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Meet: Ed Houston

Mechanical Engineer
Ames Research Center

photo of ed houston

Who I Am

I'm an independent consultant , a part of a partnership with another gentleman, Al Howard. Together we form a company called Howard and Houston. I'm a mechanical engineer and Al is an electrical engineer. Since Al is a minority, our company is considered a "small disadvantaged business." We're the only two employees of the company. Al is the president and I am the vice-president. We also have some other colleagues who do business under our name. They're also independent consultants and contractors and we usually have one or two of them here (at NASA) and another three or four over at Lockheed Sunnyvale.

I've been doing this kind of work now for 14 years and Al has been doing it for almost four years. We formed our company about four years ago and it's been a very good thing because we're compatible as people and somewhat complimentary in our personalities. Also the fact that he is a very competent electrical engineer and I'm an experienced mechanical engineer with a lot of manufacturing experience means we can cope with a broad spectrum of projects and assignments.

We usually are pulled in to resolve complex or technical problems. That's our main contribution to the situation. There's this project that I'm working on just now, that looks like just cutting out circles and is part of a major problem we had with some vials that were thought to be okay from previous tests. When we began to test flight equipment we found they were leaking. So what I'm trying to do is resolve that problem by making a couple of modifications in the vial and approve it with testing. Then when I get it to the point where I'm fairly assured that the problem's been resolved, I'll get it drawn up and get it flight tested. We've got to be sure that the problem is resolved because we're down to a very tight timeline to get this equipment to Kennedy for stowing on the shuttle for flight.

These are the typical problems that I've had. I just finished another project in which they had problems heating up some filled syringes. It was done in a bag with heating elements, one in each side. We couldn't get it to heat up within the time frame in which they needed it and also to keep the heat controlled. So I was asked to study that problem and come up with some ideas and implement them. We got that problem resolved.

Prior to that I was involved in a control system of the RAHF (research animal holding facility). We had developed a new control system and as time went on we had problems with that. I was asked to come in and help. Al had already been involved in that he had helped resolve a lot of the technical and electronic problems, but they didn't have the equipment properly documented. Also they didn't know exactly where they were in the manufacturing cycle. So having been through these sorts of situations before, I came in and got it all properly documented for flight.

Documentation, in itself, has its own set of rules. Everything's got to be just right. I had to resolve where they were in the manufacturing process: statusing all the materials, statusing the situation, then ordering materials needed to complete the process, and ushering the whole thing through the manufacturing and the testing process. That was all done within a very tight time frame. So these are the types of problems that we have.

My Career Journey

I just sort of staggered into this almost by default. I was working in the Silicon Valley - a typical sort of middle management engineering and manufacturing environment - and had gotten very tired of the long hours, of the hard pressure and of the questionable rewards. You've got to feel you're getting something out of it and I wasn't getting what I wanted. So, with the encouragement of my wife, who is my faithful companion, I got out of it. I was looking for something to do and decided I would go into contracting. I put out my resume to a lot of different contracting places and job shops.

The first job that came up was here at Ames. I worked on a project for six months and then I took over the project myself as an independent contractor, and worked on it for another five or six months. Then they gave me another project which involved the RAHF cages. There was a flight in 1985 called SL-3. As far as the science was concerned it was successful; as far as the operational side of it was concerned it was a disaster because of the fact that there was an awful lot of rodent fecal matter, urine and food particles, dander and hair. Every time they opened the cages they got a bellow of this stuff, it was very upsetting to the crew. There were monkeys on that mission as well, some little squirrel monkeys. On the 6:00 news they showed the crew chasing all this particulate matter with a vacuum cleaner, trying to catch it. The stench was unwelcome and, of course, that was on the news. The Washington types jumped on it and beat up the NASA types. And it came down the whole NASA structure and landed here in this building, at NASA Ames Research Center.

