Presidents' Day

Today (as I post this) is the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States.  Next Monday (February 16th this year) we celebrate Presidents’ Day in honor of the birthdays of both Lincoln and George Washington.  Poor George had the misfortune to live during the period when the English speaking world changed from the Julian Calendar to the new Calendar endorsed by Pope Gregory – which caused his birthday to move about ten days on the calendar.  So we can celebrate George Washington’s birthday about anywhere in the second half of February, I guess.  Which may be why the Federal holiday is movable and always on a Monday.  Pity that we don’t celebrate Jefferson’s birthday (April 13), too but then I suppose we are to celebrate all our presidents on Monday the 16th.   I wonder what the legacy of our new President will be?


Enough meandering.  Change is inevitable and comes increasingly quickly.  There are plenty of news stories or sociological papers about how quickly change is accelerating in our times.  How can we possibly cope with such huge and rapid change, they all ask.


Interesting, then, to contemplate the changes that occurred between Washington and Lincoln.  Was there any change to speak of? 


To answer that question I would offer up a short selection which is more thoughtful than anything I could write on my own.


The following is an excerpt from “Undaunted Courage” by Stephen Ambrose.  The book is about the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-6


Pay careful attention to the sentence which describes the biggest obstacle to change being that of a closed mind.



   “It seemed unlikely that one nation could govern an entire continent.  The distances were just too great.  A critical fact in the world of 1801 was that nothing moved faster than the speed of a horse.  No human being, no manufactured item, no bushel of wheat, no side of beef (or any beef on the hoof, for that matter), no letter, no information, no idea, order, or instruction of any kind moved faster.  Nothing ever had moved any faster, and, as far as Jefferson’s contemporaries were able to tell, nothing ever would. 

     And except on a racetrack, no horse moved very fast.  Road conditions in the United States ranged from bad to abominable, and there weren’t very many of them.  The best highway in the country ran from Boston to New York; it took a light stagecoach, carrying only passengers, their baggage, and the mail, changing horses at every station, three full days to make the 175 mile journey.  The hundred miles from New York to Philadelphia took two days.  South of the new capital city of Washington, D.C., there were no roads suitable for a stagecoach; everything moved on horseback.  . . .

     To the west, beyond the mountains, there were no roads at all, only trails.  To move men or mail from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Seaboard took six weeks or more; anything heavier than a letter took two months at least. . . .

     People took it for granted that things would always be this way.  The idea of progress based on technological improvements or mechanics, the notion of a power source other than muscle, falling water, or wind, was utterly alien to virtually every American.  Writing in the last decade of the nineteenth century about conditions in the year of Jefferson’s inaugural, Henry Adams observed that “great as were the material obstacles in the path of the United States, the greatest obstacle of all was in the human mind.  Down to the close of the eighteenth century no change had occurred in the world which warranted practical men in assuming that great changes were to come.

     Since the birth of civilization there had been almost no changes in commerce or transportation. Americans lived in a free and democratic society, he first in the world since ancient Greece, a society that read Shakespeare and had produced George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but a society whose technology was barely advanced over that of the Greeks.  The Americans of 1801 had more gadgets, better weapons, a superior knowledge of geography, and other advantages over the ancients, but they could not move goods or themselves or information by land or water any faster than had the Greeks and Romans. 

     But only sixty years later, when Abraham Lincoln took the Oath of Office as the sixteenth president of the United States, Americans could move bulky items in great quantity farther in an hour than Americans of 1801 could do in a day, whether by land (twenty five miles per hour on the railroads) or water (ten miles an hour upstream on a steamboat).  This great leap forward in transportation – a factor of twenty or more – in so short a space of time must be reckoned as the greatest and most unexpected revolution of all – except for another technological revolution, the transmitting of information.  In Jefferson’s day, it took six weeks to move information from the Mississippi River to Washington, D.C.  In Lincoln’s, information moved over the same route by telegraph all but instantaneously.

     Time and distance, mountains and rivers meant something entirely different to Thomas Jefferson from what they meant to Abraham Lincoln.”




So with change inevitable and accelerating, our economic health depends on our innovation and flexibility to provide new products and services in the future; some of which are not even conceived in the public mind today. 


NASA has long been an agent of innovation, and there is ample documentation of new products, services, companies, and entire sectors of the economy that were spun off or at least advanced by what we do.  For that reason alone, NASA is a good investment for the country.


It is incredibly important to be innovative and that is why we must look to the best practices to encourage innovation and the development of ideas into productive parts of our economy. 

Burning Rocks

There is an apocryphal story in flight control.  Like many apocryphal stories there may have been a kernel of truth somewhere in the distant past, but the story has morphed over time.  Now the story has value for didactic purposes:  it has a moral or some teaching point.  That is why apocryphal stories persist.


