Risk Tolerance

I am a big fan of the author Bill Bryson. I have enjoyed all his books and recently have been rereading “One Summer: America, 1927”. His sparkling account joyously brings that time to life. Looking back at 1927 from April to October, Bryson chronicles an amazing time: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehring, Coolidge and Harding, the first ‘talking’ pictures bringing revolution to Hollywood, and of course, Lucky Lindy. Yes, I recommend you buy Bryson’s book and read it.

Especially study the part about the Orteg prize and the competition to be the first to fly nonstop from New York to Paris. As I read about aviation in 1927, I am powerfully aware of the many folks — people who would influence space policy today — who continue to draw comparisons between aviation in the ‘golden age’ and space exploration.

Remembering the actual events of those years should give those advocates pause to consider the risks that were considered acceptable in 1927. An unbelievable number of those early aviators were ill-prepared, took risks that were outside the limits of good judgment, or let ego and the pursuit of fame blind them to the realities of what they were about to do. Stupidity seemed to be more typical than not.

Let me excerpt some passages from Bryson’s book which gives an accounting of aviation in those electric months of 1927 (with sincere apologies to the author as I do violent excision of his words):


“America had three teams in the running . . . Columbia, America, American Legion . . . The leader of the America team was thirty-seven-year-old naval commander Richard Evelyn Byrd . . . On April 6, 1927, just before six in the evening, [Anthony] Fokker . . . copilot Floyd Bennett, navigator George Noville, and Byrd himself eagerly crowded into the cockpit . . . As America came in to land . . . it came down nose-first. The problem was that the weight was up front and there was no way for any of the four men to move to the back to redistribute the load . . . a piece of the propeller ripped through the cockpit and pierced Bennett’s chest . . . Byrd . . . failed to notice that his left arm had snapped like a twig . . . For the time being, the Byrd team was out of the running.

Clarence Chamberlin . . . a short flight above Long Island . . . the landing gear fell apart during the takeoff . . . the wing hit the ground and the damage to the plane was sufficient to set back the Columbia’s plans considerably.
Noel Davis and Stanton Wooster . . . were smart, able aviators, and their plane, a Keystone Pathfinder . . . was 1,150 lbs heavier than it was supposed to . . . On April 26 . . . they would take off with a full load of seventeen thousand pounds . . . the plane struggled to get airborne . . . not enough to clear a line of trees . . . stalled and fell to earth with a sickening crash. Davis and Wooster died instantly . . .

. . . Paris, where at dawn on May 8 . . . Captain Charles Nungesser and Captain Francois Coli . . . war heroes . . men at ease with danger . . . called their plane L’Oiseau Blanc (The White Bird) and painted it white so that it would be easier to find if it came down at sea. . . they could carry no more than about forty hours’ worth of fuel, which left them almost no margin for error. . . after loading supplies, their plane weighed almost eleven thousand pounds. It had never taken off with that much weight before . . . the plane slowly gathered speed . . . lifted briefly, but then came down again and bouncily proceeded another three hundred yards before finally, agonizingly, and barely getting airborne. The chief engineer, who had run along beside the plane much of the way, fell to his knees and wept. . . . One hour and twenty-seven minutes later . . . Nungesser and Coli reached the chalky sea cliffs of Normandy at Etretat. A squadron of four escort planes tipped their wings in salute and peeled away and L’Oiseau Blanc flew off alone in the direction of the British Isles and the cold Atlantic beyond. . . . Nugesser and Coli . . . missing and feared lost. . . The one thing that wasn’t found was any trace of the White Bird or its occupants.

At the same time . . . another ambitious French flight . . . got under way when three aviators, Pierre de Saint-Roman, Herve Mouneyres, and Louis Petit, took off from Senegal . . . and headed for Brazil . . . no wreckage was ever found . . . In nine months, eleven people had died in the quest to fly the Atlantic . . . nothing was going right for anyone . . .

. . . Lindbergh . . .

