Missile Flight Safety Test Manager
Ken Newtson
Interviewed by Paul Vee
I got a degree in electronic engineering from the University of Illinois in Chicago. I was one of like 2500 graduating seniors, so you had to get in line for the big jobs, like Motorola and so forth. I'd go over to the interview place and a lot of times, there was a long waiting list and well, I just started to look around at other things. I interviewed with a guy who worked in missile range safety, and it sounded pretty interesting. So I came and visited the range here in White Sands, New Mexico. I'd grown up in Chicago and this was, like, 180 degrees out from what I was used to, and I really liked it, so I decided to come out. And I liked it so much and they had a slot open--so I stayed. And now I've been here eleven years.

The White Sands Missile Range is run by the U.S. Army, and most of us who work here are civilian employees of the Army. We're part of the Test and Evaluation Command, which is part of the Material Command--the people who buy weapons systems. And, although this is an Army range, we provide test support for all of the different Departments of Defense--Army, Navy, Air Force. We also do commercial tests and some other stuff. We even have a big laser here, the High Energy Laser Test Facility. It can put out several million megawatts worth of heat, which is enough to bring a satellite down. It uses fluorine gas, which is highly toxic, and some of that gets exhausted while the laser's on, so we monitor that toxic cloud and ensure that it doesn't hazard anybody. But mostly we look at missile systems.

When there's a new missile system that wants to come to White Sands, the first thing we do is just try to get a general analysis of its performance. We sift through a lot of information looking for what likely failure modes there are. Then we develop a support plan for the test. We determine what areas of the range need to be evacuated, where roadblocks need to be to ensure that the public is safely out of the way during the test. And then, once that's completed, we actually support the mission which means that while the bird is in flight, we monitor its performance and ensure that it stays on range. Should something happen to the bird while it's in flight and it fails and threatens to leave the range or hazard someone, we blow it up.

That's the biggest part of my job: figuring out how to safely manage the tests. And with today's fiscal responsibility, you don't have the big bucks to do it with, so you have to ensure the safety while not adversely affecting the program's schedule and cost constraints. It gets pretty tricky. And it's obviously very important because lives and property are at stake. It can be very stressful. If there's a very big upcoming event I'll oftentimes have--well, I wouldn't necessarily call them nightmares--but I have very stressful dreams. Sometimes night after night.

We recently tested the Theatre High Altitude Area Defense system--THAAD--now that's a very challenging system from a range safety perspective and, in fact, I worked on it for about three years before they even started flying. Nobody was too happy about all that analysis time, but they were proposing doing intercepts of targets at altitudes four times what our previous maximum intercepts were. So because of that and how fast it was and everything else, it provided a lot of new challenges for us technically.

A difficult part of my job is that the Army thinks of safety more in terms of the negative because it costs them money and time and prevents them from doing some things they want to do. Anything that we do, at least at the surface, doesn't benefit the program. But in the long term, if they ever ended up killing someone, they would certainly be in a very bad, very hurting position. But they don't think about that in the short term. So, sometimes when we go to meetings, we have somewhat of an adversarial relationship, which kind of spices things up. I mean, I frequently go to a meeting and someone challenges my technical expertise. You know, they say "you're full of it" or whatever. I get my dander up then. I don't take that from anyone--Army or civilian. I'll stand my ground.

You want a strong "Type A" personality for this work. You have to be a person who likes and wants to have control. You've got to be vocal, you can't be afraid to speak out. In general, the people here all have fairly strong egos and we're all pretty confident. That's the way it should be. I mean, when you've got a five and a half million dollar bird flying downrange and you need to decide if something is wrong and to take it out, you have to feel sure of yourself.

I've had to blow up, I believe, eleven missiles in the six years that I've been in authority to do that. The way it happens is that during the tests, I have several types of displays that I'm monitoring and then I have a team of support personnel that are monitoring different things as well, and they report to me what's going on. It's kind of like a video game. We have radars that track the missile. We also receive information from the missile as to how the missile thinks it's doing, which often is of benefit. All of this is displayed on our computers. If I think that something's wrong, I have a switch that I just flip and it transmits a code to the missile and the missile blows up. There are safety charges on the missile that are specifically there for such a situation. In the case of a solid-fuel rocket, you blow the top off the rocket and that vents the rocket thrust out both ends. It's kind of an elegant way to do it. And you want to try and do it elegantly--you don't want to spread debris all over the place.