I wasn't part of that project. I was doing something else at that particular time, but I was asked to come in and write a proposal to help to resolve these problems. I did that for two or three months and they awarded the contract to Lockheed across the runway. The managers there asked if I'd come over and consult for them and I accepted the offer. Since they had gotten the contract I was really finished, there was no more work for me until the next project or something else came up so I went over to work. I worked for them for about nine years as a consultant, which was almost like a regular job. I'd put in 40 hours a week, we designed what I thought was one of my major projects: to design that new cage and get it built. I saw the project right through the engineering and manufacturing stages and we also made modifications to the RAHF itself.

Then there was another project that came up called the Rhesus Project. The idea was to take some of the RAHF hardware and make it capable to handle Rhesus monkeys. Rhesus monkeys are bigger jobs. They are about 20 pounds, I was used to little squirrel monkeys (little one and a half to two pounders) and the rodents are about three-quarters of a pound. So this was bigger stuff. This project was in conjunction with the French space agency. They were making the habitat, which was the cage, and we (Lockheed) were doing the support system, and NASA was doing the electronic and management system (the control and information system). We worked on that for four years. After about nine years we completed the Rhesus Project at Lockheed. There were no more NASA Life Science Projects.

As a consultant, you're very fortunate if you can get something that will last for three or four months, never mind nine years, so I had obviously built up a good deal of knowledge. Some of the management her said,"We could use some of your skills," and invited me to come over here. So, I came over and worked on the completion of the Rhesus Project. Unfortunately it was decided at headquarters that they wouldn't fly the Rhesus Project, so it was put on a shelf.

It was the old story: as one door closes another opens. At that time instead of flying Rhesus, they decided to fly RAHF. RAHF had already flown successfully on SLS-1 and SLS-2 based on the work I'd done over at Lockheed, but there are always improvements that can be done. There are always problems that you can find because it's not like developing hardware for industry or the consumer. Here you only really get one shot at it. If you get anything more than that it's a different set of circumstances. So here we were. This is the fourth round of RAHF. The first as I said was a bit of a disaster. SLS-1 and SLS-2 were very successful as far as the operational and the hardware side were concerned. We still have areas that we'd like to improve. So we set out on improving a number of features of RAHF for this Neurolab flight.

My experience and my background were a great deal of help. With the turnover of personnel, when you figure that there are five to six years between project and between flights, you've lose a lot of your corporate knowledge. So, I became their technical consultant and also the consultant to a lot of new engineers (people who were fresh in the door). They could bring their skills and their energies and I could give them the background and help them over a lot of their problems.

Recently it's been more the short emergency type things as we get down to the finish line. It's the little things where people haven't addressed the problem early enough or suddenly a problem comes up that wasn't there before. Starting next week I'll be moving over to the SSBRP, the centrifuge, and I'll be taking on a project of taking some off-the-shelf microscopes and turning them into flight worthy equipment. Basically, what we would do is identify the areas that aren't acceptable within flight requirements and either modify them or re-engineer them. There are only certain materials that are acceptable and then there's the zero gravity that you've got to think about. These are a lot of things that you build up experience for.

Fortunately, we had a benefit come out of disaster when the Challenger accident happened. It was like a lull. That was right about the time that we were developing the cages and it gave us some extra time in which to do a lot of evaluation relative to supporting animals in space and also interfacing with the crew.

The crew has their own set of problems dealing with handling the equipment. For instance, they can't just push a button. In microgravity, it would push them back. It's got to be a clamping motion or a turning motion. You can anchor your feet and turn or squeeze, but pushing a button doesn't work. So there's a whole lot of things that need to be considered. We had to design all types of new fasteners. We took and we plagiarized other people's fasteners. But we couldn't just take someone's fastener and put it in place because it might be made of the wrong materials for space. It might not fit in the space you have available because you're always fighting for available space and you're always fighting weight and the application itself. Quite often what happens is you see someone who has an idea for a payload, but it will take a lot of work. You've got to redesign it to fit into the application, the use and the materials.

