Building the Railroad to Space





As a young boy I was enthralled by the stories of building the first transcontinental railroad.  I still have the picture book from my school days which is full of black and white photos from 1868-9.  As an engineer, I am fascinated with the period locomotives, the rolling stock, the tunnels, the bridges.  As a program manager, I have an abiding interest in the logistics, the planning, and the execution of a project of such magnitude.

 Building the Transcontinental Railroad in 1868

So I was terribly surprised several years ago when I read my first “adult” history of the building of the transcontinental railroad.  Written by serious and professional historians, leaving behind the halcyon accounts which are carefully sanitized for young readers, I was surprised to find that the great achievement was not what I had been taught in my youth.  Yes, these serious histories told about surveying the route, building trestles over prairie coulees, digging tunnels through the Sierra Nevada, bridging the Green River, organizing the logistics of the work for record breaking track laying.  Yes, that was all there, but those herculean efforts were mere sidelights, incidental to the real story. 



Because the real story was about . . .  the money.




Everybody knew that railroad technology in the late 1860’s was fully capable to traverse the continent.  There was no question that rail travel from the eastern states to California was desirable.  The problem was the business case; the return on investment.


Do you see the parallels with today? 


Starting as early as 1827, railroad development in America was subsidized by government.  This followed the tradition of government subsidies to road builders and canal diggers.  Blame it on the city of Baltimore who was the first to devote public funds to the B&O Railroad (Baltimore and Ohio – yes, it’s on the monopoly board!).  In ’27 and ’28 the city invested the unimaginable sum of $1.5 million dollars.  It took more infusions of money and almost 20 years before the railroad reached Wheeling, West Virginia.  In my research it is unclear if the B&O ever really made it to Ohio. 


This sort of story happened all over the United States.  Cities and State governments poured money into the railroads.  Not always to good effect, one might note.  But it helped, in a major way, to develop the rail transportation system that is still in use today.  The Federal government lent a hand by donating almost 25 million acres, by 1850, to be used to subsidize railroad building.


So when the transcontinental railroad was proposed, the only real question was whether it would be profitable enough to pay back the capital investment which would be required for its construction.  The business establishment quickly came to a negative conclusion.


So the Federal government had to step in and offer incentives and subsidies.  For example, the government provided to the builders a subsidy of $16,000 per mile of track laid (more if the terrain were mountainous).  And when the railroad was complete, the Federal government provided many sections of land (a section is one mile square) alongside the right of way.  Actually for ten miles either side of the track the land was surveyed into a checkerboard pattern with alternating squares given to the railroad as a subsidy and alternating sections retained by the Federal government. 


The technology was ready, the need was there, and with the subsidies the project took off.  The rest, as they say, is history.


So we should learn from this, right?  If we want the nation to have a “railroad to space” we should take this lesson from history and apply it today.  Perhaps it is not so important to argue about the configuration of the rocket or the exact parameters that its design must meet as it is to understand the financing and the provision that the government has to make to get a new industry started.


Hey, I’m just a government bureaucrat; I don’t know how business really works.  But this money thing seems really important to investors.  Maybe we should pay some attention to that, too.


I don’t know how incentives may work this time.  Clearly we don’t have land to give away along the road to space.  Does it involve tax breaks for investments in commercial human space services?  I don’t know.  But we need to give that as much thought as we give to the engineering standards and requirements.


In the final analysis, the Federal government made more money from land sales (all those sections near the right of way became very valuable) than the Federal government provided in subsidies.  In fact, one of the provisions was that Federal officials and military troops would travel for free on the transcontinental railroad; the Federal government “cost avoidance” in free travel for its military more than paid for the railroad subsidy.  So from a taxpayer standpoint it was a great investment!


And even more importantly, the railroads tied the nation together.  Rapid, reliable, economical transportation fueled American’s economy in vast and profound ways.  The galvanizing affect of doing something “that could not be done” gave the young nation a sense of pride and an example of what innovation and hard work could accomplish.


But the history lesson is not complete.  (Did you expect a rosy ending?)


Both the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific were in bankruptcy within 5 years of the completion of the transcontinental railroad.  New management adopted draconian business tactics to make the railroads profitable:  this gave rise to the “Robber Barons” of the “Gilded Age”.  And the railroads, especially the Central Pacific, invented that quaint practice that we call “lobbying”.  Yes, an entire additional “industry” was added to the national economy; this one centered in the District of Columbia.  You can make your own judgment about the value that lobbying has brought to the nation.


Finally, there was the Credit Mobilier scandal.  Many of the politicians which had to approve the subsidies for the transcontinental railroad bought stock in the railroad companies – or were given stock for their votes.  Money changed hands in ways that would be illegal today.  The resulting scandals went on for 40 years.  As one historian remarked, it took until all the politicians of 1870 had died before the mess was cleaned up. 


So we need to learn from that, too.  Hopefully the law will prevent those kinds of excesses from occurring.  Hopefully.


