TAPE 1, SIDE 1
MR. MARTIN COLLINS : To begin the interview, if you could just quickly outline some of your early family background, where and when you were born, who your parents were, what their occupations were.
DR JAMES RONERT BURNETT : Oh, okay. Let's see, I was born November 27, 1925, in a little town in southern Illinois called Eldorado. My dad was a highway engineer for the Illinois highway department. My mother had been a school teacher at one time, but by the time we arrived, why, she had a full-time job on her hands. Grew up mostly in a town called Carbondale, Illinois, which is also in southern Illinois. Left there after I finished high school to join the U.S. Marine Corps, being World War II time, and as luck would have it, I was assigned to a Navy V-12 program at Purdue University, where during the day I learned to be an engineer and during the evening I learned to be a Marine Corps officer. About the time I graduated and was commissioned and ready to go overseas, the war was over.
So I was at Purdue. I enjoyed engineering. The head of the EE [electrical engineering] school suggested I stay on for graduate work, so I stayed on and earned a master's degree. In the process of earning a master's degree I met a young lady by the name of Anne Knox who was in home economics. We decided to get married, and she wasn't quite through school yet, so I had to stay at Purdue for her to finish school. The head of the EE school said, "Gee, that's easy. Why don't you get a Ph.D.?" So I got a Ph.D. That was 1949. At that time, it wasn't exactly clear what I wanted to do with myself, so the head of the EE school said, "Why don't you stay on and be a professor?" So I stayed at Purdue until 1956, really working in the servomechanism and the digital computer areas. My product was graduate students.
COLLINS: Going back a little bit, what were your developing interests as a young man? Were you scientifically inclined? Was this an early kind of interest of yours or something that came along later in life?
BURNETT: I think it was very early. I think it was induced by my father, who was an engineer. Originally I wanted to be a chemical engineer, but when I got into the United States Marine Corps theydecided in their omnipotence that I should be an electrical engineer, so I became an electrical engineer.
COLLINS: Getting into this V-12 program, was that something that you were considering as you enlisted in the Marine Corps, or did it come afterwards?
BURNETT: I'm not quite sure about that. Apparently it happened when I signed up, but I don't know whether my parents had something to do with it or not. All the kids my age in town were being drafted, but quite a number of my friends had joined the Marine Corps so, you know, it was just the thing to do. I really don't know the details of how I got into the V-12 program. I just can't answer that. I just know that when my orders came to report for duty, it was to report at Purdue University of all places, which I, at that time, was quite surprised. On the other hand, that's one of the best things that ever happened to me. It was a rather wonderful experience. I met a bunch of people I've known forever, since then.
COLLINS: And the choice of electrical engineering as a focus was--
BURNETT: That was decided by someone in the Marine Corps. I have no idea. It turned out, it worked out very well for me. I became very interested in it. But as a high school kid I thought I wanted to be a chemical engineer. I had my own chemistry lab in the basement and was constantly making gunpowder and thermite and all those usual things that high school kids make.
COLLINS: What was the character of the training in the V-12 program? Was it pretty much an accelerated typical undergraduate program, or were there some differences?
BURNETT: I think, as best I can tell, it was just an accelerated, normal undergraduate curriculum, with very high standards. If you slipped up much at all, you got shipped out. Literally we had all kinds of courses put on by the Marine Corps in particular and the Navy to some extent, in terms of what you need to know as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. You know, close-order drill and all that kind of stuff. It was a very busy time in my life. As I recall I got a BS degree in something like thirty-two months. I mean you just went to school continuously!
COLLINS: Right. What were the areas of emphasis? I assume probably the concentrations were physics and then electrical engineering application-type courses.
BURNETT: Oh, yes. The courses were highly mathematical physics and engineering, and most of the engineering was electrical engineering. I think I had one or two courses in say civil,mechanical, materials, you know, things of that nature. But it was a very highly concentrated course in electrical engineering. My guess is, the Marine Corps had something in mind for me, because when it was time to be separated, they asked if I was interested in staying in for a tour of duty and becoming a radar officer, which I elected not to do. They guaranteed if you'd stay in you'd be captain by the time you got done, and you wouldn't really have to spend all that much time overseas.
COLLINS: Were you exposed to any of the new developments in electronics in the V-12 program? Was the concept of radar brought up at school?
BURNETT: Oh, very much so. I assume that was part of the normal curriculum at Purdue, but the concept of radar was taught. Klystrons and all the kinds of tubes that had been invented to power those devices were brought up. Purdue had a very active research program in matters relating to radar and communication, and several of the professors who worked on the research program were also the ones that gave courses.
COLLINS: I'm recalling from my interviews with George Mueller, I know he did his master's work at Purdue but I'm forgetting the time. It might have been before you came to Purdue.
BURNETT: George and I talked about that, and we never knew each other at Purdue. He was from Ohio State, and I don't remember when he was at Purdue. But after '49 I tended to know most of the students that went through there, because you'd wind up having a few undergraduate courses, and then I taught a number of graduate courses. And the place wasn't so big but what you tended to know all the students, at least in the EE school. Somehow or another he and I missed.
COLLINS: Well, in the immediate postwar period, staying on at Purdue seemed like a ready opportunity. Where were your interests going? What were your thoughts about what your career would be like in this stage?
BURNETT: Well, at that stage of life you don't think too much about career. You think more in terms of what it is you're doing and whether or not it's intellectually stimulating. I was passionately interested in feedback control systems, servomechanisms, and passionately interested in digital computers, because that was a new field at the time. And Purdue decided, on my urging, that they'd actually buy a modern electronic digital computer, so one of the other professors, John Clark from the EE school and I were assigned the job of finding a suitable one and we did. It was an old drum-type machine that had vacuum tubes for all the important functions. It was built by Electrodata here in Pasadena, which I think was subsequently bought by Burroughs. We had that machine at Purdue for severalyears, with a fellow from the math department by the name of Al Perlis, who's become quite famous in computers. I think he's now at Carnegie-Mellon University. But he cranked out Ph.D.'s in mathematics using the computer, and I would crank out Ph.D.'s in computer theory. The machine was quite open, so it was fairly easy to assign a graduate student a project of how you put another instruction in, and let's make the instruction do something useful from the mathematics point of view. So we were constantly modifying the machine. It was just a great research tool.
COLLINS: Approximately when did you acquire that machine, do you recall?
BURNETT: Oh, gee. I left Purdue in '56. It must have been '51 or '52. About that time, yes. And that project has grown into a tremendous computer science department. In fact, my son went back there and got his Ph.D. in that thing I helped get started. You know, it's a joint venture between the EE school and the math department. It's delightful.
COLLINS: And it had that character back in your period as well.
BURNETT: Right. And the other thing that was very interesting the servomechanism theory. This was when LaPlace Transforms and Koeenberger Plots and all that kind of stuff was really being generated. We had another assistant professor by the name of John Truxal who had his PhD from MIT, and between the two of us we had a ball inventing new servo courses at the graduate level. And it was just a delightful intellectual atmosphere. You could get things done. You had bright people to work with, and the management of the school really backed you up.
COLLINS: Now, you had taken your PhD in 1949. What was your dissertation topic, do you recall?
BURNETT: It was on approximation theory that you could use in servos based on Laguerre Polynomials, which no one has ever picked up, simply because with modern digital computers you can numerically compute the answer faster than you can compute it with my approximation approach. But that was before we knew we could do that in computers.
COLLINS: Were there industry interests in what was going on there at the university? Were they supporting any of this work?
BURNETT: Well, a lot of our work was supported by the National Science Foundation. I had several National Science Foundation grants to support the work. I actually got my master's degree on a GE [General Electric] scholarship, called the Charles A. Coffin Award. We had a lot of contact with GE, Bell Labs, companies of that nature. It's not clear how much financial support they furnished, but they sure furnished a lot of technical interchange. We always had a cell of people say at Bell Labs that had come from Purdue, so you had a lot of dialogue back and forth, and you exchanged ideas. It was very much the open intellectual society, where you do some work and present it before your peers and either get shouted down or applauded or half of both. At that time the place had a very interesting atmosphere.
COLLINS: Did you enter into any consulting arrangements during this period?
