Flight Director Fables

Aesop’s fables have been famous for two millennia.  They are obviously fictional stories – animals talking and such – but they are still useful for teaching important concepts to children – and adults.


When I joined the Flight Director office there were a number of fables that we were taught.  Supposedly true, I cannot say that they really are.  But the moral of these stories was the point.  I’ll share just two with you today.


First Fable:  how to end your career quickly.


Gemini 8 was as close a call as American had in space up to that time.  Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott had just completed America’s first space docking between their Gemini spacecraft and an Agena target vehicle.  Suddenly, the stack started spinning up for no apparent reason.  Emergency undock was performed by the crew who hoped that the problem was with the Agena.  It was not, the spin rate increased more dramatically after separation.  Armstrong shut off the Gemini spacecraft’s primary attitude control system and activated the secondary system which was designed for limited use during re-entry.  Attitude control was regained, the crisis averted, everybody started breathing again. 


The Flight Rules called for an immediate deorbit once the re-entry attitude control system was activated; it had limited fuel and limited life.  So Flight Director John Hodge (Blue Flight) had the team execute a rapid deorbit to the secondary landing site in the Pacific Ocean near the destroyer USS Mason.  You might think that was the right thing to do.


Unfortunately . . . .

NASA management found out about the situation after the crew was in the ocean.  According to the legend, Hodge did not take the time to pick up the phone and call the Program Manager, the Center Director, or even his boss, the Chief of the Flight Director office.  The situation was stable, and even though waiting around was not necessarily a good thing, there was no reason that a couple of hours delay would have significantly increased the crew risk.  Upper management was severely out of sorts with Blue Flight because they were not called in to review a critical action that really could have waited, despite what the Flight Rules called for.


Bottom line:  John Hodge never served as Flight Director in Mission Control again.


Now, that is the way the story was told to us wide-eyed Flight Director wannabees.  Is it true?  Is it accurate?  Is it complete?  I have no way of knowing.  Probably not. 


But that is not the point of the fable.  The moral of the story for all rookie Flight Directors is ALWAYS INVOLVE YOUR MANAGEMENT.   Any time that a critical action can reasonably be delayed for even a few minutes GET ON THE PHONE WITH THE BOSS.  No matter what the Flight Rules say.  After all, it’s just your career on the line . . .


Second Fable:  Lies will catch up with you.


A long time ago, it seems hard to imagine now, there were no privacy laws and the press was ALWAYS interested in crew health.  Since about 60% of all astronauts have ‘space adaptation syndrome’ for the first three days of weightlessness.  The press could always get a good barf story.  Sometimes it seems like journalists never left the 5th grade.  Today a Flight Director can respond to questions about crew upchuckitis by saying “Detailed discussions about crew health are covered by the medical privacy act.  I can tell you that there has been no mission impact from any crew health issues.”  There is rarely any mission impact these days because we have learned to build a light schedule the first few days to allow the crew to get past the need for the emesis bags. 


In the early days of shuttle, such niceties did not exist.  Every eight hours the offgoing Flight Director had a post-shift press conference and had to withstand the barrage of questions from the media, who were just hoping to get some human interest story out of the tight lipped and technical NASA officials.  John Cox, Granite Flight, kept drawing the “space sickness” questions.  He made the huge mistake of putting out a fib:  ‘Crew is doing fine, no problems to speak of”  in one of the early press conferences.  A day later, the crew was definitely NOT doing fine, activities had been cancelled.  But Granite Flight kept up the pretense.  The press corps was suspicious.  By the third day Granite Flight’s denials fell apart and the media went into witch-hunt frenzy.  The video tape of that heated press conference is kept in the Flight Director training catalog and it is ugly with a capital U.  The head of Flight Medicine, Dr. Sam Poole, had to come in and save Dr. Cox.  Sam put a soft spin on things and more or less diffused the issue, but the damage was done.  Granite Flight’s credibility with the media was in the dumpster.


Now, is that the entire, completely accurate story?  Probably not.  But we all had to watch that press conference videotape knowing that we would be in that hot seat in the very near future.  The moral of the story:  DON’T LIE TO THE PRESS.  They will find out sooner or later and it will be very bad. 


