Prima Donnas and Ice Cream Socials



STS-3 marked the first “long duration” shuttle flight of eight days.  One of the major objectives was thermal testing of the orbiter.  This was not exciting work, the test consisted of pointed the orbiter in a certain attitude and holding for a period of time, measuring the temperature response and correlating the response to computer models, then moving to another attitude. 


Two significant “human factors” events made this flight memorable to those of us in mission control.


Factor number one was that two of the senior flight directors assigned had, well, no love lost for each other.  The rivalry had gone back years, apparently.  Both of them were known as “prima donnas” in an office full of Type A personalities.  Barely civil to each other most of the time, during the stresses of the flight this turned into full bore warfare. 


Factor number two was a rookie flight director with a team that did not have a lot to do and the very limited communications we had with the shuttle in those days.  This lead to . . . interesting situations. 


To review the bidding; in those early shuttle days, there were three mission control teams supposedly set to cover the three approximately 8 hour shifts each day.  The Lead Flight Director was generally set to cover the lion’s share of the crew work day, from just before crew awake until well into their “afternoon” period.   Generally the most complicated activities on the flight took part during this time.  At that time, the orbit 2 shift (which covered the remainder of the crew day and ‘put the crew to bed’) was also the Entry team; responsible at the end of the flight for returning the crew safely.  (Lead Flight Directors were considered to be incapable of also serving as an Ascent or Entry flight director during the same flight – too many responsibilities, too many training and proficiency objectives, etc.).  The Ascent team that launched the crew performed a “whifferdill” on the first day – handed over post ascent to the Orbit 2 team, hurried home to catch a short nap – and returned in about 8 hours to receive handover from the Orbit 2 team and transform themselves from the Ascent team to the Planning Team.  The planning team always works while the crew is asleep to review, revise, and polish the crew activity plan for the next day.


I was working the Ascent/Planning team as the Propulsion systems officer.


The shift schedule is controlled by the Lead Flight Director and he can (and generally does) shift it to suit the activities of the day; sometimes teams have longer or shorter shifts depending on what is happening, handover times are changed to accommodate activities that one or the other of the flight control teams had specifically trained to monitor. 


On the very first day, the Orbit 2 (/Entry) team Flight Director did something that ticked off the Lead (Orbit 1) team Flight Director.  As we handed over to the very first shift of the Orbit 2 team, we could hear a loud conversation wafting over the consoles from the back row of Mission Control.  As we were leaving, our flight director said it would be good to call in the recorded number to find out when we were to be back on console.  After working 16 out of the last 24 hours, we all hurried home to bed. 


Awakening later, the recording had a greatly revised shift schedule from the pre-flight published one.  The Orbit 2 team was not on it at all.  Seems the Lead Flight Director (Orbit 1 team) had determined that his team should be on for almost the entire crew day (10 hours or so) and that the Planning team (my team) would cover the rest of the day (about 14 hours) and the Orbit 2 team was . . . not required.  Wow.  To this day, I don’t know how that happened.


This started a very long stretch of very long days. Fortunately, the sleep shift was pretty quiet.  Not to say that the thermal testing was going well; just the opposite.  Seems that the computer models were pretty bad and we were learning a lot.  Which means there was a significant amount of replanning going on.


In the days before the Tracking and Data Relay Satellites were launched, communications with the shuttle, like communications with the Mercury and Gemini astronauts before us, depending on the spacecraft flying overhead a ground tracking station.  These passes were short, about 8 minutes maximum, and there could be significant periods of Loss Of Signal (LOS) between stations.  Nowadays we have almost continuous communications with crews in earth orbit, but that was not the case then. 


During the wee hours of the night shift, the orbit lined up in such a way that the spacecraft would be in communication with only one tracking station each orbit; generally the one in Santiago, Chile.  The AGO to AGO passes were notorious.   Try to stay awake at 3 or so in the morning when you get to watch telemetry for 8 minutes every 90 minutes . . . no talking to the crew since they are asleep.  We were desperate to do something to break the monotony.