Way back before the first moon landing in 1969, some senior planetary scientist published a theory that the lunar rocks were highly energized by the sunlight, the solar wind, or cosmic rays or something.  So highly energized is the dust and rocks that when the first lunar explorers would return to the lunar module, close the hatch, and – still encased in their now dusty space suits – repressurize the cabin of the lunar module to 5 pounds per square inch pressure of pure oxygen, the rocks and dust would spontaneously burst into flame.  Catastrophe.


This prediction came to light less than two weeks before the launch of the first lunar landing.


The leaders of NASA scratched their heads.  Obviously such a prediction by a senior scientist in the field must be considered seriously.  But on the other hand, how do you test that theory to see if it is true?  With no moon rocks there was no way to test the hypothesis.  Consulting other experts was inconclusive:  maybe yes, maybe no.  The entire space program had been straining for years to get to the first lunar launch; the Soviet Union was right on our heels, what should we do?  Stand down for months to send a robot to the moon to test the problem? 


They ignored it. 


Yep, that’s right, they ignored it.  Pressed on and launched.  If there was angst, they hid it.  Did their pulse rate quicken when the hatch closed on the LM?  They didn’t show it.

And, fortunately, the rocks did not spontaneously combust in the pure oxygen atmosphere of the Apollo modules. 


So the story entered legend.  Any type of issue which was discovered at the last minute, which fundamentally and monumentally challenged a space mission, and which could not be tested or analyzed in any reasonable time became known in the community as a “burning rocks” issue.


As Flight Director, it became part of my job assignment (other duties as assigned, I guess) to listen to burning rocks issues.  Without exception, on every flight, not one, not two, but several people would come to my office, quietly close the door, and confess the demons that were plaguing their souls.  Something that had been bothering them for months, but which had never been spoken aloud before.  Procedures that might not work, tests that had not been performed, uncertainties about parts of the mission ahead both large and small; the Flight Director becomes Father Confessor to all kinds of folks.


All of these issues had several characteristics in common.  First, they had been on the individual’s mind for a long time but had never been brought up anywhere, any time, to anybody before.  Second, they were all fundamental issues that, to deal with properly, would require months or years of testing, analysis, or redesign.  Third, the individual bringing them forward had no idea how to deal with the issues.


Why these issues were not brought up long before is a mystery to me.  There must be a psychological explanation, but I’m no psychologist.  If the individual had spoken up earlier, there might have been time to deal with the problem; get experts together, do some analysis, run some test, rework a crew procedure, something.  But these confession sessions always always always came just days before launch.  Too late for anything to be done but to have a session with Father Confessor and ask for absolution.


On a rare occasion, the Flight Director might deem the problem as worthy of bringing forward to Program Management, or at least of getting a team assembled to start working on potential solutions.  But mostly the Flight Director would determine that it was too late, the probability was too low, the consequences not high enough.  So the Flight Director would just listen, nod, tell the individual “I got it” and then quietly let the matter drop.


Does that sound horrible?  I have to tell you that most of these concerns were so far outside the realm of normal or even abnormal operations that the risk seemed very low.  But when we compared notes, it turns out that every Flight Director (and there are a lot of us) would get several of these sessions before launch.  And it had been going on since the  manned space flight started.  Maybe it works that way with robotic launches too, I don’t know.


And in every case, the confessing individual went away, much relieved that his or her conscience was clear because somebody in authority (the Flight Director) had been told.  Having done the very littlest, minimal thing they could do, they could believe they were off the hook if the bad thing really happened.  Management had been informed.  Yep.


And, other than the fact the Flight Director did not sleep well on those last nights before the launch, none of those burning rocks issues ever came true.  In my experience, we have had plenty of other problems and issues, large and small, but not the ones that were ever the subject of the last minute confession by worried engineers.


And OK, the Flight Director isn’t going to sleep well that last couple of nights before launch anyway.  What are a few more demons to face at 3 AM?


And the moral of this particular story?

You want to put people into space? 


You better learn to sleep with burning rocks.

Don't Call Him Willy Any More

Back when the world was much younger than it is now, I was a young shuttle flight controller working in the MCC on several early flights.  We were all learning about the shuttle in those days, and one fellow I knew actually saved the shuttle because he knew what to do when the unexpected happened.

I was  PROP, he was GNC; we sat together down in the front row, right corner of Mission Control.  Willy was one of the USAF “detailees” assigned to learn to be shuttle flight controllers.  In those early days there was a plan to eventually turn one of NASA’s shuttles over to the USAF to use for “classified” missions.  After the Challenger accident, all those plans were cancelled, but in the early 1980’s the shuttle was supposed to take over ALL space transportation duties for the United States.  That is what STS stands for:  “Space Transportation System”.  As in ‘THE’ Space Transportation System.  All others to become obsolete.  Or something like that.  It was a long time ago.

