Answering the mail

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”. 

22 thoughts on “Answering the mail”

  1. As a worker bee here at JSC/NASA I have really enjoyed reading your blog! It is so nice to hear the real opinions from one of the big wigs. I enjoy your flight director stories. As a lowly MPSR worker, I was always nervous to have to go down to talk to the flight director, you all seem larger than life to us!

  2. Wayne, don’t take these comments that call you you “disingenuous” too serious.
    If you open a blog somewhere, it usually doesn’t take too much time to find disingenuous comments from disingenuous people. 🙂

    And you have the choice to block these comments.

    Best wishes

  3. I am disheartened that anyone would call you disingenuous, but that is part of what makes your blog meaningful – that critics as well as supporters can read what you think and “comment” – which in itself speaks to your genuine works and words. I find your blog not only genuine, but humble, and honest – even when I don’t like your opinions, I know that they are well thought out against the backdrop of your experiences.

    Given what you have said, that the shuttle really cannot go on, and the necessity of relations with Russia for the use of the Soyuz, I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on how the future of our space program might be with the next President…. would the next administration nix our presence in space by ending the waiver? Or will there be a political push to keep that part of the relationship going, no matter what happens with Georgia?

  4. The SSME was da man. All the vibration problems, weight problems, loiter problems, 5 segment boosters, 5 3/4 segment boosters, have revolved around the decision to use underpowered engines instead of the SSME.

  5. Hello again, Wayne.
    May I ask you a favor…please pass this on to Shana Dale?

    “Below is a brief explanation of Lean Six Sigma that I hope you find useful. Many Centers and programs have already fully embraced Lean Six Sigma. I look forward to the implementation of this management tool across NASA.

    Lean and Six Sigma are widely used in industry as continuous improvement best practices.”

    Some years ago, I undertook an investigation on my own pertaining to NASA’s attempts to hammer the round cylinder of private industry “buzzwords” over the square peg of what NASA really does.

    The results are actually quite simple: NASA builds unique devices to preform unique tasks. You’re not building Chevy Cobalts or Harley-Davidson Sportsters.
    NASA’s primary mission differs dramatically from that of General Motors or Harley-Davidson.
    NASA’s primary mission is not to generate monetary profits for shareholders; it’s to push back the envelope of science, and by doing so, the fruits of what’s learned along the path enriches the lives of everyone, YOUR “shareholders”.

    Still with me? Great…

    When your people are confronted with things like “lean manufacturing”, “six sigma”, “five-S”, etc., they look at it and think “this has nothing to do with what I do.” Yet they are told to somehow make it fit, which adds another unnecessary layer of bureaucracy, procedures, and paperwork to the primary mission…and all of it contributes nothing material!

    Lean manufacturing is useless when you only need one special hand-made item. Five-S is only good for repetative tasks…how many Mars landers are you building today?

    NASA is unique…so, design your own programs if you must, but never lose sight of the primary goal.

    This agency sent men to the Moon somehow without the benefit of today’s manufacturing practices…they focused on what they needed to do, and the best way to do it.

    A lot of us out here understand that not everything you do is going to be a success; they didn’t break the sound barrier the first time out, either. Spend the money wisely, tell us what you’ve done or tried to do, and never stop trying.

    Thanks, Wayne.
    Dave Hromanik

  6. Wayne-

    Thank you for your blog. As someone who works on Orion and has worked on Shuttle RTF, I appreciate your perspective and groundedness.

    It is time for all of us to unite and extend passion into our work.

    Passion in people from all angles–Shuttle, Orion, the COTS review folks–to band together and decide: “Hey, we should go to the moon” not simply as obedience to a mandate, but as a group of people who have come together to make dreams come true.

    Why else did we choose to work at NASA as opposed to somewhere else?

    This is not a time for fear or complaints. It’s a time to rise above it all and remember why we are here doing what we’re doing.

    I know that the political angle is seldom so simple, but perhaps a momentum of passion is enough to surmount the quagmires of politics?

  7. Wayne,

    First I want to applaud and thank you and all those at NASA for all the hard work that is done. The Shuttle and the ISS are engineering marvels that may only get recognized as such when they are long gone, which is a shame.

    Second I wanted to ask your opinion about the following topic. The Shuttle was designed and developed with the hope of creating low cost and reliable access to space “The highway to space”. Unfortunately it could not live up to that hope. I still feel NASA should take on the challenge of building this “Highway to space”. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think the goal of sending humans back to the moon and then on to Mars will create this highway out of necsesity?

  8. Wayne: Your comments about the Shuttle and what a great machine it is are all true. It is a fantastic machine!!!! We all know that it is fragile however. I have been assocaited with both bad days for the Shuttle program and I would hope we can safely fly out the manifest and let the magnificent machine remain as a good memory for all of us. I also want to move on from low earth orbit the same as you. The time is near that we move on.

  9. Thnanks for replying to the comments. I feel honoured to hear your thoughts in this blog. Since Congress may direct one more Shuttle flight in 2010 for AMS, I would enjoy hearing your thoughts on how that could happen.

