Ponce De Leon

Ponce De Leon is famous in history for trying to find the Fountain of Youth where one sip of the water would not only let you live forever but restore youthful vigor and health.  Needless to say, the legend of Ponce De Leon diverges considerably from what we know of the real, historical Ponce De Leon. 

For example, it is not really clear exactly where in the modern day state of Florida Ponce De Leon landed or carried out most of his exploration.  Navigation was crude in those days, maps were inaccurate, and landmarks are few.  So we don’t really know where he was.  But in more modern times, various localities have claimed their area was the place and so, about 40 miles north of the Kennedy Space Center, an estuary bordering on Daytona Beach is called Ponce Inlet.

It is exceedingly important for Mission Control to be able to communicate with the shuttle crew throughout the powered flight phase ascending to earth orbit.  Onboard navigation can be fooled under certain circumstances and the onboard computers do not have the power or the programming to project ahead for various off nominal situations.  So, for example, MCC is prime for abort mode determination.  Systems information, too, can be more readily assessed from telemetry to the ground than from onboard displays in many cases, although that has improved as the shuttle cockpit has evolved. 

From the early days of space flight, having good tracking and communications stations was vital.  In his book “Flight, My Life in Mission Control”, Chris Kraft notes that the creation of a world wide tracking network was one of the great accomplishments of NASA in its early years.  Nowadays we use satellites to talk with the crews most of the time and all but a few of the ground tracking stations have been closed down.

The shuttle is a peculiar beast.  The radio antennas are arranged around the crew cockpit.  Since the shuttle flies a heads down trajectory for much of the ascent phase, the external tank blocks the line of sight between those antennas and the relay satellites up in geosynchonous orbit.  After the closure of the Bermuda tracking station, a new maneuver was added to the shuttle ascent trajectory to roll to heads up late in powered flight just so the shuttle antennas would have a good line of sight to the relay satellite.  Early flight remains heads down to facilitate a return to launch site abort (RTLS) if that drastic maneuver would ever be required.

The primary means of communication is through the venerable and tremendously busy Merritt Island Launch Area (MILA) tracking site which is very close to the KSC visitor center should you go there.  MILA has a number of antennas, and great infrastructure, but there is one tiny problem.

The shuttle lifts off the pad using powdered aluminum.  That’s right, the solid rocket boosters use powdered aluminum as a propellant.  One of the principle constituents of the SRB exhaust is aluminum oxide.  And aluminum oxide is a perfect way to stop radio waves.  So from about 20 seconds into the launch when the shuttle points its stern quarter directly at MILA until the solid rocket boosters are separated at two minutes, MILA is helpless to communicate with the crew.  No MILA, no relay satellite, what are we to do?

Enter PDL.  The Ponce De Leon tracking station is an adjunct to MILA.  It is located on the south side of Ponce Inlet just across the estuary from Daytona Beach.  On a good day you can hear the NASCAR races.  PDL is a sort of minimalist tracking station; one big antenna, one string of transmitters and receivers, and a crew of about four folks.  And the only good line of site to the shuttle for a crucial minute and a half of the early ascent.

Sim Sup loves to give the ascent team fits during training.  There were times when I believed the training team was being paid based on the number of malfunctions they could introduce in each training run.  A lot of those failures were inserted into the simulations in the first two minutes of flight and troubleshooting could not wait.  So in simulations we learned to rely on the PDL station. 

I’m pleased to say that one of my first visits when I was assigned to KSC was to take a road trip to PDL and tell the folks there how important they are and how much the Flight Director counts on them. 

STS-93 was a case in point.  During most launches the shuttle performs flawlessly and you might think that all our training was a waste of time.  During the early part of STS-93 we had not one, not two, not three, but four inter-related anomalies.  Sim sup isn’t supposed to work in real time!   It was crucially important that MCC guide the crew through the complexities of that situation.  And it had to be voiced up using the PDL station. 

A lot of spaceflight is like that.  A few folks building and maintaining a function that you might never need.  But on the day you need it — your really need it and nothing else will do.

I hear a lot of folks who profess that they can do spaceflight on the cheap.  I am sure that some costs can be lowered.  But giving up critical capabilities that can save your . . . .spacecraft . . .in an emergency — that is a foolish economy.

Events like STS-93 can make your hair turn gray.  Maybe we need to find that fountain that old Ponce was looking for after all!


Old sailors never die,they just fade away

During the Korean conflict, my dad was an airman in the US Navy flying on antisubmarine patrols over the Pacific ocean.  In those days they flew P2V Neptune aircraft.  Only a few of those old birds are still flying as water tankers in the war with forest fires every summer.  The P2V’s have all been replaced long ago with P-3 Orions and those planes are slated for replacement in the near future with something called a P-8 which may not even have a name yet.