Whenever people ask me how to deal with the media, I reply: “The first rule is tell the truth, never lie.  You will be found out and your credibility will be gone from then on.”  I’ve had lots of practice with press events after learning that less from poor old Granite Flight, and I can confirm it’s true.


John Cox was a great Flight Director and served for many mission.  I have a great deal of respect for him, not the least of which is that he dug his way out of that hole.


Remember, everybody is useful, sometimes just as an example of what not to do.

Averted Vision

When my daughter was in middle school, she became interested in astronomy.  We joined the local amateur club and built our own telescope.  It is amazing what sights can be seen with even a modest home built telescope in a light polluted suburb! 


One trick that experienced club members taught us was when looking for very dim celestial objects use averted vision.  The center part of your vision is very good for well lit color but not very good in dim light.  Away from the center of vision, the retina is better at picking up dim objects.  It seems like magic but if you avert your gaze slightly from a dim object, it will pop into view much more clearly.


Averted vision may be a metaphor for other subjects as well.


My boss has asked me to study NASA’s research and development grants.  Particularly, how their results differ from grants given by other federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and other non-defense discretionary agencies. 


This is a tough assignment for an old Flight Director. 


NASA has about a half a billion dollars actively at work in R&D grants at universities, research institutes, and various other places.  NSF runs about $2.5 billion in research grants every year.  NIH also pumps more money into R&D than does NASA.  What is different about the results that NASA gets from its investment in R&D? 


For one thing, there are specific questions that space exploration needs answered:  new types of space propulsion or power systems, closed loop environmental life support systems, and other mission critical applications.  To enable missions to the planets, NASA supports a lot of biomedical research on the effects of weightlessness and radiation on people and other biological systems.  These are the topics that the bulk of NASA’s R&D money goes toward.


Who would have thought that trying to get the most information out of planetary images from spacecraft would lead to image enhancing technology that greatly improves imagery from CAT scans or X-rays on people?  Or that NASA would be frequently asked by law enforcement agencies to enhance images from surveillance cameras to identify crime suspects?  None of these applications were on our minds when we tried to get better images of the craters on Enceladus or the methane lakes on Titan.


Discovery is like that.  Frequently when you are looking for one thing you discover more, sometimes much more.  The history of technology is full of hoary stories about researchers finding something other than what they were looking for:  Alexander Fleming finding penicillin in a dirty culture dish, Charles Goodyear leaving his rubber experiment on the stove resulting in the vulcanization process, etc., etc.


NASA is trying to turn dirty water into clean water so long duration space missions can be possible.  Seems like there might be a use for that on Earth, too.  You might see one of the practical results here:  http://www.sti.nasa.gov/tto/Spinoff2008/er_4.html


That is only one of a thousand.  NASA R&D does pay off, and not just for applications in space.



Sometimes when you see something out of the corner of your eye, it is like magic.

Big day tomorrow!

Tomorrow, September 10, 2009, is shaping up to be a busy day for space.  Three significant events are scheduled within a few hours of each other

First, at 1:01 PM EDT, is the launch of the Japanese HTV from Tanegashima Launch Site in Japan.  This is Japan’s first attempt to robotically resupply the International Space Station.  (OK, for the record, it will be 2:01 AM Sept. 11 in Tanegashima)

Second, at 3:00 PM EDT, the slightly delayed test of the new five segment booster DM-1 will take place at the Promontory, Utah test site.

Third, at 7:05 PM EDT, the Space Shuttle Discovery is scheduled to land at the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

This wasn’t actually planned to work out this way, all these events just coalesced into the same short time period.  And, for the record, none of these events are time critical.  A weather delay or short technical delay resulting in moving any or all of these events a day or a few days later is no big deal.  Better safe than sorry in this business.

But if it all comes together, it will be a busy day.


Risk Averse

During my travels I always carry a paperback to read.  A book that I finished recently was a history (my usual subject) concerning some German emigrants to America in the 1840’s.  Their story was entirely typical:  conditions in their village had deteriorated and they were lured by glowing stories of the opportunities in the United States.  So they sold their houses and all their goods and made their way to the port at Antwerp.  Unscrupulous characters soon fleeced them.  Broke and alone in a country where they had no resources and did not speak the language, the putative emigrants were forced to beg for food and shelter.  Some died.  A shipowner agreed to provide them passage to the new world in exchange for indentured service upon arrival.  The ocean voyage was miserable, the crew was inept, they ran out of food, water, encountered storms, and about a third of the party died during the voyage.  Shortly after arrival in port, a smallpox epidemic took another third of the company.  The survivors were marched off to indentured servitude; the remnants of families torn asunder.  Only the strongest, or the luckiest, survived.


