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!

Flight Director Fables

Aesop’s fables have been famous for two millennia.  They are obviously fictional stories – animals talking and such – but they are still useful for teaching important concepts to children – and adults.


When I joined the Flight Director office there were a number of fables that we were taught.  Supposedly true, I cannot say that they really are.  But the moral of these stories was the point.  I’ll share just two with you today.


First Fable:  how to end your career quickly.


Gemini 8 was as close a call as American had in space up to that time.  Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott had just completed America’s first space docking between their Gemini spacecraft and an Agena target vehicle.  Suddenly, the stack started spinning up for no apparent reason.  Emergency undock was performed by the crew who hoped that the problem was with the Agena.  It was not, the spin rate increased more dramatically after separation.  Armstrong shut off the Gemini spacecraft’s primary attitude control system and activated the secondary system which was designed for limited use during re-entry.  Attitude control was regained, the crisis averted, everybody started breathing again. 


The Flight Rules called for an immediate deorbit once the re-entry attitude control system was activated; it had limited fuel and limited life.  So Flight Director John Hodge (Blue Flight) had the team execute a rapid deorbit to the secondary landing site in the Pacific Ocean near the destroyer USS Mason.  You might think that was the right thing to do.


Unfortunately . . . .

NASA management found out about the situation after the crew was in the ocean.  According to the legend, Hodge did not take the time to pick up the phone and call the Program Manager, the Center Director, or even his boss, the Chief of the Flight Director office.  The situation was stable, and even though waiting around was not necessarily a good thing, there was no reason that a couple of hours delay would have significantly increased the crew risk.  Upper management was severely out of sorts with Blue Flight because they were not called in to review a critical action that really could have waited, despite what the Flight Rules called for.


Bottom line:  John Hodge never served as Flight Director in Mission Control again.


Now, that is the way the story was told to us wide-eyed Flight Director wannabees.  Is it true?  Is it accurate?  Is it complete?  I have no way of knowing.  Probably not. 


But that is not the point of the fable.  The moral of the story for all rookie Flight Directors is ALWAYS INVOLVE YOUR MANAGEMENT.   Any time that a critical action can reasonably be delayed for even a few minutes GET ON THE PHONE WITH THE BOSS.  No matter what the Flight Rules say.  After all, it’s just your career on the line . . .


Second Fable:  Lies will catch up with you.


A long time ago, it seems hard to imagine now, there were no privacy laws and the press was ALWAYS interested in crew health.  Since about 60% of all astronauts have ‘space adaptation syndrome’ for the first three days of weightlessness.  The press could always get a good barf story.  Sometimes it seems like journalists never left the 5th grade.  Today a Flight Director can respond to questions about crew upchuckitis by saying “Detailed discussions about crew health are covered by the medical privacy act.  I can tell you that there has been no mission impact from any crew health issues.”  There is rarely any mission impact these days because we have learned to build a light schedule the first few days to allow the crew to get past the need for the emesis bags. 


In the early days of shuttle, such niceties did not exist.  Every eight hours the offgoing Flight Director had a post-shift press conference and had to withstand the barrage of questions from the media, who were just hoping to get some human interest story out of the tight lipped and technical NASA officials.  John Cox, Granite Flight, kept drawing the “space sickness” questions.  He made the huge mistake of putting out a fib:  ‘Crew is doing fine, no problems to speak of”  in one of the early press conferences.  A day later, the crew was definitely NOT doing fine, activities had been cancelled.  But Granite Flight kept up the pretense.  The press corps was suspicious.  By the third day Granite Flight’s denials fell apart and the media went into witch-hunt frenzy.  The video tape of that heated press conference is kept in the Flight Director training catalog and it is ugly with a capital U.  The head of Flight Medicine, Dr. Sam Poole, had to come in and save Dr. Cox.  Sam put a soft spin on things and more or less diffused the issue, but the damage was done.  Granite Flight’s credibility with the media was in the dumpster.


Now, is that the entire, completely accurate story?  Probably not.  But we all had to watch that press conference videotape knowing that we would be in that hot seat in the very near future.  The moral of the story:  DON’T LIE TO THE PRESS.  They will find out sooner or later and it will be very bad. 


Whenever people ask me how to deal with the media, I reply: “The first rule is tell the truth, never lie.  You will be found out and your credibility will be gone from then on.”  I’ve had lots of practice with press events after learning that less from poor old Granite Flight, and I can confirm it’s true.


John Cox was a great Flight Director and served for many mission.  I have a great deal of respect for him, not the least of which is that he dug his way out of that hole.


Remember, everybody is useful, sometimes just as an example of what not to do.