Shutting down the shuttle

I believe it was General Norman Schwartzkopf who said:  “Arm chair generals study tactics; real generals study logistics”. 

One of the first lessons I learned in program and project management is that attention to the details of supplies, vendors, and parts manufacturers will determine success or failure more than anything else that management does.  They are not glamorous, Hollywood does not make movies made about them, but logistics and supply chain are the unsung pillars on which every major project rests.

It is nice to have eloquent oratory and high flown philosophical statements, but the real way that real programs are really controlled is through the money.  When the logistics and supply budget is stopped, the program is over.  Momentum and warehoused supplies can carry on for a short period, but when those are exhausted, its time for the museum.

Starting four years ago, the shuttle program in its various projects made “lifetime buys”.  That is, we bought enough piece parts to fly all the flights on the manifest plus a prudent margin of reserves.  Then we started sending out termination letters.  About two years ago, we terminated 95% of the vendors for parts for the external tank project, for example.  Smaller, but still significant, percentages of vendors for SSME, Orbiter, and RSRB have also been terminated.

A lot of things that go into the shuttle build up are specialty items.  Electronics parts that nobody makes any more (1970’s vintage stuff).  Hey, if it works, why invest money in certifying new parts?  Certifying new ones would be even more costly!  Specialty alloys to meet the extraordinary demands of space flight, parts that are made by Mom and Pop shops mostly in the LA basin are norm rather than the exception.  You might think that simple things like bolts and screws, wire, filters, and gaskets could be bought off the shelf some where, but that thinking would merely prove how little you know about the shuttle.  The huge majority of supplies, consumable items, maintenance items, they are all specially made with unique and stringent processes and standards. 

Our shuttle history tells us that when we try to cut corners, trouble results.  Small, even apparently insignificant changes have caused big problems.  For example, the unheralded end of production of a solvent caused enormous complications for the SRB folks a few years back when things started falling apart unexpectedly.  It took a huge engineering detective effort to determine that small chemical changes in the new solvent were the culprit.  Anything coming apart in the SRB is not good.  There are hundreds of similar examples.

There is a long and arduous process to certify a vendor to produce the logistical parts for the shuttle.  Not many companies do this work.  Almost all of them are extraordinarily proud of the role they play in America’s space program.  A lot of them have been there from the beginnings in the middle 1970s.  So when a Mom and Pop specialty shop gets a termination letter from the shuttle program after 35 years of production and they have other customers, guess what happens?  Mom and Pop decide to close the shop, pension off their highly skilled workers, and then Mom and Pop move out of LA to their retirement cottage in the mountains or at the sea shore.

A lot of this has been happening over the last four years; most of it over two years ago.

So, just for the sake of argument, lets see what would happen if somehow we decided to fly the shuttle some more flights?

From time to time a vendor of specialty parts for the shuttle has gone out of business.  Our experience then is that we have immense problems getting anybody to even bid on making replacement items.  Sometimes, with hat in hand, we have to knock on doors.  Always, we have to offer premium payments to get those exotic, small production run parts made.

Given time and money, anything is possible.  But we are always short on time and money.  Life seems to be like that. 

To take one little example:  if we started today to build another external tank at MAF, there are probably enough parts on the shelf.  But very shortly we would exhaust supplies of some parts.  Maybe on the second tank — which we need to start in 3  months or so — would have to get a new supply of specialty parts.  Sometimes the old vendor is still there and could be persuaded to make more of the old parts.  But in many cases, a new vendor would have to be found.  Since the production run would be small, a premium price would have to be paid; and a certification effort requiring 6 to 12 months would start.  Initial production likely would have a number of rejects as the workers learn the process.  Hmm.  In probably 15 to 18 months would would have the parts to build that second tank — only a year or so later than we needed them.  So a new gap would form.  Not between shuttle and orion but between shuttle and shuttle.

And what would we get:  even higher price per flight of an old technology which is not nearly as safe as we would like . . .

Hey, I am the biggest shuttle hugger there is.  I think it is the best spacecraft ever built.  But I also deal in the real world.

Where does the money come from?  Where do the people — who should be working on the moon rocket — where do they come from?

We started shutting down the shuttle four years ago.  That horse has left the barn. 