As I said, a story that was very typical.  Few people made it easily to the “land of opportunity.”


My great-grandfather was of German emigrant descent; that book could have been the story of his parents.  I never knew him since he died before I was born, but I knew my great-grandmother, and I’ve written about her before:




As a very young boy my parents would take me to visit her in central Oklahoma.  As a young girl, she had walked alongside the family wagon as they moved west to new territory in search of land and a better life.  Yet she lived will into her 90s and saw the beginnings of the space age.  


And I had to wonder, as I thought of her and of the difficulties, dangers, and hardships of the pioneers who made this country strong, affluent, and powerful, do we still have what our pioneer ancestors had?  My grandmother was old, small, and frail when I knew her.  What shone through during those visits was a strength of character, a clarity of purpose, and a directness in communication that made you forget the frailty of old age.  Her stark assessment of those pioneer days is still fresh in my memory:  “The cowards never started, and the weak ones died along the way.”  She faced that hardship and danger and had a better life than if her family had not taken the risk to move west.


What is it, I wonder, that has made America a great nation?  Abundant natural resources are part of it.  The availability of cheap labor was a factor.  But other peoples have had cheap labor and abundant resources and have not succeeded in building a strong nation.  I believe that it is due the American character; an innate optimism and the bold willingness to take on risks if they hold the promise of a better tomorrow.  We have become the envy and wonder of the world not because of our wealth and power, but because of our character.


My great-great-grandparents certainly had some appreciation of the risks they incurred by moving west, but they could not have fully understood it.  They knew Risk in the Big Sense: danger, hardship, and death threatened their way:  accidents, disease, wild animals (wolves, bears, and snakes), hostile natives, terrible weather, and the difficulty of travel through the wilderness, all of these they must have recognized.  But the details would have been only vaguely understood.  The details of hardship were of secondary importance, they knew the Big Risk well enough.  They took what preparations they could, and they set out.


My great-grandfather made mistakes; he literally lost the ranch in the great depression.  But overall, they avoided the Big Mistake:  not taking a worthwhile risk.  Martin Luther once said “Sin boldly.”  That is not permission to do what you know is wrong, but it is an admonition not to be paralyzed to inaction by the prospect that you might be doing something wrong. 


Today we live in the luxury of their legacy.  Our greatest hardship may be mowing the grass; our greatest risk may be driving on the freeway.  These challenges just don’t compare with what our great-grandparents faced every day.  Have we lost the capability to weigh risk and reward, hardship and hope, difficulty and opportunity as they did?

So the fundamental question remains, do we have those qualities that made our ancestors successful?  Do we have the judgment to weigh it all in the balance?  Do we have the character to dare great deeds? 


History is watching. 



Recently, I was in a public meeting where NASA was castigated as being “risk averse”.  Is that a fair assessment, I wondered?  


Then I remembered the words of one of my heroes, Capt. John Young:  “We put seven people on top of 6 million pounds of high explosives and launch them into orbit at speeds six times faster than a rifle bullet.  What part of that sounds safe to you?”


Well said.  I couldn’t add to that statement.


It is easy to accuse someone of being risk averse when you personally don’t have to make tough decisions with real consequences.  At NASA we make hard decisions every day and the whole world gets to watch and see if we got it right.


I wouldn’t have it any other way.


I think my great-grandparents would have approved.

Figure of Merit

Figure of Merit is a term that may be unfamiliar.  Engineers use this term to describe a number – based on a formula – which is useful in comparing different items.  An everyday “figure of merit” is MPG (miles per gallon) for automobile fuel efficiency.  If you have bought a household appliance recently you may have noted an energy efficiency “figure of merit” on the label.  That allows you to decide to pay more for a more efficient appliance, or conversely to decide that the increased efficiency is not worth the cost and go for cheaper model.  A figure of merit is always a simplification and your real world results may vary.  For example, on my two year old vehicle, I have yet to achieve the MPG average that the sticker said it would get.  Maybe I just have a heavy foot, or something.  But that rating allowed me to compare vehicles in a significant way before I made the decision to buy.  A figure of merit may not in itself be the deciding factor.  But having a figure of merit is good when making a comparison between options.


