Game Changing Technology

I’ve spent all week at the Langley Research Center in Virginia; there is much good work going on here.  We had no small number of discussion about ‘game changing technology’ without a good definition of what that phrase really means or how such a change takes place.

At the same time I am keenly aware of the surrounding area’s historical sites.  Jamestown, Yorktown, and Williamsburg are just up the road.  There are Civil War sites all around.  But the one that jumped out at me may have some lessons for those of us in the space business to consider. Just a few minutes from the Langley gates is the Mariner’s Museum with relics from the battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia, formerly Merrimack.  There is a lesson in game changing technology there.

In the winter of 1861 a technology revolution was brewing in the midst of the U.S. Civil War. Naval technology had progressed incrementally for a long time, centuries actually.  Wooden ships with sails carrying broadsides of carronades.  Recently steam engines had started appearing onboard oceangoing ships but these were auxiliary power, sails were still the prime mover.   In the Crimean war around 1856 some innovative designs were partially tried out but the results were inconclusive.  Tradition and the conventional wisdom of the day did not look to radical change.

The Confederacy knew they could never match the number and size of the Union fleet but they were desperate to break the naval blockade that was strangling their war effort.  Something radical must be tried to overcome the Union advantage.  A plan was developed to use a partially burned frigate hulk – the USS Merrimack- as the platform for something very radically different; a solely steam powered, iron clad floating battery that might just turn the tide of the war.  This was the basis for the CSS Virginia; hull and steam engine from a conventional frigate with an upper deck unlike anything seen on the water; sloped and reinforced sides and top covered with iron sheeting.

They didn’t pay much attention to military secrecy; the entire activity was written up in the local newspapers.  Maybe that was an early attempt at psych ops – fill the enemy with fear.  Construction of the Virginia was widely reported and the news traveled north.

When the CSS Virginia became operational on March 8, 1862, she was nigh invincible.  Steaming to the Union fleet she created total destruction leaving flaming and sinking wrecks in her wake as their cannon shells bounced harmlessly off.  Only the outgoing tide and drawing sunset abated the Virginia’s destructive path.

The North was in a panic at the report.  An invincible terror weapon had been unleashed on them and there was no defense.

Well, not exactly.  At the earlier reports, the admirals turned to a truly wild man with crazy ideas:  John Ericsson.  He was the Elon Musk of his day; promising radical and unbelievable change.  His design was unlike anything ever seen; a practically submerged main body of a ship with a rotating iron turret housing two cannons on top.  With the southern warship well under construction, the admirals gave him 100 days to build this new vessel which was not much more than a concept.  He did it in 118 days.  (Note:  18% schedule overrun).  It was ready just one day after the Virginia’s first foray.

You probably know the story; the two iron-clads slugged it out without doing any real damage to each other.  Military historians call the action of March 9, 1862 a draw.  Except, of course, that the blockade was not broken.  Neither ship saw action again and within months both were destroyed.

But their encounter changed everything; in the blink of an eye naval design would never be the same.  The age of wooden sailing warships was over.  Every ship in every fleet in the world was instantly obsolete.  “Monitor madness” ensued while nations around the world started building copies of Ericsson’s design.

Game changing technology.

So what is the lesson for us? Here are the first three that I can think of:

  1. There are harbingers out there.
  2. Only truly crazy revolutionaries make game changing inventions
  3. When the time is right, change will happen overnight

Can you think of more lessons?

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STS-121: The Hardest Launch – part 1

“The hardest part of any launch is getting the first foot off the ground” – Tommy Holloway, Space Shuttle Program Manager

I was doing some online research recently and ran across this document which I had not seen in over a decade:


The picture shows Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier signing the STS-121 CoFR document following the Flight Readiness Review.  Over his shoulder is NASA Administrator Mike Griffin who played a pivotal role at the FRR.  He is deep in discussion with Chief of NASA Safety, Bryan O’Connor (back to the camera)

A good, gray, boring government document comprising the signature pages from STS-121 Flight Readiness Review.  Signatures showing that all the senior management agreed to the launch of STS-121, except, if you go to the last couple of pages, not all of them agreed!  This is the only case I know of where such dissent happened regarding a shuttle launch.  The entire story of STS-121 has multiple lessons that may apply today as well.  Buckle in and I will tell you the story – but remember it is my perspective and I’m probably biased and sometimes forgetful.