Willy was an up and coming Captain in the USAF and made a great GNC.  He knew the guidance, navigation, and flight control systems forwards and backwards.  We worked together a lot in those days since the PROP console (mine) was responsible for the attitude control thrusters, their plumbing, etc., while the GNC console was responsible for the Auto Pilot that called on those thrusters to maintain attitude.  Even in those days, Willy demonstrated what military men call “command presence”.

But almost as important, Willy could do the most devastatingly funny imitation of our legendary boss, Gene Kranz.  Willy had the mannerisms down exactly right, could put the gruff intonation into the right pitch, and deliver a comedy routine that had all of us in the trench in stitches.  Always during LOS or debrief between sim runs, of course.  Never during the training runs, and especially not during a real flight. Hmm.

After the shuttle main engines cut off and the External Tank is jettisoned, there is still a lot of the main propulsion system propellant — liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen – trapped in the large pipes in the orbiter aft compartment.  Those plumbing lines are up to 17 inches in diameter and could hold several hundred pounds of volatile cryogenic fuel.  There was dump routine which was automatically executed right after the ET separation, but it left a lot of residuals in the line causing headaches later.  Not really a safety issue, but a nuisance and something that could cause interruptions later on.

The booster guys came up with a dandy plan to get rid of these propellants faster.  The LOX dump went out the main engines and the LOX lines were pressurized with helium to expel that trapped fluid.  The LH2 dump went out a vent on the side of the orbiter, just under the tail, and was unpressurized.  Why not open the valves and pressurize the LH2?  And at the same time, open the small LO2 valve nearby.  Both those actions would cause a more thorough dump and eliminate the pesky vacuum inerting procedures that interrupted later activities.

So we tried it.  Worked great in the simulator.  Hmm.  In flight, . . . .well . ..

Ascent is always a tense time.  Willy, I, and all the other flight controllers were glued to the data.  Everything went nominally all through mainstage.  No systems issues.  MECO, ET sep, dump start, OOOPS!

The increased propellant dump flow out the side of the orbiter caused it to bank sharply — the wing headed for the jettisoned but not distant ET.  Willy, calm as could be, relayed the instructions to the crew to regain attitude control.  The wing missed the tank, by how much I don’t know, but not by much.

It was all over in just a couple of minutes.  We took a deep breath and got about the business of flying the orbiter in space.

After Challenger, all the USAF “detailees” were pulled out of flight control.  I haven’t seen Willy in probably two decades until I ran into him recently.  He has done well in his USAF career, has stars on his epaulets now.  I wouldn’t recommend you call him Willy these days. 

But then, I haven’t called him that since the day he saved the shuttle.

And I bet you didn’t even know.


Moving Forward

After making a blog post, two or three days may pass before I get back to see what comments have come in and to post those that are pertinent (it is surprising how many pharmaceutical companies I have never heard of want to post their ads in blog comment spaces).  However, my email overflowed this weekend with comments to my last post.  This evening, I have posted almost of those comments at this site.  I have also been reading some of the comments on other parts of the internet, I think it is time to refocus as we start the week.

First of all, the Barriers Analysis Team of the JSC Innovation and Inclusion council who put together the video, also provided some recommendations to alleviate those problems.  Justin Kugler provided an excellent description of those proposals on the Open NASA website.  His words are far better than anything I could write on the subject, so I recommend you go read them at this address:

If you are interested in my thoughts as to how you can avoid being trapped in a black hole of innovation destruction, I would offer some thoughts on how to lead your leader — as it appeared in the NASA Knowledge Sharing Academy publication.

So here are at least a couple of ways in which we can build the culture at NASA toward being more open to innovation, and when we run into the barriers that stifle dissent there may be a few tools to use to overcome those barriers.

Now, if I might, I would like to clarify a couple of personal points which have arisen in the discussion.

For the record, I personally think that John Shannon has made a better Space Shuttle Program Manager than I did.  I believe he has brought stability, rationality, and clarity to the Space Shuttle Program in ways that I did not and could not.  He has been a faithful friend.  The internet chatter that there was some political maneuvering on his part when job changes were made in the program office is both inaccurate and repugnant to me.   

Going on . . .

One of the reasons that the video so powerfully affected me was that I have been on both sides of the table.  Oh yeah, I have stifled plenty of dissent and innovation in my time.  Some of it even recently.  I believe that I am a better manager and leader than I was five years ago, or even one year ago.  And, God willing, I will be a better and more open manager next year or five years from now.  So if you hear stories about “bad Wayne”, well, they are probably true. I wish they weren’t.  But my goal is to be better tomorrow than I was yesterday.  And I am daily astonished and amazing by learning something that I didn’t know the day before.