Also, you've got to have complete containment. You can't allow any objectionable particulate to get out. You can't allow any objectionable smells to get out. They're up there for three weeks living in it 24 hours a day and they've got a lot of work to do. If they're wasting their time dealing with things like that and they're living in objectionable circumstances, that's not good. So, when you design something like the cage, you have to be sure that nothing is going to get out of that cage that's any bigger than about the diameter of a hair. Something that size is something the body can deal with, even the eyes and the respiratory system.

You've got to think of total support of the animal. You've got to feed it, you've got to give it drinking water, and you've got to deal with all of it's byproducts: any urine, any fecal matter, all the food particles, and all the hair. When the rodents came back from SL-3, the first flight, they were coated with gunk which was a mixture of food particles, urine and some fecal matter. For the next flight we re-engineered the cages in the RAHF and they came back snow white and beautiful. it was obviously an improvement.

That impacts the science too because if the animal is discomforted, they don't know if an impact was from zero gravity or if it was an impact because the animal was stressed through the living conditions. You've always got to be sure that the science hasn't been jeopardized. That's really the bottom line. That's what you're flying. You're not flying the engineer's hardware, though sometimes we think that's what it's all about. Really what we're is doing science. Science is the pillar and everything else is in support of the science.

You don't only have to engineer for zero gravity, you also have to engineer for normal gravity because the shuttle with its payload sits there on the platform for 48 hours prior to flight. The experiments are taken off within a matter of hours when the shuttle lands, but you've still got a time sequence, so everything's got to be compatible with both conditions.

Likes and Dislikes

This is something I really enjoy because it takes a lot of scope from my experience and it's very seldom that I have to do the same thing twice. I remember going to one of my children's schools. It was a "What does your father do" day. At that time, it was before we started into electronic design systems. We were still dealing with compasses, set squares, stencils, paper, erasers and stuff like that, so I took all this stuff to school to my son's class. I was going to tell them how I did my job. And as soon as I mentioned that I was doing work for NASA, it was all over. It was all about NASA. It was forget about your deal, we want to know about NASA! It was a fun experience!

Obviously, there's time when it's not as interesting as other times. It's nice to start with a clean sheet of paper and come up with new ideas and it's fun to jump into the breech and resolve problems, but there are dull periods where all the interesting work is done and you've got to sit down and make it all work, document it and dot the I's and stroke the T's and deal with the bureaucracy. But, all in all, it's a very satisfying job. Whereas in some of the other jobs I've had there's been more recognition and more status aspects and wearing a suit and a tie and being a manager of a large department of over 200 people with all of the importance and challenges of that. Quite often in these jobs it's hard to find your satisfaction. I like the aspect of being an independent contractor. It gives me that feeling of independence, though there's never really an independence. There's always a boss somewhere.

There's always a responsibility and there's a customer who wants his hardware when he wants his hardware and he wants it right. So there is some authority that you've got to answer to. But it's not the same as being within a company and being a victim of the politics.

Also being the type of person that I am who likes to be out there on the cutting edge of resolving problems leaves me in a position where I'm exposed. Being independent is compatible with that as opposed to being out there and doing that within the confines of a corporation because you quite often are having to defend yourself too often. But I think also, when I've been doing what I've been doing for the last 14 years you build up a credibility and that credibility brings you through these situations. And NASA's not the cut throat environment that the corporations are.

When you've got three children you're always concerned about your income. You may not have the luxury of having a big financial buffer, therefore there's times in the corporate world where the concerns weren't just in getting the job done, there was always the threats of layoffs. I should feel that way as a private contractor, but I tend not to think that way. I think I was more concerned when I was an employee. You understand quite clearly that you've got to produce and to build up that credibility relationship with the people who are bringing you in.