Anyway, when you hear folks talk about building a new industry, think about the business case. 


And what incentives the government may have to provide to get that industry to take off. 




NASA's KSC railroad Engine #1

One tenth of one percent of anything





“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

          Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 5

We really like to believe we have got it all figured out.  We feel that we know most everything.  Ask anybody on the street and they can tell you exactly how the world works.  We are sure of our place in it.  We have it all figured out, just like they taught us in school.


In Shakespeare’s most profound play there are several singular and remarkable statements about who we are and exactly how much we really know.  Horatio and Hamlet are students at the University of Wittenberg, at least before certain troubles called them home.  Horatio studies science – what they called in those days “natural philosophy”.  Like all good students of science, he believes that the universe is well understood and we know our place in it.  Hamlet is not so certain; you can almost hear his sarcasm as he tells his friend (in modern terms) “Your science doesn’t begin to understand the universe”.  The bard puts it more memorably, of course. 


In Shakespeare’s time, or Hamlet’s, the future was unimaginable.  Life and technology was not very different from the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  There was not even the expectation that change was possible.  But a revolution was lurking, because “natural philosophers” (scientists) were finding out that just a little more about how the universe works. 


Copernicus and Kepler built on the observations of Tycho Brahe and found that we were not the center of the universe; other planets revolved around the sun, and so do we.  This improved understanding of the universe, plus maybe a falling apple, inspired Newton to formulate new laws of science.  Laws that became the basis of a technological and social revolution:  steam power and the industrial revolution.  Shakespeare, Hamlet, the ancient Greeks and Romans could not imagine steam engines, railways, and the industry of the 18th and 19th centuries.  But those changes can be directly mapped from a better understanding of the universe.

In the midst of the industrial revolution, everyone was certain, just like Horatio, that we perfectly understood our place in the cosmos and the laws that govern the universe.  But William and Caroline Herschel made astounding observations of the universe that once more changed our understanding of where we are.  We live in a galaxy of other stars; the Milky Way is not merely a glowing cloud but what we have come to call a galaxy, an island universe.  And once again, we were surprised to find that humanity is not at the center of it.  Herschel did more, discovering something we now call infrared radiation.    Nobody knew what those discoveries meant and where they would lead, or if indeed they would lead anywhere.  It took James Clerk Maxwell in a later century to discover the laws of physics that were evident only after the Herschel’s observations inspired wonder.   Newton’s laws did not explain everything, it seems.  Maxwell’s laws opened the veil of the universe a little bit more.

In the 19th century we thought we knew everything.  But radio, television, and the applications of electricity were unimaginable.  Only after Maxwell’s laws were put to work did amazing new industries that were previously inconceivable come into being.  The first American Nobel Prize winner (in Physics) Albert A. Michelson observed in 1894:  “Our future discoveries must be looked for in the 6th decimal place.”  And the director of the US Patent office famously lobbied for the dissolution of his agency since all possible practical inventions had already been discovered.

Don’t laugh at them; they have good company.  We are in that company today.

Shortly thereafter, Edwin Hubble started making observations with the new Hooker Telescope on Mount Wilson and observed astounding facts.  There are other galaxies.  And we are not at the center of them.  And they are moving at incredible speeds.  Around the same time, a Swiss patent office clerk, inspired by the observations of the universe around us, postulated new physical laws.  In 1900 nobody could conceive of digital electronics, computers, and their infinite variations; these inventions were literally unimaginable.  After all we knew everything there was to know, what else could there be? 

Now, of course, we know everything about the universe.  All the laws of nature have been discovered and published by Einstein, Maxwell, and Newton.  All the possible industries have been invented.  Probably time to think about closing the patent office again.

But wait. 

Hubble’s namesake has made some very troubling observations.  Almost impossible to understand.  Observations that don’t fit with the laws of Newton, Maxwell, or even Einstein.  Not only are we not at the center of the universe, but we don’t even know what the universe is.  Turns out that all our observations, all our patient learning, has been made looking at only about 5% of the universe.  Dark matter and dark energy and something that is accelerating the motions of the galaxies are at work; 95% of the universe is both unobserved and not understood.  Some cosmologists even believe there are complete other universes in dimensions we just can’t quite see. 

Where does this go?  Who will explain it to us?  When will the next Newton, Maxwell, or Einstein appear?  Unfortunately serendipity does not arrive on a precise schedule.  Great leaps in human understanding of the universe are not predictable in their occurrence.  Genius does not punch a time clock.  But one thing is true; we have to first understand that we don’t understand.  Then someone will be inspired to figure it out.  Probably she or he is out there today, working on the equations, getting ready to publish the paper that will win the Nobel Prize.  Or it may be a century or two.  Whenever it happens, it will come because we were willing to observe, explore, question. 

What will it mean? 

Only one prediction can be made with certainty:  we have no idea.  There is no way we can predict what that next level of understanding of the universe will bring.  There is no way to imagine the industries that will result.  There is no way to imagine what our great grandchildren’s lives will be like.  No way.

