Time to Closest Approach

Being at a conference on Orbital Debris has turned my thoughts back to being a Flight Director and experiences I would rather forget.

There is a lot of junk in earth orbit, and some of it endangers our astronauts every day.  Paint flecks and particles of solid rocket exhaust are big enough to damage the shuttle windows.  We now replace the shuttle windows every flight because of the damage that these microscopic particles cause. 

At 5 miles per second, there is a lot of energy in “collisions” between orbiting objects.  Every bit of space junk packs the equivalent of 25 times its weight in TNT because of the extreme speeds of orbital encounters.  We cannot track the small stuff.  Even pieces as big as loose bolts are untrackable and potentially fatal.  A one inch bolt in orbit could punch a hole right through the shuttle or the station causing huge damage and explosive decompression.  You don’t even want to think about what it would do to a spacewalker in their fabric suit.

Larger items are tracked by NORAD (they have a new name but I never remember it).  We know where the big pieces and can avoid them.  Or so you might think.  There are limits to how accurately the trajectories of space junk can be determined.  Trajectories are affected by the solar wind, transient and unmonitorable variations in the upper atmosphere, and some objects even have propulsive vents so their trajectories are constantly and irregularly changing. 

The shuttle, of course, is always maneuvering and changing attitude.  The shuttle thrusters are not completely symmetric so there are small changes to the shuttle’s trajectory every time they fire. 

Orbital trajectories are predicted into the future assuming none of these variations.  Even so, the very small uncertainties in a trajectory  gets multiplied over hours of prediction and this leads to a grey zone surrounding its predicted future position where the space object may or may not be.

Nowadays this is a sophisticated science with much better tools.  Better radars and lots of mathematics and probabilities give a much more complete notion of where and when encounters may take place. 

In the early days of shuttle we just knew that anything predicted to come within a few miles could be a hazard.  Missing by inches is OK; missing by a mile is good; but it was all like Russian roulette in those days.

Knowing how to maneuver to avoid a predicted “conjunction” is critical.  If you guess wrong and maneuver to the part of the uncertainty box where the space junk actually is: POW.  Sometimes doing nothing is the best option.

Operationally there are other impacts.  Since shuttle maneuvers are initiated by the crew, obviously the crew must be awake to maneuver the ship.  If the crew sleep is interrupted, their performance the next day may be affected.  Think about being awakened in the middle of the night to do a precise task and then trying to go back to sleep, wake up the next morning at the regular time, and have a big work event that day.  Not really good.

So the early shuttle it was thought that we should not wake the crew up for debris avoidance maneuvers.  Even though space junk was predicted to be coming close by and could hit us, the odds were in our favor for a miss.  In the cold calculation of the risks involved it was thought better to let the crew sleep rather than wake them for something that might not happen.  We codified this in the Flight Rules.

On exactly three occasions I was the Flight Director on the crew sleep shift when we got the word a “conjunction” was imminent.  I remember each event like it was yesterday with crystal clarity.  Some things do not leave you.  I made all the appropriate notifications; phone calls to the management confirmed that we should follow the rules, let the crew sleep, and bet on the odds in our favor.

So GC would set a clock on the big board counting down to “TCA”.  Meanwhile we all tried to do the mundane work of monitoring the shuttle systems and planning the crew’s activities for the next day.   On the assumption that there would be a next day. 

 But as the clock counted down close to zero, Mission Control would get very quiet.  We all knew what might happen.  It’s tough to sit on your hands when your friends are in danger and you can’t do anything about it. 

In my imagination, the worst case scenario played out:  instantaneous cessation of telemetry transmission from the shuttle followed some time later by NORAD tracking confirming a multiple pieces in an orbit where only the shuttle had been before.  Then the notifications, the investigations, the whole drawn out parade of mourning and recrimination.  I could see it all. 

So as we waited for the clock to count to zero, there was plenty of time to contemplate metaphysical topics:  life, death, courage, risk, achievement, probability, dishonor.  They are all fellow travelers, intimately bound together.  No great accomplishment comes without difficulty or risk.  Miscalculation or failure results in death and dishonor.  But it is what it is; you do the best you can, make the best rational choice you can given what you know, and then wait for the result. 

Going to Las Vegas holds no enticement for me.

Burgeoning commercial space industry

The Human Spaceflight Plans Committee (aka “Augustine Committee”) has finalized its report and it is no surprise that the proposals and alternatives offered there have been the subject of much review and evaluation by NASA leadership and space policy makers.


Re-reading the report last week I was struck by an early sentence in the executive summary which was repeated in the body of the report:


“. . . there is now a burgeoning commercial space industry.”


OK, I’m an Engineer, not an English major so I had to look it up:


burgeon  [bur-juh n]  


to grow or develop quickly; flourish



to begin to grow, as a bud; put forth buds, shoots, etc., as a plant (often fol. by out, forth).