Finally, I would like to say that my purpose in writing these blogs is to help NASA become a better place.  Sometimes that takes the form of telling a story from the ‘old days’ — but always a story with a point. Sometimes it is describing a good example of leadership; sometimes it is pointing out a bad example — to be avoided.   Sometimes a post is merely an attempt to explain some arcane aspect of what we are doing to the general  public in a way that I hope is comprehensible to the layperson.  So my post on stifling dissent is nothing more than an attempt to help the NASA culture become better than it is.

With the greatest of respect to all my colleagues, I think NASA is the best hope for our country and our world.  If the current organization is less than perfect, that is because it is made up of fragile and limited human beings.  Every one of those NASA employees that I have met have only one goal: doing what is best and most productive to explore the universe.   We don’t always succeed, and we certainly don’t always agree on the interim goals but we are united in a common purpose.  There is nowhere else I would care to work.



Stifling Dissent

I’ve got a video that you need to watch, but first I need to explain why you need to watch it and what lesson I hope you will take away.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board said that NASA – and specifically the Space Shuttle Program – stifled dissenting opinions which might have prevented the accident.  Particularly the action was pointed toward the Mission Management Team.  As the new Deputy Program Manager, I was assigned the task of restructuring the MMT and providing means for listening to dissent.  Somewhere along the way I acquired the informal title of ‘culture change leader’.  I took this to heart and changing the culture to be more welcoming to alternate or dissenting opinions was a task that took a lot of my time and attention.

During the long days of returning the space shuttle to flight the question frequently came up as to how we were doing changing the culture.   My answer, as honest as I could make it, was that we were making progress, making changes, improving the situation, but that changing the culture was hard and we had a long way to go.

Periodically reports came from various sources that NASA people did not feel safe or welcomed in stating dissent or alternate recommendations.  This caused a lot of angst among NASA leadership who felt that they were doing everything possible to change the culture and saw progress being made.  NASA is a large and diverse organization and it is obviously difficult to winnow out all the old culture in all the niches around the agency.  After all, the focus was on the shuttle program and especially the MMT.  It should only be expected that parts of the organization far afield might be lagging behind.

Personally, I was heartened by a lot of the change which I was observing.  But it was still hard to draw out introverted engineers who are by their nature conflict averse.  Formal settings tend to put sociological pressure on low-ranking folks to keep quiet, so we tried to develop informal settings; ask more questions, listen more..

Still, it is hard to tell how effective the change effort has been.  Even though I personally try to solicit information from a variety of folks in a variety of places and ways, the reports were generally that alternate opinions are welcomed, dissent is accepted and evaluated, and we are doing better than ever.

But the anonymous polls and internet feed back says there is still a lot of work to be done.

Recently I had a couple of events which affected my thinking on this.  I have been out of the Shuttle Program manager job for almost a year now and a trusted coworker just a week ago told me that people in his organization had been prevented from giving me important alternative choices for some program choices that occurred a couple of years ago.  This was staggering. It was happening right in front of me and I was totally unaware that people – who I trusted, who I hoped would trust me – kept their lips sealed because somebody in their middle management made it clear to them that speaking up would not be good.


About two weeks ago an activity that Mike Coats started at JSC had an all day report out period.  The Inclusion and Innovation Council was to propose ways to improve innovation at NASA.  Various teams reported out, including one team of young employees who has the task to talk about the barriers to innovation at NASA — specifically at JSC.

The video attached was their result.  I found it extraordinarily funny and not at all funny.  These young people have obviously found themselves in situations RECENTLY in which managers at various levels applied sociological and psychological pressures to keep them from bringing ideas forward.

I am convinced that if we asked the managers who were the models for this little morality play whether they stifled dissent or welcomed alternate opinions, they would respond that they were welcoming and encouraging.  Probably because they have that self image.

But actual behavior, not inaccurate self perception, is what we really need. 

So now, watch the video, then come back and lets talk about what I think we really need to do about it:

Are you done with it?  Maybe you should go back and watch it a couple of times.  I did.

I feel like the early civil right pioneers must feel; the overt bad behavior is gone underground.  People say the right things in public discussion of how they should act, then behave in the bad old ways in small or private settings.

Since these behaviors are still being practiced at NASA, here is what I believe managers need to do

1.  Break out of the sandbox.  Even if it is not your area, the agency needs the best ideas to succeed in our goals.  If you have subordinates who have ideas for improving other areas, it is important to get those ideas into the open where they can compete in the marketplace of ideas, or at least get a technical review.

2.  If subordinate has an idea that has been tried before and didn’t work, consider that times may have changed and it might work now or with improvements that you know of.  In the final extremity, your subordinate needs more than the curt dismissal that its been tried before and didn’t work – you need to explain it to them.

3. Managers at all levels need to provide safe places and times for interaction that skips levels in the chain of command. 


