Burning Rocks

There is an apocryphal story in flight control.  Like many apocryphal stories there may have been a kernel of truth somewhere in the distant past, but the story has morphed over time.  Now the story has value for didactic purposes:  it has a moral or some teaching point.  That is why apocryphal stories persist.


Way back before the first moon landing in 1969, some senior planetary scientist published a theory that the lunar rocks were highly energized by the sunlight, the solar wind, or cosmic rays or something.  So highly energized is the dust and rocks that when the first lunar explorers would return to the lunar module, close the hatch, and – still encased in their now dusty space suits – repressurize the cabin of the lunar module to 5 pounds per square inch pressure of pure oxygen, the rocks and dust would spontaneously burst into flame.  Catastrophe.


This prediction came to light less than two weeks before the launch of the first lunar landing.


The leaders of NASA scratched their heads.  Obviously such a prediction by a senior scientist in the field must be considered seriously.  But on the other hand, how do you test that theory to see if it is true?  With no moon rocks there was no way to test the hypothesis.  Consulting other experts was inconclusive:  maybe yes, maybe no.  The entire space program had been straining for years to get to the first lunar launch; the Soviet Union was right on our heels, what should we do?  Stand down for months to send a robot to the moon to test the problem? 


They ignored it. 


Yep, that’s right, they ignored it.  Pressed on and launched.  If there was angst, they hid it.  Did their pulse rate quicken when the hatch closed on the LM?  They didn’t show it.

And, fortunately, the rocks did not spontaneously combust in the pure oxygen atmosphere of the Apollo modules. 


So the story entered legend.  Any type of issue which was discovered at the last minute, which fundamentally and monumentally challenged a space mission, and which could not be tested or analyzed in any reasonable time became known in the community as a “burning rocks” issue.


As Flight Director, it became part of my job assignment (other duties as assigned, I guess) to listen to burning rocks issues.  Without exception, on every flight, not one, not two, but several people would come to my office, quietly close the door, and confess the demons that were plaguing their souls.  Something that had been bothering them for months, but which had never been spoken aloud before.  Procedures that might not work, tests that had not been performed, uncertainties about parts of the mission ahead both large and small; the Flight Director becomes Father Confessor to all kinds of folks.


All of these issues had several characteristics in common.  First, they had been on the individual’s mind for a long time but had never been brought up anywhere, any time, to anybody before.  Second, they were all fundamental issues that, to deal with properly, would require months or years of testing, analysis, or redesign.  Third, the individual bringing them forward had no idea how to deal with the issues.


Why these issues were not brought up long before is a mystery to me.  There must be a psychological explanation, but I’m no psychologist.  If the individual had spoken up earlier, there might have been time to deal with the problem; get experts together, do some analysis, run some test, rework a crew procedure, something.  But these confession sessions always always always came just days before launch.  Too late for anything to be done but to have a session with Father Confessor and ask for absolution.


On a rare occasion, the Flight Director might deem the problem as worthy of bringing forward to Program Management, or at least of getting a team assembled to start working on potential solutions.  But mostly the Flight Director would determine that it was too late, the probability was too low, the consequences not high enough.  So the Flight Director would just listen, nod, tell the individual “I got it” and then quietly let the matter drop.


Does that sound horrible?  I have to tell you that most of these concerns were so far outside the realm of normal or even abnormal operations that the risk seemed very low.  But when we compared notes, it turns out that every Flight Director (and there are a lot of us) would get several of these sessions before launch.  And it had been going on since the  manned space flight started.  Maybe it works that way with robotic launches too, I don’t know.


And in every case, the confessing individual went away, much relieved that his or her conscience was clear because somebody in authority (the Flight Director) had been told.  Having done the very littlest, minimal thing they could do, they could believe they were off the hook if the bad thing really happened.  Management had been informed.  Yep.


And, other than the fact the Flight Director did not sleep well on those last nights before the launch, none of those burning rocks issues ever came true.  In my experience, we have had plenty of other problems and issues, large and small, but not the ones that were ever the subject of the last minute confession by worried engineers.


And OK, the Flight Director isn’t going to sleep well that last couple of nights before launch anyway.  What are a few more demons to face at 3 AM?


And the moral of this particular story?

You want to put people into space? 


You better learn to sleep with burning rocks.