Monthly Archives: July 2010

Legal Notice

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I’ve always gotten really good advice from the NASA legal office.  We have had many difficult problems with contracts, lawsuits, workplace issues, and the like.  My request to them was that I wanted to end my career without going to Leavenworth and their advice has always been good enough to keep me out of there.

As a senior government employee, the NASA legal office has given me quite a bit of legal advice and opinion about post-government employment restrictions and what the law and ethics restrict me from doing after I leave.  Since I’m not trained in the law, I have a lot of questions that they have patiently answered for me and explained down to the kindergarten level of understanding that I have about legal matters.  Anyway, the subject of continuing this NASA blog has come up.  Yep, as my old boss once told me, don’t ask the lawyers if you don’t want to know the answer.  But I really do want to know what is right and ethical and legal, so I did ask . . .

For the record, today – July 31 – as I write this, I am still, officially, a NASA employee.  Today being a Saturday, I had to check out yesterday, turn in my badges, blackberry, and everything, but legally I am a NASA employee until midnight tonight.  Just for the record.

So the answer from the legal office was that to continue this blog on the NASA web page, I would have to become a Special Government Employee (unpaid).  This would cause several complications:  having to get ethics training, having to continue to file personal financial disclosures, and having certain potential affects on any future employment I might choose to undertake.  This is just all too complicated and too much trouble for an old retired guy to contemplate.  I am really looking forward to decluttering my life.

Don’t complain to the lawyers – they are doing a great job.  And I really do believe that the nation’s ethics laws serve us well, so I have no complaints.

So, it looks like this is my last post on the NASA web page.  That is probably just as well.  I have always been mindful that speaking here is in effect representing NASA.  Therefore I have not addressed certain topics, nor provided opinions that are contrary to NASA policy.  I would feel duty bound to continue those restrictions if I blog here.

But I am rather enjoying blogging, so I guess I’ll have to find a new venue. 

Its been a great conversation!  And I wish the very best to those of you who are still in the trenches, fighting the good fight to explore the universe.  My hat is off to you.  And if I can be of any assistance in the future, please don’t hesitate to contact me; I’ll do whatever the law allows to help.

Wayne Hale – over and out

P. S.  No comments allowed for this post – a first – because  I won’t be around to moderate them!

Coming Soon

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Shortly after the Bush administration decided to end the shuttle program (no later than 2010), we decided that it would be a good idea to have the people who actually worked in the shuttle program write a book detailing our shared experience.  Heaven knows that there are enough books on the shuttle already, and no doubt more to come.  But by and large these books have been written by people who are external to the program:  historians, journalists, and the like.  Several individuals, most of them former astronauts, have written books, but they are necessarily the point of view of a single individual, and therefore can tell only part of the story.

So we decided to write a book on the breadth of the shuttle program, from beginning to end, the good, the bad, and the ugly, with only a couple of rules:  (1) it had to be totally honest, (2) it had to be technically accurate, (3) it had to fit in one volume, and (4) it had to be written by insiders.

Tuesday we had the final editorial board meeting which put a seal on the contents.  From this point on the book is in the hands of the proof readers, the indexers, the graphics designers, and the printer.  We expect the Government Printing Office to have copies on the shelf for sale in January 2011.  Sections will subsequently be posted on the NASA web pages, including any updates from the last couple of flights which exceeded the Bush closing date by maybe as much as a year.

The toughest part of the job was cutting material.  Once our folks got started writing, they couldn’t hold back.  We could have written a 5 volume mini-encyclopedia; or probably a 30 volume real encyclopedia.  But we stuck with our rule to have one volume, approximately 700 pages.

So what is in there?  We tried to tell the “so what” of the shuttle.  What did it accomplish, what did it fail to do, why was it so complex, and why did it cost so much.  Future spacecraft designers may find some instruction here; both what to do and what not to do.

About one third of the book is devoted to the engineering innovations that were required to bring this unique vehicle – and its support systems – into being.  Some of those innovations have now pervaded aerospace engineering as new standards.  About a third of the book is the province of the scientists who used the shuttle to study the universe and smaller things as well.  And the remaining third of the book is all the other stuff; history of the development and operations of the shuttle, a long description of the accidents, an obligatory description of the shuttle and its systems, and some contemplation of the social impact that the shuttle program had on America and the world.

We have quotations or sections written by over 30 astronauts, Presidents, Nobel Prize winners, scientists, program managers, NASA administrators, and flight directors.  More importantly, the vast majority of the book was written by over 100 of the folks who actually did the work: designed, built, maintained, and operated the space shuttle; civil servants and contractors alike.

I think you will find it interesting.  Some of the engineers cannot write coherently but we hired a few English majors to try to translate their jargon into something understandable by non-experts.  We tried to hit the level of Scientific American or National Geographic text, so this is not going to be very simplistic, but perhaps thought provoking.  The illustrations are outstanding.  And there will be a comprehensive appendix for all those who desire statistics and details.