It has been five years since I wrote about how we nearly lost Discovery on the return to flight after Columbia:

After two and a half years of trying to correct the problem that caused the loss of Columbia, the launch of STS-114 proved we had failed.  Before we could even start to make corrections, Hurricane Katrina smashed into New Orleans and complicated everything.

Setting aside the serious issues of the PAL ramp and recovering from Katrina, there were at least three other major problems associated with returning the shuttle to flight status (again!) which were not completely resolved at the time we were ready to launch STS-121:  foam loss from the ‘ice/frost ramps’; thermal scan indications of manufacturing anomalies in the RCC leading edge panels; and the nagging issue of intermittent failures in the engine cut off sensor system.  I plan to write a separate background post on each of these issues and then a summary of the drama and decision that occurred in mid-June 2006.

Returning again to the major anomaly on STS-114, the loss of a large section of foam insulation from the ‘protuberance air load ramp’ (called the PAL ramp) was a surprise.  The Shuttle senior leadership team had considered and discussed removing that 17 pound sprayed on foam barrier which was the PAL ramp, but decided against removing it.  John Muratore was one of the leading proponents of removing the PAL ramp and we probably should have listened to him.  The data in 2004/5 showed historic foam insulation loss from the PAL ramp was extremely rare and limited, and the defect/divot foam loss mechanism did not apply to the PAL ramp.  The major error in the logic, found after STS-114, was that the defect/divot foam loss mechanism was not the real problem; differential coefficient of thermal expansion between foam layers was the real problem.  Go back to the earlier Discovery post for more details.  After STS-114 it was absolutely obvious that removal of the PAL ramp had to be done.

The PAL ramp was a late addition to the External Tank prior to the first flight of the shuttle back in 1981.  Aerodynamic modeling was not very sophisticated in those days and there was an indication that the ‘protuberances’ might be ripped off the outside of the tank in some extreme cases.  The ‘protuberances’ – shown in the attached picture – consisted of the 17 inch diameter pipe carrying the liquid oxygen from the front part of the ET, a rectangular cable tray that carried critical instrumentation signals, and two smaller metal pipes carrying gaseous hydrogen and gaseous oxygen (in different pipes!) heated by the engines in the aft end of the Orbiter, to maintain pressure in the External tank as the LH2 and LO2 were pumped out to feed the engines.  All of these ‘protuberances’ were attached with metal fittings to the aluminum skin of the ET.  The attachment fittings were chilled by the cold fluids inside so those fittings were insulated with foam; these insulated foam fitting were called ‘ice/frost ramps’ since they had to prevent the formation of frost or ice and had to be ramp shaped due to the aerodynamics.


Nothing is easy.

To remove the PAL ramp and eliminate the danger of chunks of foam coming off and damaging the orbiter heat shield, we had to first prove that the aerodynamics concerns identified back in 1981 did not exist.  This required an extensive wind tunnel test campaign to measure forces followed by analysis using computational fluid dynamics models to check the cases the wind tunnel testing could not do.  Attached is a picture from the Glenn Research Center wind tunnel test article showing the sub scale protuberances that were tested there.


Building models, scheduling wind tunnel time, checking the results all took months.  Most of the work wrapped up in May with a few loose ends.  Removing the PAL ramp was proven to be safe; but in the mean time there were other problems.  More on that next time.

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It has been some time since I have gone over the purpose and rules for my personal blog site.  Recently some folks have demonstrated their confusion about this site.  For the record, let me repeat some of the ‘rules’ associated with my blog site for your awareness.

First of all, this is my personal blog.

As the disclaimer on the home page says, these posts and comments represent my person thoughts, insights, and concerns.  This blog site is definitely not the views of any other organization or person.  I write about what I am interested in and what I want to say, and literally nobody tells me what topics I should address or how to approach them.  What I write here is subject only to my own approval.  Not even my wife gets a vote. (she doesn’t read it).

