This Week's Flight Director Story

This has been a busy week so I am behind in making a post.  I’m also distracted with watching tropical weather; living on the coast is nice until hurricane season.  Oh well, that’s life.

One of the more serious assignments that can come to a Flight Director is to be the Lead for a flight.  This means that you are responsible for the overall planning and therefore the success or failure of a particular flight.  I drew this assignment for STS-96 which was the first logistics mission to the newly orbited International Space Station. 

In those days, the ISS consisted of the US build node “Unity” and the Russian built FGB “Zarya”.  There was no crew onboard because the crew quarters — the Russian built “Zvezda” Service Module — had not been launched.  The Functional Energy Block (FGB in Cyrillic) controlled the attitude, maintained the thermal control, generated the power, and generally did almost every function for the uninhabited station while the Unity Node provided a place for the shuttle to dock, someday.

Now, I’m general an Ascent/Entry Flight Director, and I had never dealt with the ISS program or any of the international partners, so this was all new to me.  A “broadening” experience.  Hmm.  I’d always considered the stuff in the payload bay to be useful mainly to control the center of gravity of the orbiter.  Now I had to know what it did and how to use it.

And there was a lot of stuff. In a pressurized module in the payload bay we carried a huge amount of equipment to install inside the new ISS, there was already maintenance to do, and we were bringing food, clothes, medical supplies and other logistics necessary for the first expedition crew who would come in another year or so.  I got acquainted with a whole new cast of folks who work the orbit shifts in the MCC that I never had to deal with before.  I’ll never forget my first meeting with my “transfer specialist.”  I asked her how I should get training on her job.  She asked me if I’d ever moved — that was experience enough.  And while orbital mechanics and rocket science are important, I came to find out that carrying boxes and containers from the “van” (shuttle) to the “house” (ISS) was the most critical and part of the job!

I also got to meet with a lot of Russians and got two trips to Moscow.  Funny, we always met in Moscow in the winter and Houston in the summer.  Seems like we would be smart enough to do it the other way.  Just like the Americans at NASA, I found out that the Russians were made up of a lot of groups of folks who generally worked together but sometimes did not.  Just like at NASA.  We would work closely with the team in the Russian control center (the “TsUP”) who built and operated the FGB.  These guys were all from the Khrunichev “company” (formerly design bureau).  Later on, the Energia “company” would take over.  I found out how closely Energia and Khrunichev worked together.  Almost as well as JSC and MSFC anyway.

The senior Khrunichev Flight Director, Yuri K had lived through WWII, all the bad old days, and was a smart, steady, and well respected senior leader.  His deputy, Yuri B. was about my age and smart as a whip.  Both of them treated me with all the genuine respect I could have expected from any of my American colleagues.  So we started planning.  What did they need to get done, and what did we need to get done and then what did we all need to get done together.  My Russian language skills are non-existent and their English was minimal but we had a really great technical translation team.  I learned to appreciate Russian tea (but not vodka) and they came to like Texas barbeque.  We got a lot of planning done. 

All the basic rules in place, we started training together.  How the simulation team lashed up the shuttle simulator in Houston with the FGB simulator in Russia is still a mystery but it all worked.  The very first simulation was going very well until the actual docking.

The mechanism that joins the shuttle to the station is built by the Russians.  It is extremely robust and reliable.  In actual flight we have never had any major problems but there are certain . . . idiosyncrasies.  Most of which we did not appreciate in the early days.  One of the “design features” are three little capture latches.  These are little spring loaded fingers that remind me a lot of the mechanism that holds my screen door shut.  Three little latches that connect the hundred ton shuttle to the growing station until the much stronger hooks are driven electrically to make a solid union.

So the first simulation proceeded fine up until the point where we were to dock.  Just before docking the Russians had to command the FGB to free drift — turn off its attitude control system.  If they didn’t do that, the shuttle and FGB automatic control systems would fight and burn up a lot of attitude control gas very quickly.  So the Khrunichev team sent the free drift command, the shuttle inched in for a docking and instead of the report from the MMACS officer of “capture”, I heard these words:  “bounce off, flight.”  What did that mean?  It meant that the little capture latches failed and we had met, touched, and bounced away.  Now on the shuttle side that is not a big deal — we still had attitude control, the crew backed away from the station and waited.  On the ISS side, they were out of control and the stack went into a tumble.  Turning back on the FGB attitude control system required many commands and without attitude control the antennas were not pointing properly.  Later we figured out that it would take about a half hour to get control back if we could maintain a command link . . . which we didn’t in that simulation.

Disaster.  The station without attitude control, tumbling, with intermittent communications, and degrading power.

Sim over. 

The debrief was not a happy one.

I set off with my team to develop a set of contingency plans to cover the “bounce off” scenarios.  Turns out that there were several variations on that theme, with different options to recover depending on which scenario that had been encountered.  After about three days work, I pulled together an outline procedure of about twelve pages covering every possible option and scenario.  My team agreed that this was what we needed.  We sent the document to the translators for our Russian colleagues to give us their option.

