Curmudgeon thoughts

It may just be that my recent superannuated birthday is weighing on my mind, but I have been having curmudgeon thoughts a lot lately. 

First curmudgeon though:  why do prices continually go up?

For as long as I can remember, coffee in the Mission Control Center cost 10 cents.  Best coffee around, too.  For more than 20 years, the price hasn’t changed.  Its not subsidized, there is an informal “club” that manages the coffee.  Nothing fancy, plain joe accompanied by powered creamer and sugar if you must.

A few months ago, I was floored when the sign said the price was now 15 cents!  Highway robbery.  Of course, they also have added a bunch of foo-foo creamer options (hazelnut, amaretto, yech) that no real flight controller would touch.  I can remember when men were men and flight controllers . . . .well, I guess it must be my advanced age which is leading to this rant.

Why is this important?  Because, if you want to know the truth, all the real decisions in the MCC are made at the coffee pot.  I know, the flight control team is all tied in on console with all the information displayed on multicolored interactive computer screens.  But the real management decisions all get made when the flight director comes by the coffee pot and all the senior managers sitting in the viewing room converge there too. 

Second curmudgeon topic:  grown children being contrary.

In case you caught my blog post comparing Star Trek to our current space program, I would point out that my son has written a similar blog post comparing Star Trek to his work — in a very favorable light.  Aren’t children supposed to follow their parent’s lead instead of taking the opposite tack?

Third curmudgeon topic:  stupid comments about launch weather scrubs. 

I have been to KSC and I have waited for the weather to clear enough for it to be safe to launch our astronauts.  I have even taken my family down there and had their vacation plans disrupted due to launch delays.  So I can somewhat understand disappointment about launch delays.  But anybody with a brain should realize that launching into a thunderstorm is just plain stupid.  In the bigger picture, delaying a day or three will never be remembered.  Having the shuttle struck by lightning would haunt us for a long time.  So pipe down.  It is Florida in the summer time.  What did you expect.  Pack more . . . clothes . . . next time.

Fourth curmudgeon topic:  blog-o-sphere confusion over who sets national space policy.

Recently the ISS program manager had to tell the media that NASA is developing plans to deorbit the ISS in 2016.  Everybody on the internet jumped on that as the stupidest thing ever heard.  Why would NASA want to eliminate a hugely expensive project just as it is becoming useful?  Short answer — NASA doesn’t want to do that.  Congress and the OMB have indicated that they will not give us the money to keep it operating.  By international treaty we must dispose of orbital objects when their lifetime is complete.  This is not a stupid decision on the part of NASA, it is, as the Gehman report said, “a failure of national leadership.”  Time will tell if we continued to be directed down this course or if we will be given operating funds to use the ISS as a national research laboratory as it was intended.

Final curmudgeon topic: the more things change the more they stay the same.

 During our recent office move, one of my co-workers cleaning out his files came across an ABC Radio transcript by Jim Slade made on August 12, 1991.   He was at KSC and after talking for a few minutes about the activity at KSC he got to the gist of his commentary which I will excerpt for your reading pleasure:

“There is a cynical tendency to jeer whenever a big, visible program doesn’t work right.  Impatience, leavened with the idea that lots of money ought to mean perfection.  . . .  If you want to know what’s wrong with NASA, you will have to dig back in your history books ten to fifteen years ago when neither the White House nor the Congress could decide if the space program was fish, fowl, or tinker toy.  Funding was inadequate to do the job  . . . More importantly, though, the space agency was getting no direction.  No political leader had the interest or the courage to say “this is what we ought to do with the things we have learned,” and, as a result NASA drifted . . . there has been one commission after another making a study of what the US should be doing in space in the next fifty years.  Usually, they say the say the same thing:  go back to the moon and on to Mars.  And so far, there has been a lot of political talk about it . . . .”


OK, after this, no more curmudgeon thoughts.  I promise.  Really.



Friday potporri

Short post today.  We are working on the great bureaucratic task of building briefing books for the new administration’s transition team.  It doesn’t matter which party wins, we have to prepare a concise, yet bureaucratic, set of information to hand them after the election so they will be ready to run the government on January 21.  I’m on the team that is updating the NASA book, in particular the Space Operations Mission Directorate book.  Its the nitty-gritty non-glamorous type of task that every job has.

Meanwhile, I thank everybody who has been helpful in propping up my failing memory.  Here are two corrections:  the SSME nozzle is made up of 1080 individual tubes brazed together, not the 1060 as I wrote in my blog previously (loss of 20 tubes is catestrophic!)  My first assignment as Shuttle Entry Flight Director was STS-31, which landed in the morning, not afternoon, in California.  Sorry for all the detective work that folks put in trying to identify that flight which I incorrectly listed as having been an afternoon landing.  My only excuse is that it always seems like 2 AM inside mission control . . . .

I appreciate the questions that folks send in and wish I could answer them all.  Here is a smattering of responses to comments received over the last couple of weeks.

Are my blogs available in various foreign languages.  No, sorry.  Not likely to happen soon.

To the young person who is interested in O3 at the moon: there is no appreciable atmosphere on the moon, for all intents and purposes it is a vacuum.  O3 is also better known as ozone which is a toxic gas, unsuitable for human breathing.  It would be better if we find water ice at some shadowed crater on the moon and dissassociate the hydrogen and oxygen to make breathable O2.

Why anyone would say that the X-38 CRV “violates the fundamental laws of physics” is beyond me.  It was well on the way to becoming a viable spacecraft.  Although I must point out that they had their issues with parachutes!

Off the track comment:  many folks have been looking at the video of the Orion test parachute failure.  This is probably a good study of the sociology of the web or at least of journalism.  The failure was in the test rig setup, not the actual space flight parachutes.  And there were a dozen successful tests that preceded the one failure.  Nobody has filed a FOIA request for videos of the good tests.  Hmm.

Lean Six Sigma is a management technique that, like many management techniques, was developed for a large production process.  While it is not specifically designed for the small production runs and unique processes that NASA is typcially involved in, there is still a place to take some of those principles and apply them to our processes. 

The shuttle does have an autoland capability built in that would probably work very well.  On STS-53 we were well on the way to performing a flight demonstration of that capability, but the Associate Administrator, Gen. (retired) Jed Pearson, pulled the plug on the test shortly before we performed it.  Like every test there was some risk, and despite our desire to demonstrate this system, Gen. Pearson believed we did not have a need to ever use it.  So, after a lot of work, shuttle autoland has never been tested.  The capability exists, however, and could be used in an emergency. 

I had an interesting discussion with some of the orbital mechanics experts about whether a lunar base at the pole is harder to get to than one at the equator (like the Apollo landing sites).  They did a good job of convincing me that going to the lunar poles is not harder, either from the delta-V standpoint (how much gas it takes) or the scheduling standpoint (how often you can go).  Mid-latitude sites, neither at the poles or at the equator are the hardest. Someday this blog will tackle the mathematics . . .

Finally, somebody asked if I ever dreamed about being an astronaut.  Well, who hasn’t?  It would be great fun.  But genetics ruled that out for me at a young age.  I suppose someday I might get to ride as a passenger on the Pan Am shuttle to the moon, but that is a far cry from the current requirements to be an astronaut.

See you Monday from Washington . . .