Stifling Dissent

I’ve got a video that you need to watch, but first I need to explain why you need to watch it and what lesson I hope you will take away.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board said that NASA – and specifically the Space Shuttle Program – stifled dissenting opinions which might have prevented the accident.  Particularly the action was pointed toward the Mission Management Team.  As the new Deputy Program Manager, I was assigned the task of restructuring the MMT and providing means for listening to dissent.  Somewhere along the way I acquired the informal title of ‘culture change leader’.  I took this to heart and changing the culture to be more welcoming to alternate or dissenting opinions was a task that took a lot of my time and attention.

During the long days of returning the space shuttle to flight the question frequently came up as to how we were doing changing the culture.   My answer, as honest as I could make it, was that we were making progress, making changes, improving the situation, but that changing the culture was hard and we had a long way to go.

Periodically reports came from various sources that NASA people did not feel safe or welcomed in stating dissent or alternate recommendations.  This caused a lot of angst among NASA leadership who felt that they were doing everything possible to change the culture and saw progress being made.  NASA is a large and diverse organization and it is obviously difficult to winnow out all the old culture in all the niches around the agency.  After all, the focus was on the shuttle program and especially the MMT.  It should only be expected that parts of the organization far afield might be lagging behind.

Personally, I was heartened by a lot of the change which I was observing.  But it was still hard to draw out introverted engineers who are by their nature conflict averse.  Formal settings tend to put sociological pressure on low-ranking folks to keep quiet, so we tried to develop informal settings; ask more questions, listen more..

Still, it is hard to tell how effective the change effort has been.  Even though I personally try to solicit information from a variety of folks in a variety of places and ways, the reports were generally that alternate opinions are welcomed, dissent is accepted and evaluated, and we are doing better than ever.

But the anonymous polls and internet feed back says there is still a lot of work to be done.

Recently I had a couple of events which affected my thinking on this.  I have been out of the Shuttle Program manager job for almost a year now and a trusted coworker just a week ago told me that people in his organization had been prevented from giving me important alternative choices for some program choices that occurred a couple of years ago.  This was staggering. It was happening right in front of me and I was totally unaware that people – who I trusted, who I hoped would trust me – kept their lips sealed because somebody in their middle management made it clear to them that speaking up would not be good.


About two weeks ago an activity that Mike Coats started at JSC had an all day report out period.  The Inclusion and Innovation Council was to propose ways to improve innovation at NASA.  Various teams reported out, including one team of young employees who has the task to talk about the barriers to innovation at NASA — specifically at JSC.

The video attached was their result.  I found it extraordinarily funny and not at all funny.  These young people have obviously found themselves in situations RECENTLY in which managers at various levels applied sociological and psychological pressures to keep them from bringing ideas forward.

I am convinced that if we asked the managers who were the models for this little morality play whether they stifled dissent or welcomed alternate opinions, they would respond that they were welcoming and encouraging.  Probably because they have that self image.

But actual behavior, not inaccurate self perception, is what we really need. 

So now, watch the video, then come back and lets talk about what I think we really need to do about it:

Are you done with it?  Maybe you should go back and watch it a couple of times.  I did.

I feel like the early civil right pioneers must feel; the overt bad behavior is gone underground.  People say the right things in public discussion of how they should act, then behave in the bad old ways in small or private settings.

Since these behaviors are still being practiced at NASA, here is what I believe managers need to do

1.  Break out of the sandbox.  Even if it is not your area, the agency needs the best ideas to succeed in our goals.  If you have subordinates who have ideas for improving other areas, it is important to get those ideas into the open where they can compete in the marketplace of ideas, or at least get a technical review.

2.  If subordinate has an idea that has been tried before and didn’t work, consider that times may have changed and it might work now or with improvements that you know of.  In the final extremity, your subordinate needs more than the curt dismissal that its been tried before and didn’t work – you need to explain it to them.

3. Managers at all levels need to provide safe places and times for interaction that skips levels in the chain of command. 


Well, that is enough to start with.  Looks like we still have a long way to go and the first step is to know that you still have a problem.


Remembrance Day

Luke 14:28  For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?

Proper program management requires careful attention to the projected and actual costs.  From my experience I can verify that cost prediction is a difficult art.  How can you estimate the cost for something that has never been built, which is unlike anything else which has ever been built or operated, and for which some parts have to be invented?

Yet, when proposing a program or a project, it is not enough to describe what it is you intend to do and what the possible benefits might be, but also you must describe the cost.

In our business, not all the costs are financial.   Pioneers have always paid the price for advancement with their blood.

