Getting Myself Fired

In 1985 I was a Propulsion Systems Officer in the Space Shuttle Mission Control team.  I was responsible for the reaction control system that was absolutely vital to orient the space shuttle outside the atmosphere, and for the orbital maneuvering system which provides the final push to get the orbiter into orbit and the deorbit burn to come home.  These liquid rocket systems are a mechanical engineer’s delight:  lots of plumbing, valves, some smoke and fire, knowledge of orbital mechanics required, thermal control, crew interaction, and software.  We had a great team and I was proud to be part of most of the early shuttle missions.  But it was time to make a move to supervisor, and in the spring of the year I was selected to be the leader of the INCO group.

INCO stands for Integrated Communications — that’s just about what you think:  radios, recorders, instrumentation, television.  That discipline is an Electrical Engineer’s delight.  Not mine.  I took exactly one EE course in college and nearly flunked it.  But the big bosses said it was OK, I would be a supervisor who knew all the processes and procedures for Mission Control.  I didn’t need to understand the technical stuff, they told me, that was what the staff was for.

That was a lie.

Very quickly I found out that understanding the basics of radios and digital electronics was absolutely mandatory for supervising the INCO team. 

Oh, and the INCOs were responsible for the coffee pots for the MCC — but that story will have to wait for another post.

I decided that I would have to go through the process to be certified as an INCO if I were to lead this group.  This is not easy!  The INCO team is made up of the shift leader in the FCR (who you see on TV) – he is the guy who owns the title “INCO” and responds directly to the Flight Director; then in the “back room” are the support staff:  RF COMM, and INST.  The entry level position was INST.  The Instrumentation Officer is responsible for the onboard telemetry, the signal conditioners, the engineering recorders, etc. 

I understood nothing about any of this stuff.  But the INCO folks recognized that they would have to teach me their job if I were going to be an adequate leader, so they all pitched in.  I read the books, went to the lectures, observed the operations in the MCC, did all my homework.  Then I was ready to start working in the MCC for the integrated simulations.  With the astronaut crew in the space shuttle simulator in building 5, and an entire Mission Control team in building 30, these sessions were intense.  The Simulation Supervisor and his training team were diabolically clever in developing training lessons where interlocking malfunctions could appear insurmountable – but which a good crew and MCC team could overcome.

On my final day as the supervisor of the INCO section, I participated in an integrated Ascent simulation.  We would practice launching the shuttle over and over and over again, with the clock picking up about 2 minutes before liftoff, and as soon as the shuttle cleared the tower malfunction after malfunction appearing in short order.  Most of the time the crew survived.  Sometimes the shuttle even made it to orbit.  But it was intense.  And back in the office, all the Flight Control management is listening to the comm loops to hear how well the team is doing.

It was an artifact of the system that when the simulator starts at T-2, not all the communications system is in the right configuration.  In real life, the INCO team has many hours to command all the various components to the optimum conditions for launch, but in an integrated Ascent sim, there are two minutes to get everything configured properly onboard.  This meant that the INCO, the RF COMM, and the INST were all banging away on their command keyboards furiously to get all the commands sent to the (simulated) shuttle before lift off.  In those ancient days (well before PCs and point&click logic), the consoles had the Multifunction Command and Display Keyboard.  Basically this was a bunch of pushbuttons which had the hexadecimal alphabet on the keys plus one larger key marked “Command Execute.”  You had to know the hexadecimal code for the command you wanted to send; have the dexterity to type it in correctly; confirm on the computer display the code was entered properly; then hit Command Execute for the big mainframe computer on the ground floor of the MCC to send the command.  A fraction of a second later the command would be received at the shuttle (real or simulated) and if everything lined up properly Things Would Happen.  The Right Thing, you hoped.

So with each run, my job was to start the MADS recorder – capturing the “ancillary” data for post flight analysis.  As soon as the simulator went to run at T-2 minutes, I would carefully type in the hexadecimal command for MADS recorder start, verify that code appeared properly on my computer screen, and push the command execute button. 

