The Road Not Taken

I always knew what I wanted to do:  anything in the space program.  Getting a job offer to come to work at NASA Mission Control in Houston was beyond my wildest dream.  To tell the truth, I would have paid them to let me come and sweep out the floors.  But it worked out much better than that.

The very best job I ever had was that of Flight Director.  Each flight was different, but we put together the teams, decided how we would approach the challenges, and trained like the devil.  Every shuttle flight was an exercise in pure adrenaline rush.  Whether it was two days or three weeks, nothing else in life mattered while the shuttle was in flight – every waking moment spent reviewing, planning, preparing, and then executing the most difficult and riskiest work I know.  After the flight was over, well, sometimes I needed to sleep for a week.

One short illustration; as the Entry Flight director (26 times!) I had to go over to the press room after the landing and sit with the Program Manager for the press conference.  Generally, there were only a handful of reporters present, but there were many more watching the video and tied in by phone to ask questions.  I was always exhausted; running on fumes as they say by that point.  I learned that the Entry Flight Director got to make a little opening statement, how great the landing was, how challenging the weather was, so forth.  Then the Program Manager made a statement about the flight just over and the challenges upcoming.  Then the media questions started.  I quickly learned that there were never any questions for the Entry Flight Director.  After all, the landing went fine; it was over, what more could I have been asked?  All the questions went to the Program Manager.  And the Program Manager could drone on with long and involved answers as to what might or might not be next.  There were two cameras in the media room, a wide shot that captured both the PM and me, and a narrow shot that was focused on whichever of us was speaking.  The red light indicated which camera was active.  When the narrow shot was on the PM, I could nod off – for just a short while – close my eyes, rest my brain.  But I had to be awake enough to know when the PM was winding up his long answer and the wide shot was going to be selected.  Time to look alive!  I practiced this trick many times.

Getting to be Deputy Program Manager, and later PM, I got to practice the other end of the media role – a lot less fun, I must say.  In fact, I never enjoyed the Shuttle PM job as much as being a Flight Director.  To this day if the Chief of the Flight Director Office were to call me up and ask for my help, I would be there in an instant.  Unfortunately, being a Flight Director is a young person’s job – quick reflexes, quick study of the issues, and indefatigable alertness even in the wee hours of the morning when all is going boringly well because the next moment may not be boring at all.

After five years in the Shuttle Program Office as deputy and chief, Mike Griffin asked me to take a role that would let me learn about ‘the whole agency’ as he put it.  It was really time for me to have a change, so I went on HQ staff – but they allowed me to work and live in Houston.  It was an eye opening year as I learned a lot about Washington, and about the various parts of NASA beyond human space flight.  Sitting with the Administrator in the Heads of Agencies meeting in Paris gave me a glimpse at how hard it is to hold together the fragile international coalition that keeps the ISS going.  Sitting in on Congressional hearings gave me the strong sense that, in spite of the theater involved, the real work at HQ was earning the respect and support of the legislators who ultimate decided what resources the agency would get.

Just as my year of ‘education’ was ending, poof – a new administration came in.  Everything changed, subtly but nevertheless significantly.  I was pleased to help support the Augustine Commission during the summer months; another intensively educational experience.  Following that, Bill Gerstenmaier assigned Frank Bauer and I to develop plans for the proposed Commercial Crew program since that was clearly one of the common themes from Augustine Commission likely to be approved by the new administration.  Meanwhile, Charlie and Lori were nominated and confirmed as the new heads of NASA.

I made it known that I would be happy to have to more substantive role, feeling that my ‘sabbatical’ was over.  But, despite repeated inquiries at NASA HQ, JSC, KSC, and MSFC, there appeared to be nothing for me other than to continue in my support role.  As the shuttle program wound down, most of the other senior leaders in that program found themselves in the same situation; no place to put that talent to good use inside the agency.  With the cancellation of the Constellation program, NASA was awash in senior leaders without jobs.

Being well past the age and years of service to take my retirement, I turned in my paperwork and thought about what would be next.  Bill Gerstenmaier offered to bring me to Washington to be of closer assistance to him, more about that later, but by the time of that offer I had made my decision.

I found a small, family owned specialty engineering firm run by ex-NASA folks which was a good fit for me.  It was a place where I could bring my experience and lessons learned to the aid of the new companies building the new vehicles on a commercial basis.  This continues to be very exciting work and I like to think that I have provided critical help to several organizations.  It has been a new component to my education to closely observe how private industry makes decisions.  Certainly different from the government.  And it has been extremely interesting to deal with some of my old colleagues and organizations from the vantage point of the outside.  Makes it much more clear how the government could be more effective.  Finally, I have been asked to volunteer my time (that’s right – unpaid volunteer) to advise both NASA and the FAA Office of Commercial Space.  Additionally we are working with Johns Hopkins University Energetics Department to document lessons learned from reusable space vehicles.  Hopefully this will help future programs be more successful, especially in the financial sense.

