my tuition that I couldn’t borrow. Slumped in that chair, I remember saying to myself, “Who have I been kidding?”
So right there, I made the decision to drop out of college. Then, I started to search for the words that I would say to my parents when I called them to tell them that their dreams for me, and my dreams for myself, were over, and that I was coming home.
While I had been sitting there wallowing in self-pity, I hadn’t even noticed that the rest of the class had filed in and taken their seats, and that the class had started. In fact, it wasn’t until I heard Dr. Robertshaw raise his voice that I even looked up. It appeared that Dr. Robertshaw had been asking the class questions from a quiz that he had given during the previous class. Apparently, he hadn’t been thrilled with the results. Now, as he was asking question after question, and he was getting no response, I thought to myself, “Why aren’t they answering? These are the smartest of the smart! I’d bet that they’re all members of Tau Beta Pi, the national engineering honor society!” But on this morning, they offered only silence.
Finally, Dr. Robertshaw was pacing down the aisle about 5 rows away from me when he asked another question. And at that point, I did the absolutely unthinkable. I slowly raised my hand. I don’t know how he even saw me in the shadows out of the corner of his eye. But he turned and called on me, … and I gave him the answer he was looking for.
As the class moved on, I sat back in my chair and thought to myself, “What just happened?”. I had believed that all these other students were so much smarter than me. Could it be that I had actually stuck with college long enough to find some subject matter that I was good at? And might it be that engineering organizations don’t only need the smartest of the smart, but they also need people who have broad experience, initiative, and unending determination to get the job done.
And that is when it hit me. When I play soccer, I am exactly those things.
I never had the best ball skills, but I always compensated for this by maintaining my focus on the run of play, so I could disrupt the opponent before the plays developed. And I would play with such relentlessness that opponents would frequently just pass the ball square, instead of sending it upfield to challenge me. In that way, the superior ball skills of the players I was marking would never come into play.
So, what if I was to take these characteristics that I had learned about myself in playing sports, and apply them to how I tackle academics?
That is exactly what I did. And my parents never got that call.
I buckled down in my course work. I pursued control systems as an engineering specialty. But being at the interface between the logical and physical worlds, I knew I would have to have broad knowledge of many areas of engineering. So, in addition to my core courses and technical electives, I started auditing additional engineering courses to expose myself to material that I knew I wouldn’t be able to take for credit. During the summers, I worked first at two engineering firms as a draftsman, so that I would know how to document the systems that I would design. Then I worked for a summer and a winter at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), in Anacostia, Maryland, as a technician, so I would learn how to build real systems and how to make them work. At the same time, every summer I worked three shifts every weekend at a restaurant to make enough money to return to school.
Finally, after five years I received my Mechanical Engineering degree, to go with my hefty student loan. In my job search that Spring, I received three offers. The first was to make missiles at Lockheed Martin in Sunnyvale, California. The second was to make microelectronics at Texas Instruments in Dallas, Texas. And the third, and my lowest offer, was a contract job to design and build robots for the Acoustics Division at NRL. For the first two offers, I would be carefully mentored and groomed in the ways of engineering by corporate America. For the third, I would be given nothing. I would be the lone engineer building equipment for a group of PhD physicists. My success or failure would be totally up to me. I took the third.
The years I spent at NRL were foundational for my career. They gave me the opportunity conceive, design, and build equipment that was unique, and I got to work with master machinists and technicians who took joy in making sure that I learned from every single mistake. But I knew that to do the job well I would also need to learn from experts in the field of robotics. So, I started doing research at the technical library at NRL. And I began attending evening presentations that were organized by the Washington-Baltimore chapter of Robotics International, a part of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME). It was at these meetings that I got to interact with some of the region’s most talented and successful people in the field of robotics. In order to force my consistent attendance at these events, I soon offered to fill the vacant role of Secretary for the chapter. I performed this role for two years, after which I was chosen to be the Chairman.
From all I had learned during my eight years at NRL, I was able to complete the design and construction of six robots, from a tabletop-sized 3-axis device, to a 23-axis system the size of a large factory workcell. But at that point, I felt the need to pursue new challenges in robotics at a larger scale. So, in 1990 I took a position as a contractor at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, working on what at the time was to be an American robot that was to be part of the U.S. Space Station Freedom (SSF).