Ascent simulations are not very interesting to the INST operator because Sim Sup generally targets the bigger systems — main engines fail, external tanks leak, fire breaks out in the cockpit, stuff like that.   Ascent runs take only about 15 minutes, then you debrief, turn the simulator around, and start again.  Many times.  After all day, I got pretty good at starting the MADS recorder.  Ticky tickety tick, execute.  Next run:  ticky tickety, tick, execute.  And repeat. 

On the last run of the day, I punched in the numbers by rote, disregarded the computer screen and hit the execute key.  “WHY DID THE FM TRANSMITTER JUST TURN OFF” echoed in my headset.  “INST – YOU SENT THE WRONG COMMAND!”  Uh oh.  Just one little keystroke wrong.  I was the goat.  

The debrief was not fun. 

When I got back to my office, there was a note on my door from the Division Chief:  “Come see me”. 

As I said, that was my last day as an INCO.  Back in the PROP section the next morning. 

Moral of the story:  Treat each command as if it were your last.  It could be.


Knowledge is Important


We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.  T. S. Eliot


It is important to know that the space age did not create the environmental movement.  Much has been written about the affect of the “Earthrise” photo on the public consciousness in 1969 as the Earth Day movement got started.  Certainly the experiences of the Apollo astronauts looking back at a small blue earth in the distance contributed to the general knowledge that the earth is small, fragile, and in need of protection.  But the conservation movement anti-dates the space age by at more than a century.  Think of John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt in this country among the many who have been concerned about our planet.


Having properly noted those facts, however, we should remember that space exploration profoundly affects how we understand our environment, the weather, the climate, pollution, and the weighted affects of human and natural causes to changes in the world around us, both for good and for ill.


Any serious discussion of climate change, for example, relies extensively on satellite observations from space.  That much is clear to anyone who studies the topic.


However, an equally important affect is our understanding of how planetary atmospheres and climates work.  There are many predictions that are being churned out by global climate computer models which we need to understand. 


If all the doctors in history had one patient to study, they could scarely have a complete understanding of the vast complexity of medical science.  Similarly, those whose study is limited to only one planet would have an incomplete and biased view of how the oceans, atmosphere, solar affects, and human interaction all weave their complex interplay.


Planetary scientists have studied – at close range – planets with atmospheres and oceans, and planets with atmospheres and no oceans, planets with frozen oceans and no atmospheres, the atmosphere and workings of the sun, and many other intriguing and valuable iphenomena that builds up an understanding which is at the heart of the computer models that are of so much interest in the climate discussions of today. 


Predictions are only as good as the information and models that are used in making the predictions.  Better information is needed and better models are needed as well.  Space exploration informs both aspects.


How about a subtle story that you may not have heard? 


Scientists have known for over two hundred years that large meteorites or asteroids have periodically struck the earth.  The natural erosion forces at work on the earth’s surface – and underneath due to plate tectonics – have erased most of the craters.  Detecting large impact features on planet earth is not simple.


When the Apollo astronauts returned rocks from the moon in the late sixties and early seventies, one new class of rock that was incontrovertibly associated with impact craters were the shocked breccias.  From the study of rocks of another world, geologists learned much about the identification of the rocks associated with impacts.  Several types of rock that were not well understood, but which were noted as “interesting” became readily identified as impact shocked samples.


In the late seventies, geologists studying core samples obtained by the Mexican petroleum company Pemex, identified rocks coming from offshore rigs near the Yucatan as impact shocked rocks, sharing many characteristics with the lunar breccias.  Taken together with other subtle clues, the geologists mapped out a huge and previously unknown impact crater that they named Chicxulub.  Something big happened there about 65 million years ago.  Something that you should know about.  Something that might make you think about the big things that sometimes affect life on earth in profound ways.


Something we didn’t understand until we studied the rocks from another world.


NASA and Education


            As the son of an elementary teacher and the father of a secondary school teacher, I have learned a few things about education.  For example, if you were to ask any teacher at any level what is the most important tool to have to facilitate learning and they will give you the same answer.  Sometimes the words are slightly different but it amounts to the same answer:  the interest, inspiration, and enthusiasm of the students for the subject.  With that, you can teach almost anything with minimal, even primitive equipment and facilities.  Without interest, enthusiasm, and inspiration, all the high tech, modern, fancy equipment and facilities are virtually useless.


