Monthly Archives: September 2008

Monday Potporri

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Its been a big couple of days in space.  First of all the Chinese achieved a very successful EVA mission and returned their three taikonauts home safely.  Second, the SpaceX Falcon 1 vehicle had a successful launch and orbital insertion.  Congratulations are in order to both; they are remarkable achievements and represent a huge effort! 

Closer to home, the Hubble telescope has had a significant glitch and we’ll have to watch closely over the next few days as the HST team troubleshoots that problem. 

So where is Wayne today?  Not at home.  For most of my career, going to conferences was not something that we did.  Frankly it was looked down on.  As an operator, if I had enough free time to think about writing papers and going to conferences, my bosses would believe I was not paying attention to business.  Besides, there was the unstated belief that we were the best operators in the world so why go listen to other folks that couldn’t do what we did.  Hmm.  Times and attitudes have changed.

In fact, almost everybody agrees that international cooperation in space is a good thing and will lead to more advances than we could do alone.  And we can all learn lessons from each other.

Now I’m at one of the oldest and most respected conferences, the International Space Conference in its 59th annual meeting.  In the crowd I can hear folks conversing in dozens of languages, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Russian, German, Spanish, Italian, French, and many others including the lilting Scottish version of English.   Plans are being proposed, discussed, evaluated.  Some really great ideas have been put forward, lots of senior leaders are here listening and participating and these ideas may come to fruition.  This is a lot different than Mission Control! Of course it takes all parts — the planners with imagination getting commitments, and the engineers and financiers getting the rocket built, and the operators to fly it.  I’m learning a lot.

Good news from Washington, Congress passed NASA’s authorization bill.  This means that the Congress approves of the plans going forward in space.  Somewhere there was a glitch, though; Congress told us to dramatically cut back in participation in conferences.  Hmm, guess I started too late in coming to these things!

Its late here in Scotland, so further updates will have to wait until tomorrow.



Friday Flight Director Story

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STS-37 carried one of NASA’s “Great Observatories”.  In case you had forgotten, the Hubble Space Telescope is not up there by itself.  While Hubble peers at the universe in the visible light spectrum, a huge amount of information can be gathered from observations in the parts of the electro-magnetic spectrum that are invisible to humans.  The Chandra X-ray telescope looks at, well, X-ray pictures of the universe.  The Spitzer Infrared telescope looks at thermal images of the universe, and the Compton Gamma Ray telescope looked for very high energy signatures.  Sadly Compton is the only one of the great observatories no longer with us — another story for another day — but son-of-Compton, the Fermi GLAST observatory carries on with observations in this strange part of the spectrum.

Compton was a huge advance and a large scientific instrument.  But like every other payload, weight is everything when you are trying to get out of Earth’s gravity well.  In an effort to provide the maximum mass to the scientific instruments, the spacecraft bus weight was cut to a minimum.  In particular, the solar arrays — vital to generate the power for observatory — were somewhat flimsy; especially the mechanism to extend them.

Lead Flight Director Chuck Shaw recognized this as a potential problem area early on and had his team develop a set of EVA procedures and tools to manually extend the solar arrays if the mechanism failed.  Lots of time was spent practicing these maneuvers in the water tanks.  Just to complete the exercise, the team looked at other parts of the Compton which might need a little human help and rounded out the crew procedures and training so that any of those could be handled as well.

As Ascent/Entry Flight Director on STS-37, I sat next to Chuck during the deploy operations.  The A/E FD is always interested to see if the “CG Management Device” (aka, the primary payload) really got out of the bay or not. 

Deploy operations are always tense and this was no exception.  The Compton had only limited battery life for the time when it was disconnected from the shuttle power supply until it was lifted out of the bay on the robot arm and could extend its solar arrays and make power on its own.  The EVA crewmembers, Jerry Ross and Jay Apt, were in their suits in the airlock with hatches closed waiting word to go out and extend those solar arrays or stand down from EVA and get out of the suits. 

