My Favorite Shuttle Flight



Today seems like an appropriate day to start reminiscing about the ol’ shuttle program, so here goes.


Sooner or later everybody is going to get to pick their favorite shuttle flight. 


There is a lot to choose from; the boldest test flight in history (STS-1), launching the Hubble (STS-31), or servicing the Hubble (several flights), or assembling the space station (STS-88 and many more), or . . . well, you name it.


My favorite flight was STS-77.  This is partly personal, it was the first time I was Lead Flight Director, in charge of the planning and development for the flight as well as the actual execution.  


Other than that personal reason, STS-77 may seem an odd choice for favorite flight, but after I tell you about it, you may change your mind.  On that flight we carried a double SpaceHab module with many science experiments on board.  Doing microgravity science on short term (approximately two weeks) shuttle flights is tough, but some good science was done by the crew.  But the other payloads that captured most of our interest and had the potential to yield the most significant results. 


One experiment consisted of a small cylindrical sub satellite (shown in the following picture) which was covered by reflective material.  It was ejected from the shuttle payload bay early in the flight.  The cylinder also included a couple of permanent magnets.  The entire experiment consisted of using those magnets to align the satellite with the earth’s magnetic field; a very passive way to provide attitude control for small satellites.  The plan was to kick the satellite out, with a lot of wobble – clearly out of control, fly away for a day, come back, and observe how stable the satellite had become. 


Test Satellite ejected from Shuttle Payload Bay



In actual practice, . . . well. 


The shuttle rendezvoused with the satellite 24 hours later, and it was still wobbling all over the sky, so we went away.   We came back another 24 hours later, and it was still wobbling significantly, so we went away again.  We then waited 48 hours and came back and it was nearly stable, but not completely.  End of experiment.  Nice idea, came close to working, but took too long and never quite did what it was supposed to do.




Did I tell you that STS-77 still holds the record for the most number of rendezvous operations of any space flight?  The crew got really good at those procedures.


Even more impressive was the Inflatable Antenna Experiment (IAE).  The Spartan free flyer was originally designed to be a platform for astronomical experiments (one of the A’s in Spartan is for astronomy).  On this flight, a box with a tightly packaged balloon was mounted on the Spartan.  We put the Spartan/IAE out with the shuttle arm, let it go, flew a few hundred feet away, and watched the sequence.  The box was to pop open and pressurized gas at just a few psi would inflate a huge antenna.  If the antenna were stable and the geometry was right, we could have a new way of building light weight, inexpensive radio antennas in orbit.  What a great concept!  The Spartan had cold gas thrusters to maintain attitude control and would point this test antenna in a direction where we could observe whether or not it performed as expected. 


IAE & Spartan over the Grand Canyon


Things did not go as planned. 


Rather than a straightforward inflation of the balloon, the antenna looked at first like an octopus with multiple entangling arms.  After several minutes it achieved a stable shape as we had expected, but the entire Spartan/IAE package was tumbling end over end. 


Clearly the inflation had set up a motion that the Spartan’s attitude control system could not overcome. 


Even worse, when the “lens” part of the antenna came clearly into view, the surface was not smooth but wrinkled and those wrinkles fluttered across the surface of the lens in constant motion.  This would not provide the smooth, stable surface necessary for radio transmission. 


After observing at a close distance for the planned time; the shuttle crew backed off to a safe distance, the balloon was jettisoned, and the Spartan bus stabilized itself. 


A day later the shuttle rendezvoused with the Spartan bus, grappled it with the arm,  and stowed the Spartan safely in the payload bay.


Did I mention that STS-77 still holds the record for the most number of rendezvous executed by any single space mission?


So here is the scorecard:  several of the SpaceHab science experiments provided interesting results.  The Passive Attitude Control sub-satellite using magnets and the earth’s magnetic field did not achieve the expected results.  The Inflatable Antenna Experiment was, in that configuration, a failure.  And of course, the record number of rendezvous!


So, what do we say about this flight?


Both of these showy free flying experiments were radical, even revolutionary ways of doing business in space.  They were bold in their conception and execution.  If successful, those technologies would have been “game-changing” to use a phrase in current vogue.  But they failed.  That happens sometimes when you test radical innovative technologies.  On the other hand, sometimes you actually succeed.  You always learn.  If we were to try those experiments again, with the knowledge of what didn’t work last time, they might just work.  The revolution may still be just out there. 


I recently heard a radio program discussing what makes America so successful, how we have built such an innovative, creative society.  Part of the reason, it was stated, is that we are not afraid to try something and fail.  In fact, it expected that we will encounter failure. You cannot be innovative and not have failures.  Being paralyzed at the prospect of a potential failure is the greatest failure of all.


