One tenth of one percent of anything





“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

          Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 5

We really like to believe we have got it all figured out.  We feel that we know most everything.  Ask anybody on the street and they can tell you exactly how the world works.  We are sure of our place in it.  We have it all figured out, just like they taught us in school.


In Shakespeare’s most profound play there are several singular and remarkable statements about who we are and exactly how much we really know.  Horatio and Hamlet are students at the University of Wittenberg, at least before certain troubles called them home.  Horatio studies science – what they called in those days “natural philosophy”.  Like all good students of science, he believes that the universe is well understood and we know our place in it.  Hamlet is not so certain; you can almost hear his sarcasm as he tells his friend (in modern terms) “Your science doesn’t begin to understand the universe”.  The bard puts it more memorably, of course. 


In Shakespeare’s time, or Hamlet’s, the future was unimaginable.  Life and technology was not very different from the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  There was not even the expectation that change was possible.  But a revolution was lurking, because “natural philosophers” (scientists) were finding out that just a little more about how the universe works. 


Copernicus and Kepler built on the observations of Tycho Brahe and found that we were not the center of the universe; other planets revolved around the sun, and so do we.  This improved understanding of the universe, plus maybe a falling apple, inspired Newton to formulate new laws of science.  Laws that became the basis of a technological and social revolution:  steam power and the industrial revolution.  Shakespeare, Hamlet, the ancient Greeks and Romans could not imagine steam engines, railways, and the industry of the 18th and 19th centuries.  But those changes can be directly mapped from a better understanding of the universe.

In the midst of the industrial revolution, everyone was certain, just like Horatio, that we perfectly understood our place in the cosmos and the laws that govern the universe.  But William and Caroline Herschel made astounding observations of the universe that once more changed our understanding of where we are.  We live in a galaxy of other stars; the Milky Way is not merely a glowing cloud but what we have come to call a galaxy, an island universe.  And once again, we were surprised to find that humanity is not at the center of it.  Herschel did more, discovering something we now call infrared radiation.    Nobody knew what those discoveries meant and where they would lead, or if indeed they would lead anywhere.  It took James Clerk Maxwell in a later century to discover the laws of physics that were evident only after the Herschel’s observations inspired wonder.   Newton’s laws did not explain everything, it seems.  Maxwell’s laws opened the veil of the universe a little bit more.

In the 19th century we thought we knew everything.  But radio, television, and the applications of electricity were unimaginable.  Only after Maxwell’s laws were put to work did amazing new industries that were previously inconceivable come into being.  The first American Nobel Prize winner (in Physics) Albert A. Michelson observed in 1894:  “Our future discoveries must be looked for in the 6th decimal place.”  And the director of the US Patent office famously lobbied for the dissolution of his agency since all possible practical inventions had already been discovered.

Don’t laugh at them; they have good company.  We are in that company today.

Shortly thereafter, Edwin Hubble started making observations with the new Hooker Telescope on Mount Wilson and observed astounding facts.  There are other galaxies.  And we are not at the center of them.  And they are moving at incredible speeds.  Around the same time, a Swiss patent office clerk, inspired by the observations of the universe around us, postulated new physical laws.  In 1900 nobody could conceive of digital electronics, computers, and their infinite variations; these inventions were literally unimaginable.  After all we knew everything there was to know, what else could there be? 

Now, of course, we know everything about the universe.  All the laws of nature have been discovered and published by Einstein, Maxwell, and Newton.  All the possible industries have been invented.  Probably time to think about closing the patent office again.

But wait. 

Hubble’s namesake has made some very troubling observations.  Almost impossible to understand.  Observations that don’t fit with the laws of Newton, Maxwell, or even Einstein.  Not only are we not at the center of the universe, but we don’t even know what the universe is.  Turns out that all our observations, all our patient learning, has been made looking at only about 5% of the universe.  Dark matter and dark energy and something that is accelerating the motions of the galaxies are at work; 95% of the universe is both unobserved and not understood.  Some cosmologists even believe there are complete other universes in dimensions we just can’t quite see. 