A day later, I got Yuri B’s take:  “This is a little long, can we condense it?”  Feeling a great deal of the pride of authorship, I replied: “I don’t see how you can but go ahead if you want to.”  No way was that pesky Russian deputy Flight Director going to condense my work!

The next day the translation team gave me Yuri’s input.  He put the whole thing on a 3×5 card.  Even in Cyrillic — which generally takes more space than English — it all fit on a 3×5 card. 

And it was right.  And complete.  And really elegant.  Yuri captured the essence of what I had taken twelve long single space pages to write down and put it on one 3×5 card.

Did I ever learn a lesson that day. 

The flight came, we docked without incident; all the bags and boxes got across the hatch and stowed properly; all the maintenance was done, all the logistics completed, and the flight was a huge success.  We never needed the “bounce off” procedures.  But we were ready if we needed them — all there on a 3×5 card; English on one side, Russian on the other.

So being a lead flight director was a very broadening experience.  I learned that there are a lot of folks on the other side of the ocean that are as passionate about space flight as I am.  I learned that there are at least some folks on the other side of the ocean that are smarter about space flight operations than I am.  I learned that despite language and cultural differences, we can work together successfully.  Yes, that was a very broadening experience. 

And we are still learning.








Friday potporri

Short post today.  We are working on the great bureaucratic task of building briefing books for the new administration’s transition team.  It doesn’t matter which party wins, we have to prepare a concise, yet bureaucratic, set of information to hand them after the election so they will be ready to run the government on January 21.  I’m on the team that is updating the NASA book, in particular the Space Operations Mission Directorate book.  Its the nitty-gritty non-glamorous type of task that every job has.

Meanwhile, I thank everybody who has been helpful in propping up my failing memory.  Here are two corrections:  the SSME nozzle is made up of 1080 individual tubes brazed together, not the 1060 as I wrote in my blog previously (loss of 20 tubes is catestrophic!)  My first assignment as Shuttle Entry Flight Director was STS-31, which landed in the morning, not afternoon, in California.  Sorry for all the detective work that folks put in trying to identify that flight which I incorrectly listed as having been an afternoon landing.  My only excuse is that it always seems like 2 AM inside mission control . . . .

I appreciate the questions that folks send in and wish I could answer them all.  Here is a smattering of responses to comments received over the last couple of weeks.

Are my blogs available in various foreign languages.  No, sorry.  Not likely to happen soon.

To the young person who is interested in O3 at the moon: there is no appreciable atmosphere on the moon, for all intents and purposes it is a vacuum.  O3 is also better known as ozone which is a toxic gas, unsuitable for human breathing.  It would be better if we find water ice at some shadowed crater on the moon and dissassociate the hydrogen and oxygen to make breathable O2.

Why anyone would say that the X-38 CRV “violates the fundamental laws of physics” is beyond me.  It was well on the way to becoming a viable spacecraft.  Although I must point out that they had their issues with parachutes!

Off the track comment:  many folks have been looking at the video of the Orion test parachute failure.  This is probably a good study of the sociology of the web or at least of journalism.  The failure was in the test rig setup, not the actual space flight parachutes.  And there were a dozen successful tests that preceded the one failure.  Nobody has filed a FOIA request for videos of the good tests.  Hmm.

Lean Six Sigma is a management technique that, like many management techniques, was developed for a large production process.  While it is not specifically designed for the small production runs and unique processes that NASA is typcially involved in, there is still a place to take some of those principles and apply them to our processes. 

The shuttle does have an autoland capability built in that would probably work very well.  On STS-53 we were well on the way to performing a flight demonstration of that capability, but the Associate Administrator, Gen. (retired) Jed Pearson, pulled the plug on the test shortly before we performed it.  Like every test there was some risk, and despite our desire to demonstrate this system, Gen. Pearson believed we did not have a need to ever use it.  So, after a lot of work, shuttle autoland has never been tested.  The capability exists, however, and could be used in an emergency. 

I had an interesting discussion with some of the orbital mechanics experts about whether a lunar base at the pole is harder to get to than one at the equator (like the Apollo landing sites).  They did a good job of convincing me that going to the lunar poles is not harder, either from the delta-V standpoint (how much gas it takes) or the scheduling standpoint (how often you can go).  Mid-latitude sites, neither at the poles or at the equator are the hardest. Someday this blog will tackle the mathematics . . .

Finally, somebody asked if I ever dreamed about being an astronaut.  Well, who hasn’t?  It would be great fun.  But genetics ruled that out for me at a young age.  I suppose someday I might get to ride as a passenger on the Pan Am shuttle to the moon, but that is a far cry from the current requirements to be an astronaut.

See you Monday from Washington . . .


Answering the mail

I have been very heartened by the considerable number and thoughtful nature of the comments received to my blog here.  It is really good to know that so many people care so much about space exploration and are willing to think hard and share their ideas with all of us here on what I truly believe is a worthy and noble endeavor.

