Hochstein’s Law

Alan Hockstein was the man most feared by pilot astronauts.  Well, except maybe for George Abbey.  Let me explain why.


The shuttle is the world’s largest glider.   The pilot has one and only one chance to make a landing; there is no “go-around” capability.  Obviously, good piloting techniques are studied exhaustively.  Much analysis and simulation has been completed to maximize the chance for a successful landing.


Alan was the senior landing analyst.  That means he studied more and worked harder than anyone to understand how the shuttle flies – especially in the final approach and landing phase.  One part of Alan’s job was to analyze the telemetry from each shuttle landing and see how that compared to the “ideal” landing.  So in a quiet office environment over a couple of weeks, Alan and his team would look at each telemetry point, every sample (up to 125 per second for some parameters) and compute how each one affected the landing. 


Every shuttle commander dreaded the day of the Entry, Descent, and Landing Debriefing.  Standing in front of a projection screen filled with data curves in the presence of a room full of folks, Alan would ask the commander something like:  “why did you deflect the hand controller here” pointing at a squiggle on the screen.  “That input caused a deviation of 12 feet high above the flight path which correlates to a 273 foot miss distance at the touchdown point.”  The commander would squirm in his seat and say “we had a wind gust” or some such.  Alan would point to another squiggly line on the plot and say “the accelerometer data doesn’t show a wind gust at that point.”  The poor pilot would then have to come up with some other lame excuse: “the visual scene was obscured by some wispy clouds.”  Alan would pull out the meteorological report “the lowest observed clouds were at 25,000 feet”  And so it would go.  Excruciating for the veteran test pilots who pride themselves on their steely nerved stick and rudder reactions.


Why did we go through this ritual?  One reason only: to learn what we could about flying techniques, how they affected the landing, what might work better.  All of this so that the next pilot would have a better idea of how to maximize the chance “for a happy outcome.”


At our Flight Techniques meetings, Alan was a frequent presenter showing what had been learned, advising of the best techniques.  At one period we experienced a number of landings that were shorter than desirable – still on the runway, but consistently closer to the threshold than comfortable.  Alan analyzed hundreds of combinations of factors over a several dozen landings looking for correlations.  Nothing seemed to correlate, except one:  “If you cross the threshold low, you are likely to touch down short.” 


Now that may seem obvious in retrospect.  If a glider comes in low, any pilot would intuitively expect a short touchdown.  But it was only obvious in retrospect.  And any number of other correlations that common sense might have suggested were simply not borne out by the data.  So we called this “Hockstein’s Law”:  If you cross the threshold low, you will touch down short.  The entire community worked very hard with the pilots to improve techniques to be higher at threshold crossing and thereby the incidence of short touchdowns was significantly reduced.  Well, that is the very short summary anyway.


Nowadays, I don’t spend my time studying shuttle landings like I used to.  Recently I’ve been a data gatherer and logistics helper to the Augustine Committee.  That group has been getting a lot of data and, among other things, looking at the cost estimates of various options for space flight.  I’m not well suited to work in that ethereal regime; nuts and bolts are more my specialty.   But it occurs to me that we need an Alan Hockstein to look at project development budgets for clues of how to improve the performance of future work.


Somebody who will look at each data point in depth, spend the time to think about it, calculate the consequences of each movement, and then provide those of us who may have to execute a project in the future with some guidelines that might lead to a better likelihood of a “happy outcome”.


Some of my experience suggests possible correlations between different events and poor program performance.  For example, continuing resolutions on the budget cause disruptions and delay planned activities.  It would seem that there might be a high correlation between lack of a firm budget (e.g., a continuing resolution) and poor program performance.  Then again, Norm Augustine himself kept saying that the secret to successful project management is reserves.  Perhaps the congressional prohibition against budgeting reserves for projects plays a role in poor program performance.  Then there is something called a “rescission.”  I never knew what a rescission was until I got into program management.  A rescission basically prevents a program from spending all the money budgeted for it.  I’m no analyst but it may be that rescissions play a role in poor program performance.


All of those things are just guesses on my part.  I’m no analyst.  But it seems like a good study if we want to have successful projects in the future. 


Now, where is Alan when we need him?

