Ave Atque Vale

I was invited to speak to the assembled folks out in Utah who have just cast the last shuttle solid rocket segment.  A few retirees and spouses made the event, but the crowd of over 2,000 was mostly active workers. 



Over a year ago in this blog space I told you that the horse has left the barn and the shuttle was shutting down.  Now we are seeing evidence every day. However you feel about that, the direction has not changed. 


If there is anyone out there who thinks otherwise, . . . well.


For 30 years, the United States and its international partners have relied on the space shuttle:  costly, not as safe as we need, sometimes not very reliable, and now that is coming to an end. 


Four years ago, we had terminated contracts with 95% of the suppliers for parts for the external tanks.  This has continued apace.  For example, last week the contract was terminated for the suppliers of the specialized chemicals to make the black coating of the shuttle thermal insulation tiles. Also being shut down is the production of reinforced carbon-carbon wing leading edge panels.  The folks up in the Dallas area are getting ready to take apart the one-of-a-kind jigs that are used in that process and clearing out the factory.  Any museums want this thing?


The external tank folks reported this week that the last ET has moved out of yet another workstation which is now surplus and ready for removal.  Welding has been complete for some time, cleaning, painting, and foam application are still active.  The MAF workforce is down to about half of what it was a few years ago.



In the 1990s, almost 25,000 people worked for shuttle:  civil servants and prime contractors.  (This does not include subcontractors and vendors).  By 2002, only about 16,000 folks worked on shuttle.  There was a little peak for return to flight, but by 2006, the headcount was down to 16,000 again.  Now there are about 12,000.  And the number will decrease precipitously over the next year.


This is not to make you feel good or bad or whatever, just a status report. 


Working in America’s space program is a privilege.  Change is coming every day, and however you feel about the change, a wise person will be ready for it.



Double Indemnity

Commercial human space flight is in its infancy.  It has been suggested that NASA could do much to encourage or enable the fledgling industry.  Supporters cite the historical analogy of US government contracts for air mail delivery in the 1920s as a model for how to kick start the industry.  A rosy hued and much abbreviated history of that era suggests that once the government started contract airmail service, modern aviation as we know it inevitably and quickly followed.


It may be worthwhile to remind ourselves of a slightly more detailed version of history.


 The US Post Office Department started scheduled airmail service while the Great War was still raging in May 1918.  Government aircraft and government pilots delivered air mail in aircraft that were built to detailed government specifications for the next eight years.  Twelve government pilots were killed in the first two years of this service.  The US Post Office added regularly scheduled transcontinental airmail service in 1920, again with government owned aircraft and government pilots.  Following the Kelly Air Mail Act of 1925, the first commercial contract air mail operations started.  These were mostly flown by small start-up airlines which were frequently under-capitalized using old government surplus aircraft.  By late 1926 all air mail delivery was turned over to these contracts and the government service was discontinued.  Fatal accidents were still common among air mail pilots.  To an even greater extent than today, the government to industry “revolving door” phenomenon was present in those days.  In 1934 the great air mail scandal erupted.  There were charges that government officials had colluded with industry officials (some of whom were former government officials) to fraudulently award air mail contracts to favored companies.  FDR cancelled all commercial air mail contracts and called on the US Army Air Service to deliver the mail.  Inexperienced military pilots and bad weather resulted in twelve pilot deaths in less than a month.  WWI aviation hero Eddie Rickenbacker called the Army Air Service program “legalized murder.”  Within a few months, Congress passed new air mail legislation and a more closely regulated commercial air mail service was restarted.  Among the features of the legislation was the provision that banned all former airline executives from further contracts.  All the old air line companies were reorganized.  Air mail contracts were much less lucrative and the nascent airline companies had to rely increasingly on passenger fares rather than air mail revenues to make their operations profitable.  Air craft accidents continued to be frequent and in 1938 the Civil Aviation Administration was formed.  The CAA started an era of tight regulations reigned over the air line industry which continued for nearly forty years. 