To all those folks who love the shuttle as I do and have written in to say keep flying the old bird:  my heart is with you but my mind says otherwise.  If I had a magic wand I would wish to keep flying an upgraded, safer shuttle at the same time we build the moon rocket, and hand out multiple incentives to private industry to develop a robust, economical, and efficient space transportation system.  But I don’t have that magic wand and don’t know anybody that does.  (I also have a personal plan to put my big lottery prize to work; but I am not counting on winning as a realistic strategy).

As I said earlier, almost anything is possible giving enough money and time.  We had a really good example of that over the weekend as we all watched Hurricane Gustav come ashore near New Orleans.  Watching those waves splashing over the levee walls was terrifying.  Today we know that the levees protecting New Orleans are good for a category 2 hurricane that comes ashore 50 miles west of there.  Is that good enough?  Not really.  Technically it is possible to devise and implement a defense that would keep New Orleans safe agains a category 5 hurricane — the worst we can imagine.  The question is how much will it cost, how long will it take, and will the country commit the resources to do it?  That’s all.  So vote on your choice:  (a) leave it alone and keep our fingers crossed, (b) raise taxes to pay for improved levees, (c) take the money from some other government spending and send it to New Orleans instead.  That’s about all the choices you get.  Simple, really.

Space exploration is like that.  There are a lot of competing ideas out there.  The leadership of our country has given us a mandate and provided a certain amount of money to get the job done.   We could wish for more resources, more money, but where will that come from.  See above!

If you are concerned about our Russian friends and don’t want to rely on the Soyuz, sorry.  Even if we kept flying the shuttle for an extended period, we would still have to rely on the Soyuz as a lifeboat.  The shuttle does not have the capability to remain at the station for extended periods of time and we really must have a lifeboat.  Wish we had finished the Crew Rescue Vehicle (aka X-38) but the national leadership cancelled that program for budgetary reasons and almost 10 years ago now we knew that we would rely on the Soyuz for the lifetime of the station.  And don’t even think about operating the station without all our international partners.  We are all in this together.  In fact, it is a source of pride and wonder that International Space Station is the largest cooperative program ever undertaken by a large group of international partners.  Wish we could take the lessons learned at ISS on how to work together and get them to apply to other areas!

I am a big fan of all the folks working on commercial, private enterprize solutions to space travel.  The Falcon team especially has earned my respect for their accomplishments.  Those accomplishments have come at a high cost both in financially and in the hours of hard work and stress that team has put in place.  I really hope that their next launch is a total success and the Falcon 9 and the proposed Dragon spacecraft come to fruition.  But I have had a long experience of various proposed spacecraft that never made it, for all too many reasons.  The  bottom line:  somebody somewhere somehow needs to perfect a reliable, economical, reasonably safe way to get people to low earth orbit, where, as Robert Heinlein famously wrote, “in low earth orbit you are half way to anywhere in the universe”.    The Orion and Aries 1 is NASA’s plan, there needs to be others, and there are others in the works.  Just money and time.

If we do decide to fly the shuttle longer — and hopefully that comes with the monetary resources so that our march back to the moon is not delayed — my biggest regret will be the loss of all the safety upgrades we had for the shuttle.  In January 2004 we had a number of projects underway to make the shuttle safer.  When the decision came down to retire the shuttle by 2010, we evaluated all those changes and anything that could not be developed, proven, and implemented in the fleet by 2010 was terminated.  It just didn’t make sense to spend the tax payer’s money on something that would not fly.  My personal favorite was channel wall nozzles for the space shuttle main engines.  If you haven’t seen a slow motion video of those engines starting up you probably sleep better at night.  1060 thin tubes are braze welded together to form the nozzle and it flexes and bends during engine startup.  If the nozzle comes apart, well . . . it would be a bad day.  Channel wall nozzles are much more robust; we had the plan in place to implement them in the fleet by 2011, but not any more.  And if you turn that project back on today, it will be five years later . . .

So I am frankly ambivalent about the retirement of the shuttle.  After working on it for 30 years, I love that old bird and admire its accomplishments and capabilities.  But I also know too well its weaknesses and flaws.  And I came to work at NASA to explore the solar system, not just exploit low earth orbit.  So its time to go on from here. 

But, as always, we can talk about.


I do have one final personal note.  In one of the comments, somebody said I was being “disingenuous”.  Thats a big word but one of the things it means is that I lied.  Actually it means to make a false or hypocritical statement.  Now folks, I take extreme umbrage (another big word) at that.   I can be wrong – and I frequently am.  And my logic may not be sound – guilty on numerous occasions.  And I cannot express my thoughts as coherently as I wish.  But I am not into “spin” and the one thing I will not do is lie to you.  Here or anywhere.  So please don’t call me “disingenuous”. 

Shutting down the shuttle

I believe it was General Norman Schwartzkopf who said:  “Arm chair generals study tactics; real generals study logistics”. 

One of the first lessons I learned in program and project management is that attention to the details of supplies, vendors, and parts manufacturers will determine success or failure more than anything else that management does.  They are not glamorous, Hollywood does not make movies made about them, but logistics and supply chain are the unsung pillars on which every major project rests.