A number of years ago we took one of those classic American family car-trip vacations to the Yellowstone National Park.  For a long part of the trip we travelled along the Oregon trail.  In good parental fashion we made our children study up about that great migration before and during the trip.  One passage from the history books reverberates in my mind:  “Every hundred paces along the trail there was some article of discarded furniture or farm equipment; every quarter mile there was the remains of a cow or oxen or horse, and even mile along the trail there was a grave.”   Pioneers have always paid the price for advancement with their blood.

So one day a year we set aside time to remember those pioneers who paid the ultimate price for our modern quest.  It is entirely fitting and proper that we do so.  Just as we set aside one day a year to honor the brave soldiers, sailors, and airmen who gave their lives to keep our country free.  Altogether fitting and proper.  And totally inadequate. 

As if we don’t remember them every day.  As if their faces and voices don’t haunt every meeting and every decision that face us as we seen more pioneers into the space frontier. As if we can’t practice every day the lessons that have been paid for with great price – a price in blood. 

Is the fourth Thursday in January the only day you remember them?  That is not enough. 

Can’t remember them all?  Here is one place to start:

They can no longer carry the work forward.  But we can.  If we remember.  Every day. 

It is not your privilege to speak up; it is your duty.

It is not your right to participate in the exploration of space; it is your privilege only if you pay excruciating attention to detail, check and recheck, and make certain it is right.

At the end of the day, our progress has to be worth their sacrifice.  Or we should not go at all.

And turning back is not the way they would have wanted to be remembered.

Tripping the Boundary Layer – Part 2

As several people have pointed out, the shuttle has been used for aerodynamic testing for a long time, and the first shuttle was outfitted with special instrumentation for that purpose.  And a lot was learned about the boundary layer, but a precise experiment was never performed on that subject.


If we are to design future hypersonic aircraft and spacecraft, we need to understand this phenomenon in a very specific way.  Precisely controlled data collection is required.  That is what is going to happen on the next shuttle flight.


Here is a picture of the apparatus as it was being installed on Discovery in the Orbiter Processing Facility:


Discovery's heatshield modified to trip the boundary layer


The older tiles have grayed with repeated flights, new tiles are shiny black, and the green painted aluminum skin is where tiles are yet to be installed.  The wires hanging down are for the instrumentation.  The black tile in the center of the picture has a quarter inch ridge down the middle of it, oriented crosswise to the airflow; that is our controlled trip mechanism.  


If this experiment is successful, there are two more iterations with larger steps on the test tile. 


Funny how it seems so simple, but it takes so much planning!


If we are successful, a better understanding of the transition will lead to a prediction capability.  This will make it possible to design the engines and aircraft for the next leap forward in aircraft!


Tripping the Boundary Layer – Part 1

As I start this series, it occurs to me that “tripping the boundary layer” could be an article on social change – maybe I’ll do that. 

But for today it is an engineering subject.  So buckle your seatbelt and hold your hat, we are off on an adventure in rocket science!

Aviation has been driven by the desire to fly higher and faster.  Great strides have been made, especially up to the middle 1960’s.  But for the last few decades aircraft have been at a plateau in terms of speed and altitude.  With the exception of rocket powered X planes, the boundary of high performance jets has been just faster than Mach 3 and up to about 100,000 ft.  Even though there is the perennial dream of hypersonic transports carrying passengers across the globe in a fraction of today’s aircraft, we don’t seem to be advancing on that dream.

Part of the problem is we don’t understand how to avoid tripping the boundary layer.  There is precious little data at hypersonic speeds, and computer simulations are no good without data and the formulae derived from data to predict these things:  garbage in; garbage out.

So, to start this discussion off, let us define the terms.  (What the dickens are we talking about?)!   What’s a boundary layer and what does it mean to trip one?

In aviation, the boundary layer is a thin film of air closest to the wing, body, or engine of an aircraft.  At the molecular level, the air immediately adjacent to the airplane is dragged along with the plane.  Infinitesimally farther away, the air is being carried along at some fraction of the speed of the airplane, and at a longer way away from the airplane, the air is not moving at all, or at least not being dragged by the airplane.  That distant air is called the “free stream” and the close by air – which is affected by the passage of the aircraft – is called the boundary layer.  Typically aerospace engineers consider the boundary layer to be that close in part of the air that is being dragged along by the passing of the aircraft at a speed of 5% or more of the airplane.  These boundary layers are thin, inches or fractions of an inch.  They are important because the boundary layer causes most of the drag and most of the heating when an airplane is in flight.