This blog site is NOT representative of my current employer, Special Aerospace Services, LLC.  It is my hope that I do not offend SAS management or their many clients, but again, this is my personal site and they neither direct me nor necessarily agree with me on what I post.  This is my personal blog site.

This blog site is NOT representative of my former employer, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the U.S. Federal Government.  Long ago, I used to have a blog on the NASA web page that did represent many times the official position of the US government but THIS IS NOT IT.  Again, it is not my intention to offend my old colleagues, but they do not direct me nor do they necessarily concur with my thoughts and positions.  This is my personal blog site.

This blog site is NOT associated with any of the volunteer organizations with which I am (or was) a member or officer.  This is NOT an official site for the NASA Alumni League, the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Rice University Engineering Alumni Board of Directors, the Rice Space Institute, the Baker Institute at Rice University, etc., etc., etc.  None of those organizations give direction for my blog nor do they influence me on topics or how I address them.  This is my personal blog site.

This blog site does not represent the advisory roles that I have with the Federal Government under the Federal Advisory Committee’s Act.  This blog site is not an official site for the NASA Advisory Council nor for the FAA Commercial Space Transportation Advisory /committee.  They do not direct me on what to blog or how to address issues.  In general, I avoid discussing NAC or COMSTAC issues in my blog; after all those FACA Committee meetings are by law public and are well reported by the media.  While I attempt not to offend those organizations, I will say what I want and in the way I want on this blog site.  This is my personal blog site.

In Texas, we do not register as members of a political party, we merely register as a voter.  While I have definite political leanings, I am not an active member of any political party.  Political organizations do not direct my topics on this blog site nor do they influence how I address topics.  This is my personal blog site.

Now that we have that clarification over, let me address some of the rules for commenting on my posts.

I have sole discretion over what comments are posted and what are not posted.  No one else influences me on what will or will not be posted.  There is no appeal.  I will refuse (disapprove) comments in the following categories:

  1. Comments that I find offensive.  Keep your comments civil.  No slander allowed.  No profanity allowed.    You get the picture.
  2. I will not post comments that lead to other web pages or other blog sites. It’s just my policy.
  3. I will not allow comments that are clearly advertising gimmicks.
  4. I will only allow comments that I deem to be ‘on topic’ for the post. Nothing else.  This is at my sole discretion.
  5. I will disapprove ‘comments’ that are longer than the original post. Get your own blog site.


I think that is about it.


As a final note, please be aware that I write mostly from my faulty memory.  After I retired from NASA I was dismayed to find that I would not be able to access the extensive archives that the agency maintains on the space shuttle and other programs.  In spite of my repeated and courteous requests, the agency shows no signs of letting me or any other retiree access that data for our memoirs or scholarly papers or other objectives.  So what I write is subject to what I remember.  I feel confident though, that my old colleagues – both active and retired – will set me straight if I mis-remember some facts.  I will try to correct any errors that are pointed out to me, but it may take a while.  After all, I’m mostly retired

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Waivers, Deviations, and Exceptions

Growing up, my hero – everybody’s hero – was John Glenn.  He was the archetype of heroes:  decorated veteran of combat in two wars, test pilot, speed record holder, astronaut, first American to orbit the earth, later US Senator and Presidential candidate, and all around clean-cut American boy-next-door.  All of the Original 7 were heroes but John topped the list. When he returned to NASA for his second space flight on STS-95 in 1998, I did not have the opportunity to work with him but was thrilled to see him in the hallways and meeting rooms in Houston.  Still my hero.

So it was an . . . interesting . . . experience when, after Columbia, John Glenn requested that I have a telephone conference with him.  The purpose?  To chew me out personally about the number of waivers in the Space Shuttle Program.  I can report that the event was memorable.  Not in a good way.  He had his point:  people had died and somewhat to blame was the acceptance of waivers to requirements in our program.

A number of years ago, I wrote about the use of documented requirements in aerospace systems development (see A good, well run, effective organization or project will define what it intends to do, clearly state exactly what the requirements for the product are, and meet every one of those requirements without exception.  If the product somehow exceeds the requirements, that is OK, but it probably means that you spent more time or money than you should have.

