Ringing Handbells

A number of years ago our church acquired a set of
handbells.  My daughter, who was in
middle school, and I agreed that being in the church handbell choir would be a
good father-daughter activity, and so it was.
Somewhere along the line, my daughter grew up and left that handbell
choir, but I found it a satisfying activity and have continued on with it for
more than a decade.

The interesting thing about playing handbells is the amount of
concentration that it requires.  You
simply cannot let your mind wander; complete attention is required to make the
music come out right.  And it is a team
effort; nobody is a star, everybody is important, you really can’t play a song
with any one of the choir members missing.
The music only works if everybody plays their part correctly; a mistake
by anybody reflects on the whole group.
But when it all comes together, you are part of a group creating
something of great beauty and power.

That is a lot like spaceflight.  You have to give it your complete
concentration.  It is a team effort.  A mistake by anybody on the team results in a
poor performance of the whole team.  And
if it all works correctly, you have been a part of creating something beautiful
and powerful.

Last week I was privileged to attend the last shuttle launch
with a large group of former astronauts, flight directors, program managers,
launch directors, all retired.  One of
those was a retired USAF general.  He
told me that the biggest change in retirement was that he no longer woke up in the
middle of the night worrying about . . . things.  I can relate to that.  After I left the shuttle program office, I
slept a lot better.  Looking back, that
was one of the great appeals of playing handbells; extreme concentration was
required and there was no room left for all those worries and anxieties that
crowd in on your mind.  For a blessed
hour every week during rehearsal, all those responsibilities were not allowed
to weigh me down.

Life changes, and this year I am giving up playing handbells
in the church choir.  I will miss it, but
there are other priorities now; grandchildren, a new and different career,
activities that my wife and I want to do together.

Life changes, and this year America is giving up flying
space shuttles.  We will miss them, but
there are other priorities now; maybe even greater things to do in space in the

We’ll see.

JFK said that going onto space would “serve to organize and measure the best of our
energies and skills”. 

To succeed in going
into space requires complete concentration, I can attest to that.  I wonder if we can still focus our attention
in the manner that space travel requires.

We’ll see.

About waynehale

Wayne Hale is retired from NASA after 32 years. In his career he was the Space Shuttle Program Manager or Deputy for 5 years, a Space Shuttle Flight Director for 40 missions, and is currently a consultant and full time grandpa. He is available for speaking engagements through Special Aerospace Services.
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10 Responses to Ringing Handbells

  1. Graham says:

    That’s an interesting metaphor and one that seems very apt. Whatever comes next for America with regards to space, I hope that ability to focus – to concentrate on a lengthy, hard, unforgiving thing and see it through to completion – I really hope that isn’t what gets lost.

  2. Tim says:

    Great post as always Mr Hale. You are able to find the words that express our thoughts and feelings, demonstrating that we collectively experience this in our daily lives, as no other can.

  3. Beautifully spoken Wayne!

  4. Steve Pemberton says:

    George Diller said moments after liftoff “On the shoulders of the Space Shuttle America will continue the dream.”

    It is still being decided exactly what the next U.S manned space program will be, whatever it is will be years away. Many if not most of the thousands of people who made Friday’s launch possible will have either retired or moved on by then. Many have been recently laid off or will be laid off after Atlantis lands next week. But they will not be forgotten, as we have not forgotten a similar group of people that put men on the Moon several decades ago. Those who work on the next program will definitely be standing on all of their shoulders.

  5. Beth Webber says:

    Gee, Wayne, I’m just about as sad to hear you are giving up the handbells as I was when you retired from NASA a year ago.

    I believe that we will go on to do greater things, and we will find that necessary concentration to do them. I have to believe this, because the alternative is too bleak to contemplate. Despair is for those who see the future beyond all question and doubt; not even the wise have this foresight.