Where does this go?  Who will explain it to us?  When will the next Newton, Maxwell, or Einstein appear?  Unfortunately serendipity does not arrive on a precise schedule.  Great leaps in human understanding of the universe are not predictable in their occurrence.  Genius does not punch a time clock.  But one thing is true; we have to first understand that we don’t understand.  Then someone will be inspired to figure it out.  Probably she or he is out there today, working on the equations, getting ready to publish the paper that will win the Nobel Prize.  Or it may be a century or two.  Whenever it happens, it will come because we were willing to observe, explore, question. 

What will it mean? 

Only one prediction can be made with certainty:  we have no idea.  There is no way we can predict what that next level of understanding of the universe will bring.  There is no way to imagine the industries that will result.  There is no way to imagine what our great grandchildren’s lives will be like.  No way.

Could Shakespeare and Horatio have imagined the internet? 

That is where we are. 

Why do I write about this?  Because we must keep the search for knowledge going.  Where it leads I don’t know, but every leap had lead to better lives for all mankind.  If we don’t continue to search, to observe, to explore, we will cease to innovate, cease to grow, and start to die.

As the great American inventor Thomas Alva Edison once observed:  “We don’t know one tenth of one percent of anything.”  Better keep the patent office open.

So will we fly someday to the stars?  Einstein says never.  But what does a patent office clerk know?  I’d subscribe to Robert Goddard’s sunny optimism in his valedictory address:

“It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today, and the reality of tomorrow.”




Sine Qua Non

I have been pondering the Augustine report (at least the executive summary) which has been released.  There are a couple of sentences up front that have been on my mind:


“Human safety can never be absolutely assured, but throughout this report, it is treated as a sine qua non.  It is not discussed in extensive detail because any concepts falling short in human safety have simply been eliminated from consideration.”  As panel members commented (more than once) during the public sessions, ‘we assume NASA will build safe systems’.


I’m not a Latin scholar so I had to look it up.  Sine qua non means the something or someone indispensible.    So safety is indispensible.  I’d agree with that.  As a matter of fact, I have spent my entire career based on making spaceflight as safe as possible while still actually flying. 


Actually, the assumption that NASA will build safe systems is poorly demonstrated by our history.  Our failures are painful to enumerate.  Early after the Columbia accident, we engaged Dr. Charles Perrow of Yale University to talk to us about his book (and theory) titled “Normal Accidents”.  In summary, Dr. Perrow believes that accidents are unavoidable in complex systems.  Very depressing to read.  Nothing you can do will ultimately prevent a fatal flaw from surfacing and causing catastrophe.  Life is hard and then you die.  Not very motivational, but perhaps true.  So all of us who listened to Dr. Perrow determined to prove him wrong.


In any event, safety in space flight is a relative term.  A launch vehicle with a 98% success record is considered very safe, but you would never put your children on a school bus that only had a 98% chance of getting them safely to school.  It is a high risk, low safety margin endeavor.  Probabilistic Risk Analysis has made great strides in recent years but the only statistic I put any faith in is the demonstrated one.  The shuttle has failed 2 times in 125 flights.  That is not good enough.


Six years after the loss of Columbia, I’m not sure that we can make a spacecraft safe, but I have empirical evidence that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that we can make it expensive.  The cynical part of me says that is what we do at NASA: demand extraordinary proof that things are safe.  ‘Proof’ means a series of tests -a large enough number of tests to be ‘statistically significant’- and/or very complex analysis which examines every facet of each part of a system in detail to demonstrate that in the worst possible set of circumstances the system will perform as required.  Trouble is, there is no end to imaginative tests, and there is always something else to throw into the analysis.  And it all must be extensively peer reviewed, debated at length, documented to the nth degree, briefed to multiple layers of management, and signed off by virtually everybody in

the organization.


This is a very expensive process.


History indicates that attention to safety doesn’t seem to last.  Sooner or later the people charged with making a system safe retire or die off, the bean counters get their knives out and the organization gets trimmed in the name of efficiency and cost savings, and somewhere along the way an invisible line is crossed.   And Dr. Perrow is proved right again. 