            The exploration of space has a long history of inspiring students to study science, engineering, mathematics, and other technical subjects.  The exploration of space has inspired poets, artists, and novelists.  Almost the entire spectrum of human activity and interest has at one time or another been sparked by the exploration of space. 


            I recently watched a middle school class on a field trip to a NASA display.  They were totally entranced.  Middle school is a hard age to capture.  These kids were spellbound.  They were ready to sign on:  astronaut, flight director, chief scientist, whatever.  Dinosaurs and space continue to capture the interest of our young people. 


“The Yankees, the first mechanicians in the world, are engineers– just as the Italians are musicians and the Germans metaphysicians– by right of birth” – Jules Verne, “From the Earth to the Moon” , 1865.  That was the 19th century view.  In the 21st century, engineering (like music and theology) has become a worldwide theme.  America is not the only nation to provide engineers.



            Education is one of the most important topics to Americans.  As a nation we devote huge resources to educating our children, local school boards and state government last year spent over $800 billion on education.  At the federal level, the Department of Education’s budget last year was just over $57 billion.  This represents substantially more money than the nation spent on national defense in all its aspects including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, national intelligence, and the department of homeland security.


            In fact, the national average secondary schooling expenditure per child in the United States is third in the world, behind only Switzerland and Finland and well ahead of Germany, Japan, South Korea, and China. 


Yet, by all objective measures, American students are significantly lagging in almost every area to their foreign counterparts.  Math, Science, even language testing scores lag significantly behind other modern industrialized nations.


Equally troubling is the decline in college graduates in engineering, mathematics, and science.  Over the last decade there has been a steady decay of graduates in these fields so that compared with the previous decade, the United States has 100,000 fewer graduates in these fields.  Compared with other countries we are doing even worse.  When normalized to the population of the country, every industrialized modern nation graduates more science, engineering, and mathematics students than the United States.  Our biggest economic competitors are graduating the most:  China, Japan, India, South Korea.  American innovation and creativity has long been the fire that stoked the engine of our economy.  As we graduate fewer people who have the wherewithal to create new products and services, America can only expect economic decline.


            So what are we to do about this as a nation?  History can provide some relevance.  During the 20th century, there were two significant periods of growth in the training of American engineers, mathematicians, and scientists.  The first was World War II and its immediate aftermath.  Certainly we would rather not expand our capability based on a war, and the circumstances of the GI bill may not be applicable.  The other period of expansion was shortly after Sputnik and the decline started with the end of Apollo.  Is there a lesson here?


            Several prominent writers have argued that the Space Race of the 1960’s provided an alternative to war in the competition between nations.  Certainly there were wars in the 1960’s, most notably in Vietnam.  However, the two super powers of the period were able to compete in the peaceful exploration of space in a way that provided a way to enhance national pride, demonstrate technical and social prowess to the other nations of the world, and in fact inspire young people to pursue careers in technical fields.


            Clearly, today, simply throwing more money at education will not be a panacea.  This is not to say that there are not areas where increased funding could improve some niches.  But overall, we need a different strategy.


            To reiterate:  what is the one most important ingredient in teaching?  Technology such as computers is important.  Facilities are important.  Good teacher preparation is important.  But if you really want students to learn, they must be interested; more than that students must be excited, they must be inspired.


            We need inspiration. 


            NASA is not the Department of Education.  Our charter does not include responsibility for national education.  Nor does our budget provide very much in the way of teacher aids.  NASA’s charter requires us to “inform the nation of our . . . .progress” and a very small division of the public affairs office provides educational material which can be used for classes to explore topics that NASA is directly related to.  In a more significant way, NASA each year spends a significant sum on research grants to universities which in turn provide support for graduate students and researchers.  These grants are funded because there are specific products that NASA needs to carry out our missions.  Research grants have the happy by-product of providing funds for graduate and undergraduate support.  But all of NASA’s education related spending – direct and indirect – is a drop in the bucket of national education spending.