  6. When I was a kid back in the fifties, Walt Disney hosted a TV program called Disneyland and in a “Tomorrowland” segment Wernher von Braun described the future. He said that by 1984 we would have cities on the moon, huge space colonies in orbit about the earth and terraforming underway on Mars. There was no doubt in my mind in 1959 that by 2011 I’d be watching the Nightly News from Mars, wearing shiny futuristic clothing with funky puffy rings around the shoulders and knees and driving my flying car to the spaceport to blast off for a weekend at the Hilton orbiting resort. But, you know what was NOT included in either von Braun’s presentation or my vision of the future? The space shuttle, cell phones, I-Pads, the Large Hadron Collider, the Internet, light sticks, cat lasers and gum that doesn’t stick to ones dentures (not that I have dentures). So, I realize now that while the future will be pretty much entirely different than was predicted in 1959, it can still be great. I just hope we don’t give up on it. Wayne, you won’t remember, but we chatted briefly twice at KSC launches and I was thrilled to have that opportunity. After touring Discovery on June 21st, I have even more respect for you than before (if that’s possible). You guys really did do something extraordinary and the full impact of your accomplishments may not be realized for many years to come. Perhaps, sometime in 2411, as a family is sitting down to their evening meal on Mars, a bell will ding, a holographic Atlantis will materialize on the dining room table and a voice will say, “…and finally in the news, on this day four hundred years ago, the space shuttle Atlantis landed for the last time ending the program that defined the future for all mankind.” That’s your legacy Wayne and that’s why I was thrilled to have the chance to speak with you even briefly.

  7. Charley S McCue says:

    Well said.

    I still believe to do greater things in space will take more than concentration. It will take more money. The path we are on started with Nixon. A path to do the same or more with less. I do not accept the argument that we cannot afford more when Congressional travel costs $15 billion a year.

    NASA has done remarkable things even with scant budgets. To me, it’s not maybe but absolutely they can do even greater things with adequate budgets.

    • Dave H. says:

      Hello, Wayne.

      Sorry we missed you at KSC. My family and I were guests at the Banana Creek site. I have a story to tell you now that I didn’t want to tell before the final mission was safely home.

      In a previous post, you said that real life isn’t anything like Hollywood.
      Sometimes it is. It certainly was for me. Drop me a line and I’ll tell you the story…it involves you, Reads, Sean, and a CAIB member. It’s how you ended up on NASA TV reading my ECO sensor troubleshooting procedure.

      Sorry to hear that you’re giving up playing a musical instrument. I have no talents in that arena, and it pains me that my son’s 106 year old violin has gone silent since he graduated high school in 2010.

      We were blessed to have been invited to a pre-flight briefing at KSC on July 7th, and a mountain of a man named Joe gave one of the most inspiring presentations I’ve ever had the privilege to listen to. He asked us if we believed that our better days were still before us…or behind us.

      The STS program conclusion is not the end of the world, although to borrow from REM, it may be the end of the world as we know it.

      The dream will continue, with or without us, Wayne. What matters is that we stood tall in the face of adversity and prevailed. Some years ago I wrote a missive to Reads wherin I borrowed from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. My point was that how we, and I have learned to include myself, respond to the adversities caused by the loss of Columbia would indeed be noted as time goes by.

      In a few hours, I will be weeping along with the rest of the NASA family when Atlantis’ wheels stop rolling on a warm, humid morning in Florida. But my reasons will be different.
      I will be weeping because a safe arrival means that everything I was able to contribute to the safety of our astronauts worked. For someone whose roots are closer to Joe Magarac than John Glenn, that’s quite an accomplishment.

      One small step for a man…one giant leap for an industrial controls man.

      Thank you for your service, Wayne.

  8. P. Savio says:

    Wheels Stop.

    Thank you Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour

    Thank you NASA.

  9. Yusef Johnson says:

    Doubtful. In today’s ‘me want now’ society, I doubt if we, as a nation, have the national will and patience to carry out such undertakings.

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