BURNETT: Oh, yes. You couldn't afford to be a university professor without being a consultant. I principally consulted at Argonne Labs, in Chicago, and what they were working on were the nuclear reactors that the Navy's used to power their submarines. Several of us did one of the first transfer function measurements of a reactor, where you'd have the reactor and you'd move the rods in and out sinusoidally to get the frequency response of the reactor. The physicists thought we were absolutely crazy, but we figured out by measuring the transfer function of the reactor how to control the darned thing, to use it in a submarine. So the whole theory of rod control was worked out up at Argonne Labs, and I did theoretical work on that. I couldn't go up and participate in all the experiments. But you could take the equations home and work them out. We also did a lot of work on remote manipulators, where you have to manipulate something in a hot cell, and you'd like to be able to manipulate it and feel. So we did some original work on how you make a servomechanism that you can put your hand in and you can feel what's on the thing fifty feet away, that's actually around the corner, that you're looking at with a TV screen. I thought that was rather unique.
COLLINS: I'm just trying to get a feel for your engineering style. I'm getting the impression that you have a fairly balanced interest in sort of theoretical or mathematical elements of engineering as well as the hands-on experimental.
BURNETT: Well, if you can't make the theory and the experiments go together, forget it. You're just not doing anything. If you get the theory so far out in advance that you can't measure it or confirm it, you may just be kidding yourself. Well, we did the same thing in the servomechanism courses. They'd been taught from a theoretical point of view, so one of the things I did was to create a servomechanism laboratory, where the students actually had gears and motors and synchros and all that kind of stuff, so that you could actually build a servomechanism and measure it with real apparatus, not just pole-and-zero stuff on the blackboard. You had to be able to translate theory into reality.
COLLINS: Right. You mentioned the example of working with nuclear reactors. What other applications were you looking at through the laboratory for servomechanisms? Were there particular areas of concentration where you were directing your attention?
BURNETT: Particularly on hydraulic servos and nonlinear servo theory. I had one graduate student who was very interested in the theory of hydraulic servos because they're inherently nonlinear. Al Hall at MIT had done some basic theoretical work on this. So we spent a lot of time designing, building, measuring hydraulic servos to see if you could find a design philosophy that you could follow from which they'd be stable and work, over, a large number of degrees of freedom.
There was a little company in Lafayette, Indiana, called Ross Gear, which makes steering mechanisms for automobiles. They'd started making power steering mechanisms, and they couldn't understand why on a slick road the front wheels would suddenly start wobbling on a car, when you're holding the wheel straight or steady. So Paul Chenea and Milt Clauser and myself formed a consulting group to help them out.
Now Paul Chenea wound up being the head of the General Motors Research Labs. Milt Clauser, I'm not sure where he is now. He was at the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation for a while. He's a famous aerodynamicist. His brother, twin brother, was also an aerodynamicist at Cal-Tech. We did a lot of experiments on automobile steering mechanisms. We figured out how to stabilize them under almost any load conditions, whether it's dry or wet or icy. And incidentally that part of Ross Gear was eventually bought by TRW and is still in the TRW family. We're still using the scheme that we came up with to damp those hydraulic servos. So you're right.
COLLINS: How then did you become aware of TRW and begin to think about a transition from university life to work in industry?
BURNETT: There was a management change at Purdue in the engineering area. The EE school head who I so greatly admired, fellow by the name of D.D. Ewing, retired, and the dean of engineering, Aubrey A. Potter, retired, so Purdue brought in a new dean and a new head of the EE school. The new head of the EE school was just almost exactly the opposite of Ewing. He questioned everything you did. Nothing was ever right. He, I suspect, wasn't very bright, if you really got down inside of his head. He was basically an administrator, not a leader. And within a few years, the good guys in the EE school started leaving. They started leaving, and the ones that were left behind were increasingly frustrated.
One of my graduate students, fellow by the name of Bob Whitford, received his Ph.D. and went to work in some strangecompany on the West Coast called the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation. He and I were good friends, and he called up one spring and said, "Why don't you and Anne and the kids come out and consult for Ramo-Wooldridge for the summer?" Well, that sounded like fun. "What do they do?" "Well, I can't tell you." "What do you mean you can't tell me?" "Well, it's all classified."
So he talked me into it, and I filled out all the papers and sent them out, and RW got me cleared before I even showed up. And I discovered when I got here that they were working on the ballistic missile program. Bob, in fact, was doing control system work--I think it was on the Atlas--the theoretical part of it. And that was the most fascinating summer I think I've ever spent in my life. Here's a set of people headed by Si Ramo, who from an intellectual point of view were the brightest set of guys I'd ever run across in one place in my life. Very communicative, working on some extremely interesting problems, both theoretical and practical.
I just never went back to Purdue. I actually went back to graduate that summer's crop of graduate students, called up the realtor, told him to sell the house, and Anne and the kids just stayed out here. And that was the summer of '56. My only regret is, I didn't come out sooner.
COLLINS: One last question about Purdue. What was the typical number of graduate students that you were working with, say, through the fifties? What size staff was associated with the laboratories that you were working in?
BURNETT: Oh, gee. You probably have between eight and fifteen graduate students. You probably have three, four, or five Ph.D. students. The rest of them would be master's thesis students. It was mostly determined by how much time you could spend with them. What was the size of the staff then? The number that sticks in my head is about 125 in the whole EE school. That would include the professors, the secretaries, of which there were only three. A lot of teaching assistants. But a very productive crew. In fact, one of the secretaries met and married one of the professors there, and we still see her here in Los Angeles.
COLLINS: Well, before we move on to TRW, is there any other thing we ought to discuss about your time at Purdue?
BURNETT: What else did I do? Well, I started a family. Anne and I got married and by the time we left Purdue we had three children, and then our fourth arrived out here. Now we have those four children plus their spouses plus eleven grandchildren. So that's an important part of your life.
COLLINS: That's right. When you came out to TRW for that summer to do some consulting work, what kinds of things did you getinvolved in?
BURNETT: Well, Whitford knew me very well, so RW immediately got me involved in the control systems on the Atlas, Titan and the Thor. They were having trouble with all of them. The issue was, how do you make them stable? And the problem was, they weren't including enough terms in the equations based on the physical realization of how a missile works. A typical problem was that you'd have to swivel the rocket engines on them, say an Atlas, to control it. Well, the mass of the rocket engines was an appreciable fraction of the mass of the rest of the missile, and that had been eliminated or forgotten about in some of the equations.
Another big factor was the fact that this long, inflated bag of Reynolds wrap, which is really what an Atlas was or still is, has a bunch of structural bending modes, and when you push on it, the thing bends. So where do you put those gyros, since rate and attitudes has a big effect on where you're getting a signal plus or minus into the control system? So a lot of work was done in terms of the bending modes of an Atlas. Where do you put the rate gyros and where do you put the attitude gyros? And you know, what is it you can't do anything about and you have to compensate for with networks? So we actually wound up designing compensation networks that go into the servomechanism to make the Atlas stable.
COLLINS: That technical point needs a little more explanation for me. What are we referring to when we talk about networks?
Burnett: Let's see. This happened to be a carrier-type system where, if I remember right, you can have a DC system, you can have an AC system. This is a 400-cycle servomechanism loop. If you look at it on a pole zero plane, you had to get a couple of zeroes up here in the right place in the plane to make the thing stable. And we had to put in a--I guess technically at that time we just called it a notch filter. What it really did was put a couple of zeros in the right place in the plane to make the Atlas stable.
The first couple of Atlases that flew had several problems on them. One was that the control system was shaking the missile to pieces because the motors were oscillating. It also had a recirculation of the flame into the aft end of the structure, which was burning up the rear end of the tanks. Our problem was to figure out how to keep the motors from oscillating. We put what at that time was called a lead network into the system to do that. This was over, I might say, the dead bodies of the Germans who designed the control system, because they had a couple of the old Peenemunde crowd in San Diego that worked on that, and they were convinced they were right and we were wrong.
COLLINS: Do you recall who those people were?
BURNETT: Hmmm. No, I don't. I do remember, however, after we got the network built, a fellow by the name of Gene Armstrong, who was one of their key engineers at Convair. He and I personally carried this canister up and bolted it onto the Atlas at the Cape to be sure it actually got there and was in the right place.
