Interoffice Launch

How do a bunch of bored aerospace engineers kill time? Shoot down rubber-band ornithopters, of course.

The shuttle program somehow managed to survive the 1972 North American Rockwell Office Supply Shoot-Out.
The shuttle program somehow managed to survive the 1972 North American Rockwell Office Supply Shoot-Out. NASA

In 1972, when I was applying for a job as an aerospace engineer, the Apollo program was wrapping up, and there were no new fighters or bombers on the drawing board. The job outlook was bleak. So when I received a letter from North American Rockwell, I held my breath while I ripped it open. They were offering me a job as Member, Technical Staff, Aerospace Flight Sciences Department. I would earn $878 a month, which beat the $375 I was making at a mattress company. When I earned my B.S. in aerospace engineering, testing mattresses was not the career I’d envisioned.

I began work as an engineer in wind tunnel operations, testing the space shuttle design. The facility was a huge open bay, with department after department as far as you could see. To the left was guidance and control; to their left was public relations (I saw Walter Cronkite there once); to their left was dynamics; to their left was shuttle integration. The “lefts” went on forever.

There were about 20 guys in our department. Desks were arranged in columns facing the supervisor, Paul. He had a rug beneath his desk. We had old linoleum—three and a half squares each. There were no cubicles, plants, bookshelves, file cabinets, computers, and certainly no windows. And we shared phones.

Everyone wore either leisure suits—I never bought one—or polyester pants, which I did buy. The desks were old wooden jobs. The bottoms of the center drawers were worn and splintered from years of thighs rubbing against them. Several times a day I’d hear someone yell, “Damn! I just bought these pants.”

The cups in the coffee machines had a four-card poker hand on them. You had to raise the cup to see the fifth card, on the bottom, preferably without spilling coffee on your face. A scene imprinted indelibly into my mind is guys standing at the coffee machine, all with little fuzzy foo-foo balls—snags from their desk drawers—hanging from their crotches, holding up their brew to see the bottoms of their cups.

A typical Friday. All the supervisors and managers departed for the staff meeting. We peons never went. They never told us anything. We didn’t ask. Drawers opened. Rulers, rubber bands, and paper clips were arranged on desks. Discretion was still required; the meeting could be canceled or cut short. A hush came over our group as the conference room door closed; then the next group fell silent, and the next, until the entire bay was quiet.

Ellis Chee stood. He held up a small yellow object that looked like a model airplane. “Okay,” he announced, “take your best shot,” and launched a little ornithopter, a rubber-band-powered gizmo that flapped its wings and propelled itself around the bay.

It soared over the groups of engineers, clacking each time its wings flapped. Heavy anti-aircraft fire opened up. The ornithopter flapped out of wind tunnel operations. Rubber bands, paper clips, sling shots, blow guns—everything imaginable was in the air. It kept going. It passed public relations. All the streaks in the fluorescent sky could not touch the winged craft. It flapped past thermal analysis. Ting, tang: Paper clips ricocheted off of light fixtures. The clacking sound was almost drowned out by the whizzing of projectiles.

Someone in avionics launched a huge pretzel-shaped paper clip on six rubber bands thumb-tacked to a wooden rule. The ornithopter was no match for the mass and speed of the giant paper clip: The large speeding missile walloped it.

Yellow plastic flew everywhere. The clacking was silenced. The tail landed in guidance and control and the wing-flapping mechanism made it to aerodynamics.

As the mass of engineers exploded into cheers, the meeting room door suddenly opened. Out filed managers and supervisors. The cheering stopped abruptly, but ornithopter pieces still drifted to the floor, and one last rubber band dropped from a light fixture onto a desk: Frap.

I slipped my slingshot into a drawer. So this is the space program, I thought.

The shuttle program somehow managed to survive the 1972 North American Rockwell Office Supply Shoot-Out. NASA

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.