            What NASA has provided in the past, NASA can provide again:  inspiration.


            Many have complained that the International Space Station and Shuttle programs have not been inspirational.  Personally, I would challenge that premise.  But for a moment, lets accept it.  What would be inspirational?  How about the exploration of the solar system?  First, outposts on the moon, then on to Mars, the asteroids, and other habitable places in the solar system.  Initially by robotic explorers, then by human beings:  men and women.  How about that for an inspirational goal?


            Even in these “un-inspirational” days, many young people have been motivated to science and engineering fields by the prospect of becoming an astronaut, or of being a member of a robot exploration of the universe.  Imagine how excited a generation will be if they have the immediate prospect of setting foot on the sandy plains of Mars? 


            It’s not a war.  Its peaceful.  And it is sustainable.  But the vision cannot be delayed, shelved for “a better budget climate” in the distant and hazy future. 


            NASA may once again be the inspiration that America needs to shake off our lethargy, become the greatest nation in the world – maybe even the greatest nation in the world’s history – by continuing to explore the last frontier.  And since it will excite our children as nothing else can, NASA will transform education, and bring back the creative spark that powers our economic engine in ways that we cannot imagine.


            Having a seemingly unattainable goal is the hallmark of what it means to be American.  Our forefathers came here for opportunities that the old world lacked.  Our descendants will look for opportunities that this entire world lacks – but which the universe can provide. 


            And so, once again, American will transform itself and the world.  The old beekeeper from New Zealand had it right.  Ed Hillary lead the first expedition to the summit of Mt. Everest.  He summed it up this way: 


“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves”


Why Explore Space?

Are these two conversations, historic and current, so very different?



Walden, 1854, by Henry David Thoreau :  “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. . . Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not . . “


Modern conversation overheard:  “Why would we want to throw money away on space exploration, it is just a waste!”  “Don’t we have problems enough here on earth?  We should solve (fill in the blank) before we explore space.”



The more things change, the more they stay the same. 


I wonder if the USA exports ice these days?  In 1869, the transcontinental railroad revolutionized travel and knit the United States together.  Thoreau was a great philosopher and I encourage you to read his works, but he had an aversion to technology that would have served us poorly a century and a half ago.  His philosophical heirs in this aversion to technology would likewise have us follow a path which will serve our nation – and our world – poorly for the next century and more.


Some people believe, in spite of fifty years of evidence to the contrary, that the technicians down at the Kennedy Space Center load stacks of fresh dollar bills (or maybe hundred dollar bills) into each space vehicle which is then launched into the great abyss as though money were toxic waste needing disposal.  Thoreau would have agreed that money is toxic, so maybe there is a connection. 


For at least two generations a number of thoughtful writers, scholars, professionals have helped us understand that space exploration, rather than being a distraction from “serious things”,  actually provides solutions to some of the most intractable problems here on earth.  By and large most people recognize the value that NASA brings.  But the nay-sayers are persistent, and the general public wakes up fresh every day, so we will try one more time to explain why space exploration is important for today and vital to our future.


Many reasons have been advanced to demonstrate why the United States of America should continue to lead the exploration of space.  At this particular point in time, let’s concentrate on four of these.  Limiting the discussion will keep it to a manageable size, just note that there are many more points which can be made,  which may be more applicable at other times or in different circumstances. 

Here are my top four:


1.  Space Exploration inspires our young people to achievements in education, especially in science, engineering, mathematics, and technical subjects.


2.  Space Exploration requires innovation and technological advancement which improves the national economy directly and for the long term.


3.  Space Exploration leads to better understanding of our world, its environment and climate, and allows for global monitoring of changes.


4.  American leadership in Space Exploration provides for greater national security in multiple ways that are at once subtle, tangible, and highly effective.


These, it seems to me, comprise a powerful subset of arguments in favor of expending at least a small fraction of our national treasure on this enterprise.


