The Vision Thing

Posted on by .

George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st President, calls Houston home.   He and Barbara can be frequently seen at Astros baseball games, he made his early career in business here, was a congressman from here, even once taught a course as an adjunct professor at my alma mater, Rice University. 

 

As you may recall, Mr. Bush failed in his re-election bid; there were a number of reasons for his loss, but one of the frequently cited reasons was “the vision thing”.  The critics felt that he had not clearly articulated his vision for the future of the nation, which is a vital function that an effective chief executive must do.  Keep that in mind. 

 

On July 20, 1989 – the 20th anniversary of the first lunar landing – President G. H. W. Bush had made a speech proposing what would come to be known as the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI).  This proposal included a permanent return to the Moon and human missions to Mars.  In spite of the bold and visionary words, this initiative quickly failed. 

 

Thor Hogan has written an excellent book on the history of the fiasco.  His book is “Mars Wars, The Rise and Fall of the Space Exploration Initiative” NASA SP-2007-4410, August 2007.  I highly recommend this book for those who are interested in how national space policy is made and how federal agencies can be dysfunctional at times.  Dr. Hogan is a Professor of Political Science at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.  Let me reiterate – I highly recommend this book if you are interested in these topics.

 

When  “Mars Wars” was first published in 2007, it was widely circulated in NASA management and caused considerable discussion.  Everyone was trying to make sure to avoid the mistakes made in 1989 and create a successful program.  There are many lessons to be learned from that earlier experience, and Dr. Hogan hit many of them. 

 

The most frequently cited lesson from SEI is the need to build a “sustainable” program.  That is a shorthand way of saying stay within an affordable budget.  One of the principle  reasons the Space Exploration Initiative failed was its price tag.  The SEI package was dead on arrival at Congress because of the high cost.  Trying to apply this lesson, the NASA program of the last five years to send crews to the Moon and Mars strove mightily to remain within the budget line announced in 2004.

 

But back to 1989, because there are other lessons to be learned there.  That year I was a rookie Space Shuttle Flight Director, learning the ropes in Mission Control, and I had no time to be involved in SEI.  But I was immersed in the NASA culture of the day and I remember that time with great clarity.  Dr. Hogan’s “Mars Wars” book does a wonderful job of capturing the motivations of agency personnel in those days. 

 

It was a bare three years following the Challenger accident and the wound was still raw.  Challenger was a driving factor in the SEI story.  Remember that widely held beliefs are important whether they are accurate or not.  That is because what people believe to be true motivates them.  So take the following paragraph not necessarily as historical truth but as the mythos which psychologically undergird folks running SEI.

 

NASA was not allowed to build the shuttle the “right” way, that is, to make both engineeringly elegant and safe.  Lives were lost in Challenger due to basic design choices forced on the agency by severe budgetary restrictions.  In the early 1970s, when NASA was authorized to design and build a revolutionary reusable winged space vehicle, the Office of Management and Budget capped the total development cost of the shuttle at $5 billion.   (Money went further back then.)  This cap was far too low to allow development of several of the more innovative design options.  Fly back liquid fueled boosters were out of the question, for example.  Operational costs were higher because of choices required to keep the development costs low.  Safety was lower.  So we got an aero-space plane with a big dumb drop tank and two scaled up JATO bottles. 

 

After Challenger, there was no money to significantly improve the basic design of the shuttle.  NASA was faced with the prospect of flying its less-than-safe shuttle for the long term, but with even higher operational costs and a lower flight rate.   Anger is the only term I can use to describe the general feeling back then.  Anger that NASA was forced to build something less than perfect by green eyeshade bean counters in Washington.  Anger that those decisions had been the basis for the loss of seven of our colleagues.  Anger that NASA wasn’t given the authorization to build a second generation shuttle to correct those problems.  So when the President announced a plan to build a spaceship to go back to the Moon and on to Mars, the most frequently heard comment around the human space flight institutions was “We’ve got to do this right this time.”  Even the NASA Administrator  Dick Truly was heard to “we’ve got to do it right this time or not at all.” 

 

So when the SEI plan turned out to be very expensive, a significant part of that cost was driven by the thought that it must be done “right”.

 

Fast forward twenty years.  The recent program struggled mightily to stay within the budget because they perceived “sustainability” the principle lesson learned from the last time.  Smarting from the recent loss of Columbia, the organization believed that ‘it still had to be done right’.  So technical performance was not open for compromise.   In program management that means the only relief can come from schedule delay.  Delay that lead to an increasing gap.  Now, that analysis is very, very overly simplistic.  Blog level simplistic, in fact.  I don’t need to connect any more dots from that point, you can do that yourself.

