Playoff Sunday

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.

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.