Myth,Power,and Value

As soon as I read this excerpt, I knew I had to read the whole book: 

“Coronado’s journey was the Apollo expedition of his day and Mexico City was a sixteenth-century mission control, shipping men out to explore the unknown.” 

Tony Horwitz has written a lively, easy to understand, yet profound history of the exploration of North America from Columbus in 1492 to the Pilgrim landing at Plymouth in 1620.  As he says in the introduction “I’d mislaid an entire century”.  The rediscovery of that critical period is found in his new book “A Voyage Long and Strange:  Rediscovering the New World”, Henry Holt and Company, 2008, ISBN-13:978-8050-7603-5.

I offer this book for your reading consideration. 

If you are wondering how this applies to space exploration, ponder this passage from Tony’s book — the very first chapter on the Vikings in America before Columbus: 

“Vinland’s brief flicker was even more extraordinary.  When Leif and his siblings set off, Norse Greenland was only fifteen years old, with a population of about five hundred.  Vinland was a satellite of a satellite, its voyagers on the medieval equivalent of a space walk, tethered to a mother ship already at the furthest reach of European society and knowledge. . . What seems most surprising is not that Norse Vinland failed, but that it happened at all.

Nor was the Viking’s fate anomalous.  The Europeans who resettled America after 1492 brought horses, guns, and other advantages unknown to the Norse.  Yet they, too, found it hard to sustain a toehold, even in settings much gentler than subartic Canada.  Dozens of early colonies foundered in mass death or abandonment.  Failure was the norm, not the exception.

According to America’s national saga, English settlers ultimately triumphed because of their superior grit, idealism, and entrepreneurship.  But . . .small incoming populations rarely take root.  The difference between success and failure typically depends on the number of times a new group arrives, and in what strength . . . waves of settlers kept restocking Virginia and Massachusetts.  Sheer weight of numbers and the backing of increasingly powerful mercantile states . . . proved critical to success.”

Wow.  We should contemplate those very real lessons from history.  Read this book and others like it. 

As a native son of the Land of Enchantment (look it up), I was raised on the Conquistadores and Coronado, so some of this was familiar.  As a startling coincidence I find myself back in that country, in a museum, in a conference about how to do exploration in a “mercantile” way!  So pensive thought trying to connect the dots is probably a natural consequence.

In another place on the internet, a commentator has told me that NASA is not (or should not) be in the inspiration business.  I could not disagree more completely.  We have to be in the inspiration business.  We need to inspire our fellow citizens in these difficult days by reminding them that together we have overcome great difficulties in the past and done great things and that we can do so again.  We need to inspire our children to believe that there is a future worth studying for and working toward.  We need to inspire the world that America is still “the last best hope of mankind.”  Inspiration is the very essence of what we do.  The merely mundane advancement of the aeronautical sciences or advances in celestial navigation is scarcely the reason why the Congress and the President set up this peculiar agency some 50 years ago. 

Isn’t it true that you still hear people say “If we can put a man on the moon then we ought to be able to . . . ” fill in the blank with any great challenge facing us. 

NASA and our accomplishments in space is now part of the great national myth.  Wait a minute, I need to explain myself there.  At a foolish moment in my college career, I signed up to take a 3 hour poli sci course that all my friends were excited about.  Doc Culbertson was a fixture on campus and taught a course about state and regional politics.  He had a lively and interesting lecture style, the grading curve was said to be friendly, and I needed another course outside the engineering department to fulfill the university requirements for graduation.  My friends were right; it was a great course.  Doc C taught us that political power and cultural values are all derived from national or regional myths.  Now in his parlance, a myth was not a falsehood, it was an interpretation of history.  Or more correctly a revision of history as morality play setting the foundation of certain values from which the populace organized political power. 

I believe Tony Horwitz must have set through that same class.  In the very very last chapter of his book, he ponders the Pilgrims at Plymouth and wonders why they, and not so many others, have become the leading players in the national origin myth.  A modern citizen of Plymouth spells it out for him:  “The story here may not be correct, but it transcends truth.  Myth trumps fact, always does, always has, always will.”

As Doc C would have said; myth and the values it supports give people the power to do impossible things.

Like go to the moon.  And to do the other things.  Not because they are easy, but because they are hard. 

We come from a long line of folk who faced long odds, suffered a lot of failure, and came back to build a great nation. 



Watching airplanes

A few years ago I had to pick my wife up at the airport and I neglected to check on the flight status.  After parking, I hustled into the terminal only to find that her flight was delayed by not quite an hour.  Not long enough to leave and do something else, but too long to sit idly in the terminal building.  Then I remembered what we used to do when I was a kid.

I grew up in a small town, not terribly small but certainly not large.  We had an airport which was served by one regularly scheduled airline using a turboprop plane with three or four flights each day.  Of course there were the general aviation flights as well.  In those quaint, long ago times, folks would actually go to the airport just to watch the airline arrive and take off.  My family did.  When I was a teenager, we used to go there and park at the end of the runway.  Sometimes we would idly dream about where the plane could take us, exotic journeys to far off places.  A generation or two earlier, I guess we would have gone to the train depot for the same reason.  Small town boredom.  The thrill of the possible.  The highest technology that we could actually see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears. All the unimaginable possibilities of a world that seemed very large.

