A Tribute to Earl McNail

In 1992 I went to work at Martin Marietta Energy Systems in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. As a part of my orientation, I had a meeting with the President of Energy Systems, Mr. Gordon Fee. The receptionist who introduced me mentioned that I had been a safety engineer at Michoud Space Systems. Mr. Fee looked at me and said, "Safety, eh? Have you ever met a guy named Earl McNail?"

When I was a kid, I had three heroes.
I was seven years old when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier.
I was twelve when Warner Von Braun and his German Rocket Scientist buddies wrote a series of articles in Colliers Magazine about how "Man Will Conquer Space Soon."
Albert Einstein's death when I was fourteen sparked years of newspaper and magazine articles, books, and television programs about his life and work.

People who know me well probably don't consider me a pious person, but I like to think that I am fairly religious. I believe in the Bible, and try to live what it teaches.
Being young and idealistic, what impressed me about all of these men was that they had done what we young people all wanted to do;
they had made a difference.
They had made their lives count.
They had contributed to the betterment of mankind.

The Bible says it a different way; it's recorded in Matthew Chapter 7 verse 20; "by their fruits ye shall know them."

While younger pilots who had never once gone into space were being paraded around as "our nation's astronauts," Chuck Yeager was quietly pushing back the boundaries of the envelope, simply being the best at what he did,
the best pilot in the world.

Warner Von Braun had a vision, a belief that man would conquer space, which he kept alive and pursued
in war,
in peace,
in Germany,
in the United States,
in Congress and the military,
until he eventually saw it realized in Apollo 11 and Skylab.

Albert Einstein showed us a new and exciting way of looking at the fabric of reality, daring to be unconventional and controversial because he knew that he was right.

By their fruits ye shall know them.

I tried hard to imitate my heroes.

Einstein died the year I entered high school, but his example inspired me to get a degree in physics.
Warner Von Braun made his mark while I was an Army officer; he died the year before I came to work for Lockheed Martin.
But he was mainly responsible for my getting my master's degree in aerospace engineering, at the nearest school yet to Starfleet Academy, the Air Force Institute of Technology.
I don't see well enough to be a military aviator like Chuck Yeager, but he inspired me to become an instrument rated civilian pilot.
Although these men profoundly influenced my life, I never got to meet any of them.

But I got to work for Earl McNail.

Shortly after the Challenger disaster, when Earl was on an extended trip, I received a call from the secretary of the company president, Rick Davis, about 4:00 in the afternoon. She said that Earl was supposed to attend a telecon with Porter Bridwell, the manager of the External Tank Program the next morning in the Mr. Davis's office to discuss the ET safety program.

It was the end of the business day. The only other person in the Safety Department who hadn't left yet was Bob, one of the junior engineers. I didn't know where Earl was, or how to get in touch with him, or how long it would take to find someone with a key to his office, or what we might find if we got in there, so Bob and I set out to make up a presentation package from scratch to brief NASA management on the safety of the ET program and its people.

Bob left about midnight, so I worked on alone into the early morning hours,
finished my graphics,
faxed them to Huntsville,
grabbed a quick breakfast,
and went over to Mr. Davis's office for the telecon.

There Mr. Davis, who apparently didn't know who I was, except that I was definitely not Earl McNail, sat stony-faced as I gave a brief presentation of our safety program. Using the charts that I had sent to Huntsville that morning, I pointed out how we maintained a series of continuous feedback loops to identify potential problems and solve them as soon as possible before they became actual accidents or incidents.

I stressed our emphasis on mission success,
on continuous improvement,
on the fact that we retained the knowledge and lessons learned so that changes in personnel did not result in lost experience.
When I was finished, I asked Mr. Bridwell if he had any questions.

He hesitated a moment, and then said, "Hey, this is a pretty nifty little chart. Nope, I think you covered it. Thanks." Mr. Davis seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. I think that is the only time that I have ever seen him smile.

Now, I would not have been able to give that presentation, much less prepare for it all in one night, if our safety program had not been so thoroughly visible and logically organized. Earl not only developed an exemplary program that exceeded all of NASA's expectations, but explained every aspect of it so often and so thoroughly to us that we all understood not only what we were doing, but also why. Earl gave us the big picture, the canvas with the numbers on it for other people to paint a beautiful picture of the future of manned spaceflight.

By their fruits ye shall know them.

This program was not established easily, or with warm feelings all around.
Earl's drive for continuous improvement, his unswerving pursuit of perfection, was sometimes seen as abrasive.
Like all geniuses, he was occasionally difficult to understand.
He generally thought faster then we did,
leaping ahead while his listeners struggled to keep up,
making up in drive, enthusiasm and sincerity what he might have lacked in graceful elocution.
He is perhaps not a charter member of the Good Old Boy Club.

But Earl made a difference.
He made his life count.
He contributed to the betterment of mankind.

Earl and I are very, very different people, with different ways of looking at things and different ways of doing them. I'll be the first to admit that we have had our share of differences.
Earl thinks in terms of experience and words,
I think in terms of mathematical models and pictures.
Earl likes to rely on his own experience,
I prefer a more scientific approach.
We have many times not understood each other. I have often considered that although Earl thought he understood what he believed I said, I was concerned that what I appeared to have meant was not precisely what I had intended to communicate . . . and vice versa.

