Straight Arrow

Last Sunday I got to sit with a respected retired NASA executive who just happens to be a Canadian transplant to the steamy gulf coast.   After the service was over we had a chat about his early experience with the Avro Arrow.  His brief assessment:  “Devastating at the time; but it was the best thing that ever happened to me personally.  It led to a marvelous career.”


That is something to think about in these times. 


In case you are not familiar with the history, the A. V. Roe – Canada aircraft company Avro Arrow in flightwas a major designer and manufacturer of military aircraft in the Toronto, Ontario area during the cold war.  In the early 1950’s Avro began designing a groundbreaking advanced fighter/interceptor to deal with the Soviet bomber menace.  The Arrow, a delta winged supersonic aircraft, was cutting edge – perhaps the best design of its era.  As with many other advanced aircraft of the time, several years passed as the design team worked feverishly to overcome technical obstacles.  They also had to incorporate significant new requirements which were added late in the design process by the Canadian air force.  The prototype first flew in the same day Sputnik was launched, October 4, 1957. 




Good technical progress was being made with several prototypes in flight test and final production design being firmed up when disaster struck.  A new Canadian government, for reasons that are too complex to discuss here, unexpectedly cancelled the Arrow program on February 20, 1959.  All prototypes, design documents, and production jigs were ordered destroyed to keep the advanced aerodynamic information from possibly falling into the hands of Soviet spies.  Within a few months, Avro laid off over 14,000 personnel.  It is estimated that an even larger number of vendors and parts suppliers were out of work due to the cancellation. 


Some of the very best of the laid-off Avro engineers found work with a new agency of the US Government.  They went to work for the Space Task Group in Langley, Virginia.  The old timers and the history books tell us that these immigrants played an absolutely crucial role in the success of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs.  Their legacy in aerodynamics, engineering, management, and leadership still resonates in the agency.  The legacy of the Arrow can even be seen in the delta winged Space Shuttle.  They had “marvelous careers.”


Change is inevitable; life goes on.  Change moves us out of our comfort zones.  The question is not whether there will be change, but what will you do when change occurs?  Out of a personal disaster, how will you create a marvelous new career?  But remember, nothing great was ever accomplished by comfortable men.   


The future belongs to those who overcome circumstances, the ones who can adapt and succeed, the ones who can make take advantage of the opportunity that is hidden from plain view.  


For those who are hurting, this is thin comfort to be sure, but it’s that I can offer.

15 thoughts on “Straight Arrow”

  1. Wayne, thank-you for reminding us to keep a sense of perspective in a changing world. Let’s see where we go from here.

  2. got real boring on Monday. Probably not going to reload it anymore. Don’t think NASA should get a $6 billion budget increase to study gloves. In fact if it’s not going to pursue Buck Rogers it should be dissolved. No Buck Rogers, no bucks. We’re not paying for another make work program that’s not a space program. The social security administration already does NASA’s new job quite nicely. That’s what we’re telling our congress people.

  3. As an Orion person, I just want it to be over. If the president/ administrator are all for this plan, no matter how much squawking Congress will do. Cx will be made to look like a bunch of monkeys (not saying that is true, but the slings and arrows have already started) to help sell the killing to congressman from TX, AL, FL. In the end we will be shutdown, and then NASA can figure out what we need to do. in the mean time to try to go about a routine of doing work for a program that nobody(I know the public wants it but those in power don’t) wants any more is demoralizing. where as if we tow the company line maybe we get a bigger piece of the game changing pie for playing nice.

    Think about it if Congress somehow “saves us” it is like getting the ACLU and a judge to get you your spot back on the team that the rookie(commercial spaceflight) took. The coach and owner (bolden/obama) will be pissed and still control how much play time we get.

    So I guess I moved from Anger, Denial, to acceptance and don’t see a point to calling your congressman and drawing this out. the Contractors need to know if there is going to be any work for them under the new plan and the civil servants need to figure out if this work is going to be anything worth doing. The sooner we can get things firmed up, the soon we can all figure out what we want to be when we grow up.

    I still believe in spaceflight, and think this new direction for NASA is wrong (maybe that is a myopic view), because it is an undefined architecture for an undefined mission depending on unproven companies. And yes it is the nation’s space program, not Obama’s but realistically Congress is going to go along and the sooner they pull the band aid off the better.