But I digress.  The point I was going to make is that there are a whole bunch of web pages, blogs, and other internet space taken up by veterans of these old naval squadrons.  And they seem to agree on just one point:  the P2V was the very best airplane ever built and the men that crewed her were the very manliest of men.

Now this may come as a shock to you since the P2V is not the most notable aircraft that you probably have never heard of.  Never mind, it has to do with the folks who worked day in and day out in dangerous conditions on those old birds.  However, if you look around on the internet you may find folks from other squadrons that flew other planes that happen to think that their plane was the best ever . . or ship . . . or tank . . .

So I imagine that from the old folks home I will be doing whatever is the equivalent of blogging in those days (maybe sooner than I think) about why the space shuttle was the best ever spacecraft.

But you know, something better may just come along.  I really hope it does.  Because we need to get past just low earth orbit.  And we need to do it soon.

Flying the shuttle longer came up again today.  I think you know where I stand on that.  We need to move on because it is really past time to do so.  And you know what?  I am OK with that.

I am feeling very positive today because I have been in a two day meeting where the focus is on the moon; robotic missions in the near term, human sorties later, then outposts and settlements.  And after that . . . Mars.

There are many ways to get there, lots of possible alternatives in the architecture.  But we need to get there.  And stay.  And go on. 

With all the excitement of the young people (and the young at heart people) at the lunar exploration meetings this week, I am sure we can do this.  There is enough energy and creativity to see it through.  Not just flags and footprints this time; going back to stay and work.

Last week I got to get up close and personal with the lunar lander competitors at Las Cruces airport.  There is a lot of good innovation there and these amateurs may be the source of our best ideas for real lunar landers in the not-very-distant future. 

I haven’t looked, but I bet those guys have a web page too.  And I bet their web page says they have the best spaceship ever. 

If you are not part of this — I mean of really doing something — then you are missing out. Whether you are with NASA or Armadillo or SpaceX or Virgin, we are all really pursuing the same goal.  Making dreams come true.  Advancing the human spirit by moving human bodies further into the universe. 

Its really great.  These are the very best of times. You should be part of it too.

Unexpected Consequences

The Irish potato famine was one of the great disasters of the 19th century.  The peasant population of the island had come to depend on the modest potato as a staple part of their diet.  When disease attacked the crop and it failed, thousands died and thousands more left the emerald isle to find a better future elsewhere.  Some of my ancestors were among them.  If you live in North America, it is likely that some of your ancestors were among those refugees, too.

This is the year of the potato.  The United Nations has recognized rice as one of the most important foods in the world with its international year of rice in 2004.  This year the UN recognized the second most important staple crop in the world by designating 2008 the year of the potato.  One third of the calories consumed all over the world comes from potatoes.  I should try to reduce my share of that!

Potatoes were unknown in the 15th century outside what is now Peru.  Spanish explorers found the natives eating different varieties of the tuber and sent them back to Europe.  For years people in the west were afraid to eat these plants, related as they were to the deadly nightshade.

But for the last three hundred years the world has come to count the potato as one of the most important food crops.  And it was discovered by accident, as it were, by people who were looking for something else:  gold, glory, or converts to their god. 

Recently I have been thinking a  lot about the risks and rewards of exploration.  How did Ferdinand and Isabella weigh the risks and potential rewards when they gave three small ships to the irritating Italian guy who was probably going to kill himself and his crews.  If the leaders of Europe had drawn up a Risk Management evaluation of Columbus voyage in 1492 the way we draw up Risk Management evaluations of space flight, would they have known to include the potato?   And with the perspective of five hundred years would we call the voyage a strategic success on the basis of that discovery — which has turned out to be more valuable than all the gold and silver extracted from the American continents?   How do you rate that?

Eratosthenes of Cyrene computed the size of the earth about 200 BC based on the length of shadow cast by two rods at two different places in Egypt at the same time.  He was right to within 3%.  Geometry is an exact science.  Contrary to popular belief, everybody in Columbus day (well, all the educated people anyway) knew the world was round not flat.  And they pretty much knew how big it is.  And they also knew — no great feat of deduction — that you could sail to the west to get to the east, or in other words head west and get to the spice islands, China, India, and Japan.  Everybody knew that.  And they knew one more thing.  That given the sailing speed of the ships of the day, you could not carry enough food and water to get there before you died of starvation.  And everybody was right.  Enter Columbus who had mistakenly calculated a much smaller earth.  His calculations — entirely erroneous — showed that a crew could just make it to the spice islands before they starved to death.  And all of educated Europe laughed.  No wonder Columbus was turned down by kings and courts all around Europe.  No wonder that the most backward and ill-educated kingdom in Europe was the only one to fall for his arguments. 

Nowadays, we use modern risk management.  We take possible outcome and plot them on a scale from unlikely to likely and their consequences from minor to catastrophic.  We use our best engineering and scientific data to categorize the risk.  If we had lived in Columbus day, we would have categorized the outcome (dies of starvation before reaching land) as “Probable/Catastrophic”.  No body signs up for Probable Catastrophic risks.