Is this the model that people have in mind for commercial space transportation? 


Of course, a paragraph or two doesn’t do justice to the rich and complex history of aviation in the 1920s and 1930s.   Go read the biography of  Dutch Kindelberger, for example.  Some airlines, like Pan Am, became profitable carrying passengers without the subsidy of air mail.  The transportation of equipment and goods for purely commercial reasons apart from government contracts was a significant business.  Air races stimulated technical advances.  And what happened in the USA was only part of the story as airlines sprang up crossing the globe from Europe to Africa or Australia or South America.  It wasn’t just the air mail contracts that spurred aviation in its “golden years”.


Changing focus slightly, it is often noted that the Air Force does not build its own airplane; the Army does not build its own tanks, why should NASA build its own spacecraft? 


NASA, of course, does not build human spacecraft.   Never has.  Commercial companies have built all human spacecraft and their launch vehicles.  McDonnell built Mercury and Gemini, North American Aviation and Grumman built the Apollo CSM and LM respectively.  Chrysler built the Redstone rocket and the first stage of the Saturn 1B launch vehicle, and so forth.  The renamed North American Rockwell built the Space Shuttle orbiter.  When I became NASA’s Shuttle Program Manager, I was surprised to find that the detailed design and production drawings for the Space Shuttle orbiter were the intellectual property of Rockwell International Space Division which has since become part of Boeing.  The government, while definitely involved with the design, did not do the detailed part of the design and does not own the “intellectual property” for the shuttle.  Many boxes and piece parts remain “proprietary” and not under the detailed purview of the government.  That seems commercial at some level, doesn’t it?


Thinking more about the military services, a recent speaker at NASA was from the Navy ship bureau in charge of building aircraft carriers.  The Navy doesn’t build aircraft carriers, a commercial company does that; but the Navy is intimately involved in the detailed design of every part of a new aircraft carrier.  And the Air Force is intimately involved in the design of new jet fighters like the F-22 and the F-35.  Sometimes this backfires on a company; ask about the presidential helicopter program.  There is a real lesson there.


So what is being proposed for commercial human spacecraft for government use?  A contract that merely asks a “provider” to transport our 4-ish person ISS crew from some place on the earth’s surface to the ISS for a fee?  No other questions asked?  Somehow I think that is not really what is going to happen.  Even the airlines and aircraft builders have to pass FAA certification for flight worthiness.  So if the government contracts for transportation service there is going to be some government involvement.  Oh, and don’t even ask about federal procurement regulations.  Remember the 1934 air mail scandal?  There are a slew of laws and regulations intended to prevent something like that from happening again. 


So the real question is how much or how little the government will be involved in the design/certification/operation of commercially contracted human space vehicles.  Neither the current model of intimate and controlling design authority nor a totally hands off approach is realistic.


Like almost all of life, there is going to be a compromise.  The devil is in the details.  It seems to me that we need to spend a serious amount of thought and discussion on how best to do this.  Far more than a couple of paragraphs in an essay or a report. 


Indemnification.  I have heard a lot about that word lately.  Had to look it up.  Currently the US government indemnifies the companies that build and operate our current space vehicles.  If they crash, the government, not the companies, is held liable.  That is not the way the airlines work; if an airliner crashes, the airline company or sometimes the aircraft manufacturer are held responsibility and are subject to civil legal action.  Some of the putative commercial human space flight providers want the government to indemnify them, take the responsibility if they crash.  The original airmail contracts didn’t do that in 1925. 


Seems like we have a lot to think about as we move commercial human space flight.


We might even learn from history. 


William C. “Will Bill” Hopson was an early government airmail pilot earning 5 cents a mile.  He helped pioneer the transcontinental route in 1920 flying the Omaha to Chicago leg in an open cockpit De Haviland DH-4 modified WWI bomber.  He is shown here in his government gear, ready to fly in any weather.  After the airmail was commercialized, Hopson went to work flying CAM-17 from New York to Chicago.  He died in 1928, in a crash, flying his daily run for a commercial air mail company.