ME burjon, burion; shoot, bud, deriv. of LL burra wool, fluff




Let’s see; in the USA we have, what, three or four space launch vehicle manufacturers in active production?  Is that “burgeoning?”


Sea Launch, one of the most innovative companies in both their business model and their technical approach is in bankruptcy court.  Two of the “old space” major players have formed a joint venture to pool their launch capabilities and fly maybe 5 or 6 times in a good year.  The geosynchronous satellite market has largely gone overseas to Ariane or India or China. 


As my father, the CPA, taught me:  for a business to stay in business, it must make a profit.  That is what businesses do.  If there is no return on investment, they go out of business.  It is not just the technical challenge, nor the production challenge; it is the business challenge and profitability which are inhibiting commercial space flight.  If somebody can do the job cheaper than your company, then you are in real trouble business-wise.  Ergo, commercial satellites have gone “off shore.”


There are a couple of smaller, entrepreneurial, companies which are making good progress toward medium launch vehicle operations.  We applaud them and wish them well and have in fact provided some fiscal support.


But compare where the US commercial space launch business is today with the situation a decade ago when there were at least dozen firms in the space launch business.  The proper adjective for US commercial space flight should be “moribund” rather than “burgeoning.”


Not that there aren’t a lot of folks out there who have an idea, a concept, some preliminary engineering feasibility studies and some hopeful powerpoint charts trying to attract venture capital.  There are a lot of those folks.  Many of these are pursuing the technically simpler and much cheaper sub orbital “market.”  Even that is a struggle as we can see by the serious “gap” in suborbital capability since Space Ship One flew twice in 2003 and the next flight maybe in 2010.


But any student of space flight knows that recent history is littered with the wreckage of serious commercial space launch companies  hat failed.  Just a few names to jog your memory:  Conestoga, Beal, Rotary Rocket, Kistler . . . fill in your own favorites.  Several of these had serious financial backing, great technical teams, and some even built and launched flight hardware.  All are gone. 


On my spaceflight shelf is a slim volume with the title “LEO on the Cheap” written by a guy who should have known better.  In the 1980’s there was a German organization called OTRAG that had a great plan to get to earth orbit cheaply.  Nothing ever came of it. 


All of these fledgling companies share a common belief, that getting to LEO should be easy:  just eliminate the waste, bureaucracy, and inefficiency of the government or of the “old space” (aka military-industrial-complex) guys and apply the latest management theories and – voila’ – cheap, regular, plentiful access to space will immediately follow.


Many people wishfully believe that it is that easy.  I personally wish it were that easy.  I cannot tell you how much I wish it were that easy.  But if wishes had wings then pigs could fly. 


If we are to reawaken the US commercial space launch industry and build it into a vibrant, competitive (which is to say, cheaper), reliable, regular space launch business, many things will need to be addressed.  From my knothole it would appear that the ITAR laws are one of the critical components that prevent competition.  And ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) has its merits in a dangerous world. 


By Federal statute and general interest, NASA is encouraging, promoting, and even to some extent enabling commercial space flight in the US.  Could more be done? Absolutely, and we should.  Will there be problems along the way?  No doubt.  Will astounding breakthroughs in cost reduction appear?  I doubt it. 


Commercial air travel required the revolution from propellers to jets to become really viable.  I suspect space travel will require something similar.  As long as we rely on chemical rocket propulsion it is likely we will see only incremental cost decreases. 


I wish you would find that breakthrough.  Meanwhile, the rest of us will plod through trying to incrementally improve the biplanes.  And the business ain’t “burgeoning”. 

Thanksgiving Memories

The shuttle is in flight once again this Thanksgiving Day, not the first time a holiday has come during a shuttle flight.  My station friends remind me that they fly 24/7/365 and Christmas is really just GMT day 359.  But when the shuttle is flying during Thanksgiving, I am always reminded of one significant day:


STS-33 was one of those classified DoD shuttle flights we can’t really talk about.  But I don’t think I’ll be in any trouble with security over this mostly true story.  I was the Orbit 1 team Flight Director and the shift schedule called for my team to be on console about noon.  We had a big family Thanksgiving meal early that year (a real challenge for my wife).  Satiated with turkey, all the trimmings, and pie, I arrived at the MCC to start handover from the planning team lead by Rob Kelso.  We were expecting a really quiet shift. 


Falcon Flight gave me the big news before I even plugged my headset into the console:  “Potty is broken!”  Sigh.  Flight Directors spent hundreds of hours studying the various systems:  engines, fuel cells, navigation.  Everybody’s least favorite system was not working.  “If we don’t get it fixed, the crew will have to break out the Apollo bags” Rob continued.  If you don’t know what an Apollo bag is, well . . . let’s just say that you really didn’t really want to know.  It’s a big plastic bag with sticky substance on the lip which you apply to your . . . anatomy . . . to take care of your . . . business.  Not glamorous.


Fixing the potty is not exactly the kind of problem you want to work on following a big meal.


So MC finished team handover, got a few sketchy details from the crew, and set to work to see how the “Waste Management Collection System” could be fixed. 