We were breathless as the Goddard Payload Control center sent the command to extend the first solar array.  With the speed of light the command traveled down the T1 terrestrial circuit from Maryland to Houston where it was electronically woven into the digital uplink of command and voice, forwarded over another T1 circuit to White Sands New Mexico where the antennas bounced the command to the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite hovering in geosynchronous orbit over the equator, then from the TDRS down to the shuttle in low earth orbit, finally from the shuttle into Compton where the little electric latches and motors were waiting.  All this is a fraction of a second, and we waited to see the array extend.  Breathless. 

Success!  First one array and then the other extended and locked into flight configuration and the power began to flow.  We could breath again.  The EVA crew began to feel disappointment; probably no space walk today.  But not quite yet.  Time to deploy the high gain antenna that would beam Compton’s scientific data to the ground.  This was a robust mechanism and we really didn’t worry much as the Goddard Payload Control issued the high gain antenna deploy command.

Nothing happened.  Ooops.  Check the circuit breakers, make sure the command was in the right format, make sure the comm link was good, try again.  Nothing.

Looks like you guys are going EVA after all.  Music to a spacewalker’s ears!  So out the door went Jerry and Jay and in a matter of a few minutes they released the antenna and life was good.

As I say, my only interest was whether they were going to get that big rock out of my shuttle payload bay or not.  Not really.  We learned a tremendous amount from Compton. There were more adventures ahead, both for that robotic observatory and for the shuttle on STS-37 — stories for another day.

So, what can we learn?  (There is always a moral to these stories). 

1.  It is good to be prepared.  The tools were ready, the team had practiced, the procedures had been vetted; it all worked smoothly.  I have been in other circumstances where there was a lot of “broken field running” and its not pretty. 

2.  It pays to have a fixit man handy when your complex gizmo has a glitch.  I don’t remember how much Compton cost, we certainly got its worth paid for in scientific data and improvement in understanding of the universe.  We found out a lot about Gamma Ray bursters and where they are (or aren’t).  But all that money would have been wasted if that antenna had been stuck.  Spaceflight is like that.  All or nothing, rarely anything in the middle.



Positive Mental Attitude

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“For scientific leadership give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

Shackleton and his men endured two winters in the Antarctic shipwrecked, alone, and without supplies — and they all survived.  When asked how they did it, the men all attributed survival to the attitude of the man they called “the boss.”

Some years ago I took a survival course; the instructor asked us all to guess what might be the most valuable tool to have in a survival situation.  Matches, compass, cell phone, water — all good guesses, but the right answer:  a positive mental attitude.

This is on my mind because about two weeks ago my home was visited by a category 2 hurricane.  We didn’t have it bad at all, a few trees down, fences damaged, power out — but compared to other folks we got by very lightly.  No water damage, no structural damage to our house, no injuries.  Lots of folks had worse and are still suffering.  My family had . . . inconvenience, disruption of normal life, cleanup, and minor repairs. 

But somewhere in all this, especially in the wee hours of  hot and humid airconditionless nights, the voices of despair start in.  Against all rational thought stress and fatigue cause melancholy.  Black thoughts descent and multiply. They suck the life and energy out of you. The good news is that when the day dawns and you count your blessings and feel the companionship of neighbors and friends it gets a lot better. 

Positive mental attitude, without it you are powerless. 

From what I have read, a lot of pioneers suffered bouts of despair and depression.  It is a hard thing to leave home and family and come to a new world of seemingly endless toil, challenges, and dangers.   There were many who couldn’t take it.  Those that did made a better life for all of us.

One of the secrets in Mission Control is that the Flight Director never lets the troops know how worried you are.  They know anyway but pretend not to.  Gene Kranz’s “Failure is Not and Option” is another way to say ‘have a positive mental attitude’.  There have been times when I found this hard to do.  After Columbia the 3 AM demons kept asking if it wasn’t all a waste and worthless.  All those critics who talk about space exploration being a distraction from the important issues got their whacks in during the middle of those dark nights.  It was enough to suck the life right out of you.  But when morning came, the realization of what is right and true and really important is easy to remember. 