Boundary layers, like all fluid flows, is either laminar or turbulent.  Laminar flow is smooth, turbulent flow is, . . . well,  . . . turbulent.  You can see a good youtube video of this here:

And there is a really good wikipedia article on turbulence here:

So why is all of this important?  Exactly at this time there is a large effort by many companies and government agencies to develop hypersonic aircraft.  NASA has even sponsored a couple of test flights.  The problem, as it is for all types of aircraft flight, is drag and heating.  When the boundary layer over the wings or in the engine is laminar, there is low drag and low heating; and when the boundary layer is turbulent, drag and heating increase dramatically.  All boundary layers can be “tripped” or transition from laminar to turbulent flow.

In some of these experimental aircraft the engines [called SCRAM jets for Supersonic Combustion Ram jet engines] have only operated for a fraction of a second or a very few seconds.  Why?  Because the designers do not know how to cool them; they don’t understand when or whether the boundary layer inside the engine is turbulent or laminar. 

In some of these experimental aircraft, the engine begins to melt as soon as it is turned on; hence the extremely short operating times.

This is no good for a hypersonic passenger aircraft which might carry a hundred people from New York to Tokyo in a couple of hours. 

Why do we not understand this phenomenon?  Because it cannot be recreated in a wind tunnel or other experimental apparatus.  The wind tunnels that have long enough flow durations to study this phenomenon run only up to about Mach 6.  These hypersonic engines need to perform at Mach 8 or 10 or 12.  There are “wind tunnels” that operate at high Mach numbers but only for fractions of a second; not long enough to understand the way in which a boundary layer works.

No aircraft fly that fast, missiles can achieve it briefly, but there is one platform that spends a serious amount of time flying through the atmosphere at speeds above Mach 6: 

Its the space shuttle. 

Tomorrow I’ll talk about an experiment that will be on the next shuttle flight. An experiment which will study tripping the boundary layer.

With this knowledge, the designers just might be able to make a major advancement toward hypersonic passenger aircraft.

To hold your attention until my next post, here is a true story:

Around 1900 a young graduate student in physics was trying to do research on a problem that could earn him a doctorate degree.  He started out studying the transition from laminar to turbulent flow in fluids.  After months of work and study, he concluded that this problem was too hard.  He would concentrate on an easier subject:  atomic physics.  His name was Niels Bohr and he won the Nobel prize for physics in 1922 for his work in quantum mechanics.  And he was right; turbulence is harder.  And we don’t understand it yet.




There is a lot of talk these days — well, almost all days — about leadership. 


Many times I think we are talking past each other when we discuss leadership.  This is because people use different definitions for the word. 


I don’t have a short definition, but I have an example.


When I was much younger I read “Undaunted Courage” by Stephen Ambrose.  This book is an account of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-6.  Or to be more precise, the book is about Meriwether Lewis, a complicated and flawed man who lead a 6000 mile expedition through uncharted territory, natives which were alternately helpful and antagonistic, through winter storms, in near starvation, over rapids,  through harsh mountains, and more, much more.  One man died of a ruptured appendix.  Everyone else survived even though everyone back home had given them up for dead.  It is a great story.  You may or may not agree with Stephen Ambrose’s interpretations of the trek, but what caught my eye was the author’s description of what made Meriwether Lewis a great leader.  If you plan to be a leader, you should ponder this assessment.




     “The most important [of his talents] was his ability as a leader of men.  He was born to leadership, and reared for it, studied it in his army career, then exercised it on the expedition. 

     How he lead is no mystery.  His techniques were time-honored.  He knew his men.  He saw to it that they had dry socks, enough food, sufficient clothing.  He pushed them to but never beyond the breaking point.  He got out of them more than they knew they had to give.  His concern for them was that of a father for his son.  He was the head of a family.

     He could lose his temper with them, and berate them in front of their fellow soldiers.  He could be even sterner:  he had a few of them take fifty lashes well laid on.  But in the judgement of the enlisted men, he was fair.

     He didn’t make many mistakes.  His orders were clear, concise, and correct.  Perhaps the finest tribute to his leadership abilities came at the time of the Marias decision [which fork of the Missouri river to proceed up].  All the men thought the Marias was the river to follow, but they said to Lewis and Clark “very cheerfully that they were ready to follow us any wher we thought proper to direct.”

     He shared the work.  He cooked for his  men, and poled a canoe.  He was a hunter and fisherman.  From crossing the Lolo Trail to running the rapids of the Columbia, he never ordered the men to do what he wouldn’t do.  When it was appropriate, he shared the decision making. 