There are many folks who wish that the world is different than it is.  Science fiction movies in my childhood concentrated how the rocket worked in getting people to space rather than what they did when they got there.  Nowadays, Han Solo jumps in the Millennium Falcon and instantaneously is in space making the calculations for hyperdrive.  Kirk and Spock, if not using the transporter, ride a shuttlecraft effortlessly to the space dock where the new starship is ready for flight.  Because Hollywood can do it with blue screens or computer animation, the popular imagination believes such things can be done in real life.  Or should be able to do it.  Or maybe just wish that we could do them.


So we see some folks that talk a good talk about getting into earth orbit.  Unfortunately the state of the art of technology doesn’t quite match the state of the art of portrayed in some powerpoints.


So I propose a figure of merit exercise to illustrate the difficulty of getting to earth orbit.  My figure of merit based on the energy state.  (Hold on, this takes just a little bit of physics and mathematics – nothing that a high school graduate shouldn’t be expected to know). 


So a High school physics refresher: total energy is the sum of kinetic and potential energy. 




Potential energy depends on how high up you are: height (or altitude) times gravity times mass:


PE=h x g x m. 


For example, a commercial airliner cruises at roughly 35,000 ft.  Let’s call it 6 nautical miles high, just to use an antique measurement system (I’m an old guy).  A spacecraft in low earth orbit probably needs to be at about 120 miles altitude to have significant orbital lifetime before atmospheric drag causes decay.  In simple math:


PE orbit/PE airplane = 120 miles x g x mass/6 miles x g x mass


So to stay in low earth orbit you need to be about 20 times higher than a commercial airliner.  That means, you need 20 times the potential energy to get from an airliner altitude to an orbital spacecraft altitude.  Wow.  No wonder space travel is hard.


But wait, that’s not all.  What about the other part of the equation, kinetic energy.  Kinetic energy increases as the square of velocity: 


KE = ½ x m x v x v.


A typical commercial airliner cruises at about 500 mph.  To be in earth orbit requires a speed of 17,500 mph. 


 KE orbit/KE airplane = ½ x m x 17,500 mph x 17,500 mph / ½ x m x 500 x 500 = 1250 ! 


So it takes more than a thousand times as much kinetic energy to be in earth orbit as it does to be at airliner cruise speed! 


It might be interesting to compare some other vehicles with orbital energy.  For example, the SR-71 is the fastest military aircraft ever.  It could go Mach 3 at an altitude of 80,000 ft. That is quite a bit more energy than a piddling commercial airliner.  And the X-15 got to Mach 6.7 and an altitude of over 350,000 feet – well, not simultaneously, but let’s do that calculation just to make it easy.  Here is a short table of some interesting vehicles:


Commercial airliner energy state at cruise:                            159 kjoule/kg

SR-71 at max speed & max altitude:                                      748 kjoule/kg

Space Ship 1 at max speed & max altitude:                         1,658 kjoule/kg

X-15 record altitude & record speed:                                   3,237 kjoule/kg

Mercury-Redstone at max speed & max altitude:                  5,605 kjoule/kg

International Space Station (low earth orbit):                    194,775 kjoule/kg


If you ever wonder why flying in space is not as simple or as easy as going to your local airport and getting on a scheduled commercial airliner, think physics.  Going to orbit is not twice as hard or ten times as hard as an airliner; it is over a thousand times as hard.


Wishful thinking won’t make it easier. 



Hochstein’s Law

Alan Hockstein was the man most feared by pilot astronauts.  Well, except maybe for George Abbey.  Let me explain why.


The shuttle is the world’s largest glider.   The pilot has one and only one chance to make a landing; there is no “go-around” capability.  Obviously, good piloting techniques are studied exhaustively.  Much analysis and simulation has been completed to maximize the chance for a successful landing.