Could Shakespeare and Horatio have imagined the internet? 

That is where we are. 

Why do I write about this?  Because we must keep the search for knowledge going.  Where it leads I don’t know, but every leap had lead to better lives for all mankind.  If we don’t continue to search, to observe, to explore, we will cease to innovate, cease to grow, and start to die.

As the great American inventor Thomas Alva Edison once observed:  “We don’t know one tenth of one percent of anything.”  Better keep the patent office open.

So will we fly someday to the stars?  Einstein says never.  But what does a patent office clerk know?  I’d subscribe to Robert Goddard’s sunny optimism in his valedictory address:

“It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today, and the reality of tomorrow.”




High Culture and Spaceflight

Last week’s post with a pop-culture (movie) quotation generated a lot of response.  Frankly, I am a bit embarrassed by the using such a “low” form of reference.  So this week I’ll start with a high brow reference:

 Picture from ISS yesterday (3/29/2010)

Tennyson’s Ulysses (1842):


            Come, my friends,

‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows, for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew



Almost all of us suffered through some exposure to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey during our school days.  Those works are considered to be classics of western literature, and even after 2,500 years Odysseus’ (or Ulysses’) travels can still stir the imagination.  Tennyson was moved to update the tale in the 19th century and his work also ranks in the classics. 


In the passage quoted above, Odysseus/Ulysses entices his friends to accompany him on a new adventure, one of exploration and discovery.  This is the original version of the “flexible path” since there are any number of destinations:  “a newer world”, and the “baths of the western stars” which lie “beyond the sunset.”   He intends for his crew to row (“smite the sounding furrows”) to the land of the dead (“the Happy Isles”) to see those departed from this life (“the great Achilles, whom we knew”).  This voyage to continue “until I die”. 


This sort of stuff has attracted adolescents since, well, time immemorial.  No clear destination   just go.  No clear timeline — just go now and it should never end.  No commercial gain, no practical end, just a journey.  In fact, it is the journey, not the destination, which is the purpose. 


Sorta like “second star to the right, and straight on till morning” – another literary allusion. 


What part of the human psyche is not attracted to this romantic vision? 


So it has been for me.  When I signed on to NASA’s payroll, I thought that we would do this shuttle thing for a few years, maybe build a space station, and then we would be off to the Moon and Mars and all the other places in the solar system.  Sometime after that maybe somebody would invent a way to travel to the stars and I could be involved in that, too.  Maybe it was watching too much Star Trek, Star Wars, reading Robert Heinlein; but it also certainly involved too much Homer and his Odysseus. 


Circumstances have turned out somewhat different than I expected.  Not that it hasn’t been a great adventure, it’s just that we haven’t gotten very far “beyond the sunset” in over 30 years of trying.  Somewhere along the way, I’ve tried to not grow up. 


Time for something new, I suppose. 


Lots of folks believe that they can invent/develop/complete new ways to “smite the furrows” of space.  It may be harder than they expect.  On the other hand, maybe there are new tricks that old dogs haven’t yet learned that will revolutionize space travel.  Certainly we need that.


Since I started with a ‘high brow’ literary reference, I’ll leave you with another to ponder.  Be sure to read the words carefully to catch the full meaning.


Henry IV Part I Act 3 Scene 1 line 53, by William Shakespeare:


Glendower:  I can call spirits from the vasty deep

Hotspur:  Why, so can I, or so can any man;

            But will they come when you do call for them?

Chick Flicks and Space Travel

After my son left home for college and marriage, the detente that existed in my home was upset by the lack of parity in the masculine and feminine genders.  In short, my wife and daughter outvoted me at the video rental store on a weekly basis.  We watched a lot of chick flicks in those days.

Searching through the cupboard a few days ago, I came across the DVD of my daughter’s favorite all time movie.  And I was reminded of a short passage in the movie that seems pertinent to these days.

A lot of my time lately has been spent in wrangling discussions about writing down plans for the future which are contentious and ill defined.  Probably explains why I have not been updating the blog much lately.  

Anyway, just in a wistful mode, here is the pop culture snippet that has been on my mind recently:

“I. Q.”  Paramount Picture, 1994; starring Meg Ryan, Walter Matthau, Tom Robbins

Ed Walters (Tom Robbins) says:


“Any journey in life, if not done for human reasons with understanding and love would be empty and lonely.  It’s something worth remembering as nuclear-powered spacecraft may soon make the ancient dream of traveling to the edge of the universe and back a reality.  The source of that power is the very source that fuels the stars themselves and in doing so fuels our imaginations and our dreams.”



Civics 101

“No money shall be drawn from the treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law” – Article I Section 9 of the Constitution of the United States


Sometimes it is good to remember some basics of government operation.  This may be a good time for review. 