But about a year later, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States was looking for ways to employ Soviet nuclear scientists so that they wouldn’t be lured away by rogue nations. So, the United States changed their plans for SSF, and instead of building it by themselves, they encouraged international partners to participate in what was renamed the International Space Station (ISS). Unfortunately for myself, the ISS wouldn’t need a U.S. robot, because the U.S. would accept the Canadian contribution of an updated version of their existing U.S. Space Shuttle robotic arm. So, my program was cancelled.
But at that point, NASA was still planning to perform a Space Shuttle flight to demonstrate U.S. capabilities for robotic satellite servicing. So, I was chosen to be the Chief Engineer for the robot that would be used to train the astronauts for that mission. Unfortunately, a year later that too was cancelled for budget reasons. And so, yet another challenge was thrust upon me.
With this cancellation, my boss at NASA also had to find a new position, but when he left, he told me that he would try to bring me to his new program as soon as he could get funds to create a new position.
In the meantime, I took a position with Goddard’s Cryogenics and Fluid System group, studying Stirling Cycle “cryocoolers”, which are used to improve the performance of thermal imaging sensors, by making them operate at cryogenic temperatures. Although unrelated to robotics, this experience also ended up benefiting my career. But about a year later, my former boss brought me over to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope (HST) program, supporting his role in designing hardware and training astronauts to service and upgrade HST, which had been launched into earth’s orbit in April of 1990.
Working on the Hubble program was just a tremendous experience. The people I was working with were shear geniuses at conceiving innovative ways to keep HST operating, and vastly improve its scientific capabilities, as it experienced degradation on-orbit. I remember that at one point it was reported that the Hubble Space Telescope was the most productive scientific facility across all fields of science. And at that point, it had only been used to observe 0.036% of the stellar sky.
In preparing for the HST servicing missions, I got to spend many hundreds of hours on scuba, setting up and monitoring the training of astronauts in NASA’s underwater space simulation facilities. And due to my attention to detail, I also became one of only a few who were given the opportunity to don a space suit, and work side by side with the astronauts in simulated zero-gravity, evaluating hardware, and developing the techniques that they would use to service Hubble in space. As it turned out, due to the importance of the Hubble program to NASA and the international scientific community, at one point I had probably accumulated more time in a space suit than many of the astronauts in NASA’s Corps.
During the HST Servicing Missions themselves, our team would be on console in a back control room at NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) monitoring progress of the mission, and responding to unanticipated events during what turned out to be the longest and most challenging set of space walks NASA had conducted up to that time.
But leading up to the fourth HST servicing mission, I felt that I wasn’t as prepared as I should be for things that could go wrong. In particular, I had not had a chance to collect copies of the final closeout photos of the Space Shuttle Columbia payload bay. I wanted to make sure that I could see the exact configuration of the equipment that the astronauts would be faced with if they ran into problems in servicing Hubble on orbit. So, instead of flying down to NASA Kennedy Space Center (KSC) with my colleagues to join in the launch festivities, I flew directly to JSC and started getting set up for the mission.
But while collecting the closeout photos that I wanted, I ran across a photo that made me say to myself, “That’s not right.”. So, I called KSC to speak with our Integration & Test (I&T) manager. I asked him to pull up the photo of the mounting configuration of a Solar Array Diode Box that I was looking at. I told him about the problem that I saw, and he said that he would get back to me. At this point, the astronauts had already completed their final inspection of the payload bay configuration. Columbia’s payload bay doors were open. All there was left to do was to close the payload bay doors, load the crew and the fuel, and launch.
A few hours later the I&T manager called me back, and he confirmed that the installed configuration of the Solar Array Diode Box was wrong. He also told me that he had spoken to our stress analyst, who had stated that in that configuration, the mounting brackets would not have survived the forces of launch. So in other words, it was likely that during launch the Diode Box, 44 lbs of aluminum and copper, would have broken free from its mounting brackets at the forward end of the payload bay, and crashed through the thin aft bulkhead panel in the area of the fuel tanks for the main engines. Using a sports analogy, the I&T manager said to me, “Rich, you just made a diving catch.”.