Just one problem.  Almost exactly where Columbus calculated he would reach land . . . he did reach land.  Just not the land he though.  Serendipity.  Discovering something that you did not expect to find when you set out out. 

How do you rate serendipity on the risk management scale?  Some place near potatoes, I expect.

I am mindful of great quotations of scientists and leaders from bygone days.  Charles Duell, Commissioner of the US Patent Office in 1899:  “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”  Albert Michelson, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1907:  The most important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplemented by new discoveries is exceedingly remote.”  Hmm, a Swiss patent office clerk would challenge that notion very shortly.

Modern risk management techniques, like commercial calculations on return on investment, will invariable tell you to stay home and not waste your time exploring, discovering.  After all there is nothing out there; at least nothing we can imagine.

Oh yeah, there is one other quotation from the same era, from Thomas Alva Edison — somebody who was always pushing to find out what he didn’t know — “We don’t know a millionth of one percent about anything.”

Or how important potatoes would be in propelling my ancestors to seek a better life in the new world.


Participatory Democracy

During the shuttle return to flight effort, we opened up a web site to the public to suggest ways in which we could make the shuttle safer.  There was a great outpouring of suggestions.  Some of them were duplicates, some of them were not technically feasible, but there were some inputs that stimulated our thinking in new ways that allowed us to come up with more creative ways to ensure the safety of our shuttle crews. 

I would like your comments on a different but related subject.

Every Federal agency is preparing information for the new occupants of 1600 Pennsyvania Avenue.  Of course this includes a description of recent accomplishments and projects in work.  Also in the package are the major issues facing each agency or department and the issues which the new administration will need to address.

I believe it would be useful to hear from you concerning what the major issues are facing NASA for the next administration.

Now, there are a couple of rules.  Occasionally there are comments posted to blogs that are . . . less than respectful.  In this case, please make your comments respectful.  This is not an invitation to personal attacks or a rant.  I am looking for respectful and THOUGHTFUL topics which you believe that NASA needs to address.

Finally, this is absolutely non-partisan.  I am not interested in political or partisan comments and those will not be posted. 

Given those short and brief rules, I am looking forward to your input.


Deputy of the Range

Each time I sat at the Flight Director console during a shuttle countdown, about three hours before launch time, they brought me a plain white envelope, sealed. 


The envelope contained exactly one sheet of plain white paper with less than a dozen words typed in crisp black font.


On that paper were the Code Words. 


A few minutes later, an unfamiliar voice would call over the Flight Director’s communication loop:  “Flight, this is FCO.  How do you read?”  My response as prescribed by this particular ritual was always: “Loud and Clear.  How me?”  And like clockwork, the unfamiliar voice would say:  “Loud and Clear”.  We always followed that up with some very stilted pleasantries:  How are you today?  Fine.  And you? 


And then, having established that voice communications were working properly, the unfamiliar voice would go away.  And I would fervently wish not to hear it again that day.


FCO, the Flight Control Officer, is a military officer whose duty station is in the Range Operations Control Center – the ROCC, pronounced “rock” – a dozen miles south of the shuttle launch pads.  The President of the United States had delegated the authority and responsibility of the protection of the civilian population of the state of Florida from errant space vehicles to the FCO.  All launch vehicles are required to have a “flight termination system” installed which the FCO will utilize to protect the public.  This requirement includes, of course, the space shuttle.


By long standing jointly signed Flight Rules, if the shuttle were to veer off course, spin out of control, or break up, my responsibility as Shuttle Ascent Flight Director was to transmit those Code Words on my loop.  On hearing those words, the FCO would depress the two buttons in front of him to – as we say – ‘terminate the flight’.  That means exactly what you think it means.  I don’t have to spell it out.


It goes without saying that I never wanted to say those words.


Not that it would likely matter.  The FCO has radar trackers, optical sites, observer reports.  The FCO would have probably already “Sent Functions” before I would be able to call him.  Small comfort, that.


When you go to the ROCC and get the range safety briefing from the FCO, they show you a video of an early Chinese Long March rocket that suffered a boost phase failure.  Flaming chunks of rocket streamed down on an unsuspecting village, killing dozens and wounding hundreds.  Just a few miles from the shuttle launch pads are the large and growing Florida communities of Titusville, Cape Canaveral, Cocoa Beach, Melbourne, Rockledge, Cocoa, and more.  Not far north lays Daytona Beach. And the shuttle launch trajectory does not go far from the outer banks of North Carolina, New England, Newfoundland.  There are a lot of people that might need protection.


After a very social evening filled with many vodka toasts, a Russian colleague of ours asked the very pertinent question:  “Why would you put a range safety destruct package on a manned spacecraft?”    