Still, my heart is with NASA, and I wake up about once a week wishing that I were back in the agency, back in the trenches fighting the good fight to advance human space flight.  Maybe back in mission control making sure that we get the most research possible accomplished.  Maybe back in Washington haggling with the OMB about funding levels.  I don’t know, back there somewhere substantive.

I wonder about that last minute job that Bill G offered me, to come to DC and help him directly.  Would I have made a difference?  Would plans and goals have evolved differently?  Could I have made a difference in the budget wars?   Or would an old Flight Director just have mucked things up? But one thing is for certain, that was the road not taken.  And you can’t change the past.

I believe I am making a contribution in a different way right now.  And, oh-my-goodness, I don’t miss the sheer bureaucratic nonsense that my still-working colleagues remind me about on a regular basis.  Changing an Agency is very hard.  I think that there may be a number of folks in the new administration who will try to change various agencies in their goals and internal culture.  I wonder how likely that is to succeed.

When I was having a particularly hard time with some of the bureaucrats at NASA HQ, I encountered a group of retired senior JSC leaders one day and asked them how they dealt with HQ in their day.  They just laughed at me.  And then one of them said: “Just remember, they won’t be there very long.”

You can take that several ways.  And for the record; I really don’t want to work in Washington.

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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11 Responses to The Road Not Taken

  1. Victor Moraes says:

    Sometimes mistaken life decisions are fatal. When I was a kid, my dream was to work at NASA. At age seven my fascination was the exploration of space, and all engineering and science involved. I wrote an exciting letter to Nasa, with the help of some influential adults from my small Latin American city. And as if by magic, a man, an American identifying himself as a NASA employee, came to my house to meet me. Better than Santa Claus. And he made an absurd proposal to take me to the United States. I did not accept, I did not understand the best way to be an astronaut and joining the American army. I was afraid. I was afraid of dying in the war. Relying on a strange man (as much as he was kind, it was strange) and I was afraid to leave my parents, who, from that time on, needed a 7-year-old boy to look after them, who were “crazy” adults. Today I creep up in pain, with a lot of pain. Today I could be an astronaut military. And, well, I graduated in law, and I practiced for a few years. But now, at the height of my 39 years of age I regret it with pain. I try to correct, take a path that I should have taken at 7, but it’s not easy at all. It remains for me to be a tearful enthusiast of the exploration of space. This is my sad story. Truly untapped paths can be paths to success, or at least to joy. Now, just wait and see what God has in store for me …

  2. Jim Banke says:

    Well, shoot, Wayne. Had I known you felt so lonely as the Entry Flight Director during those press conferences, I’m sure we at KSC could have come up with some obscure technical question for you!

  3. DerekL says:

    I spent ten years in the Submarine Service… Months away from home, on alert 24/7 – even when asleep. (If the alarm sounded, you needed to *move* NOW. The margin between a minor incident and disaster could be narrow.) Standing watch six-on twelve-off. Getting racked out because a piece of my gear went down. Or because Higher Command had retasked us and down in Missile Fire Control we had to re-target the birds. Or because of another drill of one sort or another. Or… for any one of a myriad reasons.

    But also months of close focus on a worthwhile task. And working with some of the finest and brightest individuals I’ve ever known. (And some of the biggest assholes… But the Service isn’t picky. I’ll take an asshole who knows his stuff and who I can trust to do his job and pull his weight any day.) The knowledge that my country trusted *me* with half a billion dollars worth of equipment. The reward of seeing Papa (IIRC) hoisted on the tender as we stood up the Cumberland Sound – “You have permission to come alongside and moor”. We’d done it again and come home with our birds still in their tubes, everyone safe, and the world still intact. (At times in the 80’s, this did not always seem like a certainty.)

    I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

    On the cold war subvets groups, there’s a lot of diggity-dogs ready to drop it and go back tomorrow. But submarining is a young man’s game. I mostly miss being twenty.

  4. I would love to work at NASA. I’ve followed NASA from the very beginning: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Space Shuttle, and ISS. I’ve followed the press conferences for the Space Shuttle missions and there have been consistent journalists that I could recognize by voice, Todd Halverson of Florida Today, Mark Caruea of the Houston Chronicle.

    I just wish that the Entry Flight Director for STS-135 had told the crew of Atlantis to deorbit on the second opportunity so I could’ve seen her in daylight. I got about three frames of Atlantis on the runway and only one was acceptable.

    It’s a shame that each new president wants to take NASA in a different direction. There’s a lot of money, a lot of planning and design in building a new system.

    I have seen two final flights, Apollo and the Space Shuttle. I want to see a first flight. Hopefully, the incoming administration will stay the course. This past November, I got to meet members of the two final flights: Chris Ferguson and Vane Brand.

    I hope that you are making a difference in your position.

  5. