Frank Cepollina takes repair calls to new heights.
- By Robert Zimmerman
- Air & Space magazine, May 2010
(Page 2 of 5)
That wasn’t uncommon in the 1960s. Approximately 30 percent of NASA spacecraft failed within 10 days of launch. “Some would go in the drink, some the boosters would blow up,” Cepollina remembers. “Some would go up, get turned on for a few hours, and then die.”
In the early 1970s, George Low, NASA deputy administrator and one of Apollo’s guiding lights, was pushing the agency to make its spacecraft more reliable and less expensive. Cepollina’s boss, Joseph Purcell, put together an ad hoc committee to look into the problem. The committee suggested that if spacecraft design was standardized and satellites were built with modular components, NASA could save time and money.
With Purcell’s enthusiastic support, Cepollina took the notion and expanded it, conceiving the idea of designing separate modules for attitude control, power, data handling, and the like—functions required on every spacecraft. These plug-and-play units could be installed on any satellite, and they would be easy to replace.
Cepollina’s Multimission Modular Spacecraft (MMS) program built half a dozen science satellites in the 1970s and 1980s, including the Solar Maximum Mission spacecraft to study the sun, Landsats 4 and 5, the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, and the Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer.
To most people, the modular spacecraft program made engineering and economic sense. But for NASA managers in charge of new research satellites, the modular approach limited their flexibility and stole some of their glory. “Their whole goal was to develop and build a new spacecraft, using the newest technology,” explains Joe Rothenberg, who was then working for Grumman but later became Cepollina’s boss at Goddard. “Many project managers were always fighting with him.”
The resistance didn’t faze Cepollina. “You keep your nose down, keep driving the frigging car,” he says. He worked hard, and demanded the same from his employees. “If you didn’t do a good job you wouldn’t be working long on Cepi’s projects,” remembers Elmer Travis, a former Goddard engineering branch chief who’s now retired. Cepollina “was not a typical government employer. He came to work at 7 a.m. and would be there until 10 at night. Then when he went home he never stopped working. He would call me at 11 o’clock at night, wanting some help on a problem.”
David Martin, who worked for Cepollina from 1988 to 1994, says: “Frank was and remains one of my heroes. Everybody who works at NASA should work for him for a while.” But, he adds, “To be honest, you can burn out.”
As the MMS program was getting under way in the early 1970s, the space shuttle program was also gearing up, and the two seemed perfectly matched. “We realized we could take advantage of the shuttle’s two-way capability,” Cepollina recalls. If a satellite component failed, the shuttle could return the spacecraft to Earth, where it would be a simple matter to swap modules. From there it wasn’t a big leap to in-orbit servicing. Why bring the satellite back when the replacement could easily be done by a spacewalking astronaut?