Not to be too depressed, but these report’s two sentences on safety are counterbalanced by many more sentences describing how space systems must be made cheaper and should accomplish its goals sooner.  ‘Faster, better, cheaper’ was the rallying cry of management over a decade ago.  The wags soon added ‘pick any two’.  My experience has been that a project manager is lucky to get two, and many projects end with having failed on all three counts.


I found another Latin phrase which may apply here, from Horace:  Splendide mendax.  It means ‘splendidly untrue’.  Safety at low cost, that is. 


So as we look to the future, it is going to take a great deal of careful management to ensure that commercially provided crew transportation systems are adequately safe and yet not drive the cost (and schedule) through the roof.  This balance is not easy to accomplish.  Careful and thoughtful management attention will be required.  No doubt you will hear some debate about this topic in days to come.


Which brings me back to sine qua non.  About a year after the loss of Columbia, NASA had a conference on risk and exploration.  A number of folks who do dangerous exploratory work talked with the NASA leadership about these issues.  Probably the most memorable thought of the whole conference came from James Cameron.  After almost two days of people repeating the phrase “safety first, safety is the most important thing”, Mr. Cameron made this observation:  “While safety is very important and must be considered at all times, in exploration safety is not actually the most important thing.  In exploration, the most important thing is to go.”


If I were writing the report, it would echo those words.  Actual exploration is not safe.  Actual exploration does not take place on powerpoint slides.  Actual exploration takes courage.  Actual exploration take action.  Actual exploration requires going.


Actually going is  sine non qua.

Risk Averse

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


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


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




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


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


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


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


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


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

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


History is watching. 



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


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


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


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


I wouldn’t have it any other way.


I think my great-grandparents would have approved.

Real Life is Not Like Star Trek

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


Coming back from vacation, my email and real mail boxes are stuffed.  One internet article that several folks forwarded to me came up several times.  At the surface, it was suggested that this is a counterpoint to my last post about the Chinese navy in the 15th century. 

I strongly encourage you to read this article by John Derbyshire.  I found it a very interesting read.  Here is the link and I encourage you to read it yourselves:

Now, having read Mr. Derbyshire’s article, I think that he is right on the mark.  In fact, I think we even agree at a very significant level.

My analysis comparing space to exploration in the 15th century is summed up this way:  “Over the next centuries, the European countries repeatedly decided to go forward, by fits and starts . . . into the world for trade, treasure, discovery, and glory.  They immersed the west in new ideas, new technologies, and new innovations.   . . .  The Chinese course lead inexorably to stagnation, then dissolution, then decay, and finally to destruction.”

Mr. Derbyshire’s conclusion is that “The lawyerly mandarins of the Obama administration have no interest in science or in imaginative enterprises of any kind,  . . . Perhaps our country . . . is in for a few centuries of introverted, creativity-free stagnation under bossy literati, until something unexpected comes banging on the door to wake us from our opium dreams.”

So we both see the same consequences of terminating our exploration.  All that we have done to date will be pointless, left without even suitable monuments for future generations to wonder at.  Only those bold and persistent enough to build on the past explorations will reap the transforming benefits.

Stopping now would put the United States on the ash heap of history, just like those Chinese who burned their fleet six centuries ago.

I hope we choose a vibrant future full of exploration, development, innovation, creativity, and unfathomable economic growth.  I want to avoid centuries of opium dreams where the rest of the world passes us by.





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.”


Ponce De Leon

Ponce De Leon is famous in history for trying to find the Fountain of Youth where one sip of the water would not only let you live forever but restore youthful vigor and health.  Needless to say, the legend of Ponce De Leon diverges considerably from what we know of the real, historical Ponce De Leon. 

For example, it is not really clear exactly where in the modern day state of Florida Ponce De Leon landed or carried out most of his exploration.  Navigation was crude in those days, maps were inaccurate, and landmarks are few.  So we don’t really know where he was.  But in more modern times, various localities have claimed their area was the place and so, about 40 miles north of the Kennedy Space Center, an estuary bordering on Daytona Beach is called Ponce Inlet.