It is nice to have eloquent oratory and high flown philosophical statements, but the real way that real programs are really controlled is through the money.  When the logistics and supply budget is stopped, the program is over.  Momentum and warehoused supplies can carry on for a short period, but when those are exhausted, its time for the museum.

Starting four years ago, the shuttle program in its various projects made “lifetime buys”.  That is, we bought enough piece parts to fly all the flights on the manifest plus a prudent margin of reserves.  Then we started sending out termination letters.  About two years ago, we terminated 95% of the vendors for parts for the external tank project, for example.  Smaller, but still significant, percentages of vendors for SSME, Orbiter, and RSRB have also been terminated.

A lot of things that go into the shuttle build up are specialty items.  Electronics parts that nobody makes any more (1970’s vintage stuff).  Hey, if it works, why invest money in certifying new parts?  Certifying new ones would be even more costly!  Specialty alloys to meet the extraordinary demands of space flight, parts that are made by Mom and Pop shops mostly in the LA basin are norm rather than the exception.  You might think that simple things like bolts and screws, wire, filters, and gaskets could be bought off the shelf some where, but that thinking would merely prove how little you know about the shuttle.  The huge majority of supplies, consumable items, maintenance items, they are all specially made with unique and stringent processes and standards. 

Our shuttle history tells us that when we try to cut corners, trouble results.  Small, even apparently insignificant changes have caused big problems.  For example, the unheralded end of production of a solvent caused enormous complications for the SRB folks a few years back when things started falling apart unexpectedly.  It took a huge engineering detective effort to determine that small chemical changes in the new solvent were the culprit.  Anything coming apart in the SRB is not good.  There are hundreds of similar examples.

There is a long and arduous process to certify a vendor to produce the logistical parts for the shuttle.  Not many companies do this work.  Almost all of them are extraordinarily proud of the role they play in America’s space program.  A lot of them have been there from the beginnings in the middle 1970s.  So when a Mom and Pop specialty shop gets a termination letter from the shuttle program after 35 years of production and they have other customers, guess what happens?  Mom and Pop decide to close the shop, pension off their highly skilled workers, and then Mom and Pop move out of LA to their retirement cottage in the mountains or at the sea shore.

A lot of this has been happening over the last four years; most of it over two years ago.

So, just for the sake of argument, lets see what would happen if somehow we decided to fly the shuttle some more flights?

From time to time a vendor of specialty parts for the shuttle has gone out of business.  Our experience then is that we have immense problems getting anybody to even bid on making replacement items.  Sometimes, with hat in hand, we have to knock on doors.  Always, we have to offer premium payments to get those exotic, small production run parts made.

Given time and money, anything is possible.  But we are always short on time and money.  Life seems to be like that. 

To take one little example:  if we started today to build another external tank at MAF, there are probably enough parts on the shelf.  But very shortly we would exhaust supplies of some parts.  Maybe on the second tank — which we need to start in 3  months or so — would have to get a new supply of specialty parts.  Sometimes the old vendor is still there and could be persuaded to make more of the old parts.  But in many cases, a new vendor would have to be found.  Since the production run would be small, a premium price would have to be paid; and a certification effort requiring 6 to 12 months would start.  Initial production likely would have a number of rejects as the workers learn the process.  Hmm.  In probably 15 to 18 months would would have the parts to build that second tank — only a year or so later than we needed them.  So a new gap would form.  Not between shuttle and orion but between shuttle and shuttle.

And what would we get:  even higher price per flight of an old technology which is not nearly as safe as we would like . . .

Hey, I am the biggest shuttle hugger there is.  I think it is the best spacecraft ever built.  But I also deal in the real world.

Where does the money come from?  Where do the people — who should be working on the moon rocket — where do they come from?

We started shutting down the shuttle four years ago.  That horse has left the barn. 




Monday – Another Flight Director Story

NASA has the best weather forecasters in the world.  Both the Spaceflight Meterology Group – who produce landing weather forecasts for all the shuttle landing sites all around the world – and the USAF 45th Weather Squadron – who produce the launch weather forecasts for all the launch operations at the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station — are the best.  Not only do they make forecasts every day and every hour of the year, but they actually check to see if the forecast was accurate, and keep score.  And their forecasts are really micro-forecasts — exactly what will happen at the launch pad or at the runway; not a general area forecast, which is much tougher. 

America has lost a number of space launch vehicles over the years due to poor weather decision — Atlas/Centaur-76 is the case study example — and the weather community is striving to make sure that we never lose another. 

I’ve talked about the shuttle landing before, and you know it is the toughest decision that a Flight Director ever makes.  The shuttle gets only one shot and it has to be right.  The FD goal is to provide the shuttle commander acceptable weather — not perfect or the shuttle would never land.  The decision has to be made an hour and a half before landing.  There have been some long waits between the deorbit burn and landing. 

Early on, the shuttle was supposed to have jet engines so, among other reasons, it could fly multiple approaches or divert to different runways.  However, the weight of the orbiter in the design phase kept growing, from 150,000 pounds empty to 200,000 pounds and more.  And the ops guys kept asking (as they always do) “what if the engines don’t start during entry, don’t we have to protect against that situation?”  So fairly early on, the jet engines, the fuel tanks, and all that stuff got deleted from the design.  So the orbiter is the world’s heaviest and only hypersonic glider.  One shot at landing is all the commander gets. 