  10. Mr. Hale, if I only had a printing press to make money for NASA, it would be yours. I am a major NASA fan. If only our leaders could see 50 years out, not just the most recent popularity, I mean political standing polls. If only, if only, if only….
    Thanks for the blog.

  11. “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.”

    I won’t cause “umbrage” by calling that statement “disingenous” but it does mistate the options available.

    NASA could create multiple incentives for the development of low-cost space transportation systems for a small fraction of what’s spent on the Shuttle.

    I’m not talking about another expendable rocket like Falcon, either. Fifty years of experience has shown that expendables (and even quasi-reusables like the Shuttle) will never be robust, economical, and efficient.

    If NASA has limited resources, as you say, the solution cannot possibly be to replace the Shuttle with a vehicle that costs even more and carries even fewer people into space. At least, not for those of us who value human spaceflight.

    Mike Griffin says Orion will be an “American Soyuz” — the only way NASA astronauts go to space for the next 40 years. Do you realize how pathetic that “vision of space exploration” is? Imagine if the NACA chief had pointed to an airplane built in 1920 and proclaimed that was the only way government employees would fly for the next 40 years.

    Instead of retreating into the past and building historic replicas, we should be moving toward the future. Why not work with private enterprise, instead of competing with private enterprise? Instead of spending a hundred billion dollars to develop your own “Royal Road to Space,” why not offer one billion dollars to the first private company that can land a woman on the Moon? Then promise to buy a hundred rides per year after that, for $10 million a seat?

    (Remember the movie “2001,” in which the NASA Administrator booked a ticket to the Moon on Pan Am, just to attend a conference? Isn’t that vision better than Apollo Redux?)

    We could have built fully reusable vehicles in the 1960’s. We were taking the first steps with programs like DynaSoar. Apollo set us back 40 years. Please, let’s not go down that road again. By serving as a customer and allowing private industry to develop low-cost access to space, NASA will be able to do much more than send four astronauts to the Moon in a tin can.

    On the other hand, as Burt Rutan says, if all you want to do is send astronauts to the Moon in a space capsule, why not do it next Tuesday? Space Adventures is offering a trip around the Moon in a Soyuz capsule right now. The price tag is around $100 million, and for a bit more I’m sure they could probably throw in the Russian lunar lander that is still sitting in mothballs.

    If all you want to do is relive something NASA did 40 years ago, at least show some mercy for the taxpayers and do it on the cheap.

  12. I have been reading your comments with some interest since I had the opportunity to be involved with the restart of the ELV programs and the end of the Titan IV program. Both taught me a lot about the complexity of the launch systems and their industrial complexes. Bringing back the production elements for the Delta, Atlas and Titan was a huge undertaking and often meant either certifying new suppliers or having the Prime Contractors bring the production of parts in-house at rather tremendous cost. In the end, these things can be done, but the costs can be staggering, and as with any new system, the reliability risks can be very high. I have also been worried about depending on our partners for many essential services and hope the latest unpleasantness will pass. I note that the Atlas and Sea/Land Launch systems all require the willingness of the Russians and their friends to continue to provide unique hardware. We could get to the point of having only one American and one European launch vehicle family available for all our needs if this does not get better. I wonder how long we can practically run out the STS program if we were to stretch out the launch rate?

  13. Mr. Hale:

    I will take issue with anyone who calls you ‘disingenuous.’ You are a hero to me, and to many people. I have the utmost respect for your experience, opinions and insights into human space exploration and the human spirit. I have had to make up a whole lot of time at work when I go beyond my lunch hour reading your ‘notes’ and discussing them with co-workers.

    On extending the shuttle, I respectively disagree, but I know the shuttle era is about to end. I will be layed off in 2010, and by that time I will have my Masters in Education and will go into education teaching the importance of space exploration to people’s everyday lives. I just hope I’ll be teaching about how and why we are going to the Moon and on to Mars. My feeling is that I’ll be teaching about past achievements, and why a marvelous spaceship called the shuttle isn’t flying anymore, with nothing on the horizon to inspire our children.

  14. someone commented that Ares needs the SSME
    the problem is the SSME doesn’t air start
    and that makes it ill suited for the Ares 1.

    the rl-10 and j-2 were the only air start motors out there.

  15. I would respectfully disagree with some of Edward Wright’s opinions here.

    Personally, I’m sick and tired of those who believe that “private industry” is the ultimate solution for everything, not just spaceflight. Private industry exists solely to create profits for its stockholders, not to create results.

    Edward states “Apollo set us back 40 years”. Apollo’s sole purpose was to fulfill Kennedy’s challenge, nothing more. Please explain how the moon landings took 40 years…or perhaps you’re working in dog years? Perhaps you refer to the fact that after succeeding, the program was pared back to a barely sustainable funding level by Nixon, Ford, and Carter?

    You denigrate Soyuz; yet it somehow keeps on working, and working well, with incremental changes. Why is that? Because the basic principles it was built upon are still sound after all these years. The laws of physics never change, only our understanding of them.