Alan was the senior landing analyst.  That means he studied more and worked harder than anyone to understand how the shuttle flies – especially in the final approach and landing phase.  One part of Alan’s job was to analyze the telemetry from each shuttle landing and see how that compared to the “ideal” landing.  So in a quiet office environment over a couple of weeks, Alan and his team would look at each telemetry point, every sample (up to 125 per second for some parameters) and compute how each one affected the landing. 


Every shuttle commander dreaded the day of the Entry, Descent, and Landing Debriefing.  Standing in front of a projection screen filled with data curves in the presence of a room full of folks, Alan would ask the commander something like:  “why did you deflect the hand controller here” pointing at a squiggle on the screen.  “That input caused a deviation of 12 feet high above the flight path which correlates to a 273 foot miss distance at the touchdown point.”  The commander would squirm in his seat and say “we had a wind gust” or some such.  Alan would point to another squiggly line on the plot and say “the accelerometer data doesn’t show a wind gust at that point.”  The poor pilot would then have to come up with some other lame excuse: “the visual scene was obscured by some wispy clouds.”  Alan would pull out the meteorological report “the lowest observed clouds were at 25,000 feet”  And so it would go.  Excruciating for the veteran test pilots who pride themselves on their steely nerved stick and rudder reactions.


Why did we go through this ritual?  One reason only: to learn what we could about flying techniques, how they affected the landing, what might work better.  All of this so that the next pilot would have a better idea of how to maximize the chance “for a happy outcome.”


At our Flight Techniques meetings, Alan was a frequent presenter showing what had been learned, advising of the best techniques.  At one period we experienced a number of landings that were shorter than desirable – still on the runway, but consistently closer to the threshold than comfortable.  Alan analyzed hundreds of combinations of factors over a several dozen landings looking for correlations.  Nothing seemed to correlate, except one:  “If you cross the threshold low, you are likely to touch down short.” 


Now that may seem obvious in retrospect.  If a glider comes in low, any pilot would intuitively expect a short touchdown.  But it was only obvious in retrospect.  And any number of other correlations that common sense might have suggested were simply not borne out by the data.  So we called this “Hockstein’s Law”:  If you cross the threshold low, you will touch down short.  The entire community worked very hard with the pilots to improve techniques to be higher at threshold crossing and thereby the incidence of short touchdowns was significantly reduced.  Well, that is the very short summary anyway.


Nowadays, I don’t spend my time studying shuttle landings like I used to.  Recently I’ve been a data gatherer and logistics helper to the Augustine Committee.  That group has been getting a lot of data and, among other things, looking at the cost estimates of various options for space flight.  I’m not well suited to work in that ethereal regime; nuts and bolts are more my specialty.   But it occurs to me that we need an Alan Hockstein to look at project development budgets for clues of how to improve the performance of future work.


Somebody who will look at each data point in depth, spend the time to think about it, calculate the consequences of each movement, and then provide those of us who may have to execute a project in the future with some guidelines that might lead to a better likelihood of a “happy outcome”.


Some of my experience suggests possible correlations between different events and poor program performance.  For example, continuing resolutions on the budget cause disruptions and delay planned activities.  It would seem that there might be a high correlation between lack of a firm budget (e.g., a continuing resolution) and poor program performance.  Then again, Norm Augustine himself kept saying that the secret to successful project management is reserves.  Perhaps the congressional prohibition against budgeting reserves for projects plays a role in poor program performance.  Then there is something called a “rescission.”  I never knew what a rescission was until I got into program management.  A rescission basically prevents a program from spending all the money budgeted for it.  I’m no analyst but it may be that rescissions play a role in poor program performance.


All of those things are just guesses on my part.  I’m no analyst.  But it seems like a good study if we want to have successful projects in the future. 


Now, where is Alan when we need him?

Philosopher Corps


Following the Apollo 11 40th anniversary celebrations, a close friend of mine who does not work in aerospace asked me for the top 5 space books he should read.  Topping my list is Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff”.  That is the quintessential book about the early days of American’s manned space flight; a must-read for anybody interested in the topic.