In those days, people dressed in formal clothes to go on a trip.  I remember men in coats and ties wearing hats, women in long dresses wearing gloves, all clambering up the steps to the airplane door.  No t-shirts and short pants in those days, no siree.

So years later, waiting for my wife, I decided to take the stairs to the top floor of the terminal — a parking lot — and watch the planes.  I found a good spot, by the railing, close to the edge, and was entertained watching all the airliners land, takeoff, taxi hither and yon, trucks and baggage carts scurrying busily about. 

And after a few minutes, guess what?  A visit from the airport security people.  Seems I had attracted their attention on the surveillance cameras. A little embarrassed, I explained what I was doing up there.  The two young men in uniform were visibly amused to hear an old guy explain that when he was young people actually went to the airport just to watch the planes take off and land.  They decided I was harmless but advised me to go back into the terminal and watch through the windows. 

How times have changed.  I travel on airlines too much these days.  I get to go in the “experienced traveler” TSA line.  My frequent flier cards runneth over.  And all the excitement has gone out of travel.  Now it is merely a hassle; get to the airport early, follow all the rules, check in, go through security with all its indignities, get stuck in a small seat with minimal service, land, and hope my bag made it with me.  No excitement here.  No thrill. No romance.

Somehow we have sucked all the romance and excitement out of air travel — or travel of any kind. 

And you know, it is a kind of magic.  Just sit down, read a book or a magazine, watch a movie, or take a nap and in just a short time you are hundreds or thousands of miles from home.  No real effort required on your part, just sit there. 

It is a kind of magic.

Many people tell me that space travel is not exciting.  They listen to presentations concerning the most exciting explorations of our times which are delivered in monotone voices with incomprehensible and complex graphics.  Somehow, we have sucked the excitement and romance out of space travel. 

But it really an extraordinary kind of magic. 

So if you are present at one of those boring, incomprehensible, utterly pedestrian talks about exploring space — don’t sit there!  Don’t let the magic get paved over with boredom!  Get up on your feet and shout the speaker off the lectern!  Don’t let the dull and boring smother the what space travel truly is: exotic, thrilling, exciting, romantic, and magical!  This is too important to sit back and let the dreams die; don’t let the young people grow up without dreams.

Continuing the discussion

About 48 hours after having posted a short example on Columbus, I hope you have reached some conclusions.  I’d like to continue this discussion just a bit longer. 

So the question, as posed by the University of Strathclyde, is this:  ‘Was Columbus voyage of discover a program (“tactical”) success or failure; and was it a Strategic success or failure?”  The point being, what can we learn for space exploration.

On a couple of different forums and by email I have received several interesting but brief votes for success or failure.

When we were studying how to reform the Shuttle Mission Management Team following Columbia, one of the best lessons we gained from a lot of academic and consultant forums was this:  it is important to properly frame the question. 

So I left you with the question:  success or failure, and whose?

From the Native American standpoint, the voyage of Columbus represented a catastrophic strategic failure.  If the natives of San Salvadore had risen up en mass and slaughtered the Europeans, nothing would have been heard from Columbus; and his opponents would have carried the day.  European discovery and all its catastrophic consequences for native Americans might have been delayed by centuries.  So if you take that point of view, strategic failure.

Alternatively, Columbus himself believed to his deathbed that he had actually discovered the route to the spice islands, China, and Japan.  If you had asked him, he would have emphatically told you that the voyage was a tactical (“program”) success. 

Isabella’s motives (and Ferdinand’s too) are harder to discern.  If their goal was to enrich Spain and increase international respect (and envy) for Spain, then the voyage was a tactical (“program”) success.  Some historians have stated that the Spanish royal couple mostly wanted to get rid of the pesky Italian and they saw a way to get rid of certain Portuguese maritime merchants that were causing them problems.  Strategically you could argue that they succeeded here as well.

In the very long run, Spain’s whole mind set defeated their ambitions in the new world and Spain sunk into 3rd rate status among nations.  So how long is “strategic” success good for?  It took the better part of a century to get to the apex, and another century to fall.

But my thesis is that taking the simplistic view of history and putting each expedition into the “successful” or “failure” bins defeats the possibility of learning from history.  The lessons are too complex, too rich, and too contradictory to put in a Venn diagram. 

So back to my example story from Columbus and the hurricane.  What can we learn that is applicable to space exploration?

Lets start with a very simple observations:  you should listen to folks who have experience.  Columbus and his crew knew the signs of impending weather.  They tried to warn others who laughed at them.  Then Columbus and his crew took cover.   How does that apply to spaceflight?  There are a lot of folks that make specious claims of being able to do things cheaper, faster (and better?) than those who have gone before.  While incremental improvements are possible, amazing predictions from folks who have no experience in the stormy waters of rocketry are probably direct descendants of Bobadilla.  Don’t laugh at experience, search it out and study it.