It wasn’t until the post flight debriefings that we heard what really transpired onboard.  Story Musgrave, raconteur extraordinaire, was an eyewitness.  It seems that the victim of the WCS failure was the commander, Fred Gregory. 


First, you must have a primer on how to go to the bathroom in space (every schoolboy’s favorite subject).  The lack of gravity means that everyday earth based technology does not work.  Early efforts were primitive (reference the discussion of the Apollo bags above).  #1 might be easily taken care of, but #2 is a much bigger problem (Pardon me here, my vocabulary is influenced by the recent effort to get my grandchildren potty trained here on earth).  Without gravity the . . . waste material . . . tends not be removed from the body.  The shuttle potty deals with this mainly by airflow.  A very small opening in the toilet (much smaller than earth based toilets) allows just the critical part of  . . . your anatomy . . . to fit precisely over the hole.  There is a famously closed circuit TV in the WCS trainer at JSC’s building 5 to help astronauts learn how to correctly position themselves.  Flight Directors did not have to go through this little indignity during our training.  In early WCS designs, there was a complicated mechanism down that hole called the “slinger/shredder” which was pretty descriptive of its intent.  The astronaut office objected to having a high RPM mechanical device so close to . . . . their person . . . and tests showed that the “slinger/shredder” probably wouldn’t work well, so the design got changed early in the shuttle.  Now the toilet just uses airflow to do what gravity does here on earth.  One sits in the WCS compartment with your feet in stirrups and a lap belt to hold you down.  Once correctly positioned, the victim uses a handle much like an automobile gear shift lever to start the mechanism.  First pull on the lever closes the vacuum valve – all the odors in the quiescent potty are sucked out through the orbiter’s overboard vent system.  Second pull on the lever opens the “slider valve” just under the seat and that means the toilet is open for . . . business.  Next pull starts a small fan which circulates air to help with . . . removal.  When you are done, reversing the gear shift lever first turns off the fan, then closes the slider valve, and finally opens the vacuum vent.  In that order. 


Some quirk of sadistic spacecraft design required that all the air coming into the space shuttle crew compartment comes in through the “roof” of the WCS compartment.  Normally there is very little makeup air required, but when the pressure falls slightly due to the natural leakage of the crew compartment, makeup air flows in through automatic valve outlets.  A sophisticated system automatically keeps track of whether the makeup gas should be oxygen or nitrogen, the desire being to maintain a sea level atmosphere composition and pressure.  Since the crew breaths in oxygen (and the exhaled carbon dioxide is removed elsewhere), the makeup gas is usually oxygen.  The cryogenic oxygen tanks in the payload bay feed both the fuel cells and breathing air.  The liquid oxygen from the tanks must be warmed to become a gas, but it still comes out very cold in the WCS compartment.


So during crew sleep early Thanksgiving morning, Fred Gregory had to do what comes naturally.  All was well until (as) he moved the gear shifter to close up the WCS.  Story related what happened next with great relish. Unfortunately, somewhere in the mechanism, the slider valve failed to close – but the vacuum vent was opened up!  Depressurization!  You can imagine what it would be like to be strapped down, have the suction of pure space applied to . . . . your person . . . , have a rush of cold oxygen burst in over your head, and the depress Klaxon alarm going off simultaneously. 


Story opened the WCS door and together they got the mechanism to close the slider valve, and then got Fred off the seat. 


Of course the whole crew was awakened by this commotion and John Blaha, the pilot, was starting to work the emergency procedure for cabin leak. 


The immediate danger passed, but Mission Control was now on the radio and wanted to know what happened.  A much abbreviated narrative was received.  Needless to say, not much sleep was had for the remainder of the crew sleep period.  And the bathroom was definitely closed for maintenance.


On the ground, MCC called in the engineering team that designed and tested the WCS (remember, it’s a holiday and most folks were just then sitting down to the Big Meal!)  We got a crew of techs to open up one of the WCS units on the ground.  Meanwhile, the flight controllers studied systems schematics and flight rules.  We all pondered how to make the thing work.  The IFM (in-flight-maintenance) guys came to our rescue.  By removing the cover from the front of the device and applying vise grip pliers to an appropriate lever, the potty could be used without depressurizing the cabin again. 


Whew.  Problem solved.  That’s what MCC is there for. 


Every Thanksgiving now, sometime after the pie and before the football game/nap, I chuckle as I remember that episode.  And give thanks for 1 G and three toilets in my house.


A few days later, Fred Gregory tried to land the shuttle like he did the T-38 . . . but that is another story for another day . . . .


Happy Thanksgiving!


Gathering Dust

By chance I was in Omaha this week when the news was announced that the X-38 was going on display in the Strategic Air & Space Museum there.  What an interesting and out of the way place to display this remarkable device.  My work schedule didn’t allow me the luxury of a visit to the museum, but then I’ve seen the X-38 up close before.