It is exceedingly important for Mission Control to be able to communicate with the shuttle crew throughout the powered flight phase ascending to earth orbit.  Onboard navigation can be fooled under certain circumstances and the onboard computers do not have the power or the programming to project ahead for various off nominal situations.  So, for example, MCC is prime for abort mode determination.  Systems information, too, can be more readily assessed from telemetry to the ground than from onboard displays in many cases, although that has improved as the shuttle cockpit has evolved. 

From the early days of space flight, having good tracking and communications stations was vital.  In his book “Flight, My Life in Mission Control”, Chris Kraft notes that the creation of a world wide tracking network was one of the great accomplishments of NASA in its early years.  Nowadays we use satellites to talk with the crews most of the time and all but a few of the ground tracking stations have been closed down.

The shuttle is a peculiar beast.  The radio antennas are arranged around the crew cockpit.  Since the shuttle flies a heads down trajectory for much of the ascent phase, the external tank blocks the line of sight between those antennas and the relay satellites up in geosynchonous orbit.  After the closure of the Bermuda tracking station, a new maneuver was added to the shuttle ascent trajectory to roll to heads up late in powered flight just so the shuttle antennas would have a good line of sight to the relay satellite.  Early flight remains heads down to facilitate a return to launch site abort (RTLS) if that drastic maneuver would ever be required.

The primary means of communication is through the venerable and tremendously busy Merritt Island Launch Area (MILA) tracking site which is very close to the KSC visitor center should you go there.  MILA has a number of antennas, and great infrastructure, but there is one tiny problem.

The shuttle lifts off the pad using powdered aluminum.  That’s right, the solid rocket boosters use powdered aluminum as a propellant.  One of the principle constituents of the SRB exhaust is aluminum oxide.  And aluminum oxide is a perfect way to stop radio waves.  So from about 20 seconds into the launch when the shuttle points its stern quarter directly at MILA until the solid rocket boosters are separated at two minutes, MILA is helpless to communicate with the crew.  No MILA, no relay satellite, what are we to do?

Enter PDL.  The Ponce De Leon tracking station is an adjunct to MILA.  It is located on the south side of Ponce Inlet just across the estuary from Daytona Beach.  On a good day you can hear the NASCAR races.  PDL is a sort of minimalist tracking station; one big antenna, one string of transmitters and receivers, and a crew of about four folks.  And the only good line of site to the shuttle for a crucial minute and a half of the early ascent.

Sim Sup loves to give the ascent team fits during training.  There were times when I believed the training team was being paid based on the number of malfunctions they could introduce in each training run.  A lot of those failures were inserted into the simulations in the first two minutes of flight and troubleshooting could not wait.  So in simulations we learned to rely on the PDL station. 

I’m pleased to say that one of my first visits when I was assigned to KSC was to take a road trip to PDL and tell the folks there how important they are and how much the Flight Director counts on them. 

STS-93 was a case in point.  During most launches the shuttle performs flawlessly and you might think that all our training was a waste of time.  During the early part of STS-93 we had not one, not two, not three, but four inter-related anomalies.  Sim sup isn’t supposed to work in real time!   It was crucially important that MCC guide the crew through the complexities of that situation.  And it had to be voiced up using the PDL station. 

A lot of spaceflight is like that.  A few folks building and maintaining a function that you might never need.  But on the day you need it — your really need it and nothing else will do.

I hear a lot of folks who profess that they can do spaceflight on the cheap.  I am sure that some costs can be lowered.  But giving up critical capabilities that can save your . . . .spacecraft . . .in an emergency — that is a foolish economy.

Events like STS-93 can make your hair turn gray.  Maybe we need to find that fountain that old Ponce was looking for after all!


Unexpected Consequences

The Irish potato famine was one of the great disasters of the 19th century.  The peasant population of the island had come to depend on the modest potato as a staple part of their diet.  When disease attacked the crop and it failed, thousands died and thousands more left the emerald isle to find a better future elsewhere.  Some of my ancestors were among them.  If you live in North America, it is likely that some of your ancestors were among those refugees, too.