Try something.  Be bold, revolutionary, even game changing.  Just don’t be surprised if you have to pick yourself up off the ground and dust off your pants from time to time.  It’s the American way.

Culture Change at NASA

According to the creation myth, in the beginning, NASA was full of young, cocky, innovative, hard charging folks who got us to the Gene Kranz's School for Young Gentlemen circa 1967moon inside a decade.  They were brash, confident, and did not suffer fools gladly.  If they were worried, they didn’t show it.  Stories abound of 100+ hour work weeks end to end, almost impossible to believe.  Their theme -as posted on the factory walls – was ‘waste anything but time’.  Going to the moon was the cliché for doing the impossible and they were going to be the ones to do it.  They were the epitome of risk-taking, innovative, creative, flexible, nimble, achievers.








On the way to the moon, the Apollo 1 fire happened.  It was a tragedy.  It was beyond awful.  With 20-20 hindsight, the root cause of the fire was obviously sheer stupidity.  There were investigations and panels and recommendations.  As in every accident investigation, the investigation board found that communications between people and organizations were faulty.  Management culture was poor.  And the safety organization was strangely silent on dangerous situations which they had been warned about.  So the recommendations, in additional to technical things, included improving communications, changing management culture, and reinvigorating the safety organization.  And even though everybody at NASA believed the fire was a one-time thing, NASA tried to improve.  Some bureaucratic checks took a little of the nimbleness out of the system in the name of safety, but mostly NASA got a pass because we had to beat the Russians.  The Eagle landed, the mission was accomplished, and time passed.

One the way to exploiting the space frontier with our new space shuttle, 19 years and one day after the Apollo 1 fire, the Challenger and her crew were lost during launch.  It was a tragedy.  It was beyond awful.  With 20-20 hindsight, the root cause of the accident was obviously sheer stupidity.  There were investigations and panels and recommendations.  As in every accident investigation, the investigation board found that communications between people and organizations were faulty.  Management culture was poor.  And the safety organization was strangely silent on dangerous situations which they had been warned about.  So the recommendations, in addition to technical things, included improving communications, changing management culture, and reinvigorating the safety organization.  And even though everybody believed that the accident was a one-time thing, NASA tried to improve.  More methods to communicate were added, more bureaucratic checks were added, the system slowed down and became more costly in the name of safety, but mostly NASA got a pass because we still had to beat the Russians, this time to build a permanent space station, and they were ahead of us.  The Hubble was launched, the assembly of the Space Station started, and time passed.

17 years and three days after the loss of Challenger, Columbia disintegrated during reentry and her crew was lost.  With 20-20 hindsight, the root cause of the accident was obviously sheer stupidity.  There were investigations and panels and recommendations.  As in every accident investigation, the investigation board found that communications between people and organizations were faulty.  Management culture was poor.  And the safety organization was strangely silent on dangerous situations which they had been warned about.  So the recommendations, in addition to technical things, included improving communications, changing management culture, and reinvigorating the safety organization. 

This time, nobody inside or outside of NASA believed that the Columbia accident was a one-time thing.  So we tried to change the very root culture at NASA.  Strangely, I found myself at the epicenter of the culture change; one of the least likely managers ever to participate in touchy-feely human relations changes.  We got trained by professional councilors on how to play nice and communicate affirmingly. At the end of seven years, some change is evident.  Safety is reinvigorated; the management culture has bent toward more safety; and  communications, well, need more work and probably always will.  Dissenters must be heard and understood, and mostly placated; much more bureaucracy has been added in the name of safety, and everybody now has a “stop work” card to play if they have a concern.  NASA did not get a pass, the Russians are no longer our competition but our partners, and the debate intensifies as to whether America should send humans into space.  Meanwhile, the Space Station has nearly been completed, the shuttle is about to be retired, its mission accomplished, and time has passed.

Now conventional wisdom says NASA is risk averse.  Afraid of failure, afraid to take risks, requiring draconian and expensive safety insight for even mundane tasks.  They say that NASA depends too much on extensive testing and expensive analysis to prove that every operation is as safe as humanly possible before undertaking it.  That is the conventional wisdom proffered by the media, the pundits, and those who want to be in the space business. To be successful in space, we hear, risks must be taken, fear must not inhibit innovation.  The possibility of failure must be deeply discounted and the consequences of failure should not be contemplated very hard lest we waiver from our goals.  We need organizations that are nimble, flexible, innovative, and risk taking to be successful in space. 

In short, NASA should turn to private enterprise for a ride to space.