Disclaimer:  I was a member of an independent review team for the X-38 development for a short period of time.

The X-38 was a tremendously ingenious device lead by a group of talented and unorthodox NASA employees.  Their leader, John Muratore, one of the most gifted systems engineers I have ever known.  These “pirates” who worked largely free of the typical government space bureaucracy in a skunk works type environment.  Free to innovate, free to be highly flexible, co-located with the hardware, they were on the brink of a stunning technological achievement when politics intervened.

The X-38 was a lifting body spacecraft that was to serve as the International Space Station’s lifeboat.  It was the prototype of the Crew Rescue Vehicle, the CRV.  If it had been allowed to succeed, it would have been an alternative to the Russian Soyuz in that role.  As a spacecraft it was the potentially evolvable beginning of new space taxis that would have been able to provide alternate ways to get humans to low earth orbit and back.  Again, eliminating our sole reliance on the venerable Soyuz, but also providing a way to rotate crews without the Shuttle – which we so desperately needed after Columbia.  And the X-38 would have preceded the proposed commercial human launch vehicles by almost a decade.

Unfortunately, new political leadership inside the beltway thought that NASA’s only problem was not being able to do our accounting in line with the arcane rules proposed by the OMB.  The new political leadership – which by their own admission – knew nothing about the technical aspects of getting into space – needed a scapegoat, an example, something that they could “cut” to show that they were serious about keeping NASA financially in line.

So they picked the brightest star of the future of human spacecraft and killed it with extreme prejudice.

A few years later, in the Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report, Admiral Gehman stated that the failure to replace the Shuttle with something safer was “a failure of national leadership.”  The cancellation of the X-38 is exhibit A of that failure.

So if you get to Nebraska (Nebraska?!?) go out to the museum and see the nearly flight ready X-38 vehicle there.  Think about how the history of the last decade in space exploration might have been different if the mindset inside the DC beltway was focused on achievement instead of ignorantly punishing the most successful.   Penny wise and pound foolish.

There are many morals that can be drawn from this history lesson.  I leave it as an exercise for the reader to see if you can come to the most obvious conclusions, and how they are still in force today.

Nebraska is a really nice state, and Omaha is a really nice town.  I appreciate them providing a venue for the X-38.

And if you look up John Muratore, you will find him teaching college students about systems engineering.  We need more of that. 

Shame on those people who “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Nutty Season

I can’t help but wonder . . . . is this the nutty season?

A family hoax about a little boy trapped in a helium balloon rigged up to look like a UFO . . . .

Proposals that the US Government intentionally send people on a one way trip to Mars . . . .

There is an urban myth that these things come in threes. 

What else could be coming down the pike that is so . . . nutty . . . .


Gary the Gray

Flight directors seem to be a hardy lot.  The first Mercury flight directors (Red-Kraft, White-Kranz, and Blue-Hodge) are still with us even though the years gather about them.  Of the 77 American flight directors, only 5 have passed:  #5 – Green Flight, Cliff Charlesworth, #8-Orange Flight, Pete Frank, #9-Purple Flight, Phil Shaffer, and #10-Crimson Flight, Don Puddy.  A few days ago we lost Gray Flight, the 15th Flight Director, Gary Coen.  He was my first boss at NASA.


Gary went to the GM Institute and studied automotive engineering.  He probably told me how he came to work at NASA but the memory is lost to me now.  He was a GNC/Prop guy on Gemini and used to regale us with stories about keeping track of the propellant in Gemini days when there was no accurate gas gage on the vehicle.  Every pulse of a jet had to be counted, the mixture ratio hand applied, and the result laboriously tabulated to know how much propellant remained against how much might yet be required on each flight.  He had the same job in Apollo for the CSM.  They hotfired the SM thrusters on the launch pad late in the countdown to see if they were all still working.  He was responsible not only for the propulsion systems but for the primitive inertial measurement gyro used in the command module.  During Apollo 13 he was part of John Aaron’s team in the simulator trying to build a plan to bring the command module back to life without exceeding the battery limits. 


Prior to the first Shuttle flight, Gary Coen was the head of the Prop/Booster Systems group of flight controllers.  He hired and mentored many new college graduates into the traditions and procedures of Mission Control.  Some of the folks under his tutelage went on to be leaders in spaceflight:  Cleon Lacefield later became FD #21 – Orion Flight – and interestingly enough now is Lockheed-Martin’s Project Manager for the Orion crew exploration vehicle; FD #27- Phoenix Flight- Ron Dittemore later became Space Shuttle Program Manager and Vice President of ATK; FD #33  – Corona Flight – Linda Ham has held many senior management positions and is currently in the Constellation Program Office; FD #34 – Burgundy Flight – Richard Jackson went on to head up the contractors in charge of Mission Control; and the legacy of excellence that Gary started continues with former Propulsion officers and current Flight Directors #54 Onyx – Brian Lunney, #56 Topaz – Kathy Koerner, #57 Intrepid – Tony Ceccacci (who just lead the successful Hubble servicing mission), and #67 Apex – Mike Moses who is currently serving as Launch Integration Manager for Space Shuttle at KSC.  Jenny Stein hasn’t been a Flight Director but learned well enough from Gary so that on STS-27, as Booster Officer, she prevented a two-SSME out contingency abort by coolly directing the crew to manage the failing redline sensors safely.  Bill Gerstenmaier came to be a PROP officer under Gary’s tutelage  and while Bill never became a Flight Director, he has done a few things of note around the agency.  Oh, and me; I’m FD #28, Turquoise Flight.  No other group in NASA Mission Operations has resulted in so many Flight Directors or senior NASA leaders.  Some legacy there.