With the Atlantic conquered, attention turned to the Pacific – specifically the 2,400 miles . . . between California and Hawaii. . . the Dole Pacific race with $35,000 in prize money . . . from the municipal airport in Oakland, California . . . to Oahu. . . . Three competitors died in crashes before they even reached Oakland. Another plane crashed in the sea as it approached the Oakland airfield . . . another plane was not allowed to depart after it became evident that the pilot had no idea how much fuel he needed to reach Hawaii and didn’t have a fuel tank nearly big enough . . . By the day of the race, the number of planes taking part had been reduced to eight, and four of those scratched before takeoff or turned back soon after. Of the four planes that set off, two made it to Hawaii and two more were lost en route. . . . When word got back that six people were missing, a pilot named William Erwin took off from Oakland to look for them, but he disappeared, too. . . ten people died in the Dole race . . .

. . . people were suddenly announcing daring and risky flights all over the place. Paul Redfern . . . proposing to fly 4,600 miles – farther and anyone had evern flown before – over ocean and jungle, into a realm far beyond the range of reliable maps and weather reports . . . it would take him at least sixty hours to reach Rio. But before he even cleared the Caribbean he was lost . . . it was the last anyone ever saw of him . . . in 1938, at the request of Redfern’s wife . . . Redfern was declared officially dead by a court in Detroit.

In Britain an unlikely sixty-two-year old woman, Princess Anne of Lowenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg . . . a dashing young captain named Leslie Hamilton expressed a desire to cross the Atlantic from east to west, she funded the flight on the understanding that she would accompany the fliers. With Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Minchin as copilot, they took off from an airfield near Salisbury in Wiltshire. The princess wore a stylish hat and an ocelot coat . . . They were sighted over Ireland and again from a ship about halfway across the Atlantic, but they never reached American and no trace of them was ever found.

At about the same time, a plane called Old Glory . . . took off from Old Orchard Beach in Maine . . . bound for Rome . . . piloted by Lloyd Bertaud . . . copilot was James DeWitt Hill, and along for the ride as passenger was Philip A. Payne, editor of Hearst’s Daily Mirror. Just three and a half hours after takeoff they issued an urgent, unexplained SOS. They were never seen again. A few hours later, two Canadian airmen, Captain Terrence Tully and Lieutenant James Medcalf took off from Newfoundland, bound for London in a plan called the Sir John Carling. They were never heard from again either. “


So the question remains: how good an analogy is early aviation to the current state of space exploration?
And how much risk are we willing to take to go to space these days? A prudent amount? What does that mean? Is your standard the same as mine? And what will the lawyers say when the heirs file their lawsuits? And who will be the next Lindbergh?

2014 is not 1927: no Babe Ruth in sight. Hopefully nobody will repeat those days . . . . Sadly, nobody will repeat those days . . . .

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Finding Columbia

IMG_0877[1] IMG_1087[1]A couple of days ago, I had the rare opportunity to visit the Columbia Debris Repository on the 16th floor of the VAB at Kennedy Space Center.  It is a solemn experience to walk among the remaining parts of the space shuttle which bear witness to the tremendous forces that broke the vehicle apart and ended the lives of seven brave astronauts. 

This experience is not available to the general public.  But you can find places to see parts of Columbia.  The data recorder, found miraculously intact in a field in east Texas, is on display in public areas at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and the frame for the side hatch window is in the entrance display case of the Kennedy Space Center headquarters building in Florida.  There is another part reportedly on display at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, although I have never been able to find it on my many visits there.

These artifacts have great engineering value showing how future spacecraft should be built to withstand the extreme conditions of space flight. 

But there is a backstory that is more important. There is a story that must be told of how poor decisions were made, mistakes, and hubris.  This more important story is not found in the artifacts, although they emphasize the consequences. It is for us who lived through those days to share that story.

It is not enough to remember the sacrifice of our brave friends, although we should do that.  It is not enough to study the wreckage for clues of how to build better aerospace systems although we should do that.  It is mandatory that we remember how those sacrifices and that wreckage came to be.  And to prevent it from happening in the future.

