Ten Years After Columbia: Balancing Work and Life

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.

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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23 Responses to Ten Years After Columbia: Balancing Work and Life

  1. Beth Webber says:

    A more than interesting post, Wayne. The question that comes to mind (mine, at least) is that, if you had reduced the number of personal activities, would that have saved Columbia? Was it all on your shoulders?

    • waynehale says:

      Very few things depend on just one person; yet one person can make a difference. What do you want to do Beth? How do you balance life and work? What is getting lost because not enough attention is being paid to it?

      • Dave H. says:

        We all make choices, and those choices have consequences.

        I could have been like everyone else around here when the steel mills began shutting down but I had a then-infant son to feed. I took what I learned about instrumentation and controls and made a career out of it.
        18 years later, I was commissioning gas turbine power plants while my oldest son was getting involved with bad people and drugs.

        I walked away from that life, not wanting my youngest son to follow his brother.

        The consequences from that? My family has walked beneath Endeavour, been invited to Sean O’Keefe’s farewell gathering, had dinner with a Nobel laureate, and was invited to attend the STS-135 launch.

        My youngest son is a third-year Architectural Engineering student at Penn State. He’s already being courted by high-ranked engineering firms.
        My oldest has cleaned himself up and plans to join the Painter’s Union.

        You have to do what you have to do to keep the wolf away from the door, but the wolf isn’t the only threat out there.

      • waynehale says:

        You have a fine family to be proud of!

      • Dave H. says:

        Thanks, Wayne.

        As fate had it, I was commissioning three turbines in Old Ocean, TX during August of 1998. I had weekends off, but instead of driving up to JSC I chose to rest at Surfside Beach. Pity, because you folks had a mission up in space at the time.

        I was only there for three weeks, and to this day regret not having stopped by.

      • Dave H. says:

        My error…it was August 1997 and STS-85.

  2. Wayne,

    I appreciate your behind the scenes look at NASA. Challenger was bad. I almost missed the launch because Shuttle launches had become so “ho-hum” attitude with the news media. In the aftermath of Challenger, my wife and I got the opportunity to meet a NASA Astronaut, Lt. Col. Charles Bolden. Paula and I were celebrating a wedding anniversay at Red Lobster in West Columbia and Charlie was enjoying visiting his family in Columbia, SC. I saw a family walk in and I told Paula, “I recognize that guy! And there’s his Mom, Ethel!” We waited until they were about to check out to introduce ourselves.
    Charlie was taking a break from the Challenger investigation and he was very gracious with us. I asked for an autograph and I will keep his autograph.

    Columbia. I hooked my wife’s laptop up to stream NASA TV over the internet to our TV for her return home. I’ve watched numerous landings and can expect the calls. When MILA didn’t get responses, I knew something was wrong. I went to the other room and switched to CNN to see the unbelivable happen.

    I understand the reasons for retiring the Space Shuttle program. For 30 years, I wanted to see a Space Shuttle launch. For the final Space Shuttle launch, I was able to check that item off my “bucket list”. Then I got the unprecedented invitation from NASA to attend NASA’s first and only Tweetup for a Space Shuttle landing.

    I don’t know what my response will be when I see Discovery at Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum next month.

  3. Roger says:

    I’m a complete amateur at all this, but I would have two expectations. One is that there are various checklists, and progress is not made until they are all completed – ie matters cannot be avoided. The second is cross-checks, with nothing depending on any one individual since anyone can have a bad day and miss something. Isn’t it possible for everything to have been done right, and bad things to still happen?

    While it is correct that infinite people, time and money would have caught things, that is just a theoretical exercise – no endeavour has that nor operates that way.

  4. Wayne, all y’all could have done everything in the world right and still an accident would have happened.   STS was extremely complex, extremely capable. and inherently somewhat unsafe (One of the first STS riders told me in a TV interview that the ride uphill scared the hell out of him, each time.) As we all are fond of saying, the risk goes with the territory, and I suspect if you could interview our departed heroes, they would say they would go again in a heartbeat. They are the best of us, the tip of the spear, and they know those risks. Did I not see somewhere in the research afterward that if the RCC leading edge was 1/1000th of an inch thicker, it would not have collapsed? What I call the ‘Universe’ (randomness?) creates such nexus, and they are almost fated. The team was the best ever, when you think what they did (build a 1 million pound ISS!). It is human nature for us to want to find a cause for failure, especially when we lose those we feel to be ‘family’. While it is easy to get complacent in on-going ops, as one who has watched both tragedies with an eye to cause, it seemed to me that both took chains of events, the absence of any one of which, would have prevented the loss. I think it would eventually have happened somewhere else for some other reason. That 1/250 chance was always there (if that is accurate.) I know the team treated our astronauts like they were their immediate family, and protected them as best they knew how, perhaps especially you, as you were tasked to understand the big picture, and you helped make the STS safer than our airlines, and much, much safer than our highways. Y’all did the most amazing thing man has ever done. That never comes cheap in terms of human life. And you deserve our thanks and respect. You just did what any American would in your set of circumstances – do it as right as you could.

    • waynehale says:

      Your kind words, while I am sure that they are heartfelt, are misplaced.

      I absolutely reject the notion that accidents are unavoidable. Being in a very high risk environment requires special attention to detail. In my review of many accidents, they were all preventable by taking the basic step of having people pay attention to the details. The universe may deal us unexpected adversity but that was not the case with either the Challenger or Columbia accidents; they were human error plain and simple. We are not the creatures of fate, we make our own fate. Complacency is not an excuse, it is stupidity. We failed to do the best we could have done for Columbia. The entire point of this series in my blog is to point out where we failed so that others might learn from our example.