If you are to succeed, you must have a positive mental attitude. Sports are the same, Yogi Berra’s famous quotation sums up what it takes to win at baseball:  “Half this game is 90% mental.”  Too true.  A friend and co-worker got sent to one of those fancy business school seminars to round out his education.  An instructor told the class: “Half way through any project, it looks like a failure.”  That also is true.

When I was a young parent leading a volunteer organization for the kids, we ran into a period when we were not having much success.  I blurted out my feelings in an email to all the parents and asked if we should disband the organization.  Within an hour, half the leaders sent me their resignations.  Lesson learned:  leaders must display a positive mental attitude at all times.  Throwing in the towel will guarantee failure.  A positive mental attitude will not guarantee success, but it goes in that direction.

Call me unsophisticated, but I was brought up on Edgar Guest’s poem “It couldn’t be done”.  If you haven’t read it, you need to.

Its important to remember that we are engaged in the greatest adventure of humankind; the noblest endeavor of our age.  It takes a strong mind to remember that the long view triumphs and the critic is soon forgotten.  I am not talking about a foolish pollyana attitude.  But real progress is being made every day.  And we just need to do pay attention to the details of business and keep making it work each day.  That takes positive mental attitude.

Samuel Johnson observed three hundred years ago: “Few things are impossible to diligence and skill.  Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance.”  I like what Babe Ruth said even better:  “Its hard to beat someone who won’t quit.”

I’ll remember that sawing up branches after work this evening.  And tomorrow when we get back to the difficult business of expanding the space frontier.

This Week's Flight Director Story

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This has been a busy week so I am behind in making a post.  I’m also distracted with watching tropical weather; living on the coast is nice until hurricane season.  Oh well, that’s life.

One of the more serious assignments that can come to a Flight Director is to be the Lead for a flight.  This means that you are responsible for the overall planning and therefore the success or failure of a particular flight.  I drew this assignment for STS-96 which was the first logistics mission to the newly orbited International Space Station. 

In those days, the ISS consisted of the US build node “Unity” and the Russian built FGB “Zarya”.  There was no crew onboard because the crew quarters — the Russian built “Zvezda” Service Module — had not been launched.  The Functional Energy Block (FGB in Cyrillic) controlled the attitude, maintained the thermal control, generated the power, and generally did almost every function for the uninhabited station while the Unity Node provided a place for the shuttle to dock, someday.

Now, I’m general an Ascent/Entry Flight Director, and I had never dealt with the ISS program or any of the international partners, so this was all new to me.  A “broadening” experience.  Hmm.  I’d always considered the stuff in the payload bay to be useful mainly to control the center of gravity of the orbiter.  Now I had to know what it did and how to use it.

And there was a lot of stuff. In a pressurized module in the payload bay we carried a huge amount of equipment to install inside the new ISS, there was already maintenance to do, and we were bringing food, clothes, medical supplies and other logistics necessary for the first expedition crew who would come in another year or so.  I got acquainted with a whole new cast of folks who work the orbit shifts in the MCC that I never had to deal with before.  I’ll never forget my first meeting with my “transfer specialist.”  I asked her how I should get training on her job.  She asked me if I’d ever moved — that was experience enough.  And while orbital mechanics and rocket science are important, I came to find out that carrying boxes and containers from the “van” (shuttle) to the “house” (ISS) was the most critical and part of the job!

I also got to meet with a lot of Russians and got two trips to Moscow.  Funny, we always met in Moscow in the winter and Houston in the summer.  Seems like we would be smart enough to do it the other way.  Just like the Americans at NASA, I found out that the Russians were made up of a lot of groups of folks who generally worked together but sometimes did not.  Just like at NASA.  We would work closely with the team in the Russian control center (the “TsUP”) who built and operated the FGB.  These guys were all from the Khrunichev “company” (formerly design bureau).  Later on, the Energia “company” would take over.  I found out how closely Energia and Khrunichev worked together.  Almost as well as JSC and MSFC anyway.