The auto landing capability that was built into the shuttle is not perfect.  It could work, if necessary, but engineering analysis shows that there are more times than we would like where the auto landing system would fail.  On a commercial jetliner, this is accommodated by an auto go-around feature.  But then the shuttle . . . well, see the paragraph above.

So the commander flies the vehicle on final through touchdown and rollout.  Visual cues are very important even though there are electronic navigation aids, a head-up display, and all sorts of redundancy.  But being able to see the runway and the PAPI lights are mandatory.  With the steep approach required by the brick like flying qualities of the shuttle, a minimum altitude of 8,000 feet to see the PAPI lights is required (for end of mission in the daylight — different rules apply to other situations).  (OK, PAPI stands for Precision Approach Pilot Indicator — four lights which show white at a certain angle and red if you are below that angle).

Mother Nature, of course, makes this difficult.  There are these things called “clouds”.  One meterologist called them “hydro-meteors”.  Occasionally these “clouds” have been known to obscure the navigation aids.  Since there are almost always some clouds in the sky below 8,000 feet, long studies were undertaken to determine how many clouds below the limit constitute a violation.  See what I mean by giving the commander acceptable – not perfect – weather?  After many approaches in the training aircraft, long arguments, a decision was finally reached:  if the clouds obscured 50% or more of the area, that was no-go, if it was less than 50% then it is go because the commander could see the “runway environment”.

STS-53 was a “classified” mission but what happened at landing is not secret.  In fact several things happened on that landing so it could be grist for more than one story, but today I’m going to talk about the weather.  We wanted to land at KSC – saves the ferry flight with its expense and risk and it saves a week or more of time.  So we started looking at KSC. 

On the particular day in question there was a front coming through Florida – not unusual.  Associated with this were low overcast (100%) clouds – at 3,000 feet the bases of the clouds would clearly violate the landing rules, if they got to the Shuttle Landing Facility.  On the satellite photos it looked like there was a ruler running diagonally across the peninsula:  north and west were socked in and south and east were crystal clear.  Weather at the SLF all during the deorbit preparation was perfect: no wind, crystal clear skies, beautiful.  Just that threat.  The inexorably approaching line of low overcast clouds that would block the commander’s view of the field and the all important PAPIs until the last minute — actually last 20 or so seconds — before landing.  Much too late.  Very scientifically our weather forecasters plotted the approach and predicted that the clouds would cover the SLF about a half hour before orbital mechanics would allow the shuttle to arrive there.

So we turned our attention towards Edwards AFB in the high desert of California.  Perfect weather there.  Virtually no clouds, winds were reasonably low, everything was good to go.  Except one cloud.  There was one cloud hovering over the PAPI lights on the approach and its base was 3,000 feet.  The astronaut pilot flying reconnaissance in the Shuttle Training Aircraft reported that all was go with the exception of that one cloud. 

Well, it met our criteria; clearly less than 50% of the area was obscured; in fact probably 90%+ of the area was crystal clear.  And in an hour and a half, there is no way that cloud would remain there.  I gave a GO for deorbit.  The astronaut in the STA had a conniption:  in his opinion it was clearly no go.  We had a short discussion (see above).  I reiterated my GO to the crew.  The deorbit burn happened on time for the EDW landing. 

Want to guess what happened in the next hour? 

In defiance of all the known laws of nature, the front threatening Florida stalled out well northeast of KSC.  The KSC center director and his technical staff were later shown on the runway at what would have been the landing time pointing up at clear blue sky.  It would have been a perfect day to land in Florida.

In defiance of all the known laws of nature, the one cloud in the sky at Edwards air force base not only did not move but stayed exactly where it was and grew a bit.  Still technically within limits, it totally obscured the line of sight for the PAPIs and the runway threshold.

As the Commander later debriefed “we never saw the PAPIs or the runway until we broke out at 3,000 feet.  Somebody has some ‘splaining to do”

That would be me.

The landing was a good one; all the electronic navigation aids backed up the visual ones and the commander touched down on speed and on distance.  Hey, any landing you can walk away from is a good one.  If you can fly the machine again, as the saying goes, it was a great landing. 

I stand by my initial statement, we have the best weather forecasters in the world.  But you can’t fool Mother Nature.  No wonder Flight Directors get gray or bald . . .



Lots of talk these days about Shackleton crater at the South Pole of the Moon.  Many reasons why a base could be located there.  The smart guys tell us that it is likely water ice exists in dark parts of the craters near the pole; and on the rims of those self-same craters the sunlight is continuous.  Since almost all of the lunar surface is in darkness for half of the month, the rare location which has continuous sunlight is wonderful resource because it greatly enables power generation.  There are lots of reasons to consider having a lunar base at the poles.

