The Power of Accepting Criticism

Update Sunday Feb. 22 . . . .
The initiator of the email change has written and asked that I remove the original text.  As you can see, I have complied with that request.  I stand by my apology to the folks who have done great work in hypersonic research. 

The Power of Accepting Criticism


Next week I am on the agenda of the NASA Project Management Challenge training event to give a talk on “The Power of Accepting Criticism”.  This was a talk that I planned to give last year, but a conflict caused me to back out at the last minute.  So up until last evening, I was feeling pretty good about having the speech ready, it was written a year ago, with only minor updates to polish it up.


Now I think I’m going to tear that speech up and write a new one.  Same topic, new info.  All because of an email exchange I had last evening.


Here is what I got – not as a comment to my blog, but as a direct email — as I was waiting for my plane to take me home:



<Original email text deleted at the request of the initiator>




On my blackberry I thumbed out a quick reply explaining my blog and felt pretty good that the note would assuage the email author. 


I was wrong.  Here was his response to my flimsy explanation:



<Original email text deleted at the request of the originator>


Double Ouch!


I had three and a half hours of electronic isolation on the plane last night to ponder this exchange.  Here is my conclusion:


He’s right. 


I did a tremendous disservice to those folks who have worked diligently in the area of hypersonic flight.  A number of teams have launched test vehicles:  Australian, Russian, others.  The most impressive was the NASA Hyper-X test program which had two very successful tests about five years ago.  Summarizing these efforts in two or three superficial sentences clearly demeans their achievements.  I would offer a humble apology to those who labor in this field, particularly all of those who on the Hyper-X project.


In review, it is clear that I have become lax in my technical explanations.  It is the height of laziness to brush off a subject because it is hard to explain to the lay public and therefore not to make the effort.  So I pledge to renew my efforts to be more technically precise in these posts while still attempting to make some of these subjects clear to the non-expert reader.


Second, I promise, no more whiny blogs about postings on the internet.  The nature of some of the discourse on the internet is simply a fact of twenty first century life which I am not going to be able to change and therefore it is unworthy of my complaint. 


Finally, no more putting down the public because they are not experts in the space field.  My job here should be education, not criticism.


Well, enough for one day.  I have a speech to revise.

13 thoughts on “The Power of Accepting Criticism”

  1. Anyone serious about boundary layers would read primary literature instead of the Wayne Hale blog. We need more simplified posts to keep people with day jobs aware of the issues, but not overwhelmed. They need to keep doing their day jobs to fund NASA.

  2. True, Wayne has a great way with simplified explanations and this kind of public outreach is greatly needed (and valued). However, as engineers and communicators, we should be able to simplify technical subjects for public consumption without spreading falsehoods or over simplifying such that we unnecessarily link separate issues topics.
    Good science teachers know that a key skill is to be able to communicate the essential parts of a topic at a level and in a manner the audience will understand and at the same time not limit their ability to build on that knowledge.

  3. Wayne,
    The most insightful back to school night presentation I ever heard was from my daughter’s Theater teacher in Palo Alto. He acknowledged that theater was not going to get kids into ivy league schools, but that he was going to teach them something more valuable than anything they would ever learn… How to give and take criticism. I totally agree, no matter how smart and educated you are, if you can not do these things you and your organization will not succeed for long. Maybe we should require rocket scientists to take theater.

  4. I agree with the 1st comment to this post. We are ALL experts in some things, generalists in others, and have comments on even more. Blogs are not meant to be peer-reviewed, they are meant for corrections of fact, new knowledge sharing, stating of opinions and even social networking. Hale is doing a great job on his blog and demonstrating regularly his willingness to accept criticism. The anonymous original responder certainly has good technical points to make but they are “corrections of facts”. Don’t disparage Hale for helping inform us about some basics of propulsion systems about which most of us don’t have a clue. Hale has nothing to apologize for and is helping to educate us and himself. Give him a break.

  5. I went back and re-read the boundary-layer posts and didn’t see them as denigrating the Hyper-X program.

    As an engineer and a tax-payer, I have my own issues with Hyper-X. They spent hundreds of millions of dollars for two flights that supposedly demonstrated (maybe) stable supersonic combustion in an operating scramjet motor. A key question that I never saw answered in the press releases is this: Did the motors produce thrust? Did either vehicle accelerate in flight? Another irksome aspect of Hyper-X is that the flight vehicles were discarded at the end of the flights and weren’t recovered for post-flight examination. The patterns of burning and blackening in and on the flight vehicles would have provided valuable information for reseachers. I understand that the flights may have generated reams of data that might be of interest to engineers, but I doubt they were real steps forward.