Sine Qua Non

I have been pondering the Augustine report (at least the executive summary) which has been released.  There are a couple of sentences up front that have been on my mind:


“Human safety can never be absolutely assured, but throughout this report, it is treated as a sine qua non.  It is not discussed in extensive detail because any concepts falling short in human safety have simply been eliminated from consideration.”  As panel members commented (more than once) during the public sessions, ‘we assume NASA will build safe systems’.


I’m not a Latin scholar so I had to look it up.  Sine qua non means the something or someone indispensible.    So safety is indispensible.  I’d agree with that.  As a matter of fact, I have spent my entire career based on making spaceflight as safe as possible while still actually flying. 


Actually, the assumption that NASA will build safe systems is poorly demonstrated by our history.  Our failures are painful to enumerate.  Early after the Columbia accident, we engaged Dr. Charles Perrow of Yale University to talk to us about his book (and theory) titled “Normal Accidents”.  In summary, Dr. Perrow believes that accidents are unavoidable in complex systems.  Very depressing to read.  Nothing you can do will ultimately prevent a fatal flaw from surfacing and causing catastrophe.  Life is hard and then you die.  Not very motivational, but perhaps true.  So all of us who listened to Dr. Perrow determined to prove him wrong.


In any event, safety in space flight is a relative term.  A launch vehicle with a 98% success record is considered very safe, but you would never put your children on a school bus that only had a 98% chance of getting them safely to school.  It is a high risk, low safety margin endeavor.  Probabilistic Risk Analysis has made great strides in recent years but the only statistic I put any faith in is the demonstrated one.  The shuttle has failed 2 times in 125 flights.  That is not good enough.


Six years after the loss of Columbia, I’m not sure that we can make a spacecraft safe, but I have empirical evidence that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that we can make it expensive.  The cynical part of me says that is what we do at NASA: demand extraordinary proof that things are safe.  ‘Proof’ means a series of tests -a large enough number of tests to be ‘statistically significant’- and/or very complex analysis which examines every facet of each part of a system in detail to demonstrate that in the worst possible set of circumstances the system will perform as required.  Trouble is, there is no end to imaginative tests, and there is always something else to throw into the analysis.  And it all must be extensively peer reviewed, debated at length, documented to the nth degree, briefed to multiple layers of management, and signed off by virtually everybody in

the organization.


This is a very expensive process.


History indicates that attention to safety doesn’t seem to last.  Sooner or later the people charged with making a system safe retire or die off, the bean counters get their knives out and the organization gets trimmed in the name of efficiency and cost savings, and somewhere along the way an invisible line is crossed.   And Dr. Perrow is proved right again. 


Not to be too depressed, but these report’s two sentences on safety are counterbalanced by many more sentences describing how space systems must be made cheaper and should accomplish its goals sooner.  ‘Faster, better, cheaper’ was the rallying cry of management over a decade ago.  The wags soon added ‘pick any two’.  My experience has been that a project manager is lucky to get two, and many projects end with having failed on all three counts.


I found another Latin phrase which may apply here, from Horace:  Splendide mendax.  It means ‘splendidly untrue’.  Safety at low cost, that is. 


So as we look to the future, it is going to take a great deal of careful management to ensure that commercially provided crew transportation systems are adequately safe and yet not drive the cost (and schedule) through the roof.  This balance is not easy to accomplish.  Careful and thoughtful management attention will be required.  No doubt you will hear some debate about this topic in days to come.


Which brings me back to sine qua non.  About a year after the loss of Columbia, NASA had a conference on risk and exploration.  A number of folks who do dangerous exploratory work talked with the NASA leadership about these issues.  Probably the most memorable thought of the whole conference came from James Cameron.  After almost two days of people repeating the phrase “safety first, safety is the most important thing”, Mr. Cameron made this observation:  “While safety is very important and must be considered at all times, in exploration safety is not actually the most important thing.  In exploration, the most important thing is to go.”