That question was the reason the FCOs always showed the video of the Chinese village.  The FCOs  shows the same video to the astronauts, too.


You see, the shuttle Commander and Pilot are designated Agents or Deputies of the Range.  The destruct package is built into the Solid Rocket Boosters and those are jettisoned two minutes into an eight and a half minute powered flight.  After that, should the shuttle go off course toward a populated area, the FCO can do nothing about it.  The responsibility which the President of the United States has given to the FCO cannot be accomplished – except to call the crew and tell them to do what is necessary.


So we practice these scenarios – far fetched as they may be – to ensure that the crew knows what to do.  Steer out to sea; shut down the main engines, protect the population along the eastern seaboard.  One small problem – that procedure puts the shuttle crew into what is delicately labeled a “black zone”.  If the shuttle is high enough – as it is for much of the boost phase – but with forward velocity significantly below orbital speed – then an unpowered entry will result in the g-loads and heating which builds up too fast, faster than the wings can generate lift.  And the result?  Well.


So the Commander and the Pilot are designated Deputies of the Range.  If the really bad thing happens, they are sworn to protect the population of the east coast, even at the expense of their crews’ lives.


It takes courage to fly in space.



Myth,Power,and Value

As soon as I read this excerpt, I knew I had to read the whole book: 

“Coronado’s journey was the Apollo expedition of his day and Mexico City was a sixteenth-century mission control, shipping men out to explore the unknown.” 

Tony Horwitz has written a lively, easy to understand, yet profound history of the exploration of North America from Columbus in 1492 to the Pilgrim landing at Plymouth in 1620.  As he says in the introduction “I’d mislaid an entire century”.  The rediscovery of that critical period is found in his new book “A Voyage Long and Strange:  Rediscovering the New World”, Henry Holt and Company, 2008, ISBN-13:978-8050-7603-5.

I offer this book for your reading consideration. 

If you are wondering how this applies to space exploration, ponder this passage from Tony’s book — the very first chapter on the Vikings in America before Columbus: 

“Vinland’s brief flicker was even more extraordinary.  When Leif and his siblings set off, Norse Greenland was only fifteen years old, with a population of about five hundred.  Vinland was a satellite of a satellite, its voyagers on the medieval equivalent of a space walk, tethered to a mother ship already at the furthest reach of European society and knowledge. . . What seems most surprising is not that Norse Vinland failed, but that it happened at all.

Nor was the Viking’s fate anomalous.  The Europeans who resettled America after 1492 brought horses, guns, and other advantages unknown to the Norse.  Yet they, too, found it hard to sustain a toehold, even in settings much gentler than subartic Canada.  Dozens of early colonies foundered in mass death or abandonment.  Failure was the norm, not the exception.

According to America’s national saga, English settlers ultimately triumphed because of their superior grit, idealism, and entrepreneurship.  But . . .small incoming populations rarely take root.  The difference between success and failure typically depends on the number of times a new group arrives, and in what strength . . . waves of settlers kept restocking Virginia and Massachusetts.  Sheer weight of numbers and the backing of increasingly powerful mercantile states . . . proved critical to success.”

Wow.  We should contemplate those very real lessons from history.  Read this book and others like it. 

As a native son of the Land of Enchantment (look it up), I was raised on the Conquistadores and Coronado, so some of this was familiar.  As a startling coincidence I find myself back in that country, in a museum, in a conference about how to do exploration in a “mercantile” way!  So pensive thought trying to connect the dots is probably a natural consequence.

In another place on the internet, a commentator has told me that NASA is not (or should not) be in the inspiration business.  I could not disagree more completely.  We have to be in the inspiration business.  We need to inspire our fellow citizens in these difficult days by reminding them that together we have overcome great difficulties in the past and done great things and that we can do so again.  We need to inspire our children to believe that there is a future worth studying for and working toward.  We need to inspire the world that America is still “the last best hope of mankind.”  Inspiration is the very essence of what we do.  The merely mundane advancement of the aeronautical sciences or advances in celestial navigation is scarcely the reason why the Congress and the President set up this peculiar agency some 50 years ago. 

Isn’t it true that you still hear people say “If we can put a man on the moon then we ought to be able to . . . ” fill in the blank with any great challenge facing us. 

NASA and our accomplishments in space is now part of the great national myth.  Wait a minute, I need to explain myself there.  At a foolish moment in my college career, I signed up to take a 3 hour poli sci course that all my friends were excited about.  Doc Culbertson was a fixture on campus and taught a course about state and regional politics.  He had a lively and interesting lecture style, the grading curve was said to be friendly, and I needed another course outside the engineering department to fulfill the university requirements for graduation.  My friends were right; it was a great course.  Doc C taught us that political power and cultural values are all derived from national or regional myths.  Now in his parlance, a myth was not a falsehood, it was an interpretation of history.  Or more correctly a revision of history as morality play setting the foundation of certain values from which the populace organized political power. 