The senior Khrunichev Flight Director, Yuri K had lived through WWII, all the bad old days, and was a smart, steady, and well respected senior leader.  His deputy, Yuri B. was about my age and smart as a whip.  Both of them treated me with all the genuine respect I could have expected from any of my American colleagues.  So we started planning.  What did they need to get done, and what did we need to get done and then what did we all need to get done together.  My Russian language skills are non-existent and their English was minimal but we had a really great technical translation team.  I learned to appreciate Russian tea (but not vodka) and they came to like Texas barbeque.  We got a lot of planning done. 

All the basic rules in place, we started training together.  How the simulation team lashed up the shuttle simulator in Houston with the FGB simulator in Russia is still a mystery but it all worked.  The very first simulation was going very well until the actual docking.

The mechanism that joins the shuttle to the station is built by the Russians.  It is extremely robust and reliable.  In actual flight we have never had any major problems but there are certain . . . idiosyncrasies.  Most of which we did not appreciate in the early days.  One of the “design features” are three little capture latches.  These are little spring loaded fingers that remind me a lot of the mechanism that holds my screen door shut.  Three little latches that connect the hundred ton shuttle to the growing station until the much stronger hooks are driven electrically to make a solid union.

So the first simulation proceeded fine up until the point where we were to dock.  Just before docking the Russians had to command the FGB to free drift — turn off its attitude control system.  If they didn’t do that, the shuttle and FGB automatic control systems would fight and burn up a lot of attitude control gas very quickly.  So the Khrunichev team sent the free drift command, the shuttle inched in for a docking and instead of the report from the MMACS officer of “capture”, I heard these words:  “bounce off, flight.”  What did that mean?  It meant that the little capture latches failed and we had met, touched, and bounced away.  Now on the shuttle side that is not a big deal — we still had attitude control, the crew backed away from the station and waited.  On the ISS side, they were out of control and the stack went into a tumble.  Turning back on the FGB attitude control system required many commands and without attitude control the antennas were not pointing properly.  Later we figured out that it would take about a half hour to get control back if we could maintain a command link . . . which we didn’t in that simulation.

Disaster.  The station without attitude control, tumbling, with intermittent communications, and degrading power.

Sim over. 

The debrief was not a happy one.

I set off with my team to develop a set of contingency plans to cover the “bounce off” scenarios.  Turns out that there were several variations on that theme, with different options to recover depending on which scenario that had been encountered.  After about three days work, I pulled together an outline procedure of about twelve pages covering every possible option and scenario.  My team agreed that this was what we needed.  We sent the document to the translators for our Russian colleagues to give us their option.

A day later, I got Yuri B’s take:  “This is a little long, can we condense it?”  Feeling a great deal of the pride of authorship, I replied: “I don’t see how you can but go ahead if you want to.”  No way was that pesky Russian deputy Flight Director going to condense my work!

The next day the translation team gave me Yuri’s input.  He put the whole thing on a 3×5 card.  Even in Cyrillic — which generally takes more space than English — it all fit on a 3×5 card. 

And it was right.  And complete.  And really elegant.  Yuri captured the essence of what I had taken twelve long single space pages to write down and put it on one 3×5 card.

Did I ever learn a lesson that day. 

The flight came, we docked without incident; all the bags and boxes got across the hatch and stowed properly; all the maintenance was done, all the logistics completed, and the flight was a huge success.  We never needed the “bounce off” procedures.  But we were ready if we needed them — all there on a 3×5 card; English on one side, Russian on the other.

So being a lead flight director was a very broadening experience.  I learned that there are a lot of folks on the other side of the ocean that are as passionate about space flight as I am.  I learned that there are at least some folks on the other side of the ocean that are smarter about space flight operations than I am.  I learned that despite language and cultural differences, we can work together successfully.  Yes, that was a very broadening experience. 

And we are still learning.








Friday potporri

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Short post today.  We are working on the great bureaucratic task of building briefing books for the new administration’s transition team.  It doesn’t matter which party wins, we have to prepare a concise, yet bureaucratic, set of information to hand them after the election so they will be ready to run the government on January 21.  I’m on the team that is updating the NASA book, in particular the Space Operations Mission Directorate book.  Its the nitty-gritty non-glamorous type of task that every job has.