And it is a small fraction; the entire NASA budget makes up 6 tenths of one percent of the Federal budget.  Given the attention paid to NASA, it is easy to understand why some uninformed citizens believe that NASA’s budget approaches that of the  Department of Defense, or that of spending for Social Security.  In truth, if all of NASA’s budget were to disappear, there would be no appreciable savings to the national debt, no meaningful improvement in our national social safety net, and probably a net loss to the national defense.  Those who defend the space exploration budget are constantly finding new categories of spending which exceeds the NASA allocation:  Americans spend more on pet food than they do on space exploration; Americans spend more on cosmetics than on space; Gillette Razor company spent more to develop and market their new shaver than it costs to fly the space shuttle for a year, and on and on.  Nobody is advocating giving up our pets, or our personal beauty, but when we talk of programs which will have lasting impacts into the future, it is well to put the cost in context.  Don’t even get started on bailouts.  AIG, to take one easy example, has received more tax dollars in the last few months than NASA has in its budget for a decade.  America is the world’s only remaining superpower, both economically and militarily.  As a nation we have the resources to educate our children, care for our elderly, defend ourselves, and all the rest; and somewhere in all that it might just be important to devote six tenths of one percent to the future. 



Over the next couple of weeks, I intend to explore each of these reasons in some detail.  Please stay tuned.





Making the Case

Going through some old papers, I found a school publication which contained an essay I wrote in 1971.  If memory serves, I had just read Gerard K. O’Neill’s “The Case for Space”, and of course, the Apollo lunar expeditions were in full swing.  I would like to hear your thoughts on how these arguments have held up for the last four decades.  Are they true, has time shown them to be specious, or have they been overcome by events?  Your comments please on this tidbit of history.
Today’s Quest

A group of people stand, watching, on a beach.  A spark of light appears in the distance.  A pillar of angry red and orange smoke climbs in the sky.  A blast wave strikes the people, they are deafened by a roar.  The very ground begins to tremble, and a white spire takes off — takes off for the Moon!  Three men are going to the Moon!

But what are they leaving behind — here on the ‘good earth?”  Hunger, poverty, war.  In light of these pressing social needs why should we spend billions of dollars to send men to the moon?

Let’s take a look at each of these concerns:

WAR.  Wars have been fought for two reasons usually; for power and for territory.  Space encompasses both unlimited power and infinite territory.  Some people believe that we may substitute the conflict between man and man for the conflict between man and nature.  Many people, among them the imminent rocket scientist Dr. Werner von Braun, believe that space exploration could become a possible alternative to war.

POVERTY.  First let me point out that of the billions of dollars spent thus far to explore space, not one dollar bill ended up on the Moon.  Every last penny was spent here on Earth.  There have been two traditional ways to cure poverty; give a man a handout or give a man a job.  The American way has always been to give a man a job; after all that is what our forefathers came to this country for; a job, an opportunity to better himself.  NASA at it height employed 400,000 men. 

HUNGER.  How can space exploration cure hunger?  Rockets can’t make food and as we all know there is hunger in America today.  Not starvation — a recent government report showed that while there was hunger no one starved to death in America.  In other countries this is not so.  Tomorrow there may be starvation in America as our population increases.  How are we to meet this need?  Space exploration has already given us food.  Two specific examples:  there are two bays in Florida.  One produces tons of shrimp every year.  The other, just like it and immediately next to it produced no shrimp.  The people there spent hundreds of dollars to find out why.  They tested the salinity of the water, the currents, and even seeded it with baby shrimp, but to no avail, the bay remained unproductive.  One picture from one Gemini flight showed the reason.  It seems that the current in one of the bays was circular and kept the shrimp in it.  In the other bay, however, the current swept the shrimp out to sea.  A fifteen foot breakwater was built, and now that bay too produces tons of shrimp every year.  Another example. Apollo 9, the last Apollo flight to remain in Earth orbit, in addition to testing out lunar hardware, did several experiments in relation to the Earth.  For example, it took pictures of the wheat belt of Kansas.  Wheat, as we all know makes bread which is the staff of life.  Wheat, however, is attacked by a disease called wheat rust.  The wheat plant, to fight off the infection, uses up more energy.  Some of this energy is given off in the form of heat.  On infrared film the Apollo 9 crew spotted the infected area.  Quick action by the Agriculture Department in cordoning off the diseased area made the wheat crop for 1969 (the year the Apollo 9 flew) the largest in our history.