Gary was very mechanically inclined.  He loved tinkering with cars and boats.  He told us the story of one vacation where the family station wagon blew an engine in a small western town on Friday afternoon.  The only service station in town was closed on weekends but Gary made a deal with the owner to use his lift and tools over the weekend.  A quick trip to the local junk yard resulted in an engine that would work; and by Monday morning they left town with that used motor installed in the family vehicle.  My mind boggles at the thought of doing that sort of thing alone.  That was the kind of guy Gary was.


Gary loved to fish; he had a nice boat and took every opportunity to motor out from Galveston bay into the Gulf of Mexico in search of good fishing.  He frequently invited co-workers to go with him.  On one memorable trip about a month before the first shuttle flight, the boat carried all three shifts of certified PROP officers (Gary was Ascent) into the Gulf.  Coming back in late, they ran upon rocks and started taking water.  The Coast Guard came on scene and provided additional pumps and a tow back to the landing.  This incident caused Flight Operations management to strongly encourage certified flight controllers to avoid “hazardous recreational activities” shortly before flight.  Gary’s response?  Fishing isn’t hazardous!


Gary’s leadership style was decidedly old school.  Women were just beginning to be employed in engineering and mission control in the days leading up to STS-1.  There was one memorable office meeting about “appropriate dress” that nearly got him fired.  I’ll leave the details to your imagination. 


Gary was selected to the Flight Director’s Office right about the time of STS-1.  He served as PROP on the second shuttle flight because the new trainee (that would be me) wasn’t ready to solo until the third flight.  Once in the FD office, Gary became responsible for transforming the newly invented abort mode to Spain to a certified, well supported mode that we now know as TAL (Trans-Atlantic Abort Landing).  He worked tirelessly with the state department and foreign governments to pick appropriate runways; he was responsible for ensuring that they were properly equipped.  He famously mispronounced (on purpose) the Moroccan landing field Ben Gear (it was Ben Guerir).   Gary was also put in charge of the Landing Weather Rules and became almost the nemesis of the Space Flight Meteorology Group of forecasters.  He insisted on engineering precision in that field which remains more an art than a science to this day.


Gary was lead flight director three times, responsible for the entire mission success of STS-51B, STS-35 (Astro), and STS-55 (Spacelab D-2).  He served as Flight Director for Ascent 11 times and Entry 13 times (#2 on the all time record books).  

Most of the Flight Directors have children who are college bound and that puts them on a budget.  There was an unofficial contest to see which FD could have the oldest, ugliest car.  Gary won the competition hands down by painting his very old Suburban with white latex housepaint – with a brush!  The hood was done in flat black to keep down the glare.  Some wag put T-38 stickers on it since the paint scheme matched that airplane.


Most importantly, Gary served as the US co-chair for the working group that established the operations interfaces and procedures used in MCC-H and MCC-M for the Shuttle/MIR program.  This became the precedent and basis for the operations of the International Space Station.


In 1995 Gary retired so he could devote himself full time to his passion – fishing.


Unfortunately, Gary came from an age when smoking was acceptable.  As long as I knew him, Gary chain smoked unfiltered Camels.  In the old days, smoking was allowed in the offices and especially in Mission Control.  I sat next to Gary so much I’m probably at some risk myself.  When the edict came down for no smoking in any JSC facilities, I thought it was going to kill him . . . but it didn’t.  Nor did it cause him to stop smoking. 


Gary died of lung cancer October 5; the funeral will be Saturday the 17th.


All things considered, Gary Coen had a spectacular career.  His contributions to human space flight didn’t get a lot of flashy notice, but he built an organization and mentored a group of folks that have achieved spectacular things.


No big NASA memorial has been announced although I expect JSC senior leadership will show up and present the family with a flag.


And I will miss him.


Ave Atque Vale

I was invited to speak to the assembled folks out in Utah who have just cast the last shuttle solid rocket segment.  A few retirees and spouses made the event, but the crowd of over 2,000 was mostly active workers. 



Over a year ago in this blog space I told you that the horse has left the barn and the shuttle was shutting down.  Now we are seeing evidence every day. However you feel about that, the direction has not changed. 


If there is anyone out there who thinks otherwise, . . . well.


