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!

13 thoughts on “Secrets,Leaks,and Outright Lies”

  1. Dear Mr Hale

    You didn’t lie. You just didn’t have all the “facts” the FD had. Were you used – perhaps – that’s life sometimes – at least you have the courage to talk about it 20 years later – a lot of people don’t. If you had said in the press conference “No – the thrusters had nothing to do with it – its because its a DOD secret mission” you would not have become an FD yourself, would not be doing NASA Blogs – and you would have never worked a NASA Shuttle mission again. I still think your press conferences were the most entertaining and informative.

    P. Savio

  2. This must have been motivated by the vernier thruster failure on STS-128. Would be interesting to hear about the relationship between the alt system & the vernier system. You’d think in the thousands of years of plumbing, someone would have figured out how to make reliable valves.

  3. Mr. Hale,

    I can’t thank you enough for your blog and the stories you share about the inner workings of our space program.I know you probably don’t have time, but I hope you write a book of your experiences.

    I must say that I don’t understand your expressed fear of press conferences. Having watched you participate in dozens of them over the years, and having watched hundreds of others during my 40 years of following the space program, you are definitely one of the top MOD briefers in the history of NASA. Your calm demeanor, knowledge, honesty, and ability to make the complicated more than understandable should be the model for all flight directors, now and in the future. While it sounds like you don’t miss appearing at press conferences and media briefings, I, for one, miss seeing you at the front of the auditorium.

  4. They weren’t lies, they were cover stories, more often than not concocted by managers who were fundamentally clueless. (If you read “Dilbert” you’ll know the type.) The payload was probably likewise being flown under a cover story by an organization operating in the “black”, as they used to say, meaning its very existence was classified by somebody. So, they made up little white lies to try and cover their tracks. White lies are ok if you have a virtuous reason for telling them, right? If your wife asks, “Am I getting fat?”, what do you say? It’s all part of a survival strategy.

  5. Another amazing story Mr. Hale and I would second the other poster’s comment that you should write a book…would make a wonderful read. Appreciate your honesty and your insight….thank you!

  6. You did lie, and I understand. I don’t like it when other people put you on the spot, without any warning, and ask you to say what they should have said themselves.

    You have nothing to be ashamed about. It reminds me of “Clear and Pressent Danger”, when Harrison Ford was pulled into a top level meeting. Thanks for serving our country.

  7. Lying under pressure in such a moment is probably part of all kinds of businesses and in some respect the mirror of how success-orientated societies work. Authority is the key-word! Where in fact is the border line?
    The Milgram-experiment from the sixties may serve as a very sad example on how far people will go…
    In your case I would have lied as well…


    Uli B.

  8. It’s apparent that Mr Hale has never served his country in the miltary as he is apparently clueless about security, as are some of the other people who have commented thus far. If the mission is a military one, you keep the details a secret, what is so hard to understand about that? The idea is to prevent useful information about your operations from being known by potential enemies. That is not lying. If you you are a blabbermouth then you don’t get to keep your security clearance, you might even get to see the inside of Leavenworth prison. This must be a result of watching too many Hollywood produced, ant-military movies. (probably an Oliver Stone fan)

  9. I wouldn’t worry about an unavoidable lie put on you by the boss.

    We miss seeing you on NASA tv. Your clear, consice answers and comments and the occaisional “put down” of a stupid or repeated question made watching the missions more interesting for us groundlings.

    Thank you.

    Judy and Luther Veale

  10. I noticed that the threatening, secret loving, militarist who claimed that somehow you breached a security clearance (which apparently you were not under) also chose to insult the current commander in chief with a name that is reminiscent of America’s foreign enemy number one.
    Unfortunately that type of demagoguery is also part of our American heritage that goes back to the McCarthy era and beyond, the worser part of our nature and tradition.

    What I find so impressive about NASA is that everything it does, it does out in the open in the name of advancement of mankind. The greatest general of the last century Dwight Eisenhower recognized the danger of a military run space exploration program when he created NASA as an open civilian agency. (I suspect by the way that the military’s budget for space efforts (both black and gray) far exceed that of NASA by tens of billions of dollars.)

    I think now it is recognized what a deal with the devil it was to try to have a marriage between the needs of the military and the peaceful exploration of space by NASA in order to fund the shuttle. Unfortunately, NASA still suffers from the effects of that deal since when the military pulled out they also pulled out their money and NASA has been hurting ever since.

    I thought it interesting (and of course it gives the lie to the other gentleman’s comment) that when the military recently had to explain why it had to shoot down its errant satellite it got the NASA Administrator to give the explanation and utilized the full weight of NASA’s reputation to give it credibility. NASA’s reputation for truthfulness was again used by the military, this time I hope it was the truth and not like Mr. Hale’s experience.

  11. Another fascinating one. And another NASA guy goes on the record grumbling about press conferences! 🙂 Seriously, I can understand how the pressure and the spotlight and the sometimes “you can’t win” questions could be uncomfortable.

    But I want to join the others who’ve said how much we, the non-press NASA TV viewers, enjoy them. If you think about it, it’s about the only way we have (well, until this blog came along it was) to get to know a few of the people involved in the space program. I almost always find them entertaining and informative. And I’m always impressed with what a thoughtful, professional, and _patient_ bunch of folks you are.

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