In a complex system like the space shuttle, defining – and enforcing – requirements can be difficult.  All complex programs suffer from ‘requirements creep’ where nice to have features are added.  This can drive up costs and delay delivery.  Not following the requirements can cause all kinds of consequences from having to redesign and rebuild things that don’t work all the way up to death and destruction.  The shuttle had over 40,000 requirements and, as you might expect, not all of them were clear; some of them changed over time, and many were very difficult to do

At NASA, it is recognized that cutting edge projects sometimes don’t quite meet all the requirements and therefore there is a waiver process.  A good engineering review that shows how close the gizmo came to actually meeting the requirement, how safety is still protected, why it is impractical to exactly meet the requirement, etc.  Generally this is a very thorough engineering task to prove that a waiver is acceptable.  However, over thirty years, the shuttle program had granted thousands of waivers to requirements.  No matter how thoroughly this was done, the optics from the outside were atrocious.  So after Columbia – with the gentle encouragement from John Glenn – Bill Parsons and I decided that all waivers must be reviewed and, as far as possible, eliminated.

I got the assignment to lead this effort.  Depending on which section of the requirements documentation was being addressed, these shortfalls were called waivers, or deviations, or exceptions.  But it was all the same.

We adopted a three-fold review process.  First, to examine the requirement to see if it was still good.  After thirty years there had been upgrades, new understanding of how the system works, and changes to what we were trying to do so occasionally some requirement was out of date and no longer applied.  In those rare cases, we changed the requirement and that allowed us to retire some waivers.  In other cases, the fix would be just too hard to do and the risk was small and acceptable.  Those waivers we would keep with better documentation and rationale.  That was a small number.  Most waivers were resolved by redesigning or changing a part – spending money and taking the time to make it right.  Over the years, the shuttle program had worked under very tight budgets and sometimes choices were made that were . . . inappropriate.

The most egregious example of that last case lingers in my memory.  The Shuttle program was responsible for the space suits – EVA suits – used for space walks.  The backpacks were stuffed with all the things necessary to life support, communications, etc., for the space walker.  One well-known and documents standard for wiring in confined places is that you don’t bend the wires too tightly lest the insulation and perhaps the conducting wire inside breaks.  One waiver allowed a section of wiring inside the EVA backpack to exceed industry standards for ‘bend radius’ – it was folded over too tightly.  We reviewed the document and I asked ‘where is the engineering rationale that shows this to be acceptable?’  /The experts replied ‘There is none’ It turns out that there was a proposed way to fix the problem, but it would cost about $100,000.00 to fix all the EVA backpacks.  During the penny-pinching days pre-Columbia, the program did not chose to spend the money on that fix.  It was a short meeting to decide to fix it now, while we were not flying.  So we eliminated the waiver by changing the hardware. For weeks I had nightmares about being at the Flight Director console during an EVA and some astronauts’ backpack shorted out.  Eliminating that hazard was an easy choice.

By far, the silliest waiver concerned the color of the rail car covers for the solid rocket booster segments.  The requirement was that any ‘ground support equipment’ that was attached to shuttle parts during transportation or processing had to be painted bright yellow.  This was intended to draw attention to these parts to ensure that they were removed before flight.  This did not always work, probably a story for another day.  In the case of the rail car covers, recorded instrumentation showed that sometimes during transportation the SRB segments got close to an upper temperature limit which might degrade seals and insulation.  Typically this occurred on sunny warm days.  A smart engineer calculated that if the covers were painted white rather than the heat absorbing yellow, maximum temperatures would be lower.  But this required a waiver to the GSE color requirement.  It seemed pretty apparent to me that we were in no danger of leaving one of these covers attached and accidentally launching them.  I giggle to think about it.  So in this case, we changed the requirement to say that SRB rail car covers could be white.  Waiver eliminated.


