Carrying the Torch

I’ve said before that the exploration of space reminds me of the Olympic torch relay.  So here is a note to all you relay runners who carry the torch every day in your work; to those who have retired from the race, and to those who dream of carrying the fire one day.

Not everybody gets to carry the torch up the stadium steps and light the cauldron in the presence of tens of thousands and the virtual presence of tens of millions.  Only a very few get to carry the torch in moments of glory.

Not everyone who carries the torch is remembered, only a few names are ever announced.

Not everybody gets to carry the torch over the mountain tops, just a handful get to carry the fire through magnificent vistas.

Not everybody gets to carry the torch where it is cheered on by adoring crowds.

Somebody has to carry the torch in the rain, somebody has to carry the torch through the valley, somebody has to carry the torch through the warehouse district and the swamp.  Somebody even has to carry the torch in places where the onlookers jeer.

But the the torch has to be carried.  If the flame is ever to reach its goal, if the cheering multitudes are ever to see the final runner holding the torch high, it must to be carried. 

Space exploration is like that.  Some days are glorious days, some days are awful, and most days can be tedious. 

But if we stumble, and the torch falls, and the light goes out, then all the dreams and all the sweat of all of those who came before us will be for nought.  And all the hopes for those who might have carried the torch after us will fade away in the night.

We don’t get to chose the section of the course we run.  We just get to carry the torch. 

Celebrate with those who carried the torch in glory days.  Know that glory days will come again. 

Don’t forget to hold it high, even  in ordinary times, even in the presence of those who jeer. 

Because those who carry the torch, carry the future in their hands.

Because even if you have to run through the desert and never hear the cheering throngs, you are still carrying the fire. 

And how well you run your distance is the only reward that is truly worth having.

Curmudgeon thoughts

It may just be that my recent superannuated birthday is weighing on my mind, but I have been having curmudgeon thoughts a lot lately. 

First curmudgeon though:  why do prices continually go up?

For as long as I can remember, coffee in the Mission Control Center cost 10 cents.  Best coffee around, too.  For more than 20 years, the price hasn’t changed.  Its not subsidized, there is an informal “club” that manages the coffee.  Nothing fancy, plain joe accompanied by powered creamer and sugar if you must.

A few months ago, I was floored when the sign said the price was now 15 cents!  Highway robbery.  Of course, they also have added a bunch of foo-foo creamer options (hazelnut, amaretto, yech) that no real flight controller would touch.  I can remember when men were men and flight controllers . . . .well, I guess it must be my advanced age which is leading to this rant.

Why is this important?  Because, if you want to know the truth, all the real decisions in the MCC are made at the coffee pot.  I know, the flight control team is all tied in on console with all the information displayed on multicolored interactive computer screens.  But the real management decisions all get made when the flight director comes by the coffee pot and all the senior managers sitting in the viewing room converge there too. 

Second curmudgeon topic:  grown children being contrary.

In case you caught my blog post comparing Star Trek to our current space program, I would point out that my son has written a similar blog post comparing Star Trek to his work — in a very favorable light.  Aren’t children supposed to follow their parent’s lead instead of taking the opposite tack?

Third curmudgeon topic:  stupid comments about launch weather scrubs. 

I have been to KSC and I have waited for the weather to clear enough for it to be safe to launch our astronauts.  I have even taken my family down there and had their vacation plans disrupted due to launch delays.  So I can somewhat understand disappointment about launch delays.  But anybody with a brain should realize that launching into a thunderstorm is just plain stupid.  In the bigger picture, delaying a day or three will never be remembered.  Having the shuttle struck by lightning would haunt us for a long time.  So pipe down.  It is Florida in the summer time.  What did you expect.  Pack more . . . clothes . . . next time.

Fourth curmudgeon topic:  blog-o-sphere confusion over who sets national space policy.

Recently the ISS program manager had to tell the media that NASA is developing plans to deorbit the ISS in 2016.  Everybody on the internet jumped on that as the stupidest thing ever heard.  Why would NASA want to eliminate a hugely expensive project just as it is becoming useful?  Short answer — NASA doesn’t want to do that.  Congress and the OMB have indicated that they will not give us the money to keep it operating.  By international treaty we must dispose of orbital objects when their lifetime is complete.  This is not a stupid decision on the part of NASA, it is, as the Gehman report said, “a failure of national leadership.”  Time will tell if we continued to be directed down this course or if we will be given operating funds to use the ISS as a national research laboratory as it was intended.

Final curmudgeon topic: the more things change the more they stay the same.