If I were writing the report, it would echo those words.  Actual exploration is not safe.  Actual exploration does not take place on powerpoint slides.  Actual exploration takes courage.  Actual exploration take action.  Actual exploration requires going.


Actually going is  sine non qua.

Secrets,Leaks,and Outright Lies

One very early shuttle flight was quite memorable for me.  It was among the first shuttle flights that had requirements from ‘other national agencies.’  It was the first time that a shuttle attitude control thruster had a propellant leak during flight.  It was marked my first appearance at a NASA press conference.  Those things are strangely related.


As a twenty-something shiny new flight controller, I was very proud and nervous to be in the “front room” of the MCC for launch.  The Propulsion Systems Officer is responsible for the Orbital Maneuvering System, the Reaction Control System with all their rocket engines, plumbing, tanks, valves, heaters, software, and associated wiring.  These 46 rocket engines in the two systems use interconnected propellant supplies of hypergolic fuel and oxidizer.  These chemicals are nasty stuff:  corrosive, toxic, unstable. 


Thruster leaks had been common in earlier programs such as Apollo and Gemini.  The large RCS thrusters of the shuttle have valve seats which are made of a Teflon type material and are susceptible to small bits of solid contamination causing leaks.  That is probably the same reason my kitchen sink faucet leaks occasionally.  Before this particular flight, all of us Prop people were rather happy that no leaks had occurred in flight because we knew leaks were common in ground testing.


Thruster leaks are detected by a temperature drop.  When exposed to vacuum the liquid propellant quickly evaporates which chills the thruster.  Just after MECO the attitude thrusters come on line and one of them quickly range the leak alarm.   That thruster was automatically removed from further use and we told the crew that no action was required.  After a very short time, just a couple of minutes, the temperatures climbed back up to normal.  The leak had stopped.  We may have lost a few ounces of fluid, an immeasurably small amount.


We hoped that was all the excitement which was in store for us for the flight.  It wasn’t.


A few hours after launch the shuttle would fire the OMS engines to raise the orbit altitude in the standard practice for those early flights.  The Flight Director had told the Props and the FDOs well before the flight that we would not actually go to the altitude which was in the flight plan.  Someone would provide us with an actual altitude target after we launched.  Somebody we did not need to know about.  No reason was offered.  We nodded and kept quiet.


So it was no surprise an hour or so after we were in orbit – and well after the tiny thruster leak stopped – that the Flight Director informed us what the final altitude would be a couple of miles lower than planned.  The burns were executed and our shift was over. 

Then the Flight Director stopped at my console and told me to come to the post-shift press briefing with him.


I was scared silly.  Never been to a press conference before, no training, and no instructions.  Flight didn’t tell me what to say or why he wanted me to come, but I followed him over to the public affairs building. 


I found myself up on the podium blinking under the lights.  Flight told the assembled press all about the usual launch stuff and then said:  “Due to the propellant leak, we could not raise our orbit to the planned altitude.  Mr. Hale is here to tell you about that.”




I must have looked like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights.  It was, of course, a bald faced lie.  Stunned, I did not know what to say, so I was as surprised as anybody when the words came out of my mouth:  “yes that’s right, we had to go lower because of the propellant loss.”


No questions, no further comments, and at the end of the press conference you can imagine how I felt:  used.


To my knowledge that is the one and only time I ever lied in a press conference.  It has rankled me for twenty years.   


Don’t use people.


Don’t tell lies, even for good reasons.


Even better, stay away from press conferences!

Flight Director Fables

Aesop’s fables have been famous for two millennia.  They are obviously fictional stories – animals talking and such – but they are still useful for teaching important concepts to children – and adults.


When I joined the Flight Director office there were a number of fables that we were taught.  Supposedly true, I cannot say that they really are.  But the moral of these stories was the point.  I’ll share just two with you today.


First Fable:  how to end your career quickly.