NASA is a federal executive agency; the President is the head of the executive branch of the government.  But direction does not come from the President alone; it must be approved and funded by the legislative branch, Congress.  Neither the executive nor the legislative branches can do something that is against the Constitution; the Judicial branch of the government determines that boundary. 


NASA is currently operating under the “authorization” act of 2008 and the “appropriation” act of 2010.  Authorization acts spell out what the agency should be doing; appropriations acts provide the money.  Generally, NASA, like most federal agencies, is authorized to do more than there is money appropriated to do it with.


The current fiscal year is 2010; it started on October 1, 2009 and will end September 30, 2010.  Fiscal Year 2011 starts October 1, 2010.  The President of the United States sent his budget proposal for FY 2011 to the Congress on February 1, 2010 and that budget is under consideration by Congress at this time.


In a usual year, this would put the NASA financial/business office folks on track to be developing the 2012 budget request at this time.  From shortly after the President’s budget request is announced until Memorial Day, each Federal executive agency pulls together their wish list/budget proposal for the fiscal year after next.  So at the same time that each agency is operating under the current fiscal year appropriation and Congress considers the budget proposal for next fiscal year, work is started on the budget for the year after next.  Three different fiscal years are in play at one time. 


Every federal executive agency provides their budget request to the Office of Management and Budget and the President’s Executive Budget Office around the end of May.  Then the OMB puts together the entire puzzle: the entire federal budget plan for the second fiscal year in the future.  This is while the Congress is wrestling with modification or approval of the budget for the next fiscal year.  Both OMB and Congress have to deal with the big picture issues:  income from taxes, total government outlays, the deficit, etc.


Congress is supposed to pass a budget before the start of the new fiscal year, no later than September 30.  They do not always meet that deadline, but will pass a “continuing resolution” which allows the federal government to continue in operation.  These “continuing resolutions” generally allow spending at the level of the previous year (but not always) and generally have limited time affectivity – a few days to a couple of months (but not always).  Some years, Congress never completely passes a budget and portions of the federal government operate for a full year (or more) under continuing resolution.


Whether in a real appropriation bill or a continuing resolution, Congress sets the rules.  In every appropriations act there is a breakdown of how the money is to be spent.  No federal agency (NASA in our case) can ignore that breakdown, it is literally federal law.  Uninformed outsiders that recommend NASA executives move money from one account to another are actually recommending violation of federal law.  This is clearly not an option.  If any federal agency desires to move money from one account or program or project to another, that agency must go hat in hand to the appropriations committees of Congress to request an “op plan change”.  Sometimes Congress agrees and sometimes they don’t. 


So during the summer and fall, as Congress considers the budget request for the next fiscal year, OMB works on the budget request for the following year.  Generally about Thanksgiving the OMB provides a “passback” to each federal agency.  In essence they say ‘We know what you asked for; here is what you are going to get’.  From the end of November until the President’s budget request is formally presented to Congress (about Feb. 1) there is a period of time when agencies can try to negotiate with the OMB.  Details that perhaps didn’t mesh get worked out.  A narrative and detailed plan is developed.  But once the President’s budget request goes to Congress, internal debate in the Executive branch is done.  The President’s budget is our budget proposal and we are duty bound as Federal Executive branch employees to support it. 


National policy is made at one place in America:  1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  That is as it should be.  So, as a federal executive agency, NASA does not make space policy.  The vast majority of NASA employees have nothing to do with the development of national space policy.  The NASA Administrator and a handful of senior agency officials can propose, debate, and participate in the discussion, but after the President decides, his policy is our policy.    That is the way our republic works.  Debate before Congress or in other public venues is good, proper, and what the Founding Fathers envisioned; the executive branch personnel are required to support the President’s proposal whenever they are speaking as part of their official duties. 


Last year, there was a significant policy debate within the Administration about America’s plans for human space flight.  The Administration commissioned a study, the U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee (aka, the “Augustine committee”) – a group of experts who studied for many weeks what should the national space policy should be.  Their report was delivered to the Administration in October.  At Thanksgiving, when NASA expected to get its “passback” from OMB as usual, the OMB did not provide detailed information on human space flight since the policy was still under review.  The passback from OMB came just a few days before release of the President’s budget proposal to Congress on February 1. 


NASA is, a little out of sequence, putting together the details which result from the national space policy.  These details will be carefully reviewed to ensure that they are in accord with the overall national policies. 


National policy as proposed by the President is reviewed by the Congress which codifies it in an “authorization” act.


Congress, it should be noted, divides into two parts:  the authorizers and the appropriators.  The authorizers consider what the national policy should be (they review the recommendation by the President) and tell federal agencies what they are “authorized” to do.  A different set of the legislators deal with money and dole out “appropriations” from the national treasury.  A federal agency might be “authorized” to do many things, but federal agencies can only actually do things that money is “appropriated” for.   Authorizers do not have to pass a new “authorization” bill every year; appropriators must pass an appropriations bill every year (even it if is just a continuing resolution).