Well, that is enough to start with.  Looks like we still have a long way to go and the first step is to know that you still have a problem.


Remembrance Day

Luke 14:28  For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?

Proper program management requires careful attention to the projected and actual costs.  From my experience I can verify that cost prediction is a difficult art.  How can you estimate the cost for something that has never been built, which is unlike anything else which has ever been built or operated, and for which some parts have to be invented?

Yet, when proposing a program or a project, it is not enough to describe what it is you intend to do and what the possible benefits might be, but also you must describe the cost.

In our business, not all the costs are financial.   Pioneers have always paid the price for advancement with their blood.

A number of years ago we took one of those classic American family car-trip vacations to the Yellowstone National Park.  For a long part of the trip we travelled along the Oregon trail.  In good parental fashion we made our children study up about that great migration before and during the trip.  One passage from the history books reverberates in my mind:  “Every hundred paces along the trail there was some article of discarded furniture or farm equipment; every quarter mile there was the remains of a cow or oxen or horse, and even mile along the trail there was a grave.”   Pioneers have always paid the price for advancement with their blood.

So one day a year we set aside time to remember those pioneers who paid the ultimate price for our modern quest.  It is entirely fitting and proper that we do so.  Just as we set aside one day a year to honor the brave soldiers, sailors, and airmen who gave their lives to keep our country free.  Altogether fitting and proper.  And totally inadequate. 

As if we don’t remember them every day.  As if their faces and voices don’t haunt every meeting and every decision that face us as we seen more pioneers into the space frontier. As if we can’t practice every day the lessons that have been paid for with great price – a price in blood. 

Is the fourth Thursday in January the only day you remember them?  That is not enough. 

Can’t remember them all?  Here is one place to start:

They can no longer carry the work forward.  But we can.  If we remember.  Every day. 

It is not your privilege to speak up; it is your duty.

It is not your right to participate in the exploration of space; it is your privilege only if you pay excruciating attention to detail, check and recheck, and make certain it is right.

At the end of the day, our progress has to be worth their sacrifice.  Or we should not go at all.

And turning back is not the way they would have wanted to be remembered.

Tripping the Boundary Layer – Part 2

As several people have pointed out, the shuttle has been used for aerodynamic testing for a long time, and the first shuttle was outfitted with special instrumentation for that purpose.  And a lot was learned about the boundary layer, but a precise experiment was never performed on that subject.


If we are to design future hypersonic aircraft and spacecraft, we need to understand this phenomenon in a very specific way.  Precisely controlled data collection is required.  That is what is going to happen on the next shuttle flight.


Here is a picture of the apparatus as it was being installed on Discovery in the Orbiter Processing Facility:


Discovery's heatshield modified to trip the boundary layer


The older tiles have grayed with repeated flights, new tiles are shiny black, and the green painted aluminum skin is where tiles are yet to be installed.  The wires hanging down are for the instrumentation.  The black tile in the center of the picture has a quarter inch ridge down the middle of it, oriented crosswise to the airflow; that is our controlled trip mechanism.  


If this experiment is successful, there are two more iterations with larger steps on the test tile. 


Funny how it seems so simple, but it takes so much planning!


If we are successful, a better understanding of the transition will lead to a prediction capability.  This will make it possible to design the engines and aircraft for the next leap forward in aircraft!


Tripping the Boundary Layer – Part 1

As I start this series, it occurs to me that “tripping the boundary layer” could be an article on social change – maybe I’ll do that. 

But for today it is an engineering subject.  So buckle your seatbelt and hold your hat, we are off on an adventure in rocket science!

Aviation has been driven by the desire to fly higher and faster.  Great strides have been made, especially up to the middle 1960’s.  But for the last few decades aircraft have been at a plateau in terms of speed and altitude.  With the exception of rocket powered X planes, the boundary of high performance jets has been just faster than Mach 3 and up to about 100,000 ft.  Even though there is the perennial dream of hypersonic transports carrying passengers across the globe in a fraction of today’s aircraft, we don’t seem to be advancing on that dream.

Part of the problem is we don’t understand how to avoid tripping the boundary layer.  There is precious little data at hypersonic speeds, and computer simulations are no good without data and the formulae derived from data to predict these things:  garbage in; garbage out.

So, to start this discussion off, let us define the terms.  (What the dickens are we talking about?)!   What’s a boundary layer and what does it mean to trip one?