     These are some of the qualities that make for a good company commander.  Lewis had them in abundance, plus some special touches that made him a much loved commander.  He had a sense, a feel, for how his family was doing.  He knew exactly when to take a break, when to issue a gill [of whiskey], when to push for more, when to encourage, when to inspire, when to tell a joke, when to be tough.

     He knew how to keep a distance between himself and the men, and just how big it should be.  He knew his profession and was proud of it and one of the best at it.”


Adjusting Our Thinking

Tomorrow marks the 5th anniversary of a fundamental change in national direction for space exploration.  You can look up that text at

This came at an interesting time in my life.  Reflecting on that direction and the other turbulent events of those days, I wrote an email to my space shuttle team members as I often did in those days.  Looking back, I think it was one of the best things I ever wrote.  I have re-read it and still agree with every single sentence.  I hope you won’t mind if I recycle this essay for your consideration on this anniversary:


Sent: Tuesday, January 27, 2004 5:25 PM
Subject: Adjusting Our Thinking

To the Space Shuttle Team:

I have been doing a lot of thinking lately: the approaching anniversary of the Columbia accident, reading the new book on the accident, the incessant questions from the press, the opportunity to observer our JPL colleagues in their time of testing, and most importantly thinking about the new policy and direction from our leaders. Like many of you I have had some mixed emotions from all of this. I would like to share some of my thoughts with you.

The vision of future space exploration existed long before we came to work here. It is a natural continuation of the American dream. The vision has shown up over the years in dozens of NASA strategic planning documents, reports from special commissions, and the like. I signed onto the vision as a schoolboy, long before I came to work here. Many of you did the same. The vision has variations in detail and timetable, but the central theme has not varied for decades. Explore the solar system; first by sending robots and then with people establishing outposts, then base camps, and eventually colonies.

In my mind’s eye our progress is like the Olympic torch relay: each person and each program holds the flame of exploration and progress high for an allotted portion of the route, and then the torch is passed to the next runner in the relay. Sometimes we run alone and sometimes we run together with others, but the goal is to move the flame forward, to illuminate the darkness, to allow the next generation to start just a little closer to the goal. The goal of exploring and settling the solar system will not be completed in our lifetime or our children’s lifetime. But we – here and now – are called to run our lap with skill, dedication, vigilance, hard work, and pride.

It sometimes seems that there is never enough commitment or enough money to accelerate the vision into fast forward. The march to the future moves with fits and starts. Sometimes we have had to compromise for what we could get, accept the part of the dream could be sold at any given time. This is what happens in so much of real life: doing the best we can with what we have. In spite of this, this generation has done great things in low earth orbit and our colleges have made tremendous strides exploring ahead of us with robots.

The steady grind and necessary constant attention to the daily tasks has shifted our gaze from the higher vision. We have become accustomed to putting the vision off, waiting for the day – long to come – when we could take the next step into the cosmos. Every year we have tried to be more efficient than the year before in the hopes that we could sock away enough money to build the future, to prove to our national leaders that we were fit to be given the permission to take the next bold step. Our attention shifted from the vision to the next flight. We came to accept the status quo as the best that could be. We became complacent in more than our technical abilities. We became complacent about the vision. It became enough for us to do great things in low earth orbit. And in that day to day grind our hearts have come to believe the vision is something far off, something for the distant future.

The shuttle is a marvelous and revolutionary machine. You, the people that make her fly, are incredible in your dedication and attention to detail. The achievements that the shuttle has produced will be heralded in the history books of future years. A short list hardly covers all the shuttle’s achievements: first and only reusable spacecraft, heavy lift launch vehicle, heavy cargo return vehicle, delivering three times more people to orbit than all other space vehicles to date combined, the most successful launch vehicle in the world, the most efficient engines ever made; the list could go on for many pages. Don’t believe the critics when they sell her short.

But those of us who know her best know her shortcomings. She is terribly complex; she is extraordinarily difficult to prepare for flight, she is too expensive to operate, and frankly, she is not as safe as we need our human transport vehicle to be.

The shuttle is an amazing machine, but like every other machine ever built, she is the result of a series of compromises, built within financial constraints, a product of the state of the art of technology when she was designed.

So too will be the next space vehicle we build.

The shuttle was supposed to be the DC-3 of space travel; the DC-3 became the first economically successful airliner; safer than anything flying at the time – not perfect, but just what was needed to cause air travel to become commonplace. Yet the analogy falls apart when we remember that in the 31 years between the Wright flier and the DC-3 ten thousand different aircraft types were designed and build. Designs and technologies were tried, tested, evaluated, and either discarded or incorporated into future, better aircraft. In the 42 years of human space flight, there have been exactly 9 different model spacecraft built by all the nations of the world. Without similar experience of trial and evaluation building multiple space vehicles, the wonder is that we came so close, not that we fell short. The real truth is, the shuttle does her job too well. She has never been quite bad enough to motivate the nation to build the next and better spacecraft. If the shuttle was not the DC-3 of the space age, the fact remains that the shuttle remains a huge advance in capability, technology, and even safety over all other spacecraft.