  4. The plane was a Canadian innovation. I believe that NASA should innovate without fear, seeking the most effective and advanced, maintaining a technological pioneer. Although this causes a little “damage” at the moment, the future may be the cause of thousands of skilled jobs, new discoveries, technical and financial performance. That’s life, which is expensive and time consuming, was superseded by that is more efficient. It is natural and not offensive, even if people revolt with this reality. Indeed, it is evolution itself, that no rejects. If NASA plans to remain at the forefront of space exploration, if the United States of America wants to continue at the helm in recent history and future, can not afford to lavish. The timing is crucial and I believe that NASA and the U.S. show once again why they are in front.

  5. I believe that the cancellation of Constellation to be the biggest near-sighted mistake President Obama can make.

    Saftey should be the major factor in our manned space program and unless these private companies are willing to let NASA show them how to build man-rated rockets and capsules then the lives of our astromauts should not be placed at risk. Space is a risky enough business and should be left to the professionals
    It took NASA several years, with the support of the Federal Government to finally find away to achieve it’s goals. Why do we have to start all over again? 17 men and women paid “The Ultimate Sacrifice” for their dreams to explore as humans need to do. Simply ending the goals of returning to the Moon and going beyond to Mars, in NASA created spacecraft, because our budget has been devestated by bailing out auto companies and banks and investment companies deemed “too big to fail” is not justification for ending NASA’s 50 year leadership in space.

    What happens if these private companies fail deliver their unproven technologies or unable to keep any type of schedule that they say the can? Worse yet, what if this leads to the loss of another crew because a private company needed to cut a few costs here or there to show a better profit and make their shareholders happy? Let’s not kid ourselves here. None of these companies got into the space business simply for the good of the country. They all started their companies to make a profit. That is what billionaire businessmen do. NASA was never in it for the profit. NASA’s “bottom line” has always been successful missions and programs and the research, data and technological advances they achieved. They have always reached for perfection and have taken any failure very seriously. NASA has always been the smallest funded Federal Program since it’s beginings, yet it is the most successful one to date with the greatest return on the money used to fund it.

    I wonder what Chris Kraft, Gene Krantz or Gus Grissom would say about all of this? I wonder if they would feel betrayed by their country and President for the sake of a few dollars?

  6. Seems change is the only thing happening at NASA at the moment. How many times must an organisation change. Change for change sake is not good for any organisation and at this point thats all I am seeing happening to NASA. Change you cannot believe in. NASA had the right plan in Constellation for beyond LEO although not for ISS. It is a sensible step by step plan for exploration. I hope the US Congress fights to retain at least the Orion Capsule and Ares 5 projects as that gives us some chance of getting out of LEO some time soon. Let private industry and Soyuz do the ferrying to ISS. I hope SpaceX gets more funding ASAP to rapidly develop their Dragon Capsule for human crew. SpaceX say they can do that by 2013 so give them money to develop their launch escape system and human rate Dragon and lets get on with it.

  7. It is not only the loss of the Constellation program if Congress does act that I am lamenting, but also the loss of the Vision. We are not going to go anywhere beyond Earth if every 4 to 8 years a new President changes NASA’s course again. I wish only the best for commercial spaceflight to succeed. What market they are going to be able to serve is another question for another day I guess.

  8. Wayne,

    A big skills loss to the US space industry could do wonders for the Chinese, Japanese and Indian space programs. I assume the Europeans are reasonably happy with their skill set and Russia does not have the money to pay western salaries and doesn’t need them for its limited program.

    Congress, in its membership or its staff, are great at chipping away as an Opposition to executive Government, does not have the knowledge to put forward an alternate space strategy to that developed by executive Government. Members not that interested in space travel, a big majority, will ensure attempts to keep programs alive in the absence of an alternate strategy are stopped.

    NASA control of the architecture of the spacecraft used to carry out its work is an opportunity to engage the public in the type of rockets it should build. Now that spaceship architecture has passed to private industry, and a key point of public engagement is lost.

    The crewed space vehicle industry will now consist of the Russian Space Agency, Japanese Space Agency, Chinese Space Agency, Indian Space Agency, European Space Agency, some US companies/alliances and perhaps the Korean Space Agency competing to launch satellites, service ISS and perhaps service satellites. The European, Chinese and Indian agencies are developing a capacity to go beyond earth orbit. I note that there are just two major commercial aeroplane builders, but likely 8 to 10 crewed spacecraft builders. Government competitors are not playing by the same commercial rules. The airlines are not attractive commercial investments.

    The commercial situation will ensure US companies develop vehicles for the immediate task of going to the ISS and return with upto 3 or 4 days of life support and radiation protection for the journey – they will develop a minimum capability to be competitive. None of the US vehicles will thus be capable of direct return from the Moon or Mars or anywhere else beyond earth orbit.