Gemini 8 was as close a call as American had in space up to that time.  Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott had just completed America’s first space docking between their Gemini spacecraft and an Agena target vehicle.  Suddenly, the stack started spinning up for no apparent reason.  Emergency undock was performed by the crew who hoped that the problem was with the Agena.  It was not, the spin rate increased more dramatically after separation.  Armstrong shut off the Gemini spacecraft’s primary attitude control system and activated the secondary system which was designed for limited use during re-entry.  Attitude control was regained, the crisis averted, everybody started breathing again. 


The Flight Rules called for an immediate deorbit once the re-entry attitude control system was activated; it had limited fuel and limited life.  So Flight Director John Hodge (Blue Flight) had the team execute a rapid deorbit to the secondary landing site in the Pacific Ocean near the destroyer USS Mason.  You might think that was the right thing to do.


Unfortunately . . . .

NASA management found out about the situation after the crew was in the ocean.  According to the legend, Hodge did not take the time to pick up the phone and call the Program Manager, the Center Director, or even his boss, the Chief of the Flight Director office.  The situation was stable, and even though waiting around was not necessarily a good thing, there was no reason that a couple of hours delay would have significantly increased the crew risk.  Upper management was severely out of sorts with Blue Flight because they were not called in to review a critical action that really could have waited, despite what the Flight Rules called for.


Bottom line:  John Hodge never served as Flight Director in Mission Control again.


Now, that is the way the story was told to us wide-eyed Flight Director wannabees.  Is it true?  Is it accurate?  Is it complete?  I have no way of knowing.  Probably not. 


But that is not the point of the fable.  The moral of the story for all rookie Flight Directors is ALWAYS INVOLVE YOUR MANAGEMENT.   Any time that a critical action can reasonably be delayed for even a few minutes GET ON THE PHONE WITH THE BOSS.  No matter what the Flight Rules say.  After all, it’s just your career on the line . . .


Second Fable:  Lies will catch up with you.


A long time ago, it seems hard to imagine now, there were no privacy laws and the press was ALWAYS interested in crew health.  Since about 60% of all astronauts have ‘space adaptation syndrome’ for the first three days of weightlessness.  The press could always get a good barf story.  Sometimes it seems like journalists never left the 5th grade.  Today a Flight Director can respond to questions about crew upchuckitis by saying “Detailed discussions about crew health are covered by the medical privacy act.  I can tell you that there has been no mission impact from any crew health issues.”  There is rarely any mission impact these days because we have learned to build a light schedule the first few days to allow the crew to get past the need for the emesis bags. 


In the early days of shuttle, such niceties did not exist.  Every eight hours the offgoing Flight Director had a post-shift press conference and had to withstand the barrage of questions from the media, who were just hoping to get some human interest story out of the tight lipped and technical NASA officials.  John Cox, Granite Flight, kept drawing the “space sickness” questions.  He made the huge mistake of putting out a fib:  ‘Crew is doing fine, no problems to speak of”  in one of the early press conferences.  A day later, the crew was definitely NOT doing fine, activities had been cancelled.  But Granite Flight kept up the pretense.  The press corps was suspicious.  By the third day Granite Flight’s denials fell apart and the media went into witch-hunt frenzy.  The video tape of that heated press conference is kept in the Flight Director training catalog and it is ugly with a capital U.  The head of Flight Medicine, Dr. Sam Poole, had to come in and save Dr. Cox.  Sam put a soft spin on things and more or less diffused the issue, but the damage was done.  Granite Flight’s credibility with the media was in the dumpster.


Now, is that the entire, completely accurate story?  Probably not.  But we all had to watch that press conference videotape knowing that we would be in that hot seat in the very near future.  The moral of the story:  DON’T LIE TO THE PRESS.  They will find out sooner or later and it will be very bad. 


Whenever people ask me how to deal with the media, I reply: “The first rule is tell the truth, never lie.  You will be found out and your credibility will be gone from then on.”  I’ve had lots of practice with press events after learning that less from poor old Granite Flight, and I can confirm it’s true.


John Cox was a great Flight Director and served for many mission.  I have a great deal of respect for him, not the least of which is that he dug his way out of that hole.