Explorers enable colonization, economic exploitation, and the advance of civilization.  Explorers frequently make lousy administrative leaders for the colony, the businessmen, or the rest of civilization.  Use people where their talents lie; don’t try to make them into something that they are not, have no interest in, have no experience about.  Keep the explorers exploring.

How about the theme that very small investments in exploration can result in huge rewards.  Isabella and Ferdinand invested a pittance in three very small ships and skimped on their outfitting costs; one can argue that economically that was the best investment in history.  Frequently the proponents of NASA cite studies that show for every dollar spent on the space program, new technologies and businesses result which in turn improve our economy by $4, $7, or $9 depending on how finely you slice the model?  Is 0.6% of the national budget an excessive amount to spend on the future of humankind, especially when it turns out to be a goose that lays golden eggs for the near term economic health of the country (and we need something!).

We could go on.  I worry that the internet age with its 12 sentence blogs and 5 second soundbite attention span does not have the patience to learn from history.  And you know what happens to folks that fail to learn from history.

Some time in the future we’ll discuss the Darien get rich quick scheme, how it plays into Scottish mythology, and how present day interest in Glasgow in Scottish devolution (independence) played a major role in the business school thinking of the Strathclyde paper  which mostly picked failed expeditions lead by the English. There is a history lesson there, too.

Keep your eyes open.   As Yogi Berra once said “You can observe a lot by just watching.”




Exploration is all about the unexpected

Yesterday I was handed a paper to read which was commissioned by the Constellation Program to see if there was anything we could learn from historical exploration as a lesson for NASA.  That was a great idea.  I was excited to see that the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland was the scholarly organization which produced this paper.  I was just there!  I had walked across the campus!  wow, small world! 

I had great hopes for this paper.

After I read it, I felt disappointment.  I slept on it.  I read it again this morning.  I am still disappointed.

Probably it is not fair; the attempt to learn lessons from history is always a noble one.  Perhaps this is just too big a topic to address in a short academic paper.  So rather than criticize, lets take a look beyond the Venn diagrams and explore for the golden nuggets of wisdom that come with a deep understanding of the lessons that history of exploration can teach us.

The Strathclyde study said that Columbus’s voyages were a tactical (“program”) failure and a strategic success.  Really? 

I would offer the following episode from Columbus’s last voyage for your contemplation.  It is a story of discovery, knowledge, arrogance, ignorance, and lastly justice.  You decide if the result of the voyage is failure or success. 

This is from a great book — and a very timely read it is: “Isaac’s Storm” by Erik Larson, Vintage Books, 2000 ISBN 0-609-60233-0.  The book is about the great 1900 hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas.  These pages take you back another 400 years earlier.

Excerpts from pages 34-43.


     Columbus set off on his first voyage on August 3, 1492, from Palos, Spain, with a fleet of three tiny caravels, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.  By nineteenth-century standards, the three vessels hardly qualified as ships.  They were large boats crewed skimpily with a few experienced sailors and adventure-hungry boys.  Not only did Columbus and his captains have no means of determining the exact location of their ships in the featureless blue of the ocean, they also carried none of the meterological tools that mariners in Isaac’s time took for granted. 

     After overcoming a few technical problems, the ships caught the trades and made quick, untroubled progress.  The weather was perfect:  clear blue skies, brisk and steady winds shoving big cotton clouds over the horizon, cool nights and balmy days, the overall effect one of languid, sloe-eyed sensuality.  “The weather was like April in Andalusia,” Columbus wrote, “the only thing wanting was to hear the nightingales.” 

     But something curious did occur during the first voyage.  A lookout saw them first, rising a long way off.  Astonished, he sounded the alarm.

     It was September 23, the fleet’s exact position unclear but the weather good, skies bright, no sign of a storm on any horizon.  Nonetheless, the lookouts spotted immense swells marching slowly and silently toward the ships.   Columbus and his captains turned the fleet into the oncoming seas and watched open-jawed as the surface of the ocean rose in great oil-smooth hills of blue and green.  The swells lifted the ships to exhilarating heights but posed no danger.

     What Columbus did not know was that these swells were most likely the advance guard of a hurricane rising hundreds of miles away, well out of sight – the same brand of swell Isaac observed as he stood on the seat of his sulky in Galveston four centuries later.

     The ships continued their journey; Columbus opened the gates to the New World.


     The more time Columbus spent in the waters of the Indies, however, the more he saw the flaws in his original appraisal of Caribbean weather.  Water spouts danced among his ships.  Tropical rains fell as if from a ruptured cask.  Squalls tore the sails from his spars.  By the time of his final voyage, Columbus had learned that the seas of the New World were both seductive and deadly, but in the process had become adept at reading the tropical skies for signs of trouble. 

     He was ready for his first true hurricane.