I hope this short, very simplified Civics lesson helps in understanding what is going on. 


Remember the basics:


(1)  National Policy is developed by the White House, generally with a lot of advice.

(2)  The President proposes policy and a budget to the Congress

(3)  The Congress agrees, modifies, or changes the policy and the budget

(4)  All Federal Executive agencies “execute” the plan approved by Congress.


Graduate level courses are available if you desire more detailed information.


Advancing Aeronautics and Space

Collier Trophy


Whenever I am in Washington on business, I try to carve out time to visit the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.  Today  my meetings allowed a lunch time dash to the museum where I spent much of my time in the Golden Age of Flight gallery. 

Among other artifacts, many of the ornate trophies awarded in the early days of aviation are on display there: the Harmon, the Schneider, the Bendix, the Thompson.  Among them is the Collier Trophy, an award established in 1911.  The list of winners through the years is a veritable who’s who in aviation:  Wright, Curtiss, Martin, Huges, Yeager, Crossfield, Whitcomb, Rutan.  Its history makes it one of the most prestigious awards that anyone or any organization in the aerospace field can aspire to win.  This afternoon the National Aeronautic Association announced this year’s winner is the International Space Station.  What a wonderful and unexpected award!  What a confirmation of the hard work of many nations and many individuals over the last two decades. 

Well done, well deserved, and congratulations indeed.


The reasons that I visited that particular gallery of the NASM today is my specific interest in how early aviation progressed from dreams and primitive machines to become a vital part of our daily lives and a significant part of our economy.  The 20’s and 30’s are covered so briefly in so many aviation history books that it takes significant study to begin to understand this rich and complex period of history. 

I am reading Jimmy Doolittle’s autobiography “I Could Never Be So Lucky Again.”  What an amazing man he was and what an amazing time he lived in.  Doolittle did not win the Collier trophy but he racked up plenty of the others, many of them for air races.  During the 1920’s and 1930’s there were many air races sponsored by various organizations.  The Thompson trophy was awarded at the National Air Races in Cleveland every summer, and Doolittle won it in the Gee-Bee racer.  That beast was as close to a death machine as has ever been built.  After his victory in 1932, Doolittle gave this evaluation of the air races of the Golden Age of Aviation: 

“I felt the time had clearly arrived to examine the role of the air races.  They had served a useful purpose by arousing public interest in aviation.  They had also become the inspiration and proving ground for new concepts in aircraft design and construction.  Cockpit venting, retractable gear, and bold new wind and fuselage designs were born in the competition for the various trophies.  But the price in planes and pilots had been high.  I thought aviation should now begin to serve world commerce rather than be considered mostly a sport.”

During those years, aviation was advancing through competition for records as well as trophies, advancing in the development of the fledgling passenger service, advancing through philanthropic foundations like the Gugenheim which gave money for research and development.  And advancing by the efforts of a new government agency which has a birthday today:  The National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics: the NACA, founded on March 3, 1915.  From its founding through 1958, the NACA conducted research and development on the problems of aviation.  The fruit of this work was an aviation industry vastly safer and more efficient than it was before.  And of course, in 1958, the NACA organization became the foundation of a new national agency:  NASA.  Even today there is probably no airplane in production anywhere in the world that does not incorporate advances first developed by the NACA. 

Unfortunately, any student of history of aviation will tell you the greatest advances in aviation occurred during the years surrounding the two World Wars.  One can only hope that advances in space technology will not have such a terrible foundation; except of course it already has:  German rocket technology of WWII and the ICBM race of the cold war.

So I am pondering today, both on duty and off, how best can space technology and space access be advanced?  What lessons can we learn from the golden age of aviation to more rapidly develop a space flight industry that can approximate aviation today?  And what lessons can we learn to avoid?  That list should start with the great air mail scandal of 1934.  That event was a near disaster for early aviation, at least in America.   

Exploring Space as only Robert McCall can imagine

 On my way out of the museum, I paused to reflect at the giant mural which Robert McCall painted on the south lobby wall.  We lost Bob a few days ago and his genius will be sorely missed in the coming days







The words from Jim Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13 echoed unbidden in my mind: 


“I sometimes catch myself looking up at the Moon, remembering the changes of fortune in our long voyage, thinking of the thousands of people who worked to bring the three of us home. I look up at the Moon and wonder, when will we be going back, and who will that be?”





When will we be going back, and who will that be?

Passing of the Old Guard

I was saddened to learn of the passing of Bob McCall, the talented artist who captured the space program and its promise so well for so many years.  Art can provide a window to the future that mere words can never achieve.  We will miss him.

Closer to home, we are sorry to hear of the passing of Aaron Cohen.  He had been in declining health in recent weeks so the news was not a surprise, but the loss is still acute.  Dr. Cohen was an unsung hero in the pantheon of those who propelled America into space.