Remember, everybody is useful, sometimes just as an example of what not to do.

Averted Vision

When my daughter was in middle school, she became interested in astronomy.  We joined the local amateur club and built our own telescope.  It is amazing what sights can be seen with even a modest home built telescope in a light polluted suburb! 


One trick that experienced club members taught us was when looking for very dim celestial objects use averted vision.  The center part of your vision is very good for well lit color but not very good in dim light.  Away from the center of vision, the retina is better at picking up dim objects.  It seems like magic but if you avert your gaze slightly from a dim object, it will pop into view much more clearly.


Averted vision may be a metaphor for other subjects as well.


My boss has asked me to study NASA’s research and development grants.  Particularly, how their results differ from grants given by other federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and other non-defense discretionary agencies. 


This is a tough assignment for an old Flight Director. 


NASA has about a half a billion dollars actively at work in R&D grants at universities, research institutes, and various other places.  NSF runs about $2.5 billion in research grants every year.  NIH also pumps more money into R&D than does NASA.  What is different about the results that NASA gets from its investment in R&D? 


For one thing, there are specific questions that space exploration needs answered:  new types of space propulsion or power systems, closed loop environmental life support systems, and other mission critical applications.  To enable missions to the planets, NASA supports a lot of biomedical research on the effects of weightlessness and radiation on people and other biological systems.  These are the topics that the bulk of NASA’s R&D money goes toward.


Who would have thought that trying to get the most information out of planetary images from spacecraft would lead to image enhancing technology that greatly improves imagery from CAT scans or X-rays on people?  Or that NASA would be frequently asked by law enforcement agencies to enhance images from surveillance cameras to identify crime suspects?  None of these applications were on our minds when we tried to get better images of the craters on Enceladus or the methane lakes on Titan.


Discovery is like that.  Frequently when you are looking for one thing you discover more, sometimes much more.  The history of technology is full of hoary stories about researchers finding something other than what they were looking for:  Alexander Fleming finding penicillin in a dirty culture dish, Charles Goodyear leaving his rubber experiment on the stove resulting in the vulcanization process, etc., etc.


NASA is trying to turn dirty water into clean water so long duration space missions can be possible.  Seems like there might be a use for that on Earth, too.  You might see one of the practical results here:  http://www.sti.nasa.gov/tto/Spinoff2008/er_4.html


That is only one of a thousand.  NASA R&D does pay off, and not just for applications in space.



Sometimes when you see something out of the corner of your eye, it is like magic.

Big day tomorrow!

Tomorrow, September 10, 2009, is shaping up to be a busy day for space.  Three significant events are scheduled within a few hours of each other

First, at 1:01 PM EDT, is the launch of the Japanese HTV from Tanegashima Launch Site in Japan.  This is Japan’s first attempt to robotically resupply the International Space Station.  (OK, for the record, it will be 2:01 AM Sept. 11 in Tanegashima)

Second, at 3:00 PM EDT, the slightly delayed test of the new five segment booster DM-1 will take place at the Promontory, Utah test site.

Third, at 7:05 PM EDT, the Space Shuttle Discovery is scheduled to land at the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

This wasn’t actually planned to work out this way, all these events just coalesced into the same short time period.  And, for the record, none of these events are time critical.  A weather delay or short technical delay resulting in moving any or all of these events a day or a few days later is no big deal.  Better safe than sorry in this business.

But if it all comes together, it will be a busy day.


Risk Averse

During my travels I always carry a paperback to read.  A book that I finished recently was a history (my usual subject) concerning some German emigrants to America in the 1840’s.  Their story was entirely typical:  conditions in their village had deteriorated and they were lured by glowing stories of the opportunities in the United States.  So they sold their houses and all their goods and made their way to the port at Antwerp.  Unscrupulous characters soon fleeced them.  Broke and alone in a country where they had no resources and did not speak the language, the putative emigrants were forced to beg for food and shelter.  Some died.  A shipowner agreed to provide them passage to the new world in exchange for indentured service upon arrival.  The ocean voyage was miserable, the crew was inept, they ran out of food, water, encountered storms, and about a third of the party died during the voyage.  Shortly after arrival in port, a smallpox epidemic took another third of the company.  The survivors were marched off to indentured servitude; the remnants of families torn asunder.  Only the strongest, or the luckiest, survived.