    Four years before the storm, Ferdinand and Isabella, intending to reward Columbus, appointed him viceroy of the Indies.  He reached Hispaniola in August of 1498 expecting to savor the perquisites of rank, but found rebellion and turmoil.  When word came back to Spain that chaos, not the sovereigns, reigned in Hispaniola, Ferdinand and Isabella dispatched an emissary, Francisco de Bobadilla, to straighten things out.  Secretly they had granted him extraordinary powers, which he demonstrated immediately upon his arrival.  It did not help that as Bobadilla sailed into Santo Domingo harbor he saw seven Spanish corpses dangling from the gallows.  Swaying palms were one thing; swaying countrymen quite another.  He used the hangings as a pretext to arrest Columbus and lock him in chains, a degree of public humiliation that speaks clearly of some deeper passion filling Bobadilla’s portfolio.  Greed perhaps, but certainly envy.

     In October 1500 Bobadilla marched the iron-laced Columbus through town and on board a ship, La Gorda, bound for Spain.  Bobadilla himself took over the administration of Hispaniola.  After returning to Spain, Columbus remained in chains for six more weeks before the sovereigns released him.  He pleaded for the license and funds to conduct one more great voyage.  In a sign of new warmth toward the admiral, Ferdinand and Isabella commanded Bobadilla to assemble all the proceeds from trade and the mining of gold that were owed Columbus, and to place these in the custody of his designated agent.  On March 14, 1502, the sovereigns granted Columbus another voyage.  Like wise parents seeking to head off the wars of jealous children, they forbade him to stop at Hispaniola.

     Columbus, delighted to be sailing again, set out with four caravels, and on June 29, 1502, found himself and his fleet off Hispaniola.  He saw that a great convoy of thirty ships was being readied in the Ozama River at Santo Domingo for imminent departure, but did not know at the time this fleet was carrying Bobadilla and a vast fortune in gold, including his own share.  That Bobadilla had consigned Columbus’s gold to the smallest and flimsiest of the convoy ships, the Aguja, was yet another mark of whatever hidden passion fueled his hatred.  If any ship was likely to sink, it would be the puny Aguja.

     Columbus has a least three good, practical, defensible reasons for what he did next:  First, the departing convoy presented an excellent opportunity for getting mail from his own little fleet promptly back to Spain.  Second, he wanted to trade one of his ships, a poor performer, for something a bit more spry.  Third, the weather had taken an ominous turn, exhibiting the usual troika of storm signs:  oily swells, oppressive heat, a red sky.

     For all these good, practical, and defensible reasons, Columbus sent one of his captains ashore with a request to permit his fleet to enter the harbor, a clear violation of the sovereigns’ orders.

     The new governor, Don Nicolas de Ovando, only laughed.

     Stung, Columbus lead his ships to the leeward side of Hispaniola to place the mass of the island between the ships and the rising storm.  He instructed his captains that if they became separated by the storm to meet in a harbor on Ocoa Bay, near what later became Puerto Viejo de Azua.

      Meanwhile, with great fanfare – trumpets blaring, cannon roaring, banners streaming – the thirty-ship convoy ferrying Bobadilla and Columbus’s gold sailed from Ozama and made for the Mona Passage, the strait between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico that connects the Caribbean to the Atlantic.


     The storm was a full-fledged hurricane.  Columbus’s fleet, sheltered in the lee of Hispaniola, caught a glancing blow that nonetheless topped anything in severity that Columbus had so far confronted.  “The storm was terrible,” he wrote, “and on that night the ships were parted from me.  Each one of them was reduced to an extremity expecting nothing save death; each one of them was certain the others were lost.”

     In a maneuver that went against customary marine practice, Columbus did not strike for open sea but instead brought his ship closer to shore to leverage further the windbreak afforded by the mountains of Hispaniola.  His ship survived.  On Sunday, July 3, he sailed his caravel into Ocoa Bay, the designated meeting place.  He saw no sign of the others.

     As his ship rocked gently in the gorgeous blue, its deck quiet but for the sounds of repair, Columbus watched the entrance to the bay through thermals of humid air.

     A lookout would have spotted it first as a glint of white against the settling sea.  He cried out, then perhaps wished he had not, as the glint disappeared and the ship eased back into the turquoise quiet.

     But another spark followed, a true sign now.  Sails and finally a ship.  Followed by another.  And, impossibly, yet another.

     All safe.


     And what of Bobadilla?

     The hurricane caught the convoy in the Mona Passage head-on, the eye passing close, perhaps directly overhead.  It drove twenty of the gold ships to the bottom with all hands.  One of these carried Bobadilla.  In all five hundred mariners lost their lives.  A few ships, gravely wounded, fought their way back to Santo Domingo.

     Only one ship of the original thirty made it to Spain:  the puny little Aguja, carrying Columbus’s gold.


So I ask you:  success or failure?  Tactical or Strategic?  and whose?  

 It is nice to think that you can put the lessons of history into simple bins and categories.  But it seems to me that a true explorer searches for the deeper lessons that apply not necessarily universally, but to the current time and the current exploration. 

Do you think we will not encounter hurricanes on the way to the moon?  Perhaps not.  But we most definitely will encounter arrogance, ignorance, and stupidity. 

So what lesson did you learn today?


Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

You have all seen the pictures from Mission Control at splashdown of one of the Apollo missions:  flags and cigars, the room crowded with celebrating people including most of the NASA hierarchy.  Splashdown parties were a big thing back in the day as my older colleagues used to tell me.  I often wondered how exaggerated those stories were, or did people just party harder in those days?

My first assignment in Mission Control was for the entry team of STS-1; Columbia.  It was quite a flight; a long time coming and a technical achievement that will not be surpassed for a long time.  Even though there was no “splashdown”, I remember the mob scene after landing — a huge party with hundreds of folks crammed into Mission Control and then spilling out into all the various venues surrounding the space center.  Much of the top brass of NASA was present; but this time there was a difference, a lot of senior folks were at the runway in California.  A new tradition had started.  Still, there was great celebration.

These continued for the landings of STS-2, 3, 4, 5, 6.  On STS-7, Sally Ride made history as the first American woman to go into space.  If anything, the crowd was even bigger than on earlier flights.  The cigar smoke was so thick that you could not see from one end of the room to another.

(Smoking has since been banned from Mission Control and all other NASA building!)

I found myself working the Entry team on STS-8, the first night landing.  Dick Truly was the commander.  There were lots of concerns about landing in the dark; many new rules and procedures.  The Shuttle Orbiter does not have a landing light like most aircraft, so illumination had to come from huge spotlights which lined the runway.  We were all absolutely nervous about this.  Everybody but Truly. 

The landing came at about 2 AM.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — in Mission Control it always seems like 2 AM!  Often when I emerged from a long shift in the MCC, I would be surprised to see the sun shining!  There is something psychological about being in a big windowless building for many hours concentrating on difficult technical problems.  But this time it was really true! 

The shuttle glided to a picture perfect landing, no problems worth noting.  Later pilots have often remarked that night landings are actually easier than daytime landings — not only is the weather often better, but there the well lit runway is the only thing you can really see and all the other distracting things that daylight reveals are hidden at night!

We ran through the post landing checklist; made sure the crew got out alright, and turned control of the vehicle over to the team at the landing field.  The traditional words were spoken:  “The flight control team is released.  GC (the ground control officer) unlock the MCC doors”. 

And nothing happened.  Nobody came in.  The video monitors switched to the congratulatory slide that always came up in preparation for the party.  But nobody was there.  The flight control team put our books away in silence; packed up our bags, and headed out the door.  All the usual party joints were closed at that time in the morning.  We all went home to bed.

Sic transit gloria mundi

When the shuttle lands today there is a small rush when the doors are opened.  Some mid-level NASA officials are generally there to shake hands and congratulate the team.  We can watch a small group of senior folks on the runway shake hands with the crew whether they are in California or Florida.  But it isn’t like the old days.

Well, at least we won’t all die from the cigar smoke!


Anniversaries and Calendars

As you all probably know, this week we celebrated the 50th anniversary of NASA and it is also the 51st anniversary of Sputnik and the start of the space age.  Last year on “Columbus Day”, I wrote a note to my shuttle troops on these anniversaries.  It may be cheating to recycle that letter, but I think it still applies.  Here it is:


Calendars are funny things.  We count time as very important and try to keep track of special days.  But the calendars and the seasons don’t always match up.  For example, every school child knows that Columbus discovered America on October 12. 


Well, not exactly.


It was October 12 on the Julian calendar which was already out of sync with the universe by 9 days in 1492.  So we should really celebrate the discovery of America on October 21st, not the 12th.


And who really sighted land first?  In the wee hours of October 12 (old style), it was Juan Rodriguez Bermeja de Triana aboard Their Most Catholic Majesty’s ship Pinta that called out “land ho” (Tierra!).


So Bermeja discovered America on October 21, 1492.


So much for the history books.




Fifty years is a long time.


We have just celebrated 50 years of space exploration.  How do our accomplishments rack up next to those of the age of discovery?


The first permanent settlement in what came to be the United States wasn’t established until 1565 when Juan Menendez de Aviles founded San Augustine not far up the coast from the recently named Cape Canaveral.  So it took more than 73 years to plant a city in what became our country.


How about exploration?  One of the greatest expeditions came 48 years after Columbus, err that is, Bermeja first sighted the new world.  That was the expedition of Francisco Vazquez de Coronada which explored what would become Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.  Coronado detached one of his officers named Tovar to explore along his western flank.  In turn, Tovar dispatched a scouting party under the command of Don Garcia Lopez de Cardenas.  Cardenas found one of the great natural wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon of the Colorado.  And what did they think?  They thought they were great failures.  They were not the slightest bit interested in finding wonders in the natural world.  These early Conquistadors were motivated by the opportunity to convert the natives to Catholicism, to win glory for themselves, and perhaps to find gold.  Poor Cardenas didn’t convert many Indians, and his superior officer, Tovar got all the popular credit for finding the Grand Canyon (go there today and see whose name is most prominent). 


And if you study their own words, you might just come to the conclusion that the search for gold was their biggest motivation.  No gold, no glory, few converts, and Coronado felt he was a failure.  What a different perspective history puts on that expedition.