For 30 years, the United States and its international partners have relied on the space shuttle:  costly, not as safe as we need, sometimes not very reliable, and now that is coming to an end. 


Four years ago, we had terminated contracts with 95% of the suppliers for parts for the external tanks.  This has continued apace.  For example, last week the contract was terminated for the suppliers of the specialized chemicals to make the black coating of the shuttle thermal insulation tiles. Also being shut down is the production of reinforced carbon-carbon wing leading edge panels.  The folks up in the Dallas area are getting ready to take apart the one-of-a-kind jigs that are used in that process and clearing out the factory.  Any museums want this thing?


The external tank folks reported this week that the last ET has moved out of yet another workstation which is now surplus and ready for removal.  Welding has been complete for some time, cleaning, painting, and foam application are still active.  The MAF workforce is down to about half of what it was a few years ago.



In the 1990s, almost 25,000 people worked for shuttle:  civil servants and prime contractors.  (This does not include subcontractors and vendors).  By 2002, only about 16,000 folks worked on shuttle.  There was a little peak for return to flight, but by 2006, the headcount was down to 16,000 again.  Now there are about 12,000.  And the number will decrease precipitously over the next year.


This is not to make you feel good or bad or whatever, just a status report. 


Working in America’s space program is a privilege.  Change is coming every day, and however you feel about the change, a wise person will be ready for it.



Double Indemnity

Commercial human space flight is in its infancy.  It has been suggested that NASA could do much to encourage or enable the fledgling industry.  Supporters cite the historical analogy of US government contracts for air mail delivery in the 1920s as a model for how to kick start the industry.  A rosy hued and much abbreviated history of that era suggests that once the government started contract airmail service, modern aviation as we know it inevitably and quickly followed.


It may be worthwhile to remind ourselves of a slightly more detailed version of history.


 The US Post Office Department started scheduled airmail service while the Great War was still raging in May 1918.  Government aircraft and government pilots delivered air mail in aircraft that were built to detailed government specifications for the next eight years.  Twelve government pilots were killed in the first two years of this service.  The US Post Office added regularly scheduled transcontinental airmail service in 1920, again with government owned aircraft and government pilots.  Following the Kelly Air Mail Act of 1925, the first commercial contract air mail operations started.  These were mostly flown by small start-up airlines which were frequently under-capitalized using old government surplus aircraft.  By late 1926 all air mail delivery was turned over to these contracts and the government service was discontinued.  Fatal accidents were still common among air mail pilots.  To an even greater extent than today, the government to industry “revolving door” phenomenon was present in those days.  In 1934 the great air mail scandal erupted.  There were charges that government officials had colluded with industry officials (some of whom were former government officials) to fraudulently award air mail contracts to favored companies.  FDR cancelled all commercial air mail contracts and called on the US Army Air Service to deliver the mail.  Inexperienced military pilots and bad weather resulted in twelve pilot deaths in less than a month.  WWI aviation hero Eddie Rickenbacker called the Army Air Service program “legalized murder.”  Within a few months, Congress passed new air mail legislation and a more closely regulated commercial air mail service was restarted.  Among the features of the legislation was the provision that banned all former airline executives from further contracts.  All the old air line companies were reorganized.  Air mail contracts were much less lucrative and the nascent airline companies had to rely increasingly on passenger fares rather than air mail revenues to make their operations profitable.  Air craft accidents continued to be frequent and in 1938 the Civil Aviation Administration was formed.  The CAA started an era of tight regulations reigned over the air line industry which continued for nearly forty years. 


Is this the model that people have in mind for commercial space transportation? 


Of course, a paragraph or two doesn’t do justice to the rich and complex history of aviation in the 1920s and 1930s.   Go read the biography of  Dutch Kindelberger, for example.  Some airlines, like Pan Am, became profitable carrying passengers without the subsidy of air mail.  The transportation of equipment and goods for purely commercial reasons apart from government contracts was a significant business.  Air races stimulated technical advances.  And what happened in the USA was only part of the story as airlines sprang up crossing the globe from Europe to Africa or Australia or South America.  It wasn’t just the air mail contracts that spurred aviation in its “golden years”.


Changing focus slightly, it is often noted that the Air Force does not build its own airplane; the Army does not build its own tanks, why should NASA build its own spacecraft? 


NASA, of course, does not build human spacecraft.   Never has.  Commercial companies have built all human spacecraft and their launch vehicles.  McDonnell built Mercury and Gemini, North American Aviation and Grumman built the Apollo CSM and LM respectively.  Chrysler built the Redstone rocket and the first stage of the Saturn 1B launch vehicle, and so forth.  The renamed North American Rockwell built the Space Shuttle orbiter.  When I became NASA’s Shuttle Program Manager, I was surprised to find that the detailed design and production drawings for the Space Shuttle orbiter were the intellectual property of Rockwell International Space Division which has since become part of Boeing.  The government, while definitely involved with the design, did not do the detailed part of the design and does not own the “intellectual property” for the shuttle.  Many boxes and piece parts remain “proprietary” and not under the detailed purview of the government.  That seems commercial at some level, doesn’t it?