COLLINS: I guess my confusion here is about what the term network refers to in this instance. Is it just a control mechanism for feeding information back and forth between different parts of the servomechanism?
BURNETT: Oh, it was actually just a bunch of resistors and capacitors, if I remember right. It's a four-terminal network. I don't know exactly what the thing had in it. I could go figure it out. But not much more complicated than that. But you had to make it, and you had to--well, as a matter of fact, it was a lot more complicated than that. I think it looked something like this. You had to get the thing manufactured, QA'd, and installed on the missile with all the wires going in the right way. That's the DC equivalent of it. The AC equivalent has a bunch of inductors in it.
COLLINS: And how did this solve some of the problems which you were just describing?
BURNETT: Well, see, there's no simple way to describe control systems. It's an interesting point. Basically the Atlas control system was unstable because it had a couple of poles in the right-hand plane, and what this thing did was put some zeroes over there. Instead of those poles that we ran again that went that way, they went that way. And if you have those poles over here, then the control system is basically oscillating at that frequency. And if you don't want it to oscillate at that frequency, you've got to do something to keep those poles from going over there to the right half plane. So you put the zeroes over in the left half plane from that network, and lo and behold, it stabilizes the missile. What was occurring before, if you hit the nozzles to move over, they'd move over, but then they'd keep wiggling. With the network in there, if you hit the nozzles, they'd move over, they wiggle a little bit around but damp out and hold the proper position.
COLLINS: Okay. How would you compare the situation that existed at TRW and the activities the people that you worked with, the problems, the organization, with your university experience? Was it something that was easy to move into? Did it seem dramatically different to you?
BURNETT: Well, dramatically different because you're workingthings on a different time scale. The time scale of the university goes by semesters. You've got to get the grades out at the end of the semester, and you have to graduate people at the end of the school year. In the ballistic missile program, you had to get things done in real time, or else you're going to blow the schedule for the next launch, if you will. So things were occurring on a much shorter time scale, and by and large you had more and much better people to work with than we did then at the university. And people had a sense of, you know, we've got to get this thing done because it's important. There was a real urgency in life to get a problem like that solved. At a university, you want to get it solved by the end of the semester, and if it's next week or the week after, so long as that's before the end of the semester, that's fine. Or you could even wait till next summer to do it if you really wanted to. It's just a difference in motivation.
Besides that, you're rubbing elbows not just with a bunch of electrical engineers, but with a bunch of outstanding mechanical people who could analyze bending modes and complicated structures. You had people who understood rocket engines, who honestly knew how to make a rocket engine work whose nozzle would swivel so that you could control the missile. We had people who understood trajectory analysis. We had people who understood orbital mechanics. We had people who understood guidance and control, you know, how do you guide this thing so that you get it on the right state vector. You had people who understood re-entry physics, to the extent that we knew anything about it at the time. You had people who understood command and control and how you'd plug this into the military system so it could be a useful weapon. You had people who understood how to run big system tests so that you could get the test data to confirm the design theory. We just had all those things in one place. And it was a very dedicated, hard-charging type of an outfit.
COLLINS: In a sense, to use a more modern term, it seems it was more interdisciplinary perhaps.
BURNETT: Completely interdisciplinary. And we'd often solve major problems. A major problem we had on the ballistic missile program, is that okay, you've got a Lox tank and a JP-4 tank, kerosene tank, and you have liquid in them, and the liquid sloshes around. Well, it turns out that one of the big problems in the control system--we discovered--is that what's the frequency at which that stuff sloshes? What effect does that have on the structure that's bending? And what can you do about sloshing? So we had a lot of laboratory work where you have a great big tank of something full of water where we'd shake it to see how you could damp out the sloshing.
Well, the Redstone project in Huntsville, came up with thefloating beer can idea. What they did was, they floated empty beer cans sealed up on top of their LOX and JP-4, and the cans bashing against each other soaked up the energy. But we came up with the thought of baffles, where if you had a tank you put a circular ring of baffles around, and then the trick was, how big were the baffles and how often did you have to put them, because the wave motion sloshing against the baffles would soak up the energy. So we went the baffle route. The Germans at Huntsville went the floating beer can route. The guy that really did the final analysis on this, was Nat Trembath, who is now here in the Defense Systems Group, he's an MIT graduate, really sharp on control systems.
We had just a whole series of problems like this, just to make those things practical. Had to do the same thing on the Thor, same thing on the Titan. Of course on the Minuteman program we decided to go for solids, so that you don't have that particular problem. You just have a bunch of others. So I went from control systems to problems like that, and somehow or another they got me off on inertial guidance systems. So I was earning while I was learning, if you will.
COLLINS: Is this all in the course of that summertime?
BURNETT: Oh no, no, no. The summertime was just getting up to speed on problems like this. After I decided to stay, I got into problems like that.
COLLINS: Now, just to be clear about where you were in the organization. When you first came in you were working with your colleague Whitford, and where was that in the TRW organization?
BURNETT: Well, let's see. Actually the guy I worked for was a fellow by the name of Bob Bennett. He's a Cal-Tech Ph.D. Matter of fact, at one time all my bosses were Cal-Tech Ph.D.'s who'd come through Hughes. And here I was a Purdue doc, not a member of the Ymghocking Club. I was hired in as a staff engineer for him. Bob Whitford was in the controls department. See, the whole thing was called the computers and controls department. George Gleghorn ran the controls part--who's still here. And a fellow by the name of Bob Walquist, who's now retired ran the digital computer part. Even in those times, we were trying to make these analogue control systems into digital control systems.
COLLINS: When you say you were on Bob Bennett's staff, is this something where you were at some level a troubleshooter, or were you working in a particular part of the computers and controls area?
BURNETT: Well, he'd give me particular problems to work on. I guess not. I think now that you mention it, I probably was a troubleshooter at the time. I wound up, I thought, with all theinteresting problems. The organization handled the routine stuff, and I'd get little teams of guys together to work on the interesting stuff. We'd have a failure on a ballistic missile. It took us a while before we got the Atlases to gracefully get off the pad. And you always had the problem of, "what happened?" So that was always an ad hoc activity, go figure out from all the telemetry records what happened. What do you do about it? And you'd have to form ad hoc teams because when you first started, you didn't know whether it was a guidance system, the control system, a propulsion system, a structural failure or what. You'd participate in a team to go figure that out.
COLLINS: Okay. We're at the end of the side of a tape here.
TAPE 1, SIDE 2
COLLINS: We were just talking about your initial experiences at Ramo-Wooldridge. I guess you began to talk about getting into computer developments as one of your other troubleshooting activities.
BURNETT: Right. We were system engineering and technically directing the major computers that were being used for guidance of the ballistic missiles. One was the Burroughs digital computer which is now in the Smithsonian. One was a ARMA computer, which I'm not sure you picked up, but it was rather ingenious. The Burroughs computer is a very interesting one because it was one where you program it by threading wires through cores. So the problem was, how do you get the equations right to guide it? How can you be absolutely sure that the equations will work, since we didn't have very many what you might call classy digital computers at that time to simulate things in. Well, we did have an 1101. And then once you got the cores threaded through properly, how did you test this thing on the ground, before you committed it to a flight test, to be sure that it really would guide things properly and didn't have a sign reversal or something like that going on. And then it had to work with a radar that came from the General Electric Company, which was a pretty intimate relationship. And let's see, this was done by Burroughs in Paoli, Pennsylvania. It was a very interesting project. Spent a lot of time on that. That's where the digital computer background from Purdue really helped.
The ARMA computer was somewhat different. It used as memory accoustical delay lines, quartz crystals if you will, and you just keep circulating the bits through there. Then the idea was, when you got to a transducer, when you could read the bits out, which meant you had to be in synchronism much like we had on the drum machine at Purdue, you'd do some more computation on the bits. That was part of the ARMA inertial guidance system.
COLLINS: Now, is this an example of where, at the subsystemlevel, two different approaches were followed in the expectation that one of them would prove out?