Not that those early explorers lacked courage.  Courage was in abundance.  Hernando Cortes took on the mightiest empire in the new world, the Aztecs.  Against an empire that on a regular basis could put upwards of 150,000 warriors on the battlefield against their enemies, Cortes marched in with about 400 soldiers of fortune.  Mostly by bravado and trickery the Castilians defeated their vastly more powerful adversaries.  Well, the captain from Castile had help from superior weaponry, and the biology of European diseases did the much of the rest, but it took a great deal of bravado just to go in the first place.  So the cruel and bloodthirsty Aztecs were defeated by the only slightly less cruel and bloodthirsty Castilians.


One of Cortes’ officers, Bernal Diaz, wrote the definitive eyewitness account of those days in 1521.  He could hardly believe his own story: 


“Those readers who are interested by this history must wonder at the great deeds we did in those days:  first in destroying our ships; then in daring to enter that strong city [Mexico City] despite many warnings that they would kill us once they had us inside; then in having the temerity to seize the great Montezuma, king of that country, in his own city and inside his very palace, and to throw him in chains. . . . Now that I am old, I often pause to consider the heroic actions of that time.  I seem to see them present before my eyes. . . .  For what soldiers in the world, numbering only four hundred – and we were even fewer – would have dared to enter a city as strong as Mexico, which is larger than Venice and more than four thousand five hundred miles away from our own Castile . . . There is much here to ponder on.”


It is not surprising that Bernal Diaz did not title his memoir The Exploration of New Spain, but gave the book the more accurate title:  The Conquest of New Spain. 


As explorers, the early Castilians did not know what they were doing.  They left no accounts of the wonders of the land or its people, merely the dreary endless stories of fighting, treachery, deception, and blood.


By comparison, peacefully landing a dozen expeditions on our nearest celestial neighbor and building a great international laboratory with the cooperation of the leading nations of the world doesn’t stack up too badly.  Comparing the first 50 years, that is with their first 50 years.


What else can we learn about this comparison of explorations?


Here is a short list:  Sometimes exploration goes slower than you would expect.  Don’t expect the history books to get it right.  Don’t expect to be remembered.  Doing the right thing for the wrong reason really can be OK.  Explore for the glory of doing it, for the experience of being part of something bigger than yourself.  Explore for the difference it will make in the lives of people, perhaps your great great great grandchildren in five hundred years.  Even if they won’t realize how much they owe you


A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to camp on a high shelf in the Rockies, far from city lights.  The evening was perfectly clear: no clouds, no pollution.  The moon was old and did not rise until well past midnight.  When the sun set, the most spectacular sight appeared: stars and planets,  satellites and meteors, the milky way so close you could reach out and touch the dark dusty lanes wandering through the innumerable crowds of stars.


There is a lot of exploring to do.  It is just beginning.  We should do it together with our friends.  In peace.  And if we do find somebody out there, we ought to treat them right. 


And someday, when future generations read our memoirs, they will wonder what it was like to be among the very first to start on the voyage of discovery. 


You old Conquistadors, they will envy you.


You see, in exploration you need to take the long view.


Where are the ships?

The International Astronautical Congress is having its 59th annual meeting in Glasgow, Scotland.  This is one of the oldest professional meetings for the space industry.  This is my first time to attend and it has been great.  There have been so many great discussions with the senior professionals and with the students; opportunities to hear the plans and projects for the future as well as the news from projects underway now with recent successes.  The opportunity to discuss mutual problems and mutual interests with people who have different perspectives makes you stretch, learn, and become more innovative.

Of real and particular interest to me were the discussions I had with the SpaceX people and Virgin Galactic.  These folks are building real spacecraft with private funds for commercial reasons.  Even more companies presented papers with plans for imaginative spacecraft that may become more than viewgraphs — or should I say, electrons — in the future.  The potential is enormous.

But the most challenging and best part of the conference for me occurred during a reception.  Now the reception was good, I had a long chat with several colleagues from Canada, Germany, and other places.  But the most striking thing was the location:  on the tall ship Glennlee moored on the river Clyde. 

The Glennlee was launched from a Glasgow shipyard in 1895; a sailing ship in the days of steam freighters.  It is now a museum outfitted for tourists and school children to learn about life at sea a hundred years ago.  Large displays show where she sailed — literally all over the world — and how the crew lived — very spartan.  There was even a long discussion about one of the crewmen who died at sea.  Wages were low, work was arduous, and every day was filled with hazards.  But they carried the freight for decades to ports all around the world.

Leaving the reception and the Glennlee, I walked along the banks of the Clyde reflecting on how many ships were built in Glasgow’s yards: freighters, battleships, channel ferries, even mighty ocean liners:  the two Queens of the 1930’s and the QE2 were built there.  For three hundred years, thousands of ships set sail from the Clyde bound for every place in the world a ship or river boat could reach.  They still build ships there, although fewer than in the heyday of ocean travel.  No great liners; just tankers and immense freighters. But they still build them, and they still set sail.

How long will it be until we have spaceship yards building thousands of spacecraft?  When will we reach the great age of Space Exploration when ships routinely set sail for all the ports in the Solar System? And whose ships will those be?