Recently, some have said that loss of human life in spaceflight is to be accepted as a part of the cost of exploring the universe.  That may be, but those of us in the business must always believe that going forward we have to all we can to prevent accidents.

Because forward into the universe we must go.

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Keeping Eileen on the Ground: Part II – or – How I Got Launch Fever

The STS-93 launch attempts proved the adage we knew well in the Flight Director office: When the weather is good, the vehicle will break; when the vehicle works perfectly the weather will be bad. On the first launch attempt – scrubbed due to hydrogen sensed in the aft compartment – the weather was good. The Space Flight Meteorology Group post mission report says all sites were GO – launch, RTLS, TAL, AOA, etc. All GO. Hard to believe that there were no issues anywhere. And of course, something broke.

Two days later, we had another great weather forecast, no issues. The SMG post mission report for this day says “Thunderstorms occur at KSC about 3.2% of the time for a 0400 to 0500 UTC launch window.” Guess Murphy doesn’t believe in statistics.

Deploying the Chandra X-ray telescope on its Inertial Upper Stage required a complicated launch window. The plan was to deploy the payload early in the flight. But you can’t just kick it out just anywhere. The IUS had a complicated navigation and guidance system and the telescope needed to get its solar arrays going pretty quickly – a long period of time in the earth’s shadow wouldn’t be good. And there probably were other constraints that I’m not remembering. Given the orbital constraints on the deployment window, a launch window could be calculated. But that is not the whole story; we should plan a backup deploy opportunity just in case we ran into trouble. And an alternate deploy window in case we wound up in a lower than expected orbit. And another backup deploy window in case we had to wait until the second day of the flight to deploy. Etc., Etc., Etc. Each of these deploy windows worked back into a constraint on the launch window. Covering for all the backups and contingencies meant that the launch window would be 47 minutes long.

As the countdown progressed, rain showers which built into thunderstorms popped up just off shore – not over the pad where they would be real trouble, but offshore to the east. And the prevailing winds were pushing the storms to the east, away from the launch pad.

After Apollo 12, we knew that thunderstorms meant lightening and lightening was bad for our space ship. No launching if the edge of a thunderstorm was within 20 miles of the launch pad. And one of the storms was right there. On the edge.

Sitting behind John Shannon, on the MOD console, Bryan Austin and I were not happy. The Launch Director was not happy. The entire team, having scrubbed once, was not happy.

The Ops Manager, who chairs the MMT down in Florida in the firing room bubble, called me on the loop and asked about the constraints on the launch window. Could we extend it? Yes, by golly, we could, I decided. Bryan and I got on the loop with the IUS team out in Sunnyvale and with the Telescope POC. If we gave up the third backup deploy opportunity, that would add ten minutes to the launch window. Everybody agreed that it was unlikely that we would need that backup deploy opportunity. We all wanted to go. We were all frustrated that the launch had scrubbed earlier. This flight had been delayed several times in the planning cycle before we got to the pad; it was time for Chandra to fly!

The SMG forecaster put his electronic cursor on the satellite image of the edge of the storm, projected the storm movement based on wind speed, and opined that we would be good to go at the end of the window. So we waited.
Time passes very slowly.

Then the storm started building up, and expanded, and all of a sudden, and now that ten minutes would not be enough.

We were back on the loops again. Giving up another backup deploy opportunity would gain another 7 minutes or so. Were we all OK with that? Sure, let’s light this candle. GO.

I could tell that the Ascent Flight Director was not really comfortable with this broken field running. When John queried his FDO about the launch window close time, the FDO said he didn’t know when the window would close based on all the back room deals that the MOD was making.

That should have been a red flag. Instead, it made me mad. Hadn’t FDO been listening?

Just about that time, the thunderstorm on the edge of the launch area exploded. The trailing edge of the storm rapidly grew farther and farther to west. Against the wind. Over the launch pad. Time was up, no matter how you calculated it. We were done.

STS 93 weather

The crew rode the elevator back down. Launch was reset for 24 hours later.

We had an interesting debrief out by the coffee pot in the hall. That is the place all the really significant conversations in Mission Control happened. Not on the loop. In the hall at the coffee pot.

