Where is Delos D. Harriman when we need him?

During my childhood, back in ancient times, science fiction was my reading material of choice.  Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark and Robert Heinlein were first among the pantheon of science fiction writers in those days.


One of the best was Robert A. Heinlein’s 1949 story “The Man who Sold the Moon”.  A brilliant American businessman (today we would say entrepreneur, then Heinlien called him a robber baron) devoted his vast wealth to building a moon rocket.   Think Elon Musk but with Bill Gate’s fortune and Donald Trump’s ethics.  Of course he succeeded, despite of all the difficulties, including the roadblocks set up by the government.  At the end of the story Harriman famously tells his best friend: “I would cheat, lie, steal, beg, bribe — do anything to accomplish what we have accomplished”.


Where is Delos D. Harriman today?  We sure could use him.  “We” being all those folks who really really really want to humanity off this planet in a significant way.  And maybe not depending on the vagaries of politics and politicians. 


I spent too much time out in the soggy weather in Houston this afternoon at the memorial grove for fallen astronauts.  It was a sorry day to have an outdoor ceremony, but there was a big crowd despite the cold and damp.  There was a similar ceremony up at the Arlington National Cemetery, and another one at the Astronaut Memorial mirror at KSC, and other places, too.   The weather may have been better there, but I doubt that the mood was different. 


The price has been paid, we need to get on to Mars an the other places. 


Heinlein had Stevenson’s famous poem “Requiem” inscribed over Harriman’s lunar grave:

“Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will!
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.”

I believe Heinlein captured a better thought in his own words in another story, although the critics would probably say the poetry is worse:

“We pray for one last landing

On the globe that gave us birth

Let us rest our eyes on the fleecy skies

And the cool, green hills of Earth.”


If these somber thoughts are not enough to end this dreary January day, I leave you with the words of the plaque affixed to Launch Complex 34, which I visited two days ago:


“Friday, 27 January 1967

       1831 Hours


Dedicated to the living memory of the crew of the Apollo 1


U.S.A.F. Lt. Colonel Virgil I. Grissom

U.S.A.F. Lt. Colonel Edward H. White, II

U.S.N. Lt. Commander Roger B. Chaffee


They gave their lives in service to their country in the ongoing exploration of humankind’s final frontier.  Remember them not for how they died but for those ideals for which they lived.”


Culture Change at NASA

According to the creation myth, in the beginning, NASA was full of young, cocky, innovative, hard charging folks who got us to the Gene Kranz's School for Young Gentlemen circa 1967moon inside a decade.  They were brash, confident, and did not suffer fools gladly.  If they were worried, they didn’t show it.  Stories abound of 100+ hour work weeks end to end, almost impossible to believe.  Their theme -as posted on the factory walls – was ‘waste anything but time’.  Going to the moon was the cliché for doing the impossible and they were going to be the ones to do it.  They were the epitome of risk-taking, innovative, creative, flexible, nimble, achievers.








On the way to the moon, the Apollo 1 fire happened.  It was a tragedy.  It was beyond awful.  With 20-20 hindsight, the root cause of the fire was obviously sheer stupidity.  There were investigations and panels and recommendations.  As in every accident investigation, the investigation board found that communications between people and organizations were faulty.  Management culture was poor.  And the safety organization was strangely silent on dangerous situations which they had been warned about.  So the recommendations, in additional to technical things, included improving communications, changing management culture, and reinvigorating the safety organization.  And even though everybody at NASA believed the fire was a one-time thing, NASA tried to improve.  Some bureaucratic checks took a little of the nimbleness out of the system in the name of safety, but mostly NASA got a pass because we had to beat the Russians.  The Eagle landed, the mission was accomplished, and time passed.

One the way to exploiting the space frontier with our new space shuttle, 19 years and one day after the Apollo 1 fire, the Challenger and her crew were lost during launch.  It was a tragedy.  It was beyond awful.  With 20-20 hindsight, the root cause of the accident was obviously sheer stupidity.  There were investigations and panels and recommendations.  As in every accident investigation, the investigation board found that communications between people and organizations were faulty.  Management culture was poor.  And the safety organization was strangely silent on dangerous situations which they had been warned about.  So the recommendations, in addition to technical things, included improving communications, changing management culture, and reinvigorating the safety organization.  And even though everybody believed that the accident was a one-time thing, NASA tried to improve.  More methods to communicate were added, more bureaucratic checks were added, the system slowed down and became more costly in the name of safety, but mostly NASA got a pass because we still had to beat the Russians, this time to build a permanent space station, and they were ahead of us.  The Hubble was launched, the assembly of the Space Station started, and time passed.