However, there are a few things that Mr. Wolfe did not quite capture, a small criticism from somebody who has never attempted to write a book.  So it was of some interest that I read Mr. Wolfe’s New York Times opinion piece on the Apollo moon landing.  You can find it here:




Since one of the main purposes of this blog is to provide some public framework that explains why human space flight is important, I suppose I could be distressed by Mr. Wolfe’s conclusion that there are no philosophers who have articulated a vision and rationale for these goals.  What am I?  Well, not a philosophy major certainly; six hours as an undergraduate does not qualify me in that field.  Most of the modern day philosophers I have read are dense, hard to understand, and certainly no engaging in a common public sort of arena.   I wonder if Aristotle or Immanuel Kant had written on space flight would that make a difference in today’s open ended debate?  And what if NASA had proposed hiring a Corps of Philosophers in 1970?  Would the Office of Personnel Management approved it?  Hmmm.


Besides, I believe that there are plenty of philosophers (by practice if not by degree) that have provided publicly engaging rationale for space flight:  think of Carl Sagan, Gerard K. O’Neill, Gene Shoemaker, Neil DeGrasse Tyson just to name a few. 


Besides, you don’t have to see too many clips of people interviewed on the street who don’t know who our first president was or what is in the constitution to figure out that some folks are probably just never going to get it.  Not that we shouldn’t try.


But if you want the best rationale I have ever heard, I want you to read this essay written by Archibald McLeish when he was Poet Laureate of the US, inspired by Apollo, at the end of 1968. 



        Our conception of ourselves and of each other has always depended on our image of the earth.

        When the earth was the World – all the world there was – and the stars were lights in

Dante’s Heaven, and the ground beneath our feet roofed Hell, we saw ourselves as creatures at the center of the universe, the sole particular concern of God.  And from that high place, man ruled and killed as he pleased. 


        And when, centuries later, the earth was no longer the world but a small, wet, spinning planet in the solar system of a minor star off at the edge of an inconsiderable galaxy in the vastness of space – when Dante’s Heaven foundered and there was no Hell – no Hell, at least, beneath our feet – men began to see themselves not as God-directed actors in the solemn paces of a noble play, but rather as the victims of an idiotic farce where all the rest were victims also and multitudes had perished without meaning.


        Now, in this latest generation of mankind, the image may have altered once again.  For the first time in all of time men have seen the earth with their own eyes – seen the whole earth in the vast void as even Dante never dreamed of seeing it – seen what whimpering victims could not guess a man might see.


        When they saw the earth, “halfway to the moon” they put it, they asked “Is it inhabited?” and laughed.  And then they did not laugh.


        The medieval notion of the earth put man at the center of everything.  The scientific notion put him nowhere: beyond the range of sense or reason, lost in absurdity and death.  This latest notion may have other consequences.  Formed as it was in the eyes of heroic voyagers where were also men, it may remake our lost conception of ourselves.  No longer the preposterous player at the center of an unreal stage – no longer that degraded and degrading victim off at the verges of reality and blind with blood – man may discover what he really is.


        To see the earth as we now see it, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the unending night – brothers who see now that they are truly brothers.


                                        -Riders on the Earth, Archibald MacLeish, 1968




Carrying the Torch

I’ve said before that the exploration of space reminds me of the Olympic torch relay.  So here is a note to all you relay runners who carry the torch every day in your work; to those who have retired from the race, and to those who dream of carrying the fire one day.

Not everybody gets to carry the torch up the stadium steps and light the cauldron in the presence of tens of thousands and the virtual presence of tens of millions.  Only a very few get to carry the torch in moments of glory.

Not everyone who carries the torch is remembered, only a few names are ever announced.

Not everybody gets to carry the torch over the mountain tops, just a handful get to carry the fire through magnificent vistas.

Not everybody gets to carry the torch where it is cheered on by adoring crowds.

Somebody has to carry the torch in the rain, somebody has to carry the torch through the valley, somebody has to carry the torch through the warehouse district and the swamp.  Somebody even has to carry the torch in places where the onlookers jeer.

But the the torch has to be carried.  If the flame is ever to reach its goal, if the cheering multitudes are ever to see the final runner holding the torch high, it must to be carried. 

Space exploration is like that.  Some days are glorious days, some days are awful, and most days can be tedious. 

But if we stumble, and the torch falls, and the light goes out, then all the dreams and all the sweat of all of those who came before us will be for nought.  And all the hopes for those who might have carried the torch after us will fade away in the night.

We don’t get to chose the section of the course we run.  We just get to carry the torch. 

