Thirtieth Anniversary

I missed my 30th Anniversary yesterday.  No, not my wedding anniversary, that one I have down pat, thank you.  My 30th anniversary of working at NASA. 

Gosh, I feel really old saying that.  When I started it was all the old guys who said things like that.  But you know it seems like yesterday.  That is an old guy thing to say, too.

As it turns out, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.  I have been very lucky – very blessed – to have these opportunities and to take part in this wonderful and noble endeavor. 

When I got the job offer from NASA, my father — a small businessman — jokingly said he was going to disown me for going on the government dole.  It was as if working for the government was something only the lazy would do.  Hmm.  My experience has been anything but.  A lot of folks like to denigrate government workers.  There may be some places where that is valid, but in my observation — and not just at NASA — government service is full of people who are dedicated, hardworking, and trying to make a difference. 

Besides, I would have willingly paid them to let me set foot in the door at NASA.  I still can’t believe I get a paycheck to do what is so much fun every day.  Well, most days it is fun.

The most striking memory from reporting on my first day was the surprise I had when the human resources guy told me to raise my right and swear the oath.  I hadn’t counted on that! 

Modeled on the one the President has to say on inauguration day, the one in the Constitution — I looked it up — Article II Section 1.  Very nearly the same oath that our servicemen and women swear when they report for duty:  “I will, to the best of my abilities, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Funny coincidence, but unconscious of my anniversary date, I went yesterday to see it.  In a few free minutes before reporting to my duty station on the Mall in the NASA tent at the folklife festival, I went to see the Declaration, the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, and the Magna Carta too; all at the National Archives.  I stood in line with the rest of the tourists, visited the hushed atrium, and bent over the sturdy cases to read the ink that has nearly faded away.  Just a few minute break in the early part of the day.  But how meaningful.

Wow.  That oath I swore when I started work was NOT to get us back to the moon ,or to do my best to successfully launch rockets, but to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.  Of course, Federal law and regulations being what they are, successfully launching rockets and helping the nation get back to the moon is part of my little niche in the government.  But it is important to remember the larger picture.

As Americans, we don’t swear allegience to a person, nor to a particular parcel of land, nor to a group of people; rather we commend our best and hardest work to . . . an idea. 

An idea of fairness, justice, and democracy.  Certain inalienable rights, including the notion that everybody counts.  A basic perspective which includes a particular way of living and a strong perspective on other people.  The right to pursue happiness as we see fit.

An idea. 

How different that is from other oaths that have been sworn in other places at other times.

We all have to do something in this life.  I have been fortunate enough to work on exciting and interesting projects.  But we are all required to work on building a better America. 

How I wish that Katherine Lee Bates had been right when she wrote:  “Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears”.  That is not true, not by a long shot.  But I reckon it is our job to make those words become true.  That is what the idea is all about.  It will take hard work, and probably a long time.  But it seems that I’ve signed on to that goal.  I hope you will, too.

This is a long way from the topics that I intended to put in this blog.  Maybe this is a more fit topic for next week.

Its been a great 30 years.  I hope I get to do this for another 30!

See you next week.



Inspiring our Children

Being at the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival on opening day was a hoot.  I got to talk to a whole bunch of folks.  In terms of mass media it was probably not that many, but this was two way conversation and I certainly talked to as many as I could in the 5 or so hours the festival went on. 

The most fun is talking to the school children.  Many families are here for vacations and some of these kids seem to be suffering from museum-itis.  Too much to see, too many things to do.  But almost all of them had questions about living and working in space.  I think you can guess the most popular question . . .

My question back to many of them is “Do you want to go to space?”  Some of the shy little ones wouldn’t answer, a few of the more cautious ones said no, but the vast majority got wide eyed and nodded with enthusiasm.  If they said they wanted to go, I passed them a NASA bookmark and told them to read . . . because that is the key.  The parents invariably said ‘My child loves to read’.  or something like that.

Wow, what a response.  Of course, what we really need to do is to reach those kiddos who don’t like to read, or whose parents don’t drag them off to educational trips.  Talking with the education folks at NASA HQ and other centers, the space agency does a tremendous job on a shoe string budget at all levels of the educational world to provide educational opportunities, lessons, teacher resources, and unique experiences for students from pre-school to graduate school.  Over 60,000 students each year get to directly interact with NASA educational opportunities. 

Educating our children starts with capturing their interest and getting them excited.  We have a good track record of inspiring young people to study harder and get the education they need to be productive in science and engineering fields.  That inspiration is worth its weight in gold!

Gotta go — more fun on the mall this afternoon.  If you can get to the Folk Life Festival in Washington in the next two weeks, be sure to stop by the NASA exhibit.