 

I am told that over the last 20 years more than 15 major NASA Human Spaceflight programs have been cancelled.  I can’t recite the whole list but will give a few examples:  X-38, HL-20, X-33/VentureStar, Space Launch Initiative (SLI), and Orbital Space Plane (OSP).  Some never got past the viewgraph stage.  Some were cancelled because of technical issues.  Some were cancelled for budgetary issues.  And some were cancelled for political reasons. 

 

So, in hindsight, was the shuttle built “right?”  That program actually flew, well, late, and only somewhat over budget.  Of course the operations budget never went down like it was supposed to.  The shuttle is clearly not “safe” in the conventional sense, but will space flight ever be “safe” like putting your kids on the schoolbus?  At least the shuttle program actually kinda sorta worked and didn’t get cancelled before the first test flight. 

 

What constitutes “right” in advancing human space flight?  Something reasonably safe and not too costly, something that opens up the space frontier to many people rather than a few?  Is that the foundational paradigm that is being overturned today? 

 

There are more than a few lessons that you can extract from Dr. Hogan’s book.  I strongly suggest you read it.

 

And one more thing:  there is a saying that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.  It might appear that we have been doing the “same thing” over and over again and wondering why the result turns out this way.  This time the paradigm is shifting at a foundational level.  Will the new paradigm avoid the same old outcome?

 

That a vision?   Hmm.

The Joy of Blogging

Posted on by .

Plagiarism exposed:  someone else came up with the phrase ‘blogging is the ultimate exercise in narcissism’ so I can’t claim original credit for it.  My own view is that to be an interesting blogger you must have exhibitionist tendencies. 

 

After a year and a half of intermittent writing on the NASA blog page, I think it’s time to make a few observations about the process.

 

Blogging is not my foremost work assignment; I really have a full plate of other things to do.  Blogging is sort of a sidelight for me, and my blog is mostly written outside normal work hours. 

 

Early in my post-shuttle career, I had a young social-media savvy technical assistant who proposed the idea that I should have a NASA blog; he coordinated all the set up.  Don’t blame the NASA PAO or IT departments for me taking up electronic real estate, it was our own idea.   

 

But I’ve really grown to like doing it.  You psych majors can comment on my subconscious motivations.

 

Let me make the following very clear:  I have never been told what to blog about.  Nobody writes my blog but me.   I’m responsible for the content, spelling, fact checking, and any errors that appear.  I’ve never been told to delete or censor or remove anything from my blog.  Nor is there a list of topics, or any strategic communications plan guides me in writing the blog.  Even though I have frequently asked for feedback from my bosses, all I ever get is a thumbs up.  So I feel pretty free to write about anything that is on my mind, trying to keep common sense about it.  But I put my name on it and I stand behind it.  I never post anonymously nor will I comment on somebody else’s blog anonymously. 

 

So don’t confuse my blog with official NASA policy. I’m just one guy here and you are getting this one guy’s take on things.  Plus some mostly true old guy stories about things that may or may not have really happened during my career.  Hopefully entertaining, but at least giving some insight into how things work inside NASA.

 

I have read other blogs that are clearly written by public relations flacks and those blogs are obvious advertisements or press releases dressed up to look like a blog.  I wouldn’t be a party to that sort of a blog.

 

I have to approve your comments before they show up in public.  That clearly dampens discussion but I believe it is necessary for reasons I’ll explain in a minute.  Since blogging is not my full time job, I generally log in about once a day and approve the comments; sometimes – especially when I’m travelling – it is less often.  Sorry, but that is why your comments take a while to get posted.

 

When you write a comment, I automatically get it in an email.  I generally read these first on my blackberry; but the bb does not have the capability to log into our blogging software and allow me to approve the comments for posting – I must get my real computer booted up, logged on, etc., to do that.  One interesting feature of the software is that emails announcing your blog comment show to me (and me only) your email address.  So if you really want to remain anonymous from me, you might keep that in mind.  I rarely write to folks on their email, but do so occasionally.

 

The number one reason I don’t post comments is that many of them are spam.  Somebody with a foreign email address comments “Really liked your post.  I need to move money to my relatives in the US.  Please log onto this web site and put your bank account number and I will send $5 million to you”.  Yeah, right.  Or “Buy cheap pharmaceuticals at xxx.com”.  Nope, I’m not about to let the comments to an agency website blog become a host for fraudulent – or even legitimate – business advertisement.  If your comment including the “signature” contains a website or email address, I will not post your comment.  The software the NASA website uses does not allow me to edit comments, so I either have to approve them entirely or they don’t get posted.  Spammers will not get posted. 

 

I will not post comments on UFOs, conspiracy theories, perpetual motion, or other crackpot topics.  Nor will I post comments that are obscene, comments that advocate violence, or comments that cross over to pure disrespect.  I’m the sole judge of these on my blog.   

