The Vision Thing

George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st President, calls Houston home.   He and Barbara can be frequently seen at Astros baseball games, he made his early career in business here, was a congressman from here, even once taught a course as an adjunct professor at my alma mater, Rice University. 


As you may recall, Mr. Bush failed in his re-election bid; there were a number of reasons for his loss, but one of the frequently cited reasons was “the vision thing”.  The critics felt that he had not clearly articulated his vision for the future of the nation, which is a vital function that an effective chief executive must do.  Keep that in mind. 


On July 20, 1989 – the 20th anniversary of the first lunar landing – President G. H. W. Bush had made a speech proposing what would come to be known as the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI).  This proposal included a permanent return to the Moon and human missions to Mars.  In spite of the bold and visionary words, this initiative quickly failed. 


Thor Hogan has written an excellent book on the history of the fiasco.  His book is “Mars Wars, The Rise and Fall of the Space Exploration Initiative” NASA SP-2007-4410, August 2007.  I highly recommend this book for those who are interested in how national space policy is made and how federal agencies can be dysfunctional at times.  Dr. Hogan is a Professor of Political Science at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.  Let me reiterate – I highly recommend this book if you are interested in these topics.


When  “Mars Wars” was first published in 2007, it was widely circulated in NASA management and caused considerable discussion.  Everyone was trying to make sure to avoid the mistakes made in 1989 and create a successful program.  There are many lessons to be learned from that earlier experience, and Dr. Hogan hit many of them. 


The most frequently cited lesson from SEI is the need to build a “sustainable” program.  That is a shorthand way of saying stay within an affordable budget.  One of the principle  reasons the Space Exploration Initiative failed was its price tag.  The SEI package was dead on arrival at Congress because of the high cost.  Trying to apply this lesson, the NASA program of the last five years to send crews to the Moon and Mars strove mightily to remain within the budget line announced in 2004.


But back to 1989, because there are other lessons to be learned there.  That year I was a rookie Space Shuttle Flight Director, learning the ropes in Mission Control, and I had no time to be involved in SEI.  But I was immersed in the NASA culture of the day and I remember that time with great clarity.  Dr. Hogan’s “Mars Wars” book does a wonderful job of capturing the motivations of agency personnel in those days. 


It was a bare three years following the Challenger accident and the wound was still raw.  Challenger was a driving factor in the SEI story.  Remember that widely held beliefs are important whether they are accurate or not.  That is because what people believe to be true motivates them.  So take the following paragraph not necessarily as historical truth but as the mythos which psychologically undergird folks running SEI.


NASA was not allowed to build the shuttle the “right” way, that is, to make both engineeringly elegant and safe.  Lives were lost in Challenger due to basic design choices forced on the agency by severe budgetary restrictions.  In the early 1970s, when NASA was authorized to design and build a revolutionary reusable winged space vehicle, the Office of Management and Budget capped the total development cost of the shuttle at $5 billion.   (Money went further back then.)  This cap was far too low to allow development of several of the more innovative design options.  Fly back liquid fueled boosters were out of the question, for example.  Operational costs were higher because of choices required to keep the development costs low.  Safety was lower.  So we got an aero-space plane with a big dumb drop tank and two scaled up JATO bottles. 


After Challenger, there was no money to significantly improve the basic design of the shuttle.  NASA was faced with the prospect of flying its less-than-safe shuttle for the long term, but with even higher operational costs and a lower flight rate.   Anger is the only term I can use to describe the general feeling back then.  Anger that NASA was forced to build something less than perfect by green eyeshade bean counters in Washington.  Anger that those decisions had been the basis for the loss of seven of our colleagues.  Anger that NASA wasn’t given the authorization to build a second generation shuttle to correct those problems.  So when the President announced a plan to build a spaceship to go back to the Moon and on to Mars, the most frequently heard comment around the human space flight institutions was “We’ve got to do this right this time.”  Even the NASA Administrator  Dick Truly was heard to “we’ve got to do it right this time or not at all.” 


So when the SEI plan turned out to be very expensive, a significant part of that cost was driven by the thought that it must be done “right”.