Finally, there were hundreds of waivers regarding EMI in the shuttle crew compartment.  It turns out that during the shuttle development there was never an EMI susceptibility test run on the orbiter.  This is a standard test that involves some time and, in the 1970’s – a fairly large facility, of which there were not many.  So the shuttle program decided not to run the test. So we did not have a good idea about how the electronics that ran the orbiter were shielded from stray radiation. Almost every electronic gizmo emits some radio frequency energy:  cameras, laptop computers, even some digital watches.  Since we did not have a good engineering limit to set on equipment brought into the shuttle cockpit, everything must be tested and analyzed.  The results of these engineering evaluations were called waivers – because the basic requirement was nothing could come aboard that radiated any electromagnetic energy.

Resolving all these EMI waivers was going to be herculean. So we adopted a radical strategy.  I turned over the Endeavour to Dr. Bob Scully and his band of mad scientists.  That orbiter had completed its depot maintenance and was literally just sitting until we returned to flight.  They towed OV-105 over to the RLV hanger that once housed the remains of Columbia and outfitted it with sensors.  Tall poles with EMI emitters were erected and the tests began.  I had visions of some Tesla-like lightening discharges playing over the orbiter but they assured me that would not be the case.  I begged them not to break the orbiter, and they didn’t.  And the result?  We found what the real capability of the vehicle was and where the small areas of susceptibility resided.  Thousands of EMI waivers disappeared overnight.

After all these actions, and many more were complete, we drive the number of waivers, deviations, and exceptions to requirements down to just a couple of dozen.  Those were well understood, well documented, and the risks were properly briefed, understood, and accepted.  And that is the only kind of waiver that should ever be allowed.

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Blame it on Oliver Cromwell

NASA is keen on training its personnel.  I kept a list of all the training classes they sent me to take through the years. Single spaced, the list of just the titles of the classes takes a page and a half.  Seems like I should have learned something!   There were classes in software development and testing, classes in engineering topics such as stress corrosion prevention, classes in management and supervision.  But the best class was in Washington, DC in a conference room in one of the Capitol’s office buildings.  Legislative Operations was the name.  There were lectures and featured speakers including congressional staffers and lobbyists, political science professors, and various NASA officials.  We got to observe some committee hearings, discuss our observations, and we got to make the rounds on Capitol Hill visiting congressional offices.  All of this in the name of helping us understand how things really get done in Washington and how it affects our agency.

But the best and most memorable part of the class was a lecture by history/poli sci professor from GWU who explained to us how all this mess was really Oliver Cromwell’s fault.

I have told you before that I was forced to take a history course in college.  I picked “History of the Modern World” thinking it would be a current events class.  Turns out the ‘modern world’ in the classification of professional historians is anything that happened from the Renaissance to well, maybe a hundred years ago.  But we didn’t even make it to the American Civil War, too recent! We studied the English Civil War – something I had no idea existed.  In case you missed the class, there was war between the English factions who wanted either more power for the Parliament (by extension, the common people) and those who wanted more power for the King (and the nobility).  Over a decade of fighting between the Roundheads and Cavaliers (you can look it up) resulted in the triumph of the New Model Army, the Puritans, andthe Parliamentarian faction.  The King lost his head over that one.  When we later studied the French Revolution, some of the similarities were striking.  Professional historians will critique my two sentence summary of a pivotal period in English history, but that is the gist of what I remember.

This turbulent period ended with a fellow named Oliver Cromwell being proclaimed the “Lord Protector” – which is another way of saying he became absolute dictator.  Times were grim with the Puritan Major Generals enforcing all kinds of social restrictions on the people.  After about a decade, Oliver Cromwell died, and quietly the people threw off the Puritan restrictions and invited the King in exile back.

All this happened in the second half of the 1600’s.  Just about a hundred years later a group of Englishmen who colonized British North America tried to write a constitution that would organize a new government.  The example of what happened a century earlier was recent memory for them.  Firmest of the principles for the new government was that there should be no Oliver Cromwells.  No one should be able to exercise absolute power in the new government.  Instead there would be a system of checks and balances on power, and an ingenious way of guaranteeing that nothing would get done unless there was compromise between the factions.  No simple majority could ride roughshod over a numerically inferior group.  Consensus, compromise, and limits were to be the hallmark of the new government.

