Remembering Mal Meredith—Jack Fisher

Earlier this year we lost Mal Meredith, a friend, co-worker, mentor, and former Hughes executive. Those of us who attended his memorial had the opportunity to relate some of our adventures at Hughes with Mal and I heard many interesting episodes that were new to me. With this post I would like to provide everyone a chance to tell their stories about “Working With Mal.” Please use the comments feature of our blog for your inputs.

Mal earned his undergraduate degree in engineering at UCLA in 1956 and worked at Rocketdyne before he joined Hughes in 1960. He was a member of the Surveyor proposal team in 1960 that captured the Surveyor lunar lander program for Hughes. Mal earned a Masters Degree in engineering at UCLA. His thesis, dated May 1962, was entitled “Launch and Midcourse Guidance Requirements for a Lunar Return Vehicle.” The purpose of the unmanned mission was to return a lunar surface sample to the Earth. His thesis examined the Earth atmospheric entry errors resulting from launch and midcourse guidance dispersions. Upon completion of the requirements for his degree he returned to Hughes.

I met Mal at this time due to our mutual interest in lunar trajectories. He convinced me to join the Surveyor project and we worked together in Bill Grayer’s Guidance and Trajectory Department in the Systems Engineering and Analysis Lab under Jim Cloud. Mal was cognizant of all aspects of the Surveyor flight path including midcourse guidance and the terminal descent. Thus he was the ideal choice for heading the Flight Path and Analysis and Command group for the Surveyor flight operations at JPL. There he played a key role in flight operations including the rescue of the Surveyor V mission.

After the Surveyor program ended in 1968 we worked together on a number of proposals. Specifically I remember a proposal for the Viking Mars lander in early 1969. Hughes was to be a subcontractor to Boeing providing the terminal guidance, propulsion and landing gear. However, this proposal was not successful and the contract was awarded to Martin Marietta. I also recall working with Mal on a proposal to the Air Force for a geosynchronous satellite. I’m not sure what organization we were in at this time.

Mal next managed systems engineering for NASA’s OSO-8 program that was launched in July of 1975 and later became the Associate Program Manager. Shortly after the OSO launch Mal joined the Pioneer Venus program as an Associate Program Manager under Steve Dorfman. There he played a key role in the design of both the large and small probes. My systems engineering responsibility on this program was greatly enhanced by Mal’s mentorship. The iconic Pioneer Venus picture was that of Mal peering through the 13-karat diamond window required for the Large Probe infrared radiometer. Mal was awarded the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal for his contributions to the Pioneer Venus program.

The Pioneer Venus Large Probe Infrared Radiometer Diamond Window

The Pioneer Venus Large Probe Infrared Radiometer Diamond Window

Hughes captured the Galileo Probe program, managed by NASA Ames, that was to be carried to Jupiter by the JPL Galileo Orbiter. Many problems arose with the launch plans and NASA decided to separate the Probe and Orbiter missions. NASA Ames was assigned the responsibility for a probe carrier spacecraft that would carry the probe to Jupiter. NASA ARC developed an RFP for this spacecraft and the Hughes proposal team, headed by Mal submitted the winning proposal. Hughes entered into negotiations with ARC for a contract, but shortly thereafter NASA changed their launch plans again and canceled the Probe Carrier program. Following this he spent two years as the Program Manager for the Ku-band radar system.

With the award of the Intelsat VI program to Hughes in 1982 Mal became the Associate Program Manager reporting to Dave Braverman. He later became the Intelsat VI Program Manager and Assistant Division Manager of the Commercial Systems Division. With GM’s purchase of Hughes in 1985 GM expressed an interest in applying aerospace systems engineering techniques to the development of automobiles. Accordingly, with the guidance of Mal Currie, Hughes SCG personnel prepared a presentation for the GM board of directors describing our approach to systems engineering. Mal was part of that team and spoke to the GM Board of Directors on systems engineering management in November 1986.

In the Anechoic Chamber With Intelsat VI Model

In the Anechoic Chamber With Intelsat VI Model

In 1987 SCG under Tony Iorillo reorganized and Mal became the manager of Systems Engineering and Operations Division. Division 4M combined the System Laboratories, Integration, Test, and Launch Operations, Engineering Mechanics, Reliability, System Safety and Mass Properties. In 1991 he became a Member of the Office of the President reporting to Steve Dorfman. Mal continued in this role until his retirement in October 1992.