So how can a staid, grey, old, inflexible bureaucracy approve flying its people on somebody else’s rocket?  Experience has been a hard teacher; everybody at NASA has been instilled with a great personal responsibility for safety; the knowledge that if the widget that they are responsible to monitor causes failure it will be their own personal fault.  Do you untrain the culture of the last seven, no –  forty, years as drilled into every NASA engineer and manager?  Probably not.  But if American astronauts are to ride to the international space station on a rocketship that NASA did not build, there will have to be a tectonic shift in NASA culture.  Regardless of who builds the ship or operates it or what shape it takes, one thing is certain; NASA’s role will have be different.  That will take a tremendous amount of energy, and time must pass.

In the middle of the last culture change I sent the following paragraph to the shuttle troops.  I still stand by it and it rings strangely true for the future, too.

Life is full of gray choices.  Deciding the work completed is good enough because more will not make it perfect.  Ten thousand gray choices; doing what we must do, and not a bit more because that would take away from other work that is absolutely critical to be done right.  When we have done what we can do, when we have driven the risk to the lowest practical level where it can be driven, then we have to accept the fact that it is time to make a decision and move on.  Because history is waiting for us.  But history will not wait forever, and it will judge us mercilessly if we fail to face tough choices and move ahead.

Why Explore Space?

Are these two conversations, historic and current, so very different?



Walden, 1854, by Henry David Thoreau :  “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. . . Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not . . “


Modern conversation overheard:  “Why would we want to throw money away on space exploration, it is just a waste!”  “Don’t we have problems enough here on earth?  We should solve (fill in the blank) before we explore space.”



The more things change, the more they stay the same. 


I wonder if the USA exports ice these days?  In 1869, the transcontinental railroad revolutionized travel and knit the United States together.  Thoreau was a great philosopher and I encourage you to read his works, but he had an aversion to technology that would have served us poorly a century and a half ago.  His philosophical heirs in this aversion to technology would likewise have us follow a path which will serve our nation – and our world – poorly for the next century and more.


Some people believe, in spite of fifty years of evidence to the contrary, that the technicians down at the Kennedy Space Center load stacks of fresh dollar bills (or maybe hundred dollar bills) into each space vehicle which is then launched into the great abyss as though money were toxic waste needing disposal.  Thoreau would have agreed that money is toxic, so maybe there is a connection. 


For at least two generations a number of thoughtful writers, scholars, professionals have helped us understand that space exploration, rather than being a distraction from “serious things”,  actually provides solutions to some of the most intractable problems here on earth.  By and large most people recognize the value that NASA brings.  But the nay-sayers are persistent, and the general public wakes up fresh every day, so we will try one more time to explain why space exploration is important for today and vital to our future.


Many reasons have been advanced to demonstrate why the United States of America should continue to lead the exploration of space.  At this particular point in time, let’s concentrate on four of these.  Limiting the discussion will keep it to a manageable size, just note that there are many more points which can be made,  which may be more applicable at other times or in different circumstances. 

Here are my top four:


1.  Space Exploration inspires our young people to achievements in education, especially in science, engineering, mathematics, and technical subjects.


2.  Space Exploration requires innovation and technological advancement which improves the national economy directly and for the long term.


3.  Space Exploration leads to better understanding of our world, its environment and climate, and allows for global monitoring of changes.


4.  American leadership in Space Exploration provides for greater national security in multiple ways that are at once subtle, tangible, and highly effective.


These, it seems to me, comprise a powerful subset of arguments in favor of expending at least a small fraction of our national treasure on this enterprise.


And it is a small fraction; the entire NASA budget makes up 6 tenths of one percent of the Federal budget.  Given the attention paid to NASA, it is easy to understand why some uninformed citizens believe that NASA’s budget approaches that of the  Department of Defense, or that of spending for Social Security.  In truth, if all of NASA’s budget were to disappear, there would be no appreciable savings to the national debt, no meaningful improvement in our national social safety net, and probably a net loss to the national defense.  Those who defend the space exploration budget are constantly finding new categories of spending which exceeds the NASA allocation:  Americans spend more on pet food than they do on space exploration; Americans spend more on cosmetics than on space; Gillette Razor company spent more to develop and market their new shaver than it costs to fly the space shuttle for a year, and on and on.  Nobody is advocating giving up our pets, or our personal beauty, but when we talk of programs which will have lasting impacts into the future, it is well to put the cost in context.  Don’t even get started on bailouts.  AIG, to take one easy example, has received more tax dollars in the last few months than NASA has in its budget for a decade.  America is the world’s only remaining superpower, both economically and militarily.  As a nation we have the resources to educate our children, care for our elderly, defend ourselves, and all the rest; and somewhere in all that it might just be important to devote six tenths of one percent to the future. 



Over the next couple of weeks, I intend to explore each of these reasons in some detail.  Please stay tuned.





Encouraging Innovation at NASA

I have another video for you to watch, but before you do let me give you a little context.