I don’t know who suggested the ice cream social.  But we thought it was a great idea.  So on one particular night, dozens of gallons of ice cream, fruit, syrups, paper plates and bowls made their appearance in the MCC.  We cleared all the paperwork off the consoles in the front row – the ‘trench’  – and stuffed ourselves on the goodies.  At the next AGO pass, the front consoles were too sticky and covered with goo to use; but all was well, so no big deal.  We slowly cleaned up and then got down to the business of planning the next crew day’s activities.  Except that it was a big day for changes.  The engineers in the Mission Evaluation room wanted lots of new attitudes, lots of changes.  We started working through a sugar induced fog.  Then the clock ran out. 


The Orbit 1 team and their now infamous Lead Flight Director showed up early because they had been forewarned it would be a busy day.  And what did they find?  The Planning team had not completed the plan!!!!  Uh oh.  Even worse, when we got the plan finalized (with the Orb 1 team hunched over our shoulders) the tracking station that we needed to send the plan up had a maintenance problem, and another 20 minutes elapsed before we could tell the crew the changes.


The shift recording had more changes that day.  When we got back on the planning shift – and well after the Orbit 1 team left – we made a big sign and hung it in the back of the MCC (where it wouldn’t show on TV):  “Welcome Back Orbit 2 Team”. 


I don’t actually know if they ever saw that sign since we handed over to Orbit 1.


After STS-3 landing, the Flight Operations management team had a “retreat” where new rules about shift changes, shift durations, etc., were written down.  And some folks got “promotions” out of the flight director office.


And we never had another ice cream social in the front room of the MCC again. 


That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Moral Hazard


“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  (April 5, 1881) John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, Lord Acton in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton



Everybody who quotes Lord Acton seems to concentrate on the second half of his famous line; I’d like to consider the first half today: “power tends to corrupt”  – even in small doses.  Let me tell you about my experience in this regard.


First of all, don’t call the cops.  This is not big time corruption where people pay money to government officials so that they award contracts as payback; nothing that violates Federal or state laws or regulations.  No, this is about a different kind of corruption, the kind that works on your soul.  Come to think of it, that is the really big time corruption.


My move from the Flight Director office to the Space Shuttle Program happened suddenly and unexpectedly.  Flight Directors are generally well respected and command a modicum of respect, but they have no budget, they sign no contracts, they do not have direct supervisory control over anybody.  All things considered, Flight Directors have very little in the way of power and influence.


In the Space Shuttle Program office, the first thing handed to me was control of the Infrastructure Revitalization work, about $100 Million per year to be spent trying to correct years of neglect of NASA’s facilities.  The bean counters in Washington had starved the agency so that basic maintenance was not being performed.  Just before I arrived, the Shuttle Program was authorized to spend a significant amount of money doing important facilities work.  For example, the roof of the VAB was leaking, about to cave in, and putting a new roof up there costs multiple millions of dollars.  So all of a sudden, Center Directors and facility managers all around the agency became my best friend.  In my control was something they very much needed and wanted:  money and the ability to let contracts to do much needed work.  Good thing I had a competent and grounded staff that really did all the work of prioritizing and preparing the decision packages. 


That was my first whiff.  People were oh-so-nice.  And I just thought they wanted to be my friend.  Well, yes and no. 


Later on when I became Deputy Program Manager and later Program Manager, people went out of their way to be nice.  It is really intoxicating to think you are that well liked just because you are a good guy and so pleasant to be with.  Not.


Don’t get me wrong, those were tough times and I made many good and solid friendships that continue to this day.  I have many colleagues that I respect and keep in close contact.  But two years after I was relieved of the Shuttle Program Managership, it is easy to look back and see who was true and who was faux.


When Winston Churchill was voted out of office in 1945, someone told him that it was a blessing in disguise.  To that, the great man replied, ‘then it is very well disguised.’  That was certainly how I felt in early 2008.  But with the space of over two years now, I can report leaving a position of high authority which controlled so much money has turned out to be really good for me.  For two years now, I have not controlled any budget, have only one subordinate employee (my secretary), have very limited influence, and the time to think about things.


As Program Manager, I controlled a budget in the multiple billions of dollars, had thousands working under my direction.  We made contract performance awards on a regular basis which doled out millions to the primary contractors based on how I perceived their performance.  Is there any wonder that they were nice to me?


And as Program Manager, you are the ultimate “decider”.  Yes, everybody has a boss and sometimes decisions are appealed and you have to justify your decision, but those are rare occurrences and 99% of the time what the Program Manager decides is the way it is.  After a while you begin to think you are god-like in your judgment and decision making.