It became suddenly clear what a risk I had been running by negotiating real time changes to the launch window. We could have launched into a miscalculated window that left us no options but to return with the telescope in the payload bay. Of if we needed one of those backup deploy windows we would have been out of luck. What had I been thinking?

So when folks point to the damage that has been done on other launches when officials got launch fever and let go of good judgment, I think about the second scrub for STS-93. And how sometimes an errant thunderstorm can save you.

Next time: what happened when we actually launched.

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STS-93: Keeping Eileen on the Ground, Part 1

The summer of 1990 is remembered in shuttle circles as the hydrogen leak summer. We tried to launch Columbia and found that there was a leak in some of the plumbing carrying that volatile gas. The launch team scrambled into a series of hydrogen loading tests with various sensors to find the source. During the trouble shooting on OV-102, we tried to launch Discover and found leaks in OV-103 too. All summer we sat on the ground running test after test. There is a really good summary on the NASA lessons learned page: http://appel.nasa.gov/2008/01/01/the-summer-of-hydrogen/ This was the set up for our story about STS-93, the most interesting shuttle launch of them all.

Hydrogen is a powerful fuel for rockets, but it is hard to work with. The molecules are very small and can slip through the tiniest of openings; and exposed to any oxygen (in the air), well, everybody has seen the Hindenburg movie. Not good.

The aft compartment is the engine room of the space shuttle. It is surprisingly large and open on the inside – the volume is bigger than your bedroom but oddly shaped. And it is stuffed full of pipes of various sizes running every which way; large ones and small ones, some carrying gases and some carrying cryogenically cold fluids, hydrogen and oxygen lines, ammonia and Freon lines, hydrazine in two varieties and nitrogen tetroxide – a powerful oxidizer so deadly that it was said if you whiffed its fishy vapor in the air you were already dead. During main propellant loading and right up to engine start, dry nitrogen gas is pumped into the compartment to keep the possibility of fire as low as possible.

And to detect if we had a problem? We went through an evolution in sensor technology, but in 1999, inside the shuttle aft compartment was one (1) inlet to a hose to detect a hazardous gas leak. The detection equipment was actually located well away from the shuttle itself, buried deep in the mobile launch platform. A variety of a mass spectrometer searched for various gases and forwarded concentration information to a console operator in the firing room, three miles away. A sample of gas “collected” in the top of the aft compartment wended its way down through the tubing and plumbing maybe a hundred feet before hitting the analyzer. And the analyzer needed frequent calibration to ensure that it was operating correctly. This system could tell us, within a reasonable expectation, that we had a leak and what gas it was. But the detection system was practically useless to tell us where the source of the leak could be found. This system was slow, unwieldy, and the best we had at the time.

The launch commit criteria was carefully written to tell the operators exactly what concentrations at what times were allowable and which were not – for example, sometimes when External Tank loading was started the seals weren’t thermally stabilized and leaked a little until they chilled down. Later on, that same concentration of hydrogen free in the aft compartment wouldn’t be acceptable.

And at certain times, parts of the shuttle system were “committed” to launch – the firing room personnel were not longer required to monitor nor call a hold. But there was the big exception statement in the front of the LCC that required “senior console operators” to use their “best judgment” to call a hold to stop a hazardous situation, no matter how late in the countdown.

So it was a real surprise that during the first countdown attempt for STS-93, the senior haz gas operator called a cutoff – the technical term for a launch scrub that late – at T-8 seconds for high hydrogen gas concentration. There is a really good youtube video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7vGqQUhciE – which has an erroneous title and writeup, but the video is good.