Monday – Another Flight Director Story

NASA has the best weather forecasters in the world.  Both the Spaceflight Meterology Group – who produce landing weather forecasts for all the shuttle landing sites all around the world – and the USAF 45th Weather Squadron – who produce the launch weather forecasts for all the launch operations at the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station — are the best.  Not only do they make forecasts every day and every hour of the year, but they actually check to see if the forecast was accurate, and keep score.  And their forecasts are really micro-forecasts — exactly what will happen at the launch pad or at the runway; not a general area forecast, which is much tougher. 

America has lost a number of space launch vehicles over the years due to poor weather decision — Atlas/Centaur-76 is the case study example — and the weather community is striving to make sure that we never lose another. 

I’ve talked about the shuttle landing before, and you know it is the toughest decision that a Flight Director ever makes.  The shuttle gets only one shot and it has to be right.  The FD goal is to provide the shuttle commander acceptable weather — not perfect or the shuttle would never land.  The decision has to be made an hour and a half before landing.  There have been some long waits between the deorbit burn and landing. 

Early on, the shuttle was supposed to have jet engines so, among other reasons, it could fly multiple approaches or divert to different runways.  However, the weight of the orbiter in the design phase kept growing, from 150,000 pounds empty to 200,000 pounds and more.  And the ops guys kept asking (as they always do) “what if the engines don’t start during entry, don’t we have to protect against that situation?”  So fairly early on, the jet engines, the fuel tanks, and all that stuff got deleted from the design.  So the orbiter is the world’s heaviest and only hypersonic glider.  One shot at landing is all the commander gets. 

The auto landing capability that was built into the shuttle is not perfect.  It could work, if necessary, but engineering analysis shows that there are more times than we would like where the auto landing system would fail.  On a commercial jetliner, this is accommodated by an auto go-around feature.  But then the shuttle . . . well, see the paragraph above.

So the commander flies the vehicle on final through touchdown and rollout.  Visual cues are very important even though there are electronic navigation aids, a head-up display, and all sorts of redundancy.  But being able to see the runway and the PAPI lights are mandatory.  With the steep approach required by the brick like flying qualities of the shuttle, a minimum altitude of 8,000 feet to see the PAPI lights is required (for end of mission in the daylight — different rules apply to other situations).  (OK, PAPI stands for Precision Approach Pilot Indicator — four lights which show white at a certain angle and red if you are below that angle).

Mother Nature, of course, makes this difficult.  There are these things called “clouds”.  One meterologist called them “hydro-meteors”.  Occasionally these “clouds” have been known to obscure the navigation aids.  Since there are almost always some clouds in the sky below 8,000 feet, long studies were undertaken to determine how many clouds below the limit constitute a violation.  See what I mean by giving the commander acceptable – not perfect – weather?  After many approaches in the training aircraft, long arguments, a decision was finally reached:  if the clouds obscured 50% or more of the area, that was no-go, if it was less than 50% then it is go because the commander could see the “runway environment”.

STS-53 was a “classified” mission but what happened at landing is not secret.  In fact several things happened on that landing so it could be grist for more than one story, but today I’m going to talk about the weather.  We wanted to land at KSC – saves the ferry flight with its expense and risk and it saves a week or more of time.  So we started looking at KSC. 

On the particular day in question there was a front coming through Florida – not unusual.  Associated with this were low overcast (100%) clouds – at 3,000 feet the bases of the clouds would clearly violate the landing rules, if they got to the Shuttle Landing Facility.  On the satellite photos it looked like there was a ruler running diagonally across the peninsula:  north and west were socked in and south and east were crystal clear.  Weather at the SLF all during the deorbit preparation was perfect: no wind, crystal clear skies, beautiful.  Just that threat.  The inexorably approaching line of low overcast clouds that would block the commander’s view of the field and the all important PAPIs until the last minute — actually last 20 or so seconds — before landing.  Much too late.  Very scientifically our weather forecasters plotted the approach and predicted that the clouds would cover the SLF about a half hour before orbital mechanics would allow the shuttle to arrive there.

So we turned our attention towards Edwards AFB in the high desert of California.  Perfect weather there.  Virtually no clouds, winds were reasonably low, everything was good to go.  Except one cloud.  There was one cloud hovering over the PAPI lights on the approach and its base was 3,000 feet.  The astronaut pilot flying reconnaissance in the Shuttle Training Aircraft reported that all was go with the exception of that one cloud. 

