Karl Gallagher (selenite) wrote,
Karl Gallagher

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Rockets and Cathedrals

Yesterday I drove up to Oklahoma to give a talk to TGV Rockets. Nice country to take a drive through, greener than I expected. I got to TGV a bit early and got a tour of their site. They're sharing a building with the OU aero department right by the runaway of a small airport. Nice offices with windows, a good sized manufacturing shop for when they get that far. The company took me out to lunch with most of the engineers.

Afterwards I gave my Pioneer Rocketplane lessons-learned talk. I figured I had about an hour's worth of material, would probably go a bit longer than that. Was nearly four hours with questions and digressions. They could use some process discipline and were open to fixing it. In fact they want a systems engineer to come in and run that for them, something I'm very qualified for. Lots of interesting discussion on vehicle layouts, government program constraints, and the evils of Mitch Clapp. We took an intermission before tackling one of the most interesting pieces, how to size your vehicle to fit the market. Earl (the COO) was very interested in how to model a competitor with enough cash to underbid you at a loss until you fold. Well . . . I'd say you toss in the analysis and get a job somewhere else. TGV is avoiding that by finding a niche that none of the big players want.

They actually have a decent plan for their business. A technically achievable goal, not requiring major or minor miracles (NASA likes to require major miracles for new launch vehicles, Pioneer needed one or two minor ones), a current market, a real customer giving them money (okay, the rich uncle, but the agency I'd most like to deal with among them). Enough cash in the bank to hold them for NN months. The design looks solid for this stage. The people are sane, unlike some others I've dealt with in this business. Not that they're guaranteed to succeed--they've got a realistic appreciation of how hard this is--"Plan B is utter and complete failure." Instead they're making decisions in a sensible way, instead of "intuitive" snap judgments.

After the briefing I joined a few of them for dinner (including my classmate Nat, who's working there). Finished up standing in the parking lot with the CEO "mitching" for a while (dealing with Mitch Clapp is so annoying that his employees coined a word for talking about him). He touched on the real reason I want to do this--"If we pull this off we'll change the world."

The Pillars of the Earth talks about this from the viewpoint of a medieval mason who turned down a steady job to look for work on a cathedral. [His wife] had never forgiven Tom for turning down the opportunity. She could not comprehend the irresistible attraction of building a cathedral: the absorbing complexity of organization, the intellectual challenge of the calculations, the sheer size of the walls, and the breathtaking beauty and grandeur of the finished building. Once he had tasted that wine, Tom was never satisfied with anything less.

And right she was to not forgive him--he wound up unemployed and homeless, and she died giving birth under a tree in the winter. Later he got to build his cathedral and got killed in the process. A cautionary tale for engineers lusting for grand projects. I'm not going to sacrifice my family's welfare to chase after my cathedral.

Of course, unlike Tom Builder I'm not offered lifetime employment at good wages. The F-35 program is going back to Congress to say "Remember when we said we could do this in X years for Y dollars? Well, it's going to be X+1 years." and Congress will say "Okay, but you still have to do it for Y dollars." (Yes, there will be a cost overrun, after the next election) So my bosses are going to cut people loose to reduce this year's expenses. If I'd distinguished myself as one of the best systems engineers I'd be safe, but I've done the reverse. They don't want systems engineers here, they want detail engineers, and I hate the job. Even if I don't get laid off in this round I'd be gone in 2-3 years when the design phase is done and they start manufacturing.

F-35 does have the good point that it's a 30 minute drive away instead of three hours. I'm not going to put us through another move less than a year after the last one. But I could go up a couple of days a week, spend a night on Nat's couch, and telecommute the rest of the time. One of the guys at Pioneer had a similar deal and it worked pretty well. TGV's COO spoke well of videoconferencing so he might be tolerant of telecommuting if I get a webcam. That'd give me a lot more time at home with celticdragonfly, even if I'd be leaving her alone some nights.

So I'm really tempted to apply for the rocket job. I might stall a bit to see if layoffs actually start at work and see if I can get severance pay. But if I could I'd probably start with TGV on Monday. I just need to think it over and make sure I'm not letting my fascination with the work and desire for a change lead me into making a decision that would be bad for the family.

If we pulled it off we would change the world.

I need to talk with celticdragonfly some more.
Tags: daily life, engineering, projects, space
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