5 thoughts on “Hochstein’s Law”

  1. Wayne, I can think of few people better qualified to read this comment and understand its underpinnings than you.

    I am scared to death. When I awoke this morning, I was pretty confident: healthcare reform is near failure but with a few signs of life may pass; the U.S. economy is showing evidence of movement, perhaps even recovery; and this nation still looked toward space as a desirable exploratory realm. Then I watched David Gregory on NBC Nightly News.

    Sally Ride, an eminently respectable former astronaut, announced that our return to the Moon–and perhaps other important programs of discovery–was in serious jeopardy because of fiscal concerns. I’m certain this displeases her no end, but the fact remains that we seem to have sidetracked science, exploration, and discovery in space for alleged lack of money.

    I won’t believe it. I refuse to believe that a nation cavalierly wasting many billions of tax dollars on two Middle East wars each month doesn’t have the resources available to send astronauts and probes to learn more about the place where we live (and someday might live). We’re in the area again where lack of political will is being called by another name.

    How do we turn this around? I expected us to have a working station on the Moon by the time I turned 50, and I’m now 55 years of age. I hoped we would make fewer bombs and weapons systems and turn our eyes to deep space; we haven’t yet gottn that smart.

    The 58,000 or so people employed at NASA, along with those educational pipelines that supply more highly motivated-and-educated people for science on the cutting edge, need better national leadership if NASA and the U.S. are ever to lead the world again.

    This is really distressing, Wayne. What’s the answer?

  2. About time Norm Augustine showed up in this blog. For 7 years, there was no question about NASA’s mission & the work was inspiring. For the last year, the words “uncertainty” and “I don’t know” have returned to the NASA vocabulary.

    It’s heading back to a bunch of people doing uninspiring work, who don’t know what to do with our taxes. Not just NASA but many government initiatives have lost focus in the last year. Inability to achieve focus is a project killer which affects some leaders more than others.

    Otherwise, you need longer term memory to accomplish anything, something the current generation lacks. No-one remembers “pay as you can afford to go” and “commitment across multiple administrations.” Now if the program can’t finish by 2020, it’s a failure. Now every administration is obligated to start over at ground 0. Who knows what we’ll think in 15 minutes. Maybe next week’s space program will have to give away free cars.

  3. I hope and pray that a prospective champion reads all of this, grabs the torch, and runs the next great race to keep funding viable for NASA. Someone with laser focus in the political realm perhaps? How can the public contribute? An email campaign to our congressmen? Something will happen – it has to happen.

  4. Wayne-

    You made several excellent points.

    I believe that some of what is going on in NASA is a result of project management difficulties. I read a GAO report that examined large NASA and DoD programs to root cause cost overruns. One common cause I noted on every project that exceeded cost estimates by 19% or more was poor estimates on the cost of integrating heritage designs into new systems. At the HSF Hearing at Cocoa Beach, I mentioned this observation to Bo Bejmuk at the end of the hearing. I was particularly struck by comments of the Constellation Team that they were building launch infrastructure before they had conducted a PDR. Bo zeroed in on this as he should have. I don’t understand how any PM worth his salt could sign off on doing something like that unless he was bending to schedule pressure from above. The bottom line to me is that poor PM practices can be robbing NASA of 20% of its budget in cost overruns.

    The sad thing is that I vividly remember discussions of schedule pressure two other times as an observant civilian who does not work in the space sector; Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.

    I am sure there are many dedicated people who have given their professional lives in service to our nation at NASA. But I also wonder about the others who push schedule or fail to mentor good PM skills within their teams. Ares I is a good example of this IMO, but it is not the first. We can go all the way back to Apollo Block I for examples of failures.

    I see the issue as two fold. Yes, we do need visionary political leaders who will make spaceflight a priority again, but likewise, we need more visionary leaders wthin NASA who can reinvent the organization to improve effectiveness and create a listening organization. I am confident that should this happen, more great ideas generated by great people like Alan Hockstein will come to the forefront. Perhaps General Bolden has this task high on his to do list. I sincerely hope he does.

  5. It sounds like the Alan Hochstein of project performance might have the same summary with respect to budgets: “If you cross the threshold low, you are likely to touch down short.”

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