It is a good thing to preserve the past, to help us learn for the future.  But the Glennlee is forlorn; her yardarms barren of canvas.  No more does she sail from Glasgow harbor to the ports of the world. 

There is a pop culture moment that captures perfectly my mood.  When Elizabeth Swann tells Captain Jack Sparrow that returning to his ship would allow him to go anywhere in the Caribbean, the pirate replies:

“Not just the Spanish Main, love, the entire ocean, the entire world, wherever we want to go. 


That’s what a ship is, you know. 


It’s not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails,

that’s what a ship needs. 


But what a ship is, . . .


What it really is,   


is freedom.”



Monday Potporri

Its been a big couple of days in space.  First of all the Chinese achieved a very successful EVA mission and returned their three taikonauts home safely.  Second, the SpaceX Falcon 1 vehicle had a successful launch and orbital insertion.  Congratulations are in order to both; they are remarkable achievements and represent a huge effort! 

Closer to home, the Hubble telescope has had a significant glitch and we’ll have to watch closely over the next few days as the HST team troubleshoots that problem. 

So where is Wayne today?  Not at home.  For most of my career, going to conferences was not something that we did.  Frankly it was looked down on.  As an operator, if I had enough free time to think about writing papers and going to conferences, my bosses would believe I was not paying attention to business.  Besides, there was the unstated belief that we were the best operators in the world so why go listen to other folks that couldn’t do what we did.  Hmm.  Times and attitudes have changed.

In fact, almost everybody agrees that international cooperation in space is a good thing and will lead to more advances than we could do alone.  And we can all learn lessons from each other.

Now I’m at one of the oldest and most respected conferences, the International Space Conference in its 59th annual meeting.  In the crowd I can hear folks conversing in dozens of languages, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Russian, German, Spanish, Italian, French, and many others including the lilting Scottish version of English.   Plans are being proposed, discussed, evaluated.  Some really great ideas have been put forward, lots of senior leaders are here listening and participating and these ideas may come to fruition.  This is a lot different than Mission Control! Of course it takes all parts — the planners with imagination getting commitments, and the engineers and financiers getting the rocket built, and the operators to fly it.  I’m learning a lot.

Good news from Washington, Congress passed NASA’s authorization bill.  This means that the Congress approves of the plans going forward in space.  Somewhere there was a glitch, though; Congress told us to dramatically cut back in participation in conferences.  Hmm, guess I started too late in coming to these things!

Its late here in Scotland, so further updates will have to wait until tomorrow.



Friday Flight Director Story

STS-37 carried one of NASA’s “Great Observatories”.  In case you had forgotten, the Hubble Space Telescope is not up there by itself.  While Hubble peers at the universe in the visible light spectrum, a huge amount of information can be gathered from observations in the parts of the electro-magnetic spectrum that are invisible to humans.  The Chandra X-ray telescope looks at, well, X-ray pictures of the universe.  The Spitzer Infrared telescope looks at thermal images of the universe, and the Compton Gamma Ray telescope looked for very high energy signatures.  Sadly Compton is the only one of the great observatories no longer with us — another story for another day — but son-of-Compton, the Fermi GLAST observatory carries on with observations in this strange part of the spectrum.

Compton was a huge advance and a large scientific instrument.  But like every other payload, weight is everything when you are trying to get out of Earth’s gravity well.  In an effort to provide the maximum mass to the scientific instruments, the spacecraft bus weight was cut to a minimum.  In particular, the solar arrays — vital to generate the power for observatory — were somewhat flimsy; especially the mechanism to extend them.

Lead Flight Director Chuck Shaw recognized this as a potential problem area early on and had his team develop a set of EVA procedures and tools to manually extend the solar arrays if the mechanism failed.  Lots of time was spent practicing these maneuvers in the water tanks.  Just to complete the exercise, the team looked at other parts of the Compton which might need a little human help and rounded out the crew procedures and training so that any of those could be handled as well.

As Ascent/Entry Flight Director on STS-37, I sat next to Chuck during the deploy operations.  The A/E FD is always interested to see if the “CG Management Device” (aka, the primary payload) really got out of the bay or not. 

Deploy operations are always tense and this was no exception.  The Compton had only limited battery life for the time when it was disconnected from the shuttle power supply until it was lifted out of the bay on the robot arm and could extend its solar arrays and make power on its own.  The EVA crewmembers, Jerry Ross and Jay Apt, were in their suits in the airlock with hatches closed waiting word to go out and extend those solar arrays or stand down from EVA and get out of the suits. 

We were breathless as the Goddard Payload Control center sent the command to extend the first solar array.  With the speed of light the command traveled down the T1 terrestrial circuit from Maryland to Houston where it was electronically woven into the digital uplink of command and voice, forwarded over another T1 circuit to White Sands New Mexico where the antennas bounced the command to the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite hovering in geosynchronous orbit over the equator, then from the TDRS down to the shuttle in low earth orbit, finally from the shuttle into Compton where the little electric latches and motors were waiting.  All this is a fraction of a second, and we waited to see the array extend.  Breathless. 