I believe Tony Horwitz must have set through that same class.  In the very very last chapter of his book, he ponders the Pilgrims at Plymouth and wonders why they, and not so many others, have become the leading players in the national origin myth.  A modern citizen of Plymouth spells it out for him:  “The story here may not be correct, but it transcends truth.  Myth trumps fact, always does, always has, always will.”

As Doc C would have said; myth and the values it supports give people the power to do impossible things.

Like go to the moon.  And to do the other things.  Not because they are easy, but because they are hard. 

We come from a long line of folk who faced long odds, suffered a lot of failure, and came back to build a great nation. 



Watching airplanes

A few years ago I had to pick my wife up at the airport and I neglected to check on the flight status.  After parking, I hustled into the terminal only to find that her flight was delayed by not quite an hour.  Not long enough to leave and do something else, but too long to sit idly in the terminal building.  Then I remembered what we used to do when I was a kid.

I grew up in a small town, not terribly small but certainly not large.  We had an airport which was served by one regularly scheduled airline using a turboprop plane with three or four flights each day.  Of course there were the general aviation flights as well.  In those quaint, long ago times, folks would actually go to the airport just to watch the airline arrive and take off.  My family did.  When I was a teenager, we used to go there and park at the end of the runway.  Sometimes we would idly dream about where the plane could take us, exotic journeys to far off places.  A generation or two earlier, I guess we would have gone to the train depot for the same reason.  Small town boredom.  The thrill of the possible.  The highest technology that we could actually see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears. All the unimaginable possibilities of a world that seemed very large.

In those days, people dressed in formal clothes to go on a trip.  I remember men in coats and ties wearing hats, women in long dresses wearing gloves, all clambering up the steps to the airplane door.  No t-shirts and short pants in those days, no siree.

So years later, waiting for my wife, I decided to take the stairs to the top floor of the terminal — a parking lot — and watch the planes.  I found a good spot, by the railing, close to the edge, and was entertained watching all the airliners land, takeoff, taxi hither and yon, trucks and baggage carts scurrying busily about. 

And after a few minutes, guess what?  A visit from the airport security people.  Seems I had attracted their attention on the surveillance cameras. A little embarrassed, I explained what I was doing up there.  The two young men in uniform were visibly amused to hear an old guy explain that when he was young people actually went to the airport just to watch the planes take off and land.  They decided I was harmless but advised me to go back into the terminal and watch through the windows. 

How times have changed.  I travel on airlines too much these days.  I get to go in the “experienced traveler” TSA line.  My frequent flier cards runneth over.  And all the excitement has gone out of travel.  Now it is merely a hassle; get to the airport early, follow all the rules, check in, go through security with all its indignities, get stuck in a small seat with minimal service, land, and hope my bag made it with me.  No excitement here.  No thrill. No romance.

Somehow we have sucked all the romance and excitement out of air travel — or travel of any kind. 

And you know, it is a kind of magic.  Just sit down, read a book or a magazine, watch a movie, or take a nap and in just a short time you are hundreds or thousands of miles from home.  No real effort required on your part, just sit there. 

It is a kind of magic.

Many people tell me that space travel is not exciting.  They listen to presentations concerning the most exciting explorations of our times which are delivered in monotone voices with incomprehensible and complex graphics.  Somehow, we have sucked the excitement and romance out of space travel. 

But it really an extraordinary kind of magic. 

So if you are present at one of those boring, incomprehensible, utterly pedestrian talks about exploring space — don’t sit there!  Don’t let the magic get paved over with boredom!  Get up on your feet and shout the speaker off the lectern!  Don’t let the dull and boring smother the what space travel truly is: exotic, thrilling, exciting, romantic, and magical!  This is too important to sit back and let the dreams die; don’t let the young people grow up without dreams.

Continuing the discussion

About 48 hours after having posted a short example on Columbus, I hope you have reached some conclusions.  I’d like to continue this discussion just a bit longer. 

So the question, as posed by the University of Strathclyde, is this:  ‘Was Columbus voyage of discover a program (“tactical”) success or failure; and was it a Strategic success or failure?”  The point being, what can we learn for space exploration.

On a couple of different forums and by email I have received several interesting but brief votes for success or failure.

When we were studying how to reform the Shuttle Mission Management Team following Columbia, one of the best lessons we gained from a lot of academic and consultant forums was this:  it is important to properly frame the question. 

So I left you with the question:  success or failure, and whose?

From the Native American standpoint, the voyage of Columbus represented a catastrophic strategic failure.  If the natives of San Salvadore had risen up en mass and slaughtered the Europeans, nothing would have been heard from Columbus; and his opponents would have carried the day.  European discovery and all its catastrophic consequences for native Americans might have been delayed by centuries.  So if you take that point of view, strategic failure.

