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It started with a dead chicken’s beating heart

June 29th, 2016

By Keith Miller

Keith and Deanne Reeves Miller

Keith and Deanne Reeves Miller
St. Petersburg, Russia

My interest in science started at South Eugene High School in 1960, but it was biology, not space travel, that first hooked me. I loved watching tiny creatures through a microscope, dissecting frogs and anatomy.

Before the annual science fair, I searched for project ideas. My teacher knew of a student who had kept a chicken heart beating in a saline-filled petri dish. Because my dad hauled these critters to the Swift & Company slaughter house, he had access to live chickens. I got the saline solution at a drug store. The teacher anesthetized the chicken, and we dissected its chest and removed its heart. That heart kept beating for over an hour, which fascinated the visitors and the science fair judges, who awarded me first place.

That experience triggered a sequence of events that led me to become, years later, the manager of NASA’s Man-Systems Integration for the International Space Station program.

My high school drafting teacher, Mr. Blood, pulled me aside one day and told me I had talent. “Have you thought about becoming a mechanical engineer?” he asked me. I had no idea what an engineer was. One day after school, he explained to me and my parents about the many types of engineers, why I had the skills to become a mechanical engineer, which universities had mechanical engineering programs, and how we could pay for college. I became the first child in my extended family who went to college.

Oregon State and early career

I entered Oregon State in the fall of 1960. It took me five years to finish my mechanical engineering program. I graduated in 1965 and got married two weeks later. I had met my wife while I was working in the Snell Hall cafeteria.

My first job was with the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Virginia, but they reneged on their offer to send me to graduate school, so I quit after one year and found a grad school on my own. In August 1967, my wife and I moved to Cleveland and I started graduate studies in the new bio-medical engineering program at the Case Institute of Technology (now Case Western Reserve) in Cleveland. They paid me a $200 monthly stipend, and I became the only mechanical engineer surrounded by 10 electrical engineers.

My research involved designing implantable devices to operate artificial hands for patients with spinal cord injuries. The program director partnered me with an orthopedic surgeon. He also suggested that I should do my thesis on developing an artificial muscle for children with muscular dystrophy (MD). Some of the work was fascinating:

  • I researched “drop foot” physiology and anatomy, meaning where the foot of a child with MD drops as they attempt to walk.
  • I attached reflectors to the legs of normal patients and patients with MD (and one sheep), then used flashing lights and a camera to determine ankle motion. In those days before computers, we used an electro-mechanical device that recorded the forces (a force plate), then integrated the electrical signals and stop-motion photos to derive accelerations and forces.
  • Using medical plastic sheeting, fluid used for breast implants, and a spring made in the university’s shop, I developed an implantable spring device that popped the ankle up and kept the MD patient from tripping.

I finished my thesis in the fall of 1968 and applied, unsuccessfully, to several medical equipment companies. I finally took a job at Boeing as a mechanical engineer so we could return to the Northwest.

My early work at Boeing working on satellite payload support structures led nowhere. I read in the company newspaper about a department called Human Engineering. I tracked down the executive in charge, explained my graduate work and asked for a job. I had it before I left his office.

There were about eight of us in the group. We worked on military, space and commercial airplane programs doing design of human-machine interfaces, such as controls and displays, hygiene equipment and many other things. During these years, engineers worked on drafting tables; computers still weren’t in the tool box.

In 1972, Boeing was struggling. The supersonic transport program had been cancelled the year before and military spending slowed. Tens of thousands lost their jobs, including me in the thirteenth wave of layoffs.

Just a couple of months later I got a job as the design and manufacturing engineer with Olympic Surgical (later called Olympic Medical Equipment) in Seattle. The company manufactured devices invented by doctors and other medical professionals. I worked with inventors to develop practical designs. Among the many products I designed were a lamp to treat babies with jaundice, medical gowns, and bead-filled plastic bags for supporting patients. But once again I got laid off when business declined.

At Boeing, though, things were improving, so one of my previous bosses hired me back to my former job. Eventually, I was assigned to a 12-person space program concept development team — the team that Boeing and NASA would later call upon to create and study concepts for space projects. I became the team’s lead engineer.

Big ideas

By the mid-1970s, the Apollo program had ended and the Russians were sending up early space stations. NASA tried to catch up with Skylab. Boeing was not involved, but we did play a role in the next big thing: The Space Shuttle. NASA and Boeing brainstormed some exotic ideas, such as collecting energy from a satellite and transmitting it to earth, and I was named lead engineer for the multi-year project named Solar Power Satellite (SPS), which was co-sponsored by NASA and the Department of Energy.

My assignment was to figure out how astronauts could construct huge satellites in space.  We hired subcontractors and went to work. My design partner, renowned technical illustrator Jack Olsen, and I conjured up ways to build these enormous structures, and he painted pictures of our concepts. One of his paintings was donated to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and displayed there for several months. It remains in their archives.  (Some years later I ran across a jig-saw puzzle of that painting.)


In 1980, NASA asked our concept development team to work on the first Space Station project. They wanted to get ahead of the Russians. Our concept engineering team had specialties in domains like structures, propulsion, power systems, and more. I was the lead engineer and worked on human systems research. Our ideas were brought to life by our illustrator.

Some of our ideas became a reality in the International Space Station: shuttle payload bay-sized cylindrical modules; earth-pointed observation cupola (one of my ideas); module connection nodes; EVA node; and other significant features.  Over two years we formed an integrated concept that we named the Space Operations Center, which we would share with our NASA customer.  Our concept was illustrated by Jack Olsen in a large painting ­­— another one that ended up at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The concept was the baseline for NASA’s requests for proposals for the eventual Space Station development study contracts.