Not only was Aaron Cohen a brilliant engineer (the highest compliment that anyone at NASA can achieve) but he was a tremendous leader, a superb organizer, and a true gentleman.  In contrast to many of his peers, I never heard him lose his temper, raise his voice, or berate anybody.  Not that he was without passion; indeed I was in his presence for many moments when it was clear that he had strong and emotional feelings on some subject or another; it is just he never lost the control that a true gentleman always maintains.  We would do well to study his example.

After he retired from NASA, Dr. Cohen returned to his beloved Texas A&M University to teach new generations of engineers and leaders.  His command of the systems engineering discipline was unparalleled and one can only hope those students realized what a tremendous master they had the glory to study under.

I will leave you with only one of the many insights that Aaron shared with me.  As a senior leader during the shuttle program development in the 1970’s he watched the difficulties that plagued development of the space shuttle main engines.  As he said:  “I wished that somebody could just invent an anti-gravity machine so that we would not have to rely on rocket engines anymore.  Then I realized that if someone were able to invent such a device, it would no doubt have braze welds and triple-E (electronic) parts.  And all the troubles we were having with all the other parts of the shuttle would be present in that machine, too.”

A brilliant and gentle man.  We will miss him.


Human Rating A Spacecraft

Recently you may have heard about former astronaut Scott Parazynski’s adventure to climb Mt. Everest.  He carried a sliver of a moon rock from Apollo 11 with him, and then picked up a sliver of a rock from the top of the highest mountain in the world.  These two rocks were encased in plastic, handed over to NASA, and flew aboard the space shuttle to be installed in the new Tranquility module of the International Space Station.  All very inspiring and good. 


Now for the rest of the story. 


All items to fly aboard the shuttle and/or reside on the station have to go through a safety review process.  One of NASA’s early and painful lessons was the Apollo 1 fire.  Fire in space could clearly be catastrophic, and the oxygen content of the atmosphere of both the shuttle and the station has some variability – and can be higher than normal earth atmospheric oxygen content.  It turns out that the plastic which the two rocks were encased in has bad properties in a fire situation.  To their credit, the new NASA safety organization attitude is no longer “No because” but “Yes if”.  The memento could be flown and displayed on the ISS if it were encased in another transparent, fire safe material.  If you see it today on the ISS, the rocks are doubly enclosed, once in “bad” plastic, and over that a layer of “good” polymer. 


Now, is this bureaucratic overkill?  Would you have fire safety disregarded?  How would you handle this situation if you were in charge?  Just take the risk?  Or do the bureaucratic thing and apply another layer of safety?  Careful with your answer.  I’ve had to face crewmember’s families after their loved one perished.  That experience makes you think very hard about these kinds of decisions.


There is a debate going on about human rating spacecraft – making them safe enough for people to fly on.  It is really a debate about safety and how much NASA will be involved in ensuring that commercial providers of space transportation services are safe.  There has been a lot said about human rating space vehicles lately, much of it confusing.  Read NASA’s requirements document for yourself at this location:


Even if you read it thoroughly you willnot understand what is really being said unless you understand the context and the NASA culture in which it resides.  Just reading the document without understanding the organization will lead you to wildly erroneous conclusions.  Let me try to put this document in perspective and plain language.


The first conclusion is obviously this document was written for a government run program in the style of Shuttle or Station.  The underlying assumption is that the NASA Program Manager makes the decisions within the framework of the NASA management structure.  So to apply this document to commercial human spaceflight will take a re-writing.  In fact, a committee is already working on a new version which would apply to vehicles on which NASA might buy seats. 


The second conclusion is illustrated by the drawing on page 2. 


Standards Figure 
















































So the Human Rating Requirements “NPR 8705.2B” is only a small selection of the standards and processes that go into human rating a spacecraft.    As the document says early on “  . . . complex space hardware requires all missions to meet high standards . . . This NPR is to define and implement additional processes . . . necessary to human-rate space systems . . .  this NPR is linked to, and depends upon, many of the requirements . . .  contained in other NASA directives.” 


Are you getting the picture?


When I was shuttle program manager, I asked how many standards were levied on the shuttle program.  The answer was in excess of 40,000.  How can that be, you might ask.  Easily, I would reply.  There are all kinds of standards:  welding standards, parts standards, cleanliness standards, fracture control standards, vibration standards, EMI standards, wiring standards, mil standards and mil specs, software design and testing standards, and on and on and on.    


