A Few Word About This Picture

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Briefing on Tile Repair

I ran across this picture from the NASA public affairs archives yesterday and the more I think about it, the more it illustrates some principles that are in effect even today.

First of all it is a picture of me getting to brief Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee and her staffers.  Just another picture that JSC public affairs took of Wayne briefing yet another dignitary, lots of those to go around.  Mid 2005 and we were trying furiously to get the shuttle back into flight.  Periodically – frequently – we were visited by various elected officials or their staff who would check on our progress.  After all we were burning through a great deal of taxpayer money and they had the responsibility to see that we were not wasting it.

The particular topic under discussion at this photo stop was detection and repair of damaged thermal protection tiles during flight.  That is a pretty arcane technical subject, and Congresswoman Jackson-Lee and her staffers were trying their best to stay focused.  In the background you can see my boss, JSC Center Director Jeff “Beak” Howell – a former Marine Corps Lieutenant General.  He is very interested in how well I can convince our visitors that we are making satisfactory progress.  His expression does not lead me to believe that I was doing a good job when the shutter snapped on this picture.  In the background you see many NASA civil servants and contractors who were distracted from their normal duties for the day in order to put on a well organized and effective presentation.  They are all quietly pulling for me to get the explanation over with so they can go back to their “real” jobs.

Of course, Congresswoman Jackson-Lee’s district does not include JSC, nor is she on any space-related legislative committees.  Her constituents are not terribly interested in space, her district in largely urban downtown Houston was and is primarily interested in jobs, civil rights, and related matters.  But the congresswoman is a member of the Texas congressional delegation and is well respected in the House of Representatives, so it was important for her to understand what we were doing. It was important for us to make sure she heard it right.

I realized that Congresswoman Jackson-Lee was not getting the whole story.  I changed track from the technical discussion of chemical interactions required to form a good bond between the silica tiles and the organic repair material in the vacuum of space.  Instead, I decided to talk about the work that NASA people do in the schools in the area –  including in her district – encouraging children to stay in school and study, especially to study the hard subjects of math and science.  Fortunately I had recently been given a good briefing on the subject and could quote statistics and give a couple of illustrative anecdotes.  Then we started talking about employment provided by the space program to small disadvantaged businesses in the Houston area – in her district.  Good jobs with good benefits, both professional and blue collar jobs were provided through contracts with SDBs.  Now I really had her attention, and her aides were taking furious notes.  Then our time was over, the entourage moved on to the next show-and-tell stop.  Beck told me later that I had “done good”.

So what can we glean?

First: all politics are local, congress faces election every two years and the constituents want to know what their representative has done for them lately.  If the constituency is interested in jobs, all government work had better look like a jobs program.  Sorry if you don’t like it, but that is the fact of political life in America, then, now, and in the future.

Second:  not everybody is awed by the glamour and romance of spaceflight, not everybody is a tech geek; but we are asking all taxpayers to make a compulsory contribution to the space program.  If one wishes to use the taxpayer’s money one had better be ready to justify it in very concrete, non-romantic terms.  Sorry if you don’t like it, but that is the fact of political life in America, then, now, and in the future.

Third:  government bureaucracies are inherently inefficient.  After all, they have to cater to all kinds of political directives.  Just look at all those folks standing by to give their part of the show.  But without doing that, support won’t be there when the budget votes come up.  And those SDB contracts were in place because the Federal Acquisition Regulations require a certain percentage of taxpayer dollars go those type of businesses.  Does the FAR lead to inefficiency?  Maybe, maybe not.  Do you hate the FAR?  Get over it; the FAR is not going away; it is the price of doing real business with the government.  Sorry if you don’t like it, but that is the fact of political life in America, then, now, and in the future.

If you want to get things done in this democracy, you have to build a political coalition that agrees with you.  Standing on your soap box in the park railing against those who disagree with you may satisfy your ego but it will not get your program enacted.  Reaching out to other folks who have different perspectives and interests than yours is exactly what the political system is all about.

And one more note: one of the highlights of my college years was a personal meeting with the predecessor of the congresswoman:  Barbara Jordan.  You might think that a while middle class techno-geek college student would not have found much in common with her.  Just the opposite; true leadership and heroism outshines merely local and temporal politics.  Barbara Jordan will always remain one of my heroes.  There is a point in that story, too.

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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12 Responses to A Few Word About This Picture

  1. Beth Webber says:

    ” Reaching out to other folks who have different perspectives and interests than yours is exactly what the political system is all about. ”

    Exactly.

  2. Yes, I know that Senators and Representatives of Texas, Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana think of NASA as a jobs program for their state. That’s just politics as far as they are concered.

    What I really get mad about is that Senators and Representatives from the other states (with the exception of former Arizona Representative Gabby Giffords) don’t care about what NASA does.

    Hey, those in DC from the other forty-six states:
    It is America’s Space Program! Get behind it and support it!

  3. Pat says:

    “…have found much in commer with her.”
    typo?

    BTW, great blog.

  4. Steve Pemberton says:

    Congresswoman Jackson-Lee seems to be keenly interested in what you are saying and far from bored, so I would venture that Beak was correct in his assessment of how you did. In fact it being a high-resolution photograph you can zoom in on Beak and he definitely has a bit of a Mona Lisa smile going on.

  5. Buddy McKenzie says:

    Wayne,
    We all have heroes in life and I for one include you as one of mine. Your leadership during tough times at NASA kept us on track. Now that we are retiring the Shuttle fleet, I spend many hours giving tours to the media, influential people, and of course Congress members. All of them are in awe when they see the ships in the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF). And most all ask why we are not still flying. Because I work for a NASA subcontractor, I cannot discuss politics that have led us down this path. Next Wednesday, we will close the hatch on Discovery for the final time and bid her farewell. She leaves KSC in April for her final flight to her resting place at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM).

    Buddy

  6. Bill Hensley says:

    I hope we can also make some progress in reducing the inefficiencies of government, even while acknowledging that they can never be eliminated. Taxpayers are also a constituency, not just tax recipients, so there is some hope for change.

    BTW, there are several typos in the last paragraph about Barbara Jordan.

  7. Jim Carleton says:

    This reminds me of a expression I once heard. “If the only tool you have in the tool box is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.” As a retired Shuttle contractor, all 135, I remember providing many such briefings on the Solid Rocket Boosters to dignitaries and special guests including yourself. I agree with you that you have to build a political coalition that agrees with you. Often I and my team have had to appear to be “the nail” in order the get a desired impact.
    Keep the great Blogs coming!

  8. Ron Smith says:

    So whatever happened to those old posters of the orbiter in the vertical lift position, I can take a few off JSC’s hands😀

    • waynehale says:

      I wish I could tell you that some museum got them. Unfortunately, almost any day of the week i could find things of historical interest in the recycle bins at NASA. And that was while we were still flying.

  9. Trent Hebert says:

    Wayne, let me start by saying that over the years I appreciated your leadership and technical knowledge. I only which I had the talent you have in briefing the media on these technical subjects. That said, one thing that I wanted to point out that I think many people get wrong when briefing our congressional leaders. You mention, “Her constituents are not terribly interested in space, her district in largely urban downtown Houston was and is primarily interested in jobs, civil rights, and related matters.” Actually, you are in error. There are many of us who are actually JSC Civil Servants and Contractors who reside outside the Clear Lake area. In addition, my friends and neighbors are incredibly interested in NASA and where we are going. They ask me all the time what the agency is doing next. I actually live in Ms. Jackson-Lee’s district and have contacted her office on several occasions over the years to encourage her interest in the space programs.

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