Fast forward twenty years.  The recent program struggled mightily to stay within the budget because they perceived “sustainability” the principle lesson learned from the last time.  Smarting from the recent loss of Columbia, the organization believed that ‘it still had to be done right’.  So technical performance was not open for compromise.   In program management that means the only relief can come from schedule delay.  Delay that lead to an increasing gap.  Now, that analysis is very, very overly simplistic.  Blog level simplistic, in fact.  I don’t need to connect any more dots from that point, you can do that yourself.


I am told that over the last 20 years more than 15 major NASA Human Spaceflight programs have been cancelled.  I can’t recite the whole list but will give a few examples:  X-38, HL-20, X-33/VentureStar, Space Launch Initiative (SLI), and Orbital Space Plane (OSP).  Some never got past the viewgraph stage.  Some were cancelled because of technical issues.  Some were cancelled for budgetary issues.  And some were cancelled for political reasons. 


So, in hindsight, was the shuttle built “right?”  That program actually flew, well, late, and only somewhat over budget.  Of course the operations budget never went down like it was supposed to.  The shuttle is clearly not “safe” in the conventional sense, but will space flight ever be “safe” like putting your kids on the schoolbus?  At least the shuttle program actually kinda sorta worked and didn’t get cancelled before the first test flight. 


What constitutes “right” in advancing human space flight?  Something reasonably safe and not too costly, something that opens up the space frontier to many people rather than a few?  Is that the foundational paradigm that is being overturned today? 


There are more than a few lessons that you can extract from Dr. Hogan’s book.  I strongly suggest you read it.


And one more thing:  there is a saying that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.  It might appear that we have been doing the “same thing” over and over again and wondering why the result turns out this way.  This time the paradigm is shifting at a foundational level.  Will the new paradigm avoid the same old outcome?


That a vision?   Hmm.

Gathering Dust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gary the Gray

Flight directors seem to be a hardy lot.  The first Mercury flight directors (Red-Kraft, White-Kranz, and Blue-Hodge) are still with us even though the years gather about them.  Of the 77 American flight directors, only 5 have passed:  #5 – Green Flight, Cliff Charlesworth, #8-Orange Flight, Pete Frank, #9-Purple Flight, Phil Shaffer, and #10-Crimson Flight, Don Puddy.  A few days ago we lost Gray Flight, the 15th Flight Director, Gary Coen.  He was my first boss at NASA.


Gary went to the GM Institute and studied automotive engineering.  He probably told me how he came to work at NASA but the memory is lost to me now.  He was a GNC/Prop guy on Gemini and used to regale us with stories about keeping track of the propellant in Gemini days when there was no accurate gas gage on the vehicle.  Every pulse of a jet had to be counted, the mixture ratio hand applied, and the result laboriously tabulated to know how much propellant remained against how much might yet be required on each flight.  He had the same job in Apollo for the CSM.  They hotfired the SM thrusters on the launch pad late in the countdown to see if they were all still working.  He was responsible not only for the propulsion systems but for the primitive inertial measurement gyro used in the command module.  During Apollo 13 he was part of John Aaron’s team in the simulator trying to build a plan to bring the command module back to life without exceeding the battery limits. 


Prior to the first Shuttle flight, Gary Coen was the head of the Prop/Booster Systems group of flight controllers.  He hired and mentored many new college graduates into the traditions and procedures of Mission Control.  Some of the folks under his tutelage went on to be leaders in spaceflight:  Cleon Lacefield later became FD #21 – Orion Flight – and interestingly enough now is Lockheed-Martin’s Project Manager for the Orion crew exploration vehicle; FD #27- Phoenix Flight- Ron Dittemore later became Space Shuttle Program Manager and Vice President of ATK; FD #33  – Corona Flight – Linda Ham has held many senior management positions and is currently in the Constellation Program Office; FD #34 – Burgundy Flight – Richard Jackson went on to head up the contractors in charge of Mission Control; and the legacy of excellence that Gary started continues with former Propulsion officers and current Flight Directors #54 Onyx – Brian Lunney, #56 Topaz – Kathy Koerner, #57 Intrepid – Tony Ceccacci (who just lead the successful Hubble servicing mission), and #67 Apex – Mike Moses who is currently serving as Launch Integration Manager for Space Shuttle at KSC.  Jenny Stein hasn’t been a Flight Director but learned well enough from Gary so that on STS-27, as Booster Officer, she prevented a two-SSME out contingency abort by coolly directing the crew to manage the failing redline sensors safely.  Bill Gerstenmaier came to be a PROP officer under Gary’s tutelage  and while Bill never became a Flight Director, he has done a few things of note around the agency.  Oh, and me; I’m FD #28, Turquoise Flight.  No other group in NASA Mission Operations has resulted in so many Flight Directors or senior NASA leaders.  Some legacy there.