BURNETT: Yes, that's right. In the inertial guidance area there were two systems. There's one built by AC Sparkplug, and there was one built by ARMA. The AC Sparkplug guidance system was basically what I call a "Draperian" design; it came right out of [Stark] Draper's lab at MIT. The ARMA one was a unique ARMA design. ARMA used vibrating strings for accelerometers. They used two-degree-of-freedom gyros. Of course, the Draperian culture says that you use single-degree-of-freedom gyros, and you use a PIGAS, pendulous integrating gyro accelerometers, for the velocity, or acceleration measurements. Two quite different technical approaches to the same problem, and these systems were rigged up so that you could use them on different ballistic missiles. The primary guidance system on the Atlas was the GE guidance system, the radio guidance system, using the Burroughs computer, but ARMA was the backup, so if the GE radio guidance didn't work out, we could use the ARMA system. ARMA was also the backup for the Thor guidance system, which basically used the Draper design from AC Sparkplug. So we had interchangeability among them. There was also a BTL radio guidance system that was a combination radio/inertial guidance system, because BTL used an inertial platform on the missile. They were primary on the Titan program. We had combinations so if one technical effort failed, you could pick up another and plug it in, in its place.
Collins: Were they really that interchangeable?
BURNETT: At one stage in their development, they really were. The interfaces had been very carefully worked out so that they could be. The only way you could do that was to have a central group, like this Ramo-Wooldridge outfit, that could do the engineering to cause that to happen. As they grew and we learned more about the system, some of them got discarded. You don't hear anything about the ARMA guidance system any more. You do still hear about Draper's guidance system. The Draperian systems eventually won out, if you will.
COLLINS: For something like this they have, I assume, different space requirements, different power requirements. It seems like they wouldn't be fully interchangeable.
BURNETT: Things weren't as condensed then, in terms of the kind of components we had. But that was part of the design criteria on the various ballistic missiles, was that you could swap stuff around. And we actually ran some of the Atlases with either ARMA guidance system or radio guidance system. We flight-tested them though to be sure it actually worked that way. But yes, there were alternate approaches, and in fact the Titan approach was a backup for the Atlas. As luck would have it, they both worked. In a sense, the Thor was a backup for the Redstone, and they bothworked. And the Minuteman was just doing it right the first time around.
You learn a lot from these programs. You learn where all the problems are, and then when you have time to wipe the slate clean and start all over again, you have a much better appreciation for how you ought to approach it, if you're going to have what I call a militarily satisfactory system. If you ever went out to an Atlas launch site, to see all the stuff it takes to put one of those things in the air, and then you ask yourself the question, how could a strategic air command operate something like that and hope to have any kind of reaction time, any kind of accuracy, any kind of reliability? It just boggles your mind that you could ever get one of those things off the ground in an orderly fashion. You just learn so much from that, that you come to the conclusion, boy, if I could ever wipe the slate clean, we're going to do it somewhat differently, just to make it a militarily useful system, which is really what we did on the Minuteman program.
COLLINS: When you first came to TRW, I think the system specifications for everything probably but the Minuteman were in place, is that correct?
BURNETT: They were in various stages of development. They weren't completely solidified. I came in '56, and the flight test program got going heavily in the late fifties, a year or so after I got there. And we were still making specification changes after that, because we discovered certain things just wouldn't work or didn't work like you thought they would. When you actually go make the measurements, you change the specs. I mean that's just reality. But Minuteman was but a gleam in some people's eyes. What happened to me organizationally is, I wound up running the computers and controls department when Bennett got promoted. About that time the keel was being laid for the Minuteman program, and the propulsion people had a series of experiments with big solid propellants where two companies competed against each other. So by the time I'd really gotten to the point I really understood inertial guidance systems, and we were actually in a competition for what became the Minuteman I inertial guidance system, I was really the guy worried about all I inertial guidance systems, all control systems, all the ballistic missiles.
And the Minuteman guidance system was when we really wrote the specs quite differently in terms of how to do it. Because by that time we'd discovered that if you tell these creative teams we had not only in RW but also in the industry, what you want with enough breadth in what you want that you have some wiggle room to go do the invention, I discovered you could create inventions almost on schedule. Not to the day but probably within a month or two. You just tell people very clearly what it is youreally want and give them some latitude as to how to go about it.
So the early inertial guidance systems might have a mean time between failure of fifteen or twenty hours. I mean it's hardly on an early missile flight did we ever put the guidance system on, erect the missile, check it out, then go fly. You'd take the guidance system off, you'd fix it, you'd put it back on, you'd check it out, you'd take it off, you'd fix it, you'd put it back on. We came to simple concepts like, we need a guidance system that has a long mean time between failure, the whole thing.
So we started out from the very beginning to have a long mean time between failure for the Minuteman guidance system, and as a matter of fact, we wound up with something that's the order of a year and a half where you turn the thing on, and it'll work fine for at least a year and a half before it fails. And to do that, you just have to have infinite attention to all the different failure modes. You have to get enough attention on those failure modes to get them all fixed.
COLLINS: I want to hold back before we get into the Minuteman a little bit.
COLLINS: But I want to follow up your comment about stimulating innovation and invention, a device built to specifications in a certain period of time. Certainly that depends on a number of factors, and a couple of them that come to mind readily are having enough financial resources to pursue an invention, and the other is having the right kind of people available to work on it. It seems that those are possibly requirements or elements that might not always be available to you.
BURNETT : Y ou had a wonderful atmosphere in the early ballistic missile programs. Once the competitions are out of the way you're then a member of the Atlas team or the Thor team or the Titan team, and you know some of the subcontractors were building guidance systems and some were building structures, but you're all on the same team. You got together periodically and you had team meetings. We called them technical direction [TD] meetings, and at the time the people involved may not have thought of that as teamwork but in a bigger sense it really was. At a technical direction meeting we'd listen to what the progress was for the past month on the program, say inertial guidance program. You'd have people there on say the ARMA inertial guidance system. You'd have people there from Convair because it was going to fly on an Atlas missile. You'd have people there from propulsion. You'd have people there from structures. The problems would pop up. You could solve the problems in real time in the course of a meeting. A TD meeting might last two days, where you'd really gointo details. It was not just a smoke-and-mirrors-type of thing. You were getting down into detail.
COLLINS: Just for clarification, are you referring to a meeting that would be primarily directed towards control issues or guidance issues?
BURNETT: It would be directed towards anything that ARMA was doing for their missile guidance system for the program. So it would be an ARMA technical direction meeting, which would mostly be inertial guidance related matters, but it had to fit in the system.
COLLINS: So there'd be representatives from the other members of the team, the other contractors, TRW?
BURNETT: Right, and there would be representatives there say from the TRW Atlas program office. At the end of the meeting, you'd have what we traditionally called a reading of the action items. You know, what are the things that need to be done to fix all the problems that were identified. And you'd identify the problem. You'd identify the name of the person and organization that had the action to go get that solved. Then we always had the contracting officers in these technical direction meetings, and the contracting officer would get up at that juncture and say "Yea verily, I've heard the reading of the action items. ARMA, you are hereby directed to go do those. And as soon as Burnett writes down on a piece of paper the details of the action items, that'll be placed on your contract." And the same thing would happen with the other companies involved if they needed to do some contractual action to solve these problems. It was just about that fast.
Now I never had any responsibility for the money but the contracting people did, and what they told me was, and this was Benny Schriever's thesis and I totally believe it, the faster you can get the problem solved, the more money you're going to save, because otherwise you're going to stretch it out over a longer period of time, and you've got a marching army that you have to feed for a lot longer. And somehow or another, and this is where you really need to talk to guys like Schriever, the money and what needed to be done really did get done very properly. And the whole theory was, do it as fast as you can so that the marching army doesn't have to sit around very long. That's why we put an awful lot of focus on identifying the program problems or the technical problems and getting them solved as fast as you can, because a big system, you can never lay out everything perfectly in terms of the engineering specifications. You have to have that feedback loop around it at all times to get the errors down to a manageable number. So in a sense we used feedback theory to manage the programs, if you will. We tried to make those loops as tight as we could.
COLLINS: But essentially, in these meetings the group would kind of collectively decide what the actions were, work over the problems, decide potential solutions, and if something concrete enough came out of it then it would result in an action item.
BURNETT: Right. We had one thing--I wouldn't call it a group grope. You had this thing called the "technical direction clause." I mean there was real power in the hands of the TRW guy who was chairing those meetings. He had the power of the Air Force behind him, if you will, in terms of saying, "Hey, this is the way we're going to go." You might argue about something. There might be two or three different opinions as to how to solve it. But you had a guy there who could say, "I've heard all of this and we're going to go this way," quickly, and make it stick.