On this date, March 16, 1926, Dr. Robert Hutchings Goddard, professor of Physics at Worchester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts tried out his newest invention in his Aunt Effie’s cabbage patch near Auburn, Massachusetts.  Pretty old cabbages in that garden in March in Massachusetts.  Dr. Goddard’s invention?  The world’s very first liquid fueled rocket.  It flew; not very high nor very far, but it flew.  And attracted the attention of the town’s volunteer fire department – they asked Dr. Goddard not to do any more experiments there.

Dr. Goddard had carried on his work despite the fact that a few years earlier he was humiliated in a very public forum.  After he had delivered a paper entitled “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes”, the New York Times devoted several column inches in its editorial page to denigrate his thoughts.  Most quotable from the NY Times editorial was this comment about Dr. Goddard’s grasp of physics:  “”does not know of the relation of action to reaction, and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react”.  A classic line if there ever was one.  I should note that in July 1969 (almost a half century later and well after Dr. Goddard’s death) the NY Times posted a correction with the words “The Times regrets its error.”  Indeed. 

The public criticism confirmed Dr. Goddard’s introverted nature and he continued his work, mostly in secret and mostly in isolation for another quarter century.  Other, more knowledgeable folks, read his work and were enlightened by it.  In 1945, German engineers from Peenemunde, where rocketry had made huge – regrettable at the time – advances, when interrogated by their American captors about rockets, replied “Why don’t you ask your own Dr. Goddard?”  They paid attention.  We did not.

We cannot afford to let good ideas slip from our grasp.  Innovation and creativity are the foundation on which our economy is really founded. 

So a few weeks ago, a team of folks at Johnson Space Center made a video report on what are some of the barriers to innovation at NASA.  A lot of you watched that video and many of the comments reported that these barriers exist in a wide spectrum of private and public organizations.  That video was an amalgam of the most egregious examples of poor communication and bad management that unfortunately still occurs from time to time in supposedly “creative” organizations.

Now the team has taken their list of proposed ways to overcome these barriers and turned them into another video.  This video is to produce discussion and thought.  Some of these ideas are better than others.  A couple of the proposals are being implemented at JSC at this time. 

So watch, and consider.  And ask this question — how are you helping to encourage creativity and innovation in your organization?


Innovation,Dissent,Intellectual Property,and the Internet

This morning I moved the Barriers to Innovation video to the private section of you tube so most folks can’t watch it.  I really intended to delete it but can’t figure out how; so making the video private is the next best thing.  Some folks may wonder why I did that . . . and its a long story, so buckle in if you are up for it.

About two years ago, Mike Coats who is the director of Johnson Space Center started a forward looking initiative to improve creativity and innovation within NASA.  This is a critical goal.  Great leaders have great vision and this was the start of a process to make us over as a more effective, innovative, inclusive, creative agency.  Last spring, seven teams were formed to examine ways in which JSC or NASA could be improved:  recruiting, mentoring, communications, work/life fit, communications, IT, and a team to examine the barriers to innovation.  Everybody reported out in January; several groups made videos, all the groups both identified problems and proposed solutions.  By the way, this was an officially sanctioned part time activity with appropriate charge codes — just for you folks that care about that sort of thing.  And it was very intentional to include contractor representation on each team.

But the barriers team video hit a chord with me and also with a lot of folks when we posted it on you tube.  Lots of comments, lots of views, lots of discussion.  I will say that NASA senior management took the video and its message very well.  Absolutely nobody has told me that posting that video was a problem.  (I wonder if the dissenters to that opinion feel stifled?)  Anyway, the barriers team wanted to also post their “solutions”.  Originally this was a power point chart presentation.  I am not a big fan of powerpoint chart presentations although the team had some good ideas.  So the team decided to stick together and make a video of the solutions — not just a power point, but use the same actors (themselves) and the same themes and show proposed solutions.

So they have been working on that for the last couple of weeks.  As they got the video ready to post, somebody asked if we should get permission to use the TV theme music.  Silly me, I hadn’t thought of that.  Of course TV theme music is intellectual property and is protected by numerous laws.

Even though most folks on the internet don’t seem to worry too much about those laws, we should set a good example.  So we asked permission to make and post a couple of videos with the TV theme music.  The response from those who hold the intellectual property rights for that was OK — but only for internal use — no you tube.


So, we have done the right thing and removed the old video — while we continue to negotiate with the music property owners.

At the very least, we should be able to repost the original and new video without the music in a few days. 

In the meantime, I hope we can post all the video reports from all the teams.  Even though these are all made by video amateurs, there are lots of great lessons and proposals which could make our organization — and perhaps any organization — more creative and innovative.  JSC is already moving out to implement some of the best recommendations.

More to come!


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.