We cannot let the familiarity of long years and the investment of our personal time and energy in any one program or any one vehicle confuse that program or that vehicle with the vision. The shuttle has its place and time in the great relay but it is not an end in itself. Those of us in the shuttle program need to take care lest we become the battleship admirals of the new century; failing to understand when times have changed and in which direction progress is marching toward. We must move out of what is comfortable and familiar.

It is time to adjust our thinking.

In a virtual reality age, spaceflight is profoundly real. Surrounded by imitations of real life on computers, at the movies, on television, our work has real consequences. Every time we light the SRBs, the stakes are high. First of all the lives of the crew are on the line. Next, a great investment of our nation’s treasure in the form of the vehicle itself and the facilities that support and surround it are at risk. They are at real risk, not theoretical or philosophical or virtual risk, but risk of life and limb and physical destruction. There is more. You must understand that every time the countdown clock reaches T=0, we bet the future, and we do it with the whole world watching. Not only are we wagering the program; we lay the agency on the line. Not only is the agency at risk, but national pride and esteem are in question. Not only national pride is at stake, but we place the human exploration of the cosmos for a generation on the table. Until the wheels safely kiss the runway, everything is in play. I don’t know any other agency or any other organization where that is so completely and thoroughly true. With all of that at stake, the very best of our abilities and efforts is required.

When we build the new human space launch vehicle and count the clock down to T=0, we will make same gamble. It is the only way to get to the universe; bet everything on every single step forward.

Last year we dropped the torch through our complacency, our arrogance, self-assurance, shear stupidity, and through continuing attempt to please everyone. Seven of our friends and colleagues paid the ultimate price for our failure.

Yet, the nation is giving us another chance. Not just to fly the shuttle again, but to continue to explore the universe in our generation. A year ago it was my firm belief that a second fatal accident in the shuttle program would result in the lights being turned out at NASA, the vision would go into hiatus for a generation, and we – all of us in the agency – would be through. Instead, the nation has told us to get up, fix our shortcomings, fly again – and make sure it doesn’t happen again. That is the goal to which we are all working now.

No matter how hard we worked before, now is time to redouble our efforts. The vision runs right through the next launch of the shuttle. We cannot be found wanting again. The future steps depend on flying the shuttle safely and building the space station. These accomplishments are the necessary requirement to go on to the future.

Now we have been asked to raise our eyes to the bigger vision again. We are asked to look at what and who will run the next leg of the relay. Our lap may come to an end sooner that we had come to believe but the distance we have yet to run ahead is longer than it rightfully should be for those who have dropped the torch. We must not fail. It will demand constant attention in the face of many many many distractions, doubts, and critics. The task ahead is not easy. But then, it never has been easy. We just understand better what is required.

Therefore, do not worry about the future. We have work to do today. If we do it well, there will be even more work for us to do in the very near future. The foundation for that work is to fly the shuttle safely. We have been given a great mandate. Those of us who are in the shuttle program now will be required to help the next generation succeed. Write down what you have learned; pass it on to those who are starting to consider future designs. Many of you will be called on to lead that effort. Eventually, all of us will be called. But until then, stay focused on the task at hand. We must make sure that the next launch – and landing – and those that follow are safe and successful. That will be our finest contribution to the future, carrying the torch ahead.

P. S. A final, personal note: a worker at KSC told me that they haven’t heard any NASA managers admit to being at fault for the loss of Columbia. I cannot speak for others but let me set my record straight: I am at fault. If you need a scapegoat, start with me. I had the opportunity and the information and I failed to make use of it. I don’t know what an inquest or a court of law would say, but I stand condemned in the court of my own conscience to be guilty of not preventing the Columbia disaster. We could discuss the particulars: inattention, incompetence, distraction, lack of conviction, lack of understanding, a lack of backbone, laziness. The bottom line is that I failed to understand what I was being told; I failed to stand up and be counted. Therefore look no further; I am guilty of allowing Columbia to crash.

As you consider continuing in this program, or any other high risk program, weigh the cost. You, too, could be convicted in the court of your conscience if you are ever party to cutting corners, believing something life and death is not your responsibility, or simply not paying attention. The penalty is heavy; you can never completely repay it.