    “Imagine if the NACA chief had pointed to an airplane built in 1920 and proclaimed that was the only way government employees would fly for the next 40 years.”

    Sad to say, but the major factor behind aircraft innovation was the military(s) of the countries that fought WWII. Where did the aircraft manufacturers get their money from? Not Wall Street. The government. It took years for jet engines to migrate from the military into passenger aircraft- after the government and military spent huge sums of money on research and development.

    NASA does not “compete” with private enterprise, in fact, they’d like nothing more than to be able to contract for what they need. See if you can talk Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and George Soros into seriously investing in Virgin Galactic. Let us know how that pans out, OK? They didn’t get rich by throwing money down ratholes…

    By the way, your $1B “prize”, funded by the taxpayers, is a miniscule fraction of what it actually takes to succeed in space exploration.
    This endeavor is unlike any our species has ever attempted, and the learning curve here is as steep as a rocket’s launch curve.
    Space is neither cheap nor easy.

    Has anyone signed up for the Russian moon trip? Why not you? Got an extra $100M lying around, or sponsors?

    Wayne,I agree with you, but I would have phrased it differently.

    “If we lived in a world where there was more interest in science than sports, we would be able to use the STS program to fly large components necessary to construct serious spacecraft in orbit while operating a separate program to get people to and from orbit minus the inherant risks of the STS system.”

    “Handing out” taxpayers’ money to private enterprise so that certain pockets can be enriched with outrageous CEO salaries, bonuses, and golden parachutes? I don’t think so. I’d rather read about a failed engine test, or other failures at NASA, because they’re really not failures…they are stepping stones along the path.

    NASA uses taxpayer dollars and gives results back in return…not bloated salaries for people in suits on golf courses.

    It’s been what, 60 years since they strapped a camera to a V-2 and sent it up? So, where has the vaunted “private industry” been all this time, hmm?

    Private enterprise needs to be funded with venture capital, not taxpayer dollars. Period!

    But, I digress from the original topic…Wayne, you’re waxing nostalgic while there are still flights on the manifest. Hold those thoughts until after Endeavour has returned safely to KSC.

  16. Another wonderful, interesting and insightful blog. Please do keep them coming (and more flight director stories please!).

    It is truly a shame that the X-38 was canceled. I still have a documentary DVD at home on it and John Muratore was so passionate about it and saving people in the event of a serious problem on the ISS that when the decision came to cancel it I was quite surprised.

    I do seem to recall some comments going around that the CRV couldn’t do what it what was claimed with one senator saying it “broke the laws of physics”. I’ve since tried to find out exactly what that comment was in relation to but I’ve not been able to do so.

  17. Wayne:

    Great to see you posting so openly and honestly. I wish you were still back with us (you know where).

    But stay away from those “Generation” Y type folks. They do not understand the engineering that makes these things work. Blogs and Facebook pages are not a substitute for solid job skills.

  18. Mr. Hale,
    I have really enjoyed reading your blog. As complete layperson who happens to be a space junkie I have learned a lot from reading your posts. I’m sure you saw the recent interview by Mr. Griffin regard a likely lag of an US presence on ISS if we don’t get the necessary waviers. My question is if you had the magic wand could this lag be avoided without relying on Soyuz?
    Thanks again for your outstanding work.

  19. Wayne,

    Just wanted to say it was a privilege working with you during the last days of the Shuttle Upgrade Program. I’ve been away from the NASA arena now for almost a year and have watched with horror the waning suport from both of the Presidential candidates. I can only hope that our government comes to their senses and provides appropriate funding for both the safe retirement of the Shuttle fleet and to bring online a new generation of space vehicles.

    Also having worked closely with Constellation Program Level II, I can only hope that the present management structure gets the Program into line and all the little NASA fiefdoms (i.e., Centers, HQ)learn to play together as a team.

    Thanks for the great prose in the past, currently in your blogs, and hopefully well into the future.

    Ad Astra,


  20. Hi again sir Wayne…

    Like the people here, I’m now starting to like your blogs… very informative…

    I’m a bit disappointed when I heard that the CRV was cancelled a few years ago… It was one of my favorite parts of the ISS, and that one was the first that caught my attention when I first saw the computer renderings of the space station (by the way, how much progress on the X-38 was done before NASA pulled the plug?)

    Oh well, that’s life… you need “something” in order to do “something”…

    Thanks again!!! Its very nice to read what a fellow space enthusiast is thinking!!!

    Oh well, back to my ISS model… still need to build the Airlock

  21. Wayne, I am really surprised that someone can call you “disingenous” after reading your posts. Sincerely, when I began reading your blog some time ago, I didn’t expect so much candor from someone who, after all, is a NASA manager writing in an official NASA web. You deserve all my respect for that. No, you are not disingenous at all.

    I follow your blog from the beggining, and I have to say that I like it more every day. Please, carry on this way: I think that things like this are very much needed in our field. Thank you.

    Javier Casado
    Madrid, Spain

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