 During our recent office move, one of my co-workers cleaning out his files came across an ABC Radio transcript by Jim Slade made on August 12, 1991.   He was at KSC and after talking for a few minutes about the activity at KSC he got to the gist of his commentary which I will excerpt for your reading pleasure:

“There is a cynical tendency to jeer whenever a big, visible program doesn’t work right.  Impatience, leavened with the idea that lots of money ought to mean perfection.  . . .  If you want to know what’s wrong with NASA, you will have to dig back in your history books ten to fifteen years ago when neither the White House nor the Congress could decide if the space program was fish, fowl, or tinker toy.  Funding was inadequate to do the job  . . . More importantly, though, the space agency was getting no direction.  No political leader had the interest or the courage to say “this is what we ought to do with the things we have learned,” and, as a result NASA drifted . . . there has been one commission after another making a study of what the US should be doing in space in the next fifty years.  Usually, they say the say the same thing:  go back to the moon and on to Mars.  And so far, there has been a lot of political talk about it . . . .”


OK, after this, no more curmudgeon thoughts.  I promise.  Really.



Real Life is Not Like Star Trek

For my birthday, my son and fellow Star Trek aficionado gave me some DVDs with the old TV series.  Needless to say, I have made a lengthy review of the subject lasting far into the evenings over the last week or so.


As a fictional future, Star Trek set a high standard:  there was always in interesting planet to explore, every week there was a challenging interpersonal (interspecies?!) relationship to develop, the good guys always won, camaraderie reigned supreme.  Even logic and reason, while important, were shown to be inferior to human intuition and compassion.  Every episode left you with the feeling that things just would just get better and better.  What an exciting, upbeat, pleasantly challenging universe we would encounter in the future!  Pop culture was profoundly affected:  “Beam me up Scotty!”


So my evaluation of the genre?  Star Trek ruined an entire generation, maybe two.


Don’t get me wrong – I really enjoy the old series (except maybe for the first movie).  I still do.  I indoctrinated my kids and they are working on indoctrinating my grandkids.  Beam me up Scotty, indeed.


Alas, one of the most poignant Dilbert cartoons of all time has a senior engineer telling a naive young intern to “climb into the Jeffries tube” (the air conditioning duct) to get to “engineering” where an impending disaster could to be averted.   After the intern gets stuck in the duct, the senior engineer says “this is where the intern finds out that life is not like Star Trek”.   Too true:  real life is not like Star Trek.


We have not found any alien civilizations (yet), nor life of any kind elsewhere.  Even the evidence for fossilized life on some meteorites is highly controversial.  Humans have briefly scouted exactly one other world full of “magnificent desolation.”   Most of our human time has been spent in low earth orbit, eking out a toehold in space.  Some of our robots have visited more worlds and their splendid visits give us some hope for future exploration.


But for my generation, indoctrinated in the Star Trek mythos, the bar was set high and in real life the results have been, well, meager.  Space exploration has lead to the development of loads of new technologies (GPS, direct broadcast satellite TV), and there have been many examples of courage and heroes to inspire us; but we are a little short in the interaction-with-beings-from-other planets department.  (No UFO letters please).


Real life has turned out to be a lot darker and more complicated than any of the TV episodes or even the movies.  Nothing really gets settled in an hour in real life, does it?


Over the years the Star Trek franchise also changed as the new episodes became darker and less optimistic.  Picard stuck in endless battles with the Borg; Voyager never going to make it home, Deep Space 9 battling shape shifters to an inconclusive standoff, and Enterprise which became a dark soap opera centered on the relationships between the crewmembers.  The last movie has become the of the darkest of all – exchanging a bright future timeline for a more sordid and darker one.  Sigh. So much for “rebooting” the future.


(Meanwhile, I have often pondered the metaphorical symbolism of the Borg Collective as a substitute for the OMB.  Really.  “Resistance is Futile.”  Think about it.)


If the Star Trek writers were to make a more real-life episode, it would probably have consisted of Jean-Luc Picard testifying before the Federation Senate subcommittee on the Star Fleet budget and how it was inadequate to carry out the exploration mission which was the primary reason for the existence of the Fleet.  An interesting or exciting episode?  No.  But then, as I said before:  real life is not like Star Trek.


So a whole generation or maybe three has been ruined to expect excitement, glamour, interspecies interaction, and a host of things that space exploration in the real universe simply does not provide.  Ruined.  Expectations set too high.  Thus we have many people who might otherwise support space exploration but are disappointed by its current status.


I was fortunate to have a personal interaction with the Great Bird of the Galaxy, Gene Roddenberry while I was in college in the early 70’s.  His vision – and it remained constant until he passed away – was of an optimistic future.  A future where hard work, risk taking, and good judgment, trust, and compassion would lead to rewards for both the individual and society as a whole.  The franchise did not turn dark until he was gone. 


Call me a pollyanna if you like, but I agree with Roddenberry.   There is an exciting future out there for us. 


I guess I really have been ruined because I really do – at my core – believe that hard work, risk taking, good judgment, trust, and compassion will lead to great rewards for our whole society.   All the societies on Earth.  Heck, even those alien societies we may encounter some day.