Do good work. Pay attention. Question everything. Be thorough. Don’t end up with regrets.


The Kaboom Case

Starting to work in Mission Control at JSC just before the first shuttle flight was a dream come true.  I was surrounded by old Apollo flight controllers who filled my days with space stories from the moon landings and before.  Those guys had seen a lot of action:  Apollo 13, Gemini 8, Skylab 1, and many more near disasters that had turned out all right due to hard work, solid preparation, ingenuity and not a little good luck.  And they also lived through “the fire” as it was universally known — Apollo 1; where all the preparation, ingenuity, and luck did not help.  My early days were a continuous seminar in the trials and tribulations of early space history taught by those who had earned their PhD in the school of hard knocks.

But the torch was being passed to a new generation of flight controllers and by the second shuttle flight there were a lot of us “new kids” training for the coveted front room positions in Mission Control.  I got to side saddle (that was the term) with the legendary Gary Coen who played a vital role in saving Apollo 13.  For shuttle, Gary was the senior Propulsion Officer, responsible for the hypergolic rockets that controlled the orbit and attitude of the shuttle.  My buddy Ron Dittemore, with a year’s seniority on me,  had already achieved orbit certification and was working on the even more difficult Ascent and Entry phase certifications as a front room Prop officer.  Following us was the new guy in the Prop section, a fellow that had transferred down from the Lewis Research Center:  Bill Gerstenmaier.  Seems like we would be working together for a long time to come.

Sitting with Gary during all the simulations and training was really outstanding.  He knew the systems, flight rules,  and procedures forwards and backwards.  Even more importantly, he had the judgment that comes with long experience to know what to do in a crisis.  And the simulations are nothing more than one crisis after another coming so fast that they pile up on top of each other.

The down side was that all the old Apollo guys were smoking fiends.  In those days nobody had heard of a ban on smoking in the workplace.  Gary was a chainsmoker of unfiltered cigarettes, so I got plenty of second hand smoke sitting right next to him.  On my other side, the GNC officer was Harry Clancy.  Harry was a pipe guy.  I’m surprised that I haven’t yet died of emphysema; as it was there were some days I thought I might asphyxiate. 

But we learned what it meant to be flight controllers from the pioneers.

One basic lessons was known as “loop discipline.”  Every position had a communications keyset which allowed the flight controller to communicate with different people.  The communications circuits were called “loops” and each one had its specific use and name.  The Propulsion team, front and back room, talked about our special problems on the “Prop loop.”  Everybody monitored the “Air to Ground loop” where the crew talked with the CAPCOM on the radio.  And everybody _ I mean EVERYBODY – listened to the “Flight Director loop” where all the important topics were discussed and decisions announced.  Drilled into your head was the requirement to “talk on the loop”  where everyone who had an interest in the topic could hear you — not only the members of your own discipline but the engineers over in the Mission Evaluation Room, the prelaunch team down at KSC, and your boss over in the office on the other side of the duck ponds at JSC.  Everybody who was anybody at NASA from the Administrator on down, had a box in their office to the Flight Director loop.  And the loops were recorded for posterity.  It was very important to pick your words carefully when talking on the loop.  Telling jokes or otherwise fooling around was not allowed.  But the worst sin was to “talk over the airwaves”, not on the loop, but where only the people physically around you could hear a conversation.  We were trained so to talk on the loop even if it was to the guy three feet away next to you.  The conversation was to be done “on the loop” so that others could follow it as well.  Loop discipline was one of the minor lessons, and there were many more difficult lessons in the school of flight controller training.

After working in the Staff Support Room (aka “the back room”) on the first shuttle flight, it was really a heady experience to be in the Flight Control Room for the second shuttle flight.  But I was just an “OJT” guy, Gary was at my side making sure I did all the right things at the right time.  On my very first shift, we had a minor problem:  the electrical feedback on a motor valve failed which cased the electric motor to stall.  I got to tell the CAPCOM to have the crew move a switch in the cockpit which kept the valve from overheating.  Whew, the first real crisis of my career.  Gary helped me with that problem from the first recognition, through the analysis, to the words to use on the Flight Loop.  Problem solved.  I started to relax.