So when we complain about nothing getting done in Washington, the professor concluded, we should all blame Oliver Cromwell.  After all, if he had not set the example of how an absolute dictator establishes power, our forefathers might not have built a government which protects against it.  Seems they thought that efficiency in government should take back seat to more important principles. It appears they succeeded.

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King for a Day

“Arm chair generals study tactics; real generals study logistics” – attributed to General Norman Schwwarzkopf

Many of my old friends and colleagues are asking me a question these days:  “If you were NASA Administrator, what would you have the agency do?”  I know what they want to hear:  Moon, Mars, or Asteroid – what is the next destination for human spaceflight?  But that is not the answer I would give. Whatever ‘horizon goal’ is established, without significant organizational and cultural changes at NASA, the chance for success is in doubt.

To make NASA into the extraordinarily effective organization it once was and could be again will require significant work to transform it.  NASA is filled with extremely smart, highly motivated individuals who are the experts in their fields.  They can do amazing things.  Measured against any other organization – government or commercial – the NASA civil service and contractor work force is outstanding in terms of inherent capabilities and the desire to make their projects successful.

But success in NASA’s endeavors is hobbled by three structural and cultural problems:  (1) inter-center rivalry, (2) mind numbing bureaucracy, and (3) a paralyzing cultural requirement for perfection in all things.

These are the problems I would propose must be improved for any large scale program to be effective.  And frankly, resolving these issues exceeds the NASA Administrator’s authority.  Solutions will require not just concurrence from the President, but action by the Congress would be required.  And given that somebody somewhere would probably file a lawsuit regarding some of the directions, the Judicial branch would have to concur as well.  Rapid, coordinated concurrence from all three branches of government?  What are the odds of that?  So my title:  King for a Day.

So in the Libyan fable it is told
That once an eagle, stricken with a dart,
Said, when he saw the fashion of the shaft,
“With our own feathers, not by others’ hands,
Are we now smitten.”    – Aeschylus, Choephoroe 59

Topic 1:  break down inter-center rivalry.  NASA was established in 1958 as a collection of 10 loosely federated fiefdoms and it has never broken out of that paradigm.  If you ask a typical NASA employee who they work for, the response will be their center, not the agency.  Can’t blame them; they are hired through a center, promotions and career advancements come through their center, the very culture of the organization enforces loyalty to a center.  Every center has its local politicians and politics centered on local interests, every center has its own history and area of expertise, and every employee is inculcated with the beliefs and norms.  Centers sometimes seem united only in their disdain for NASA Headquarters.  Not that anybody openly works to sabotage direction from Headquarters, they just bend the direction toward what their individual project and center would like to do.  Competition for scarce resources drives rivalries between centers.  In addition, there is a huge ‘not invented here’ problem everywhere.  Not just with any idea from an organization outside NASA but also with any idea from another center.  It makes the workforce ready to find fault, slow to see the advantages of any new thing not born from within their own organization.  Secretive, competitive, and ultimately destructive of the larger purpose, these behaviors have been worse in the past but are still present.  My solution:  make people move.  Many organizations both government and industry do this as a matter of course.  Move not just the senior leaders, but the journeyman workers.  Take the center name off the badges.  Develop a ‘Bureau of Personnel” to centralize promotions, bonuses, and career advancement.  No small tasks these.

“A system under which it takes three men to check what one is doing is not control; it is systematic strangulation.” – Admiral Hyman G. Rickover

Topic 2:  mind numbing bureaucracy.  The organization has evolved, as all bureaucracies do, to the point where too many people can say ‘no’ to any action.  In the early days of NASA, this was not so.  It is good to have checks and balances and oversight, but the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of (electronic) paperwork, diffuse responsibility, and inaction.  The system now has watchers watching watchers watching doers – and always with criticism for the doer.  Corrective action will take serious attention from any leader.  Achieving the proper balance may well be impossible and the best we can hope for is to swing decision making back to the lowest level possible.  Gibbs Rule #13 applies here:  Never involve the Lawyers.

