If the Space Shuttle Flies, It Will Be Because Kenny Kleinknecht Kept His Feet on the Ground
Now that tests of its three engines have shown that the space shuttle Columbia should be able to take off as scheduled next month, one pressing question remains: When it comes down, will it be in one piece? The answer is a matter of concern not only to John Young and Capt. Robert Crippin, the two astronauts who will pilot the craft, but also to crusty space-age pioneer Kenny Kleinknecht, 61, who is in charge of construction of the space vehicle. A tough, direct workaholic, who has no patience with bureaucratic logrolling, Kleinknecht is credited by many with rescuing Columbia from the mire of false starts that delayed its takeoff by more than three years. Says Dan Brown, director for shuttle production at Rockwell International, which built Columbia, "I don't know anyone in NASA who could have done what he did. There ain't nobody that mean and hard-nosed."
Kleinknecht had been serving as a NASA official in Europe when he was recalled 21 months ago by Christopher Kraft, director of Houston's Johnson Space Center, to supervise trouble-plagued Columbia's preparation for flight. Since the shuttle may be called upon to reenter the earth's atmosphere as many as 100 times at speeds of nearly 14,000 mph, the spacecraft's skin—30,761 interlocking silica-ceramic tiles—must withstand temperatures of up to 2,300° F. each time. During testing in 1979, however, many tiles became dangerously brittle while being put in place. Though they were reprocessed to increase tensile strength, there remained the seemingly intractable problem of securing them to the spacecraft.
Enter Kleinknecht, who had been manager of the original Mercury project that first put U.S. astronauts in orbit around the earth and was later deputy head of the Gemini operation that pioneered the docking of vehicles in space. Though the tile-setting process was painfully slow, Kleinknecht successfully secured as many as 750 tiles a week by assembling a task force of 1,200 tile setters working two shifts, six days a week. Under his perfectionist goading, new methods of bonding were developed to ensure that the tiles would adhere to the shuttle.
"The situation at NASA is highly political," says Rockwell manufacturing director James Berry, "but Kenny doesn't play that game. He's going to do what's best for the program." Through it all Kleinknecht was hardly a model of tranquillity. "Sure, Kenny would go on a tirade every once in a while," says Berry. "He would yell and scream and really come off his screws. But what he did was like taking a 400-piece orchestra that previously made a bunch of noise and make music with it."
Though the Columbia project, started in 1972, has already cost $9 billion, Kleinknecht would not tolerate hazardous shortcuts. He brusquely rejected the suggestion of some NASA officials that the astronauts carry a repair kit to reattach any loose tiles in space. "If the astronauts have to carry a repair kit," snapped Kleinknecht, "then Columbia is not ready to fly."
Kleinknecht is understandably sensitive to safety problems. In 1948 when he was a designer working on the X-15 experimental rocket plane at Edwards (Calif.) Air Force Base, his" best friend, Howard Lilly, was killed in a crash during a test flight. In 1967 he was at NASA, still in the Gemini program, when Apollo astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were killed in a fire in a spacecraft.
Always a tinkerer, the Washington, D.C.-born Kleinknecht took apart his first Ford engine when he was 15. After graduating from Purdue in 1942, with a degree in mechanical engineering, he put in five years with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA's predecessor, while racing biplanes with Lilly for fun. Before moving on to Edwards in 1947, he married a fellow worker, Pat Todd, the mother of their three grown children. Through the years, says Pat, he has been an irreproachable husband and father—most of the time. "But the children and I learned early on," she says, "that when a launch was approaching, it was wiser to stay out of his way."
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