Preparation for Career

My career path was somewhat dictated to me because I wasn't born in the United States. I went to school with some indifference and reluctance back in Scotland. There were times when I was a very good student, but there were times when I wasn't a particularly good student. I excelled at the elementary level, but when I went to high school I think it became more impersonal. I didn't apply myself very well in high school. My father said, "I think the best thing you can do is go get yourself an apprenticeship at the local Navy factory," a factory that made torpedoes. I wanted to stay on at school and become a school teacher, but my father said, "You're not working hard enough."

So I went out and I took the examination for an apprenticeship and got an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering which was more a hands on thing doing machining and tool. I think I was fortunate in that it also fit in with my personality. I always excelled in the mathematical and always somewhat interested in the science side. I had a very analytical mind. I've always loved to burrow into things, take things apart. I think it was just fortunate that the two things just came together. They sent us to engineering school one day a week. I took advantage of that. By the time I was 20 I had an apprenticeship completed and was well on my way to completion of a degree in mechanical engineering.

By the time I was 22 I had that degree and was working as an air frame designer and stress analyst. So I'd made quite a leap. At that time National Service (military draft) was part of the system in Britain and I got grabbed for two years of it in the Royal Air Force. The military in all their might and imagination said "You've got a degree in mechanical engineering and you've done a mechanical engineering apprenticeship. We'll make you an electronic technician." Really it was quite a good thing because it once again expanded my experience and they trained me for nine months in theory and in hardware, transmitters and various other pieces of equipment.

I spent a year in a transmitter station doing repairs and overhauls. When I came out, the company I'd been working for in the aircraft industry had been closed down and consolidated into another company. I got a job working for Westclocks, they make alarm clocks and watches. I also continued my education. I took things like management courses and things that you'd do for an MBA. It was for the institution of mechanical engineering which is more recognized in Britain than here. It's similar to Canada in their professional regulation. So I started on that route and I stayed with them for about six years and eventually ended up being the manager of the department.

Right about that time I got married and suddenly found that I needed to make money! About that time there were a lot of American companies over in Europe recruiting engineers, right at the peak of the aerospace, military escalation: the United States needed a lot of engineers. I ended up coming to the United States with a company called Sundstrand Aviation in Rockford, Illinois. I stayed with them a year and a half but I didn't like that environment. I'd been so used to the hurly-burly of the consumer environment and the flat plains of the midwest didn't suit this Scottish soul. I started interviewing around and I went to work for Mattel Toys in southern California. That was a roller coaster ride. It was an absolute blast and really suited my personality. It was a good fit. I stayed with them for about three and a half years, but my wife had never really settled down to the United States. She got homesick a lot and wanted to go back to the bosom of her family. She had sisters, a brother, a mother and a whole other extended family.

I tended to be more of a "get out there and do something different." So, when our first child was born we decided we'd go back and settle back down in Scotland. I worked for a tobacco company as chief engineer. It was really a big facilities operation, a department of about 240 people. Britain went through a lot of political problems about then. There were a lot of strikes and just about that time some people came and invited me to come back to the United States to work here in the San Francisco bay area.

By this time my wife was very anxious to get back. She'd done an absolute 180: the Scottish weather made her think of the California sunshine, she had changed a lot. She'd been gone five years and had done a lot of different things and here she was moving back into the environment where people had grown in different directions. She had grown in one direction and her friends and family had grown in different directions. She'd been used to this very nice weather of southern California and also gotten used to a much different life style. That was pre-children and we'd been able to do pretty much what we wanted to do. Suddenly she was a homemaker. Whereas this was something she'd always aspired to, she wanted something more than just being a homemaker. So she was anxious to come back to the States. When the opportunity to work in the Bay Area came up, she was very keen to do that.

We came back with our son, two years old, settled down and bought a house in the San Ramon area. The company that I was working for in Dublin, suddenly decided to up and out, and they moved everything up to Reno. We'd just bought our house and that was just unacceptable to come around and sell our house and take a loss. With all of the expenses of selling a house we decided that we'd stay put. I started working then in Silicon Valley and worked in that environment for about 10 years in various engineering supervisory middle management type jobs until I got to the point where I was pretty well beat up and decided I had to do something different.