This is the year of the potato.  The United Nations has recognized rice as one of the most important foods in the world with its international year of rice in 2004.  This year the UN recognized the second most important staple crop in the world by designating 2008 the year of the potato.  One third of the calories consumed all over the world comes from potatoes.  I should try to reduce my share of that!

Potatoes were unknown in the 15th century outside what is now Peru.  Spanish explorers found the natives eating different varieties of the tuber and sent them back to Europe.  For years people in the west were afraid to eat these plants, related as they were to the deadly nightshade.

But for the last three hundred years the world has come to count the potato as one of the most important food crops.  And it was discovered by accident, as it were, by people who were looking for something else:  gold, glory, or converts to their god. 

Recently I have been thinking a  lot about the risks and rewards of exploration.  How did Ferdinand and Isabella weigh the risks and potential rewards when they gave three small ships to the irritating Italian guy who was probably going to kill himself and his crews.  If the leaders of Europe had drawn up a Risk Management evaluation of Columbus voyage in 1492 the way we draw up Risk Management evaluations of space flight, would they have known to include the potato?   And with the perspective of five hundred years would we call the voyage a strategic success on the basis of that discovery — which has turned out to be more valuable than all the gold and silver extracted from the American continents?   How do you rate that?

Eratosthenes of Cyrene computed the size of the earth about 200 BC based on the length of shadow cast by two rods at two different places in Egypt at the same time.  He was right to within 3%.  Geometry is an exact science.  Contrary to popular belief, everybody in Columbus day (well, all the educated people anyway) knew the world was round not flat.  And they pretty much knew how big it is.  And they also knew — no great feat of deduction — that you could sail to the west to get to the east, or in other words head west and get to the spice islands, China, India, and Japan.  Everybody knew that.  And they knew one more thing.  That given the sailing speed of the ships of the day, you could not carry enough food and water to get there before you died of starvation.  And everybody was right.  Enter Columbus who had mistakenly calculated a much smaller earth.  His calculations — entirely erroneous — showed that a crew could just make it to the spice islands before they starved to death.  And all of educated Europe laughed.  No wonder Columbus was turned down by kings and courts all around Europe.  No wonder that the most backward and ill-educated kingdom in Europe was the only one to fall for his arguments. 

Nowadays, we use modern risk management.  We take possible outcome and plot them on a scale from unlikely to likely and their consequences from minor to catastrophic.  We use our best engineering and scientific data to categorize the risk.  If we had lived in Columbus day, we would have categorized the outcome (dies of starvation before reaching land) as “Probable/Catastrophic”.  No body signs up for Probable Catastrophic risks.

Just one problem.  Almost exactly where Columbus calculated he would reach land . . . he did reach land.  Just not the land he though.  Serendipity.  Discovering something that you did not expect to find when you set out out. 

How do you rate serendipity on the risk management scale?  Some place near potatoes, I expect.

I am mindful of great quotations of scientists and leaders from bygone days.  Charles Duell, Commissioner of the US Patent Office in 1899:  “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”  Albert Michelson, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1907:  The most important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplemented by new discoveries is exceedingly remote.”  Hmm, a Swiss patent office clerk would challenge that notion very shortly.

Modern risk management techniques, like commercial calculations on return on investment, will invariable tell you to stay home and not waste your time exploring, discovering.  After all there is nothing out there; at least nothing we can imagine.

Oh yeah, there is one other quotation from the same era, from Thomas Alva Edison — somebody who was always pushing to find out what he didn’t know — “We don’t know a millionth of one percent about anything.”

Or how important potatoes would be in propelling my ancestors to seek a better life in the new world.


Myth,Power,and Value

As soon as I read this excerpt, I knew I had to read the whole book: 

“Coronado’s journey was the Apollo expedition of his day and Mexico City was a sixteenth-century mission control, shipping men out to explore the unknown.” 

