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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For the Record

Here is my written testimony for the US Senate Commerce Science subcommittee from a couple of weeks ago. My oral statement was a shorter version of this.

Testimony of N. Wayne Hale, Jr. before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Science and Space of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, May 16, 2013

I thank the committee for inviting me to testify concerning the growth of the space industry including the private sector space transportation.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am hardly a disinterested party in this topic. I am and have always been a passionate believer that space exploration and the industries that may derive from it will benefit humanity in ways beyond our imagining. I have spent most of my professional life working in the large government space programs of the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. During those years I have seen NASA at its very best and at its worst. The hard working dedication of my colleagues at NASA personnel is nothing short of phenomenal, and their talent and creativity is second to none. However, their endeavors have frequently been stymied due to the inherent bureaucratic inefficiencies of government work and the frequent shifts in priorities and funding that whipsaw most space initiatives. This has led me to believe there must be a better way to develop and operate space systems.
In my last assignment before retirement from government service, I worked with Frank Bauer, the Chief Engineer of the Exploration Systems Directorate, to define the management philosophy, protocols, and processes for the then new Commercial Crew Program within NASA. After my retirement, my work has continued as a consultant. My company, Special Aerospace Services, and I are paid advisors to a number of entities involved in the commercial crew and commercial space cargo enterprises. And I have volunteered my time to work with the Commercial Spaceflight Federation to establish safety, management, and engineering standards for all the members of this fledgling industry. So the committee can see that I am hardly a disinterested party and should weigh my testimony as such.
Establishing good, effective safety, engineering, and management standards in a voluntary industry association is the hallmark of any reputable and mature industry. I am pleased to report that the CSF is making good progress in setting up voluntary processes which will ensure public safety and promote general success in this difficult business. Industry group standards can alleviate the need for government regulations by allowing the members of a trade association to tailor best practices specifically for their industry. Evolution of these industry standards inevitably proceeds more rapidly than the development of government regulations and can therefore take rapid advantage of best practices as they emerge.
The most singularly vexing problem with space flight is the high cost of getting to low earth orbit. As the noted science fiction writer Robert Heinlein once observed, ‘when you are in earth orbit you are half way to anywhere in the universe’ which accurately reflects the physics of the situation.
The lack of low cost transportation to that point located just above the earth’s atmosphere and moving at 17,500 mph forward velocity has prevented potential space entrepreneurs more than any other factor. Hundreds of potential business opportunities in the limitless resources of the solar system have floundered on the high cost of transportation to low earth orbit. Asteroid mining, energy production, zero gravity manufacturing are all within our grasp technologically but will not be profitable until reliable and reasonably affordable transportation systems are in place.
New systems for transportation to low earth orbit have enormously high development costs. Private investors, with a few exceptions, are loath to provide the capital needed to develop low earth orbit transportation without clear and immediate business ready to purchase tickets.
So we are in a ‘chicken or the egg’ paradox. Space business needs low cost transportation to become profitable, while potential private transportation services need established business to justify the cost of construction. This is not the first time that America has been in this situation. Both the early railroads and fledgling air transportation industries found themselves becalmed in similar straits. In both these cases, and others, the federal taxpayers stepped in to provide critical resources to help new industries develop. Those investments have been paid back myriad-fold in tax revenues when the new industries caught fire and provided transportation systems that were the envy of the world.
NASA and its predecessor agency the NACA provided needed aeronautical research to make air transportation as inexpensive and safe as we find it today. The federal investment in aeronautics development has paid off handsomely in the development of a multi-billion dollar industry. Indeed, one of the largest sectors of net exports in the American economy is aerospace with billion dollar sales a common occurrence.
The history of space flight – after the first early steps to demonstrate that space flight was even possible – has been marked with the goal of decreasing the cost of transportation to low earth orbit. In my home I have an entire shelf of books populated by volumes of studies and proposals from a multitude of thinkers spread over decades on that subject: how to provide reliable safe space transportation on the cheap.