 

I have a strong obligation to post comments that I disagree with.  I will even allow people to call me (but only me) names.  I got a real zinger the other day and I’m still smarting over it, but you can find it posted.  It’s a free country, everybody is entitled to their option. 

 

What I’d like to do is provide some small window into how things work at NASA, what has happened in my career, and what I’ve learned along the way.  I don’t have all the answers, I don’t make agency policy, nor am I a management consultant.  I have made more than my share of mistakes, but hopefully I’ve learned from them and make fewer now than in my earlier days. 

 

I hope you find my blog interesting.  Now that I’ve started, it is hard to keep quiet. 

 

More to come.

Another History Lesson

Posted on by .

James A. Michener was a very popular author who wrote massive historical fiction books.  Several of these were turned into successful movies including “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” and “Hawaii”.  Others were made into TV miniseries like “Centennial.”   His stories were the basis for the classic musical “South Pacific.”  Obviously, Michener had a talent for reaching the popular culture in his day. 

A very good author of fiction can highlight human emotions and motivations in ways that strict historians cannot.  Really good fiction can help us understand the truths that underlie human life and its interactions.  Michener was always interested in what makes people tick. 

For the last week, a short section of his novel “Space” has been on my mind.  This part of the written work didn’t make the Hollywood film version; a pity that it didn’t. 

I’ve been wrestling on how to interpret this snippet in a blog; so far I have imagined at least 5 different ways to apply it as analogy to America’s space program in these days.  These applications are good for various positions in the current debate on space.  Picking one would probably give too much aid and comfort to one group and arouse the ire of the others.  So I won’t give you my interpretation.  I’ll offer the section for your consideration and wait for your comments to see how you think it applies today.

—————————————————————–

Near the end of the book, one of the fictional characters recounts an actual historical event as part of a planetarium show. 

“When the lights go down we shall see the heavens as they are outside this planetarium.  Now, I’m going to turn the sky-clock back 922 years.  It is again June 22 in A.D. 1054.  The sky look almost the same as it does tonight, a few planets in different positions, but that’s about all.

‘I’m going to speed through eighteen days, and here we have the heavens as they appeared at sunset on the night of 10 July 1054.  Let’s go to midnight in Baghdad, where Arabic astronomers are looking at the sky, as they always did.  Nothing unusual.  Now its 11 July 1054, toward three in the morning.  Still nothing exceptional.  But look!  There in the constellation Taurus!”

In the silence of the planetarium the audience watched in awe as an extremely brilliant light began to emerge from the far tip of the Bull’s horn.  It exceeded anything else in the heavens, infinitely brighter even than Venus, and increasing in brilliance each moment.

‘It was a supernova, in the constellation Taurus, and we know the exact date because Arabic astronomers in many countries saw it and made notes which confirmed the sightings in China.  Indians in Arizona saw it and marveled.  In the South Pacific, natives marked the miracle.  And watch as the daylight comes in 1054!  The new star is so bright it can be seen even against the rays of the Sun, which was not far off in Cancer.

‘For twenty-three days, the astronomers of Cathay and Araby tell us, this supernova dominated the sky, almost as bright as the sun, the most incandescent event in recorded history.  No other nova ever came close to this one. . . . .

‘This great star, which must have been the most extraordinary sight in the history of the heavens during mankind’s observation, was noted in China, in Arabia, in Alaska, in Arizona, and in the South Pacific, for we have their records to prove it.  But in Europe nobody saw it.  From Italy to Moscow, from the Urals to Ireland, nobody saw it.  At least, they made no mention of it. they lived through one of the Earth’s most magnificent spectacles and nobody bothered even to note the fact in any parchment, or speculate upon it in any manuscript.

‘We know the event took place, for with a telescope tonight we can see the remnants of the supernova hiding in Taurus, but we have searched every library in the western world without finding a single shred of evidence that the learned people of Europe even bothered to notice what was happening about them.

‘An age is called Dark not because the light fails to shine, but because people refuse to see it.'”

——————————————

http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap091025.html

Godspeed Endeavour and your crew. 

Straight Arrow

Posted on by .

Last Sunday I got to sit with a respected retired NASA executive who just happens to be a Canadian transplant to the steamy gulf coast.   After the service was over we had a chat about his early experience with the Avro Arrow.  His brief assessment:  “Devastating at the time; but it was the best thing that ever happened to me personally.  It led to a marvelous career.”

 

That is something to think about in these times. 