Tony Horwitz has written a lively, easy to understand, yet profound history of the exploration of North America from Columbus in 1492 to the Pilgrim landing at Plymouth in 1620.  As he says in the introduction “I’d mislaid an entire century”.  The rediscovery of that critical period is found in his new book “A Voyage Long and Strange:  Rediscovering the New World”, Henry Holt and Company, 2008, ISBN-13:978-8050-7603-5.

I offer this book for your reading consideration. 

If you are wondering how this applies to space exploration, ponder this passage from Tony’s book — the very first chapter on the Vikings in America before Columbus: 

“Vinland’s brief flicker was even more extraordinary.  When Leif and his siblings set off, Norse Greenland was only fifteen years old, with a population of about five hundred.  Vinland was a satellite of a satellite, its voyagers on the medieval equivalent of a space walk, tethered to a mother ship already at the furthest reach of European society and knowledge. . . What seems most surprising is not that Norse Vinland failed, but that it happened at all.

Nor was the Viking’s fate anomalous.  The Europeans who resettled America after 1492 brought horses, guns, and other advantages unknown to the Norse.  Yet they, too, found it hard to sustain a toehold, even in settings much gentler than subartic Canada.  Dozens of early colonies foundered in mass death or abandonment.  Failure was the norm, not the exception.

According to America’s national saga, English settlers ultimately triumphed because of their superior grit, idealism, and entrepreneurship.  But . . .small incoming populations rarely take root.  The difference between success and failure typically depends on the number of times a new group arrives, and in what strength . . . waves of settlers kept restocking Virginia and Massachusetts.  Sheer weight of numbers and the backing of increasingly powerful mercantile states . . . proved critical to success.”

Wow.  We should contemplate those very real lessons from history.  Read this book and others like it. 

As a native son of the Land of Enchantment (look it up), I was raised on the Conquistadores and Coronado, so some of this was familiar.  As a startling coincidence I find myself back in that country, in a museum, in a conference about how to do exploration in a “mercantile” way!  So pensive thought trying to connect the dots is probably a natural consequence.

In another place on the internet, a commentator has told me that NASA is not (or should not) be in the inspiration business.  I could not disagree more completely.  We have to be in the inspiration business.  We need to inspire our fellow citizens in these difficult days by reminding them that together we have overcome great difficulties in the past and done great things and that we can do so again.  We need to inspire our children to believe that there is a future worth studying for and working toward.  We need to inspire the world that America is still “the last best hope of mankind.”  Inspiration is the very essence of what we do.  The merely mundane advancement of the aeronautical sciences or advances in celestial navigation is scarcely the reason why the Congress and the President set up this peculiar agency some 50 years ago. 

Isn’t it true that you still hear people say “If we can put a man on the moon then we ought to be able to . . . ” fill in the blank with any great challenge facing us. 

NASA and our accomplishments in space is now part of the great national myth.  Wait a minute, I need to explain myself there.  At a foolish moment in my college career, I signed up to take a 3 hour poli sci course that all my friends were excited about.  Doc Culbertson was a fixture on campus and taught a course about state and regional politics.  He had a lively and interesting lecture style, the grading curve was said to be friendly, and I needed another course outside the engineering department to fulfill the university requirements for graduation.  My friends were right; it was a great course.  Doc C taught us that political power and cultural values are all derived from national or regional myths.  Now in his parlance, a myth was not a falsehood, it was an interpretation of history.  Or more correctly a revision of history as morality play setting the foundation of certain values from which the populace organized political power. 

I believe Tony Horwitz must have set through that same class.  In the very very last chapter of his book, he ponders the Pilgrims at Plymouth and wonders why they, and not so many others, have become the leading players in the national origin myth.  A modern citizen of Plymouth spells it out for him:  “The story here may not be correct, but it transcends truth.  Myth trumps fact, always does, always has, always will.”

As Doc C would have said; myth and the values it supports give people the power to do impossible things.

Like go to the moon.  And to do the other things.  Not because they are easy, but because they are hard. 

We come from a long line of folk who faced long odds, suffered a lot of failure, and came back to build a great nation. 