And yes, it was on the very next launch of Columbia, on January 16, 2003, 81.7 seconds after liftoff at approximately 65,000 feet, that a 1.7 lb. (estimated) piece of Spray On Foam Insulation (SOFI) broke free from the surface of the external fuel tank and shattered across the leading edge of the left wing. It is believed that this contact punched a hole in the wing that, during re-entry 16 days later, resulted in degraded aerodynamic performance, caused the wing to overheat and fail, and ultimately caused the vehicle to disintegrate, taking with it the lives of seven of America’s Finest. The Columbia debris field was spread across nine counties in north Texas and Louisiana, just south of Shreveport. Some of my colleagues at JSC participated in its collection.
NASA was not the same after Columbia. The Shuttle fleet was grounded, the final HST Servicing Mission was cancelled, and the brilliant people on the HST program were left to find other positions. I went off to support various NASA Independent Review Teams, and at the same time contributed to proposals to apply our Hubble experience to NASA’s Constellation Program to go back to the Moon. It was during this time that I finally gave in to my neighbor’s requests for my resume, passing it off so I could be considered for work at another government agency.
But soon, since HST would no longer be serviced by astronauts, our Hubble program manager started to push us to figure out whether HST could be serviced using a robot. From both my early-career experience with robotics, and my extensive experience with the HST Servicing Missions, I didn’t give this idea much hope. But he had challenged us in the past in ways that seemed equally unlikely, and yet we had always found ways to make improbable things work.
So, we made arrangements to start working with the Canadian developers of the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (SPDM) robot that was planned to be added to the International Space Station, to try to determine what could be accomplished in servicing Hubble using a robot. A team of us would develop functioning mockups of tools that the Canadian robot could use to actuate the unique interfaces on the Hubble. Then we would fly up to their headquarters in Toronto early in the week, and we would exercise and refine these designs and associated procedures, and videotape the results. Then on the last night of testing for the week, one person (our courier) would be designated to get some sleep, while the rest of us would head down to a video studio in downtown Toronto, where we would work through the night compiling and editing the results of our tests, before finally burning them on a CD (At the time, I believe this studio was mainly used for making music videos.). Then in the morning, our courier would pick up the CD and fly it to Washington, D.C., where by afternoon it would be shown to Congressional staffers. Over this time, we achieved successes in robotics that I never dreamed were possible. And in the process, we convinced both the NASA Administrator and Congress to fund us for a $1.4B robotic mission to service Hubble.
But soon, a new Administrator was appointed at NASA. And after the Shuttle program was returned to flight, he decided that the last Hubble Servicing Mission should be performed by astronauts from one of the remaining Shuttles. It was around this time that my security clearance came through, and I was offered and accepted a position at another government agency, where I still work to this day.
That is a brief summary of my education and career. But do you know what is really amazing about this story? Do you remember that school that I had decided to drop out of because I thought it was too hard? It was during this time that I received a call from that school, and they told me, “Mr. Fink, we’d like to feature your work at NASA in our upcoming issue of the Virginia Tech Magazine.” And do you remember Tau Beta Pi, the national engineering honor society that I believed represented a level of engineering excellence that was far beyond what I could ever achieve? They wrote me a letter and told me, “Mr. Fink, congratulations. Tau Beta Pi has declared you to be one of this country’s ‘Eminent Engineers’”. Unbelievable!
And the point of me telling you all this is that everything I’ve described only happened because, . . . on one cold morning in February 1979, I made the connection between what I had learned about myself in playing sports, and how I could apply that to other challenges that I faced in my life. I was so affected by this experience that I kept competing in soccer for another 40 years, always learning more about the gifts that I had been given, and how they could be applied to the challenges that I faced.
Now, here we are in the midst of some of the greatest challenges this country has ever faced. But as serious as these challenges are, be assured that in your life you will face many more. But when you do, I hope you have something to remind you of what you learned about yourself on a field, on a court, in a pool, on a mat, or on a track. Because it is clear that this country is going to need all of the smart, persistent, well rounded, and compassionate young men and women that it can get. And personally, I hope those people … are you.
So tonight, you should be congratulated, and you should cherish not only what you’ve accomplished in playing sports at Annandale High School, but also what you’ve come to learn about yourself in the process. And as you do, I encourage you to also consider what more might you learn about yourself … tomorrow.
May 31, 2020