In aviation, the boundary layer is a thin film of air closest to the wing, body, or engine of an aircraft.  At the molecular level, the air immediately adjacent to the airplane is dragged along with the plane.  Infinitesimally farther away, the air is being carried along at some fraction of the speed of the airplane, and at a longer way away from the airplane, the air is not moving at all, or at least not being dragged by the airplane.  That distant air is called the “free stream” and the close by air – which is affected by the passage of the aircraft – is called the boundary layer.  Typically aerospace engineers consider the boundary layer to be that close in part of the air that is being dragged along by the passing of the aircraft at a speed of 5% or more of the airplane.  These boundary layers are thin, inches or fractions of an inch.  They are important because the boundary layer causes most of the drag and most of the heating when an airplane is in flight.

Boundary layers, like all fluid flows, is either laminar or turbulent.  Laminar flow is smooth, turbulent flow is, . . . well,  . . . turbulent.  You can see a good youtube video of this here:

And there is a really good wikipedia article on turbulence here:

So why is all of this important?  Exactly at this time there is a large effort by many companies and government agencies to develop hypersonic aircraft.  NASA has even sponsored a couple of test flights.  The problem, as it is for all types of aircraft flight, is drag and heating.  When the boundary layer over the wings or in the engine is laminar, there is low drag and low heating; and when the boundary layer is turbulent, drag and heating increase dramatically.  All boundary layers can be “tripped” or transition from laminar to turbulent flow.

In some of these experimental aircraft the engines [called SCRAM jets for Supersonic Combustion Ram jet engines] have only operated for a fraction of a second or a very few seconds.  Why?  Because the designers do not know how to cool them; they don’t understand when or whether the boundary layer inside the engine is turbulent or laminar. 

In some of these experimental aircraft, the engine begins to melt as soon as it is turned on; hence the extremely short operating times.

This is no good for a hypersonic passenger aircraft which might carry a hundred people from New York to Tokyo in a couple of hours. 

Why do we not understand this phenomenon?  Because it cannot be recreated in a wind tunnel or other experimental apparatus.  The wind tunnels that have long enough flow durations to study this phenomenon run only up to about Mach 6.  These hypersonic engines need to perform at Mach 8 or 10 or 12.  There are “wind tunnels” that operate at high Mach numbers but only for fractions of a second; not long enough to understand the way in which a boundary layer works.

No aircraft fly that fast, missiles can achieve it briefly, but there is one platform that spends a serious amount of time flying through the atmosphere at speeds above Mach 6: 

Its the space shuttle. 

Tomorrow I’ll talk about an experiment that will be on the next shuttle flight. An experiment which will study tripping the boundary layer.

With this knowledge, the designers just might be able to make a major advancement toward hypersonic passenger aircraft.

To hold your attention until my next post, here is a true story:

Around 1900 a young graduate student in physics was trying to do research on a problem that could earn him a doctorate degree.  He started out studying the transition from laminar to turbulent flow in fluids.  After months of work and study, he concluded that this problem was too hard.  He would concentrate on an easier subject:  atomic physics.  His name was Niels Bohr and he won the Nobel prize for physics in 1922 for his work in quantum mechanics.  And he was right; turbulence is harder.  And we don’t understand it yet.




There is a lot of talk these days — well, almost all days — about leadership. 


Many times I think we are talking past each other when we discuss leadership.  This is because people use different definitions for the word. 


I don’t have a short definition, but I have an example.


When I was much younger I read “Undaunted Courage” by Stephen Ambrose.  This book is an account of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-6.  Or to be more precise, the book is about Meriwether Lewis, a complicated and flawed man who lead a 6000 mile expedition through uncharted territory, natives which were alternately helpful and antagonistic, through winter storms, in near starvation, over rapids,  through harsh mountains, and more, much more.  One man died of a ruptured appendix.  Everyone else survived even though everyone back home had given them up for dead.  It is a great story.  You may or may not agree with Stephen Ambrose’s interpretations of the trek, but what caught my eye was the author’s description of what made Meriwether Lewis a great leader.  If you plan to be a leader, you should ponder this assessment.




     “The most important [of his talents] was his ability as a leader of men.  He was born to leadership, and reared for it, studied it in his army career, then exercised it on the expedition. 

     How he lead is no mystery.  His techniques were time-honored.  He knew his men.  He saw to it that they had dry socks, enough food, sufficient clothing.  He pushed them to but never beyond the breaking point.  He got out of them more than they knew they had to give.  His concern for them was that of a father for his son.  He was the head of a family.

     He could lose his temper with them, and berate them in front of their fellow soldiers.  He could be even sterner:  he had a few of them take fifty lashes well laid on.  But in the judgement of the enlisted men, he was fair.

     He didn’t make many mistakes.  His orders were clear, concise, and correct.  Perhaps the finest tribute to his leadership abilities came at the time of the Marias decision [which fork of the Missouri river to proceed up].  All the men thought the Marias was the river to follow, but they said to Lewis and Clark “very cheerfully that they were ready to follow us any wher we thought proper to direct.”