Thinking more about the military services, a recent speaker at NASA was from the Navy ship bureau in charge of building aircraft carriers.  The Navy doesn’t build aircraft carriers, a commercial company does that; but the Navy is intimately involved in the detailed design of every part of a new aircraft carrier.  And the Air Force is intimately involved in the design of new jet fighters like the F-22 and the F-35.  Sometimes this backfires on a company; ask about the presidential helicopter program.  There is a real lesson there.


So what is being proposed for commercial human spacecraft for government use?  A contract that merely asks a “provider” to transport our 4-ish person ISS crew from some place on the earth’s surface to the ISS for a fee?  No other questions asked?  Somehow I think that is not really what is going to happen.  Even the airlines and aircraft builders have to pass FAA certification for flight worthiness.  So if the government contracts for transportation service there is going to be some government involvement.  Oh, and don’t even ask about federal procurement regulations.  Remember the 1934 air mail scandal?  There are a slew of laws and regulations intended to prevent something like that from happening again. 


So the real question is how much or how little the government will be involved in the design/certification/operation of commercially contracted human space vehicles.  Neither the current model of intimate and controlling design authority nor a totally hands off approach is realistic.


Like almost all of life, there is going to be a compromise.  The devil is in the details.  It seems to me that we need to spend a serious amount of thought and discussion on how best to do this.  Far more than a couple of paragraphs in an essay or a report. 


Indemnification.  I have heard a lot about that word lately.  Had to look it up.  Currently the US government indemnifies the companies that build and operate our current space vehicles.  If they crash, the government, not the companies, is held liable.  That is not the way the airlines work; if an airliner crashes, the airline company or sometimes the aircraft manufacturer are held responsibility and are subject to civil legal action.  Some of the putative commercial human space flight providers want the government to indemnify them, take the responsibility if they crash.  The original airmail contracts didn’t do that in 1925. 


Seems like we have a lot to think about as we move commercial human space flight.


We might even learn from history. 


William C. “Will Bill” Hopson was an early government airmail pilot earning 5 cents a mile.  He helped pioneer the transcontinental route in 1920 flying the Omaha to Chicago leg in an open cockpit De Haviland DH-4 modified WWI bomber.  He is shown here in his government gear, ready to fly in any weather.  After the airmail was commercialized, Hopson went to work flying CAM-17 from New York to Chicago.  He died in 1928, in a crash, flying his daily run for a commercial air mail company.

Sine Qua Non

I have been pondering the Augustine report (at least the executive summary) which has been released.  There are a couple of sentences up front that have been on my mind:


“Human safety can never be absolutely assured, but throughout this report, it is treated as a sine qua non.  It is not discussed in extensive detail because any concepts falling short in human safety have simply been eliminated from consideration.”  As panel members commented (more than once) during the public sessions, ‘we assume NASA will build safe systems’.


I’m not a Latin scholar so I had to look it up.  Sine qua non means the something or someone indispensible.    So safety is indispensible.  I’d agree with that.  As a matter of fact, I have spent my entire career based on making spaceflight as safe as possible while still actually flying. 


Actually, the assumption that NASA will build safe systems is poorly demonstrated by our history.  Our failures are painful to enumerate.  Early after the Columbia accident, we engaged Dr. Charles Perrow of Yale University to talk to us about his book (and theory) titled “Normal Accidents”.  In summary, Dr. Perrow believes that accidents are unavoidable in complex systems.  Very depressing to read.  Nothing you can do will ultimately prevent a fatal flaw from surfacing and causing catastrophe.  Life is hard and then you die.  Not very motivational, but perhaps true.  So all of us who listened to Dr. Perrow determined to prove him wrong.


In any event, safety in space flight is a relative term.  A launch vehicle with a 98% success record is considered very safe, but you would never put your children on a school bus that only had a 98% chance of getting them safely to school.  It is a high risk, low safety margin endeavor.  Probabilistic Risk Analysis has made great strides in recent years but the only statistic I put any faith in is the demonstrated one.  The shuttle has failed 2 times in 125 flights.  That is not good enough.


Six years after the loss of Columbia, I’m not sure that we can make a spacecraft safe, but I have empirical evidence that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that we can make it expensive.  The cynical part of me says that is what we do at NASA: demand extraordinary proof that things are safe.  ‘Proof’ means a series of tests -a large enough number of tests to be ‘statistically significant’- and/or very complex analysis which examines every facet of each part of a system in detail to demonstrate that in the worst possible set of circumstances the system will perform as required.  Trouble is, there is no end to imaginative tests, and there is always something else to throw into the analysis.  And it all must be extensively peer reviewed, debated at length, documented to the nth degree, briefed to multiple layers of management, and signed off by virtually everybody in

the organization.


This is a very expensive process.