As I said, a story that was very typical.  Few people made it easily to the “land of opportunity.”


My great-grandfather was of German emigrant descent; that book could have been the story of his parents.  I never knew him since he died before I was born, but I knew my great-grandmother, and I’ve written about her before:




As a very young boy my parents would take me to visit her in central Oklahoma.  As a young girl, she had walked alongside the family wagon as they moved west to new territory in search of land and a better life.  Yet she lived will into her 90s and saw the beginnings of the space age.  


And I had to wonder, as I thought of her and of the difficulties, dangers, and hardships of the pioneers who made this country strong, affluent, and powerful, do we still have what our pioneer ancestors had?  My grandmother was old, small, and frail when I knew her.  What shone through during those visits was a strength of character, a clarity of purpose, and a directness in communication that made you forget the frailty of old age.  Her stark assessment of those pioneer days is still fresh in my memory:  “The cowards never started, and the weak ones died along the way.”  She faced that hardship and danger and had a better life than if her family had not taken the risk to move west.


What is it, I wonder, that has made America a great nation?  Abundant natural resources are part of it.  The availability of cheap labor was a factor.  But other peoples have had cheap labor and abundant resources and have not succeeded in building a strong nation.  I believe that it is due the American character; an innate optimism and the bold willingness to take on risks if they hold the promise of a better tomorrow.  We have become the envy and wonder of the world not because of our wealth and power, but because of our character.


My great-great-grandparents certainly had some appreciation of the risks they incurred by moving west, but they could not have fully understood it.  They knew Risk in the Big Sense: danger, hardship, and death threatened their way:  accidents, disease, wild animals (wolves, bears, and snakes), hostile natives, terrible weather, and the difficulty of travel through the wilderness, all of these they must have recognized.  But the details would have been only vaguely understood.  The details of hardship were of secondary importance, they knew the Big Risk well enough.  They took what preparations they could, and they set out.


My great-grandfather made mistakes; he literally lost the ranch in the great depression.  But overall, they avoided the Big Mistake:  not taking a worthwhile risk.  Martin Luther once said “Sin boldly.”  That is not permission to do what you know is wrong, but it is an admonition not to be paralyzed to inaction by the prospect that you might be doing something wrong. 


Today we live in the luxury of their legacy.  Our greatest hardship may be mowing the grass; our greatest risk may be driving on the freeway.  These challenges just don’t compare with what our great-grandparents faced every day.  Have we lost the capability to weigh risk and reward, hardship and hope, difficulty and opportunity as they did?

So the fundamental question remains, do we have those qualities that made our ancestors successful?  Do we have the judgment to weigh it all in the balance?  Do we have the character to dare great deeds? 


History is watching. 



Recently, I was in a public meeting where NASA was castigated as being “risk averse”.  Is that a fair assessment, I wondered?  


Then I remembered the words of one of my heroes, Capt. John Young:  “We put seven people on top of 6 million pounds of high explosives and launch them into orbit at speeds six times faster than a rifle bullet.  What part of that sounds safe to you?”


Well said.  I couldn’t add to that statement.


It is easy to accuse someone of being risk averse when you personally don’t have to make tough decisions with real consequences.  At NASA we make hard decisions every day and the whole world gets to watch and see if we got it right.


I wouldn’t have it any other way.


I think my great-grandparents would have approved.