At T-10 seconds, the ground computers send the very last command the onboard system needs to fly: Go for Main Engine Start. With no other electronic word from the firing room computers, the shuttle launches itself. Right after that T-10 seconds command, the big sparklers at the base of the MLP towers fire off to ignite any small patches of free hydrogen that might have escaped from the main engines. At T-6.6 seconds, the orbiter computers command the main engines to start, staggered by about 120 milliseconds – center first, then left, and finally right. Shutting down the count at T-8 seconds is dicey. If the mains start there is a lot of free hydrogen left around and plenty of heat to ignite it. The ROFI sparklers were firing – those take 48 hours to replace – and if even the first engine cracks open one valve in the start sequence, it is a three week turnaround to remove and replace any SSME that started. So it was a surprise to get the call, especially after haz gas was “committed” for launch. It was one of those senior console operator things.

It is not technically a pad abort, no fire or smoke occurred – other than the sparklers – but the adrenaline is very high all around the program when it gets that close.

Safing was complete, the crew unstrapped and rode the elevator down to wait for the next attempt; 48 hours later at the earliest.

The KSC management was ready to pin a medal on the guy that called the hold. But the first story we got in Houston was that the sensor had just gone through an automatic calibration and the high concentration reading was a ghost.

I never heard the end of that story. Did Ozzie get a medal? Did we unnecessarily scrub a launch? Somebody needs to fill me in. All I remember is it set me up for a bad case of launch fever two days later.

That story next time.

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Von Braun Symposium

Several people have requested the text or a link to the video of my keynote address on Tuesday. Thanks to the AAS for providing the link. Get your popcorn and take your seats and when you are through listening please let me know what you think about it


Or if the first link doesn’t work try getting the video through this

Back to shuttle launch stories in a few days!

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STS-93 and the Flight Director Office

FD Group 1999, Flight Director Party at Linda's house, 1999

One of the most interesting shuttle flights was STS-93 which put the Chandra Advanced X-Ray Telescope into space. Not only was it the first shuttle flight to be commanded by a woman – Eileen Collins – and the heaviest payload to that time – 59,000 lbs – but we had the most eventful launch scenario of all the shuttle missions – clearly a close call which turned out well.

But before I start, some background is in order. Especially about the Flight Director office as it existed in 1999.

Being a Space Shuttle Flight Director was the best job I ever held; it was the toughest, the scariest, and the most rewarding. I never wanted to leave the office but was propelled out by events beyond my control – something I talked about in my rambles about the Columbia accident earlier this year.

The FD office held the best people in the world and at the same time many of whom caused me to contemplate homicide. Being a Flight Director was not for the faint of heart; we held an awesome responsibility to the crew, to the program, and to the nation. We learned early not only not to suffer fools gladly but not to suffer fools at all. Every Flight Director had a highly tuned BS detector and would swiftly attend to anyone who was not prepared, organized, and thorough. Every Flight Director thought that he (or she) was the best in the office and the other guys and gals needed help.
Monday morning staff meeting in the Flight Director office resembled a school of sharks swirling about looking to devour the weakest member in the room. It could be intense. Most of the office chiefs encouraged this behavior. It made you really think through any position on a controversial subject or approach. As we went around the table, each FD had to describe the status of an upcoming shuttle flight for which he had been assigned responsibility. Nobody got through their discussion unchallenged. It was brutal but many mistakes were corrected early because shortcomings in a plan were identified on Monday morning.

As a flight approached and integrated training schedules started appearing, the team of Flight Directors would be assigned; the Lead Flight Director generally started at least a year in advance but the rest of the team could be lined out as little as six weeks before a flight. The Lead got the primary shift where the biggest activities occurred during the crew work day; this was generally called the Orbit 1 shift and covered the period from just after crew breakfast through the middle of the crew ‘afternoon’ – which could be any time on the clock in Houston. Another experienced flight director would be assigned to the Orbit 2 shift which wound up the crew day and got them in bed. If a rookie flight director was assigned, he would draw the Planning shift when the crew was asleep and plans for the next day were modified as required and uplinked for the crew to read when they awoke. And of course there would be the Ascent/Entry Flight Director (sometimes split for two) whose job was to get the mission off the ground and back down again – and who paid little attention to the ‘cg management device’ found in the payload bay.