COLLINS: And essentially that was your decision.
BURNETT: For ARMA guidance for several years, that was my decision, yes. In today's world that doesn't work that way, which is one of the problems with procurement today.
COLLINS: An inability to quickly solve problems.
BURNETT: To quickly solve problems and get them cleaned up contractually, get them cleaned up financially, so that a company will really go down that path.
COLLINS: What was your sense about how the associate and subcontractors responded to this technical direction? Was it a kind of interaction they felt comfortable with? Did they feel it intrusive?
BURNETT: Oh, it was all different, really. It also depended upon what point in time were the contractors in the process. ARMA wasn't any particular problem. They were a highly technically motivated company, and although they had a pride of authorship in terms of the particular instruments they were using, which were these vibrating string accelerometers and this funny memory on the digital computer system, so long as you didn't bother anything about that, and if they thought that what you were saying was in the best interests of the program, they wouldn't really argue with you at all. Bell Labs felt a little bit differently. They felt that they were preeminent, that they were smarter than hell, which is true, and they'd try to give you a hard time on some of the decisions you made. But in the end they'd fold.
COLLINS: Because in a contractual sense they didn't hold the cards?
BURNETT: Right. Well, in a sense the guy running the technical direction meeting for Bell Labs, he could control the money flow,not directly but indirectly. Convair was a bunch of bastards to deal with. That's just about the nicest way I can put it. On this control system problem, the Convair Germans kept saying, "There's nothing wrong with the control system. It's that goddamned propulsion system that doesn't work right." To get that control system thing to work, we had to drag Schriever down to a meeting, and he just flat said, "I understand what you're saying. We're going to do it this other way." I mean they were really arrogant about it.
Boeing and Martin were easy to work with. Boeing's a bunch of really good businessmen. They discovered that they could go to TD meetings, they could induce you into action items from which they could do studies, which (a) they could learn something, and (b) they could make more money, because they were basically on a cost-plus contract, so cost-plus percentage of cost. So if the costs went up, the percentage of costs went up, and that made them very happy. They also felt a strong sense of responsibility that the system should work correctly.
COLLINS: Were most of these contracts with the associate contractors and subcontractors cost-plus fixed fee?
BURNETT: Oh, yes. There wasn't any other way to do that kind of business. Fixed-price contracts had not been invented then, but even then we were starting in on the award fee provisions. We had a colonel in charge of guidance for the Air Force, fellow by the name of Pat Box, and before it was fee time for these companies he'd come around and ask guys like me, "Okay, Bob, how do you think ARMA did in the last six months? Give me the pluses and give me the minuses." And even though it was cost plus percentage of fee, old Pat could always figure out some way to either raise the fee percentage or lower it, depending upon how he thought the contractors had done. If they'd really screwed up on something which happened occasionally, he'd ding them on the fee. Now that really has evolved into what we call the award fee concept. They're very prevalent today in development-type contracts, which is what Apollo used during its contractual period.
COLLINS: You've kind of suggested it but I wondered whether there were any formal mechanisms through which, when there was a difference of opinion between the TRW people and the contractors, it would be resolved?
BURNETT: Well, you'd go up the "org" chart. You know, suppose I had a disagreement with ARMA, and they just flat-ass refused to accept it on a matter of principle. ARMA management would then come in and see my boss, who was at that time Jim Fletcher, and Jim would adjudicate it, and if Jim agreed with me and ARMA wouldn't back down, they'd go over to see the Atlas program office, which in this case was Ed Doll, whom you're going to see,I hope--and I was trying to remember who the colonel was for the Air Force for Atlas. Col. Otto Glasser. Anyway, he had a counterpart, a Colonel--Glasser--and they'd resolve it if Fletcher couldn't resolve it. And if Doll and the colonel couldn't resolve it, then it would go to Benny Schriever, and it would be a combination of Schriever and Ramo.
COLLINS: Were there ever problems that you recall that had to find their way up that chain?
BURNETT: The control system problem on the Atlas did. It really did. There wasn't any other way to work that one. They just had a come-to-God meeting, and Schriever just said, "We're going to do it this way. Period."
COLLINS: In that case, what was at stake for the people at Convair to stick to their particular concept?
BURNETT: Well, remember that Convair had started out on what was the Atlas program some years before the ballistic missile organization of the Air Force was organized. They were doing it with a series of studies and some experimentation for Wright- Patterson. Their attitude was that they were there first, they understood it, we were Johnny-come-latelies. They were trying to teach a bunch of guys who didn't know diddly squat about the real world ballistic missiles, and they were the experts. For a lot of problems that worked, but when there came a key technical problem like the control system, it kind of didn't work.
COLLINS: I think there's some more to work out in there but I can't quite put my finger on it right now, so we may have to return to that. Do you recall when you became head of the computers and controls department succeeding Bob Bennett?
BURNETT: Not really. I even think my biography's a little bit screwed up on that. It was, I think, slightly before the time that Fletcher and Lehan left to form their little company, and Mueller and Bennett took over the electronics laboratory. But I've forgotten what Bennett was doing. He'd been pulled out of the laboratory to do something else, and I just don't remember what it was. Because I know that for part of the time when I was running that department, I was reporting to Fletcher, because any time you've ever interfaced with Fletcher, at least in that part of his career, it's a memorable experience. He's quite a guy. He had probably one of the best intuitive grasps of technology of anyone I've ever run across in my life. It wasn't that he wasn't a competent scientist on his own, because he really was and is. But amazing guy.
COLLINS: This may be a difficult question to answer, but why you to succeed Bob Bennett and not somebody else? I mean you were serving as kind of a staff person, doing the troubleshooting. Whywould you be the kind of natural person to succeed him as head?
BURNETT: I don't know. It wasn't my choice. I'm sure that's something that Lehan and Fletcher decided with Bennett. I remember what Bennett did--he went over to start the original Minuteman program office, before it was really a program office.
COLLINS: Was this your first real experience at heading up a substantial part of an organization?
BURNETT: Oh, yes. First time I even ever had a secretary all my own. Amazing experience for a young college professor. It really was. The secretary I hired was a lady by the name of Alice Taniyama. I used to get in trouble with her because I'd keep telling her to put something in the Pearl Harbor file and she, being Japanese, did not really care for that.
COLLINS: How did you sort of educate yourself in managing an enterprise? I guess we might ask how big the department was at that time, if you can recall?
BURNETT: I haven't any idea.
COLLINS: Are we talking about fifty people or two hundred people?
BURNETT: Oh, no, it was probably closer to fifty or sixty. It certainly wasn't two hundred. Well, the coin of the realm was solving problems, the problems that arose came from TD meetings. The issue was to figure out the problem list and who's working on the problems and what kind of help did they need. That was almost the coin of the realm for a department manager then. Now there were some things I learned very rapidly, like how do you equitably pay people, and how do you evaluate their performance. That wasn't all that difficult after you've been a college professor for a while. It kind of came naturally. The idea of how you organize and what the policies and procedures were, and all that, I just don't have any conscious memory of that.
We had what we called administrative assistants, and they were the people who were supposed to worry about what I call the administrivial life: did you get your check? Did you get your time card filled out? How are you doing on the budgets? If you need another typewriter or computer, he'd go get that for you. You don't need to bother yourself with it. See the organization scheme of the place was geared to keeping the problems solved on the ballistic missile program, and then they had administrative people, who worked for people like me, who would just solve all these problems that we now beat guys over the head about if they can't solve themselves, because we don't think they're good general managers unless they can solve those things themselves. But you also run into a lot of problems. You make a bunch ofmistakes, and hopefully you'll listen to the guys when they tell you that you screwed up, so that you don't do that particular dumb thing again.
COLLINS: I guess one potentially important issue for you as a department head was insuring that your staff performed up to a certain competence, that they had a certain level of expertise that was at least comparable to what existed in industry, with the people, the contractors you were working with. How did you insure high quality on your staff?