Some missions carry live warheads onboard and I've personally had to abort some of those. For example, I've aborted a Patriot missile with a live warhead on it. Now, when a Patriot blows up, it comes out in little fragments--shrapnel---because the missile is designed to shoot down airplanes and incoming missiles--so it's got a warhead on there that will break up in little fragments and try to punch holes in whatever it's trying to shoot down. So that's a very dangerous situation. Fortunately, our computer predicts, if I have to blow the missile up, where the debris is going to land, and I have a little symbol that moves along as the missile's flying, and when it gets to a point where it's not supposed to, that's one of my cues to do something.

Now, you have to understand, as far as aborting these missions, I have a very narrow time frame in which to think about this. A typical missile flight ranges from maybe thirty seconds to maybe as long as seven or eight minutes. That's my time frame. So you see what I meant when I said I was under some stress.

In fact, on THAAD, the flight time is so short that the missile can fail so quickly that I couldn't stop it from getting off-range, and so we have a computer system that monitors everything and, in the event that the missile fails during those times where it's going really fast, the computer sends the destruct command instead of me, cause I'm not fast enough. I may only have a second to react, and so the computer has to take over. But typically, we try and allow ourselves between three and five seconds, from the time the vehicle fails, to observe that it's failing and to decide what to do about it. And it's amazing when you go back and review the mission, how long those seconds last--you can do a lot in five seconds.

A lot of people won't believe me, but when we abort, I'm probably just as depressed afterwards as the Program Manager is that he's had a failed test. You have a big adrenaline rush during the time when it's in flight, especially if you have to take an action. But you come down very quickly and then you ponder what went wrong the same as everyone else. I certainly don't like to do it. I mean, that's what we're there for, but certainly that's not something I like. We've seen a lot of money go down the drain, for sure. But then again, I'm happy because no one got hurt, so there's a balance. We've had a perfect safety record for fifty-two years. We've never injured anyone in the general public as a result of missile testing, and they've fired over forty one thousand rockets and missiles here in that time.

That's not to suggest things haven't gone wrong. They have. For instance, one time we were flying a small jet that we were using as a target. It was just for testing the tracking system on the Patriot: we weren't going to shoot at it. It was just flying around in circles. But a storm came up, and lightning struck the electrical unit that provided power to the two radars that were tracking the vehicle, so both the radars went down. When that happened, there's a system on board the target that recognizes that there's no longer any control information being transmitted up to it, and so it automatically shuts the engine off and pitches the airplane up a little bit to slow it down, and then it pops a parachute out. Well, at the moment this happened, the jet was in a turn, and so when it shut the engine off, all it did was tighten the turn up. It flew for about ten miles by itself in a nice, gradual turn. I mean, it was totally uncontrolled about a thousand feet off the ground and it crossed Highway 70, which is the main road out here, then came back around and landed right in the median of the highway. No damage, nobody hurt, but you think about what could have been...That taught me that God has an active interest in tests and evaluations (laughs).

I like my job. At least for the near term, I'm going to stick with it. I like doing the analysis and the feeling of control. And I even like the pressure sometimes. I believe this is very meaningful work. I think I'm having a part in ensuring that the military gets a good system and gets it fielded while the people who live in El Paso and Las Cruces can go to sleep at night and not worry about it. At the same time, I don't know whether it's a function of the job or just growing older, but I've certainly become more cynical doing this. When people tell me things, I always look at it with somewhat of a jaundiced eye. Sometimes, I don't necessarily believe what they're telling me, especially when they are talking about weapons systems. And it's not necessarily that they're trying to be devious or anything, but sometimes they kind of overlook some things and you've got to ask questions and sort of dig around and try and figure out exactly what it is you're looking at. You always have to ask yourself: How can this system fail? I guess that's a good life lesson.

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