Now if we could just get a Zefram Cochrane to show us how to travel a warp speed . . . . 

 . . . .   maybe real life would become like Star Trek.

Stormy Weather

Recently I had a couple of regular scheduled airline flights where we encountered strong turbulence (at least for an airliner) and got bounced around pretty good.  It happens and its not pleasant.  That put me in mind of the poor Air France jet that went down in bad weather over the Atlantic.  We may never fully know what happened there.  These thoughts lead me to remember times when we had to deal with stormy weather surrounding space flight.

My last assignment as Ascent/Entry Flight Director for the space shuttle was for STS-113 in the fall of 2002.  It was a memorable flight, several technical delays and then a spectacularly successful mission to the International Space Station.  Of course you remember the one day we delayed for weather, don’t you?  I certainly remember because it is etched in my memory.

Obviously we must have good weather to launch.  Florida is lightning capital of North America; afternoon thunderstorms are typical, changing winds are to be expected, clouds and low visibility are normal.  But some of the Florida days are crystal clear blue with light winds and we really like to take advantage of those days to launch.  Except I had to scrub for weather on a beautiful Florida fall day.

The shuttle rules are based on the principle that something might go wrong during the launch phase and the crew should have a fighting chance of landing somewhere with reasonable weather.  To ensure that, the flight rules are long, arcane, and tedious, and make the Weather Officer watch not just the Florida weather, but weather at landing fields all up the east coast of North America, from South Carolina to Canada; then weather in the British Isles, Spain, Morocco, a little African country called The Gambia, Greece, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Diego Garcia, Hawaii, and whew, back home to the mainland where California and New Mexico have abort landing sites.  Weather doesn’t have to be good everywhere — that is impossible — but there are categories where at least one of a group of nearby runways must have good weather.  Otherwise, the rules call for the Flight Director to call for a scrub.

The trickiest abort is the Return to Launch Site (RTLS).  Weather must be good at the Shuttle Landing Facility, about 5 miles west of the launch pad, and here is the tricky part – 20 to 30 minutes after launch.  As Yogi Berra observed:  “Forecasts are difficult, especially about the future.”

All of these weather related Flight Rules and their associated Launch Commit Criteria have been on the books for years, approved by senior NASA management, and refined with the latest meterological understanding and tools.

In spite of the complex abort landing site weather rules, if the weather in Florida is good for both launch and RTLS, it has been very rare to scrub a launch for bad weather at the other abort landing sites. 

On that beautiful fall day in Florida, with the crew on board and the tank full of gas, both landing sites in Spain had thunderstorms at the field with strong winds, precipitation, and – worst of all – lightning.  The shuttle is particularly vulnerable to lightning.  So I had to call for a scrub.  No-Go for TAL weather. 

For all the dignitaries and senior NASA officials at the viewing stands in Florida, this was a serious disappointment.  Cooler heads would recognize that this was a good decision, but some were clearly wondering what the stupid Ascent Flight Director was thinking — weather is perfect for a launch in Florida — why do we care about Spain? 

Having been around the block a few times, I was well aware of the buzz that was probably developing a thousand miles east of Mission Control.  But, better to scrub a day for safety than to put the crew in a bad situation.  If a TAL abort occurred and the weather caused a bad day at the runway, nobody would ever forget it; especially me.

One thing I have never understood.  Some of my co-workers bide their time for the day they reach NASA retirement age, and say that they will tell their management what they really think when they have a pension in hand and can walk out the door safely.  Worrying that telling the boss the truth has never been part of my make up.  If they don’t like the truth, too bad.  I’ve rarely had a boss at NASA take my truth telling in a bad way.  This weekend, I reach the magic NASA retirement age.  Will it make any difference in my outspokenness?  I doubt it, but we’ll see.

Now, from time to time, NASA is blessed with retired military flag officers.  Admirals and Generals who have ably served their country for many years achieve military retirement age and come back for a second career on the civilian side of the government.  Often these folks provide capable leadership and invaluable knowledge.  Sometimes, these folks merely occupy a square on the org chart and never understand what we do or how we do it, and we must find ways to work around them.  On rare occasions, one of these retired military officers takes it on himself to become the drill instructor to NASA to mold us into a different, more military culture.

After the launch was scrubbed, I had a call from one of those retired flag officers who just happened to recently come into my chain of command.  At rather high decibel levels I heard all about the all weather capabilities of current military fighter aircraft.  I heard all about how badly delaying schedules hurts the program.  I heard all about how a good leader would have made a better judgement call and proceeded to launch.  On and on.

After I hung up the phone I thought about how little he understood our work.  How vulnerable and fragile are our spacecraft.  And how much care is required to fly safely in space.  Sometimes it is not a popularity contest, and you just have to accept that.