 “The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.” – Gaius Cornelius Tacitus

Topic 3:  the cultural imperative to make everything perfect.  This is a very sensitive topic for me.  I have personal been involved with decisions that were made with too little information, riding roughshod over the experts in the field.  But these days, after Columbia, the agency is paralyzed by requiring too much:  too much data, too many tests, too much analysis.  In the Apollo days, this was not so.  We – and I am a guilty party in this – have trained the work force to make everything perfect before any project can proceed.  In this business, nothing is ever perfect.  Space flight involves risk, it can never be completely eliminated.  But real space flight is actual flight, not studies and ground tests.  It is difficult to find the balance of having done enough to be reasonably sure of success and safety and to get on with a project and actually fly.  I hate the term ‘risk averse,’ but as much as it makes my teeth grate, the effect of wanting to make every detail perfect has the same outcome as cowardice: never flying.

So when folks ask me that question:  “If you were NASA Administrator, what would you have the agency do?”  I have a rueful look on my face and tell them any destination – or all three – are good; the tougher job is what we must do to ensure that we get there.


            “Come, my friends,

‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows, for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.”

  • Tennyson’s Ulysses
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Flying with the Window Shades Down

Second only to space, I have always been very interested in aviation.  To this day I am thrilled to get to fly on any type of airplane – well, maybe not about the security lines, but I am thrilled about the actual flying.

I grew up in a time and place where people actually went to the local airport just to watch the airplanes land and take off.  Seems silly now, but aviation is like magic in many ways.

I always search out a window seat and curse my luck when I can’t get one.  I like to watch them marshal the planes around the gates and I study the taxiway patterns.  I always check to see if the flaps are set properly (at least on my side of the airplane) and am mentally prepared to ring the flight attendant call button to send a message to the pilot if it doesn’t look right.  During the takeoff or landing roll I count the distance remaining boards on the runway to see how fast we are accelerating or stopping.  I find it all so very interesting and entertaining.

In flight I am fascinated by what I can see out the window.  I love those flight tracking programs that keep me updated on where we are; watching the geography unfold below me is endlessly fascinating.  And especially out west, where the vegetation is sparse, contemplating the geology and land forms is intriguing.

But best of all is watching the weather.  Back when I was a Shuttle Ascent/Entry Flight Director we hung on every word that the airborne weather observers would radio down to us.  On every airline flight I would study the clouds and imagine how I would describe them to Mission Control – good practice in understanding what the weather pilots would report to me later.  Thin high cirrus clouds – are they translucent or opaque?  Not an easy call some times, but the difference would have a dramatic effect on a shuttle deorbit call.  Lower puffy clouds –are they building and showing precipitation forming?  Or are they just fair weather cumulus?  How high are the bases?  Is the coverage more or less than 50% – the difference between scattered and broken – the difference between go and no-go? Watching the gravity waves in stratus clouds, lightning erupting from towering cumulus, uncanny demarcation lines between a cloud street and clear skies; all endless fodder for study.

And beautiful as well.  Pastels that cannot be captured by any camera.  Endlessly changing.

So, I love to fly in a window seat, with the window shades open.

Lately however, I’ve been getting a lot of dirty looks from people sitting near me.  The light coming in from the window is making it hard to see their little electronic screens where they are watching some fiction or sending some emails.  They want me to close the window shade so they can live in their virtual world unimpeded by light from the real world.

Nobody yet has been bold enough to request a lowered shade, but I expect that any time now.

What does it say that we are more interested in the virtual than the real?  When did the real world –with all its beauty and imperfections become less interesting than a manufactured flickering ephemeral images of vapors and imagination?

Not that imagination is bad, far from it.  But whose imagination?  Yours or somebody else’s?  And what fuels that imagination? Is it rooted in the real world?

Some profound message may be hiding here, but in my simple way it makes me worry.  We can hope to improve the world, but it is not a good thing, I think, to believe the world is different than it is.  We all have to live in the real world and deal with it – good and bad, beautiful and ugly, joyful and painful.  Hiding in the dark doesn’t seem to me to be the way to have a full, successful, and happy life.

So I won’t be flying with the window shades down, but I will be looking out there, studying.

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