Alternatively, Columbus himself believed to his deathbed that he had actually discovered the route to the spice islands, China, and Japan.  If you had asked him, he would have emphatically told you that the voyage was a tactical (“program”) success. 

Isabella’s motives (and Ferdinand’s too) are harder to discern.  If their goal was to enrich Spain and increase international respect (and envy) for Spain, then the voyage was a tactical (“program”) success.  Some historians have stated that the Spanish royal couple mostly wanted to get rid of the pesky Italian and they saw a way to get rid of certain Portuguese maritime merchants that were causing them problems.  Strategically you could argue that they succeeded here as well.

In the very long run, Spain’s whole mind set defeated their ambitions in the new world and Spain sunk into 3rd rate status among nations.  So how long is “strategic” success good for?  It took the better part of a century to get to the apex, and another century to fall.

But my thesis is that taking the simplistic view of history and putting each expedition into the “successful” or “failure” bins defeats the possibility of learning from history.  The lessons are too complex, too rich, and too contradictory to put in a Venn diagram. 

So back to my example story from Columbus and the hurricane.  What can we learn that is applicable to space exploration?

Lets start with a very simple observations:  you should listen to folks who have experience.  Columbus and his crew knew the signs of impending weather.  They tried to warn others who laughed at them.  Then Columbus and his crew took cover.   How does that apply to spaceflight?  There are a lot of folks that make specious claims of being able to do things cheaper, faster (and better?) than those who have gone before.  While incremental improvements are possible, amazing predictions from folks who have no experience in the stormy waters of rocketry are probably direct descendants of Bobadilla.  Don’t laugh at experience, search it out and study it.

Explorers enable colonization, economic exploitation, and the advance of civilization.  Explorers frequently make lousy administrative leaders for the colony, the businessmen, or the rest of civilization.  Use people where their talents lie; don’t try to make them into something that they are not, have no interest in, have no experience about.  Keep the explorers exploring.

How about the theme that very small investments in exploration can result in huge rewards.  Isabella and Ferdinand invested a pittance in three very small ships and skimped on their outfitting costs; one can argue that economically that was the best investment in history.  Frequently the proponents of NASA cite studies that show for every dollar spent on the space program, new technologies and businesses result which in turn improve our economy by $4, $7, or $9 depending on how finely you slice the model?  Is 0.6% of the national budget an excessive amount to spend on the future of humankind, especially when it turns out to be a goose that lays golden eggs for the near term economic health of the country (and we need something!).

We could go on.  I worry that the internet age with its 12 sentence blogs and 5 second soundbite attention span does not have the patience to learn from history.  And you know what happens to folks that fail to learn from history.

Some time in the future we’ll discuss the Darien get rich quick scheme, how it plays into Scottish mythology, and how present day interest in Glasgow in Scottish devolution (independence) played a major role in the business school thinking of the Strathclyde paper  which mostly picked failed expeditions lead by the English. There is a history lesson there, too.

Keep your eyes open.   As Yogi Berra once said “You can observe a lot by just watching.”




Exploration is all about the unexpected

Yesterday I was handed a paper to read which was commissioned by the Constellation Program to see if there was anything we could learn from historical exploration as a lesson for NASA.  That was a great idea.  I was excited to see that the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland was the scholarly organization which produced this paper.  I was just there!  I had walked across the campus!  wow, small world! 

I had great hopes for this paper.

After I read it, I felt disappointment.  I slept on it.  I read it again this morning.  I am still disappointed.

Probably it is not fair; the attempt to learn lessons from history is always a noble one.  Perhaps this is just too big a topic to address in a short academic paper.  So rather than criticize, lets take a look beyond the Venn diagrams and explore for the golden nuggets of wisdom that come with a deep understanding of the lessons that history of exploration can teach us.

The Strathclyde study said that Columbus’s voyages were a tactical (“program”) failure and a strategic success.  Really? 

I would offer the following episode from Columbus’s last voyage for your contemplation.  It is a story of discovery, knowledge, arrogance, ignorance, and lastly justice.  You decide if the result of the voyage is failure or success. 

This is from a great book — and a very timely read it is: “Isaac’s Storm” by Erik Larson, Vintage Books, 2000 ISBN 0-609-60233-0.  The book is about the great 1900 hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas.  These pages take you back another 400 years earlier.

Excerpts from pages 34-43.


     Columbus set off on his first voyage on August 3, 1492, from Palos, Spain, with a fleet of three tiny caravels, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.  By nineteenth-century standards, the three vessels hardly qualified as ships.  They were large boats crewed skimpily with a few experienced sailors and adventure-hungry boys.  Not only did Columbus and his captains have no means of determining the exact location of their ships in the featureless blue of the ocean, they also carried none of the meterological tools that mariners in Isaac’s time took for granted. 