And since Program Managers are very senior officials in the Federal service, all kinds of little benefits come your way; all your travel arrangements are taken care of; close in parking spaces are reserved for you; a seat either at the head or near the head of the table always bears your name; there is a special IT representative to come fix your computer on a moment’s notice, and on and on.  All of this in the name of making your time more efficient, to “free” you to make the important decisions.


Everybody knows your name, and starts calling you “sir”.  The most ridiculous circus happens on military bases where they equate your civil service rank to that of a military general and full military protocol comes into play when you arrive.


It was especially bad when they announced things like “Space Shuttle Program Arriving” as if I personally embodied that huge organization.  It makes your ego think that it is really your program.  The truth is that it is the taxpayer’s program and you have been entrusted with its stewardship for a season only. 


This is not limited to Program Managers but extends to other high ranking federal officials.  I once heard an ex-head of the Astronaut office complain because he no longer had access to his T-38 and had to fly commercial and thus had to wait in line with everybody else.  Sad.


My wife is still laughing about a high school reunion that I attended during my tenure as Program Manager.  All the most popular girls in high school, the ones who wouldn’t give a nerd like me the time of day when we were 17, came clambering around me.  As one of my (divorced) classmates said:  “Wayne is a chick magnet”.  He hung close for the weekend activities trying to strike up conversations of his own.  And in other settings it has not escaped my notice that younger, attractive women, pay a lot of attention to guys who have power, authority, and money in their hands. 


Speaking of airports and high federal officials; I’ve had the interesting experience of watching a Congressman explode at the airline gate agent in National airport because a plane was delayed due to weather.  Did the airline not know who he was?  Why didn’t they just roll out another airplane to suit his schedule?  As if, like King Chanute, it were possible to change the tides. 


So there you have it; people surrounding you, pampering you, adoring you, wanting to be groupies, admiring your brilliant decisions.  At times you get a little tingle as something – your conscience?- reminds you that this is just not right.  But at the time it feels oh-so-good.


And it’s oh-so-bad for you.


So it is really good to get out of that situation.  To remember that you are not as smart as you think you are, nor nearly as brilliant as the sycophants lead you to believe.  Nor as attractive to young women as your libido would like. 


In fact, almost all of us are ordinary guys and gals and have to go home to cut the grass, balance the checkbook, and fix the drier.  And that is as it should be. 


And it is also very good to remember that there really are smarter people than yourself – a lot of them.  (Like the drier repairman who can really put it back together after you botched the repair attempt)>


And finally, to know that you really do have good friends that care about you whether you are rich and famous or not.


Don’t stay too long in the seat of power and authority because it will corrode your soul.

Meeting the Great Bird of the Galaxy

Long before I came to work at NASA, I was enamored with space travel.  On flickering black and white television we watched the Ranger shots, the Mariner 4 pictures of Mars roll in, Alan Shepard on the skinny Redstone, John Glenn, all the Gemini/Titan launches and even the puppeteers that were the special effects of the day as they mimicked the early space walks.  Science Fiction was the largest component of my reading material, much to my teacher’s dismay, and I avidly watched all the great movies of the time:  Destination Moon, Forbidden Planet, the Day the Earth Stood Still, and many more.


Television influenced all our thinking about space travel.  Not only were there the wonderful Disney shows about mounting expeditions to the moon and beyond, but there were dreadful science fiction series like Lost In Space.  But the most important show of all time, at least for us space cadets, was Star Trek.


Gene Roddenberry was the creator and initiator of that famous and influential fictional universe which echoes down to our current time.  As many commentators have noted, the issues that his characters faced were not really issues of aliens and space but the issues facing each of us in America in the 1960.  And there was a basic foundation of hope:  hope that the future would be better, where everyone had a chance at fulfillment, where all sorts of folks had learned to work and live together.  In the 1960’s that did not seem like a certain outcome; over 40 years later we are much closer to that universe than many thought possible.


As any good fan knows, the original Star Trek series was cancelled after only three years and it took nearly a decade before the first Star Trek movie was made and another decade before the series was revived with the “next generation.”  So the early 1970’s was a disappointing era for science fiction fans.  But that “gap” gave me the opportunity to meet Gene Roddenberry in person.