Man-systems research

The Space Shuttle program was gearing up and consuming the majority of NASA’s budget, and a Shuttle explosion so Boeing went several years without any big space-related programs.  Our management encouraged various technical groups to find R&D projects that might ultimately interest NASA.  Some of my proposals included next-generation space suits and mobile cranes for future space stations.

As part of my research, I needed to find and apply various human-factor standards.  I looked far and wide and eventually found them in NASA, the army, academia, and medicine. Sometimes they overlapped or were incomplete. There were no human-factors standards for manned space systems.

I worked up a series of R&D projects to see what we could learn from other hazardous systems environments for long-duration missions.  I found a college human-factors teacher at a conference.  We worked up a plan and she began visiting nuclear submarines, arctic oil fields, and off-shore oil drilling platforms.  I integrated my ideas with her data and included it in our proposal to NASA, who gave us the contract and appointed me project manager.

My plan was to set up teams of specialists who would devote their attention to collecting and integrating related standards data. The team leads were Skylab and Space Shuttle astronauts, military standards authors, industrial standards authors, college professors, etc. I named this team the Government Industry Advisory Groups. We came up with a set of guidelines and requirements for every topic conceivable.

After a year, we had created the master copy of NASA-STD-1000, Man-Systems Integration Standards, which were adopted for the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. In 1986, NASA requested proposals for various modules of the International Space Station. Boeing created proposal teams for the habitat, service, lab and logistics modules. I was assigned to work with a team of human systems experts on each proposal.

The International Space Station

In the spring of 1987, NASA hired me to be the manager of man systems for Space Station Freedom, which was later renamed the International Space Station. Man systems was the most contentious part of the entire space station program. Historically, man systems had been the crown jewel of the NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston.  They were the acknowledged world experts of man-in-space matters ever since the inception of manned space technology.   However, to balance the distribution of contract oversights by the various NASA centers on various States, responsibility for man systems was shifted to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. JSC went into orbit!  They were madder than hornets and fought the re-apportionment of responsibilities, but the decision was made and the two locations had to make peace. I was asked to be the peacemaker.

Nobody teaches you this kind of job, and it was not a pleasant experience.  I got the man systems leads from both NASA centers to sit and figure out how to resolve this war.  We finally worked out a tolerable management arrangement that worked fairly well for the next few years.

The NASA Level 1 system engineering and integration teams were responsible for working up the program requirements for all systems and configurations for all space station elements. This required many weekly international telecom meetings.  Some of us had to travel to Tokyo, The Netherlands, and Toronto (the locations of our partner nation’s space programs) for multi-week system integration meetings.

Our engineers were also responsible for matters such as defining emergency plans for the crew if one of the habitable pressurized modules was penetrated. I was appointed to create a study team to come up with operational evacuation strategies and got help from astronauts, structural engineers, and atmosphere systems engineers. We also had help from NASA operations center, which tracked debris penetrations on satellites and manned space vehicles. We drew up plausible structural penetration models with and without debris shields and also defined some emergency evacuation alarms and plans.  There was a specific crew evacuation plan for every habitable module.

Every good thing must come to an end.  When I accepted the NASA job, I promised my wife and kids that I would return to Boeing in about four years.  I talked to my former Boeing manager, who was doing Space Station stuff in Huntsville, and asked him if he could help me find a job. He offered me a management position in Huntsville.  I invited my wife to check out Alabama, but we chose not to go there. My friend then told me that Boeing’s Space Station program might move to Houston, but that city was not for me. I probably traveled to Huntsville and Houston a hundred times.

My old boss poked around Seattle and came across another possibility: There was an existing commercial airplane human factors research team in Seattle. A new manager was poised to take it over but had no experience at Boeing (he had been a NASA human factors research manager in California). I was recommended for an administrative lead job working with this manager so that I could run various management activities that required experience working with Boeing’s systems. Our family returned to Seattle.


High-speed civil transport program

Because of another Shuttle accident, NASA’s ambitions for developing the Shuttle were delayed, thereby slowing down Space Station deliveries.  To keep major contractors busy, NASA came up with a contract for concept development for a supersonic commercial airliner.  I was tapped to be the proposal manager for the Boeing proposal.  Boeing won the contract.  Boeing management divided up the program amongst various contractors.  It broke our hearts to have to give McDonnell Douglas responsibility for cockpit technology development.  I was assigned to be the Boeing liaison with them. One of the most interesting cockpit technology ideas we explored was to take the windows out of the cockpit so the airplane would not need the complicated drop-nose used by the Concorde supersonic airliner.  We worked up a variety of cockpit displays that provided visualization of the outside world.  I also conducted an analysis of what would happen if the airliner experienced emergency depressurization at 60,000 feet.  My team included specialists in aerodynamics, aircraft performance in emergency dives, structure, and the effects of depressurization on passengers.

Eventually, I moved on to a variety of other jobs that that didn’t pertain to biomedical engineering or human factors engineering. I retired in 2006.

Keith Miller recently participated in a panel discussion about finding a career path in industry organized by the Biomedical Engineering Society Student Chapter at Oregon State.

Keith Miller (right) recently participated in a panel discussion about finding a career path in industry organized by the Biomedical Engineering Society Student Chapter at Oregon State.



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