Celebrate with those who carried the torch in glory days.  Know that glory days will come again. 

Don’t forget to hold it high, even  in ordinary times, even in the presence of those who jeer. 

Because those who carry the torch, carry the future in their hands.

Because even if you have to run through the desert and never hear the cheering throngs, you are still carrying the fire. 

And how well you run your distance is the only reward that is truly worth having.

Curmudgeon thoughts

It may just be that my recent superannuated birthday is weighing on my mind, but I have been having curmudgeon thoughts a lot lately. 

First curmudgeon though:  why do prices continually go up?

For as long as I can remember, coffee in the Mission Control Center cost 10 cents.  Best coffee around, too.  For more than 20 years, the price hasn’t changed.  Its not subsidized, there is an informal “club” that manages the coffee.  Nothing fancy, plain joe accompanied by powered creamer and sugar if you must.

A few months ago, I was floored when the sign said the price was now 15 cents!  Highway robbery.  Of course, they also have added a bunch of foo-foo creamer options (hazelnut, amaretto, yech) that no real flight controller would touch.  I can remember when men were men and flight controllers . . . .well, I guess it must be my advanced age which is leading to this rant.

Why is this important?  Because, if you want to know the truth, all the real decisions in the MCC are made at the coffee pot.  I know, the flight control team is all tied in on console with all the information displayed on multicolored interactive computer screens.  But the real management decisions all get made when the flight director comes by the coffee pot and all the senior managers sitting in the viewing room converge there too. 

Second curmudgeon topic:  grown children being contrary.

In case you caught my blog post comparing Star Trek to our current space program, I would point out that my son has written a similar blog post comparing Star Trek to his work — in a very favorable light.  Aren’t children supposed to follow their parent’s lead instead of taking the opposite tack?  http://www.umportal.com/article.asp?id=5588

Third curmudgeon topic:  stupid comments about launch weather scrubs. 

I have been to KSC and I have waited for the weather to clear enough for it to be safe to launch our astronauts.  I have even taken my family down there and had their vacation plans disrupted due to launch delays.  So I can somewhat understand disappointment about launch delays.  But anybody with a brain should realize that launching into a thunderstorm is just plain stupid.  In the bigger picture, delaying a day or three will never be remembered.  Having the shuttle struck by lightning would haunt us for a long time.  So pipe down.  It is Florida in the summer time.  What did you expect.  Pack more . . . clothes . . . next time.

Fourth curmudgeon topic:  blog-o-sphere confusion over who sets national space policy.

Recently the ISS program manager had to tell the media that NASA is developing plans to deorbit the ISS in 2016.  Everybody on the internet jumped on that as the stupidest thing ever heard.  Why would NASA want to eliminate a hugely expensive project just as it is becoming useful?  Short answer — NASA doesn’t want to do that.  Congress and the OMB have indicated that they will not give us the money to keep it operating.  By international treaty we must dispose of orbital objects when their lifetime is complete.  This is not a stupid decision on the part of NASA, it is, as the Gehman report said, “a failure of national leadership.”  Time will tell if we continued to be directed down this course or if we will be given operating funds to use the ISS as a national research laboratory as it was intended.

Final curmudgeon topic: the more things change the more they stay the same.

 During our recent office move, one of my co-workers cleaning out his files came across an ABC Radio transcript by Jim Slade made on August 12, 1991.   He was at KSC and after talking for a few minutes about the activity at KSC he got to the gist of his commentary which I will excerpt for your reading pleasure:

“There is a cynical tendency to jeer whenever a big, visible program doesn’t work right.  Impatience, leavened with the idea that lots of money ought to mean perfection.  . . .  If you want to know what’s wrong with NASA, you will have to dig back in your history books ten to fifteen years ago when neither the White House nor the Congress could decide if the space program was fish, fowl, or tinker toy.  Funding was inadequate to do the job  . . . More importantly, though, the space agency was getting no direction.  No political leader had the interest or the courage to say “this is what we ought to do with the things we have learned,” and, as a result NASA drifted . . . there has been one commission after another making a study of what the US should be doing in space in the next fifty years.  Usually, they say the say the same thing:  go back to the moon and on to Mars.  And so far, there has been a lot of political talk about it . . . .”


OK, after this, no more curmudgeon thoughts.  I promise.  Really.



