Thank You Adm. Rickover

Thank You Adm. Rickover For Saving Me From Myself

By Ron Munden — 8/15/2021

The years between 1970 and 1975 were the most enjoyable working years of my life.  I had completed my masters degree at UC, Berkeley and returned to Mare Island Naval Ship. I was putting my education to use.

On my first day back at the shipyard, I scheduled an appointment with the new Chief Design Engineer.  I asked him to transfer me from the Scientific Section to  the Engineering Computer Applications Section.  I told him I had heard they had an opening in the group and I thought I would be more useful to the shipyard in that position.  He agreed and I was in a new office the next day.

I loved this job.  I had the opportunity to write computer software to solve many engineering and engineering management problems.  There was a lot of demand for this service and by 1973 my customer base had expanded from the Design Division to several other departments.

At some point that year I got a call from one of the nuclear managers on the shipyard.  He asked me to come to his office.  I met with a group of five managers.  They explained the shipyard had a problem.  They said that the shipyard had difficulty maintaining the proper levels of special purpose handling gear (SPHG) and the problem had come to the attention of the Naval Reactors Office (NRO).

SPHG are clamps, cables, etc. used during the refueling of the nuclear reactors on submarines in overhaul. Since there is no room for error on a nuclear lift every piece of SPHG has to be recertified on a periodic schedule.

These nuclear managers wanted a computer program that could determine the proper inventory level for each type of SPHG and manage the recertification schedules.  What could I recommend?

I had recently returned to the shipyard from two weeks of numerical analysis training at the University of Michigan.  The instructor had spent 4-hours on computer simulation. 

Without much thought  I told them that I recommended an inventory control program to manage the recertification process.  To determine the proper inventory levels I recommended a simulation program to simulate all of the nuclear lifts  scheduled for the shipyard  during the next year.  To address overhaul slips and other factors I said that a random number generator could be used.  I suggest making multiple simulation runs and collecting the detailed results from each run.  Finally using statistical analysis techniques to establish an inventory level range for each type of SPHG.

The managers liked the solution. They asked if I could write the software and how long would it take?

I said “yes” and “3 months to complete.”

They said “start work tomorrow with unlimited overtime available.”

I was sure I could do it even though I had never written software to do more than 50% of what I had promised.

The next day I started my 12+hr day, 7 day a week schedule. Most of those 12 hour days were close to 16 hour but I was 30 years old and never got tired. 

By the end of week three the inventory control system was complete and working as advertised.  It was put into production.

I next started on the simulation software.  By week 8, I was confident the project was going to be a success.  I thought I was making good progress.

Then I got a call from one of the nuclear managers.  He said that the Mare Island’s NRO representative had briefed Adm. Rickover on the project.  He then said that when Rickover learned that the solution to the problem included using a computer simulation the “shit hit the fan.”  Rickover told the NRO representative to tell Mare Island to kill the project immediately.

The nuclear manager told me to stop work that day.  He said not to bother  saving any of the software because it would ever be used as long as Rickover was around.

I was disappointed but not particularly surprised.  Rickover was widely known to distrust computers and often threw temper tantrums when hearing something he did not like.

As the years have gone by I have thought about my solution to this problem many times.   Today, I want to publicly thank Adm. Rickover for killing this project.  He may have saved my career.

Over time I began to question if I could have successfully written all the simulation software.  I am even less sure about the statistical analysis software.

If the shipyard managers had told Rickover they had a solution and spent thousands of dollars working on the solution and failed, heads would have rolled.  The first head to reach the bottom of the hill would justifiably have been Ron Munden’s.

Since the project was killed after the inventory control software was put into production, everyone, including me, assumed that the rest would go as smoothly. Everyone in the Shipyard thought my solution would have solved the problem if Richover had not killed the project. By phone, several of the nuclear managers thanked me for my work.  Of course there was nothing in writing.

I walked away with my reputation intact and lived to program another day.  Thank you Adm. Rickover for saving me from myself.

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