Old retired guys sometimes go through their photographs to relive the vicissitudes of their working lives. So I came across this photo – almost exactly 20 years old – showing the Flight Directors for the first flight of Space Shuttle Endeavour. Before every flight, the Lead Shuttle Flight Director would arrange for the JSC photo shop to take a group portrait of the flight directors assigned to the mission. These were usually done quickly in the photo studio at JSC’s building 8. But plain group photos with a flag or crew patch or some projected image background quickly became passé and a contest developed among the lead Flight Directors to spice things by scheduling the pictures in various locations: in Mission Control around the Flight Director console, in Building 9 inside one of the shuttle mockups, out at Ellington Field grouped around a T-38. Anything to add some variety to the dreary tedium of folks dressed up in their Sunday finest for a group picture. One of my favorites was taken for a classified DoD flight with all the flight directors wearing trench coats, dark glasses, and fedoras. So for this picture from STS-49, lead Flight Director Al Pennington (second from the left) arranged a “construction theme” shot with himself, Milt, Phil and I wearing hard hats with the crew patch, and the Intelsat VI capture bar. The primary goal of STS-49 was to rescue that errant satellite, attach a new upper stage, and send it to geosynchronous orbit where it would do its work. It was a true construction job in space which unfolded with lots of drama along the way. The capture bar, for example, turned out to be a total bust.
You might think that this post is about that space construction job. No, that story is for another day. This story is about the construction project in the background of our Flight Director picture.
The early 90’s were a mini boom time at NASA. The Space Station design was gearing up; the shuttle was flying on a regular basis; and we were out of office space. Temporary buildings, aka ‘mobile homes’ were brought in: temporary building T585 stayed occupied for more than 20 years in spite of the plywood floor rotting through in Houston’s damp climate creating a hazard for everybody who was shoved in there. There was simply no place to house the new astronauts, the additional flight controllers, the growing gaggle of training personnel, and the procedures developers. What was JSC to do?
A long standing federal law states that any new buildings must be approved by the Congress; any new building must be its own separate line item in the Federal Budget. This is to make sure that the legislators know exactly what is being built on Federal property; to ensure that money is properly spent and not wasted. A very proper and appropriate rule and one that has been in place for far longer than you might imagine.
Around the same year that STS-49 flew its historic and eventful mission, my family took one of those epic American summer driving vacations: Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore were our principle objectives. My daughter, then in grade school, had studied the Oregon trail in class and so we made many of the landmarks during our big loop through the Wyoming and the Dakotas. One of those was Fort Laramie, now a National Park site. We intended to spend an hour or so there and instead spent most of a full day. The NPS did their usual extraordinary job of telling the context of Fort Laramie, partly restored, partly in ruins. One ranger, in full 1880’s cavalry uniform, walked us around the post telling of the pony express, the immigrants on the trail to Utah or Oregon, the Indian wars, and most of all about the soldier, officers and enlisted, who served at Fort Laramie in the late 19th century.
One story reverberated with me. The officers were entitled to bring their families and the Army was required to provide housing for them. In other, less remote posts, this meant a Victorian bungalow; but Fort Laramie was on the frontier and construction materials were scarce and expensive. Every year the post commander would propose building 4 or 5 new officer’s houses, and every year Congress would strike those line items from the Federal budget. No new houses. The officer’s wives were outraged to live in tents, or be sent back east. That lowered the morale of the officers who then made the commandant’s job more difficult. So every year he would make the long journey to Washington to argue his case, and lose it. Until one year, he had a really ingenious idea. He proposed that since the army was often in the field pursuing the “hostiles” that the government should construct four “field kitchens” to feed the men. This proposal gained Congressional approval and 4 small kitchen buildings were constructed – on the edge of the parade grounds at Fort Laramie. Then, the commandant used the maintenance budget and the free labor of the troops during the winter months to build “extensions” on those “field kitchens”. “Extensions that just happened to be Victorian style houses for officers. All of his actions were perfectly legal and legitimate. A fine example of the innovative leadership it takes to get things done in the morass of regulations that is the United States Federal government. True in the 1880’s, true in the 1990’s, and still true today; it is no so much following the rules as it is finding a way to get what needs to be done in spite of the rules.
So NASA could not get approval to build a new office building to house all the people which were needed to accomplish the mission in the 1990s. Renting office space off site around JSC was expensive and inefficient. So JSC proposed to “renovate” Building 4 by adding a new “wing”. This did not require a specific line item in the Federal budget. The addition (known as B4 South) was connected by a glass walkway to the old B4 (now called B4 North); and the addition was approximately 5 times the floorspace as the old building. That was all perfectly legal and legitimate. In fact, in Federal installations all around the country, I have encountered “additions” that were bigger than the original building. Makes you wonder about the effectiveness of a rule that was probably written in the 18th century.
So my advice to anybody trying to get things done in the byzantine maze of Federal regulations is to get creative. There is almost always a way to accomplish the mission in spite of the obstacles. Sometimes it pays to study history because other clever people have gotten their mission accomplished by perfectly legal and legitimate ways to work through the regs.