 

In case you are not familiar with the history, the A. V. Roe – Canada aircraft company Avro Arrow in flightwas a major designer and manufacturer of military aircraft in the Toronto, Ontario area during the cold war.  In the early 1950’s Avro began designing a groundbreaking advanced fighter/interceptor to deal with the Soviet bomber menace.  The Arrow, a delta winged supersonic aircraft, was cutting edge – perhaps the best design of its era.  As with many other advanced aircraft of the time, several years passed as the design team worked feverishly to overcome technical obstacles.  They also had to incorporate significant new requirements which were added late in the design process by the Canadian air force.  The prototype first flew in the same day Sputnik was launched, October 4, 1957. 

 

 

 

Good technical progress was being made with several prototypes in flight test and final production design being firmed up when disaster struck.  A new Canadian government, for reasons that are too complex to discuss here, unexpectedly cancelled the Arrow program on February 20, 1959.  All prototypes, design documents, and production jigs were ordered destroyed to keep the advanced aerodynamic information from possibly falling into the hands of Soviet spies.  Within a few months, Avro laid off over 14,000 personnel.  It is estimated that an even larger number of vendors and parts suppliers were out of work due to the cancellation. 

 

Some of the very best of the laid-off Avro engineers found work with a new agency of the US Government.  They went to work for the Space Task Group in Langley, Virginia.  The old timers and the history books tell us that these immigrants played an absolutely crucial role in the success of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs.  Their legacy in aerodynamics, engineering, management, and leadership still resonates in the agency.  The legacy of the Arrow can even be seen in the delta winged Space Shuttle.  They had “marvelous careers.”

 

Change is inevitable; life goes on.  Change moves us out of our comfort zones.  The question is not whether there will be change, but what will you do when change occurs?  Out of a personal disaster, how will you create a marvelous new career?  But remember, nothing great was ever accomplished by comfortable men.   

 

The future belongs to those who overcome circumstances, the ones who can adapt and succeed, the ones who can make take advantage of the opportunity that is hidden from plain view.  

 

For those who are hurting, this is thin comfort to be sure, but it’s that I can offer.

Where is Delos D. Harriman when we need him?

Posted on by .

During my childhood, back in ancient times, science fiction was my reading material of choice.  Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark and Robert Heinlein were first among the pantheon of science fiction writers in those days.

 

One of the best was Robert A. Heinlein’s 1949 story “The Man who Sold the Moon”.  A brilliant American businessman (today we would say entrepreneur, then Heinlien called him a robber baron) devoted his vast wealth to building a moon rocket.   Think Elon Musk but with Bill Gate’s fortune and Donald Trump’s ethics.  Of course he succeeded, despite of all the difficulties, including the roadblocks set up by the government.  At the end of the story Harriman famously tells his best friend: “I would cheat, lie, steal, beg, bribe — do anything to accomplish what we have accomplished”.

 

Where is Delos D. Harriman today?  We sure could use him.  “We” being all those folks who really really really want to humanity off this planet in a significant way.  And maybe not depending on the vagaries of politics and politicians. 

 

I spent too much time out in the soggy weather in Houston this afternoon at the memorial grove for fallen astronauts.  It was a sorry day to have an outdoor ceremony, but there was a big crowd despite the cold and damp.  There was a similar ceremony up at the Arlington National Cemetery, and another one at the Astronaut Memorial mirror at KSC, and other places, too.   The weather may have been better there, but I doubt that the mood was different. 

 

The price has been paid, we need to get on to Mars an the other places. 

 

Heinlein had Stevenson’s famous poem “Requiem” inscribed over Harriman’s lunar grave:

“Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will!
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.”

I believe Heinlein captured a better thought in his own words in another story, although the critics would probably say the poetry is worse:

“We pray for one last landing

On the globe that gave us birth

Let us rest our eyes on the fleecy skies

And the cool, green hills of Earth.”

 

If these somber thoughts are not enough to end this dreary January day, I leave you with the words of the plaque affixed to Launch Complex 34, which I visited two days ago:

 

“Friday, 27 January 1967

       1831 Hours

 

Dedicated to the living memory of the crew of the Apollo 1

 

U.S.A.F. Lt. Colonel Virgil I. Grissom

U.S.A.F. Lt. Colonel Edward H. White, II

U.S.N. Lt. Commander Roger B. Chaffee

 

They gave their lives in service to their country in the ongoing exploration of humankind’s final frontier.  Remember them not for how they died but for those ideals for which they lived.”

 

Culture Change at NASA

Posted on by .