Studying on lunar geography put me in mind of old Ernest Shackleton, who is honored by having a significant crater named for him.  There are several excellent biographies out on Ernest, and his book “South” is still in print.  There are many lessons from his life that all good explorers should learn.  in fact, historian Jack Stuster has written an excellent book which extracts lessons from polar exploration which are applicable to space exploration. 

It is worthwhile to consider Shackleton’s exploits.  He wanted to participate in the great polar explorations at the beginning of the 20th century.  He worked with many of the luminaries of the great age of polar exploration.  Shackleton did not get to go on the first expeditions to the south pole — probably a good thing since his mentor, Robert Falcon Scott, and his team perished in the attempt.  After Amundsen’s expedition made the first trip to 90 degrees south, Shackleton started fundraising for an expedition to cross Antarctica from coast to coast via the pole.  Unfortunately the voyage went very wrong: his ship, the Endurance, was caught in the ice far from shore, carried the wrong way, eventually crushed in the ice.  Shackleton and his men were forced into a survival situation where they lived off the land (this is antarctica, remember) for almost two years.  After an epic sea voyage in a small open boat, the party was rescued.  They all survived.  Truly amazing.  If you want a superb case study in leadership, go to Shackleton.

But Ernest never made it to the south pole, he got within 97 miles of the pole on his closest attempt and had to turn back.  Shackleton died of a heart attack several years after the Endurance experience, just as he was mounting yet another polar expedition.

If you look at a lunar map, they are all there, near the poles:  Shackleton, Scott, Peary, Henson, Amundsen, Byrd, Nansen, even Franklin; they have all been honored.  And it would do well for us to understand their history, the successes and the failures, the good plans and the bad, as we consider going to their namesake landmarks, a quarter million miles away.

Not all exploration trips are successful.  Even worse, not all of them are wise.  We need to study especially those which were failures because, frankly, you learn more from failure than from success.  Success stories always sound inevitable; easy; pre-ordained.  Success in a difficult endeavor is never inevitable.  As my friend Lucy Kranz occasionally reminds her father, “Failure really is an option.”

A cautionary tale worth your study is told by Robert Ruby in his book “Unknown Shore”.  I highly recommend it.  Martin Frobisher, who later became famous in England along with Francis Drake for keeping the Spanish Armada at bay, lead an expedition in 1576 to what we know now as Baffin Island.  On his return, Frobisher’s backers became desperate to justify the voyage.  They took rocks collected from Baffin Island to four assayers.  Three of them reported that these were just rocks, not particularly valuable.  The fourth assayer reported that the rocks were rich ore bearing a high concentration of gold.  Of the four assayers and their reports, which one do you think they listened to?  The one who said there was gold in the rocks, of course!  Three more voyages were made to return more rocks; lives were lost, ships sank, natives were abducted, fortunes were spent, and the rocks turned out to be . . . just rocks.  Not gold. 

There are adventures which benefit mankind; there are adventures which rekindle the human spirit; there are adventures which bring glory, fame, honor, and even useful resources as their outcome.  But not all adventures end that way.  Some are pointless, some are inglorious, some are fruitless. 

I believe that space exploration is the noblest endeavor of our age.  It uplifts the human spirit, encourages scholarship, improves the economy, enhances our understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe.  In the long term, space exploration – utilization, exploitation, and colonization – will no doubt save and transform humankind.

But in the near term we need to be careful in our zealousness not to describe space exploration as a panacea to every problem humans have encountered.  We will maintain credibility and help the cause only when we are truthful, accurate, and firmly grounded.  Let’s avoid hyperbole and glittering inaccuracies as we reach for the stars.

Meanwhile, I hope to see you one day at the lunar base on the rim of Shackleton crater where we can reminisce about the courage of our astronauts who got us there and the foresight of the leaders who pointed us there.

Ad astra


Enlightenment Begins

Thanks for letting me extend my vacation a bit to catch up on all the accumulated work that found its way to my desk. 

I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share a couple of pictures from my vacation, especially since they play into this posting.

Athena falls at Rocky Mountain National Park Emerald lake at Rocky Mountain National Park

Sometimes I completely believe that the invention of the National Park is the best thing that America has ever done.  But then I realize that the opportunity to get away from the ordinary, into the natural world, is truly meaningful.

You can really believe that “Enlightenment begins where the pavement ends”!

Ok, I’ll confess, that is a slogan that was printed on a T-shirt I saw on the trail.

But the more I thought about it, the less kitschy it becomes and the truer it sounds.

Going somewhere you have not been before, getting out of the ordinary, seeing new things — all these start your thought processes in new ways. 

Returning to work, I have attended two different conferences on innovation that the agency has sponsored.  How do you innovate? How can people creatively find solutions to problems?   We had plenty of case studies and examples; some good and some not so good.  One principle stood out:  creative solutions come from unexpected places and generally from people who have a variety of different experiences.  If you look to people who all have the same background, all have the same problem solving skills, and all have the same life experiences then expect to get similar reactions to a challenge, and a very limited set of potential solutions.  To get a diverse, innovative solution set, it is important to go where not many have been, to experience life in ways that the average folks haven’t, and then to recognize and utilize these insights.

