Coming Soon

Shortly after the Bush administration decided to end the shuttle program (no later than 2010), we decided that it would be a good idea to have the people who actually worked in the shuttle program write a book detailing our shared experience.  Heaven knows that there are enough books on the shuttle already, and no doubt more to come.  But by and large these books have been written by people who are external to the program:  historians, journalists, and the like.  Several individuals, most of them former astronauts, have written books, but they are necessarily the point of view of a single individual, and therefore can tell only part of the story.

So we decided to write a book on the breadth of the shuttle program, from beginning to end, the good, the bad, and the ugly, with only a couple of rules:  (1) it had to be totally honest, (2) it had to be technically accurate, (3) it had to fit in one volume, and (4) it had to be written by insiders.

Tuesday we had the final editorial board meeting which put a seal on the contents.  From this point on the book is in the hands of the proof readers, the indexers, the graphics designers, and the printer.  We expect the Government Printing Office to have copies on the shelf for sale in January 2011.  Sections will subsequently be posted on the NASA web pages, including any updates from the last couple of flights which exceeded the Bush closing date by maybe as much as a year.

The toughest part of the job was cutting material.  Once our folks got started writing, they couldn’t hold back.  We could have written a 5 volume mini-encyclopedia; or probably a 30 volume real encyclopedia.  But we stuck with our rule to have one volume, approximately 700 pages.

So what is in there?  We tried to tell the “so what” of the shuttle.  What did it accomplish, what did it fail to do, why was it so complex, and why did it cost so much.  Future spacecraft designers may find some instruction here; both what to do and what not to do.

About one third of the book is devoted to the engineering innovations that were required to bring this unique vehicle – and its support systems – into being.  Some of those innovations have now pervaded aerospace engineering as new standards.  About a third of the book is the province of the scientists who used the shuttle to study the universe and smaller things as well.  And the remaining third of the book is all the other stuff; history of the development and operations of the shuttle, a long description of the accidents, an obligatory description of the shuttle and its systems, and some contemplation of the social impact that the shuttle program had on America and the world.

We have quotations or sections written by over 30 astronauts, Presidents, Nobel Prize winners, scientists, program managers, NASA administrators, and flight directors.  More importantly, the vast majority of the book was written by over 100 of the folks who actually did the work: designed, built, maintained, and operated the space shuttle; civil servants and contractors alike.

I think you will find it interesting.  Some of the engineers cannot write coherently but we hired a few English majors to try to translate their jargon into something understandable by non-experts.  We tried to hit the level of Scientific American or National Geographic text, so this is not going to be very simplistic, but perhaps thought provoking.  The illustrations are outstanding.  And there will be a comprehensive appendix for all those who desire statistics and details.

There should be something for everybody interested in the shuttle.  I hope you like it.  We’ve been working on it in our spare time for over four years now.  Or maybe that should really say we’ve been working on it for our whole careers.

Information on how to pre-order the book will appear on the NASA web page in a month or so.

Double Indemnity

Commercial human space flight is in its infancy.  It has been suggested that NASA could do much to encourage or enable the fledgling industry.  Supporters cite the historical analogy of US government contracts for air mail delivery in the 1920s as a model for how to kick start the industry.  A rosy hued and much abbreviated history of that era suggests that once the government started contract airmail service, modern aviation as we know it inevitably and quickly followed.


It may be worthwhile to remind ourselves of a slightly more detailed version of history.


 The US Post Office Department started scheduled airmail service while the Great War was still raging in May 1918.  Government aircraft and government pilots delivered air mail in aircraft that were built to detailed government specifications for the next eight years.  Twelve government pilots were killed in the first two years of this service.  The US Post Office added regularly scheduled transcontinental airmail service in 1920, again with government owned aircraft and government pilots.  Following the Kelly Air Mail Act of 1925, the first commercial contract air mail operations started.  These were mostly flown by small start-up airlines which were frequently under-capitalized using old government surplus aircraft.  By late 1926 all air mail delivery was turned over to these contracts and the government service was discontinued.  Fatal accidents were still common among air mail pilots.  To an even greater extent than today, the government to industry “revolving door” phenomenon was present in those days.  In 1934 the great air mail scandal erupted.  There were charges that government officials had colluded with industry officials (some of whom were former government officials) to fraudulently award air mail contracts to favored companies.  FDR cancelled all commercial air mail contracts and called on the US Army Air Service to deliver the mail.  Inexperienced military pilots and bad weather resulted in twelve pilot deaths in less than a month.  WWI aviation hero Eddie Rickenbacker called the Army Air Service program “legalized murder.”  Within a few months, Congress passed new air mail legislation and a more closely regulated commercial air mail service was restarted.  Among the features of the legislation was the provision that banned all former airline executives from further contracts.  All the old air line companies were reorganized.  Air mail contracts were much less lucrative and the nascent airline companies had to rely increasingly on passenger fares rather than air mail revenues to make their operations profitable.  Air craft accidents continued to be frequent and in 1938 the Civil Aviation Administration was formed.  The CAA started an era of tight regulations reigned over the air line industry which continued for nearly forty years. 