NASA at the Folklife Festival

Travel kept me from a new post on the blog yesterday and meetings and such have kept me away from it this morning too!


There is so much to say and listen to.  Thank you for all your comments — keep them coming!


Right now I am headed out to the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  NASA is one of the honored exhibitors there for the next two weeks.  This afternoon and tomorrow afternoon I have a speaking role.  Come by and see me at the NASA pavilion! 

Directly interacting with the public is always an amazing thing.  I feel so energized and learn so much.  Tomorrow I hope to tell you more.



Learning from dissent

            If you listen with an open mind, you can learn a lot from people who disagree with you.  Even questioning the fundamentals from time to time is a good exercise to make sure we are on the right track and not on the proverbial bus trip to Abilene.


            I really resonated with the comment by Joe Fitzgerald of Boston, reading his children the Laura Ingalls Wilder books.  When my children were small, we read the whole series at bedtime, one chapter a night.  I particularly liked “Farmer Boy” but all of the books are good because they are true and very well told.  After reading those books, I always wondered if I was tough enough to be a pioneer; probably not. 


            Joe thinks space exploration is a long way from Ma & Pa Ingalls setting out across the Midwest in their covered wagon.  Turns out, I do too. 


Some time back I had a great conversation with Mike Griffin where he pointed out that we are at the earliest stages of space exploration, and likened our times to the era of the Viking longboats. Those crude ships were just barely enough to get across the stormy Atlantic.  Sometimes, not always.  In space exploration we really need to get to the Caravel stage; which is still far short of the Clipper Ship phase, and light years from the jet aircraft stage. 


            In the 1850’s there was a proposal to build dirigibles to transport folks from the east coast to the California gold fields.  At the time ballooning was immensely popular but the technology was immature.  Still, it looked like a better option than taking five months across the mountains, prairies, and deserts on foot or by wagon.  Sadly, the dirigibles never materialized.  In 1869 the transcontinental railroad was completed and a vastly less capable technology – steam locomotives – was used to cross the country in only seven days!  I wonder how history would have been different if we had invested more in lighter than aircraft than in steam locomotives?  Today everybody travels by air – just not dirigibles – while passenger trains are almost extinct.


Ma & Pa Ingalls will have to wait for a few more improvements in technology before we can get off the planet at anything like regular people prices.  But I don’t think that we should give us seafaring just because all we have is a Viking longboat.  We just have more impetus to build a better boat.


            Point well taken, Joe; your comment certainly made me think.


            Friday I had a “dissenting opinion” from a well respected source.  Bob Thompson who was the first Space Shuttle Program Manager from 1974 to 1981 gave me a call.  Bob is a man of vast talents who was responsible for building the Skylab space station before he was handed the near-impossible job to build the first reusable spacecraft.  He is singularly proud of his accomplishment, as he should be.


            Bob’s treatise was simple; we have got enough to do to master near earth space – low earth orbit to geosync – to keep us busy and learning for the next 30 to 50 years.  His proposal is to keep doing what we have been doing and put any thoughts of going back to the moon or on to other places off until a later date.  I cannot do his argument justice here but it was fascinating to hear someone who is so completely counter to the prevailing conventional wisdom.  It always makes me more thoughtful when the fundamentals are examined in a well considered way.


            As a byproduct of this conversation I got a great recounting of the early days of Skylab and how many of the fundamental engineering tradeoffs were made in early Shuttle design.  Extraordinarily educational.  Lots to think about.  I hope Bob and I get to debate this one some more. 


            After a weekend’s worth of thought, I am still, as they say, disinclined to acquiesce to Bob’s opinion.  A longer explanation is worthwhile but I am running out of time and space today.  That will be a blog post for a future date.


            Keep thinking and we’ll keep talking; all the while working toward the future.


            Meanwhile, I’ve got to go help bail out the longboat a little bit . . . .

The Way West

I recently read a magazine article by Cornell professor Jim Bell who is the lead scientist on the Mars Exploration Rover Panoramic Camera team.  The final picture of his article took my breath away:

Opportunity on Sol 114 looks back at its tracks through



This picture is so reminiscent of views of wagon ruts still visible on the Oregon trail in Nebraska and Wyoming!  Pioneers on the American west a hundred and fifty years ago would feel right at home.

Well, they probably had a bit more oxygen, so lets not push the analogy too far.

