High Culture and Spaceflight

Last week’s post with a pop-culture (movie) quotation generated a lot of response.  Frankly, I am a bit embarrassed by the using such a “low” form of reference.  So this week I’ll start with a high brow reference:

 Picture from ISS yesterday (3/29/2010)

Tennyson’s Ulysses (1842):


            Come, my friends,

‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows, for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew



Almost all of us suffered through some exposure to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey during our school days.  Those works are considered to be classics of western literature, and even after 2,500 years Odysseus’ (or Ulysses’) travels can still stir the imagination.  Tennyson was moved to update the tale in the 19th century and his work also ranks in the classics. 


In the passage quoted above, Odysseus/Ulysses entices his friends to accompany him on a new adventure, one of exploration and discovery.  This is the original version of the “flexible path” since there are any number of destinations:  “a newer world”, and the “baths of the western stars” which lie “beyond the sunset.”   He intends for his crew to row (“smite the sounding furrows”) to the land of the dead (“the Happy Isles”) to see those departed from this life (“the great Achilles, whom we knew”).  This voyage to continue “until I die”. 


This sort of stuff has attracted adolescents since, well, time immemorial.  No clear destination   just go.  No clear timeline — just go now and it should never end.  No commercial gain, no practical end, just a journey.  In fact, it is the journey, not the destination, which is the purpose. 


Sorta like “second star to the right, and straight on till morning” – another literary allusion. 


What part of the human psyche is not attracted to this romantic vision? 


So it has been for me.  When I signed on to NASA’s payroll, I thought that we would do this shuttle thing for a few years, maybe build a space station, and then we would be off to the Moon and Mars and all the other places in the solar system.  Sometime after that maybe somebody would invent a way to travel to the stars and I could be involved in that, too.  Maybe it was watching too much Star Trek, Star Wars, reading Robert Heinlein; but it also certainly involved too much Homer and his Odysseus. 


Circumstances have turned out somewhat different than I expected.  Not that it hasn’t been a great adventure, it’s just that we haven’t gotten very far “beyond the sunset” in over 30 years of trying.  Somewhere along the way, I’ve tried to not grow up. 


Time for something new, I suppose. 


Lots of folks believe that they can invent/develop/complete new ways to “smite the furrows” of space.  It may be harder than they expect.  On the other hand, maybe there are new tricks that old dogs haven’t yet learned that will revolutionize space travel.  Certainly we need that.


Since I started with a ‘high brow’ literary reference, I’ll leave you with another to ponder.  Be sure to read the words carefully to catch the full meaning.


Henry IV Part I Act 3 Scene 1 line 53, by William Shakespeare:


Glendower:  I can call spirits from the vasty deep

Hotspur:  Why, so can I, or so can any man;

            But will they come when you do call for them?

Chick Flicks and Space Travel

After my son left home for college and marriage, the detente that existed in my home was upset by the lack of parity in the masculine and feminine genders.  In short, my wife and daughter outvoted me at the video rental store on a weekly basis.  We watched a lot of chick flicks in those days.

Searching through the cupboard a few days ago, I came across the DVD of my daughter’s favorite all time movie.  And I was reminded of a short passage in the movie that seems pertinent to these days.

A lot of my time lately has been spent in wrangling discussions about writing down plans for the future which are contentious and ill defined.  Probably explains why I have not been updating the blog much lately.  

Anyway, just in a wistful mode, here is the pop culture snippet that has been on my mind recently:

“I. Q.”  Paramount Picture, 1994; starring Meg Ryan, Walter Matthau, Tom Robbins

Ed Walters (Tom Robbins) says:


“Any journey in life, if not done for human reasons with understanding and love would be empty and lonely.  It’s something worth remembering as nuclear-powered spacecraft may soon make the ancient dream of traveling to the edge of the universe and back a reality.  The source of that power is the very source that fuels the stars themselves and in doing so fuels our imaginations and our dreams.”



Civics 101

“No money shall be drawn from the treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law” – Article I Section 9 of the Constitution of the United States


Sometimes it is good to remember some basics of government operation.  This may be a good time for review. 


NASA is a federal executive agency; the President is the head of the executive branch of the government.  But direction does not come from the President alone; it must be approved and funded by the legislative branch, Congress.  Neither the executive nor the legislative branches can do something that is against the Constitution; the Judicial branch of the government determines that boundary. 


NASA is currently operating under the “authorization” act of 2008 and the “appropriation” act of 2010.  Authorization acts spell out what the agency should be doing; appropriations acts provide the money.  Generally, NASA, like most federal agencies, is authorized to do more than there is money appropriated to do it with.


The current fiscal year is 2010; it started on October 1, 2009 and will end September 30, 2010.  Fiscal Year 2011 starts October 1, 2010.  The President of the United States sent his budget proposal for FY 2011 to the Congress on February 1, 2010 and that budget is under consideration by Congress at this time.