     After overcoming a few technical problems, the ships caught the trades and made quick, untroubled progress.  The weather was perfect:  clear blue skies, brisk and steady winds shoving big cotton clouds over the horizon, cool nights and balmy days, the overall effect one of languid, sloe-eyed sensuality.  “The weather was like April in Andalusia,” Columbus wrote, “the only thing wanting was to hear the nightingales.” 

     But something curious did occur during the first voyage.  A lookout saw them first, rising a long way off.  Astonished, he sounded the alarm.

     It was September 23, the fleet’s exact position unclear but the weather good, skies bright, no sign of a storm on any horizon.  Nonetheless, the lookouts spotted immense swells marching slowly and silently toward the ships.   Columbus and his captains turned the fleet into the oncoming seas and watched open-jawed as the surface of the ocean rose in great oil-smooth hills of blue and green.  The swells lifted the ships to exhilarating heights but posed no danger.

     What Columbus did not know was that these swells were most likely the advance guard of a hurricane rising hundreds of miles away, well out of sight – the same brand of swell Isaac observed as he stood on the seat of his sulky in Galveston four centuries later.

     The ships continued their journey; Columbus opened the gates to the New World.


     The more time Columbus spent in the waters of the Indies, however, the more he saw the flaws in his original appraisal of Caribbean weather.  Water spouts danced among his ships.  Tropical rains fell as if from a ruptured cask.  Squalls tore the sails from his spars.  By the time of his final voyage, Columbus had learned that the seas of the New World were both seductive and deadly, but in the process had become adept at reading the tropical skies for signs of trouble. 

     He was ready for his first true hurricane.


    Four years before the storm, Ferdinand and Isabella, intending to reward Columbus, appointed him viceroy of the Indies.  He reached Hispaniola in August of 1498 expecting to savor the perquisites of rank, but found rebellion and turmoil.  When word came back to Spain that chaos, not the sovereigns, reigned in Hispaniola, Ferdinand and Isabella dispatched an emissary, Francisco de Bobadilla, to straighten things out.  Secretly they had granted him extraordinary powers, which he demonstrated immediately upon his arrival.  It did not help that as Bobadilla sailed into Santo Domingo harbor he saw seven Spanish corpses dangling from the gallows.  Swaying palms were one thing; swaying countrymen quite another.  He used the hangings as a pretext to arrest Columbus and lock him in chains, a degree of public humiliation that speaks clearly of some deeper passion filling Bobadilla’s portfolio.  Greed perhaps, but certainly envy.

     In October 1500 Bobadilla marched the iron-laced Columbus through town and on board a ship, La Gorda, bound for Spain.  Bobadilla himself took over the administration of Hispaniola.  After returning to Spain, Columbus remained in chains for six more weeks before the sovereigns released him.  He pleaded for the license and funds to conduct one more great voyage.  In a sign of new warmth toward the admiral, Ferdinand and Isabella commanded Bobadilla to assemble all the proceeds from trade and the mining of gold that were owed Columbus, and to place these in the custody of his designated agent.  On March 14, 1502, the sovereigns granted Columbus another voyage.  Like wise parents seeking to head off the wars of jealous children, they forbade him to stop at Hispaniola.

     Columbus, delighted to be sailing again, set out with four caravels, and on June 29, 1502, found himself and his fleet off Hispaniola.  He saw that a great convoy of thirty ships was being readied in the Ozama River at Santo Domingo for imminent departure, but did not know at the time this fleet was carrying Bobadilla and a vast fortune in gold, including his own share.  That Bobadilla had consigned Columbus’s gold to the smallest and flimsiest of the convoy ships, the Aguja, was yet another mark of whatever hidden passion fueled his hatred.  If any ship was likely to sink, it would be the puny Aguja.

     Columbus has a least three good, practical, defensible reasons for what he did next:  First, the departing convoy presented an excellent opportunity for getting mail from his own little fleet promptly back to Spain.  Second, he wanted to trade one of his ships, a poor performer, for something a bit more spry.  Third, the weather had taken an ominous turn, exhibiting the usual troika of storm signs:  oily swells, oppressive heat, a red sky.

     For all these good, practical, and defensible reasons, Columbus sent one of his captains ashore with a request to permit his fleet to enter the harbor, a clear violation of the sovereigns’ orders.

     The new governor, Don Nicolas de Ovando, only laughed.

     Stung, Columbus lead his ships to the leeward side of Hispaniola to place the mass of the island between the ships and the rising storm.  He instructed his captains that if they became separated by the storm to meet in a harbor on Ocoa Bay, near what later became Puerto Viejo de Azua.

      Meanwhile, with great fanfare – trumpets blaring, cannon roaring, banners streaming – the thirty-ship convoy ferrying Bobadilla and Columbus’s gold sailed from Ozama and made for the Mona Passage, the strait between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico that connects the Caribbean to the Atlantic.


