Mr. Fix-It

Frank Cepollina takes repair calls to new heights.

Two-armed Dextre robot, which will be used to demonstrate orbital refueling. (NASA/Human Spaceflight)
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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?

Amazingly, NASA managers were not interested in the idea at first. Goddard’s focus was on reducing the cost of satellites and increasing their reliability, and there was no money for servicing missions. Then Solar Max failed. The mission had been launched in 1980 as the first of Cepollina’s modular spacecraft; its job was to observe the sun at the peak of its 11-year cycle, and it had been designed to be retrieved by the shuttle.

Only nine months after the satellite was launched, however, three fuses in its attitude control system module failed. Shortly after that, a coronagraph-polarimeter designed to study the sun’s corona suffered an electrical failure. Though the spacecraft had been built with plug-and-play subsystems, NASA management was uninterested in a repair mission. Some feared it would be a waste of money: What if something else on the spacecraft failed soon after the repair? More importantly, there was no money for a fix; paying to repair Solar Max would have delayed or canceled some other project.

To Cepollina, not doing the repair when it was feasible was unacceptable. He began calling reporters, letting them know that the spacecraft’s repair would be a trivial matter. “He was not beyond going to the press,” remembers Rothenberg. “His ideas would be in the papers before anybody in the NASA management chain even had a chance to approve it.”

The outspokenness got him in trouble. “I can’t tell you the number of times his boss, including me, had him on the carpet, telling him to cease and desist,” adds Rothenberg. “He’d walk out of the room dejected, go home to sleep it off, and then return the next day as if he never heard what his boss said.”

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