A frontier is a place where innovation is fostered.  The old cliche’ is “Necessity is the mother of invention”.  True, true.  And nowhere is there more “necessity” than on a frontier, a long way from the tried, true, and comfortable. 

Jules Verne wrote an interesting introduction to his book “From the Earth to the Moon”.  It smacks of 19th century nationalism, but listen to it anyway:  “The Yankees, the first mechanicians in the world, are engineers– just as the Italians are musicians and the Germans metaphysicians– by right of birth”

Nowadays, of course, there are plenty of Yankee musicians and metaphysicians, and the Italians and Germans make pretty good engineers, along with the Chinese and Indians.  But why would Jules Verne say that?  And why would the world embrace that?  There must be some basic truth there.  Invention was the glory of 19th century America.  Innovative solutions to the problems posed by a New World, the frontier, or the distance to other more advanced technology centers (like Europe) drove American innovation and creativity. 

Space is a frontier.  Space exploration (and exploitation) requires ingenuity in the face of new challenges: distance to technology centers (like earth!), lack of resources (air, water), and new and different resources to be understood harnessed (microgravity, vacuum).  I wonder how life on Earth will be affected by the discoveries and innovations of the 21st century and the new “frontier imperative”. 

You can learn a lot where the pavement ends.  I cam personally recommend at least one place in Colorado where the pavement ends at 12,000 ft MSL.  But there is no pavement on the moon, either. 


A lot to be learned out there.



Two weeks

Don’t look for an update to my blog or any new posts for the next two weeks.  We’re off on vacation and I won’t be electronically connected.  I hope to come back with new inspiration!

Science on the Moon

This will have to be short today, I’m on the run headed from Ames to JSC.

The Lunar Science conference at Ames exceeded beyond the organizers dreams; twice as many people came as they had planned for.  Almost all were scientists and researchers from around the world with new scientific questions about the moon and proposals on how to gather more data. 

In short, if anybody asks “what more can we learn from the moon?”  The answer is “A WHOLE LOT”. 

After the scientific conference concluded, another set of meetings with representatives from 9 nations started.  Every one of these nations has serious plans to send robotic spacecraft to the moon in the next few years.  At the conclusion of this meeting, all parties signed a letter of intention setting up something called the International Lunar Network.  We all agreed to exchange scientific data, to work together on selection of scientific instruments that would complement each other’s work, and on communications protocols.  This was like a mini UN session!  Wow. 

This is the second age of lunar exploration and we are witnessing the start of it.  Great things are in the wings and exciting times lie ahead!

Monday – Time for another true story

The Space Shuttle is the only manned winged vehicle to fly hypersonically.  I have seen it fly almost directly overhead at Mach 15 – extraordinarily impressive.  No other flying machine comes close.  But the price to fly at hypersonic speeds is the subsonic L/D, near landing approaches the aerodynamics of the common brick (L/D is the ratio of lift to drag, one of the most important properties of any flying machine).  Which is to say, the shuttle comes down fast; its glideslope on final approach is 7 times steeper than a commercial airliner.  Think dive bomber.  And the pilot only gets one chance to get it right.  No go-around capability. 


The number one job of the Entry Flight Director is to make sure the Commander has the very best situation for landing.  No, that’s not right; if we were to wait for the very best situation the flights would have to be a lot longer than they are.  No, the number one job of the Entry Flight Director is to make sure the Commander has an adequate situation for final approach and landing.  Defining the dividing line between an unacceptable situation and marginally adequate situation takes about 25 pages of Flight Rules.  The worst part about this whole thing is it revolves around the weather.  Or more precisely – and even worse – the weather forecast. 


The law of conservation of energy means that all the energy that went into getting the shuttle from the launch pad to earth orbit must be removed to get the shuttle from earth orbit to wheelstop on the runway.  99.8 % of the energy is taken out by air friction – which is why it gets really hot during re-entry.  Any glider pilot will tell you that making a good landing is all about energy management.  Energy management on the shuttle is particularly complex.  Stay with me now.  This is rocket science.


After deorbit and throughout entry you always want to keep just a tad more energy than you need to get to the runway, but not too much or you will overshoot the runway and plop down in the middle of nowhere without a runway in sight – considered to be poor form.


The band between too much energy and not enough energy gets tighter and tighter as the shuttle approaches the runway.  Like baby bear, you want don’t want to be too hot or too cold, but just right.  The tail of the shuttle acts as a conventional rudder but also splits down the middle to make what is called a “speed brake” or in pilot speak: the “boards.”  As the speed brake opens up, the shuttle will slow down faster and faster.  The minimum (closed) is 15% — don’t ask why, it’s a long story.  At settings of the “boards” about 60%, the handling qualities for the pilot degrade.


Periodically before the predicted landing time, balloons are launched near the runway and tracked up to 50,000 feet altitude or so.  This gives a profile of wind speed and direction.  This information is fed into a computer program which assumes the shuttle is flown perfectly and it computes all kinds of interesting results.  Among the most important results are predicted speedbrake setting on final approach and the predicted touchdown location on the runway.  The touchdown target is 2,500 feet past the painted threshold stripe on the runway.