Is this the model that people have in mind for commercial space transportation? 


Of course, a paragraph or two doesn’t do justice to the rich and complex history of aviation in the 1920s and 1930s.   Go read the biography of  Dutch Kindelberger, for example.  Some airlines, like Pan Am, became profitable carrying passengers without the subsidy of air mail.  The transportation of equipment and goods for purely commercial reasons apart from government contracts was a significant business.  Air races stimulated technical advances.  And what happened in the USA was only part of the story as airlines sprang up crossing the globe from Europe to Africa or Australia or South America.  It wasn’t just the air mail contracts that spurred aviation in its “golden years”.


Changing focus slightly, it is often noted that the Air Force does not build its own airplane; the Army does not build its own tanks, why should NASA build its own spacecraft? 


NASA, of course, does not build human spacecraft.   Never has.  Commercial companies have built all human spacecraft and their launch vehicles.  McDonnell built Mercury and Gemini, North American Aviation and Grumman built the Apollo CSM and LM respectively.  Chrysler built the Redstone rocket and the first stage of the Saturn 1B launch vehicle, and so forth.  The renamed North American Rockwell built the Space Shuttle orbiter.  When I became NASA’s Shuttle Program Manager, I was surprised to find that the detailed design and production drawings for the Space Shuttle orbiter were the intellectual property of Rockwell International Space Division which has since become part of Boeing.  The government, while definitely involved with the design, did not do the detailed part of the design and does not own the “intellectual property” for the shuttle.  Many boxes and piece parts remain “proprietary” and not under the detailed purview of the government.  That seems commercial at some level, doesn’t it?


Thinking more about the military services, a recent speaker at NASA was from the Navy ship bureau in charge of building aircraft carriers.  The Navy doesn’t build aircraft carriers, a commercial company does that; but the Navy is intimately involved in the detailed design of every part of a new aircraft carrier.  And the Air Force is intimately involved in the design of new jet fighters like the F-22 and the F-35.  Sometimes this backfires on a company; ask about the presidential helicopter program.  There is a real lesson there.


So what is being proposed for commercial human spacecraft for government use?  A contract that merely asks a “provider” to transport our 4-ish person ISS crew from some place on the earth’s surface to the ISS for a fee?  No other questions asked?  Somehow I think that is not really what is going to happen.  Even the airlines and aircraft builders have to pass FAA certification for flight worthiness.  So if the government contracts for transportation service there is going to be some government involvement.  Oh, and don’t even ask about federal procurement regulations.  Remember the 1934 air mail scandal?  There are a slew of laws and regulations intended to prevent something like that from happening again. 


So the real question is how much or how little the government will be involved in the design/certification/operation of commercially contracted human space vehicles.  Neither the current model of intimate and controlling design authority nor a totally hands off approach is realistic.


Like almost all of life, there is going to be a compromise.  The devil is in the details.  It seems to me that we need to spend a serious amount of thought and discussion on how best to do this.  Far more than a couple of paragraphs in an essay or a report. 


Indemnification.  I have heard a lot about that word lately.  Had to look it up.  Currently the US government indemnifies the companies that build and operate our current space vehicles.  If they crash, the government, not the companies, is held liable.  That is not the way the airlines work; if an airliner crashes, the airline company or sometimes the aircraft manufacturer are held responsibility and are subject to civil legal action.  Some of the putative commercial human space flight providers want the government to indemnify them, take the responsibility if they crash.  The original airmail contracts didn’t do that in 1925. 


Seems like we have a lot to think about as we move commercial human space flight.


We might even learn from history. 


William C. “Will Bill” Hopson was an early government airmail pilot earning 5 cents a mile.  He helped pioneer the transcontinental route in 1920 flying the Omaha to Chicago leg in an open cockpit De Haviland DH-4 modified WWI bomber.  He is shown here in his government gear, ready to fly in any weather.  After the airmail was commercialized, Hopson went to work flying CAM-17 from New York to Chicago.  He died in 1928, in a crash, flying his daily run for a commercial air mail company.

Presidents' Day

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


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


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


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


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


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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


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


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

The Radical Wrights

Yesterday was the 105th anniversary of the Wright brother’s first flight and I thought all evening about their accomplishment.  I dug out my dog-eared copy of Tom Crouch’s excellent biography “The Bishop’s Boys” and read a few paragraphs.  Whenever I can, I visit the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum on the national mall to see the second floor room where the “Flyer” is enshrined.

The Wright brothers are held to be the penultimate real-life historical proof that Horatio Alger was right; hard work, ingenuity, and courage can lead to success, fame, and fortune. 

Or maybe not. 