According to the creation myth, in the beginning, NASA was full of young, cocky, innovative, hard charging folks who got us to the Gene Kranz's School for Young Gentlemen circa 1967moon inside a decade.  They were brash, confident, and did not suffer fools gladly.  If they were worried, they didn’t show it.  Stories abound of 100+ hour work weeks end to end, almost impossible to believe.  Their theme -as posted on the factory walls – was ‘waste anything but time’.  Going to the moon was the cliché for doing the impossible and they were going to be the ones to do it.  They were the epitome of risk-taking, innovative, creative, flexible, nimble, achievers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the way to the moon, the Apollo 1 fire happened.  It was a tragedy.  It was beyond awful.  With 20-20 hindsight, the root cause of the fire was obviously sheer stupidity.  There were investigations and panels and recommendations.  As in every accident investigation, the investigation board found that communications between people and organizations were faulty.  Management culture was poor.  And the safety organization was strangely silent on dangerous situations which they had been warned about.  So the recommendations, in additional to technical things, included improving communications, changing management culture, and reinvigorating the safety organization.  And even though everybody at NASA believed the fire was a one-time thing, NASA tried to improve.  Some bureaucratic checks took a little of the nimbleness out of the system in the name of safety, but mostly NASA got a pass because we had to beat the Russians.  The Eagle landed, the mission was accomplished, and time passed.

One the way to exploiting the space frontier with our new space shuttle, 19 years and one day after the Apollo 1 fire, the Challenger and her crew were lost during launch.  It was a tragedy.  It was beyond awful.  With 20-20 hindsight, the root cause of the accident was obviously sheer stupidity.  There were investigations and panels and recommendations.  As in every accident investigation, the investigation board found that communications between people and organizations were faulty.  Management culture was poor.  And the safety organization was strangely silent on dangerous situations which they had been warned about.  So the recommendations, in addition to technical things, included improving communications, changing management culture, and reinvigorating the safety organization.  And even though everybody believed that the accident was a one-time thing, NASA tried to improve.  More methods to communicate were added, more bureaucratic checks were added, the system slowed down and became more costly in the name of safety, but mostly NASA got a pass because we still had to beat the Russians, this time to build a permanent space station, and they were ahead of us.  The Hubble was launched, the assembly of the Space Station started, and time passed.

17 years and three days after the loss of Challenger, Columbia disintegrated during reentry and her crew was lost.  With 20-20 hindsight, the root cause of the accident was obviously sheer stupidity.  There were investigations and panels and recommendations.  As in every accident investigation, the investigation board found that communications between people and organizations were faulty.  Management culture was poor.  And the safety organization was strangely silent on dangerous situations which they had been warned about.  So the recommendations, in addition to technical things, included improving communications, changing management culture, and reinvigorating the safety organization. 

This time, nobody inside or outside of NASA believed that the Columbia accident was a one-time thing.  So we tried to change the very root culture at NASA.  Strangely, I found myself at the epicenter of the culture change; one of the least likely managers ever to participate in touchy-feely human relations changes.  We got trained by professional councilors on how to play nice and communicate affirmingly. At the end of seven years, some change is evident.  Safety is reinvigorated; the management culture has bent toward more safety; and  communications, well, need more work and probably always will.  Dissenters must be heard and understood, and mostly placated; much more bureaucracy has been added in the name of safety, and everybody now has a “stop work” card to play if they have a concern.  NASA did not get a pass, the Russians are no longer our competition but our partners, and the debate intensifies as to whether America should send humans into space.  Meanwhile, the Space Station has nearly been completed, the shuttle is about to be retired, its mission accomplished, and time has passed.

Now conventional wisdom says NASA is risk averse.  Afraid of failure, afraid to take risks, requiring draconian and expensive safety insight for even mundane tasks.  They say that NASA depends too much on extensive testing and expensive analysis to prove that every operation is as safe as humanly possible before undertaking it.  That is the conventional wisdom proffered by the media, the pundits, and those who want to be in the space business. To be successful in space, we hear, risks must be taken, fear must not inhibit innovation.  The possibility of failure must be deeply discounted and the consequences of failure should not be contemplated very hard lest we waiver from our goals.  We need organizations that are nimble, flexible, innovative, and risk taking to be successful in space. 

In short, NASA should turn to private enterprise for a ride to space.

So how can a staid, grey, old, inflexible bureaucracy approve flying its people on somebody else’s rocket?  Experience has been a hard teacher; everybody at NASA has been instilled with a great personal responsibility for safety; the knowledge that if the widget that they are responsible to monitor causes failure it will be their own personal fault.  Do you untrain the culture of the last seven, no –  forty, years as drilled into every NASA engineer and manager?  Probably not.  But if American astronauts are to ride to the international space station on a rocketship that NASA did not build, there will have to be a tectonic shift in NASA culture.  Regardless of who builds the ship or operates it or what shape it takes, one thing is certain; NASA’s role will have be different.  That will take a tremendous amount of energy, and time must pass.

In the middle of the last culture change I sent the following paragraph to the shuttle troops.  I still stand by it and it rings strangely true for the future, too.

Life is full of gray choices.  Deciding the work completed is good enough because more will not make it perfect.  Ten thousand gray choices; doing what we must do, and not a bit more because that would take away from other work that is absolutely critical to be done right.  When we have done what we can do, when we have driven the risk to the lowest practical level where it can be driven, then we have to accept the fact that it is time to make a decision and move on.  Because history is waiting for us.  But history will not wait forever, and it will judge us mercilessly if we fail to face tough choices and move ahead.

Playoff Sunday

Posted on by .

In early ’86, I was a first line supervisor of flight controllers.  My guys were responsible for the propulsion systems on the space shuttle orbiter.  I had been one of the lead flight controllers in that position, but as a manager, I was supposed to teach the other folks how to do the job, not do it myself.  But flight control managers had a special duty in the mission control center.  The engineers who built the shuttle, both the civil servants close at hand and the contractors back at the factory, had much more detailed knowledge about the shuttle than the flight controllers did.  So every flight there was questions about minute details from the flight control team back to the factory.  A special organization was set up to coordinate getting answers to these questions; the position was called SPAN (SPacecraft ANalysis) and was always staffed by the managers of the flight controllers.

 

My shift was to be the afternoon shift for STS-61-C, the 24th shuttle flight.  After numerous delays, the launch finally occurred early on Sunday January 12, 1986.  The delays had been very irritating.  We had nine rapid fire shuttle flights in 1985 and 61C was supposed to have made and even 10 for the year.  The flight rate was ramping up ferociously with a plan for 12 flights in 86 including the first flight from our 3rd launch pad which was at Vandenberg AFB on the west coast; in 87 we were planning to launch 15 flights.  After a slow start, the shuttle program was beginning to show what it could do and we were going to make cheap, reliable, frequent access to space a reality.  There was talk about flying all kinds of non-astronaut folks:  Walter Cronkite, John Denver, and even a schoolteacher.  By the time of the 24th flight, we thought we were past the early bugs, the infant mortality type problems, and we were on a roll.

 

I came to work after the shuttle was on orbit, around noon time.  There were about the expected number of Chits requesting information from the engineering and contractor organizations.  I set to work on the phone, coordinating the work.  Even on a Sunday there were factory reps available although much of the factory workforce had the day off.  After all, it wasn’t a regular work day.  None of the requests were particularly urgent so several of them would wait until normal working hours on Monday.

 

The SPAN room was located down the hall from the Flight Control Room that you see on TV.  It was pretty well isolated from the action, but we all thought about SPAN as an extension of the Flight Control Team and we followed all the same rules and protocols.

 

Next to my console in the SPAN room there was a big color TV.  We had a TV to watch the crew downlinks, video from KSC pre-launch or from the landing site during pre-landing operations; we could watch the various weather forecast channels, or even monitor the news programs to see how the space flight was being carried by the networks.   The TVs were all connected to cable and antenna feed and even on those days there were several other “commercial” channels available, including the local stations.  We had all been trained to never, never, never under any circumstances watch regular entertainment programming, sports, or other shows that were not immediately related to the space flight at hand.  Never.  Not under any circumstances.

 

Many of the flight controller managers (including my boss) wandered by the SPAN room.  It was a convenient place to watch the action, keep tabs on how their employees were doing, and at the same time stay out of the way of the real action in the FCR.  By early afternoon, the SPAN room was filling up with these lookie-lou management types, wearing jeans and pullovers for the cool weather; nobody but me was in the traditional coat and tie.

 

I was as surprised as anybody when one of the senior, old time Apollo veteran flight control managers turned the TV channel to the football playoff game.  I told him we weren’t supposed to do that, but he gave me a withering look and said, “Its SPAN, nothing is going on, relax”.  A room full of other, senior managers nodded in agreement.  So while I huddled over the phone trying to coordinate chits all afternoon, much of the flight control management cheered (or booed) their favorite team.  At the end of my shift, the ball games were over, the SPAN room cleared out, and the new shift came in, none the wiser to what had happened.  I told my relief anyway.  He just looked at me and said:  “Hey, this is the 24th flight; all the major bugs have been worked out; we have a busy year ahead of us; relax.”

 

The rest of the flight went like clockwork, satellites were deployed, scientific measurements were taken, and the flight landed without incident on Saturday January 18. 

 

The next flight was scheduled to launch in less than a week, on January 25.  The schedule ahead was daunting.  I was beginning to think I was too tightly wrapped up to accommodate 12 or 15 missions in a year.  The pace was going to be grueling.  All the old timers were telling stories about the burnout and divorce rate that occurred to flight controllers during the Skylab program.  Maybe letting the managers watch the football playoffs on a quiet Sunday afternoon wasn’t a big deal.

 

On the 25th, the weather was bad so the launch was rescheduled for the 27th.  On the 27th, the white room crew couldn’t get the shuttle crew hatch to close.  A power tool from the KSC industrial area was requested, but when it arrived the battery was discharged.  During the delay, the winds crept out of limits, so launch was scrubbed late in the day.