BURNETT: Oh, that was kind of simple. First of all, in the summer time we'd hire professors in from various universities. At that time of course I knew everybody in the EE business in the country at the other universities. You'd hire key professors in to work on particular problems that might take several months to solve. You'd keep in touch on them with, who were their best graduate students? We had a first-class staff when I took over in the first instance, so you'd ask each one of the guys there--like George Gleghorn is from Cal-Tech--so you'd ask him to go check with his buddies up at Cal-Tech and find out who the best graduate students in EE are, the brightest, and you'd go out of your way to try to hire them. So let's see, we had MIT people, Purdue people, Cal-Tech people, a few Stanford people, and you use those hooks back at the universities to get the very best you can. Plus, since I'd been at Purdue for a while as a professor, you knew who some key guys were in other companies, particularly Hughes and Litton and Rockwell, [North American]. You could use that network to search out really bright people. And at that time it was Okay to work in that kind of a program, and we were beating guys off with a stick who were trying to join the place who weren't quite good enough.
COLLINS: So at that time, your sense was that you were very competitive with other options these people might have.
BURNETT: Oh, I think so. The intellectual quality of what we had to offer, I don't think anyone could have beaten us at the time. Maybe some parts of Cal-Tech and some parts of MIT and Stanford. But the atmosphere we could sure beat--if you wanted to work. Now if you didn't want to work and you were bright, why you didn't belong at our place.
COLLINS: What was generally your reception in working with contractors? Here you've got a bunch of university-based people interacting with people on the industry side who probably have been at the business for a while, who sort of felt that they were more knowledgeable about particulars than somebody who's coming in from a university laboratory. Did that kind of tension ever exist at all?
BURNETT: Oh, joked about it all the time. People talked aboutit. The initial reaction was usually reasonably negative, like, "Jesus Christ, you're here to do what?" But once you'd really worked two or three problems with them, it flipped. It got to the point where they'd come talk to you about problems before they were acknowledged problems, to see how we might go about solving these things quietly before they became an open sore.
But there were some really high pucker factor times, let me tell you. Example that really burns in my mind because it burned in my guts was when we'd chosen Autonetics to do the guidance system for Minuteman. They wanted to use a digital differential analyzer for their missileborne computer, based on the MIT famous gear-and-cam digital differential analyzer, except it was all done in electronics. And that had certain inherent time constants and because the organization of it, there's only so much flexibility you could have in the program. A bunch of us were absolutely convinced that that's the wrong approach and what they ought to have was a general purpose machine, with a rotating disk for the memory. I'm not always hooked to drum machines but I was still hooked to drum machines then. And we had a famous TD meeting where I got my guts up and I said, "Look, we're going to go with the general purpose machine."
And Johnny Moore was the guy who ran Autonetics at the time, and boy, he got up and just made an impassioned speech and very flatly said, "You know, you're really screwed up, and this is the wrong thing to do." Contracting officer got up and said, "Yeah, that's what we're going to do." So Johnny says, "Well, do me the honor of letting me have an independent study made of this, because I think you're wrong, and if the independent study turns out the way I think it will, we're really going to be in there at you about this." This was a pretty big meeting. And gulp, you wonder, Jesus Christ, did I blow it?
And by golly, about two months later Johnny Moore came in the office with his independent study. He said, "It's all done." What was going to happen now? And son of a gun, his bunch of independent guys had agreed with our analysis, that that was the right way to go. So it was not all sweetness and light. I lost a lot of sleep over that.
COLLINS: And do you see this as one example of the tension between people with university backgrounds and less experience in the industry, dealing with people who have had more experience?
BURNETT: Right. What we were able to do was to put together a better set of analysis than his guys could off the top of their heads. Of course the technical field was changing so rapidly that I think in that particular case, the university attitude, the university perception, was probably closer to reality than maybe the guys who'd been building that particular kind of digital differential analyzer. There were a lot of tough ones likethat.
COLLINS: In this case, who was around to perform an independent analysis of the problem?
BURNETT: Let's see, part of what we did on these programs is that you almost name pick the people in the company to work on the program. I'm not kidding. We'd go to Autonetics and we'd have a pre-TD meeting and we'd sit down with Johnny and his key guys and we'd say, "Okay, now who's new on the program and what's their background?" So we insisted that they have the best people they had on the program. They had other programs in the guidance area. So what they'd do is, go find some people from their other programs to work on this ballistic missile team.
COLLINS: Contaminated from which side?
BURNETT: Contaminated by the way we were running the ballistic missile program.
BURNETT: Johnny Moore at one time had really the cream of the crop of control system engineers, in the country. He had the guy who invented the spirule--I'll think of his name in a minute-- which is a handy tool for determining control system stability. He had Kochenberger over there for a while, who figured out how to do the stability of nonlinear control systems. I mean he had really a bright bunch of guys. Of course Johnny's very bright himself. He's an impressive guy.
COLLINS: I'm at the end of a side of a tape here again.
TAPE 2, SIDE 1
COLLINS: You were talking about the procedure of working with some of your major contractors, in this case Autonetics, and the building of an inertial guidance system. How did this selection or this identification of personnel you would like to work on a project play out? Because I'm sure that North American had other projects at the time, and there were probably other parts of the Air Force that were saying we want you to put your best people on this project or put good people on it. There must have been an intense amount of juggling on the part of some of these corporations to meet these kinds of pressures.
BURNETT: Well, I'm sure there was. But there was more than just me involved. Benny Schriever and Si Ramo would make periodic visits to all the major associate contractors. They sat down with the very top guy in the contractor, the CEO in today's parlance, and they would review progress with the CEO in terms of how his company was doing on the ballistic missile program. Partof the progress review would be to talk about the people, to be sure they had absolutely the best people on the program. And I think it was this constant pressure from Schriever and Ramo from the top of the companies on down that made it easier for guys like me to be sure that Johnny Moore had the best people he had on the program. So there was an atmosphere setting, if you would, from the front office of the ballistic missile program in that regard.
COLLINS: I guess maybe I'd ask the question a slightly different way. Was this the first or one of the early instances of the Air Force working in this fashion? For prime contracts, say, to build an aircraft, would their technical monitors come and say "We want to be sure that Mr. X and Mr. Y are on the team and are part of the effort," or would it be left up to the prerogative of the prime contractor to decide which personnel worked on a project?
BURNETT: Well, I think the more general approach is that it's up to the prerogative of the prime contractor who works on the project. Even today in TRW, when we want to change a key guy on a project, like the project manager, the company procedures don't say that we go check with the customer first, but we always do. You know. Ed Dunford or myself will go down to the space division and say, "We're thinking about changing Mr. X on one of your projects. Is that acceptable to you? And here's the guy we want to put in." And you leave him a resume. If they know the person and think it's a good choice, they'll say "Fine." If they don't, they'll call back in a day or two and say, "Hey, I don't think he's going to work out with our team. You'd better find somebody else." I just think that Schriever and Ramo played the thing to the hilt. It wasn't just the program manager. It was the program manager and the guys that worked for him and the guys that worked for them.
You have to remember, there's a lot of romance in this at that time, simply because this had never been done before. I mean we were charting virgin territory, to build ballistic missiles that actually worked. And there was a lot of ego on the part of the companies involved, to be sure that they wanted to be in on the ground floor, because they didn't know how far this was going to go. But they knew darned well if it was going to be a big business, they wanted to be a part of it. They wanted to be known as having a good team on it. We didn't run into too much trouble on that.
The problem was, you couldn't find a person at that time who really knew anything about ballistic missiles per se. You could find somebody who knew something about inertial guidance. You could occasionally find people who knew something about rocket propulsion, although there weren't very many of those then. You could find a lot of structural people, because they'd been building airplanes. But the structures on a ballistic missile istotally different than that of an airplane. So it was a question of finding people who were bright enough in their own specialty, who were willing to learn enough about ballistic missiles to be effective on a ballistic missile team. Which is a little bit different than it is now. There's hardly anything we do now but what someone has done it at least once before.
COLLINS: You mean in the ballistic missile area, or just generally speaking?