    Also ISS, flying at 75 degrees to the solar plane, is not a suitable rendezvous point for craft leaving earth orbit for all most all destinations.A new ‘station’ will need to be established in the solar plane for crew, fuel and supplies transfer. This will make it hard to retain interest in the ISS.

    While the commercial vehicles will be able transport astronauts, supplies and fuel to LEO for journeys beyond LEO, the US now has no program to go beyond LEO or be able to do a direct return from beyond LEO. Direct return capability is surely a key safety measure for flights beyond LEO.

    A key rationale for Orion was the shakedown it would get flying to and from the ISS. Sending untried craft into deep space runs Apollo style risks!!!

    The painfully slow and expensive method of building the ISS in over 20 flights, is not something to be repeated.

    Sending many humans to LEO requires a big rocket to send their accommodation to LEO. A big rocket means much more capable vehicles for going beyond LEO can be sent to LEO.

    Cutting journey times from 6 months to less than a month requires huge accelerations and de-accelerations on the journey, meaning more fuel must be sent.

    The Orion, Ares I, Ares V strategy still has a lot going for it. Even if it is delayed for more cost-cutting research and to provide budget for an initial commercial conquest of LEO, it is a program worth pursuing. Without a big rocket, the commercial opportunities for people in LEO are limited.

    I await with interest the revised beyond LEO strategy.

    With Constellation cancelled and therefore there will be less reliance on heritage technology for flights beyond earth orbit, perhaps my proposals for beyond earth orbit travel published on the Augustine Committee website could be re-assessed.

  9. Applying the Avro example to the present day, NASA engineers could potentially take new jobs with the Chinese or Indian space programs and help them accomplish what we don’t have the stomach for.

  10. Loved your post. In multiple motivation and training classes I’ve heard “people change out of inspiration and/or desperation. And usually it’s the latter of the two.” In my opionion that is what is happening here right now. Change is being forced upon many people who are incredibly change averse. I am relatively new to this environment and it is the opposite of what the “outside” is like. The environment here is rear-facing and adhered to the “that’s how we’ve always done it” mentality. I think it is about time someone stepped on the toes of the traditions and forced some change and discomfort which more often than not lead to incredible innovation.

    “Nothing great was ever accomplished by comfortable men” says it best. Time to get out of the past and step into the uncertainty of the future.

  11. The road to hell is paved with technology demonstration programs. We need a real full scale development program with an actual vehicle going to an actual destination.

    Otherwise we are never going to get anywhere.

  12. To Tuna (below) don’t give up fighting for Constellation. Remember a few years ago the ISS was almost cancelled, and a single vote in congress saved it. Good things are worth fighting for. Don’t give up. That’s what Bolden and Garver want us to do. For years we have heard Wayne and other NASA notables give us great speeches as well as one-line motivators similar to, “when the going gets tough the tough get going, the best things in life are worth fighting for, and Winston Churchill’s never, never, never give up.” Support your senators and congressman, stay positive, express your opinions and views, let logic and common sense work in your favor, etc.

  13. I know what you are trying to say here Wayne, but I have to say that your analogy is grossly misplaced in this case.

    The truth is that the decision to kill the Arrow and destroy all record of its existence utterly destroyed the Canadian hi-tech aerospace industry (and don’t quote the RMS, because that’s robotics – not astronautics). Most of that Canadian public consider the cancellation of the Arrow and the end of the Canadian aerospace industry to be a national disaster to this day. An entire TV miniseries was made about it, and the Prime Minister who’s administration made the decision is vilified to this day. The Avro workers who were lucky enough to find valued work south of the border were fortunate of timing and circumstance. In a different era, they would have wound up driving truck.

    If you want to continue with the analogy to present day, all of the American aerospace workers about to be kicked to the curb will now pack up their bags and go to China, and help them complete their manifest destiny of colonizing the solar system. Or, they will drive truck for a living.

    As for the future: no young American will be interested in space as a career. After all, there is no program, no point.

    No matter how you try, making things try to seem better with this new plan is really putting lipstick on a pig.

    It’s still a pig.

  14. On Feb 03, 2010 04:22:43 PM Bill Edwards wrote: I believe that the cancellation of Constellation to be the biggest near-sighted mistake President Obama can make.

    It was neither short- nor near-sighted, Obama’s ‘change’ blind-sided the U.S. and NASA.

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