Tag Archives: columbia

Trip Reports

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The last couple of weeks have been very busy for me, so pardon my lack of blog posts.  I have been on travel for several days and you should have a report on three trips.

 

MAF – the dirge

 

The first report is on a trip I did not make.  There was a big celebration last week at the Michoud Assembly Facility on the east side of New Orleans as the “last” shuttle external tank was shipped.  Of course there is the potential to need a rescue flight and at this writing Congress is debating adding one more flight to the shuttle manifest, so ET-122 will probably be shipped out in a few months.  ET-122 was in processing when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and part of the roof of the building – concrete blocks to be exact – fell onto the tank, damaging it.  Repairs have been completed and ET-122 is on track to be pronounced “safe for flight” – no small feat.  After ET-122, there is only ET-95 left at MAF.  ET-95 was the last Light Weight Tank (as opposed to the current Super Light Weight Tanks).  We dissected it heavily during all the post-Columbia investigations and it will probably be a museum piece.   Anybody want a relic?

 

You can read all about the MAF celebration on the NASA home page, so I won’t write any more about it.  Except I didn’t go.  The place is a ghost town.  After years of a work force that ran about 2,500 people, it is down to a skeleton crew, most of the construction jigs are mothballed or removed, there is very little to see, just an empty building.  Depressing.  Maybe someday this will change.  But not now.  I get to go to enough funerals; I didn’t need to go to MAF.  Sorry to be depressing but ‘it is what it is.’

 

KSC – the children’s hour

 

Travel to Florida is always good; this time I got to hand over a bunch of work.  In particular, the responsibility for the Columbia debris repository will transition from the Space Shuttle Program to NASA Office of Safety and Mission Assurance.  If you are a researcher and want to obtain some of the Columbia debris to study the effects of re-entry on materials and structures, you should contact the repository caretaker, Mike Ciannilli at the Kennedy Space Center.  Mike works in the NTD office which is located up on the 4th floor of the Launch Control Center building.  That building is an architectural award winner as well as on the national register of historic places, and holds the Firing Rooms where all the Saturn and Shuttle launches was controlled. 

 

The 4th floor of the LCC has a wide and spacious hall, and the entire floor was especially quiet the day I visited.  It has been a very intense time for the folks who work in shuttle, almost 8 launch flows in just over a year; there is a breather until the next flight so many people have taken a well deserved vacation.  As I walked down the echoing hallway, the graphic reminders of shuttle flights past covered the walls.  During the shuttle countdowns, the crew families are hosted up there; the Launch Director’s office has a superb view of the pads, and there is roof access for the actual launch.  But kids are kids and it is always a challenge to keep them from being bored with the countdown progresses.  Some genius of the past told the astronauts children to color one of the white erasable marker boards on one of the walls.  After the launch, the firing room crew found the art work so moving that the marker board was carefully removed, covered with plexiglas to preserve the image, and reinstalled in the hallway for all to see.  After many shuttle flights, these decorated markerboards line the broad and long hallway of the 4th floor of the LCC.  The art is intense, the colors are primary, the style is primitive as most children’s drawings are.  And hugely meaningful: renderings of crew patches, visions of launches, lists of relatives in attendance, caricatures of parents embarking on heroic feats, even pictures of family pets can be found on these masterpieces.  Although the 4th floor hallway is quite long, after so many shuttle flights, they have run out of room and some of these markerboards are showing up in the first floor lobby of the LCC building.  It is a moving experience to walk down the hall and contemplate what these children were thinking, and what the experience meant to them.  Each one is a mute testimony to pride and fear, wisdom and innocence.  Maybe someday this art will be on public display.  For me, it as moving an experience as you can have in any art gallery.

 

Hemphill, Texas – Columbia memorial groundbreaking

 

The last census showed the population of Hemphill was 1,100 people.  When pieces of Columbia rained down on them, they turned out do to far beyond what duty would normally require in such a situation.  Now, with a generous gift from a native son, the people of that small east Texas town is adding a wing to the public library which will be a museum and memorial to the Columbia astronauts.  I am reminded of what Roger Mellot told me after visiting there in the spring of 2003:  “The people of east Texas love their country, and they love their country’s space program.”  It is still true.  I was asked by the JSC public affairs office to accompany the official delegation and make some appropriate remarks at the groundbreaking.  It was a joy to do so.  The speechifying was held in the high school cafeteria where over 125 people were present.  That may not sound like a lot, but it was over 10% of the population of the town, in the middle of a work day.  So I think that is a lot.  Several speeches were made; the best was given by Evelyn Husband-Thompson.  I wish I could include her remarks, they were moving.  The best I can do is to paste in my not-as-memorable talk:

 

 

 We are gathered here to do something that is not often done, I think, these days.  We are celebrating the work of a group of civic leaders, volunteers, and a generous benefactor.  The work that they have accomplished is to start the construction of a facility, a building, a place where our children can learn about the true meaning of what it is to be a real hero.

The future of any people or nation depends on their children and how they live out the values they have learned.  That is what is so important about this day, and so uncommon about this event:  that here you are teaching your children something very important; because the men and women who sacrificed their lives were heroes of the truest kind. 

 

Nowadays the term hero is most commonly applied to sports figures, or successful entertainers like singers and actors.  Our children might think that they should emulate those people and model their lives after those examples.  This is not, in fact, what we know that our children should learn.

 

Now, I love my sports teams, and I love my music and those who make it, and I enjoy entertainment as much as anyone.  But success in those endeavors does not make one a hero.  And we need to be very clear about that.

 

We are gathered here today to honor real heroes.  We are here to describe why they were heroes in terms so plain that our children, no matter how young, can understand what it means to be a true hero.

 

Those we honor here showed by the example of their lives what being a real hero means: hard work surely, but not hard work alone; sacrifice, even the ultimate sacrifice, but not sacrifice alone, rather sacrifice in the pursuit of the betterment of all people.    

 

Our heroes were about the business of making our lives better, more prosperous, more free.  It has been said that the exploration of space is the noblest activity of our time, and so history may record it.  But their lives were devoted to making a better life not just in the distant future but for those of us here and now.  Because their efforts made discoveries and advancements that have improved our lives, made our nation more prosperous, and made the world a better place, and increased our awe of creation.

 

That, then, is the purpose for being here.  To commit ourselves to teach our children that they, too, must become heroes, that they must devote themselves to the improvement of life here on earth, and the exploration of the universe, to work hard, and to sacrifice in the service of their community, their nation, and indeed the whole world.

 

In a very real way, we are the beneficiaries of generations of heroes who have gone before us; who have made our nation strong, prosperous, and free because they were willing to sacrifice themselves to make it so.

 

So finally, this teaching burden falls on us, those living here today, because, in the words of the biblical injunction ‘To whom much has been given, much will be required.’

 

 

Denouement

 

I have one more official trip to make.  Next week we have the final editorial board meeting for the GPO shuttle history book ‘Wings in Orbit.’  This will be at MSFC in Huntsville, Alabama.  I expect to write you a report on that as well.

 

Finally, the agency has asked me to continue writing my NASA blog in retirement.  I plan to do that, but realize that it will mostly be a retrospective – as retirees are wont to do – rather than a commentary on current events.  Plenty of other folks keep the internet warm on that!

 

Adjusting Our Thinking

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

http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2004/01/20040114-3.html

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:

 

From: HALE, N. W., JR (WAYNE) (JSC-MA) (NASA)
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.