But these are only small aids.  One must remember that the previous flights were only pioneering flights.  Toward the end of this decade with Skylab and other Space Stations in orbit, we will have constant surveillance where today we have only random pictures.

These are three of our major problems, but space exploration has given us other things.

Space exploration has given us advances in technology.  As the trite phrase has it, there is not enough room to list all the spinoffs from space technology so only one example will have to do.  The medical men wanted to know how a man’s body would react to spaceflight.  What is the astronauts’ heartbeat and blood pressure as they roar through space?  To meet this need sensors were developed.  These sensors have been adapted to hospitals where they have already saved thousands of lives.  It is estimated that 100,000 lives could be saved if these intensive care wards were put into general use all around the nation.

Space  exploration has also brought gains in world prestige.  World prestige is a fickle but potent thing.  When the Russians put the first man in orbit, Yuri Gagarin in April 1961, they gained much power from the acclaim.  Indeed, as a direct result of this prestige, the Russians went into East Berlin exactly three days after the flight and began building a wall.

Think what the world would feel about America if we had stayed home, the Russians had gone to the moon, and our only contribution to world affairs had been the war in Viet Nam.  We would then be reviled in the eyes of all men!

The American people also have gained much self confidence from our space flights.  We have many problems facing us, racial prejudice, war, famine, disease — all seemingly insoluble problems.  But remember, we are the nation that sent three men to the moon, and three men again, and three men again; we can do anything we put our minds to and this is the type of confidence that the American People need to solve these problems.

One final area.  Knowledge.  We all agree that space flights have brought us knowledge, but knowledge is an abstract thing.  What really is knowledge?  It is what makes us different from the cave men, indeed what makes the cave men different from the other animals of the forests is the knowledge to get in out of the rain.  Yes, space flight has brought us knowledge; and in the words of John Glenn as he spoke before Congress after his historic flight:  “Exploration and the pursuit of knowledge have always paid dividends in the long run — usually far greater than anything expected at the outset.”


So I offer this quaint historical essay, written with all the enthusiasm of youth, set in the language and culture of an earlier day — and I ask for your comments:  what has stood the test of time?  How has the rationale for space travel evolved over the years?  What has proven to be accurate and what was not?  I await your thoughts. 

Flying Really Fast

There aren’t many NASA types at the National Space Symposium this week.  This is the biggest aerospace convention of the year, and almost everybody is in Colorado Springs.  While the focus is on “national security space” there has been plenty of talk about how space observations are mandatory for climate monitoring, where satellite phone and TV communications are headed in the future, and how emerging commercial human space flight will be affected by government rules and regulations.

Most NASA people stayed home because of a restriction put into last year’s NASA budget greatly restricting the agency’s budget for conference attendance.  This is the only conference I am going to this year, for example.  It makes it hard to keep up with what is going on in the world.  But enough whining, that is not my point today.

I had a great conversation with the Air Force Research Lab guys about their X-51 hypersonic scram jet test which is coming up this fall.  I am particularly interested in the development of this technology since it will someday enable aircraft travel vastly more efficient and faster than what we currently suffer through.  Can you imagine being anywhere in the world within about an hour of takeoff?  That is the kind of travel that is possible.

The shuttle had an outstanding test last flight looking into the arcane science of how air closest to a flying vehicle (called the boundary layer) transitions from laminar to turbulent flow.  Early results indicate we had a controlled transition around Mach 16 versus the usual Mach 8.  This type of data is invaluable to the designers of future hypersonic aircraft.  And it can’t be gathered in wind tunnels or any other ground test.

Anyway, the X-51 is ready to take scram jet engines to the next level — This engine will run for up to 11 minutes which is a quantum leap past the current record holder of about 12 seconds.  The flight will take place over the Pacific Ocean this fall. 

I can’t wait to hear the results.  But even more than that, I can’t wait to get out of my trans-oceanic coach seat in one hour instead of eight!

Keep up the good work guys — keep pushing the envelope!