Meanwhile, I thank everybody who has been helpful in propping up my failing memory.  Here are two corrections:  the SSME nozzle is made up of 1080 individual tubes brazed together, not the 1060 as I wrote in my blog previously (loss of 20 tubes is catestrophic!)  My first assignment as Shuttle Entry Flight Director was STS-31, which landed in the morning, not afternoon, in California.  Sorry for all the detective work that folks put in trying to identify that flight which I incorrectly listed as having been an afternoon landing.  My only excuse is that it always seems like 2 AM inside mission control . . . .

I appreciate the questions that folks send in and wish I could answer them all.  Here is a smattering of responses to comments received over the last couple of weeks.

Are my blogs available in various foreign languages.  No, sorry.  Not likely to happen soon.

To the young person who is interested in O3 at the moon: there is no appreciable atmosphere on the moon, for all intents and purposes it is a vacuum.  O3 is also better known as ozone which is a toxic gas, unsuitable for human breathing.  It would be better if we find water ice at some shadowed crater on the moon and dissassociate the hydrogen and oxygen to make breathable O2.

Why anyone would say that the X-38 CRV “violates the fundamental laws of physics” is beyond me.  It was well on the way to becoming a viable spacecraft.  Although I must point out that they had their issues with parachutes!

Off the track comment:  many folks have been looking at the video of the Orion test parachute failure.  This is probably a good study of the sociology of the web or at least of journalism.  The failure was in the test rig setup, not the actual space flight parachutes.  And there were a dozen successful tests that preceded the one failure.  Nobody has filed a FOIA request for videos of the good tests.  Hmm.

Lean Six Sigma is a management technique that, like many management techniques, was developed for a large production process.  While it is not specifically designed for the small production runs and unique processes that NASA is typcially involved in, there is still a place to take some of those principles and apply them to our processes. 

The shuttle does have an autoland capability built in that would probably work very well.  On STS-53 we were well on the way to performing a flight demonstration of that capability, but the Associate Administrator, Gen. (retired) Jed Pearson, pulled the plug on the test shortly before we performed it.  Like every test there was some risk, and despite our desire to demonstrate this system, Gen. Pearson believed we did not have a need to ever use it.  So, after a lot of work, shuttle autoland has never been tested.  The capability exists, however, and could be used in an emergency. 

I had an interesting discussion with some of the orbital mechanics experts about whether a lunar base at the pole is harder to get to than one at the equator (like the Apollo landing sites).  They did a good job of convincing me that going to the lunar poles is not harder, either from the delta-V standpoint (how much gas it takes) or the scheduling standpoint (how often you can go).  Mid-latitude sites, neither at the poles or at the equator are the hardest. Someday this blog will tackle the mathematics . . .

Finally, somebody asked if I ever dreamed about being an astronaut.  Well, who hasn’t?  It would be great fun.  But genetics ruled that out for me at a young age.  I suppose someday I might get to ride as a passenger on the Pan Am shuttle to the moon, but that is a far cry from the current requirements to be an astronaut.

See you Monday from Washington . . .


Answering the mail

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I have been very heartened by the considerable number and thoughtful nature of the comments received to my blog here.  It is really good to know that so many people care so much about space exploration and are willing to think hard and share their ideas with all of us here on what I truly believe is a worthy and noble endeavor.

To all those folks who love the shuttle as I do and have written in to say keep flying the old bird:  my heart is with you but my mind says otherwise.  If I had a magic wand I would wish to keep flying an upgraded, safer shuttle at the same time we build the moon rocket, and hand out multiple incentives to private industry to develop a robust, economical, and efficient space transportation system.  But I don’t have that magic wand and don’t know anybody that does.  (I also have a personal plan to put my big lottery prize to work; but I am not counting on winning as a realistic strategy).