Well, it met our criteria; clearly less than 50% of the area was obscured; in fact probably 90%+ of the area was crystal clear.  And in an hour and a half, there is no way that cloud would remain there.  I gave a GO for deorbit.  The astronaut in the STA had a conniption:  in his opinion it was clearly no go.  We had a short discussion (see above).  I reiterated my GO to the crew.  The deorbit burn happened on time for the EDW landing. 

Want to guess what happened in the next hour? 

In defiance of all the known laws of nature, the front threatening Florida stalled out well northeast of KSC.  The KSC center director and his technical staff were later shown on the runway at what would have been the landing time pointing up at clear blue sky.  It would have been a perfect day to land in Florida.

In defiance of all the known laws of nature, the one cloud in the sky at Edwards air force base not only did not move but stayed exactly where it was and grew a bit.  Still technically within limits, it totally obscured the line of sight for the PAPIs and the runway threshold.

As the Commander later debriefed “we never saw the PAPIs or the runway until we broke out at 3,000 feet.  Somebody has some ‘splaining to do”

That would be me.

The landing was a good one; all the electronic navigation aids backed up the visual ones and the commander touched down on speed and on distance.  Hey, any landing you can walk away from is a good one.  If you can fly the machine again, as the saying goes, it was a great landing. 

I stand by my initial statement, we have the best weather forecasters in the world.  But you can’t fool Mother Nature.  No wonder Flight Directors get gray or bald . . .



Lots of talk these days about Shackleton crater at the South Pole of the Moon.  Many reasons why a base could be located there.  The smart guys tell us that it is likely water ice exists in dark parts of the craters near the pole; and on the rims of those self-same craters the sunlight is continuous.  Since almost all of the lunar surface is in darkness for half of the month, the rare location which has continuous sunlight is wonderful resource because it greatly enables power generation.  There are lots of reasons to consider having a lunar base at the poles.

Studying on lunar geography put me in mind of old Ernest Shackleton, who is honored by having a significant crater named for him.  There are several excellent biographies out on Ernest, and his book “South” is still in print.  There are many lessons from his life that all good explorers should learn.  in fact, historian Jack Stuster has written an excellent book which extracts lessons from polar exploration which are applicable to space exploration. 

It is worthwhile to consider Shackleton’s exploits.  He wanted to participate in the great polar explorations at the beginning of the 20th century.  He worked with many of the luminaries of the great age of polar exploration.  Shackleton did not get to go on the first expeditions to the south pole — probably a good thing since his mentor, Robert Falcon Scott, and his team perished in the attempt.  After Amundsen’s expedition made the first trip to 90 degrees south, Shackleton started fundraising for an expedition to cross Antarctica from coast to coast via the pole.  Unfortunately the voyage went very wrong: his ship, the Endurance, was caught in the ice far from shore, carried the wrong way, eventually crushed in the ice.  Shackleton and his men were forced into a survival situation where they lived off the land (this is antarctica, remember) for almost two years.  After an epic sea voyage in a small open boat, the party was rescued.  They all survived.  Truly amazing.  If you want a superb case study in leadership, go to Shackleton.

But Ernest never made it to the south pole, he got within 97 miles of the pole on his closest attempt and had to turn back.  Shackleton died of a heart attack several years after the Endurance experience, just as he was mounting yet another polar expedition.

If you look at a lunar map, they are all there, near the poles:  Shackleton, Scott, Peary, Henson, Amundsen, Byrd, Nansen, even Franklin; they have all been honored.  And it would do well for us to understand their history, the successes and the failures, the good plans and the bad, as we consider going to their namesake landmarks, a quarter million miles away.

Not all exploration trips are successful.  Even worse, not all of them are wise.  We need to study especially those which were failures because, frankly, you learn more from failure than from success.  Success stories always sound inevitable; easy; pre-ordained.  Success in a difficult endeavor is never inevitable.  As my friend Lucy Kranz occasionally reminds her father, “Failure really is an option.”