Then Billy Moon, the EGIL started an excited conversation with the Flight Director that I didn’t quite follow.  The EGILs were responsible for the electrical systems onboard the shuttle.  This included the fuel cells which generated electricity.  The fuel cells are a marvel of modern technology; about the size and shape of a large trash can, they converted cryogenic hydrogen and cryogenic oxygen into drinking water and electricity.  They could loaf along at 3 or 4 kilowatts — about what my house uses when the kids leave the lights on and the airconditioner running — or up to around 18 kW in an emergency situation for limited periods of time.  And they only cost about $15 million apiece.  The shuttle runs on electricity; there are no batteries.  If the three fuel cells are turned off, the shuttle is dead; the computers don’t run, the hydraulics don’t run, the rocket engines don’t fire, nothing works.  So its kinda important to keep them healthy.

Billy Moon was telling the Flight Director that symptoms indicated one of the fuel cells was “breaking down”.  The catalyst material which separates the hydrogen and oxygen was developing holes.  Billy wanted to shut the fuel cell down and close the valves to the hydrogen and oxygen supply lines.  This was serious.  The Flight Rules required early termination of the mission if a fuel cell failed.  Flight had to be sure that EGIL knew what he was doing before taking a drastic step like that.  After all, this was only the second day of a planned five day mission.  This problem was clearly a lot more important than my little valve feedback circuit failure which had been resolved with no mission impact.

The discussion on the Flight loop got more and more heated.  EGIL wanted action and Flight was waffling.  Billy Moon stood up and turned from his console to face Flight, only about eight feet away.  I had a front row seat since the Prop Console was almost directly between EGIL and Flight.  Bill’s tone of voice and volume were increasing.  Finally, Bill Moon did not key his microphone; he broke one of the fundamental Flight Controller Rules:  he said loudly and off the loop “THIS IS THE KABOOM CASE, FLIGHT!”  If the hydrogen and the oxygen mix improperly, the results would not be good.  The Flight Director got the point.

The Flight Director had also been standing up and at this point, he sat down and said:  “CAPCOM, tell the crew to shut down fuel cell 1 and close the reactant valves.”  While CAPCOM was repeating this message over the Air to Ground loop to the crew, we heard Flight dialing the phone and talking with senior management:  “You better get over here.”

So STS-2 became the first shuttle flight to be shortened.  Not many flights have been.  There have been more dramatic times in mission control, however.  This was just my first.

My drug of choice is the caffeine in the coffee, not the nicotine that the Apollo guys were all addicted to.  But some days in the MCC, you don’t need caffeine to get your heart rate going.


Management Training

I believe in continuous training for your job.  It is not enough to have earned a degree at one point in your life.  If you are to be good at your work, you need to have continuing education of one form or another. 

One of my very best short courses ever was a week-long training session for new supervisors that NASA held right at our center.  It was taught by a retired NASA manager and he was spot-on concerning what we needed to know, how we needed to make the transition from worker to supervisor, and how to motivate, encourage, and if necessary discipline our folks.  It was a great class, I soaked it all up, and I still fall back on that training from time to time.

My training records fill a bulging folder in my desk drawer and a similarly bulging computer folder in my office PC.  Some times this training has been practical (How to write User Friendly Software; How to deal with Difficult Co-Workers).  Sometimes it has been mandated (Government Ethics Training; IT Security).  Very few cases have been less than useful.  But even those classes were an opportunity to network, and to hear from folks in similar circumstances discuss their problems — which almost always turned out to be similar to my problems.

As a supervisor, I encouraged all my people to get all the training that they could.  This was never what you call excessive; at most it amounted to about two weeks a year, and for most people in most jobs it was really a lot less, sometimes just a few computer based refresher courses amounting to a few hours in a year.

But this is a story about an executive training course that I did not appreciate much at the time, but which had implications that I have pondered extensively.

To use the vernacular; most of my work is Left Brain work.  Engineering is probably the extreme example of Left Brain activity.  Logical, analytical, rational, and objective.  Very Left Brain.  However, when you work with people, you have to use the other hemisphere:  creativity, sensitivity, subjective thinking predominate.  How is a poor engineer to make the transition to supervisor?

A couple of years ago my very Right Brain human resources person came to my office and informed me that I was being a bad example to my troops.  What?!?  While I was encouraging — even requiring — my people to sign up for training classes right and left, over two years had passed since I myself had gone to any training class.  Everybody gets stale, she said, everybody needs a refresher.  And I knew she was right.  So I told her to bring me a list of recommended class options and I’d pick one.

And that is what we did. 

One class was very highly recommended by several NASA senior leaders that I knew.  It was taught by a distinguished professor from one of those big name eastern business schools.  Author of several books, well known on the lecture circuit, the professor was somebody you would recognize if you know anything about management theory and practice.  And not only that, the course — a whole week — was being held at a beautiful lodge in the mountains.  They offered a significant price discount for US government employees — it was within our training budget — so I signed up.