The space system that consumed much of my professional career, the space shuttle, was established to achieve just such a low cost goal. But the technologies of the 1970s, harnessed to a risk adverse government apparatus resulted in a system that was only slightly less expensive than those which went before.
In the last decade, the United States embarked on a bold new experiment to turn over the creative reins of spacecraft development to entrepreneurial, nimble, flexible, creative private commercial teams. Bolstered with a modicum of taxpayer resources, these businesses have leveraged private investment to create the critical mass to develop new, much cheaper transportation systems. We see the first fruits of success today with cargo carrying craft: the SpaceX Falcon and Dragon, and the Orbital Antares and Cygnus. These cargo carrying privately developed vehicles are starting to supply our government outpost, the International Space Station. In future years others, the Boeing CST-100 and the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser will be added to the fleet to carry human beings as well as cargo.
Poised on the cusp of these new systems, we run the risk of being penny wise and pound foolish as we make the same mistake that doomed the space shuttle to much higher cost operations: starving a spacecraft development program in the name of saving a few pennies for today’s budget bottom line resulting in the compromised systems that, if they fly at all, will not be cheap enough to enable business in space.
This is not to devalue the development of truly deep space exploration systems by the government. Those high risk, high cost systems payback over such are long term that they would never be funded by private investment. But, like the expenses incurred by Lewis and Clark, Captain Zebulon Pike, and a host of other government expeditions in our history, the payback from exploration will be enormous for both the country and for all of humanity. Just at a more distant point in the future than business spreadsheets normally run. The SLS and the MPCV should be developed in conjunction with the commercial low earth orbit transportation systems. Flying to cis-lunar space to inspect a captured asteroid is an engineering and operations test worthy of a first deep space mission. But that mission can only be a first step. More should follow.
The commercial systems will enable the deep space exploration initiative in substantial ways. First of all because the ISS is our space test laboratory for the technologies and systems that deep space exploration will need. Operation in space, aboard the ISS, is the most effective means to wring out life support, communications, propulsion, and other technologies. Commercial transportation of cargo and crews to the ISS directly support deep space systems development. As deep space exploration proceeds, commercial cargo and crew vehicles will likely be called upon to aid with assembly and fuel delivery to low earth orbit where we will finalize preparations to head into the vasty deep. Cost effective commercial transportation to low earth orbit can make a vital difference in equipping the deep space fleet.
So the two efforts go hand in hand. Funding equity between the two programs is necessary to ensure the timely success of both. Currently, the commercial space effort stands uncomfortably close to the brink of financial starvation. Deep space transportation development is being stretched out by similar restrictions. Business is looking to see if the government is serious about providing the critical support or whether this effort will be wasted as so many earlier government programs which withered away on the very cusp of success: National Launch System, Orbital Space Plane, and others.
I urge the Congress to fully fund these vital activities, both the commercial crew program and the exploration systems. They will allow America and American industry to lead in the exploration and development of human activity in our solar system. When the historians of the future look back on our era, they will recognize the movement of humanity from planet earth into the solar system as the pivotal event of our times. There is no project that is so important for the long term success of humankind. I would hope that those historians record that at this crossroad of history that a creative, enterprising, farsighted nation called America led the way.
The prizes both economic and historic are too great to bypass. If America does not lead in these enterprises, somebody else will. And the leader will reap the greatest rewards both in the near term and in the longer term.
For all our limitations, America is a very rich country. There are many things which America needs to do for the present moment: provide for a strong military to protect us in a dangerous world, educate our children, care for our elderly and infirm, revitalize our transportation infrastructure of roads, bridges, airports, and more. All of these activities are of vital importance today. Space exploration is about the future. Space exploration is possibly the only line item in the federal budget that is all about the future. Currently we spend one half of one percent of our nation’s treasure on the future. Isn’t the future worth that investment? Or more!