      Your discussion on RCC thickness is in error, a slightly thicker RCC would not have withstood the impact of foam during Columbia’s launch in January 2003. Similarly, your statistics on safety are off by orders of magnitude: the demonstrated safety of scheduled commercial airline service is much higher than the demonstrated safety of the Space shuttle. And if my chances were 1 in 65 of being killed on a car trip (1 in 65 being the demonstrated loss rate for space shuttle flights), I would get a horse.

  5. so much for my anecdotal info, and thanks for the corrections.

  6. Phil A says:

    “how much time does any individual need to devote to making the activity successful and safe?”

    As much as you think you need to, and then a little bit more, just to be sure. I don’t know of a formula for this, I think it is something that, if it feels right, if you have done your best, then… you have done your best. If you cannot accomplish this and maintain a decent family-oriented, spiritual life, then you get help.

    A pall over memories seems entirely normal, given the circumstances, and I am sorry for that. If you feel genuine guilt, that is a different story. If the pall is impacting your life, then you need help.

    It’s hard to say much more without knowing more about this:

    “The point is that we started to miss critical safety issues in 2001 and 2002.”

    I am sorry for your grief.


    • waynehale says:

      Grief ten years on is not disabling, at least not for me in this case.

      Unfortunately, just working until it “feels right” doesn’t cut it when there is a true pass/fail test in real life.

  7. R Typer says:

    >…how much time does any individual need to devote to making the activity successful and safe?

    40 hours per week. That task requires more eyes, not more hours.

  8. Burke says:

    Wayne, another great post, I look forward to more. You’re sharing this at a point in my career where raising concerns and calling out deficiencies is critical to ongoing success of a program, but no one wants to hear it. You’ve helped strengthen my conviction that raising these issues, despite the consequences, is not only part of my job but that I have an internal responsibility to do so. Genuine concerns, no matter how small or inconsequential they may seem need to be addressed, and must be and considered valid until proven otherwise. To do anything less runs the risk of missing those small issues that bloom into the unthinkable.

    Thank you Wayne, Godbless.

  9. Dave H. says:

    “Unfortunately, just working until it “feels right” doesn’t cut it when there is a true pass/fail test in real life.”

    I’ve been rolling this over and over in my head, and at 5:51AM here are a few things to consider…

    You are fond of saying that real life isn’t like the movies, yet so many movies are based upon things that happen in real life. Two of those would be “Titanic” and “The Mothman Prophecies”.
    Both are movies about real-life disasters. “Mothman” is centered around the 1967 collapse of the Silver Bridge over the Ohio River.

    In your current endeavor, you are no doubt familiar with the concept that the construction of a disaster is akin to that of an onion; peel enough of its layers away and disaster ensues.

    I mention these two films because the events leading up to them were vastly different. Titanic was fine until conditions precluded the lookouts from seeing the iceberg. That was the final layer of that onion.

    “Mothman” was vastly different. Locals began reporting paranormal phenomena several months before the bridge collapse but failed to comprehend, let alone understand, what clues the Mothman was trying to communicate to them.
    Conventional thinking makes it easier to accept insanity.

    You speak of “pass/fail moments”. Did Titanic have one? I’ve researched the disaster for years and haven’t been able to find a specific “you’re going to hit an iceberg and sink” moment.
    On the other hand, “Mothman” was all about pass/fail moments. But even if one of the locals had understood the message, what could that person have done that would, not “might”, have prevented the tragedy?

    This is where it gets complicated and brings with it its very own set of pass/fail moments.

    The root cause of the Silver Bridge collapse was found to be a corrosion-induced stress crack in one bridge link. Add in severe overloading (the bridge was designed in the Model T era) and a few other factors and the stage was set.

    If I’m not mistaken, the Mothman Festival should be a few weeks from now in Point Pleasant, West Virginia.
    They filmed the movie in nearby Kittaning, PA because its bridge is identical to the Silver Bridge.

    Thanks for making us think.

  10. powaymojo says:

    A nagging question: Has anyone considered/commented on the possibility that the paint used for STS 1 & 2 main tank might have prevented the loss of foam? I realize it was dropped to save 600 LBs but, I have to think that paint might have sealed the foam. I was at Edwards for 3 early landings and cried like a baby, watching NASA-TV coverage of Columbia, when they reported no radar contact from Merritt Island radar. I had watched enough landings to know that that was a very bad sign.

  11. eub says:

    Hey Wayne, I don’t know if you’re interested in moderating comments onto these older posts, but — I want to say it was not your fault for having a life, not your fault for your job not consuming 168-hour weeks.

    I work in Big Software, in a simpler and lower-stakes setting, but our Systems Reliability organization has a saying: “no heroes”. An organization that call for heroes is systematically failing at one stage or another. If the job can’t be done without overstretching people, is there a process failure? because the job needs to be improved. Or if it fundamentally can’t be, is there a staffing failure? because it needs to be split among more people. (Or if it fundamentally can’t be, is there a hiring failure? because you need to be hiring people without lives exclusively. This doesn’t come into play in my organization; it can in “tip of the spear” exploratory roles but I don’t believe that’s how you were hired.)

    But you know. I think you know all that; I think you know very well the organization failed. And yet. By being a hero, above and beyond what is wise, could you and should you have saved friends and colleagues lives? Because responsibility always sums to something more than 100%.

    All I can say is I don’t think anyone could ask that of you. I don’t believe the dead astronauts would point fingers at you. Your own judgment I can say nothing about. Best wishes.

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