Special Report | Channel leaders: Mission critical
Heinz Wimmer, vice president of central operations, Analex Corp.
- By Doug Beizer
- Jun 23, 2006
"At times, just finding one item that saves the mission will more than pay for itself and all the investment you make," says Heinz Wimmer.
A small design flaw can lead to a spectacular and costly disaster when the task is launching rockets. Among Analex Corp.'s chief responsibilities in its work with the National Reconnaissance Office and NASA is ensuring that launches are safe and successful.
Last fall, a team of Analex engineers, led by Heinz Wimmer, discovered a flaw in preparations for an upcoming mission that could have led to a launch failure. Further investigation confirmed the results of their analysis, and changes were made to secure a safe launch.
Wimmer credits the design flaw discovery on government officials' decision to spend money on testing, and on his team's experience and diligence.
The lesson to be learned from the experience is that when you have high-valued items that are at risk, which is the case for the payloads that fly on rockets, it is imperative to do everything you can to protect those items, Wimmer said.
"If you can put a little extra money aside, like self insurance to look in detail at critical items, you should," he said. "You do that because, at times, just finding one item that saves the mission will more than pay for itself and all the investment you make."
In acknowledgement of the Analex crew's successful work, the Office of Space Launch at the National Reconnaissance Office presented the engineers with the Mission Director's Coin award.
But the story was different six years ago, when several failures plagued the program, Wimmer said. It was then that the NRO began a rebuilding effort. Today, it's accepted that oversight is crucial, even though the independent verification for missions finds problems only every now and then.
It can be a challenge for engineers to work in that kind of environment, said Sterling Phillips, CEO of Analex, Fairfax, Va.
"When the technical team goes through these procedures time after time and finds no problems, there is a temptation to let your guard down," Phillips said. But everyone involved in the design and development of the launch vehicles is trying to be as rigorous as possible. If they do their job perfectly, they'll never find anything.
"The consequences of error are so costly, both in dollars and a national security point of view, that we realize it's one of these things you've got to do," Phillips said.
Wimmer attributes much of his success to Analex's ability to build a team of engineers with experience inside and out of NASA and the government. A close relationship with the contractors that build launch vehicles and integrate the missions onto the vehicles is also important.
The important thing for him and his colleagues is to recognize that the existence of their group fully depends on their government customer and doing the very best work they can for their customers, Wimmer said.
"We support then on a timely basis with excellent, quality work and keep reporting to them on what we're doing and what we're finding," he said. "From that, they can conclude what the value is of the work we perform for them."
Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Washington Technology.