Figure of Merit

Figure of Merit is a term that may be unfamiliar.  Engineers use this term to describe a number – based on a formula – which is useful in comparing different items.  An everyday “figure of merit” is MPG (miles per gallon) for automobile fuel efficiency.  If you have bought a household appliance recently you may have noted an energy efficiency “figure of merit” on the label.  That allows you to decide to pay more for a more efficient appliance, or conversely to decide that the increased efficiency is not worth the cost and go for cheaper model.  A figure of merit is always a simplification and your real world results may vary.  For example, on my two year old vehicle, I have yet to achieve the MPG average that the sticker said it would get.  Maybe I just have a heavy foot, or something.  But that rating allowed me to compare vehicles in a significant way before I made the decision to buy.  A figure of merit may not in itself be the deciding factor.  But having a figure of merit is good when making a comparison between options.


There are many folks who wish that the world is different than it is.  Science fiction movies in my childhood concentrated how the rocket worked in getting people to space rather than what they did when they got there.  Nowadays, Han Solo jumps in the Millennium Falcon and instantaneously is in space making the calculations for hyperdrive.  Kirk and Spock, if not using the transporter, ride a shuttlecraft effortlessly to the space dock where the new starship is ready for flight.  Because Hollywood can do it with blue screens or computer animation, the popular imagination believes such things can be done in real life.  Or should be able to do it.  Or maybe just wish that we could do them.


So we see some folks that talk a good talk about getting into earth orbit.  Unfortunately the state of the art of technology doesn’t quite match the state of the art of portrayed in some powerpoints.


So I propose a figure of merit exercise to illustrate the difficulty of getting to earth orbit.  My figure of merit based on the energy state.  (Hold on, this takes just a little bit of physics and mathematics – nothing that a high school graduate shouldn’t be expected to know). 


So a High school physics refresher: total energy is the sum of kinetic and potential energy. 




Potential energy depends on how high up you are: height (or altitude) times gravity times mass:


PE=h x g x m. 


For example, a commercial airliner cruises at roughly 35,000 ft.  Let’s call it 6 nautical miles high, just to use an antique measurement system (I’m an old guy).  A spacecraft in low earth orbit probably needs to be at about 120 miles altitude to have significant orbital lifetime before atmospheric drag causes decay.  In simple math:


PE orbit/PE airplane = 120 miles x g x mass/6 miles x g x mass


So to stay in low earth orbit you need to be about 20 times higher than a commercial airliner.  That means, you need 20 times the potential energy to get from an airliner altitude to an orbital spacecraft altitude.  Wow.  No wonder space travel is hard.


But wait, that’s not all.  What about the other part of the equation, kinetic energy.  Kinetic energy increases as the square of velocity: 


KE = ½ x m x v x v.


A typical commercial airliner cruises at about 500 mph.  To be in earth orbit requires a speed of 17,500 mph. 


 KE orbit/KE airplane = ½ x m x 17,500 mph x 17,500 mph / ½ x m x 500 x 500 = 1250 ! 


So it takes more than a thousand times as much kinetic energy to be in earth orbit as it does to be at airliner cruise speed! 


It might be interesting to compare some other vehicles with orbital energy.  For example, the SR-71 is the fastest military aircraft ever.  It could go Mach 3 at an altitude of 80,000 ft. That is quite a bit more energy than a piddling commercial airliner.  And the X-15 got to Mach 6.7 and an altitude of over 350,000 feet – well, not simultaneously, but let’s do that calculation just to make it easy.  Here is a short table of some interesting vehicles:


Commercial airliner energy state at cruise:                            159 kjoule/kg

SR-71 at max speed & max altitude:                                      748 kjoule/kg

Space Ship 1 at max speed & max altitude:                         1,658 kjoule/kg

X-15 record altitude & record speed:                                   3,237 kjoule/kg

Mercury-Redstone at max speed & max altitude:                  5,605 kjoule/kg

International Space Station (low earth orbit):                    194,775 kjoule/kg


If you ever wonder why flying in space is not as simple or as easy as going to your local airport and getting on a scheduled commercial airliner, think physics.  Going to orbit is not twice as hard or ten times as hard as an airliner; it is over a thousand times as hard.


Wishful thinking won’t make it easier.