Four hundred years after Columbus, American historian Fredrick Jackson Turner lamented the US Census bureau declaration that the western frontier was “closed”, all settled.  In 1893 Turner presented a controversial paper which has come to be called “The Frontier Hypothesis”.  His paper asserted that having a frontier was the most influential factor in American history.  The Frontier Hypothesis has been debated ever since by historians who argue that other factors were more important in American development.  But nobody argues that having a frontier wasn’t a huge factor, just what factor was biggest.

Turner wrote that having a frontier shaped the American character; always facing a challenge, inculcating innate optimism, relying on personal initiative and ingenuity, cooperating with scattered neighbors — all these things influenced who we are today.

Since the western frontier “closed” a century ago, America has become a world power, perhaps the only superpower, and has faced many other challenges.  Today pessimism seems rampant and some quarters seem to revel in painting a dark future for America and humanity as a whole. 

I don’t have the academic credentials to participate in the debate that Fredrick Jackson Turner started, but it seems at least he was close to the mark.  Having a challenge, being forced to be innovative, having the hope that the future will be better than the present — all these things are important.

I’ve overused the quotation by Sir Edmund Hillary, but here it is again:  “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”  Ed Hillary and Tensing Norgay were first on the summit of Mount Everest, so I think the beekeeper from New Zealand knew what he was talking about.  Unlike Ed Hillary or Scott Parazinsky, I’ve never had the nerve or the opportunity to attempt the world’s highest mountain, but I have been on the summit of some lesser peaks:

Wayne and friends atop the highest point in Texas, Guadelupe Peak 2, 667 meters



Climbing a mountain changes the one who takes on the challenge.  When you do something hard, like pioneer a new frontier or climb a higher mountain, you come back a different person.  Generally a better person.  More creative, more resilient, and more optimistic.  After all, if you can climb the mountain, you know you can take on other challenges. 

Collectively we need a challenge that is one for good, not for destruction or competition or rivalry.  Not one for bragging rights.  But a challenge that we can take pride in accomplishing.

This time when we pioneer a new frontier we have the opportunity to do it without all the ugliness that accompanied the last great age of exploration:  slavery, racial and ethnic denigration, hideous destruction of native peoples, and wholesale damage to the environment. 

Lets do it right this time. 

But lets do it. 

It is important for ourselves.

Starting a conversation – June 17,2008

Starting a conversation is hard.  Geting off on the wrong foot can happen so quickly and then any chance of a meaningful encounter is lost.   I am really interested in starting a conversation.  Not a conversation on any subject, but a conversation about space exploration and why that effort is meaningful.  Perhaps you agree, perhaps you disagree, but you certainly know some things I don’t.  And I am really interested in finding out what I don’t know (which is a lot!)

So I’ll try to hammer out some thoughts every day or so –  maybe with pictures if I figure that out –  and you can write me back and tell me how its going..

So for the first post, I’ll start with the reason I came to work late — my grandkids (oh, no, you didn’t want to hear that kind of story did you?!)

Not that my two grandchildren are the smartest and brightest kids ever born (they are),  but what having grandchildren – or children – can mean.  Children make me thoughtful.  (After they are in bed, anyway).  Little children make me think about the future.  What will the world be like when these wee ones inherit what we have done? Will the world be a better or a worse place than it is today?  And the hardest question of all: what can I do to make it better?

 I hold a stubborn and passionate belief that space exploration is important for that future.  Just one example for today: understanding our own planet.  Without satellites to monitor the weather, climate, pollution, crop growth patterns, and many other things we would be blind and deaf to what is happening.  The earth monitoring satellites built by many countries and many US agencies are giving us vital information about our world every day. And that is information that cannot be gained anywhere else but from earth orbit.

Beyond all that, studying other planets have helped understand our own.  In particular, how our complex atmosphere works.  Our weather and climate are influenced by the interaction of air and water, sometimes too complex to understand directly.  Venus and Mars don’t have oceans but they have weather. Studying those planets helps us understand what happens without oceans.   Jupiter and Saturn have planet circling oceans (not water, certainly!) underneath their atmosphere.  By studying them we understand better how gas and liquid interact to affect climate and weather.  The payoff is better weather forecasts, better understanding of climate change, and more impetus to change our own future.  Don’t stop there.  The Sun drives all our weather and climate, everything else is just a tweak around the edges by comparison.  The Ulysses probe is going silent after 17 years of service.  Ulysses, launched on the shuttle Discovery, studied the sun.  Ulysses and the other solar satellites are helping us to understand how changes in our unstable star occur.  Better understanding of the sun is mandatory to understand our future.

All of that to make sure that our children and grandchildren have a better future.  Or, at least better than what would occur if we didn’t know what was going on and therefore couldn’t do anything about it.

So, a first example and discussion topic.  I’ll have more in days to come. 

Let me know what you think!