J. Phil WilbournManager, Central Offshore Engineering Texaco
On a leisurely Sunday afternoon, I could put the top down on the Austin Healey and cruise the back roads from Morgan City, Louisiana to Clear Lake, Texas, covering about 350 miles in six hours. The crawfish, shrimp, oysters, and cold Bud would be about the same all along the way, and one would probably never notice a big difference in the terrain or landscape.
However. in terms of technology, one would have left behind in Morgan City the superstructure for the world's deepest offshore platform (Shell's Mars, designed for 3,200 ft of water) and arrived in Clear Lake to come face to face with a mockup of NASA's space station, scheduled to be constructed in space near the turn of the century. In six short hours, one would have traveled from the technology extreme of the ocean depths to the extremes of space travel.
I failed to mention there had been three stops along the way:
The first was at the friendly Texaco station in Patterson, Louisiana, where I topped up the petrol tank on the Healey. I happened to spot Carl Wickizer, retired Shell subsea manager, who had been a part of the first technology transfer effort between the aerospace and offshore industries in the early 1970's.
Lockheed had formed Lockheed Petroleum Services, and developed a subsea one-atmosphere production manifold and wellhead chamber. Carl coordinated the offshore industry's joint effort to install the prototypes in the Gulf of Mexico. Several similar systems were later installed in Brazil, however "the technology was ahead of its time," according to Carl.
The interchange of ideas, techniques, procedures, hardware, and personnel between these two industries has taken place over the last 30 years. It is difficult to determine which has benefitted most from this exchange. In the end, both benefit and will continue to benefit as we move into the future. Although there are significant differences between the two industries, there are striking similarities. The similarities are the harsh environments; high costs associated with performing work in these environments; the dramatic impact of shortcomings, deficiencies or failures; and the fact that both industries have a great romantic attraction.
Equally profound are the differences, mainly stemming from the environments. Subsea is faced with a dynamic, changing environment: increasing pressure, total absence of light, currents, limited visual conditions, and the corrosive, invasive aspects of salt water. Space is faced with equally challenging conditions: visibility is generally excellent, half the time you have bright sunlight (often too bright), the rest of the time you have absolute darkness; extreme changes in temperature; ever present danger of micrometeorite impacts, which can be deadly; the absence of a fixed connection with earth-based operational centers; and no stability.
The second stop was Landry's Seafood Restaurant in Lafayette. There I ran into Ken Caldwell, an aerospace engineer from VPI by education, who co-oped with NASA during school and later joined Pratt Whitney.
Ken was involved with the design of the engines for the SR71 spy plane for a year before returning to graduate school at Florida Atlantic. His training in the offshore business came from stints with Fluor, Raymond, and Petro Marine before starting his own company, Omega Marine Services, in 1978.
What did the time in the aerospace business teach Ken? "The space industry was using a systems approach to projects, which brought all disciplines together under one project leader," says Ken. "I think that was the missing link in the offshore design and construction business in the late 1970s, when the large North
Sea projects were getting started," he added.
The technology transfer from aerospace to the offshore industry was gaining momentum just as the glory days of the offshore industry were beginning.
As I pulled over to the shoulder along I-45 South, just outside Clear Lake, to check the radiator fluid level (Healeys always run hot), the person who prompted me to write this article stopped to lend a hand. He is the one who has just completed the technology cycle - space to offshore, then back to space.
Dr. Michael Gernhardt Commercial diver - Astronaut
His name is Mike Gernhardt, an Oceaneering International oilfleld diver and development engineer with diving, life support, and robotic experience, who is now a NASA astronaut. Mike will make his first flight this month. He has used the subsea techniques, technologies, hardware, and capabilities developed as a commercial diver to show NASA a proven way of executing work similar to what they were just beginning to face as they developed new space station facilities. Assembling the space station may be the ultimate commercial diving operation.
"For the past 14 years, I have been working on perfecting a model of how bubbles grow in divers' tissue during decompression," says Mike. He recently completed his PhD dissertation on "The Development and Evaluation of a Decompression Stress Index Based on Tissue Gas Bubble Dynamics." Eventually Mike became involved in NASA studies for designing space suits. "Ever since I was a teenager, I was always interested in space and felt like construction diving was very analogous to doing construction in space," he admits.
Pilots were once the mainstay of astronaut selections, but Mike was chosen as a mission specialist in a discipline NASA will need as it prepares for space station assembly and operations. In addition to the normal training, astronauts receive engineering/technical assignments in which they support the development of any number of systems on the shuttle or space station such as space suits and remote manipulator systems. Mike plans to continue to be active in decompression research. "Astronauts have to do decompression as well," he points out. "My PhD work was applicable to diving and altitude decompression.
"I've always had the highest respect for commercial divers and their work," continues Mike. "They should make good astronauts and I'm happy to have been selected. I have learned as much from commercial diving as anything else I have done: how to deal with operations, the understanding that things can go wrong. and how to respond to contingencies and still get the job done."
This story about technology transfer between the space and offshore industries is especially dear to me, since I spent my first two years after graduation with Lockheed Aircraft Corp. designing the landing gear for the C5A military transport airplane. The advanced design techniques in finite element and space frame analysis which I learned at Lockheed helped jump start my career with Texaco in the offshore engineering field.
The space age technology did not arrive in time to help the Healey, however. The electrical system was supplied by Lucus, and that, my friends, is why the Brits drink their beer warm. Lucus makes refrigerators also! So, as the tow truck hoisted the Healey onto the flatbed for the ride back to Houston and my garage, I looked into the sky and wondered what it will be like when Mike looks down on the earth and its vast oceans from the shuttle. The cycle will have been completed.
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