Success!  First one array and then the other extended and locked into flight configuration and the power began to flow.  We could breath again.  The EVA crew began to feel disappointment; probably no space walk today.  But not quite yet.  Time to deploy the high gain antenna that would beam Compton’s scientific data to the ground.  This was a robust mechanism and we really didn’t worry much as the Goddard Payload Control issued the high gain antenna deploy command.

Nothing happened.  Ooops.  Check the circuit breakers, make sure the command was in the right format, make sure the comm link was good, try again.  Nothing.

Looks like you guys are going EVA after all.  Music to a spacewalker’s ears!  So out the door went Jerry and Jay and in a matter of a few minutes they released the antenna and life was good.

As I say, my only interest was whether they were going to get that big rock out of my shuttle payload bay or not.  Not really.  We learned a tremendous amount from Compton. There were more adventures ahead, both for that robotic observatory and for the shuttle on STS-37 — stories for another day.

So, what can we learn?  (There is always a moral to these stories). 

1.  It is good to be prepared.  The tools were ready, the team had practiced, the procedures had been vetted; it all worked smoothly.  I have been in other circumstances where there was a lot of “broken field running” and its not pretty. 

2.  It pays to have a fixit man handy when your complex gizmo has a glitch.  I don’t remember how much Compton cost, we certainly got its worth paid for in scientific data and improvement in understanding of the universe.  We found out a lot about Gamma Ray bursters and where they are (or aren’t).  But all that money would have been wasted if that antenna had been stuck.  Spaceflight is like that.  All or nothing, rarely anything in the middle.



Positive Mental Attitude

“For scientific leadership give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

Shackleton and his men endured two winters in the Antarctic shipwrecked, alone, and without supplies — and they all survived.  When asked how they did it, the men all attributed survival to the attitude of the man they called “the boss.”

Some years ago I took a survival course; the instructor asked us all to guess what might be the most valuable tool to have in a survival situation.  Matches, compass, cell phone, water — all good guesses, but the right answer:  a positive mental attitude.

This is on my mind because about two weeks ago my home was visited by a category 2 hurricane.  We didn’t have it bad at all, a few trees down, fences damaged, power out — but compared to other folks we got by very lightly.  No water damage, no structural damage to our house, no injuries.  Lots of folks had worse and are still suffering.  My family had . . . inconvenience, disruption of normal life, cleanup, and minor repairs. 

But somewhere in all this, especially in the wee hours of  hot and humid airconditionless nights, the voices of despair start in.  Against all rational thought stress and fatigue cause melancholy.  Black thoughts descent and multiply. They suck the life and energy out of you. The good news is that when the day dawns and you count your blessings and feel the companionship of neighbors and friends it gets a lot better. 

Positive mental attitude, without it you are powerless. 

From what I have read, a lot of pioneers suffered bouts of despair and depression.  It is a hard thing to leave home and family and come to a new world of seemingly endless toil, challenges, and dangers.   There were many who couldn’t take it.  Those that did made a better life for all of us.

One of the secrets in Mission Control is that the Flight Director never lets the troops know how worried you are.  They know anyway but pretend not to.  Gene Kranz’s “Failure is Not and Option” is another way to say ‘have a positive mental attitude’.  There have been times when I found this hard to do.  After Columbia the 3 AM demons kept asking if it wasn’t all a waste and worthless.  All those critics who talk about space exploration being a distraction from the important issues got their whacks in during the middle of those dark nights.  It was enough to suck the life right out of you.  But when morning came, the realization of what is right and true and really important is easy to remember. 

If you are to succeed, you must have a positive mental attitude. Sports are the same, Yogi Berra’s famous quotation sums up what it takes to win at baseball:  “Half this game is 90% mental.”  Too true.  A friend and co-worker got sent to one of those fancy business school seminars to round out his education.  An instructor told the class: “Half way through any project, it looks like a failure.”  That also is true.

When I was a young parent leading a volunteer organization for the kids, we ran into a period when we were not having much success.  I blurted out my feelings in an email to all the parents and asked if we should disband the organization.  Within an hour, half the leaders sent me their resignations.  Lesson learned:  leaders must display a positive mental attitude at all times.  Throwing in the towel will guarantee failure.  A positive mental attitude will not guarantee success, but it goes in that direction.

Call me unsophisticated, but I was brought up on Edgar Guest’s poem “It couldn’t be done”.  If you haven’t read it, you need to.

Its important to remember that we are engaged in the greatest adventure of humankind; the noblest endeavor of our age.  It takes a strong mind to remember that the long view triumphs and the critic is soon forgotten.  I am not talking about a foolish pollyana attitude.  But real progress is being made every day.  And we just need to do pay attention to the details of business and keep making it work each day.  That takes positive mental attitude.

Samuel Johnson observed three hundred years ago: “Few things are impossible to diligence and skill.  Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance.”  I like what Babe Ruth said even better:  “Its hard to beat someone who won’t quit.”

I’ll remember that sawing up branches after work this evening.  And tomorrow when we get back to the difficult business of expanding the space frontier.