In a usual year, this would put the NASA financial/business office folks on track to be developing the 2012 budget request at this time.  From shortly after the President’s budget request is announced until Memorial Day, each Federal executive agency pulls together their wish list/budget proposal for the fiscal year after next.  So at the same time that each agency is operating under the current fiscal year appropriation and Congress considers the budget proposal for next fiscal year, work is started on the budget for the year after next.  Three different fiscal years are in play at one time. 


Every federal executive agency provides their budget request to the Office of Management and Budget and the President’s Executive Budget Office around the end of May.  Then the OMB puts together the entire puzzle: the entire federal budget plan for the second fiscal year in the future.  This is while the Congress is wrestling with modification or approval of the budget for the next fiscal year.  Both OMB and Congress have to deal with the big picture issues:  income from taxes, total government outlays, the deficit, etc.


Congress is supposed to pass a budget before the start of the new fiscal year, no later than September 30.  They do not always meet that deadline, but will pass a “continuing resolution” which allows the federal government to continue in operation.  These “continuing resolutions” generally allow spending at the level of the previous year (but not always) and generally have limited time affectivity – a few days to a couple of months (but not always).  Some years, Congress never completely passes a budget and portions of the federal government operate for a full year (or more) under continuing resolution.


Whether in a real appropriation bill or a continuing resolution, Congress sets the rules.  In every appropriations act there is a breakdown of how the money is to be spent.  No federal agency (NASA in our case) can ignore that breakdown, it is literally federal law.  Uninformed outsiders that recommend NASA executives move money from one account to another are actually recommending violation of federal law.  This is clearly not an option.  If any federal agency desires to move money from one account or program or project to another, that agency must go hat in hand to the appropriations committees of Congress to request an “op plan change”.  Sometimes Congress agrees and sometimes they don’t. 


So during the summer and fall, as Congress considers the budget request for the next fiscal year, OMB works on the budget request for the following year.  Generally about Thanksgiving the OMB provides a “passback” to each federal agency.  In essence they say ‘We know what you asked for; here is what you are going to get’.  From the end of November until the President’s budget request is formally presented to Congress (about Feb. 1) there is a period of time when agencies can try to negotiate with the OMB.  Details that perhaps didn’t mesh get worked out.  A narrative and detailed plan is developed.  But once the President’s budget request goes to Congress, internal debate in the Executive branch is done.  The President’s budget is our budget proposal and we are duty bound as Federal Executive branch employees to support it. 


National policy is made at one place in America:  1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  That is as it should be.  So, as a federal executive agency, NASA does not make space policy.  The vast majority of NASA employees have nothing to do with the development of national space policy.  The NASA Administrator and a handful of senior agency officials can propose, debate, and participate in the discussion, but after the President decides, his policy is our policy.    That is the way our republic works.  Debate before Congress or in other public venues is good, proper, and what the Founding Fathers envisioned; the executive branch personnel are required to support the President’s proposal whenever they are speaking as part of their official duties. 


Last year, there was a significant policy debate within the Administration about America’s plans for human space flight.  The Administration commissioned a study, the U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee (aka, the “Augustine committee”) – a group of experts who studied for many weeks what should the national space policy should be.  Their report was delivered to the Administration in October.  At Thanksgiving, when NASA expected to get its “passback” from OMB as usual, the OMB did not provide detailed information on human space flight since the policy was still under review.  The passback from OMB came just a few days before release of the President’s budget proposal to Congress on February 1. 


NASA is, a little out of sequence, putting together the details which result from the national space policy.  These details will be carefully reviewed to ensure that they are in accord with the overall national policies. 


National policy as proposed by the President is reviewed by the Congress which codifies it in an “authorization” act.


Congress, it should be noted, divides into two parts:  the authorizers and the appropriators.  The authorizers consider what the national policy should be (they review the recommendation by the President) and tell federal agencies what they are “authorized” to do.  A different set of the legislators deal with money and dole out “appropriations” from the national treasury.  A federal agency might be “authorized” to do many things, but federal agencies can only actually do things that money is “appropriated” for.   Authorizers do not have to pass a new “authorization” bill every year; appropriators must pass an appropriations bill every year (even it if is just a continuing resolution).


I hope this short, very simplified Civics lesson helps in understanding what is going on. 


Remember the basics:


(1)  National Policy is developed by the White House, generally with a lot of advice.

(2)  The President proposes policy and a budget to the Congress

(3)  The Congress agrees, modifies, or changes the policy and the budget

(4)  All Federal Executive agencies “execute” the plan approved by Congress.


Graduate level courses are available if you desire more detailed information.


Advancing Aeronautics and Space

Collier Trophy


Whenever I am in Washington on business, I try to carve out time to visit the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.  Today  my meetings allowed a lunch time dash to the museum where I spent much of my time in the Golden Age of Flight gallery. 

Among other artifacts, many of the ornate trophies awarded in the early days of aviation are on display there: the Harmon, the Schneider, the Bendix, the Thompson.  Among them is the Collier Trophy, an award established in 1911.  The list of winners through the years is a veritable who’s who in aviation:  Wright, Curtiss, Martin, Huges, Yeager, Crossfield, Whitcomb, Rutan.  Its history makes it one of the most prestigious awards that anyone or any organization in the aerospace field can aspire to win.  This afternoon the National Aeronautic Association announced this year’s winner is the International Space Station.  What a wonderful and unexpected award!  What a confirmation of the hard work of many nations and many individuals over the last two decades. 