    As for “chicken wire”, the idea is maybe not a bad one. It’s analogous to construction with concrete. Concrete by itself is brittle and has poor strength characteristics. To improve them, engineers have for decades embedded reinforcing bar or rebar in the concrete. Foam has much the same problem: it’s brittle with low tensile strength. So the solution seems obvious: embed some sort of “rebar” in the foam for additional strength maybe not all over but just in critical flow areas on the tank. It would have required some quick materials research to find the best configuration for the reinforcing material but the idea seems to me feasible. It’s moot now, of course, since NASA is bailing out of the Shuttle business, but might be useful information to have in hand.

    Also, your idea of soliciting ideas from the public at large was not a bad one. It’s like the “American Idol” talent show on TV. Each year the producers sift through tens of thousands of no-talents to find a few candidates for further consideration. In your case, you might have to sift through hundreds of silly notions but with a little imagination and interpretation you might find a few gems.

    I enjoy your blogs. Do keep them coming.

  6. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought that I sent Wayne the original email, as some of the issues brought up had crossed my mind and my reference was listed. But no it was not I. To a small degree I agree with the original concerns expressed to Wayne about watering down the facts, but in the end did not take offense with the content of his post on boundary layer transition. Quite the contrary, I’m hoping for more posts on the subject, as it can only lead to better public (and management) awareness of the topic. In regards to Hyper-X, we actually did a pretty good job of predicting transition behavior before flight, which ultimately was borne out by the flight thermocouple data (see recent AIAA paper on the flight results). So in an effort to be more factual, the designers did actually know where and when transition was going to occur on the flight vehicle based on existing engineering correlations and new wind tunnel data, which led to the decision to place trips in front of the scramjet engine to pre-process the incoming flow to insure optimum performance. (And to answer one of the comments, yes there was positive thrust on both flights!) But it is safe to say that the level of uncertainty with those predictions were high until the actual flight data came in. For the up-coming Shuttle experiment, the new flight data will go a long way to reduce uncertainties with transition prediction in an even harsher environment than the Hyper-X case, with transition expected to occur at Mach 15 where real gas effects may have an influence, instead of Mach 10 or 7. This is truly data that is outside the bounds of what can be obtained in ground-based facilities. Stayed tuned!

  7. What the heck harm did it do asking the public (which is also footing the bill) if they had any bright ideas that might be of some use? It’s unlikely they would have thought of something that hadn’t already been thought of by those learned in the field but you never know. Until Einstein published four papers in 1905 nobody had even heard of him. If it weren’t for Max Planck nobody would still. If it weren’t for Einstein, nobody would have ever heard of Satyendra Nath Bose. But of course, even if no good idea ever resulted from those responses, I wonder what interesting studies could be mined by the social scientists from that goldmine of a database of the responses. (Just off the top of my head, what people know about rocketry, what people assume about the space program, who is likely to respond to such questions, is there anything about the responses that tell something about the people of the United States and their concerns about the space program, etc?)

    I think NASA might be well advised to have a feedback site for all sorts of subjects with the responses cataloged, analyzed, etc. Sort of like the “how we’re doing” web sites and “how’re we driving” 800 numbers. I’ll bet there would be some very interesting contributions.

  8. “The nature of some of the discourse on the internet is simply a fact of twenty first century life which I am not going to be able to change and therefore it is unworthy of my complaint. “

    No, of course you’re not going to be able to change it.

    But you also ought to keep in mind that large numbers of non-expert “space fan” types are reading that stuff regardless of what you do… and too often not hearing the other side, and so forming their opinions in the dark. Over the past couple, five, ten years, having progressively more access to the thoughts of insiders: astronauts, managers, engineers – has been wonderful. For me personally, but I’m sure I’m representative.

    I’m not suggestion to directly argue back and forth with the ornery, nasty, loud ones out there, obviously. But unfortunately – if somebody doesn’t speak up with the other side, it means a goodly number of well-meaning passionate folks without expertise aren’t going to ever HEAR the other side. They’re going to form opinions based on politics, charisma, volume, flashy PowerPoint presentations, or just by default.

    I know next-to-nothing about scramjets and boundary layers. But I applaud you for taking up this cause of culture change or management reform or whatever you call it. If you misled me, I forgive you.

    But please could you find an excuse to show up for the televised press conferences again? You’re missed in our house!

