Meet: Ed Houston
Ames Research Center
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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