Well done, well deserved, and congratulations indeed.


The reasons that I visited that particular gallery of the NASM today is my specific interest in how early aviation progressed from dreams and primitive machines to become a vital part of our daily lives and a significant part of our economy.  The 20’s and 30’s are covered so briefly in so many aviation history books that it takes significant study to begin to understand this rich and complex period of history. 

I am reading Jimmy Doolittle’s autobiography “I Could Never Be So Lucky Again.”  What an amazing man he was and what an amazing time he lived in.  Doolittle did not win the Collier trophy but he racked up plenty of the others, many of them for air races.  During the 1920’s and 1930’s there were many air races sponsored by various organizations.  The Thompson trophy was awarded at the National Air Races in Cleveland every summer, and Doolittle won it in the Gee-Bee racer.  That beast was as close to a death machine as has ever been built.  After his victory in 1932, Doolittle gave this evaluation of the air races of the Golden Age of Aviation: 

“I felt the time had clearly arrived to examine the role of the air races.  They had served a useful purpose by arousing public interest in aviation.  They had also become the inspiration and proving ground for new concepts in aircraft design and construction.  Cockpit venting, retractable gear, and bold new wind and fuselage designs were born in the competition for the various trophies.  But the price in planes and pilots had been high.  I thought aviation should now begin to serve world commerce rather than be considered mostly a sport.”

During those years, aviation was advancing through competition for records as well as trophies, advancing in the development of the fledgling passenger service, advancing through philanthropic foundations like the Gugenheim which gave money for research and development.  And advancing by the efforts of a new government agency which has a birthday today:  The National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics: the NACA, founded on March 3, 1915.  From its founding through 1958, the NACA conducted research and development on the problems of aviation.  The fruit of this work was an aviation industry vastly safer and more efficient than it was before.  And of course, in 1958, the NACA organization became the foundation of a new national agency:  NASA.  Even today there is probably no airplane in production anywhere in the world that does not incorporate advances first developed by the NACA. 

Unfortunately, any student of history of aviation will tell you the greatest advances in aviation occurred during the years surrounding the two World Wars.  One can only hope that advances in space technology will not have such a terrible foundation; except of course it already has:  German rocket technology of WWII and the ICBM race of the cold war.

So I am pondering today, both on duty and off, how best can space technology and space access be advanced?  What lessons can we learn from the golden age of aviation to more rapidly develop a space flight industry that can approximate aviation today?  And what lessons can we learn to avoid?  That list should start with the great air mail scandal of 1934.  That event was a near disaster for early aviation, at least in America.   

Exploring Space as only Robert McCall can imagine

 On my way out of the museum, I paused to reflect at the giant mural which Robert McCall painted on the south lobby wall.  We lost Bob a few days ago and his genius will be sorely missed in the coming days







The words from Jim Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13 echoed unbidden in my mind: 


“I sometimes catch myself looking up at the Moon, remembering the changes of fortune in our long voyage, thinking of the thousands of people who worked to bring the three of us home. I look up at the Moon and wonder, when will we be going back, and who will that be?”





When will we be going back, and who will that be?

Passing of the Old Guard

I was saddened to learn of the passing of Bob McCall, the talented artist who captured the space program and its promise so well for so many years.  Art can provide a window to the future that mere words can never achieve.  We will miss him.

Closer to home, we are sorry to hear of the passing of Aaron Cohen.  He had been in declining health in recent weeks so the news was not a surprise, but the loss is still acute.  Dr. Cohen was an unsung hero in the pantheon of those who propelled America into space.

Not only was Aaron Cohen a brilliant engineer (the highest compliment that anyone at NASA can achieve) but he was a tremendous leader, a superb organizer, and a true gentleman.  In contrast to many of his peers, I never heard him lose his temper, raise his voice, or berate anybody.  Not that he was without passion; indeed I was in his presence for many moments when it was clear that he had strong and emotional feelings on some subject or another; it is just he never lost the control that a true gentleman always maintains.  We would do well to study his example.

After he retired from NASA, Dr. Cohen returned to his beloved Texas A&M University to teach new generations of engineers and leaders.  His command of the systems engineering discipline was unparalleled and one can only hope those students realized what a tremendous master they had the glory to study under.

I will leave you with only one of the many insights that Aaron shared with me.  As a senior leader during the shuttle program development in the 1970’s he watched the difficulties that plagued development of the space shuttle main engines.  As he said:  “I wished that somebody could just invent an anti-gravity machine so that we would not have to rely on rocket engines anymore.  Then I realized that if someone were able to invent such a device, it would no doubt have braze welds and triple-E (electronic) parts.  And all the troubles we were having with all the other parts of the shuttle would be present in that machine, too.”

A brilliant and gentle man.  We will miss him.