Manager of Division 4M

Manager of Division 4M

 

2 thoughts on “Remembering Mal Meredith—Jack Fisher

  1. I worked for Mal on many programs beginning as a Systems Engineer on the Orbiting Solar Observatory (OSO) program in 1972. I then worked for him on Pioneer Venus and Ku-Band Radar and Communications System (KU-Band) for the Space Shuttle programs. I worked in division 4M (System Laboratories, Integration, Test, and Launch Operations) when Mal became manager of that division, and he continued mentoring me and continued that mentoring role even when he became a Member of the Office of the President until his retirement in 1992. Mal had an exceptional approach to technical challenges and his mentoring capability was a key to my career and I will always be thankful.

    I tried to describe an example of Mal’s mentoring at his memorial service, unfortunately I did a poor job, possibly due to the emotions at that time, so I would like to capture here what I had intended to say.

    During the late 70’s and early 80’s Hughes SCG was developing the Ku-Band System for the Space Shuttle under contract to Rockwell. Rockwell complained to Hughes and NASA that the project was in significant trouble technically which would also lead to significant cost and schedule issues. Mal was assigned to be the new Program Manager and brought Lance Mohler (as Systems Engineering Manager) and subsequently me (as a Systems Engineer focusing on hardware qualification, system testing and system sell-off) onto the program to determine whether the program was in as much difficulty as Rockwell maintained and if so, to “fix it”. After several weeks of in-depth inquiry, we concluded that Rockwell was correct and Hughes needed to make substantive changes.

    Several months after I joined the program, Mal asked me to sit in on one of the monthly program reviews of all programs held with SCG senior management. He told me to just sit in, listen, and learn as each department described the status of their hardware and their plans moving forward. This was the first meeting where I observed SCG senior management in action.

    As I entered the conference room from the rear when Ku-band was scheduled, I observed a long table with a vu-graph machine and screen at the front. Sitting on the front seat on the left closest to the screen was Dr. Bud Wheelon, President and CEO of SCG at the time. I knew of Dr. Wheelon by reputation only, I had never met or even seen him. He was an imposing individual, with a calm and authoritative demeanor, likely as a result of his background as a Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency prior to his joining Hughes in 1966. The seat directly opposite from him was empty; this is where the presenters would stand as they described their presentation displayed on the screen. Sitting around the long table were the different department and division managers, mostly wearing white shirts, with skinny dark ties, and with notebooks or quadrille pads open for note taking in front of them. Seated along the walls were many financial support personnel and technical support experts to the department managers. Lance and I sat down along the wall behind Mal so he could reach us if he needed our support or input.

    The Responsible Engineer (REA) from each activity within the department being reviewed got up (sequentially), described their role on Ku-Band and detailed how the program was going. They all expressed the opinion that things were under control. While the first REA presented how well they were doing, I felt a sudden sharp squeeze in my leg coming from Lance sitting next to me. It was clear he did not agree. Neither did I. When the next REA presented, I squeezed Lance’s knee as I was shocked how positive the presentation was and I was far from agreement. This went on for multiple presentations and I could feel my blood beginning to boil and my face flushing. All of a sudden I blurted out: “That’s BULL—-!!!” There was total silence in the room. Everyone turned to look at me, including Mal. No-one said anything for what seemed a very long time until Dr. Wheelon calmly said: “shall we continue?”

    After the Ku-Band portion of the meeting was over, I quickly left. Later, Mal’s secretary found me and said Mal wanted to see me immediately. When I entered Mal’s office, he got up, closed the door and sat down opposite me at his small table. He asked me: “Well, what did you learn?” I answered: “I need to learn to keep my mouth shut”. He said: “Yes, but there is a more important lesson”. He then explained that Dr. Wheelon’s philosophy for these meetings was not to focus on the problems (he expected the different departments to deal with these), but rather focus on the issues and describe constructive solutions. This management style puts extra onus on the REA to do something proactive rather than complain of what is wrong and try to shift blame to others. The senior management all knew the game that was being played but the presenting REAs often did not, and I certainly was not aware. “More importantly, however”, Mal continued, “Do not ever lose your passion, regardless of the circumstances”.

    Throughout my career, I have too often spoken out of turn at meetings, blurting out my true opinion. In the 1980’s there was a comedian Flip Wilson who would say, “The Devil made me do it” if he was confronted by someone pointing out that he had done something wrong. Well, I often said to myself “Mal made me do it” when I blurted out something in a meeting that I knew I should not have said in the context of the meeting, often because it was not “politically correct”. I know that Mal is smiling from above. “Thank you Mal!”

  2. Thank you for your stories. I remember all those programs that Dad work on, he would rehash those arguments and meetings over dinner with Mom and I at the end of the day. I was just a teenager at the time. The Hughes family was a big part of our life. Good times.