Additional flight directors could be assigned depending on the type of flight; for ISS assembly or logistics flights a single flight director was sent to the Russian control center (TsUP or MCC-M) to help our partners understand what the crazy Americans were doing. For a flight with the big Boeing upper stage – the IUS – which was the case for STS-93, a Flight Director was assigned to travel to the USAF/Boeing control center at Sunnyvale, California, to keep those guys in line with what Houston wanted to do. And finally there was the Mission Ops Director. For all the early Shuttle flights there was only one MOD – the legendary Gene Kranz. The function of the MOD was to keep the program leadership, the headquarters guys, and any other management lookie-loos who might be present out of the way of the flight control team. After Gene’s retirement, the position of MOD was circulated between senior managers (always former flight directors) in the Mission Operations organization and some of the senior flight directors. For STS-93 the MOD of record was Randy Stone, former Flight Director, Director of Mission Operations, and an expert on the IUS. But Randy was never an Ascent Flight Director, so as senior A/E FD in the office, I was tapped out to be the MOD just for the launch and landing shifts. John Shannon was the Ascent/Entry Flight Director, Brian Austin was the Lead (Orbit 1) Flight Director.

So midway through the countdown of STS-93, I would take my seat in Mission Control, right behind John Shannon, and right next to Brian Austin – who could not stay away. Everything that happened later, I blame on being sandwiched between two Texas Aggies . . .

Well, maybe not.

To be continued

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Monuments and Birthdays

Back Camera

Just by happenstance I share a birthday, separated by century and a half – with the great American Naval hero David Farragut. On visit to Washington a while back, I snapped this picture of the statue of America’s first Admiral in the park bearing his name.

Really unfortunate about the pigeons, isn’t it?

Admiral Farragut took New Orleans from the Confederacy, led his fleet through the mines and torpedoes of Mobile bay, helped Grant take Vicksburg, and transformed the Union Navy in his spare time. No wonder there is a statue and a park honoring him. A century and a half later, few people can remember why we honor him.

Recently, I have been working with the first program manager of the Space Shuttle, Bob Thompson. Mr. Thompson lead the development of the space transportation system from the end of the Phase A studies in 1972 through the first flight in 1981. An incredibly important time in the history of space travel and he was at the center of the whirlwind ensuring that the thing actually worked. Mr. Thompson is concerned that certain aspects of the early history of the space shuttle have not been correctly recorded by the professional historians who have written the books about those times. This is not surprising; professional historians rely on sources, professional historians were not present at the events. There are some significant elements about which there is disagreement. I tend to lean with Mr. Thompson’s account; after all, he was there.

Unfortunately, talking with historians and other folks who were also present, there is a tendency to discount Mr. Thompson’s recollections. “After all” they like to say “he was just the program manager at a field center and he did not have a good understanding of what was happening [in Washington, in the Administrator’s office, at the White House]. The program manager just isn’t that important.”
Ouch. And I thought being Program Manager was pretty important . . . and once upon a time, I held that job. That loud hissing noise was my ego deflating. ‘Just not that important’.

My last birthday wasn’t one of the big ones ending in a zero, but the calendar is pointing that way. Probably a function of my age, I frequently get funeral notices for people that I know. To quote Yogi Berra: “If you don’t go to their funeral, they won’t go to yours.” Think about it.

Hearing eulogies which categorize the importance of someone’s life makes you think about what is important in your own life. What great victories were accomplished, what projects were completed, what you did that improved the lives of those around you. These thoughts tend to a realization of humility and an impetus to do more with the time ahead.

Recently I have been leading a frenetic schedule both professionally and personally. It has simply got to slow down. All of this scurrying around certainly doesn’t seem to have been very productive in terms of making a difference where it matters. Perhaps I’ve been planting seeds which will grow to fruition at a later date, but right now the results of all my busy-ness seem pretty slim.

So I’m making a new start this fall – promising to slow down and spend my time where it is most important; eliminating the busy work as much as I can. I promise to put new emphasis on blogging to share my perspectives and some of my personal history lessons. And I also promise to spend much more family time – in the final analysis, that is where the most important work lies.

That’s much better than a statue with a pigeon on your head.

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