Gary was very mechanically inclined.  He loved tinkering with cars and boats.  He told us the story of one vacation where the family station wagon blew an engine in a small western town on Friday afternoon.  The only service station in town was closed on weekends but Gary made a deal with the owner to use his lift and tools over the weekend.  A quick trip to the local junk yard resulted in an engine that would work; and by Monday morning they left town with that used motor installed in the family vehicle.  My mind boggles at the thought of doing that sort of thing alone.  That was the kind of guy Gary was.


Gary loved to fish; he had a nice boat and took every opportunity to motor out from Galveston bay into the Gulf of Mexico in search of good fishing.  He frequently invited co-workers to go with him.  On one memorable trip about a month before the first shuttle flight, the boat carried all three shifts of certified PROP officers (Gary was Ascent) into the Gulf.  Coming back in late, they ran upon rocks and started taking water.  The Coast Guard came on scene and provided additional pumps and a tow back to the landing.  This incident caused Flight Operations management to strongly encourage certified flight controllers to avoid “hazardous recreational activities” shortly before flight.  Gary’s response?  Fishing isn’t hazardous!


Gary’s leadership style was decidedly old school.  Women were just beginning to be employed in engineering and mission control in the days leading up to STS-1.  There was one memorable office meeting about “appropriate dress” that nearly got him fired.  I’ll leave the details to your imagination. 


Gary was selected to the Flight Director’s Office right about the time of STS-1.  He served as PROP on the second shuttle flight because the new trainee (that would be me) wasn’t ready to solo until the third flight.  Once in the FD office, Gary became responsible for transforming the newly invented abort mode to Spain to a certified, well supported mode that we now know as TAL (Trans-Atlantic Abort Landing).  He worked tirelessly with the state department and foreign governments to pick appropriate runways; he was responsible for ensuring that they were properly equipped.  He famously mispronounced (on purpose) the Moroccan landing field Ben Gear (it was Ben Guerir).   Gary was also put in charge of the Landing Weather Rules and became almost the nemesis of the Space Flight Meteorology Group of forecasters.  He insisted on engineering precision in that field which remains more an art than a science to this day.


Gary was lead flight director three times, responsible for the entire mission success of STS-51B, STS-35 (Astro), and STS-55 (Spacelab D-2).  He served as Flight Director for Ascent 11 times and Entry 13 times (#2 on the all time record books).  

Most of the Flight Directors have children who are college bound and that puts them on a budget.  There was an unofficial contest to see which FD could have the oldest, ugliest car.  Gary won the competition hands down by painting his very old Suburban with white latex housepaint – with a brush!  The hood was done in flat black to keep down the glare.  Some wag put T-38 stickers on it since the paint scheme matched that airplane.


Most importantly, Gary served as the US co-chair for the working group that established the operations interfaces and procedures used in MCC-H and MCC-M for the Shuttle/MIR program.  This became the precedent and basis for the operations of the International Space Station.


In 1995 Gary retired so he could devote himself full time to his passion – fishing.


Unfortunately, Gary came from an age when smoking was acceptable.  As long as I knew him, Gary chain smoked unfiltered Camels.  In the old days, smoking was allowed in the offices and especially in Mission Control.  I sat next to Gary so much I’m probably at some risk myself.  When the edict came down for no smoking in any JSC facilities, I thought it was going to kill him . . . but it didn’t.  Nor did it cause him to stop smoking. 