History indicates that attention to safety doesn’t seem to last.  Sooner or later the people charged with making a system safe retire or die off, the bean counters get their knives out and the organization gets trimmed in the name of efficiency and cost savings, and somewhere along the way an invisible line is crossed.   And Dr. Perrow is proved right again. 


Not to be too depressed, but these report’s two sentences on safety are counterbalanced by many more sentences describing how space systems must be made cheaper and should accomplish its goals sooner.  ‘Faster, better, cheaper’ was the rallying cry of management over a decade ago.  The wags soon added ‘pick any two’.  My experience has been that a project manager is lucky to get two, and many projects end with having failed on all three counts.


I found another Latin phrase which may apply here, from Horace:  Splendide mendax.  It means ‘splendidly untrue’.  Safety at low cost, that is. 


So as we look to the future, it is going to take a great deal of careful management to ensure that commercially provided crew transportation systems are adequately safe and yet not drive the cost (and schedule) through the roof.  This balance is not easy to accomplish.  Careful and thoughtful management attention will be required.  No doubt you will hear some debate about this topic in days to come.


Which brings me back to sine qua non.  About a year after the loss of Columbia, NASA had a conference on risk and exploration.  A number of folks who do dangerous exploratory work talked with the NASA leadership about these issues.  Probably the most memorable thought of the whole conference came from James Cameron.  After almost two days of people repeating the phrase “safety first, safety is the most important thing”, Mr. Cameron made this observation:  “While safety is very important and must be considered at all times, in exploration safety is not actually the most important thing.  In exploration, the most important thing is to go.”


If I were writing the report, it would echo those words.  Actual exploration is not safe.  Actual exploration does not take place on powerpoint slides.  Actual exploration takes courage.  Actual exploration take action.  Actual exploration requires going.


Actually going is  sine non qua.

Secrets,Leaks,and Outright Lies

One very early shuttle flight was quite memorable for me.  It was among the first shuttle flights that had requirements from ‘other national agencies.’  It was the first time that a shuttle attitude control thruster had a propellant leak during flight.  It was marked my first appearance at a NASA press conference.  Those things are strangely related.


As a twenty-something shiny new flight controller, I was very proud and nervous to be in the “front room” of the MCC for launch.  The Propulsion Systems Officer is responsible for the Orbital Maneuvering System, the Reaction Control System with all their rocket engines, plumbing, tanks, valves, heaters, software, and associated wiring.  These 46 rocket engines in the two systems use interconnected propellant supplies of hypergolic fuel and oxidizer.  These chemicals are nasty stuff:  corrosive, toxic, unstable. 


Thruster leaks had been common in earlier programs such as Apollo and Gemini.  The large RCS thrusters of the shuttle have valve seats which are made of a Teflon type material and are susceptible to small bits of solid contamination causing leaks.  That is probably the same reason my kitchen sink faucet leaks occasionally.  Before this particular flight, all of us Prop people were rather happy that no leaks had occurred in flight because we knew leaks were common in ground testing.


Thruster leaks are detected by a temperature drop.  When exposed to vacuum the liquid propellant quickly evaporates which chills the thruster.  Just after MECO the attitude thrusters come on line and one of them quickly range the leak alarm.   That thruster was automatically removed from further use and we told the crew that no action was required.  After a very short time, just a couple of minutes, the temperatures climbed back up to normal.  The leak had stopped.  We may have lost a few ounces of fluid, an immeasurably small amount.


We hoped that was all the excitement which was in store for us for the flight.  It wasn’t.


A few hours after launch the shuttle would fire the OMS engines to raise the orbit altitude in the standard practice for those early flights.  The Flight Director had told the Props and the FDOs well before the flight that we would not actually go to the altitude which was in the flight plan.  Someone would provide us with an actual altitude target after we launched.  Somebody we did not need to know about.  No reason was offered.  We nodded and kept quiet.


So it was no surprise an hour or so after we were in orbit – and well after the tiny thruster leak stopped – that the Flight Director informed us what the final altitude would be a couple of miles lower than planned.  The burns were executed and our shift was over. 

Then the Flight Director stopped at my console and told me to come to the post-shift press briefing with him.


I was scared silly.  Never been to a press conference before, no training, and no instructions.  Flight didn’t tell me what to say or why he wanted me to come, but I followed him over to the public affairs building. 


I found myself up on the podium blinking under the lights.  Flight told the assembled press all about the usual launch stuff and then said:  “Due to the propellant leak, we could not raise our orbit to the planned altitude.  Mr. Hale is here to tell you about that.”




I must have looked like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights.  It was, of course, a bald faced lie.  Stunned, I did not know what to say, so I was as surprised as anybody when the words came out of my mouth:  “yes that’s right, we had to go lower because of the propellant loss.”


No questions, no further comments, and at the end of the press conference you can imagine how I felt:  used.


To my knowledge that is the one and only time I ever lied in a press conference.  It has rankled me for twenty years.   


Don’t use people.


Don’t tell lies, even for good reasons.


Even better, stay away from press conferences!