For a short list of some of NASA technical standards – all of which are likely to be applied to commercial human spaceflight – visit this page:


But wait, that’s not all!  Each of these documents requires the use of more reference standards.  Let me give you an example of further standards referenced from a NASA parent standard; this from a recent presentation:


“NASA-STD-4003 September 8, 2003  Electrical Bonding for NASA Launch Vehicles, Spacecraft, Payloads, and Flight Equipment (25 pages)

            + Mil – C-5541, Rev E 11/30/1990 Military Specification, Chemical Conversion

                        Coatings on Aluminum and Aluminum Alloys

            + SAE-AMS-M-3171 4/01/1998  Magnesium Alloy, Processes for Pretreatment

                        and Prevention of Corrosion on

            +  SAE-ARP-5412 11/1/1999 Aircraft Lightning Environment and Related Test



That is a short standard with a short subsidiary list.  Remember that if your electrical equipment is not well bonded (grounded), you are likely to have a serious problem.  This is precisely an example of the care and expertise that goes into aerospace vehicles to make them successful – and safe.  Norm Augustine’s book declares “the $5000 dollar electronic component will always fail so as to protect the 50 cent fuse” (Electronics boxes were cheaper in his day).  Even better to remember is Michelangelo’s famous dictum:  “Trifles make perfection, but perfection is no trifle.” 


There are a variety of standards available in the world, and I was very un-amused one day to be drawn into a debate by two technical warrant holders over which welding standard was superior:  the ANSI or the ASME.  The ISS organization has cheerfully adopted European or Japanese standards for the components built overseas.  But whether the spacecraft was built in the USA or overseas, at every step in the design, testing, and production of a space vehicle, there is some NASA organization or person who has been invested with the power to enforce those standards. 


Armchair authorities like to discuss the “big ticket” items in the Human Ratings Requirements:  redundancy requirements for fault tolerance, or minimum factor of safety for structures as examples.  Real rocket builders know while those are important, the real key to safety and success is very much more affected by the quality of parts and myriad individual steps in workmanship of the end product.  These are measured against thousands of individual checks against the appropriate standard.  So you must realize the vast majority of standards and requirements do not show up in the NPR 8705.2B Human Ratings Requirements document, they must be searched out in a hundred subordinate documents.


A third observation can also be made very early in the document.  NASA has “technical authorities” for safety, engineering, health/medical, and crew.  Following the Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommendations, the agency was reorganized so that the technical authorities do not work for the program but maintain independence to ensure that NASA programs are executed safely.  In fact, if a technical authority disagrees with the program manager, it is the program manager who must comply or appeal to a higher authority.  This is designed to ensure that cost and schedule pressures do not lead to unsafe decisions. 


Transparency in government:  the NASA governance model can be read at:


Here is an interesting and operative paragraph:


“ Authority Roles Regarding Risk

Decisions related to technical and operational matters involving

safety and mission success risk require formal concurrence by the

cognizant Technical Authorities (Engineering, Safety and Mission

Assurance, and Health and Medical). This concurrence is based on

the technical merits of the case and includes agreement that the risk

is acceptable. For matters involving human safety risk, the actual

risk taker(s) (or official spokesperson[s] and his/her/their supervisory

chain) must formally consent to taking the risk; and the responsible

program, project, or operations manager must formally accept the



What does that mean in plain language?  Basically the builder must comply with what the independent technical expert requires. 


I can remember one shuttle issue with the agency tribology expert (that’s lubrication to most folks).  The technical expert would not budge a millimeter (0.254 inch) in requiring servicing of a part almost inaccessible deep in the bowels of the orbiter.  The agency technical experts have absolutely no incentive to back off on their standards.  They are independent of the program.  They are not concerned with cost or schedule, only with compliance.  Compliance brings about safety, why would we want them to do anything less?


How will that fit with a lean, entrepreneurial commercial organization with a profit/loss bottom line?  Heck if I know.


So on about the fourth page of the Human Ratings Requirements document you can read that before work starts on a spacecraft design, a meeting is convened of the technical authorities to tell the program manager what standards and specifications the new vehicle will have to meet.


Don’t forget the legend that is stamped on the top of the front page:  “Compliance is Mandatory”


That’s probably enough for an overview.  We may visit the in-depth requirements on another day. 


Remember that the requirements document for commercial services is being written and the NASA governance model can change at any time.  So this discussion serves as a background of where we are today and where we have been, not necessarily where we are going to go in the future. 


My takeaway? 


The agency tried really hard to be as safe as possible and we still had the Apollo 1 fire, close calls on several lunar missions – the most famous of which was Apollo 13 – and we lost Challenger and Columbia.  In spite of our best intentions and best efforts. 


I’ll quote myself from my blog post Sine Non Qua on Sept. 11, 2009:


“Six years after the loss of Columbia, I’m not sure that we can make a spacecraft safe, but I have empirical evidence that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that we can make it expensive.”

Suborbital Spaceflight

Short note today; I am at the Suborbital Research conference in snowy Boulder, CO. 

I am surrounded by dreamers who want to fly in space:  everybody from Lori Garver and Alan Stern on down to the grad students who is here wants to fly in space.  They desperately want to fly in space. 

I had the good fortune to be accompanied by a co-worker who was just turned down in her application to NASA”s astronaut office.  It is a hard hard thing to pass through the bar into that small fellowship. 

These dreamers want everybody to be able to fly in space.

There might even be real science that can be accomplished in 3 to 5 minutes of microgravity.

But the thought of opening up the space frontier to the common person is the real motivation here.