     He shared the work.  He cooked for his  men, and poled a canoe.  He was a hunter and fisherman.  From crossing the Lolo Trail to running the rapids of the Columbia, he never ordered the men to do what he wouldn’t do.  When it was appropriate, he shared the decision making. 

     These are some of the qualities that make for a good company commander.  Lewis had them in abundance, plus some special touches that made him a much loved commander.  He had a sense, a feel, for how his family was doing.  He knew exactly when to take a break, when to issue a gill [of whiskey], when to push for more, when to encourage, when to inspire, when to tell a joke, when to be tough.

     He knew how to keep a distance between himself and the men, and just how big it should be.  He knew his profession and was proud of it and one of the best at it.”


Adjusting Our Thinking

Tomorrow marks the 5th anniversary of a fundamental change in national direction for space exploration.  You can look up that text at

This came at an interesting time in my life.  Reflecting on that direction and the other turbulent events of those days, I wrote an email to my space shuttle team members as I often did in those days.  Looking back, I think it was one of the best things I ever wrote.  I have re-read it and still agree with every single sentence.  I hope you won’t mind if I recycle this essay for your consideration on this anniversary:


Sent: Tuesday, January 27, 2004 5:25 PM
Subject: Adjusting Our Thinking

To the Space Shuttle Team:

I have been doing a lot of thinking lately: the approaching anniversary of the Columbia accident, reading the new book on the accident, the incessant questions from the press, the opportunity to observer our JPL colleagues in their time of testing, and most importantly thinking about the new policy and direction from our leaders. Like many of you I have had some mixed emotions from all of this. I would like to share some of my thoughts with you.

The vision of future space exploration existed long before we came to work here. It is a natural continuation of the American dream. The vision has shown up over the years in dozens of NASA strategic planning documents, reports from special commissions, and the like. I signed onto the vision as a schoolboy, long before I came to work here. Many of you did the same. The vision has variations in detail and timetable, but the central theme has not varied for decades. Explore the solar system; first by sending robots and then with people establishing outposts, then base camps, and eventually colonies.

In my mind’s eye our progress is like the Olympic torch relay: each person and each program holds the flame of exploration and progress high for an allotted portion of the route, and then the torch is passed to the next runner in the relay. Sometimes we run alone and sometimes we run together with others, but the goal is to move the flame forward, to illuminate the darkness, to allow the next generation to start just a little closer to the goal. The goal of exploring and settling the solar system will not be completed in our lifetime or our children’s lifetime. But we – here and now – are called to run our lap with skill, dedication, vigilance, hard work, and pride.

It sometimes seems that there is never enough commitment or enough money to accelerate the vision into fast forward. The march to the future moves with fits and starts. Sometimes we have had to compromise for what we could get, accept the part of the dream could be sold at any given time. This is what happens in so much of real life: doing the best we can with what we have. In spite of this, this generation has done great things in low earth orbit and our colleges have made tremendous strides exploring ahead of us with robots.

The steady grind and necessary constant attention to the daily tasks has shifted our gaze from the higher vision. We have become accustomed to putting the vision off, waiting for the day – long to come – when we could take the next step into the cosmos. Every year we have tried to be more efficient than the year before in the hopes that we could sock away enough money to build the future, to prove to our national leaders that we were fit to be given the permission to take the next bold step. Our attention shifted from the vision to the next flight. We came to accept the status quo as the best that could be. We became complacent in more than our technical abilities. We became complacent about the vision. It became enough for us to do great things in low earth orbit. And in that day to day grind our hearts have come to believe the vision is something far off, something for the distant future.

The shuttle is a marvelous and revolutionary machine. You, the people that make her fly, are incredible in your dedication and attention to detail. The achievements that the shuttle has produced will be heralded in the history books of future years. A short list hardly covers all the shuttle’s achievements: first and only reusable spacecraft, heavy lift launch vehicle, heavy cargo return vehicle, delivering three times more people to orbit than all other space vehicles to date combined, the most successful launch vehicle in the world, the most efficient engines ever made; the list could go on for many pages. Don’t believe the critics when they sell her short.

But those of us who know her best know her shortcomings. She is terribly complex; she is extraordinarily difficult to prepare for flight, she is too expensive to operate, and frankly, she is not as safe as we need our human transport vehicle to be.

The shuttle is an amazing machine, but like every other machine ever built, she is the result of a series of compromises, built within financial constraints, a product of the state of the art of technology when she was designed.

So too will be the next space vehicle we build.