17 years and three days after the loss of Challenger, Columbia disintegrated during reentry and her crew was lost.  With 20-20 hindsight, the root cause of the accident was obviously sheer stupidity.  There were investigations and panels and recommendations.  As in every accident investigation, the investigation board found that communications between people and organizations were faulty.  Management culture was poor.  And the safety organization was strangely silent on dangerous situations which they had been warned about.  So the recommendations, in addition to technical things, included improving communications, changing management culture, and reinvigorating the safety organization. 

This time, nobody inside or outside of NASA believed that the Columbia accident was a one-time thing.  So we tried to change the very root culture at NASA.  Strangely, I found myself at the epicenter of the culture change; one of the least likely managers ever to participate in touchy-feely human relations changes.  We got trained by professional councilors on how to play nice and communicate affirmingly. At the end of seven years, some change is evident.  Safety is reinvigorated; the management culture has bent toward more safety; and  communications, well, need more work and probably always will.  Dissenters must be heard and understood, and mostly placated; much more bureaucracy has been added in the name of safety, and everybody now has a “stop work” card to play if they have a concern.  NASA did not get a pass, the Russians are no longer our competition but our partners, and the debate intensifies as to whether America should send humans into space.  Meanwhile, the Space Station has nearly been completed, the shuttle is about to be retired, its mission accomplished, and time has passed.

Now conventional wisdom says NASA is risk averse.  Afraid of failure, afraid to take risks, requiring draconian and expensive safety insight for even mundane tasks.  They say that NASA depends too much on extensive testing and expensive analysis to prove that every operation is as safe as humanly possible before undertaking it.  That is the conventional wisdom proffered by the media, the pundits, and those who want to be in the space business. To be successful in space, we hear, risks must be taken, fear must not inhibit innovation.  The possibility of failure must be deeply discounted and the consequences of failure should not be contemplated very hard lest we waiver from our goals.  We need organizations that are nimble, flexible, innovative, and risk taking to be successful in space. 

In short, NASA should turn to private enterprise for a ride to space.

So how can a staid, grey, old, inflexible bureaucracy approve flying its people on somebody else’s rocket?  Experience has been a hard teacher; everybody at NASA has been instilled with a great personal responsibility for safety; the knowledge that if the widget that they are responsible to monitor causes failure it will be their own personal fault.  Do you untrain the culture of the last seven, no –  forty, years as drilled into every NASA engineer and manager?  Probably not.  But if American astronauts are to ride to the international space station on a rocketship that NASA did not build, there will have to be a tectonic shift in NASA culture.  Regardless of who builds the ship or operates it or what shape it takes, one thing is certain; NASA’s role will have be different.  That will take a tremendous amount of energy, and time must pass.

In the middle of the last culture change I sent the following paragraph to the shuttle troops.  I still stand by it and it rings strangely true for the future, too.

Life is full of gray choices.  Deciding the work completed is good enough because more will not make it perfect.  Ten thousand gray choices; doing what we must do, and not a bit more because that would take away from other work that is absolutely critical to be done right.  When we have done what we can do, when we have driven the risk to the lowest practical level where it can be driven, then we have to accept the fact that it is time to make a decision and move on.  Because history is waiting for us.  But history will not wait forever, and it will judge us mercilessly if we fail to face tough choices and move ahead.

Playoff Sunday

In early ’86, I was a first line supervisor of flight controllers.  My guys were responsible for the propulsion systems on the space shuttle orbiter.  I had been one of the lead flight controllers in that position, but as a manager, I was supposed to teach the other folks how to do the job, not do it myself.  But flight control managers had a special duty in the mission control center.  The engineers who built the shuttle, both the civil servants close at hand and the contractors back at the factory, had much more detailed knowledge about the shuttle than the flight controllers did.  So every flight there was questions about minute details from the flight control team back to the factory.  A special organization was set up to coordinate getting answers to these questions; the position was called SPAN (SPacecraft ANalysis) and was always staffed by the managers of the flight controllers.


