Memories No. 7: “— But Its Bread and Butter to Us!”

In most large organizations, like GE, engineering managers may be put in charge of a variety of operations. Once you are promoted for the second time you find yourself managing some unfamiliar work. Your first promotion was to be manager of the group you worked in and helped build. You were, therefore, quite knowledgeable of the work and the people.

The next promotion would be to manage about seven such groups, almost always including the one you just ran. The other groups were doing work you were aware of but certainly not an expert in. You would have to learn each group’s work as best you could and, most importantly, determine the real technical leaders of the work, probably but not always, including the manager, and rely on their ideas and suggestions.

In the aerospace industry at GE our major customer was the US Government which often was a “moving target” in that they had uncertain/changeable budgets which sometimes had us in whiplash from stops, starts, sudden budget changes, etc. As a result many reorganizations occurred in our divisions resulting in layoffs and hiring, sometimes at the same time because a new contract may need “brain surgeons” while we had too many “plastic surgeons”.

During the resulting spasms of manpower changes you might find on Friday that you were, starting Monday, in charge of an additional group being transferred to your organization. Such was the case one day at GE’s Space Division, where I worked.

And so I “inherited” the Waste Management work that had been underway for awhile. They had NASA contracts to design and develop toilets for the Space Shuttle and future manned missions. And, under a separate contract, to develop “unisex” toilets, there being plans afoot to use both men and women astronauts. And space, zero-gravity toilet requirements for each are understandably different.

The male toilet design was already under going development testing in our facility when the group joined my organization. I remember that of the simulates used in testing, their preferred one was a mixture of canned dog food and peanut butter.

The zero gravity testing, the most difficult, would be done on the “Vomit Comet”, a modified Air Force transport plane, which, by flying a certain parabolic path, would provide a zero gravity for nearly 30 seconds. One can imagine that scheduling such a realistic test could be challenging, especially to the “testee” who is requested to perform nearly on command, and while surrounded by cameras recording activities, even through the Plexiglas bowl.

Our group was led by Bob Murray, a steady, reliable and knowledgeable manager, and I had a psychologist, Dr. Stacy Hunt, whose job, according to NASA and the Air Force, was “to help” the testees, men (included AF pilots) and women (AF nurse volunteers) to accomplish their roles in the demonstrations. Arranging all the test setups for the nurses was a bit tricky and the psychologist was the lead.

Stacy had a great sense of humor and could work well with anyone. And I specifically remember his “unofficial motto” for the group”: It May be Shit to You but Its Bread and Butter to Us!

I’ve often hoped, when the shuttles were on mission, that if the toilets all worked well the users would remember GE, and if they didn’t, that they blame it on NASA!

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