We got two thick books to read before class started.  They were chock full of good management and supervision techniques:  organization, motivation, delegation, etc., etc.  All good stuff.  Good to review even if you had heard it all before.

The class was held out of doors in a big tent in a mountain meadow in front of the lodge.  This made it hard to concentrate on the speaker.  Class members were from around the world; North and South America, Europe, Africa, Australia, Asia; and they represented many large industries and a number of non-profit organizations.  It was a truly eclectic group.  Listening to each participant describe the challenges that they and their organization faced was very revealing — their problems were much like mine.  Much creative discussion on how to solve those problems was extraordinarily useful.  All in all, a truly good course and I would recommend it to your senior leaders even today.  If you could put half of those good management principles into practice it would truly revolutionize your workplace for the better.

But there was this one extra thing.  And it is the part that will forever be first in my memory of this class.

Remember that I’m a Left Brain engineer trying to be a supervisor.  As it turns out, most of the executives in this class were pretty left brain, too.  One guy I kept getting teamed up with was an extreme Left-Brainer, an engineering supervisor from a German engineering firm.  Does it get more Left Brain than that?

The extra thing was a new part of the seminar; it came in the form of a modern dance teacher.  Seems that the professor had discovered that all of the executives taking the course over the years were pretty much left brain.  He felt we needed some right brain stimulation.  So he hired a lady who ran a modern dance studio in a big eastern city to come and help stimulate our . . . less developed hemisphere.

She did three half-hour sessions over the course of about four days.  The first two session seemed sort of silly at the time; teaching elderly (ok, at least 40-something) managers some modern dance movements.  Now remember, this is taking place in a mountain meadow.  Do you get the picture?  I hope nobody had a camera!  But, hey, it was part of the course, so we did it.  Amazing what you can get people to do when you drag them off away from anybody they know and put them in a group of strangers.

The very last session on the very last day — right before we broke up to drive to the airport to go to our respective homes — was under the dance lady’s control.  Her instructions were simple:  pair up (I got the German engineer again), don’t talk, pick a spot in the meadow.  Chose one of the pair to go first; that person would make a modern dance move and stop, then the second person would make a modern dance move in response and stop, then the first person would make a move in response, and so on until time was up.

I can’t believe I’m telling you this story. 

Its all true, and there is no photographic evidence.  And if you ask me about it in person, I’ll deny it. 

It looked just about like what you can imagine it looked like.  A bunch of older executives in polo shirts and jeans doing modern dance steps silently in a mountain meadow. 

So my very Prussian partner came close by me and muttered quietly so the instructor could not hear us:  “Vat are ve doingk?”  That is a very profound question.  I almost doubled over in laughter.  But that looks like a modern dance move.  Probably the best response I had all day.

So why would I tell you this story?  The embarrassment alone has kept me silent on this subject for more than two years.  The reason is the same reason the professor had.  If you are going to manage people — lead them, really — you must be creative; you must be sensitive, you must be subjective, and you must exercise the Right side of your brain.

Have you ever met a teacher who knew a subject thoroughly and completely but couldn’t teach it?  I think we all have.  Have you ever had a supervisor who was an expert in your job, who could do it better than you even if he were blindfolded and had one hand tied behind his back — but was a lousy supervisor, couldn’t motivate a kid to eat a cookie, couldn’t delegate putting a postage stamp on an envelope, couldn’t organize people to walk to the cafeteria for lunch?  I bet you have.  I know I sure have.

So just like you have to go to the gym to improve your tennis serve, I guess you have to dance in the meadow to improve your people skills.

I can’t believe I wrote this.



Blogging: A new adventure!


I really appreciate the start to the conversation.  In fact, I am overwhelmed by it.  Pardon my ignorance of the technique, I hope to learn fast.

A couple of logistical notes:  all NASA Blogs, if comments are allowed, are moderated.  That means that if you write a comment, it comes to me and I have to approve it for posting.  So don’t send multiple copies of the same comment, please.  Also, posting comments is only one of my duties and sometimes (like this morning) it may be a couple of hours before I get back to this to read and approve posts.  Finally, there are a couple of rules, down at the bottom.  So far I have only not posted one comment because it derogated an individual by name.  I may need to keep folks on topic in the future.  I would really like NOT to play referee and post all the comments, but that is not the way the system works, so I’ll try to be as loose on the rules as I can be.

GREAT COMMENTS.  Wow.  Over the next several weeks I intend to explore many of the topics raised in these first few posts in some detail.  Bear with me if I don’t get to your favorite comment right away.

This is going to be fun and educational.  I am so impressed with this first day.  What a hoot.