My shift was to be the afternoon shift for STS-61-C, the 24th shuttle flight.  After numerous delays, the launch finally occurred early on Sunday January 12, 1986.  The delays had been very irritating.  We had nine rapid fire shuttle flights in 1985 and 61C was supposed to have made and even 10 for the year.  The flight rate was ramping up ferociously with a plan for 12 flights in 86 including the first flight from our 3rd launch pad which was at Vandenberg AFB on the west coast; in 87 we were planning to launch 15 flights.  After a slow start, the shuttle program was beginning to show what it could do and we were going to make cheap, reliable, frequent access to space a reality.  There was talk about flying all kinds of non-astronaut folks:  Walter Cronkite, John Denver, and even a schoolteacher.  By the time of the 24th flight, we thought we were past the early bugs, the infant mortality type problems, and we were on a roll.


I came to work after the shuttle was on orbit, around noon time.  There were about the expected number of Chits requesting information from the engineering and contractor organizations.  I set to work on the phone, coordinating the work.  Even on a Sunday there were factory reps available although much of the factory workforce had the day off.  After all, it wasn’t a regular work day.  None of the requests were particularly urgent so several of them would wait until normal working hours on Monday.


The SPAN room was located down the hall from the Flight Control Room that you see on TV.  It was pretty well isolated from the action, but we all thought about SPAN as an extension of the Flight Control Team and we followed all the same rules and protocols.


Next to my console in the SPAN room there was a big color TV.  We had a TV to watch the crew downlinks, video from KSC pre-launch or from the landing site during pre-landing operations; we could watch the various weather forecast channels, or even monitor the news programs to see how the space flight was being carried by the networks.   The TVs were all connected to cable and antenna feed and even on those days there were several other “commercial” channels available, including the local stations.  We had all been trained to never, never, never under any circumstances watch regular entertainment programming, sports, or other shows that were not immediately related to the space flight at hand.  Never.  Not under any circumstances.


Many of the flight controller managers (including my boss) wandered by the SPAN room.  It was a convenient place to watch the action, keep tabs on how their employees were doing, and at the same time stay out of the way of the real action in the FCR.  By early afternoon, the SPAN room was filling up with these lookie-lou management types, wearing jeans and pullovers for the cool weather; nobody but me was in the traditional coat and tie.


I was as surprised as anybody when one of the senior, old time Apollo veteran flight control managers turned the TV channel to the football playoff game.  I told him we weren’t supposed to do that, but he gave me a withering look and said, “Its SPAN, nothing is going on, relax”.  A room full of other, senior managers nodded in agreement.  So while I huddled over the phone trying to coordinate chits all afternoon, much of the flight control management cheered (or booed) their favorite team.  At the end of my shift, the ball games were over, the SPAN room cleared out, and the new shift came in, none the wiser to what had happened.  I told my relief anyway.  He just looked at me and said:  “Hey, this is the 24th flight; all the major bugs have been worked out; we have a busy year ahead of us; relax.”


The rest of the flight went like clockwork, satellites were deployed, scientific measurements were taken, and the flight landed without incident on Saturday January 18. 


The next flight was scheduled to launch in less than a week, on January 25.  The schedule ahead was daunting.  I was beginning to think I was too tightly wrapped up to accommodate 12 or 15 missions in a year.  The pace was going to be grueling.  All the old timers were telling stories about the burnout and divorce rate that occurred to flight controllers during the Skylab program.  Maybe letting the managers watch the football playoffs on a quiet Sunday afternoon wasn’t a big deal.


On the 25th, the weather was bad so the launch was rescheduled for the 27th.  On the 27th, the white room crew couldn’t get the shuttle crew hatch to close.  A power tool from the KSC industrial area was requested, but when it arrived the battery was discharged.  During the delay, the winds crept out of limits, so launch was scrubbed late in the day.


My guys came back to the office after the scrub, tired after a long day of trying to launch.  One of my senior old time Apollo veteran contractors noted that it was the 19th anniversary of the Apollo fire and he was furious about the tool issue at KSC.  “Things like that will get somebody killed” he said. 


The next morning, January 28, 1986, we launched STS-51-L.


Needless to say, since that day nobody has ever watched non-mission TV while I have been in the mission control center.  

I have no recollection of who was even playing ball on that Sunday in January 1986.  But we certainly did not have our head in the game.

Thoughts on Commercial Human Orbital Spaceflight

Shortly after I moved into the Shuttle Program office, I was very surprised to learn that NASA did not own the blueprints for the space shuttle!  The government never purchased the intellectual property and the design details of the vehicle.  The blueprints are all proprietary information belonging to Boeing.


NASA never really built any big rockets; NASA hires contractors to do that.  For example, the Saturn V was built in pieces, the mighty first stage by Chrysler (how times have changed!), the second stage by North American Aviation, the third stage by McDonnell Douglas, the lunar module by Grumman, and the command/service module by North American. 