BURNETT: Well, today, there's not all that much that's really brand new. In the ballistic missile era, it was all new, and it was all new because you had to make the thing into a system. You couldn't make the structure like the structural guys would like to do, which was with a bunch of I beams, because we didn't have the propulsion characteristics, we didn't have the Ise to put those I beams six thousand miles down the range. You had to really work everything together as a system. In fact, one of the most fascinating things about the program, was that, I thought at one time in my career that if you'd just learn servomechanism theory you're a pretty good systems engineer. Then you discover, well, if it's a digital servomechanism, okay, that's the next level of sophistication. The next level of sophistication, that'd be a digital servomechanism but is it something useful, like control an ICBM? And then, you ought to have a digital servomechanism that'd control the ICBM where the ICBM actually worked, you know, you got it Point A to Point B accurately. So you kind of evolve career-wise, if you will, in terms of your concept of what system engineering is.
COLLINS: And this is something that happened to you.
BURNETT: By the time you get to the point that you really understand inertial guidance, you're starting to get a technical handle on everything on a ballistic missile, because it has to be stable, you have to be able to cut the engines off at the right time to make the accuracy, and you're starting to get into all the other major subsystems on a ballistic missile program. By the time you're on something like the Minuteman program, you not only have to worry about that, you have to worry about how SAC [Strategic Air Command] is going to use it, what the operational concept is, and what's strategic deterrence, and all of that. Very mind-broadening, to put it mildly.
COLLINS: In talking about your handling of the computers and controls department, we've focussed on problem solving, things you did internally, but apart from the technical direction meetings, what were your contacts with the Air Force? The nature of those contacts at that time?
BURNETT: Very intimate. When I was running the Minuteman program and Sam Phillips was the SPO [System Program Office] director, wehad offices--if this was Sam, this was me--we had interconnecting offices with a door in between them which we kept open most of the time. Then we had a conference room where we held bigger meetings. We were living together. There wasn't any other way to do it. It's still the way we do it out at Norton Air Force Base on the ballistic missile program. It's still that complicated. Absolutely co-located. You have an office of TRW folks and an office of Air Force.
We tried to get the two offices close so the guidance office and the guidance officer were together, the logistics office and the logistics officer were close together, so that the guys could work together. Because even though we were the technical directors, the real program management and the money authority came through the Air Force. So if you really wanted to spend money, you had to get somebody in the Air Force to agree with you. Which is only proper. But the way you really ran the system engineering problems was that you had the teams of people co-located together, so if you wanted to work a guidance problem, you could go get the guidance colonel and whoever we had on guidance at the time to sit down with the structure people, to bang away at a problem internally. Not all the problems we had to solve were ones with the associate contractors. We had our own set of problems we had to solve internally, to write the right specifications for the associate contractor.
COLLINS: Can you give me an example of something along those lines?
BURNETT: Let's take the business of rocket engines. You've got a rocket engine nozzle that you want to move, and something's got to move it. It's going to take a hydraulic servo to move it. There's a question, should that hydraulic servo be part of the rocket engine guys' business, or should it be part of the guidance guys' business? On an Atlas, it had really been part of the airframe guys' business, and that's where we got into trouble in the control system on the rocket engine. I insisted on the Minuteman program that the pushing mechanism, the hydraulic mechanism, had to be part of the guidance system, because technically it was just a lot more intimately concerned with the guidance system than it was with pushing the nozzle on the rocket engine. And those are the kinds of problems we solved internally. You can always find somebody on the other side of the fence saying, "No, Burnett, that's wrong. Hydraulic servos go with rocket engines." We'd get Autonetics to build a hydraulic servo and send it up to Thiokol, and they could use it. But it was Autonetics' responsibility to be sure that thing really worked with the guidance system. Those kinds of problems cropped up all the time.
Another one is cabling. You've got the guidance on the top of the missile. You've got the rocket engine on the bottom.You've got some cables going up and down. Prime contractors have always built cables. The air-frame guys always thought of themselves as the prime, although they were just another associate. So Boeing wanted to build the cables that went from up here to down here. I said, "No, I don't think that's right. We ought to be able to lay that guidance system out in the laboratory with the guidance up here, the cables and the servos down here at the bottom, and check it all out as one big piece and be sure it worked before we get it down to the Cape and put it on a missile to go fly." Well, that's the way we've been doing cables ever since. But that was an internal type of an argument, with a little bit of an overtone on what one of the contractors thought was their traditional prerogative of making the cables that go on an airplane.
COLLINS: Now, in the case of resolving the problems with contractors, you had these TD meetings. What was the analogue within the corporation, or was it more informal?
BURNETT: Within the corporation we had two classes of meetings. One was very formal. Benny Schriever had what he called "Black Saturday." And on Black Saturday--it was literally on a Saturday--you have a time slot and you start out on Saturday morning and you get up, if you're the program director, and you present your program to Benny Schriever and his key military staff and the key TRW staff. It's progress and problems and what you're doing about it. This is really peer review of the first water. And that's not only where you got Schriever pumped up in terms of what the real status of the program was, but you heard from your peers in case they thought you were screwing up with some aspect of it, because the guys that were running Atlas, Titan, and Thor were sitting in a room, who'd been through similar-type problems themselves. So we got the problem feedback that way. Those are very effective meetings, if you really have a program you're trying to get done in a rapid way in a very orderly fashion. Benny cared about people, he cared about personalities, but his concern was to be sure that the program was being managed in a way that he could defend in Washington, because he just reported to the Secretary of Defense. He didn't go through any other layers of management.
Within the electronics lab, there were weekly staff meetings with Fletcher, where he'd sit down with the people who were reporting to him, and you'd review progress and problems. From Jim you'd get a lot of direction of how to go about solving problems. Occasionally he would have a session which was not near term problem-oriented. He'd have a session in terms of: okay, let's spend an afternoon: if we're going to go out and do a guidance system again, how would we do it? What have we learned? What would we do differently if we could wipe the slate clean on a radio guidance system? Very productive sessions. A lot of that got into the NASA program because George Mueller was one ofthe participants in those sessions.
And then for the really longer range things, we used to have a thing that they called a "senior staff," which are the people with the name parking places. They used to publish a book with the pictures of people on the senior staff. And you'd get to spend a Saturday with Si Ramo. He'd take you to the Beverly Hills Hotel and have a conference room and cocktails and lunch, and Si would give you a lecture on how to do system engineering or whatever, and a big Q-and-A session.
COLLINS: One-on-one, is that what you're saying?
BURNETT: No, no, no, there would probably be fifty people there. But Si is a very effective leader. I don't know if you've interviewed him for this, but if you haven't you should.
COLLINS: We have him.
BURNETT: He's a spellbinder. The amazing thing about Si is, he sounds like he's full of hot air occasionally, but the guy can really produce, and that's what makes the difference. So we had a series of meetings to communicate amongst ourselves. And at that time it was okay to socialize with the Air Force. The Air Force officers didn't wear uniforms. So we just all socialized together. If you have a birthday party for say me, the Air Force would show up just as much as the TRW people would. I shouldn't say it's completely a big, happy family, but basically it was.
COLLINS: But the point is, you had opportunity to kick things around together.
BURNETT: Right. You just have to do that. All right, we had one other thing too, which I'd almost forgotten about. We had some visiting committees that were in charge of reviewing us. The committee I had to deal with on the Minuteman program was headed by Charlie Lauritsen, who was from Cal-Tech, professor of physics at Cal-Tech. It had Hendrix Bode on there from Bell Labs. It had Charles A. Lindbergh on it. It had Pat Hyland on it, who was the general manager of Hughes. And let me tell you, Black Saturday was a piece of cake compared to that group! They'd come in and they'd expect to spend the day with us on the Minuteman program. They wanted to know everything.
Formally they were part of the PSAC, the President's Scientific Advisory Committee. And the membership changed over time. We spent a lot of time either with that committee, or with the PSAC in the White House, reviewing progress and problems and what we were doing. So you really had some top-notch guys outside the company staring down your adenoids, to be sure that you weren't just smoking opium. Well, the guys would keep coming back. You'd give them a story. They'd be back in about three orfour months. They'd say, "Okay, now, what happened to your story?" You couldn't get away from them. But it was very healthy.
COLLINS: What did Schriever think of this?
BURNETT: He encouraged it. He really did. Schriever absolutely believes in independent review committees. Remember, the whole ballistic missile program got started basically because of the Von Neumann Committee. And Schriever believed in independent review committees. When he went back East, to set up systems command, for each one of the divisions--as he called it, like space division down the street--he insisted that they have a division advisory group, bunch of outside people who they cleared, who'd come in and just do the same damned thing to all the programs as say the Lauritsen Committee was doing to me on the Minuteman program.