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Making a Difference

When I started blogging, it was in connection with my work, at that time as a government civil servant. I tried to stay strictly on topic (space) and never ever brought my own personal poltical views or religious thoughts into it. Wouldn’t have been proper. Now in my retirement I don’t have that ethical restriction on my private blog but haven’t gone there out of habit. But it leaves a big part of me out when I don’t share those things.

I have had the opportunity to work with people in high places and perhaps influence major policy decisions. That certainly is considered important in some circles. I had an encounter of the policy type last week as you know if you regularly follow my blog.

Later today I’m starting a week which will be quite different. Along with about a hundred college students I am going to be working out in the Houston summer heat and humidity on house repairs for elderly and disabled people in urban Houston. None of those people have any political clout whatsoever. That is not what it is about. If you are interested in learning a little more, check out the organization’s website

In the bigger scheme of things, which activity, last week’s or this week’s, is more important?

That is not a trick question. I think it is a very profound question.

Mother Teresa once said: “We do no great things. We only do small things, with great love.”

I’ll report in at the end of the week, don’t look for me in cyber space in the meantime.

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Breaking a Rule

So this is a little different, not really a blog post. I have had a personal rule never to testify before a congressional committee. Just never seemed like a good idea. Not that I haven’t been asked from time to time.

So in a weak moment I gave in and will be appearing Thursday morning as a witness before the Senate Science and Space Subcommittee. What have I gotten myself into?

“The hearing will examine the growth of the space industry, including the potential economic and scientific benefits of private sector space transportation, as well as the federal and private roles in advancing technology development, ensuring mission safety, and fostering exploration.”

So what do you think I ought to tell them?

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Checking In

I appreciate the number of people who have asked me to continue blogging! I want to emphatically state that I have no intention of stopping; a short gap has turned out to be longer than I expected.

Frankly there are a number of topics that I think need addressing: federal budgets, asteroid missions, big rockets vs. propellant depots, the difficulties of long term projects with our government processes, and much more. I really feel the urge to explore what a friend of mine calls “the value proposition” for space exploration although from a different perspective than hers.

But events have conspired against me in the last two months: new grandbabies to play with (I’ve got pictures!), too much work (hey, I’m supposed to be at least semi-retired), speaking engagements, travel, and stuff. You know stuff: fixing the fence, working off the repair list, taking care of things that need taking care of.

The most significant delay has been caused by lack of inspiration: most of the time my blog posts just pour forth in a rush. That hasn’t happened to me lately. But I can feel it coming on. Soon.

So check back here soon. There are too many topics that need addressing; too many old stories to tell to stop now.

And thanks for all the kind comments

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After Ten Years: Enduring Lessons

Challenger Crew

The crew of STS-51-L

From the Rogers Commission to reading Dr. Diane Vaughn’s book The Challenger Launch Decision took me 17 years.  For all those years I had learned the wrong lesson about the loss of Challenger.  The sound-bite explanation kept me in ignorance.  You know, that a rogue manager for venal motives suppressed the concerns of good engineers and true when they tried to stop the launch.  As Dr. Vaughn more correctly analyzed the decision “It can truly be said that the Challenger launch decision was a rule-based decision.  It was not amorally calculating managers violating rules that were responsible for the tragedy.  It was conformity.”  The sound-bite explanation was satisfying, easy to live with, and wrong.  It failed to ask the more penetrating questions.  But even more importantly, it failed to spur specific action.  Just feeling anger at a bad decision or sadness at the loss is diffuse and unmotivating.  It is imperative that we learn the proper lessons from history and use those to inculcate specific actions and behaviors that will result in safety for our people – and success for our missions.

So, ten years after Columbia, what are the lessons we should have learned and should practice every day?  Here are my thoughts especially for those who work in dangerous and risky endeavors. 


1.       It can happen to you. 

Just because you are younger or smarter and read history lessons, don’t think that you won’t make mistakes and that events can’t get away from you.  Nobody is smart enough to avoid all problems.  That sliver of fear, the knowledge that the universe is out there waiting for the least lapse in attention to bite, is motivation that just might help you avoid catastrophe.  Or perhaps not.  Let’s hope that Dr. Perrow was wrong and that accidents in complex systems are not simply ‘normal’.  Better yet let us all work to prove him wrong.  The first principle of a successful high reliability organization is to be “preoccupied with failure.”  Do that.


2.  Focus. 

“To always be aware that suddenly and unexpectedly we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences” Or even better:  “Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous.  But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity, or neglect. “– Captain A. G. Lamplugh, RAF.  Life happens, distractions mount.  The probability is that only one critical decision will come to you in your career.  It will come on a day when you least expect it, when you are most distracted.  The organization will fill your time with busy work and bureaucracy.   Keep focused on the important issues.