Gary died of lung cancer October 5; the funeral will be Saturday the 17th.


All things considered, Gary Coen had a spectacular career.  His contributions to human space flight didn’t get a lot of flashy notice, but he built an organization and mentored a group of folks that have achieved spectacular things.


No big NASA memorial has been announced although I expect JSC senior leadership will show up and present the family with a flag.


And I will miss him.


Stormy Weather

Recently I had a couple of regular scheduled airline flights where we encountered strong turbulence (at least for an airliner) and got bounced around pretty good.  It happens and its not pleasant.  That put me in mind of the poor Air France jet that went down in bad weather over the Atlantic.  We may never fully know what happened there.  These thoughts lead me to remember times when we had to deal with stormy weather surrounding space flight.

My last assignment as Ascent/Entry Flight Director for the space shuttle was for STS-113 in the fall of 2002.  It was a memorable flight, several technical delays and then a spectacularly successful mission to the International Space Station.  Of course you remember the one day we delayed for weather, don’t you?  I certainly remember because it is etched in my memory.

Obviously we must have good weather to launch.  Florida is lightning capital of North America; afternoon thunderstorms are typical, changing winds are to be expected, clouds and low visibility are normal.  But some of the Florida days are crystal clear blue with light winds and we really like to take advantage of those days to launch.  Except I had to scrub for weather on a beautiful Florida fall day.

The shuttle rules are based on the principle that something might go wrong during the launch phase and the crew should have a fighting chance of landing somewhere with reasonable weather.  To ensure that, the flight rules are long, arcane, and tedious, and make the Weather Officer watch not just the Florida weather, but weather at landing fields all up the east coast of North America, from South Carolina to Canada; then weather in the British Isles, Spain, Morocco, a little African country called The Gambia, Greece, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Diego Garcia, Hawaii, and whew, back home to the mainland where California and New Mexico have abort landing sites.  Weather doesn’t have to be good everywhere — that is impossible — but there are categories where at least one of a group of nearby runways must have good weather.  Otherwise, the rules call for the Flight Director to call for a scrub.

The trickiest abort is the Return to Launch Site (RTLS).  Weather must be good at the Shuttle Landing Facility, about 5 miles west of the launch pad, and here is the tricky part – 20 to 30 minutes after launch.  As Yogi Berra observed:  “Forecasts are difficult, especially about the future.”

All of these weather related Flight Rules and their associated Launch Commit Criteria have been on the books for years, approved by senior NASA management, and refined with the latest meterological understanding and tools.

In spite of the complex abort landing site weather rules, if the weather in Florida is good for both launch and RTLS, it has been very rare to scrub a launch for bad weather at the other abort landing sites. 

On that beautiful fall day in Florida, with the crew on board and the tank full of gas, both landing sites in Spain had thunderstorms at the field with strong winds, precipitation, and – worst of all – lightning.  The shuttle is particularly vulnerable to lightning.  So I had to call for a scrub.  No-Go for TAL weather. 

For all the dignitaries and senior NASA officials at the viewing stands in Florida, this was a serious disappointment.  Cooler heads would recognize that this was a good decision, but some were clearly wondering what the stupid Ascent Flight Director was thinking — weather is perfect for a launch in Florida — why do we care about Spain? 

Having been around the block a few times, I was well aware of the buzz that was probably developing a thousand miles east of Mission Control.  But, better to scrub a day for safety than to put the crew in a bad situation.  If a TAL abort occurred and the weather caused a bad day at the runway, nobody would ever forget it; especially me.

One thing I have never understood.  Some of my co-workers bide their time for the day they reach NASA retirement age, and say that they will tell their management what they really think when they have a pension in hand and can walk out the door safely.  Worrying that telling the boss the truth has never been part of my make up.  If they don’t like the truth, too bad.  I’ve rarely had a boss at NASA take my truth telling in a bad way.  This weekend, I reach the magic NASA retirement age.  Will it make any difference in my outspokenness?  I doubt it, but we’ll see.