The shuttle was supposed to be the DC-3 of space travel; the DC-3 became the first economically successful airliner; safer than anything flying at the time – not perfect, but just what was needed to cause air travel to become commonplace. Yet the analogy falls apart when we remember that in the 31 years between the Wright flier and the DC-3 ten thousand different aircraft types were designed and build. Designs and technologies were tried, tested, evaluated, and either discarded or incorporated into future, better aircraft. In the 42 years of human space flight, there have been exactly 9 different model spacecraft built by all the nations of the world. Without similar experience of trial and evaluation building multiple space vehicles, the wonder is that we came so close, not that we fell short. The real truth is, the shuttle does her job too well. She has never been quite bad enough to motivate the nation to build the next and better spacecraft. If the shuttle was not the DC-3 of the space age, the fact remains that the shuttle remains a huge advance in capability, technology, and even safety over all other spacecraft.

We cannot let the familiarity of long years and the investment of our personal time and energy in any one program or any one vehicle confuse that program or that vehicle with the vision. The shuttle has its place and time in the great relay but it is not an end in itself. Those of us in the shuttle program need to take care lest we become the battleship admirals of the new century; failing to understand when times have changed and in which direction progress is marching toward. We must move out of what is comfortable and familiar.

It is time to adjust our thinking.

In a virtual reality age, spaceflight is profoundly real. Surrounded by imitations of real life on computers, at the movies, on television, our work has real consequences. Every time we light the SRBs, the stakes are high. First of all the lives of the crew are on the line. Next, a great investment of our nation’s treasure in the form of the vehicle itself and the facilities that support and surround it are at risk. They are at real risk, not theoretical or philosophical or virtual risk, but risk of life and limb and physical destruction. There is more. You must understand that every time the countdown clock reaches T=0, we bet the future, and we do it with the whole world watching. Not only are we wagering the program; we lay the agency on the line. Not only is the agency at risk, but national pride and esteem are in question. Not only national pride is at stake, but we place the human exploration of the cosmos for a generation on the table. Until the wheels safely kiss the runway, everything is in play. I don’t know any other agency or any other organization where that is so completely and thoroughly true. With all of that at stake, the very best of our abilities and efforts is required.

When we build the new human space launch vehicle and count the clock down to T=0, we will make same gamble. It is the only way to get to the universe; bet everything on every single step forward.

Last year we dropped the torch through our complacency, our arrogance, self-assurance, shear stupidity, and through continuing attempt to please everyone. Seven of our friends and colleagues paid the ultimate price for our failure.

Yet, the nation is giving us another chance. Not just to fly the shuttle again, but to continue to explore the universe in our generation. A year ago it was my firm belief that a second fatal accident in the shuttle program would result in the lights being turned out at NASA, the vision would go into hiatus for a generation, and we – all of us in the agency – would be through. Instead, the nation has told us to get up, fix our shortcomings, fly again – and make sure it doesn’t happen again. That is the goal to which we are all working now.

No matter how hard we worked before, now is time to redouble our efforts. The vision runs right through the next launch of the shuttle. We cannot be found wanting again. The future steps depend on flying the shuttle safely and building the space station. These accomplishments are the necessary requirement to go on to the future.

Now we have been asked to raise our eyes to the bigger vision again. We are asked to look at what and who will run the next leg of the relay. Our lap may come to an end sooner that we had come to believe but the distance we have yet to run ahead is longer than it rightfully should be for those who have dropped the torch. We must not fail. It will demand constant attention in the face of many many many distractions, doubts, and critics. The task ahead is not easy. But then, it never has been easy. We just understand better what is required.

Therefore, do not worry about the future. We have work to do today. If we do it well, there will be even more work for us to do in the very near future. The foundation for that work is to fly the shuttle safely. We have been given a great mandate. Those of us who are in the shuttle program now will be required to help the next generation succeed. Write down what you have learned; pass it on to those who are starting to consider future designs. Many of you will be called on to lead that effort. Eventually, all of us will be called. But until then, stay focused on the task at hand. We must make sure that the next launch – and landing – and those that follow are safe and successful. That will be our finest contribution to the future, carrying the torch ahead.

P. S. A final, personal note: a worker at KSC told me that they haven’t heard any NASA managers admit to being at fault for the loss of Columbia. I cannot speak for others but let me set my record straight: I am at fault. If you need a scapegoat, start with me. I had the opportunity and the information and I failed to make use of it. I don’t know what an inquest or a court of law would say, but I stand condemned in the court of my own conscience to be guilty of not preventing the Columbia disaster. We could discuss the particulars: inattention, incompetence, distraction, lack of conviction, lack of understanding, a lack of backbone, laziness. The bottom line is that I failed to understand what I was being told; I failed to stand up and be counted. Therefore look no further; I am guilty of allowing Columbia to crash.

As you consider continuing in this program, or any other high risk program, weigh the cost. You, too, could be convicted in the court of your conscience if you are ever party to cutting corners, believing something life and death is not your responsibility, or simply not paying attention. The penalty is heavy; you can never completely repay it.

Do good work. Pay attention. Question everything. Be thorough. Don’t end up with regrets.