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.


8 thoughts on “Adjusting Our Thinking”

  1. Dear Mr. Hale,

    You should write a book celebrating the Space Shuttle, a multi-hour PBS documentary would be cool too, highlighting all the technical achievements, and the people that worked on her, including all the exploration themes too.


  2. Dear Wayne,

    It’s appropriate that you should revisit this missive at this time. Not only does time draw near to Remembrance Week (there’s a personal reason for me) but we stand on the cusp of a new administration and all of the changes that come with it.

    ” I failed to stand up and be counted. Therefore look no further; I am guilty of allowing Columbia to crash.”

    Nice try, Wayne, but as any football coach will tell you, there’s no “I” in “team”. It was a group effort caused by what people who work with machinery term “all of the tolerances going the wrong way at the same time.”

    A better question for you, and everyone else at NASA to ask themselves, would be this:

    “What have I done to make sure that this never happens again?”

    I have already seen the results thus far of the team’s efforts; it would be perhaps a subject for a later post of yours to describe your efforts.

    Until then, I believe Evelyn Husband’s comments at last year’s Remembrance Day observance were a subtle reminder that life goes on, and while it may be acceptable to live in a moment, it’s not acceptable to allow that moment to define your life.

    You’ve moved forward. NASA has moved forward as well. Stagnation and hand-wringing would have been unacceptable.

    As someone once told me, “you’ve done well, but there is more.”

  3. I’ve always thought that the shuttle did it’s job a little too well. One of the main aims of the Shuttle was to make space travel routine and whilst it hasn’t quite done that it has done it to the point that the public have largely lost interest because the media has lost interest and yet every single mission has something exciting, unique and fascinating occurring, One memory that sticks in mind is Robert Curbeam’s gymnastics on a Solar panel yet I doubt that many of the general public could recall much about any mission which is a terrible shame.

    If I screw something up in my job part of the business may lose money until the fault is fixed. There are a few red faces, one or two jokes at my expense and the world goes on. I try to learn my own lessons from these problems and apply them in the future but sometimes it’s not always possible. Admitting the blame for a problem is such a rare thing that the last time there was a fault caused by a member of my time the management refused to accept that it was my fault as it was my team that caused the problem.
    In my line of work lives are not at stake and the coward in me is very grateful for that. More power to people like yourselves who are truly making a difference at NASA.

  4. Thanks for sharing this email with us, Mr. Hale. I had the great pleasure of meeting you a few years ago in Boston when you came to speak to my class regarding the Shuttle. I was struck afterwards by your concerned comment to myself and the professor that we (the class) had asked so few questions. I am glad someone as conscientious as you is part of NASA’s leadership, and hopefully in the small role I play in this undertaking, I can make sure that I ask those hard questions, and always stand up and be counted.

    I hope this doesn’t get posted twice, my apologies if it does.

  5. American Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Shuttle. Soviet Vostok, Voskhod, Soyuz. Chinese Shenzhou. That’s only 8, which one have I missed?

  6. Thank you for reposting this, Wayne. Portions of it should be set in stone at the entrances to all the space centers around the country and the world to ensure we (and future generations) never forget.

    Regarding Graham’s question regarding number of spacecraft, my guess is that Mr. Hale was treating the Apollo CSM & LM separately. If he were to include ISS, that would mean Skylab & Salyut/Mir would need to be included, too. Unless, of course, he meant the X-15… Which was it, Wayne?

  7. Mr Hale,

    I enjoy your blog very much, but this one I set aside as special. I think that your letter to your team was one of the most amazing pieces of pen-manship I’ve seen. I have a very large team myself and can see what a letter like that would do to your team.

  8. I have been following your blog for sometime now. Time to time I am trying to read the topics I have missed. This one really captured my heard. I am glad that you and your friends are fighting to take us next level. I watched many of your press conferences before launch, while shuttle is flying and after the landing. I have asked myself how you can be so calm about important issues infront of the media and the world even things are not going well. Now I understood. You are a good dedicated man.

    Keep blogging and inspiring…

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