Now, from time to time, NASA is blessed with retired military flag officers.  Admirals and Generals who have ably served their country for many years achieve military retirement age and come back for a second career on the civilian side of the government.  Often these folks provide capable leadership and invaluable knowledge.  Sometimes, these folks merely occupy a square on the org chart and never understand what we do or how we do it, and we must find ways to work around them.  On rare occasions, one of these retired military officers takes it on himself to become the drill instructor to NASA to mold us into a different, more military culture.

After the launch was scrubbed, I had a call from one of those retired flag officers who just happened to recently come into my chain of command.  At rather high decibel levels I heard all about the all weather capabilities of current military fighter aircraft.  I heard all about how badly delaying schedules hurts the program.  I heard all about how a good leader would have made a better judgement call and proceeded to launch.  On and on.

After I hung up the phone I thought about how little he understood our work.  How vulnerable and fragile are our spacecraft.  And how much care is required to fly safely in space.  Sometimes it is not a popularity contest, and you just have to accept that.



Don't Call Him Willy Any More

Back when the world was much younger than it is now, I was a young shuttle flight controller working in the MCC on several early flights.  We were all learning about the shuttle in those days, and one fellow I knew actually saved the shuttle because he knew what to do when the unexpected happened.

I was  PROP, he was GNC; we sat together down in the front row, right corner of Mission Control.  Willy was one of the USAF “detailees” assigned to learn to be shuttle flight controllers.  In those early days there was a plan to eventually turn one of NASA’s shuttles over to the USAF to use for “classified” missions.  After the Challenger accident, all those plans were cancelled, but in the early 1980’s the shuttle was supposed to take over ALL space transportation duties for the United States.  That is what STS stands for:  “Space Transportation System”.  As in ‘THE’ Space Transportation System.  All others to become obsolete.  Or something like that.  It was a long time ago.

Willy was an up and coming Captain in the USAF and made a great GNC.  He knew the guidance, navigation, and flight control systems forwards and backwards.  We worked together a lot in those days since the PROP console (mine) was responsible for the attitude control thrusters, their plumbing, etc., while the GNC console was responsible for the Auto Pilot that called on those thrusters to maintain attitude.  Even in those days, Willy demonstrated what military men call “command presence”.

But almost as important, Willy could do the most devastatingly funny imitation of our legendary boss, Gene Kranz.  Willy had the mannerisms down exactly right, could put the gruff intonation into the right pitch, and deliver a comedy routine that had all of us in the trench in stitches.  Always during LOS or debrief between sim runs, of course.  Never during the training runs, and especially not during a real flight. Hmm.

After the shuttle main engines cut off and the External Tank is jettisoned, there is still a lot of the main propulsion system propellant — liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen – trapped in the large pipes in the orbiter aft compartment.  Those plumbing lines are up to 17 inches in diameter and could hold several hundred pounds of volatile cryogenic fuel.  There was dump routine which was automatically executed right after the ET separation, but it left a lot of residuals in the line causing headaches later.  Not really a safety issue, but a nuisance and something that could cause interruptions later on.

The booster guys came up with a dandy plan to get rid of these propellants faster.  The LOX dump went out the main engines and the LOX lines were pressurized with helium to expel that trapped fluid.  The LH2 dump went out a vent on the side of the orbiter, just under the tail, and was unpressurized.  Why not open the valves and pressurize the LH2?  And at the same time, open the small LO2 valve nearby.  Both those actions would cause a more thorough dump and eliminate the pesky vacuum inerting procedures that interrupted later activities.

So we tried it.  Worked great in the simulator.  Hmm.  In flight, . . . .well . ..

Ascent is always a tense time.  Willy, I, and all the other flight controllers were glued to the data.  Everything went nominally all through mainstage.  No systems issues.  MECO, ET sep, dump start, OOOPS!

The increased propellant dump flow out the side of the orbiter caused it to bank sharply — the wing headed for the jettisoned but not distant ET.  Willy, calm as could be, relayed the instructions to the crew to regain attitude control.  The wing missed the tank, by how much I don’t know, but not by much.