There should be something for everybody interested in the shuttle.  I hope you like it.  We’ve been working on it in our spare time for over four years now.  Or maybe that should really say we’ve been working on it for our whole careers.

Information on how to pre-order the book will appear on the NASA web page in a month or so.

Trip Reports

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The last couple of weeks have been very busy for me, so pardon my lack of blog posts.  I have been on travel for several days and you should have a report on three trips.

 

MAF – the dirge

 

The first report is on a trip I did not make.  There was a big celebration last week at the Michoud Assembly Facility on the east side of New Orleans as the “last” shuttle external tank was shipped.  Of course there is the potential to need a rescue flight and at this writing Congress is debating adding one more flight to the shuttle manifest, so ET-122 will probably be shipped out in a few months.  ET-122 was in processing when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and part of the roof of the building – concrete blocks to be exact – fell onto the tank, damaging it.  Repairs have been completed and ET-122 is on track to be pronounced “safe for flight” – no small feat.  After ET-122, there is only ET-95 left at MAF.  ET-95 was the last Light Weight Tank (as opposed to the current Super Light Weight Tanks).  We dissected it heavily during all the post-Columbia investigations and it will probably be a museum piece.   Anybody want a relic?

 

You can read all about the MAF celebration on the NASA home page, so I won’t write any more about it.  Except I didn’t go.  The place is a ghost town.  After years of a work force that ran about 2,500 people, it is down to a skeleton crew, most of the construction jigs are mothballed or removed, there is very little to see, just an empty building.  Depressing.  Maybe someday this will change.  But not now.  I get to go to enough funerals; I didn’t need to go to MAF.  Sorry to be depressing but ‘it is what it is.’

 

KSC – the children’s hour

 

Travel to Florida is always good; this time I got to hand over a bunch of work.  In particular, the responsibility for the Columbia debris repository will transition from the Space Shuttle Program to NASA Office of Safety and Mission Assurance.  If you are a researcher and want to obtain some of the Columbia debris to study the effects of re-entry on materials and structures, you should contact the repository caretaker, Mike Ciannilli at the Kennedy Space Center.  Mike works in the NTD office which is located up on the 4th floor of the Launch Control Center building.  That building is an architectural award winner as well as on the national register of historic places, and holds the Firing Rooms where all the Saturn and Shuttle launches was controlled. 

 

The 4th floor of the LCC has a wide and spacious hall, and the entire floor was especially quiet the day I visited.  It has been a very intense time for the folks who work in shuttle, almost 8 launch flows in just over a year; there is a breather until the next flight so many people have taken a well deserved vacation.  As I walked down the echoing hallway, the graphic reminders of shuttle flights past covered the walls.  During the shuttle countdowns, the crew families are hosted up there; the Launch Director’s office has a superb view of the pads, and there is roof access for the actual launch.  But kids are kids and it is always a challenge to keep them from being bored with the countdown progresses.  Some genius of the past told the astronauts children to color one of the white erasable marker boards on one of the walls.  After the launch, the firing room crew found the art work so moving that the marker board was carefully removed, covered with plexiglas to preserve the image, and reinstalled in the hallway for all to see.  After many shuttle flights, these decorated markerboards line the broad and long hallway of the 4th floor of the LCC.  The art is intense, the colors are primary, the style is primitive as most children’s drawings are.  And hugely meaningful: renderings of crew patches, visions of launches, lists of relatives in attendance, caricatures of parents embarking on heroic feats, even pictures of family pets can be found on these masterpieces.  Although the 4th floor hallway is quite long, after so many shuttle flights, they have run out of room and some of these markerboards are showing up in the first floor lobby of the LCC building.  It is a moving experience to walk down the hall and contemplate what these children were thinking, and what the experience meant to them.  Each one is a mute testimony to pride and fear, wisdom and innocence.  Maybe someday this art will be on public display.  For me, it as moving an experience as you can have in any art gallery.

 

Hemphill, Texas – Columbia memorial groundbreaking

 

The last census showed the population of Hemphill was 1,100 people.  When pieces of Columbia rained down on them, they turned out do to far beyond what duty would normally require in such a situation.  Now, with a generous gift from a native son, the people of that small east Texas town is adding a wing to the public library which will be a museum and memorial to the Columbia astronauts.  I am reminded of what Roger Mellot told me after visiting there in the spring of 2003:  “The people of east Texas love their country, and they love their country’s space program.”  It is still true.  I was asked by the JSC public affairs office to accompany the official delegation and make some appropriate remarks at the groundbreaking.  It was a joy to do so.  The speechifying was held in the high school cafeteria where over 125 people were present.  That may not sound like a lot, but it was over 10% of the population of the town, in the middle of a work day.  So I think that is a lot.  Several speeches were made; the best was given by Evelyn Husband-Thompson.  I wish I could include her remarks, they were moving.  The best I can do is to paste in my not-as-memorable talk:

 

 

 We are gathered here to do something that is not often done, I think, these days.  We are celebrating the work of a group of civic leaders, volunteers, and a generous benefactor.  The work that they have accomplished is to start the construction of a facility, a building, a place where our children can learn about the true meaning of what it is to be a real hero.