My wife wisely encouraged me start out in my current type of work. It has been very interesting. So far it's worked and my wife's much happier She's less of a worrier than I am. She says, "Something always comes up!" We've never been hungry and we've never been unemployed unless we've decided that it's time to be unemployed and there's enough money to carry us through that period. She just doesn't become concerned about it at all. But then again, it isn't her responsibility.

Personal Information

I'm not a big hobby person: I have my work and my family, my two interests. I have interests, but I don't have what you'd call hobbies.

I like to relax, I like to read, I like to watch television, I like to dabble. I get an idea and I go off and make it. But it's more the exercise of the idea. I like to be extremely current with the political system. I read my newspaper daily and when I commute I listen to the news programs. I watch the news on television. I love to watch the programs like 60 Minutes and various other news programs. Friday night I sit and watch Washington Week and I watch Face-to-Face. I read news magazines. When I've got time I like to read thrillers like Jean LeCarre and John Grisholm and I like to read books that don't only entertain, but also inform. Like James Michener who always starts with an educational aspect to his books and explains the origins of the people that he's talking about. I like the lawyer-type thriller, but I particularly like the spy genre. I have to watch out. When my wife watches me lifting a book she's always got a lot of trepidation because she knows that I will forsake all to finish this book. Usually I don't do it unless I'm on holiday.

I have three kids: two of them are home and one has flown the coop. The eldest is 25 and he's finished his education. He took his degree in business. He's off and running and he has a job with a software company in their sales organization. He can be anything he wants. He's right at the cutting edge of business.

My middle son is a different cat altogether. He's "finding himself" right now. He's very sharp. He's the one that should be the best student. He's presently on furlough from college. He's a joy to be around. He's funny, he's quite creative, he's gifted musically, and should be a gifted musician, but through lack of application isn't he's very successful in his part time job. He's working at the local roller rink. He went from being the guy that handed out the skates to being the sort of lead guy who trains all the new recruits, he's the disk jockey, he's the guy that enters everything into the computer for the payroll, and last year they made him manager. He doesn't get paid a lot for that, but I've watched him directing kids in a project. He's just like a building site foreman.

We recently put him through a career counseling program and it was interesting to see, the job results were all over the map. It said he should be a CEO or a religious leader or a school superintendent, all these higher jobs, but there was a disconnect because the entry jobs didn't really connect. In the personality profile it said, "This guy's going to have to find his own way." He and I are working on that right now.

The youngest is a daughter. She's an absolute delight! She's the one whose kept the middle of the road, a good sense of humor, a real bubbly personality. In high school drama she did very well. She did anything from a sort of airhead dilettante right down to this young lady in a business suit, floor manager at the department store. She's a little dinky thing. She's just shaves 5' and there she was lecturing this guy who was 6'4" and about twice the weight that she was.

She's going to junior college and hasn't quite made up her mind. We're going to send her through career counseling and see what comes out of that. She has a part time job at the library. I was concerned that she was taking on too much, but she came through! She's great with people and she whizzes around in her little Saturn. She was the only one that saved up and bought a car. The boys got second hand cars from us.

I love to cook. As a matter of fact, I consider myself quite professional. I cook on the weekends and 50% of the time during the week. I can make something out of anything that's in the refrigerator. Cooking is like woodwork. It's therapeutic. The first five year of marriage I did all the cooking. I trained my wife, but for her it's a chore and she's happy to relinquish the responsibility. Her biggest gripe was that I couldn't cook like her mother. When we entertain, she does the appetizers and dessert and I do the main course.

My wife and I enjoy each other's company. We both love travel. Last year we traveled in London and France and the year before in Italy. This year we will stay within the United States and maybe Mexico or Hawaii. In four years here we've traveled in 30 different States. We have a very good relationship. After 31 years of marriage we are still the best of friends.


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