North American Aviation was an innovative, nimble, flexible, efficient, small commercial aircraft company lead by the legendary “Dutch” Kindelberger.  NAA designed and built many classic aircraft including the P-51 Mustang.  After Kindelberger passed, corporate mergers changed NAA to North American Rockwell, then Rockwell International (which can claim credit as the designer and producer of the Space Shuttle orbiter), and now to merely a division of the Boeing corporation.  The historic site in Downey which saw production of the P-51 Mustang, the Apollo CSM, much of the Shuttle Orbiter was sold, sadly, to commercial interests who couldn’t turn a profit on the land as a strip mall but rent the property out for movie making.  Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.  After Boeing bought out RI, the workforce moved a few miles over to Huntington Beach.  It’s just business, as they say.


So I am quite amused by the current debate about whether or not NASA should build rockets or contract that work out to commercial firms.  NASA per se has never built rockets of any size.  But that statement is so simplistic as to be disingenuous.  There is a marked difference between the “old” way of doing business and what is being proposed as a “new” way of doing space business.


Simply put, in the old days (or even today’s days), NASA (the government) was in control; made all the big decisions, required complete insight into all the details of the design, manufacturing, testing, and production of the space flight vehicle.  Eye watering amounts of documentation were required for every step.  The contractor might do the detailed work, but the government folks got to see everything, review everything, and approve everything.  The contractors work on a “cost plus” basis and charged for every change.  Somewhere along the line, the small, nimble, flexible, innovative, efficient company that was North American Aviation became a cog in a bureaucratic, military-industrial, giant corporation (no offence, Boeing). 


The “new space” model is that one or more nimble, flexible, innovative, efficient commercial companies will provide a reliable, safe, economical launch vehicles and spacecraft that American astronauts can ride to the International Space Station.  Getting to low earth orbit is so easy that practically anybody can do it!  Large government programs are no longer required and NASA should concentrate its efforts on deep space exploration and doing the “hard” things like landing on the Moon or Mars.


Except that in the early part of the 21st century, getting to low earth orbit is neither routine nor easy.  Anybody that has really tried to do it – past the viewgraph engineering stage – can attest that getting to LEO is hard.  It requires precision, care, extremely good engineering, quality control, etc., etc., etc.  Landing on the moon may be “hard”, but getting to LEO and back is hardly a cakewalk.  Recently I have read several statements from some “new space” entrepreneurs concerning space flight safety.  They acknowledge that an accident would be devastating for the commercial crew launch business, so they profess that each of the companies attempting to put human spacecraft in orbit (or sub-orbit) is committed to safety.  I believe that statement.  However, intentions are not enough; remember whither the road leads which is paved with good intentions.  In my mind, I can hear entrepreneurial mortgage lenders claiming giving loans to people who cannot repay those loans is bad for business and could cause the mortgage company to fail.  Surely nobody would do that, right?  There are pressures to compromise safety everywhere and to think that a commercial business won’t be subject to those pressures is naive.  How do you know when you have gone from being “efficient” to having cut the corner too close?


I do believe that commercial human space flight can be accomplished much more economically and efficiently than the government and our “cost plus” contractors do it today.  And it can be done with a reasonable level of safety, even in this low margin, high energy, dangerous business.  But how to accomplish these competing goals is the question. 


It is entirely one thing for a wealthy adventurer to personally choose to go into space on a new and untried rocket.  After all, nobody stops you from climbing Mt. Everest or parachuting into the wild outback for a ski adventure on a pristine mountain, its your own skin, your own risk.  But if the goal is to put U. S. Government civilian employees who are on official U.S. Government business on a commercial rocket, it will be the responsibility of some government agency (NASA?  FAA?) to ensure that the “conveyance” is reasonably safe.  NASA knows only one way to attempt to ensure safety, and that is very invasive.  In this case, synonyms for ‘invasive’ include:  costly, slow, bureaucratic.  Won’t help the business to be nimble.


In the 1990’s, NASA turned over the management of the space shuttle subsystems to the Boeing contractor.  In effect NASA relinquished a modicum of control and insight, a huge change in NASA culture at the time.  Going to a commercial launch vehicle will require a bigger change NASA culture.  This level of culture change is not impossible, but it is hard.  We’re currently studying on how to make commercial human space flight work – safe and economical at the same time.  As always, the devil is in the details.  And the hardest part will be the culture change.  Changing NASA’s culture is a topic for another day.