2002 was a tumultuous year in my personal life. Last time I wrote about my work, my career, as a Space Shuttle Flight Director. It was always more than a 40 hour a week job. The question is how much time and attention should have been devoted to it.
In the spring of 2002, my oldest graduated from Rice University. Great excitement and relief! My youngest was a freshman at Trinity University and made it in just in time for the commencement ceremony. The featured speaker was the comedian and educator, Bill Cosby. It was great; the whole family loved every minute of the activity. Even my mother-in-law, suffering greatly from cancer was there and enjoyed seeing her oldest grandson graduate from college. Three weeks later, she passed from us. A huge blow to the entire family but especially to my wife. Life and death, they happen to us all. Good news and bad, surrounded by friends and family somehow we make it through. But it’s not easy, nor short.
The summer of 2002, I participated in two week long mission trips with the young people in our church. In the small rural Texas town of Beeville and then again in the urban setting of downtown Houston we worked on houses for impoverished elderly and disabled people; paint, steps, wheelchair ramps, screens. Good work, good kids, hot days; it reminded us all that there is more to life than work and worry.
My wife and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary with a delayed trip to her favorite spot, Grand Teton National Park. The celebration was delayed from May to July when death intervened. Also in August was my 30th High School reunion, what a trip that was. Never miss your reunion no matter what. Late in August, on the very same weekend, my wife helped move my daughter back to Trinity – westward to San Antonio – while I helped my son move to Emory – eastward in Atlanta – where he started graduate school. Two weeks later, I met half dozen old friends in Seattle where we spent a week backpacking in the Olympic National Park.
Mission Operations at JSC frowned upon attending conferences. The thinking was that those affairs were a waste of time and energy; better to stay home and attend to business. But the AIAA professional society held their World Space Congress in Houston in October and the JSC Center Director ‘encouraged’ everyone to write papers and attend that event. I hadn’t written a formal paper since I left graduate school almost 25 years prior. However, I got into it. The AIAA sent out a conference notice for a meeting on ‘Hypersonic Flight and Re-entry Vehicles’ which sounded interesting. Since JSC was now encouraging us to write papers and attend conferences, I submitted a paper on the shuttle experience with hypersonic flight. Much to my amazement, I was given permission to go. Did I mention that the conference was in Orleans, France? So two weeks in October, one in Houston and one in France, were spent in conference attendance. This was really tight with the STS-113 mission coming up in November. I think I missed one training session with the crew. Not a good plan.
In and amongst all of these big events were a number of small family events; recitals for my niece, ball games for my nephew, anniversaries, birthdays, holiday dinners.
In my children’s teenage years, they were very involved in scouting. As good parents, my wife and I were volunteer scout leaders. I keep on with it for a couple of years afterward. In 2002 I was the BSA District Chairman, responsible for almost two dozen units: troops, packs, posts, crews. We had activities like cub-o-ree and scout-o-ree, courts of honor, fundraisers, adult leader training, and on and on. I remained the Venture Crew Advisor for my local unit as well as Assistant Scoutmaster for our old troop. Seems like there were always two or three meetings to go to for scouts every week and on top of that at least one weekend a month outdoors somewhere.
But my busiest activities were at my church; not only was I teaching an adult Sunday School class every week, and ringing with our handbell choir, but I was the chairman of the building committee. For three years we had been working on building a new building; getting an architect, going over plans, getting congregational approval, fundraising, fundraising, fundraising, and finally getting the building permits and hiring a building contractor. What a huge amount of time that took!
Anything else? Whew.
Looking back on it; the job and all my extracurricular activities, it’s a wonder I had time to sleep. I guarantee I wasn’t bored.
But this walk down memory lane is not about trying to impress you; no doubt you have had similarly active times in your own life. The point is that we started to miss critical safety issues in 2001 and 2002. In early 2003 we paid the price for that inattention.
So I ask you; in a high reliability organization, one which is engaged in risky, highly complex activities with cutting edge technology; how much time does any individual need to devote to making the activity successful and safe?
Nothing on my list of activities was a bad thing; without a doubt I was making a difference to my family and in my community. Some life moments are inescapable; death of a beloved family member is one of those. No matter how far in advance you see it coming, you can never be ready for that.
The old saying “all work and no play makes jack a dull boy” also bears elements of truth. Time for recreation and reflection is necessary to do ones best.
But in spite of all of that rationalization, a decade later, the regret over not playing a more important role, one that would have prevented the Columbia tragedy, lays like a pall over my memories of those days.
During the Christmas to New Year’s break, when little was going on at work, I spent a day in my office, organizing, cleaning, getting ready for the new year. When I emerged from Building 4, I ran into Kalpana Chawla – we always just called her KC. She always had a megawatt smile, and that day was no exception. We exchanged pleasantries; I asked if she were ready for her (much delayed) flight. She assured me she was and told me how much she was looking forward to it. I wished her good luck, and turned for my car. It was the last time I spoke with her.
You never know what life has in store for you, just around the corner.