As I said earlier, almost anything is possible giving enough money and time.  We had a really good example of that over the weekend as we all watched Hurricane Gustav come ashore near New Orleans.  Watching those waves splashing over the levee walls was terrifying.  Today we know that the levees protecting New Orleans are good for a category 2 hurricane that comes ashore 50 miles west of there.  Is that good enough?  Not really.  Technically it is possible to devise and implement a defense that would keep New Orleans safe agains a category 5 hurricane — the worst we can imagine.  The question is how much will it cost, how long will it take, and will the country commit the resources to do it?  That’s all.  So vote on your choice:  (a) leave it alone and keep our fingers crossed, (b) raise taxes to pay for improved levees, (c) take the money from some other government spending and send it to New Orleans instead.  That’s about all the choices you get.  Simple, really.

Space exploration is like that.  There are a lot of competing ideas out there.  The leadership of our country has given us a mandate and provided a certain amount of money to get the job done.   We could wish for more resources, more money, but where will that come from.  See above!

If you are concerned about our Russian friends and don’t want to rely on the Soyuz, sorry.  Even if we kept flying the shuttle for an extended period, we would still have to rely on the Soyuz as a lifeboat.  The shuttle does not have the capability to remain at the station for extended periods of time and we really must have a lifeboat.  Wish we had finished the Crew Rescue Vehicle (aka X-38) but the national leadership cancelled that program for budgetary reasons and almost 10 years ago now we knew that we would rely on the Soyuz for the lifetime of the station.  And don’t even think about operating the station without all our international partners.  We are all in this together.  In fact, it is a source of pride and wonder that International Space Station is the largest cooperative program ever undertaken by a large group of international partners.  Wish we could take the lessons learned at ISS on how to work together and get them to apply to other areas!

I am a big fan of all the folks working on commercial, private enterprize solutions to space travel.  The Falcon team especially has earned my respect for their accomplishments.  Those accomplishments have come at a high cost both in financially and in the hours of hard work and stress that team has put in place.  I really hope that their next launch is a total success and the Falcon 9 and the proposed Dragon spacecraft come to fruition.  But I have had a long experience of various proposed spacecraft that never made it, for all too many reasons.  The  bottom line:  somebody somewhere somehow needs to perfect a reliable, economical, reasonably safe way to get people to low earth orbit, where, as Robert Heinlein famously wrote, “in low earth orbit you are half way to anywhere in the universe”.    The Orion and Aries 1 is NASA’s plan, there needs to be others, and there are others in the works.  Just money and time.

If we do decide to fly the shuttle longer — and hopefully that comes with the monetary resources so that our march back to the moon is not delayed — my biggest regret will be the loss of all the safety upgrades we had for the shuttle.  In January 2004 we had a number of projects underway to make the shuttle safer.  When the decision came down to retire the shuttle by 2010, we evaluated all those changes and anything that could not be developed, proven, and implemented in the fleet by 2010 was terminated.  It just didn’t make sense to spend the tax payer’s money on something that would not fly.  My personal favorite was channel wall nozzles for the space shuttle main engines.  If you haven’t seen a slow motion video of those engines starting up you probably sleep better at night.  1060 thin tubes are braze welded together to form the nozzle and it flexes and bends during engine startup.  If the nozzle comes apart, well . . . it would be a bad day.  Channel wall nozzles are much more robust; we had the plan in place to implement them in the fleet by 2011, but not any more.  And if you turn that project back on today, it will be five years later . . .

So I am frankly ambivalent about the retirement of the shuttle.  After working on it for 30 years, I love that old bird and admire its accomplishments and capabilities.  But I also know too well its weaknesses and flaws.  And I came to work at NASA to explore the solar system, not just exploit low earth orbit.  So its time to go on from here. 

But, as always, we can talk about.


I do have one final personal note.  In one of the comments, somebody said I was being “disingenuous”.  Thats a big word but one of the things it means is that I lied.  Actually it means to make a false or hypocritical statement.  Now folks, I take extreme umbrage (another big word) at that.   I can be wrong – and I frequently am.  And my logic may not be sound – guilty on numerous occasions.  And I cannot express my thoughts as coherently as I wish.  But I am not into “spin” and the one thing I will not do is lie to you.  Here or anywhere.  So please don’t call me “disingenuous”.