COLLINS: How effective was that for you? These people would come in. They wouldn't probably be knowledgeable about the details of the program.
BURNETT: They were looking for errors of logic. They were looking for errors of logic and big picture problems, things that you might miss. Tell you one that they found on me. When we got started with the Autonetics guidance system on Minuteman I, it had what Johnny Moore called a velocity meter in it. The restraining force on the pendulum was basically a permanent magnet, and assuming the H vector from the permanent magnet was constant, you know, it was a great piece of machinery. We didn't have an awful lot of experimental data on it. The data we did have indicated a fair amount of dispersion in the scale factor stability.
So these guys would go for the guts, you know. They'd ask to see curves of gyro drift versus time under G. They'd ask for scale factor stability. So Bode got to looking at that curve I put up. He said, "What's causing the instability?" I said, "We really don't know. We don't know whether it's temperature fluctuations or instrumentation or what. We're still researching it." So they wanted to know how the damned thing was made. So we got out the diagram of how it's made, and they wanted to know the theory of the operation, and you go through that.
He said, "How stable do you think permanent magnets are?" I said, "I don't know. I think they're fairly stable." He said, "Let me tell you about some work we did at Bell Labs a few years ago on the stability of permanent magnets. They're not stable at all. The field fluctuates." I said, "Oh? Why is that?" He said, "I don't know. I just know that it fluctuates." I said, "What can you do about it?" He said, "Well, the best thing we found to do about it is to do some heat treatment." I've forgotten theprocess but he outlined a heat treatment process you put magnets through, and when we got done the field didn't fluctuate as much.
The guy was absolutely right. Once we put the permanent magnets through that, the fluctuation did go down. But it never went down as far as you can get on the Draper accelerometer, the PIGA. So on Minuteman I we were already committed--we accepted what we got with the permanent magnet, scale factor velocity meters, but on Minuteman II, we changed that. We put in Draper's PIGAs. But that's the sort of thing that committee was doing. That was Henry Bode. The person I'd revered in graduate school as the inventor of the Bode Diagrams for stability of feedback control mechanisms.
COLLINS: What kind of contribution could somebody say like Lindbergh or Pat Hyland make, who were probably more generalists than deeply technical people?
BURNETT: A system test. What's your test plan? What is it you're not testing? Why aren't you testing it? What's the test data look like? You know, the old scientific approach. What's the experimental program? What are the results from it? Lots of discipline in that.
COLLINS: You're probably winding up, you're close to time here. Let me just conclude our discussion today. I want to go back to your connections. You kind of described your relationship with ARMA, but I'd be interested in exploring a little bit more about your relationship with AC Sparkplug and Stark Draper and the Draper Laboratories, what your experiences were there.
BURNETT: I didn't have so much to do with AC Sparkplug. There was another fellow by the name of Bill Russell who was doing most of that. I was back there several times. But a lot of relations with Doc Draper and the Draper Labs, and part of it was adversarial, because by the time I'd gotten on the Minuteman program guidance system, I'd come to the conclusion that Draper's approach might be okay but it wasn't clear to me it was going to give us the kind of reliability and accuracy that we wanted. So the Minuteman I, II and actually Minuteman III guidance systems were really not Draperian systems at all. The II and the III do have the PIGAs in there for scale factor stability, because I think Draper has the best approach to that. But the rest of the ships didn't have the Draper system at all. We used air-bearing two degree freedom of gyros which Draper says are the wrong approach.
It turned out they were one of the keys to making the lifetime of the guidance system for the Minuteman program. We could easily get a gyro that would last fifty, sixty, seventy thousand hours, turn on and just keep going. We used that to convince Draper that they should put gas-bearing gyros orgas-bearings into their PIGAs, the gyros in their PIGAs, which got those mean-time-between-failures up considerably. We always had a fundamental difference on guidance equations. You know, what's the formulation of the algorithm in terms of how you steer this thing. They had their way of doing it, and we just have a different way on the Minuteman. It's about that simple. And the way we have is very amenable to a general purpose machine, and in a kind of a fundamental sense, we wound up with a series of guidance equations that are Taylor expansions about the cutoff point.
COLLINS: The cutoff point meaning?
BURNETT: The cutoff point which is a vector in space and time being where you want to suddenly terminate all propulsion.
BURNETT: That was particularly important on Minuteman, because we don't have a vernier propulsion phase on Minuteman like they did on Atlas and Titan and Thor. I mean you got the third stage going, then you just have to stop the propulsion all of a sudden, which we did by blowing out some plugs on the motor that dropped the chamber pressure to essentially zero in just a few milliseconds. We were able to make that work quite well on Minuteman I. Now Minuteman III we don't do that. We have a buss so that you have the equivalent of a vernier phase. That's also true of the Peacekeeper and the small ICBM.
So we had some philosophic differences with him about how you go about the equation business. I'm not saying they're wrong or they're right. Their stuff worked, don't misunderstand me. But we just had some differences. We exchanged a lot of data. We'd show them how well we were doing in terms of performance and vice versa. I got very well-acquainted with Draper. [Bob] Duffy, who ran Draper Lab after Draper, of course was one of the guidance colonels out here for a while, so he and I had known each other. In fact we're still on the Defense Science Board together and I see a lot of him.
But the problem is--and we've run into that problem in spades on the Peacekeeper program. After I left the program, some of what I call guidance colonels in the Air Force took a more dominant role on how guidance should be done. On the Peacekeeper they just bought a Draper design, lock, stock, and barrel. This is the one that Northrup has been building. There's been a lot of stuff in the newspapers about how difficult it's been for Northrup to build that thing. It's true. It's also difficult to make the thing as reliable as it should be for an operational force that the military is going to run. The reliability numbers on the Peacekeeper with that Draper system could be better. And the problem is that there are just too manyparts in it.
Intellectually they put all the parts in to make the thing work perfectly. They never asked themselves the question, how much of this can I can back out and maybe only give up five percent of the performance? Because if you've given up five percent of the CEP [Circle Error Probable] performance, the accuracy performance, you might have gained a fantastic amount in terms of reliability performance. And since we hope we never have to use those things in a war, you're better off having something that the Russians know are always on alert and going to work, than being concerned about the last five percent of guidance accuracy. So we've kind of gotten off track on that.
COLLINS: That's what you essentially mean by a difference in philosophy.
BURNETT: Right. They do magnificent work, don't misunderstand me. Of course, what they do is what's in a Trident system, except GE builds it and it works fine, except they haven't gone for the kind of reliability that we have in the Minuteman program. Minuteman's always had the theory that the missiles, each one of the missiles is at T-minus thirty seconds and holding. And if you want to launch that thing, it takes about thirty seconds to launch it, and it's gone.
The Trident system and the Polaris system have been designed with a different philosophy. They're at sea. They can be up and running in a matter of a few hours and be quite accurate. But they don't try to keep them on alert all the time like we do the Minuteman IV. Because it's not as important from a strategic point of view that you necessarily have to launch those fleet ballistic missiles immediately. It's very important that the Russians know we can launch the Minuteman immediately, because if they think they can get by with something, they're just not going to be able to do it. At the time I just didn't think we could make the operational concept work with the complete Draper Labs approach to the guidance system. So that's the difference in philosophy.
COLLINS: Yes. You indicated there was kind of an attempt to explain your position on this. Draper and Draper Laboratories had for years been in the business of designing stuff for military use, relating operational requirements, and military technical considerations to what they were doing.
BURNETT: That's true. And they did fine, till we started asking them to do several thousand hours mean-time-between failure and they couldn't do that. They just didn't have the data to back it up. The systems that they'd been working on are typically airplane systems, and the avionics on an airplane system--you're lucky today if it works fifty hours before it craps out. Wewanted something that would work closer to fifty thousand hours. And there's a few orders of magnitude difference there.
COLLINS: Okay. Why don't we stop at this point.
BURNETT: I've got to go anyway. I really have to go to a meeting.
COLLINS: I would like an opportunity to sit down again some time.
BURNETT: All right, if you want to.