 3.  Speak up.

Better to ask a foolish question than to allow a mistake to be made.  What is the worst that could happen to you?  Lose your job?  Lose the respect of your peers?  Miss out on a promotion?  Letting a mistake go unchallenged has other consequences:  funerals, program shutdown, and life-long regret.  Make your choice wisely – speak up rather than remain silent.  If the organization can’t stand that, it’s the organization that needs to change.

 4.  You are not nearly as smart as you think you are

Remember your mother’s teaching:  “God gave you one mouth and two ears so that you should listen twice as much as you talk.”  Defer to expertise rather than leaders.   Check your ego at the door. Too many people are so busy passing out their point of view that they fail to hear the warnings that are coming at them.  Listening is not enough; comprehending and acting are also required. 

 5.  Dissention has tremendous value. 

“If we are all in agreement on the decision – then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.” – Charles E. Wilson (GM CEO circa 1950).  If you don’t have dissention, then you haven’t examined the problem closely enough.  If there is not a natural troublemaker in your group, appoint a devil’s advocate.  Make sure the ‘devil’ is smart and articulate – just like the namesake.  Draw people out; make them participate; don’t let them get away with silence.

 6.  Question Conventional Wisdom

“People in groups tend to agree on courses of action which, as individuals, they know are stupid.”  We were told that flying in the space shuttle was just as safe as flying in a commercial airliner, so we denied the crew parachutes and pressure suits.  Patently and obviously wrong to the most casual observer, such a belief can only be called stupid.  We were told the shuttle was a mature flying vehicle with few surprises left.  We believed it even though the truth was right in front of our eyes.  This is, and always will be, risky business.  Challenge conventional wisdom at every chance, look past it for the truth.

 7.  Do good work.

Apollo 1 Crew

Apollo 1 Crew

People thought Gus Grissom was inarticulate.  I think he got to the crux, the nub, and said it very simply and perfectly:  Do good work.  There is no room for half hearted efforts or second best.  Do it well or don’t do it at all.  Don’t cut corners and don’t let your so-called leaders try to bully you into doing less than the best. Don’t accept excuses from others, either.


8.   Engineering is done with numbers

Dr. David Aikin’s Laws are true:  “Engineering is done with numbers.  Analysis without numbers is only an opinion.  Not having all the information you need is never a satisfactory excuse for not starting the analysis.  Space is a completely unforgiving environment.  If you screw up the engineering, somebody will die (and there’s no partial credit because most of the analysis was right).”  Remember the motto of the Mission Evaluation Room:  “In God We Trust, All Others Bring Data.”  Don’t be persuaded with arm-waving or specious arguments lacking foundation in first principles.

9.      Use your imagination

Frank Borman said that the Apollo 1 fire was the result of a failure of imagination.  They just couldn’t imagine that a ground test could be hazardous.  Keep your eyes fresh and your imagination active so that you can see the possibilities – good and bad – and work accordingly.

 10.  Nothing worthwhile was accomplished without taking risk.

STS-107 Crew

STS-107 Crew

“Where do we get such men?” – James Michener, The Bridges at Toko-Ri  No, it is not black and white.  At some point you have to leap off into the unknown without knowing everything that you should.  Just because we are afraid, or focused on the possibility of failure, we cannot be paralyzed into inaction.  These endeavors are not for the faint of heart. 

And spend some days in wonder: where do we get such people?  People who put everything on the line for the cause.  We are fortunate to be in their presence.  Make their risk as small as you can, then go forward. “They did not think their sacrifice a vain or empty one, and we will not debate their profound wisdom at these proceedings.” – David Buchner

As I get older, the world seems more and more inhabited with ghosts from the past; people places and things that no longer exist.  Relatives that have passed, buildings that have been demolished, machines that have been scrapped; all of these are alive and new in memory.  After the age of 50, this process seems to accelerate with frightening speed.  And without passing the lessons and memories on to the next generations, important lessons will inevitably be lost.  And mistakes will be repeated.  Don’t let that happen.

Be sure to take solemn pride in the accomplishments. Don’t forget those either.

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