It was all over in just a couple of minutes.  We took a deep breath and got about the business of flying the orbiter in space.

After Challenger, all the USAF “detailees” were pulled out of flight control.  I haven’t seen Willy in probably two decades until I ran into him recently.  He has done well in his USAF career, has stars on his epaulets now.  I wouldn’t recommend you call him Willy these days. 

But then, I haven’t called him that since the day he saved the shuttle.

And I bet you didn’t even know.



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.”


Positive Mental Attitude

“For scientific leadership give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

Shackleton and his men endured two winters in the Antarctic shipwrecked, alone, and without supplies — and they all survived.  When asked how they did it, the men all attributed survival to the attitude of the man they called “the boss.”

Some years ago I took a survival course; the instructor asked us all to guess what might be the most valuable tool to have in a survival situation.  Matches, compass, cell phone, water — all good guesses, but the right answer:  a positive mental attitude.

This is on my mind because about two weeks ago my home was visited by a category 2 hurricane.  We didn’t have it bad at all, a few trees down, fences damaged, power out — but compared to other folks we got by very lightly.  No water damage, no structural damage to our house, no injuries.  Lots of folks had worse and are still suffering.  My family had . . . inconvenience, disruption of normal life, cleanup, and minor repairs. 

But somewhere in all this, especially in the wee hours of  hot and humid airconditionless nights, the voices of despair start in.  Against all rational thought stress and fatigue cause melancholy.  Black thoughts descent and multiply. They suck the life and energy out of you. The good news is that when the day dawns and you count your blessings and feel the companionship of neighbors and friends it gets a lot better. 

Positive mental attitude, without it you are powerless. 

From what I have read, a lot of pioneers suffered bouts of despair and depression.  It is a hard thing to leave home and family and come to a new world of seemingly endless toil, challenges, and dangers.   There were many who couldn’t take it.  Those that did made a better life for all of us.

One of the secrets in Mission Control is that the Flight Director never lets the troops know how worried you are.  They know anyway but pretend not to.  Gene Kranz’s “Failure is Not and Option” is another way to say ‘have a positive mental attitude’.  There have been times when I found this hard to do.  After Columbia the 3 AM demons kept asking if it wasn’t all a waste and worthless.  All those critics who talk about space exploration being a distraction from the important issues got their whacks in during the middle of those dark nights.  It was enough to suck the life right out of you.  But when morning came, the realization of what is right and true and really important is easy to remember. 

If you are to succeed, you must have a positive mental attitude. Sports are the same, Yogi Berra’s famous quotation sums up what it takes to win at baseball:  “Half this game is 90% mental.”  Too true.  A friend and co-worker got sent to one of those fancy business school seminars to round out his education.  An instructor told the class: “Half way through any project, it looks like a failure.”  That also is true.

When I was a young parent leading a volunteer organization for the kids, we ran into a period when we were not having much success.  I blurted out my feelings in an email to all the parents and asked if we should disband the organization.  Within an hour, half the leaders sent me their resignations.  Lesson learned:  leaders must display a positive mental attitude at all times.  Throwing in the towel will guarantee failure.  A positive mental attitude will not guarantee success, but it goes in that direction.

Call me unsophisticated, but I was brought up on Edgar Guest’s poem “It couldn’t be done”.  If you haven’t read it, you need to.

Its important to remember that we are engaged in the greatest adventure of humankind; the noblest endeavor of our age.  It takes a strong mind to remember that the long view triumphs and the critic is soon forgotten.  I am not talking about a foolish pollyana attitude.  But real progress is being made every day.  And we just need to do pay attention to the details of business and keep making it work each day.  That takes positive mental attitude.

Samuel Johnson observed three hundred years ago: “Few things are impossible to diligence and skill.  Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance.”  I like what Babe Ruth said even better:  “Its hard to beat someone who won’t quit.”

I’ll remember that sawing up branches after work this evening.  And tomorrow when we get back to the difficult business of expanding the space frontier.