Secrets,Leaks,and Outright Lies

One very early shuttle flight was quite memorable for me.  It was among the first shuttle flights that had requirements from ‘other national agencies.’  It was the first time that a shuttle attitude control thruster had a propellant leak during flight.  It was marked my first appearance at a NASA press conference.  Those things are strangely related.


As a twenty-something shiny new flight controller, I was very proud and nervous to be in the “front room” of the MCC for launch.  The Propulsion Systems Officer is responsible for the Orbital Maneuvering System, the Reaction Control System with all their rocket engines, plumbing, tanks, valves, heaters, software, and associated wiring.  These 46 rocket engines in the two systems use interconnected propellant supplies of hypergolic fuel and oxidizer.  These chemicals are nasty stuff:  corrosive, toxic, unstable. 


Thruster leaks had been common in earlier programs such as Apollo and Gemini.  The large RCS thrusters of the shuttle have valve seats which are made of a Teflon type material and are susceptible to small bits of solid contamination causing leaks.  That is probably the same reason my kitchen sink faucet leaks occasionally.  Before this particular flight, all of us Prop people were rather happy that no leaks had occurred in flight because we knew leaks were common in ground testing.


Thruster leaks are detected by a temperature drop.  When exposed to vacuum the liquid propellant quickly evaporates which chills the thruster.  Just after MECO the attitude thrusters come on line and one of them quickly range the leak alarm.   That thruster was automatically removed from further use and we told the crew that no action was required.  After a very short time, just a couple of minutes, the temperatures climbed back up to normal.  The leak had stopped.  We may have lost a few ounces of fluid, an immeasurably small amount.


We hoped that was all the excitement which was in store for us for the flight.  It wasn’t.


A few hours after launch the shuttle would fire the OMS engines to raise the orbit altitude in the standard practice for those early flights.  The Flight Director had told the Props and the FDOs well before the flight that we would not actually go to the altitude which was in the flight plan.  Someone would provide us with an actual altitude target after we launched.  Somebody we did not need to know about.  No reason was offered.  We nodded and kept quiet.


So it was no surprise an hour or so after we were in orbit – and well after the tiny thruster leak stopped – that the Flight Director informed us what the final altitude would be a couple of miles lower than planned.  The burns were executed and our shift was over. 

Then the Flight Director stopped at my console and told me to come to the post-shift press briefing with him.


I was scared silly.  Never been to a press conference before, no training, and no instructions.  Flight didn’t tell me what to say or why he wanted me to come, but I followed him over to the public affairs building. 


I found myself up on the podium blinking under the lights.  Flight told the assembled press all about the usual launch stuff and then said:  “Due to the propellant leak, we could not raise our orbit to the planned altitude.  Mr. Hale is here to tell you about that.”




I must have looked like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights.  It was, of course, a bald faced lie.  Stunned, I did not know what to say, so I was as surprised as anybody when the words came out of my mouth:  “yes that’s right, we had to go lower because of the propellant loss.”


No questions, no further comments, and at the end of the press conference you can imagine how I felt:  used.


To my knowledge that is the one and only time I ever lied in a press conference.  It has rankled me for twenty years.   


Don’t use people.


Don’t tell lies, even for good reasons.


Even better, stay away from press conferences!