Straight Arrow

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


That is something to think about in these times. 


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




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


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


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


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


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

Gathering Dust

By chance I was in Omaha this week when the news was announced that the X-38 was going on display in the Strategic Air & Space Museum there.  What an interesting and out of the way place to display this remarkable device.  My work schedule didn’t allow me the luxury of a visit to the museum, but then I’ve seen the X-38 up close before.

Disclaimer:  I was a member of an independent review team for the X-38 development for a short period of time.

The X-38 was a tremendously ingenious device lead by a group of talented and unorthodox NASA employees.  Their leader, John Muratore, one of the most gifted systems engineers I have ever known.  These “pirates” who worked largely free of the typical government space bureaucracy in a skunk works type environment.  Free to innovate, free to be highly flexible, co-located with the hardware, they were on the brink of a stunning technological achievement when politics intervened.

The X-38 was a lifting body spacecraft that was to serve as the International Space Station’s lifeboat.  It was the prototype of the Crew Rescue Vehicle, the CRV.  If it had been allowed to succeed, it would have been an alternative to the Russian Soyuz in that role.  As a spacecraft it was the potentially evolvable beginning of new space taxis that would have been able to provide alternate ways to get humans to low earth orbit and back.  Again, eliminating our sole reliance on the venerable Soyuz, but also providing a way to rotate crews without the Shuttle – which we so desperately needed after Columbia.  And the X-38 would have preceded the proposed commercial human launch vehicles by almost a decade.

Unfortunately, new political leadership inside the beltway thought that NASA’s only problem was not being able to do our accounting in line with the arcane rules proposed by the OMB.  The new political leadership – which by their own admission – knew nothing about the technical aspects of getting into space – needed a scapegoat, an example, something that they could “cut” to show that they were serious about keeping NASA financially in line.

So they picked the brightest star of the future of human spacecraft and killed it with extreme prejudice.

A few years later, in the Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report, Admiral Gehman stated that the failure to replace the Shuttle with something safer was “a failure of national leadership.”  The cancellation of the X-38 is exhibit A of that failure.

So if you get to Nebraska (Nebraska?!?) go out to the museum and see the nearly flight ready X-38 vehicle there.  Think about how the history of the last decade in space exploration might have been different if the mindset inside the DC beltway was focused on achievement instead of ignorantly punishing the most successful.   Penny wise and pound foolish.

There are many morals that can be drawn from this history lesson.  I leave it as an exercise for the reader to see if you can come to the most obvious conclusions, and how they are still in force today.

Nebraska is a really nice state, and Omaha is a really nice town.  I appreciate them providing a venue for the X-38.

And if you look up John Muratore, you will find him teaching college students about systems engineering.  We need more of that. 

Shame on those people who “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”