Monuments and Birthdays

Back Camera

Just by happenstance I share a birthday, separated by century and a half – with the great American Naval hero David Farragut. On visit to Washington a while back, I snapped this picture of the statue of America’s first Admiral in the park bearing his name.

Really unfortunate about the pigeons, isn’t it?

Admiral Farragut took New Orleans from the Confederacy, led his fleet through the mines and torpedoes of Mobile bay, helped Grant take Vicksburg, and transformed the Union Navy in his spare time. No wonder there is a statue and a park honoring him. A century and a half later, few people can remember why we honor him.

Recently, I have been working with the first program manager of the Space Shuttle, Bob Thompson. Mr. Thompson lead the development of the space transportation system from the end of the Phase A studies in 1972 through the first flight in 1981. An incredibly important time in the history of space travel and he was at the center of the whirlwind ensuring that the thing actually worked. Mr. Thompson is concerned that certain aspects of the early history of the space shuttle have not been correctly recorded by the professional historians who have written the books about those times. This is not surprising; professional historians rely on sources, professional historians were not present at the events. There are some significant elements about which there is disagreement. I tend to lean with Mr. Thompson’s account; after all, he was there.

Unfortunately, talking with historians and other folks who were also present, there is a tendency to discount Mr. Thompson’s recollections. “After all” they like to say “he was just the program manager at a field center and he did not have a good understanding of what was happening [in Washington, in the Administrator’s office, at the White House]. The program manager just isn’t that important.”
Ouch. And I thought being Program Manager was pretty important . . . and once upon a time, I held that job. That loud hissing noise was my ego deflating. ‘Just not that important’.

My last birthday wasn’t one of the big ones ending in a zero, but the calendar is pointing that way. Probably a function of my age, I frequently get funeral notices for people that I know. To quote Yogi Berra: “If you don’t go to their funeral, they won’t go to yours.” Think about it.

Hearing eulogies which categorize the importance of someone’s life makes you think about what is important in your own life. What great victories were accomplished, what projects were completed, what you did that improved the lives of those around you. These thoughts tend to a realization of humility and an impetus to do more with the time ahead.

Recently I have been leading a frenetic schedule both professionally and personally. It has simply got to slow down. All of this scurrying around certainly doesn’t seem to have been very productive in terms of making a difference where it matters. Perhaps I’ve been planting seeds which will grow to fruition at a later date, but right now the results of all my busy-ness seem pretty slim.

So I’m making a new start this fall – promising to slow down and spend my time where it is most important; eliminating the busy work as much as I can. I promise to put new emphasis on blogging to share my perspectives and some of my personal history lessons. And I also promise to spend much more family time – in the final analysis, that is where the most important work lies.

That’s much better than a statue with a pigeon on your head.

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 Monuments and Birthdays

  1. Beth says:

    Wayne, having the opportunity to read more of your posts will be welcome indeed. As for making a difference, I think the closer you are to the actual work of the program, the bigger the difference you do make. The daily involvment of the program manager is clearly important, regardless of what the historians say.

    And you never know what seeds you sow…a chance remark to a child you’ve never seen may steer him or her in a direction they never considered.


  2. Fredric Mushel says:

    I had videotaped the live network coverage of the first 14 space shuttle launches (before they became too “routine” for the networks to cover. I did not get cable TV in my area of Queens NY until 6 months after the Challenger disaster.

    I recall some interviews of Bob Thompson, specifically on the SSME’s.

    I am now purchasing NASA footage of all Shuttle missions from a company called Spacecraft Films. This company also sells video on Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. Although I purchased a few of these, mainly Apollo 11 and Apollo 16 (John Young’s Moon mission), I am much more fascinated with the space shuttle. For 40 plus year old technology, it still beats the pants off any previous of future capsule like spacecraft, as far as complexity id concerned.

  3. Fredric Mushel says:

    Forgive me typos.

  4. Philip Metschan says:

    I thoroughly enjoy your blog Mr. Hale, and it is certainly welcome news that we might see more posts this fall. I do have one question I would like to get your thoughts on however. In the above post you ask “…Hearing eulogies which categorize the importance of someone’s life makes you think about what is important in your own life. What great victories were accomplished, what projects were completed…”. In regards to professional endeavors, what do you do when the “great victory” which you feel is most important is thought by others to have been a great boondoggle, and furthermore spend the lion share of their energies trying to defeat it.

    Case in point, I would whole heartedly agree with you that the STS was a benchmark in our endeavors in space. However there is another side which views STS as an expensive mistake. Can you offer any sagely advice on how to press on, say if you were on SLS right now staring down those same nay sayers?

    • waynehale says:

      Not a short answer question. I’ve addressed some aspects in previous blog posts but will make an effort to specifically answer your question in the near future.

      I’m sure historians will argue about the value of the shuttle for a long time

  5. Wayne – I know exactly how you feel. In June I suffered a massive heart attack and almost died. Thanks to an excellent medical team at the ER, I got to stick around. My persepective on what is important has changed and I applaud your new focus. I hope to read your blog for years to come.

  6. Chris Hudson says:

    Wayne, it is a little known fact that the old three cornered hat was designed to divert the trajectories of pigeon poop.

  7. Simmy says:

    Can’t wait to read more of your memories of the Shuttle program!

  8. John Bare says:

    Wayne you have the right idea, spend that quality time and I for one will appreciate the blogging with all your historical knowledge that you can get down in black and white. Slow down and enjoy the tranquility of a little leisure time.

  9. Terry says:

    Edited version

    As a former sports teacher the following may be relative:

    (a) No better compliment than for students to put their heads out of the class window as you walk by and plead for you to take them for soccer again or as adult strangers approach you in the street and say “Sir ! blah blah blah”.

    We never realise the impact and influence, good or bad, we have on every students life. The same in your field where everyone was proud and amazed at what you collectively achieved and remembered where they were the day when man walked on the moon. What you achieved inspired many to lift their game and achieve something worthy in their lives.

    (b) If Man stayed in those icy caves of yesteryear and not challenge our horizons we all would have starved or died of disease long ago. By taking steps into the unknown we took calculated risks and we lose folk along the way. But look at our easy life style today because of Man’s spirit and ingenuity. That easy and safe life style has made the nation complacent and soft and as such worry about emotive distractions and dampen the support for continuing scientific advancement. By definition of cranial software purpose we were given intellect to use to sustain lives for current and future generations. 

    (c) At retirement I had time out and even with engines on idle still continued to think things through from past sport training regimes. Have “invented” a successful middle distance training program that delivers results whilst minimising injury and fatigue. I would not have thought of when back in hullabaloo days at school. Intellect is 24/7 and feel some vacuum time allows latent atoms to spark and conjure up innovative ways to do things better.

    Trial and error learning curve is part of meeting new challenges that we will always face and must acknowledge unintended losses incurred en route to learning how to achieve our goals. Otherwise we humans will end up with the same destiny as cave man who chose to ignore the discovery of new horizons.

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