Friday, July 23, 2010
Have you ever messed up at work? Did it happen when you were still a n00b? Did it cause you to fear losing your job? Well, if you’re asking me, I’d have to say, Yes, Yes, and Yes.
It all started as an ordinary day, there I was at the cube farm, looking over some data I had been gathering from previous experiments. I was in the midst of running some tests that I came up with myself. The goal was finding new and improved fuel formulations for the hybrid motors. I was excited. The planning and initial testing were done, and it was time for some real messy hands on lab work. I grabbed my stuff and drove down to the rocket making facility.
Unlike the cube farm, which was a pretty bustling place, the testing area was only busy during actual testing, and before 4pm when the machinists went home. By the time I got there, I had the whole (freezing) warehouse to myself. I liked working alone. I could dance around when I wanted to, have my music going, and laugh out loud randomly (as I often do) for no reason, without getting those pesky stares.
That day, I had selected a number of candidate fuel formulations to be tested. Well, not yet tested as in firing them. That came later, and that required a whole team of people, video cameras, safety briefings, and a number of checklists. My mission that afternoon was to make the fuel itself. As you probably know, typical hybrid rocket motors are mainly comprised of HTPB or Hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene. If you’re not familiar with the stuff, here’s what Wikipedia
has to say: "Hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB) is a polymer of butadiene terminated at each end with a hydroxyl functional group. It reacts with diisocyanate to form polyurethane, a stable and easily stored synthetic material.” And here’s a cool picture of it-
Now, the HTPB is in liquid form. It comes in big heavy 50 gal drums. Once the drum is opened, a cute little plastic valve is placed at the top so you can control how much, and when, the stuff comes pouring out. The stuff itself looks like this-
It’s got a consistency similar to honey, and is very VERY slippery. You might be wondering how I know that fact.. yea.. well, I’m getting to that.
There I was, geared up in smock and gloves, bucket in hand, ready to mix some fuel! I turned the valve, and it FELL OFF!! Thanks to my quick wits, and tiger like instincts, I managed to roll the drum so it stopped pouring out. Yay! Success. I reattached the valve and ta-da! Problem averted. I continued on my merry way. All the while feeling quite proud of myself. Poured all mixtures, took all necessary data, got everything done, and set the new rockets aside to cure overnight. I was a happy little camper when I left that night.
The next morning I drove directly to the shop, to check on my new lovelies. I saw an odd site as I pulled into the driveway, there were a lot of cars, that was unusual. I parked, walked in, still smiling, only to find, my boss, a couple of senior engineers, the VP of engineering, 3 more n00bs like me, and 2 machinists down on their hands and knees trying to scoop up, you guessed it, slippery slimy liquid form HTPB. Needless to say, they were not smiling. And did I mention I was the only girl in this group?
I proceeded to ask, with a horrified look upon my face: “What happened??”
n00b #2: “Apparently there was an overnight spill, the valve must have come off the barrel”
Me, with a now terrified look upon my face: “Oh no..”
My boss: “Go get some gear (i.e. coveralls, shoe covers, put hair up) and grab a bucket”
It was scooping time for me. Apparently it had been scooping time for about an hour prior to my arrival as well. My boss looked really frustrated and ticked off, he got up, tore off the coveralls, and drove off in a gust of wind making his way toward Costco to purchase their entire supply of kitty litter. Here’s a useful tip, if you ever find yourself in the midst of a Poly BD spill, find some kitty litter, it soaks that sh*t up like nobody’s business!
I took the opportunity while my boss was gone to assess the damage. It was not pretty, over half the warehouse floor was covered in about 3 inches of this goo. This was when I learned how slippery it actually was. Not only do gloves cease to work thanks to lack of traction, causing anything you try and grab to fly off as a projectile ending up not where it should be, but as you can imagine, standing, moving, flailing or any other form of self propulsion becomes futile.
After a serious workout, that got me about 4 ft from my starting point, my boss returned, he was unhappy. But for reasons unbeknownced to me at the time. You see, my boss knew that we were about to have another ‘All Hands’ meeting, and that it was going to be bad news. To him, this was just the icing on the cake that day. We spent another 2-3 hours cleaning up. That was a half days work of about 10 people that was down the toilet. No bueno.
One of the senior engineers then said: “When we find the person responsible for this mess, I am going to take this staple gun and staple their ball sac to their thigh!”
That was when I ran to the middle of the room and loudly proclaimed: “It was ME!!!”
Senior engineer smiled and said: “Yea, we know.”
Now as luck would have it, this turned out to be a really bad day to cause such a mishap. That ‘all hands’ meeting, well it was in fact a ‘pink slip’ meeting, and my little heart sank so deep I thought I’d never hear it beat again. Like I said, I was a n00b, this was my very first ‘pink slip’ meeting.
I had been busy working out my exit strategy of running out the conference room once I hear my name called, before the tears would erupt. Of course, if I weren’t so busy planning my escape, I would have realized they do not let you know they are going to fire you in public, nor do they do so for causing a small unfortunate messy leak. Had I been paying attention, I would have also noticed that 4 people were missing from the meeting, and they were not out sick or out of town, which would of course have lead to the logical deduction that they have been let go. Upon further thinking I would have also noticed that those 4 were each from a different sub-dept and it would make sense to lose one person from each, not that anyone was happy to have to let anyone else go.
So, what did I learn that day?
1. When a valve seal breaks, do not think you can fix it yourself in under 2 min.
2. Kitty litter will soak up ANYTHING.
3. For a full body workout, get a slippery substance and try to move.
4. They will not let you know that you’re fired during an ‘all hands’ meeting.
5. It is a good thing that I do not have a ball sac.