The future of any people or nation depends on their children and how they live out the values they have learned.  That is what is so important about this day, and so uncommon about this event:  that here you are teaching your children something very important; because the men and women who sacrificed their lives were heroes of the truest kind. 

 

Nowadays the term hero is most commonly applied to sports figures, or successful entertainers like singers and actors.  Our children might think that they should emulate those people and model their lives after those examples.  This is not, in fact, what we know that our children should learn.

 

Now, I love my sports teams, and I love my music and those who make it, and I enjoy entertainment as much as anyone.  But success in those endeavors does not make one a hero.  And we need to be very clear about that.

 

We are gathered here today to honor real heroes.  We are here to describe why they were heroes in terms so plain that our children, no matter how young, can understand what it means to be a true hero.

 

Those we honor here showed by the example of their lives what being a real hero means: hard work surely, but not hard work alone; sacrifice, even the ultimate sacrifice, but not sacrifice alone, rather sacrifice in the pursuit of the betterment of all people.    

 

Our heroes were about the business of making our lives better, more prosperous, more free.  It has been said that the exploration of space is the noblest activity of our time, and so history may record it.  But their lives were devoted to making a better life not just in the distant future but for those of us here and now.  Because their efforts made discoveries and advancements that have improved our lives, made our nation more prosperous, and made the world a better place, and increased our awe of creation.

 

That, then, is the purpose for being here.  To commit ourselves to teach our children that they, too, must become heroes, that they must devote themselves to the improvement of life here on earth, and the exploration of the universe, to work hard, and to sacrifice in the service of their community, their nation, and indeed the whole world.

 

In a very real way, we are the beneficiaries of generations of heroes who have gone before us; who have made our nation strong, prosperous, and free because they were willing to sacrifice themselves to make it so.

 

So finally, this teaching burden falls on us, those living here today, because, in the words of the biblical injunction ‘To whom much has been given, much will be required.’

 

 

Denouement

 

I have one more official trip to make.  Next week we have the final editorial board meeting for the GPO shuttle history book ‘Wings in Orbit.’  This will be at MSFC in Huntsville, Alabama.  I expect to write you a report on that as well.

 

Finally, the agency has asked me to continue writing my NASA blog in retirement.  I plan to do that, but realize that it will mostly be a retrospective – as retirees are wont to do – rather than a commentary on current events.  Plenty of other folks keep the internet warm on that!

 

All Good Things

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A personal note today. 

 

After long consideration I have filed my retirement papers and will be leaving NASA and the US Civil Service on July 31.  Let me hasten to add that this is a personal decision based mainly on family considerations – which I needn’t enumerate here today.

 

Working at NASA has been a lifelong dream; I often tell people that I would have paid them to let me in the door rather than the other way around.  It has been a privilege and an honor to work in this place and with these people.  The achievements that we have made together will have lasting significance for all humankind.  I want to especially thank my many wonderful co-workers who are so dedicated, innovative, and hard working.  I wish them every success in the future with all my heart.

 

I have a few days left, I may even post another blog or two.  But for today I leave you with a passage that summarizes feelings so similar to my own that it is uncanny.  Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) wrote a wonderful book about his favorite career as a steamboat pilot, “Life on the Mississippi.”  It is enormously funny, but taking a reflective turn this serious passage summarizes – far better than I could – the feelings of any professional at the end of a long and wonderful career.  So make the translation from rockets to steamboats and read all the way to the end.

 

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Chapter 9:

 

            The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book – a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice.  And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.  Throughout the long twelve hundred miles there was never a page that was void of interest, never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip, thinking you could find higher enjoyment in some other thing.  There never was so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest was so absorbing, so unflagging, so sparklingly renewed with every re-perusal.  The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on its surface (on the rare occasions when he did not overlook it altogether); but to the pilot that was an italicized passage; indeed, it was more than that, it was a legend of the largest capitals, with a string of shouting exclamation points at the end of it; for it meant that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated.  It is the faintest and simplest expression the water ever makes, and the most hideous to the pilot’s eye.  In truth, the passenger who could not read this book saw nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it, painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading-matter.

            Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition.  But I had lost something, too.  I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived.  All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river!  I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me.  A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with the graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed  splendor that was flowing from the sun.  There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.

            I stood like one bewitched.  I drank it in, in a speechless rapture.  The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home.  But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them.  Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion:  This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling “boils” show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the “break” from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with the single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark?

            No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river.  All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat.  Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart.  What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a “break” that ripples above some deadly disease?  Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay?  Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself?  And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?