Its a good motivation; and some of these companies are making progress toward that goal.

We wish them luck; offer technical advice and assistance, and (if Congress approves) will have $15 million a year to encourage them.

This, then, appears to be the new world order.  Ad astra per dreamers.  (somebody help me with the latin!)

But then, all great accomplishments were once dreams.

Nexus of Evil

There are a small group of individuals who spend their days and nights trying to find the weak points in NASA’s human spaceflight program.  This diabolical and insidious team has penetrated the most secure sectors of the space agency and they gather their information from the inside.  I personally have confronted this organization and can attest to their manipulative and devious behavior. 


My fellow Flight Directors have termed them “the dirty slime ball [expletive deleted]s.”  Their name:  the integrated training team.  Their leader:  Sim sup.


Training and simulations have been an integral part of America’s human spaceflight program from the very beginning.  We like to say that we train like we fly, and it is pretty close in many ways.  The job of the training team is to ensure that the astronauts and the flight controllers are prepared for any eventuality.  Not only if things go as planned, but what to do if something goes wrong.  The trainer’s relish their role.


When the astronauts are in the simulator, it is as close to the space flight experience as we can make it.   Microgravity can’t be replicated, but almost everything else can be.  When the flight control team is in the Mission Control Center, the data coming in looks just the same whether it is coming from a real life shuttle (or ISS) or from a simulator.


The sim team is lead by the Sim Sup (pronounced like “soup”) which stands for Simulation Supervisor.  In the ISS world, they have adopted the moniker STL for Station Training Lead, but the job is the same.  The Sim Sup and his team of trainers think very hard about lessons that the astronauts and flight control team needs to learn.  A lot of these are cataloged and are de rigueur.  Leaks, circuit breaker pops, engines that quit, radios and other electronic gear that flakes out; all of these and many more are standard issue failure scenarios.  A moderately well trained team should be able to handle any single failure without breaking a sweat.  The sim team looks for the optimum combination of problems that lead the flight team to the edge of failure.


No kobayashi maru scenarios, though.   Mission operations management stands by the credo “Failure is not an option.”  There is always a way out.  Kirk would be proud.


That doesn’t mean the scenarios aren’t tough, however.  During one memorable shuttle launch simulation, I counted 47 different malfunctions that the simulation team inserted into the run in the space of 10 minutes.  When I asked sim sup what was the point of that run, he replied:  “Flight, just wanted the team to learn to prioritize between problems that could kill ya now and stuff that could wait until later.”  Thanks a lot sim sup. 


More often than not, the cases were highly cerebral, and it frequently seemed like playing an elaborate chess game with the sim team. 


Whatever the flight plan and the objectives, Sim Sup was certain to put together a scenario that would make the team question their assumptions and plans.  That was the point; not just failure response, but is the plan a good one.


There is a long history of simulations causing the team to build a better plan that in fact saves the day.  The last landing simulations before the flight of Apollo 11 inserted some LM computer failures which caused the team to abort the landing.  The DPS officer went back to the office determined to avoid that outcome.  When the real LM computer started spitting out alarm codes during the real first lunar landing, DPS was prepared. 


Similarly, during an Apollo 12 simulation, the training case required the LM to be used as a lifeboat for a crippled CSM.  This lead to a series of studies and plans about how to improve that capability.  Those plans became the center of the Apollo 13 response.


I learned early on never to tell Sim Sup that his case was non-credible.  Every time I complained about some failure scenario, sure enough something like it would come close on the next shuttle flight.  But we were ready.


And not all cases were introduced through the computer models running over in the simulator building.  Once Sim Sup snuck out to the MCC and handed the EECOM a note “you are having a heart attack.”  The resulting theatrics by the EECOM and his next door neighbor EGIL caused another flight controller on the other side of the room to call 911.  The EMTs were not amused to find out that they had been scrambled out of the fire station due to a simulation.  MOD management said no more simulated heart attacks in the MCC.


Another flight was preparing for an October launch shortly before a Presidential election.  The Sim team called the Flight Director and told him that a candidate was at a campaign stop and wanted to talk with the crew.  That caused a flurry.  But wait; a month or so later, during the actual flight, just a couple of weeks before the election, the phone rang and, guess what?  A certain candidate wanted to talk to the crew while he was at a campaign stop! 


There must be a million stories about the complex interlocking training cases that the sim team inflicted on the flight team.  But the key remains that assumptions were questioned, better plans were made, and the team was better prepared for real spaceflight and the problems that Murphy would throw our way.


I’ve been reading a lot recently about the financial meltdown and the “quants” that had become so influential in business circles.  They could not believe that their computer models of the financial industry were flawed.  But they were.  I wonder if the financial sector could benefit from Sim Sup? 


How valuable would it be to have a Sim Sup for life decisions?  Somebody who could string out the scenario so we got to see how our choices play out.  We could all use that on a personal level; maybe we could use that on a national level.