 

My guys came back to the office after the scrub, tired after a long day of trying to launch.  One of my senior old time Apollo veteran contractors noted that it was the 19th anniversary of the Apollo fire and he was furious about the tool issue at KSC.  “Things like that will get somebody killed” he said. 

 

The next morning, January 28, 1986, we launched STS-51-L.

 

Needless to say, since that day nobody has ever watched non-mission TV while I have been in the mission control center.  

I have no recollection of who was even playing ball on that Sunday in January 1986.  But we certainly did not have our head in the game.

Thoughts on Commercial Human Orbital Spaceflight

Posted on by .

Shortly after I moved into the Shuttle Program office, I was very surprised to learn that NASA did not own the blueprints for the space shuttle!  The government never purchased the intellectual property and the design details of the vehicle.  The blueprints are all proprietary information belonging to Boeing.

 

NASA never really built any big rockets; NASA hires contractors to do that.  For example, the Saturn V was built in pieces, the mighty first stage by Chrysler (how times have changed!), the second stage by North American Aviation, the third stage by McDonnell Douglas, the lunar module by Grumman, and the command/service module by North American. 

 

North American Aviation was an innovative, nimble, flexible, efficient, small commercial aircraft company lead by the legendary “Dutch” Kindelberger.  NAA designed and built many classic aircraft including the P-51 Mustang.  After Kindelberger passed, corporate mergers changed NAA to North American Rockwell, then Rockwell International (which can claim credit as the designer and producer of the Space Shuttle orbiter), and now to merely a division of the Boeing corporation.  The historic site in Downey which saw production of the P-51 Mustang, the Apollo CSM, much of the Shuttle Orbiter was sold, sadly, to commercial interests who couldn’t turn a profit on the land as a strip mall but rent the property out for movie making.  Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.  After Boeing bought out RI, the workforce moved a few miles over to Huntington Beach.  It’s just business, as they say.

 

So I am quite amused by the current debate about whether or not NASA should build rockets or contract that work out to commercial firms.  NASA per se has never built rockets of any size.  But that statement is so simplistic as to be disingenuous.  There is a marked difference between the “old” way of doing business and what is being proposed as a “new” way of doing space business.

 

Simply put, in the old days (or even today’s days), NASA (the government) was in control; made all the big decisions, required complete insight into all the details of the design, manufacturing, testing, and production of the space flight vehicle.  Eye watering amounts of documentation were required for every step.  The contractor might do the detailed work, but the government folks got to see everything, review everything, and approve everything.  The contractors work on a “cost plus” basis and charged for every change.  Somewhere along the line, the small, nimble, flexible, innovative, efficient company that was North American Aviation became a cog in a bureaucratic, military-industrial, giant corporation (no offence, Boeing). 

 

The “new space” model is that one or more nimble, flexible, innovative, efficient commercial companies will provide a reliable, safe, economical launch vehicles and spacecraft that American astronauts can ride to the International Space Station.  Getting to low earth orbit is so easy that practically anybody can do it!  Large government programs are no longer required and NASA should concentrate its efforts on deep space exploration and doing the “hard” things like landing on the Moon or Mars.

 

Except that in the early part of the 21st century, getting to low earth orbit is neither routine nor easy.  Anybody that has really tried to do it – past the viewgraph engineering stage – can attest that getting to LEO is hard.  It requires precision, care, extremely good engineering, quality control, etc., etc., etc.  Landing on the moon may be “hard”, but getting to LEO and back is hardly a cakewalk.  Recently I have read several statements from some “new space” entrepreneurs concerning space flight safety.  They acknowledge that an accident would be devastating for the commercial crew launch business, so they profess that each of the companies attempting to put human spacecraft in orbit (or sub-orbit) is committed to safety.  I believe that statement.  However, intentions are not enough; remember whither the road leads which is paved with good intentions.  In my mind, I can hear entrepreneurial mortgage lenders claiming giving loans to people who cannot repay those loans is bad for business and could cause the mortgage company to fail.  Surely nobody would do that, right?  There are pressures to compromise safety everywhere and to think that a commercial business won’t be subject to those pressures is naive.  How do you know when you have gone from being “efficient” to having cut the corner too close?

 

I do believe that commercial human space flight can be accomplished much more economically and efficiently than the government and our “cost plus” contractors do it today.  And it can be done with a reasonable level of safety, even in this low margin, high energy, dangerous business.  But how to accomplish these competing goals is the question. 