  9. To borrow from a song written by Palma Pascale, “you’ve got to love us for what we are,” Wayne: ardent supporters of you, your employer, and what your employer is trying to accomplish.

    “Finally, no more putting down the public because they are not experts in the space field. My job here should be education, not criticism.”

    Actually, we love to hear about your adventures. Contrary to the old chestnut, a few million primates pecking away at our keyboards may indeed write Shakespeare, but rocket science was never part of that bargain. We tell you what we know, really appreciate the chance to do so, and if we tell you something that turns up to be useful, well, then everyone wins.

    But don’t give up on us.

    By the way, any radio amateur knows that chicken wire makes one heck of a good antenna! 73’s, and good DX!

  10. I guess this is just a difference between the new media and the old media. Old media had fact checkers, and the new media is checked more by the readers?

  11. Wayne,

    I posted this on Perhaps you might devote a future post to the poppet valve issue that’s currently grounding STS-119.
    My wife’s going to be in Florida the first week of March, and I’d like her to see a launch up close for once.

    “There is some good information here…let’s work together.
    I watched a telecon on NASA TV today, and they had a sample poppet to show everyone. Offhand, it looks like a rather simple device. It was stated that they had found a manufacturer. Seeing how simple a device it was, it appeared to me that pretty much any machine shop with CAD/CAM technology should be able to manufacture the poppet.

    I was the product line manager for Westinghouse’s Hagan Ring Balance meters once, and I learned that if you have a print, and sometimes just the part itself, you can have anything made. Anything.

    So, let’s look at the process of machining, and how it leads to cracking, visible and invisible.

    Machinists today would say that in order to make this poppet, you chuck a piece of bar stock into the lathe and machine away everything that isn’t a poppet. But the process of machining itself is the culprit here. The machine tool(s) actually tear away tiny bits of metal by first creating a fracture in the surface, and this process creates cracks.

    Hot-rodders of 40 years ago would toughen their crankshafts and connecting rods by shot-peening them after the machining process. While I doubt that such a primitive process could be of value, perhaps something more modern could be?

    Instead of rough conventional machining, there is a process which uses an abrasive paste to hone the bar stock into the desired shape. All that is needed is a die to hold the bar stock in place, with entry and exit points for the abrasive paste. One company that specializes in this is Extrude Hone.

    Could it work? I don’t know, but maybe those of you who are closer to the process might.”

    As they say, run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes. I used to use the services of Arc-Master in Latrobe and Kucsma Machine in Carnegie. They made anything and everything I ever asked them to, and got it right the first time.


  12. Wayne,
    I understand you removing that e-mail and agree with your reasons. I want to be clear that this comment has nothing to do with that decision.

    A couple of your other comments above made me put finger to keyboard though. Particularly the ‘no more whiny blogs about postings on the internet’ and ‘no more putting down the public because they are not experts in the space field’ comments raised my eyebrows a touch. While it may be uncomfortable for some people to hear, that doesn’t make your previous posts untrue.

    I just hope that any recent criticism you may have received doesn’t translate into future posts being artificially edited because you no longer feel comfortable sharing your honest opinions with us, warts and all — even opinions which might make some unhappy (you can’t make everyone 100% happy).

    These are still your opinions, whether you express them or not. I think the majority of people reading this blog already accept and understand that. I would even bet that many actually share similar thoughts themselves in their own fields of professional expertise.

    Personally, I think this blog is a unique insight into the thought processes of someone who has really ‘been there, done that’. I greatly value your unvarnished, honest opinions just as much as your stories and your lessons.

    I just wanted to express my own hope that you don’t hold back too much for such “Politically Correct” reasons. If you need to, put a “health warning” at the top of the blog to pre-warn folk that you won’t hold your punches.

    Know that your un-edited thoughts are extremely valuable to us Padawan’s who are here for inspiration from a Master who is so willing to share such valuable lessons 🙂

  13. I am confused. I am not a rocket scientist, but even I know that it will take more than seconds or even minutes to get a scram jet to maximum operating altitude. Even if your original post was off by a factor of 5, the delta between the goal and what has been achieved to date appear orders of magnitude apart. I appreciate the effort involved in getting the ball from the 48 to the 40 yard line. But be the ball at the 48 or the 40 yard line, why would an apology be in order for having stated that a touchdown remains a long ways away? That statement does not in the least question the capabilities of the team to eventually score a touchdown, it is just a straight-forward statement of fact.

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