While I was an undergraduate at Rice University in Houston, one of my extracurricular activities was as chairman of a committee which was to bring different speakers to the university.  We were able to bring Congresswoman Barbara Jordan to speak; what a moving experience that was!


In those long ago days, different companies that provided speakers would send out picture catalogs of various folks that you could contract to speak at your event for a fee.  While leafing through the catalog, one picture jumped out at me:  Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek was on the speaker’s circuit – and the price was well within our budget. 


With warp speed, we made the arrangements for him to come.  On the fateful day, I drove my roommate and his girlfriend to Houston’s big airport and we met Mr. Roddenberry at the gate.   He turned out to be a really interesting guy with a lot of stories and very gregarious.  It was at lunch we learned how he got his nickname (Great Bird of the Galaxy).  It was a magical afternoon.  We took him to lunch at the nicest place the student associate could afford (at the Galleria) and then to his hotel for some rest.  That evening I had pressed several classmates into service to collect money at the door (we had to pay for it somehow!) and the main auditorium of the student center was packed to capacity.


Roddenberry had brought a film real of outtakes (“bloopers”) from the TV show and we started the program with that film.  After the film ended, applause echoed in the hall and I got to make the introduction.  The next hour and a half was filled with a discussion of his philosophy, the entertainment business, and everything under the sun.  Ending the program I escorted the great man to one of the college professor’s house where a reception was held in his honor. 


At this point, things started going awry.  First of all, my college buddies wanted to know what to do with the cash box filled with over $1,000 in small bills.  I hadn’t thought about that – it was a lot of money to a college kid in 1974!  We hid it in my dorm room since the bursar’s office was closed.  Then the ‘blooper’ reel had disappeared.  I had to hunt all over campus until I found it being projected in another theater on campus.  Confiscating the film, I headed back to the reception where Mr. Roddenberry was ready to leave.  A female student begged me to let her ride with me while I delivered him to the hotel.  That was a mistake.  Let’s just say that she gave every indication that she wanted to be dropped off there as well!  Nevertheless, I got him to his hotel room and her back to campus. 


The following morning I collected Mr. Roddenberry and whisked him to the airport.  Quite a busy 24 hours!  Not one I will forget soon.  Then the long wait until Monday morning and I could turn the money into the campus business office.  Nobody guarded their dorm room more closely than I did until 8:00 Monday morning.  Whew.


So that is my story.  After a couple of weeks, I got an envelope in the mail from Mr. Roddenberry’s secretary.  The note said how much he had enjoyed the trip and there was a certificate:  I was named a Star Fleet Officer with the signature endorsements (which looked strikingly similar) of Captain James T. Kirk and Admiral Eugene Roddenberry.  Needless to say it is one of my most prized possessions!


And that is the story of how I met the Great Bird of the Galaxy and learned how the future would be filled with wonders, optimism, and the exploration of the universe!


And you wonder why I always wanted to work in space.

Guest Writer Today

This note from my successor as Shuttle Program Manager was too good not to post:

Did you know that in the year from May 11, 2009 to May 14, 2010, the Shuttle and ISS teams launched seven Space Shuttle flights?
If you add STS-119 in March of 2009, we have launched eight flights in 14 months (15 March 2009 to 14 May 2010)…Early in 2009, independent studies showed less than a 20% likelihood we could achieve this flight rate.

This was accomplished due to many different contractor and government organizations working as a team.

During this high-flight rate period Shuttle Processing has set and reset records for the lowest number of IPR’s during processing, multiple projects and the integration teams are responsible for new records for the lowest number of debris releases and the lowest number of TPS damages on the Orbiter, and all of the projects have set records for the lowest number of in-flight anomalies.

The production teams have met or significantly beat all processing milestones for hardware delivery to KSC.

The institutional organizations have successfully integrated the governance model into our everyday processes, providing fully independent engineering and safety ownership of risk decisions for the first time in the history of the Program. This smooth process was demonstrated clearly in last flight’s MMT meetings.

Even more amazing is that all of this was accomplished while necessarily reducing the total workforce by 32%, to the lowest numbers in Program history (from 14,577 in 2005 to 9878 today).
These government/contractor teams are unquestionably performing at an incredibly high level.  I am extremely proud of how all of you are maintaining your focus and completing the incredible legacy of the Space Shuttle Program.

John P. Shannon

My congratulations to the entire Space Shuttle team on their continuing accomplishments!