     The storm was a full-fledged hurricane.  Columbus’s fleet, sheltered in the lee of Hispaniola, caught a glancing blow that nonetheless topped anything in severity that Columbus had so far confronted.  “The storm was terrible,” he wrote, “and on that night the ships were parted from me.  Each one of them was reduced to an extremity expecting nothing save death; each one of them was certain the others were lost.”

     In a maneuver that went against customary marine practice, Columbus did not strike for open sea but instead brought his ship closer to shore to leverage further the windbreak afforded by the mountains of Hispaniola.  His ship survived.  On Sunday, July 3, he sailed his caravel into Ocoa Bay, the designated meeting place.  He saw no sign of the others.

     As his ship rocked gently in the gorgeous blue, its deck quiet but for the sounds of repair, Columbus watched the entrance to the bay through thermals of humid air.

     A lookout would have spotted it first as a glint of white against the settling sea.  He cried out, then perhaps wished he had not, as the glint disappeared and the ship eased back into the turquoise quiet.

     But another spark followed, a true sign now.  Sails and finally a ship.  Followed by another.  And, impossibly, yet another.

     All safe.


     And what of Bobadilla?

     The hurricane caught the convoy in the Mona Passage head-on, the eye passing close, perhaps directly overhead.  It drove twenty of the gold ships to the bottom with all hands.  One of these carried Bobadilla.  In all five hundred mariners lost their lives.  A few ships, gravely wounded, fought their way back to Santo Domingo.

     Only one ship of the original thirty made it to Spain:  the puny little Aguja, carrying Columbus’s gold.


So I ask you:  success or failure?  Tactical or Strategic?  and whose?  

 It is nice to think that you can put the lessons of history into simple bins and categories.  But it seems to me that a true explorer searches for the deeper lessons that apply not necessarily universally, but to the current time and the current exploration. 

Do you think we will not encounter hurricanes on the way to the moon?  Perhaps not.  But we most definitely will encounter arrogance, ignorance, and stupidity. 

So what lesson did you learn today?


Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

You have all seen the pictures from Mission Control at splashdown of one of the Apollo missions:  flags and cigars, the room crowded with celebrating people including most of the NASA hierarchy.  Splashdown parties were a big thing back in the day as my older colleagues used to tell me.  I often wondered how exaggerated those stories were, or did people just party harder in those days?

My first assignment in Mission Control was for the entry team of STS-1; Columbia.  It was quite a flight; a long time coming and a technical achievement that will not be surpassed for a long time.  Even though there was no “splashdown”, I remember the mob scene after landing — a huge party with hundreds of folks crammed into Mission Control and then spilling out into all the various venues surrounding the space center.  Much of the top brass of NASA was present; but this time there was a difference, a lot of senior folks were at the runway in California.  A new tradition had started.  Still, there was great celebration.

These continued for the landings of STS-2, 3, 4, 5, 6.  On STS-7, Sally Ride made history as the first American woman to go into space.  If anything, the crowd was even bigger than on earlier flights.  The cigar smoke was so thick that you could not see from one end of the room to another.

(Smoking has since been banned from Mission Control and all other NASA building!)

I found myself working the Entry team on STS-8, the first night landing.  Dick Truly was the commander.  There were lots of concerns about landing in the dark; many new rules and procedures.  The Shuttle Orbiter does not have a landing light like most aircraft, so illumination had to come from huge spotlights which lined the runway.  We were all absolutely nervous about this.  Everybody but Truly. 

The landing came at about 2 AM.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — in Mission Control it always seems like 2 AM!  Often when I emerged from a long shift in the MCC, I would be surprised to see the sun shining!  There is something psychological about being in a big windowless building for many hours concentrating on difficult technical problems.  But this time it was really true! 

The shuttle glided to a picture perfect landing, no problems worth noting.  Later pilots have often remarked that night landings are actually easier than daytime landings — not only is the weather often better, but there the well lit runway is the only thing you can really see and all the other distracting things that daylight reveals are hidden at night!

We ran through the post landing checklist; made sure the crew got out alright, and turned control of the vehicle over to the team at the landing field.  The traditional words were spoken:  “The flight control team is released.  GC (the ground control officer) unlock the MCC doors”. 

And nothing happened.  Nobody came in.  The video monitors switched to the congratulatory slide that always came up in preparation for the party.  But nobody was there.  The flight control team put our books away in silence; packed up our bags, and headed out the door.  All the usual party joints were closed at that time in the morning.  We all went home to bed.

Sic transit gloria mundi

When the shuttle lands today there is a small rush when the doors are opened.  Some mid-level NASA officials are generally there to shake hands and congratulate the team.  We can watch a small group of senior folks on the runway shake hands with the crew whether they are in California or Florida.  But it isn’t like the old days.

Well, at least we won’t all die from the cigar smoke!