But you can't argue with success. I saw how much Earl really cared about people. I watched him doing things instinctively, based on his intuitive understanding of the action needed, the things that needed to be accomplished, the results to be obtained, that guys like me learned in management graduate school.
I am thankful that I have had the opportunity to learn from him, and to teach others what he has taught me. Earl got things done, and did them well. He lived his assertion that it's performance, mission success, that counts.

By their fruits ye shall know them.

Earl inspired me to certify my professional education, experience and expertise by becoming
a certified safety professional,
a registered safety engineer,
a registered radiographer
and a certified manager.
The safety professional is often not understood or even recognized, yet he is the last defense against catastrophe. Professional credentials are often the only way for him to demonstrate to other professionals beforehand that he knows how to do the job.

We aerospace workers have seen what happens when the safety manager does not know the job. The Good Old Boy Club courts disaster. How much better off would the space program be today if Earl had...
done the hazard analysis of the Apollo 1 spacecraft,
or the certification of the Hubble Space Telescope
or checked out the Mars Explorer
or been involved in the analysis of the targeting of the Mars Climate Explorer?...

Or had been in charge of the decision whether or not to launch Mission 51L?

The Good Old Boy Club is not the criterion of a good safety manager. The criterion is mission success. While Earl was there, each and every manager at Lockheed Martin Michoud Space Systems, from the president to the foreman on the floor, knew that he was responsible for the safety of his people and his hardware. Each and every one of them had his nose held firmly to the grindstone, placing responsibility where it belongs,...
on the one in charge,
on the person responsible,
where the rubber meets the road.
And a large part of that understanding is a direct result of Earl's tireless efforts to preach the gospel, over and over again, that in safety as in quality, it's performance, mission success, that counts.

By their fruits ye shall know them.

Earl produced some very good fruits.

As the safety people at Michoud Space Systems know, they set a national record for the aerospace industry in 1982 of 13 million 613 thousand 223 man hours worked without a single day away from work accident. At a meeting at MSFC in 1986, it was my pleasure to begin my presentation with the announcement that we had just established a new record of 15 million 809 thousand 488 man hours worked without one day away from work injury. Earl received the Jefferson Cup, Martin Marietta's most prestigious award, for his contribution to the safety posture of Michoud Space Systems.

During Earl's tenure as Safety and Health Manager, the workers' compensation rate dropped from 17 percent per year to less than one percent. Earl demonstrated a cost avoidance of 11 million 240 thousand 982 dollars in workers' compensation costs alone, measured against similar industries. This is not the cost of doing business he saved his company and the American taxpayer. This is money he saved over and above that saved by the other safety managers in sister NASA contractor companies, which have traditionally had excellent safety programs of their own.

But that's just workers' compensation. The cost avoidance of not having had accidents because of Earl's foresight and genius;
of hardware not damaged,
of schedules not disrupted,
of work not curtailed,
of milestones not missed,
of shuttle missions not canceled,
of award fee not withheld,
of crutches and prostheses and hospital and doctor bills, not to mention
and caskets
and flowers, not needed, is incalculable.

By their fruits ye shall know them.

Like Einstein, Earl showed us a new way of looking at safety management. He put the accountability for safety where the responsibility lies, on the line manager, and he wasn't daunted about being unconventional or controversial because he knew he was right. Like Warner Von Braun, he had a vision, a vision he pursued through 37 years of service to Lockheed Martin; one in which the goal was just as much zero defects in employee and flight crew safety as it was in hardware quality. And like Chuck Yeager, Earl was simply the best at what he did, which was to keep all of us, as well as the astronauts who depended on his hardware, safe.

As you drive down Old Gentilly Road in New Orleans, you can't miss NASA's monument to Warner Von Braun, the Saturn V first stage, the most powerful machine ever built by man. But you used to have to be an employee or a visitor to go to the cafeteria in Building 103 at the Michoud Assembly Facility to see the long line of National Safety Council and Metropolitan Safety Council awards of merit and honor which were awarded to Lockheed Martin Michoud Space Systems for its exemplary safety program...

Not too long ago, the cafeteria was redecorated. The decorators took down all those awards and replaced them with fake paintings of flowers. The awards are now in an old cardboard box. I think that's sad! I hope some day they put them back!

Fortunately, the awards are not the real monuments to Earl McNail.

The real monuments to Earl McNail are the people who have not been hurt
or injured
or maimed
or crippled
or killed
because of Earl McNail's vision. Without their knowledge, and sometimes even without their cooperation, Earl was
taking care of them,
guarding them,
protecting them,
watching over them.
And who they are, and the tragedies they might otherwise have suffered, are known in this life only by Almighty God.

By their fruits ye shall know them.

There is another biblical quotation that comes to mind. You'll find it in John 10:10. "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly."

Because Earl McNail was our Safety and Health Manager for 20 years, all of us at Michoud Space Systems had life, and we had it more abundantly.

Thanks, Earl.

"The departed whom we now remember have entered into the peace of life eternal. They still live on earth in the acts of goodness they performed and in the hearts of those who cherish their memory. May the beauty of their life abide among us as a loving benediction." - The Mourners' Kaddish

"Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul, and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace." - Prayer for the Dead

John Lindorfer