The shuttle touches more than twice as fast as a commercial airliner, 205 knots for heavy weight returns and 195 knots for lighter weight returns when the payload bay is empty.  Only slightly faster and the tires will come apart.  Not very much slower and the tail will drag before the wheels touch down.   


So there I was, the rookie Entry Flight Director, in charge on my very first shuttle entry.  Watching the weather, sweating, over-caffinated, about to be sick to my stomach, but radiating calm confidence to my team.  In other words, it was just like every other time I was in charge at the Flight Director console.


I had studied all the previous shuttle entries, knew all the procedures by heart, had all the rules memorized, and had watched several previous landings sitting right beside an experienced Entry Flight Director.  The secret is, of course, that no two landings are alike, and I was about to learn that the hard way.


It was a windy day at Edwards AFB.  All real test pilots like to fly early in the morning before the winds build up.  Shuttle landing times are determined by orbital mechanics and this was going to be an afternoon landing.  Stiff winds started blowing hours before landing and the forecast for surface wind speed was just below the limit.  No other runway would do, only the big concrete runway that runs in a southwesterly direction, straight into the prevailing winds.


The onboard computed guidance which the Commander would be following would try to get the shuttle to a landing 2,500 feet down the runway at 195 knots; the speedbrake would be automatically adjusted accordingly.  With the winds that were measured aloft, the computer model predicted that even with the speedbrake closed (15% — not dissipating any excess energy) would come up short on the minimum distance past the threshold allowed by the rules, 1000 ft.  Now, at the very end game, a pilot can trade airspeed for lift and thus distance down the runway.  The rule of thumb is 10 knots of airspeed difference results in around 1000 ft of distance along the runway.  If you land 10 knots too fast, touchdown will be short by 1/5 mile.  If the pilot stretches the landing by holding off until the airspeed reads 10 knots lower, the tires will hit the pavement about 1/5 mile farther down.


The crew is ready to return, all the other parameters are GO, just that pesky wind and short touchdown prediction.  I checked with the weather man; conditions were predicted to be worse later in the day and unacceptable tomorrow.  


Time to go to the coffee pot and think this over.  It is a myth to believe that all the important decisions are made at the Flight Director console or maybe in some conference room down the hall.  All the really important decisions in Mission Control are made by the coffee pot in the hall right outside.  Lots of ex-Flight Directors and other management types seem to show up when the Flight Director on duty stops by for a cup.  Lots of good advice can be had there.  On this particular day, the place was deserted.  Nobody to help.  Well, back to the console, the clock is ticking.


The Flight Dynamics Officer points out that there is an exception in the rules; for a lightweight orbiter, landing at 10 knots slower – at 185 rather than 195 knots – with a predicted touchdown at 1000 or more feet past the threshold is considered adequate.  By making that adjustment in the computer model, with the balloon measured winds, the prediction is touchdown at 1100 feet with 185 knots and CLOSED SPEEDBRAKE.  No energy reserves other than that 1100 feet back to the start of the runway.  Any EXPERIENCED Entry Flight Director would have seen warning flags all over this!  


But, I was a rookie.  All the flight rule criteria is met – GO FOR DEORBIT!


During the hour between the deorbit burn (no turning back now) and landing, the winds got stronger.  They got stronger on the surface and the balloons showed the winds increasing aloft.  There was nothing we could do about it but tell the Cmmander.  He did not sound happy when he acknowledged the call.  The Capcom stopped making eye contact with me.  


Mission control can do a lot of things, but it can’t make the wind blow less.  


The landing looked great on TV.  You can’t tell on the video where the touchdown spot was.  A good landing and the crew was healthy.  I was feeling good about life.  The tag line on all the news reports was that the shuttle landed safely.  As far as the public knew it was all routine and there had been no danger.  My stomach stopped doing flip flops.


A couple of hours later, I got THE PHONE CALL.  The commander was NOT HAPPY.  As I’ve told you before, it is never a good thing to have a commander who is NOT HAPPY.  He thought he wasn’t going to make it to the runway.  He really had to stretch to make it over the threshold.  Just what did I think I had been doing to put him in that situation?  I had a low moment.


The next day the official numbers came in.  The rubber marks where the main gear tires kissed the runway were 1176 feet past the threshold.  Yeah!  That is OK!  But wait, further down the form, the speed of touchdown was 176 knots.  Oh no!  Not 195 knots which is the standard target or even the 185 knots special exception, the shuttle touched down at 176 knots!  The Commander really did have to stretch it out.  The computer models did the math: if touchdown had been at the target speed of 195 knots, the wheels would have hit the ground 130 feet BEFORE THE RUNWAY THRESHOLD.  Not good.


There are a lot of things in space flight that can kill you.  Having a rookie Flight Director is one of them.  If you ever get assigned to a space flight, check to see who is sitting in the big chair in mission control before you agree to go.  If it’s their first flight, or maybe even their third, you may want to ask for a ticket on another flight.


Oh, and that wasn’t the worst thing that I ever did to a commander on landing.  But that’s another story for another day.