A cautionary tale worth your study is told by Robert Ruby in his book “Unknown Shore”.  I highly recommend it.  Martin Frobisher, who later became famous in England along with Francis Drake for keeping the Spanish Armada at bay, lead an expedition in 1576 to what we know now as Baffin Island.  On his return, Frobisher’s backers became desperate to justify the voyage.  They took rocks collected from Baffin Island to four assayers.  Three of them reported that these were just rocks, not particularly valuable.  The fourth assayer reported that the rocks were rich ore bearing a high concentration of gold.  Of the four assayers and their reports, which one do you think they listened to?  The one who said there was gold in the rocks, of course!  Three more voyages were made to return more rocks; lives were lost, ships sank, natives were abducted, fortunes were spent, and the rocks turned out to be . . . just rocks.  Not gold. 

There are adventures which benefit mankind; there are adventures which rekindle the human spirit; there are adventures which bring glory, fame, honor, and even useful resources as their outcome.  But not all adventures end that way.  Some are pointless, some are inglorious, some are fruitless. 

I believe that space exploration is the noblest endeavor of our age.  It uplifts the human spirit, encourages scholarship, improves the economy, enhances our understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe.  In the long term, space exploration – utilization, exploitation, and colonization – will no doubt save and transform humankind.

But in the near term we need to be careful in our zealousness not to describe space exploration as a panacea to every problem humans have encountered.  We will maintain credibility and help the cause only when we are truthful, accurate, and firmly grounded.  Let’s avoid hyperbole and glittering inaccuracies as we reach for the stars.

Meanwhile, I hope to see you one day at the lunar base on the rim of Shackleton crater where we can reminisce about the courage of our astronauts who got us there and the foresight of the leaders who pointed us there.

Ad astra


Enlightenment Begins

Thanks for letting me extend my vacation a bit to catch up on all the accumulated work that found its way to my desk. 

I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share a couple of pictures from my vacation, especially since they play into this posting.

Athena falls at Rocky Mountain National Park Emerald lake at Rocky Mountain National Park

Sometimes I completely believe that the invention of the National Park is the best thing that America has ever done.  But then I realize that the opportunity to get away from the ordinary, into the natural world, is truly meaningful.

You can really believe that “Enlightenment begins where the pavement ends”!

Ok, I’ll confess, that is a slogan that was printed on a T-shirt I saw on the trail.

But the more I thought about it, the less kitschy it becomes and the truer it sounds.

Going somewhere you have not been before, getting out of the ordinary, seeing new things — all these start your thought processes in new ways. 

Returning to work, I have attended two different conferences on innovation that the agency has sponsored.  How do you innovate? How can people creatively find solutions to problems?   We had plenty of case studies and examples; some good and some not so good.  One principle stood out:  creative solutions come from unexpected places and generally from people who have a variety of different experiences.  If you look to people who all have the same background, all have the same problem solving skills, and all have the same life experiences then expect to get similar reactions to a challenge, and a very limited set of potential solutions.  To get a diverse, innovative solution set, it is important to go where not many have been, to experience life in ways that the average folks haven’t, and then to recognize and utilize these insights.

A frontier is a place where innovation is fostered.  The old cliche’ is “Necessity is the mother of invention”.  True, true.  And nowhere is there more “necessity” than on a frontier, a long way from the tried, true, and comfortable. 

Jules Verne wrote an interesting introduction to his book “From the Earth to the Moon”.  It smacks of 19th century nationalism, but listen to it anyway:  “The Yankees, the first mechanicians in the world, are engineers– just as the Italians are musicians and the Germans metaphysicians– by right of birth”

Nowadays, of course, there are plenty of Yankee musicians and metaphysicians, and the Italians and Germans make pretty good engineers, along with the Chinese and Indians.  But why would Jules Verne say that?  And why would the world embrace that?  There must be some basic truth there.  Invention was the glory of 19th century America.  Innovative solutions to the problems posed by a New World, the frontier, or the distance to other more advanced technology centers (like Europe) drove American innovation and creativity. 

Space is a frontier.  Space exploration (and exploitation) requires ingenuity in the face of new challenges: distance to technology centers (like earth!), lack of resources (air, water), and new and different resources to be understood harnessed (microgravity, vacuum).  I wonder how life on Earth will be affected by the discoveries and innovations of the 21st century and the new “frontier imperative”. 

You can learn a lot where the pavement ends.  I cam personally recommend at least one place in Colorado where the pavement ends at 12,000 ft MSL.  But there is no pavement on the moon, either. 


A lot to be learned out there.