 

It is entirely one thing for a wealthy adventurer to personally choose to go into space on a new and untried rocket.  After all, nobody stops you from climbing Mt. Everest or parachuting into the wild outback for a ski adventure on a pristine mountain, its your own skin, your own risk.  But if the goal is to put U. S. Government civilian employees who are on official U.S. Government business on a commercial rocket, it will be the responsibility of some government agency (NASA?  FAA?) to ensure that the “conveyance” is reasonably safe.  NASA knows only one way to attempt to ensure safety, and that is very invasive.  In this case, synonyms for ‘invasive’ include:  costly, slow, bureaucratic.  Won’t help the business to be nimble.

 

In the 1990’s, NASA turned over the management of the space shuttle subsystems to the Boeing contractor.  In effect NASA relinquished a modicum of control and insight, a huge change in NASA culture at the time.  Going to a commercial launch vehicle will require a bigger change NASA culture.  This level of culture change is not impossible, but it is hard.  We’re currently studying on how to make commercial human space flight work – safe and economical at the same time.  As always, the devil is in the details.  And the hardest part will be the culture change.  Changing NASA’s culture is a topic for another day.

Predictions and Wishes

Posted on by .

At a recent speaking engagement, I was introduced as an “expert”.  Scary title, that.  At another place I was introduced as “highly experienced”  which is a polite way of saying “old”. 

 

These put me in mind of Clarke’s Law.  Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the inventor of the geostationary satellite, author of innumerable books both non-fiction and science-fiction, and one of the truly forward thinkers of the 20th century.  Clarke’s first law has to do with predictions and experts.  He came to an interesting conclusion after studying the predictions of experts over the previous centuries.  To get you in the right frame of mind, consider some of these real predictions by well respected experts of the past:

 

Rail travel at high speeds is not possible because the passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia – Dr. D. Lardner, 1835

 

I can accept the theory of relativity as little as I can accept the existence of atoms and other such dogmas – Ernst Mach 1912

 

Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth decimal place – Nobel Prize laureate A. A. Michelson, 1894

 

Aerial flight is one of that class of problems with which man will never be able to cope – Simon Newcomb, 1903

 

The [atomic] bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives – Adm. William Leahy to President Truman, 1945

 

The popular mind often pictures gigantic flying machines speeding across the Atlantic carrying innumerable passengers in a way analogous to our modern steam ships.  It seems safe to say that such ideas are wholly visionary and even if the machine could get across with one or two passengers, the expense would be prohibitive to any but the capitalist who could use his own yacht. – William H. Pickering, 1910

And so on.  You get the point, and there are plenty of other predictions we can laugh at today. 

 

So Clarke postulated his first law: 

 

“When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right.  When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

 

 

Everybody is making up Christmas lists or maybe New Year’s Resolutions and wishes for what might happen in 2010 or later.  I think I will avoid such lists. 

 

In hopes of proving Sir Arthur Clarke correct, and based on my status as an aging “expert”, I would like to make some predictions (tongue firmly planted in cheek – hoping that reverse psychology will make the predictions fail):

 

1.  Human spaceflight was a passing fancy and its disappearance will hardly be noted by historians nor missed by the general public.

 

2.  Human beings will never again set foot on the moon nor travel to Mars or any other celestial body.

 

3.  The study of engineering and technology will become a thing of the past as the world’s standard of living returns to that of the 18th century.

 

4.  The popular entertainments of the day will so capture the imagination of the public that they are rendered incapable of any real productivity and spend their time in the pursuit of gossip about actors and sports figures.

 

5.  Constant exposure to digital toys will decrease the human attention space to milliseconds preventing any useful thought or accomplishment.

 

6.  Without any unifying goals, the world becomes increasingly balkanized into clan-like groups who turn to violence over ancient insults, real or imagined.

 

OH NO.  What an awful set of predictions.   The Grinch or Ebenezer Scrooge could not have done better.  But there they are, and I want credit for having made them.  If they come true, then I should be remembered for having predicted them.  If they don’t come true, I’ll be just as happy to join the company of William Pickering and A. A. Michelson!

 

Now for what I really wish for at this season  (not a prediction, lest I jinx it!):

 

A commitment from all the space faring nations of the world to join together – with adequate resources – to explore in detail the entire solar system in our lifetime; including the first permanent human habitations (colonies) on the Moon and Mars and outposts at other strategic points in the solar system; a well established and effective transportation system to link this community together; and a strong technology development program to enable it all.  Such an international effort would unite the peoples of the earth in cooperation to achieve a historic and noble goal and would result in innumerable benefits from technology and medical advancements, stronger economies and new industries, and serve to inspire our children to study the hard subjects and to follow their parents in achieving great things.

 

This may be too much to wish for; some may call it unrealistic, but human progress has only been truly made by unrealistic people.  Now my wish is that we buckle down and do it!

 

My very best wishes for each of you to have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Page 3 of 1412345...10...Last »