I guess it eventually happens to everyone if you work long enough; you become that old school guy. You spend your career learning by experience, expanding your understanding, and polishing skill sets. I have been very lucky to have spent nearly 30 years now working in an industry that affords me the opportunity to constantly learn. I can still vividly remember my first few years and the wonder that went with working in an environment where every single day was a continuous learning process. There was so much to master and a limitless opportunity to learn it. Pnuematic, hydraulic, and electrical control systems; cryogen pumping and pressurant systems, vacuum systems, gaseous pressurant systems, water pumping systems, compressor systems, and pipeline supply systems. I was awash with new ideas, new ways of thinking about how to control systems, and given the freedom to learn as much as possible. Nothing was out of my area of interest and every system was a puzzle to be solved.
I still feel that way most days. The lab I work in is a constant challenge to find ways to test components in simulated environments of extreme cold, heat, and pressure. I usually work on 3 or 4 differing projects a day and we are constantly getting pulled into new ones; sometimes to help troubleshoot failures and sometimes just to consult in how to set up and perform tests. It is sometimes frustrating dealing with budget issues but the work itself never gets old.
Recently, we took in a group of interns to help them with a project. They are all doctoral students studying aerospace engineering so it isn't like they don't know anything about the project they are trying to build. Unfortunately, what they know about rocketry is largely theoretical in nature and doesn't extend to the practical aspects of how to build or operate a rocket or the necessary control system to make it work. When they came in the shop, we were told they had already built a solid rocket scale model and successfully fired it at their university.
Our shop was directed to help them navigate our test requirements and provide any hands on assistance they required as they built up their system. The final outcome would be a hot fire test of their scale model solid rocket motor in one of our test cells. NASA regularly takes in interns to give them some practical experience as well as to teach them how work within our system. We have had student interns for many years but never graduate students previous to this time.
The techs that work in our shop have a LOT of experience as our team has been together for quite some time. Everyone is multi craft skilled and everyone understands how to safely build and test rocket components under NASA guidelines. It is always a rude awakening the amount of research and analysis that has to be expended to certify a test system so I wasn't too surprised when our new students were quickly overwhelmed with procedures and requirements. It can be hard to adjust to a system that requires such detailed planning and tightly controlled systems.
What I was surprised by and find myself unable to understand his just how unprepared this group of students was to achieve the goal of building and testing a rocket motor they were supposed to be familiar with. Suffice it to say that it has been an uphill struggle of monumental proportions to get them to understand that there are no shortcuts in this business. The first few weeks were spent explaining what we are required to do. The next few weeks were spent patiently explaining that we had to meet these requirements, whether they thought they were necessary or not. The last few weeks have been spent trying to force them to learn things they don't really care to learn.
It has not went well. They see no need to learn how to do things correctly. It's really that simple. They tested a similar motor but managed to burn it up at their university through some error that they couldn't quite put their finger on. By the time I realized they really don't know the first thing about assembling or designing hardware we had already scrapped numerous parts in our machine shop and they had built two electrical control boxes that were quite literally the worst examples of workmanship I have ever seen. Every step of the way has been a battle of their determination not to do things correctly against my insistence that they do.
I won't go into details but the upshot of this program has been a burned out motor in one of our test cells. The only thing I can tell that they have learned is that I am demanding and old school with a diminishing amount of patience for people who won't listen. Tomorrow is their last day and I can't say I will miss them. One day, probably many years from now I hope they will realize the one fundamental rule that I learned many years ago the hard way. You cannot learn anything until you first realize you don't know it. Maybe everyone has to learn this lesson the hard way; I know I had my moment of realization in a 10 foot ditch in the heat of summer. It suddenly dawned on me that the reason I was in that ditch with a shovel was because I was the most unskilled person on that jobsite. No matter how smart I thought I was, every person on that jobsite had a skill set that made them more valuable to their employer than I was to mine. That was the reason they were all making more money and doing more interesting work than throwing dirt out of a ditch with a shovel. I've never forgotten that realization and hold to it tightly still today. That is where old school comes from, the realization that every single moment is a possible learning experience if you have the right attitude.