Real Life is Not Like Star Trek

For my birthday, my son and fellow Star Trek aficionado gave me some DVDs with the old TV series.  Needless to say, I have made a lengthy review of the subject lasting far into the evenings over the last week or so.


As a fictional future, Star Trek set a high standard:  there was always in interesting planet to explore, every week there was a challenging interpersonal (interspecies?!) relationship to develop, the good guys always won, camaraderie reigned supreme.  Even logic and reason, while important, were shown to be inferior to human intuition and compassion.  Every episode left you with the feeling that things just would just get better and better.  What an exciting, upbeat, pleasantly challenging universe we would encounter in the future!  Pop culture was profoundly affected:  “Beam me up Scotty!”


So my evaluation of the genre?  Star Trek ruined an entire generation, maybe two.


Don’t get me wrong – I really enjoy the old series (except maybe for the first movie).  I still do.  I indoctrinated my kids and they are working on indoctrinating my grandkids.  Beam me up Scotty, indeed.


Alas, one of the most poignant Dilbert cartoons of all time has a senior engineer telling a naive young intern to “climb into the Jeffries tube” (the air conditioning duct) to get to “engineering” where an impending disaster could to be averted.   After the intern gets stuck in the duct, the senior engineer says “this is where the intern finds out that life is not like Star Trek”.   Too true:  real life is not like Star Trek.


We have not found any alien civilizations (yet), nor life of any kind elsewhere.  Even the evidence for fossilized life on some meteorites is highly controversial.  Humans have briefly scouted exactly one other world full of “magnificent desolation.”   Most of our human time has been spent in low earth orbit, eking out a toehold in space.  Some of our robots have visited more worlds and their splendid visits give us some hope for future exploration.


But for my generation, indoctrinated in the Star Trek mythos, the bar was set high and in real life the results have been, well, meager.  Space exploration has lead to the development of loads of new technologies (GPS, direct broadcast satellite TV), and there have been many examples of courage and heroes to inspire us; but we are a little short in the interaction-with-beings-from-other planets department.  (No UFO letters please).


Real life has turned out to be a lot darker and more complicated than any of the TV episodes or even the movies.  Nothing really gets settled in an hour in real life, does it?


Over the years the Star Trek franchise also changed as the new episodes became darker and less optimistic.  Picard stuck in endless battles with the Borg; Voyager never going to make it home, Deep Space 9 battling shape shifters to an inconclusive standoff, and Enterprise which became a dark soap opera centered on the relationships between the crewmembers.  The last movie has become the of the darkest of all – exchanging a bright future timeline for a more sordid and darker one.  Sigh. So much for “rebooting” the future.


(Meanwhile, I have often pondered the metaphorical symbolism of the Borg Collective as a substitute for the OMB.  Really.  “Resistance is Futile.”  Think about it.)


If the Star Trek writers were to make a more real-life episode, it would probably have consisted of Jean-Luc Picard testifying before the Federation Senate subcommittee on the Star Fleet budget and how it was inadequate to carry out the exploration mission which was the primary reason for the existence of the Fleet.  An interesting or exciting episode?  No.  But then, as I said before:  real life is not like Star Trek.


So a whole generation or maybe three has been ruined to expect excitement, glamour, interspecies interaction, and a host of things that space exploration in the real universe simply does not provide.  Ruined.  Expectations set too high.  Thus we have many people who might otherwise support space exploration but are disappointed by its current status.


I was fortunate to have a personal interaction with the Great Bird of the Galaxy, Gene Roddenberry while I was in college in the early 70’s.  His vision – and it remained constant until he passed away – was of an optimistic future.  A future where hard work, risk taking, and good judgment, trust, and compassion would lead to rewards for both the individual and society as a whole.  The franchise did not turn dark until he was gone. 


Call me a pollyanna if you like, but I agree with Roddenberry.   There is an exciting future out there for us. 


I guess I really have been ruined because I really do – at my core – believe that hard work, risk taking, good judgment, trust, and compassion will lead to great rewards for our whole society.   All the societies on Earth.  Heck, even those alien societies we may encounter some day.


Now if we could just get a Zefram Cochrane to show us how to travel a warp speed . . . . 

 . . . .   maybe real life would become like Star Trek.