There were a huge number of people working on the problem of heavier than air flight in the early 20th century.  There are competing claims from supporters of many of those early inventers that some of them “beat” the Wright brothers to achieve the first flight.  None of these claims hold up under scrutiny however.  If the Wright brothers had not existed, or had been happy to be merely bicycle makers, someone else would have flow — the only question is how much later.  Based on my study, it probably would have been quite a lot later.  Literally everybody else was pursuing the dead end of making a perfectly stable aircraft. Today we know that is impossible.  The Wright brothers had a different idea: to build a purposely unstable aircraft with adequate controls to allow a human to manage that instability.  Of course that is not all, but imagine the consequences if the Wright brothers had not pursued their inherently unstable aircraft idea.  What would have happened during WWI with no aircraft?  No Red Baron, no Eddie Rickenbaker, no Hermann Goering, no Billy Mitchell, at least not as we know them today.  Only  tethered balloons for artillery spotters — not much different than the American Civil War — and the Zeppelins.  If the invention of the airplane had been delayed by 20 years, would Charles Lindberg Ameila Earhart be remembered today?  And  would the Japanese Imperial Navy have built aircraft carriers by 1941?  History would have been different in ways that we cannot even imagine.

Yet the Wright brothers succeeded because of a confluence of time, capabilities, and events.  If Octave Chanute had not published his work, if internal combustion engines had not sufficiently developed to generate 12 horsepower from an engine weighing less than 150 pounds,  if Bishop Milton Wright had not bought a 50 cent Penaud helicopter toy to bring home to his sons to play with, if the brothers had given up after the failure of their 1901 kite when Wilbur wrote “Not within a thousand years would man ever fly”, if, if, if, if any of a thousand events had unfolded differently, what would have happened?

The Wright brothers invention succeeded because they were the right people with the right knowledge at the right time in history — and because they worked really hard at making their dream a success.

In retrospect, history looks deterministic.  Everything happened as it was supposed to.  Events unfolded according to some cosmic plan.  In reality, we make our own history.  Decisions every day determine what the future will be.    Edmund Burke’s words ought to ring in our ears:  “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Recently there have been a spate of commentators that have decried our national plan to explore space as unrealistic.  That may be a topic for serious debate.  But one argument that they have advanced is nonsense.  The argument that Apollo was successful and could have only happened because of the historical influences of the times, and since the times and world events are different, the successor to Apollo cannot happen today.

Certainly the times and events influenced Apollo and the moon landings and caused certain decisions to be made in certain ways; events may have moved faster or slower had events been different.  All that I grant you.  But to leap from the historical record to the conclusion that no large national (or international!) exploration of space can take place today because the times are different is unwarranted.

This is a time when there is a confluence of capabilities and events.  All that is required is that innovative people work really hard to achieve their dreams. 

And in that way, these times are no different from 1969 or 1903. 






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.”




Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

You have all seen the pictures from Mission Control at splashdown of one of the Apollo missions:  flags and cigars, the room crowded with celebrating people including most of the NASA hierarchy.  Splashdown parties were a big thing back in the day as my older colleagues used to tell me.  I often wondered how exaggerated those stories were, or did people just party harder in those days?

My first assignment in Mission Control was for the entry team of STS-1; Columbia.  It was quite a flight; a long time coming and a technical achievement that will not be surpassed for a long time.  Even though there was no “splashdown”, I remember the mob scene after landing — a huge party with hundreds of folks crammed into Mission Control and then spilling out into all the various venues surrounding the space center.  Much of the top brass of NASA was present; but this time there was a difference, a lot of senior folks were at the runway in California.  A new tradition had started.  Still, there was great celebration.

These continued for the landings of STS-2, 3, 4, 5, 6.  On STS-7, Sally Ride made history as the first American woman to go into space.  If anything, the crowd was even bigger than on earlier flights.  The cigar smoke was so thick that you could not see from one end of the room to another.

(Smoking has since been banned from Mission Control and all other NASA building!)

I found myself working the Entry team on STS-8, the first night landing.  Dick Truly was the commander.  There were lots of concerns about landing in the dark; many new rules and procedures.  The Shuttle Orbiter does not have a landing light like most aircraft, so illumination had to come from huge spotlights which lined the runway.  We were all absolutely nervous about this.  Everybody but Truly. 

The landing came at about 2 AM.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — in Mission Control it always seems like 2 AM!  Often when I emerged from a long shift in the MCC, I would be surprised to see the sun shining!  There is something psychological about being in a big windowless building for many hours concentrating on difficult technical problems.  But this time it was really true! 

The shuttle glided to a picture perfect landing, no problems worth noting.  Later pilots have often remarked that night landings are actually easier than daytime landings — not only is the weather often better, but there the well lit runway is the only thing you can really see and all the other distracting things that daylight reveals are hidden at night!

We ran through the post landing checklist; made sure the crew got out alright, and turned control of the vehicle over to the team at the landing field.  The traditional words were spoken:  “The flight control team is released.  GC (the ground control officer) unlock the MCC doors”. 

And nothing happened.  Nobody came in.  The video monitors switched to the congratulatory slide that always came up in preparation for the party.  But nobody was there.  The flight control team put our books away in silence; packed up our bags, and headed out the door.  All the usual party joints were closed at that time in the morning.  We all went home to bed.

Sic transit gloria mundi

When the shuttle lands today there is a small rush when the doors are opened.  Some mid-level NASA officials are generally there to shake hands and congratulate the team.  We can watch a small group of senior folks on the runway shake hands with the crew whether they are in California or Florida.  But it isn’t like the old days.

Well, at least we won’t all die from the cigar smoke!