Continuing the discussion

About 48 hours after having posted a short example on Columbus, I hope you have reached some conclusions.  I’d like to continue this discussion just a bit longer. 

So the question, as posed by the University of Strathclyde, is this:  ‘Was Columbus voyage of discover a program (“tactical”) success or failure; and was it a Strategic success or failure?”  The point being, what can we learn for space exploration.

On a couple of different forums and by email I have received several interesting but brief votes for success or failure.

When we were studying how to reform the Shuttle Mission Management Team following Columbia, one of the best lessons we gained from a lot of academic and consultant forums was this:  it is important to properly frame the question. 

So I left you with the question:  success or failure, and whose?

From the Native American standpoint, the voyage of Columbus represented a catastrophic strategic failure.  If the natives of San Salvadore had risen up en mass and slaughtered the Europeans, nothing would have been heard from Columbus; and his opponents would have carried the day.  European discovery and all its catastrophic consequences for native Americans might have been delayed by centuries.  So if you take that point of view, strategic failure.

Alternatively, Columbus himself believed to his deathbed that he had actually discovered the route to the spice islands, China, and Japan.  If you had asked him, he would have emphatically told you that the voyage was a tactical (“program”) success. 

Isabella’s motives (and Ferdinand’s too) are harder to discern.  If their goal was to enrich Spain and increase international respect (and envy) for Spain, then the voyage was a tactical (“program”) success.  Some historians have stated that the Spanish royal couple mostly wanted to get rid of the pesky Italian and they saw a way to get rid of certain Portuguese maritime merchants that were causing them problems.  Strategically you could argue that they succeeded here as well.

In the very long run, Spain’s whole mind set defeated their ambitions in the new world and Spain sunk into 3rd rate status among nations.  So how long is “strategic” success good for?  It took the better part of a century to get to the apex, and another century to fall.

But my thesis is that taking the simplistic view of history and putting each expedition into the “successful” or “failure” bins defeats the possibility of learning from history.  The lessons are too complex, too rich, and too contradictory to put in a Venn diagram. 

So back to my example story from Columbus and the hurricane.  What can we learn that is applicable to space exploration?

Lets start with a very simple observations:  you should listen to folks who have experience.  Columbus and his crew knew the signs of impending weather.  They tried to warn others who laughed at them.  Then Columbus and his crew took cover.   How does that apply to spaceflight?  There are a lot of folks that make specious claims of being able to do things cheaper, faster (and better?) than those who have gone before.  While incremental improvements are possible, amazing predictions from folks who have no experience in the stormy waters of rocketry are probably direct descendants of Bobadilla.  Don’t laugh at experience, search it out and study it.

Explorers enable colonization, economic exploitation, and the advance of civilization.  Explorers frequently make lousy administrative leaders for the colony, the businessmen, or the rest of civilization.  Use people where their talents lie; don’t try to make them into something that they are not, have no interest in, have no experience about.  Keep the explorers exploring.

How about the theme that very small investments in exploration can result in huge rewards.  Isabella and Ferdinand invested a pittance in three very small ships and skimped on their outfitting costs; one can argue that economically that was the best investment in history.  Frequently the proponents of NASA cite studies that show for every dollar spent on the space program, new technologies and businesses result which in turn improve our economy by $4, $7, or $9 depending on how finely you slice the model?  Is 0.6% of the national budget an excessive amount to spend on the future of humankind, especially when it turns out to be a goose that lays golden eggs for the near term economic health of the country (and we need something!).

We could go on.  I worry that the internet age with its 12 sentence blogs and 5 second soundbite attention span does not have the patience to learn from history.  And you know what happens to folks that fail to learn from history.

Some time in the future we’ll discuss the Darien get rich quick scheme, how it plays into Scottish mythology, and how present day interest in Glasgow in Scottish devolution (independence) played a major role in the business school thinking of the Strathclyde paper  which mostly picked failed expeditions lead by the English. There is a history lesson there, too.

Keep your eyes open.   As Yogi Berra once said “You can observe a lot by just watching.”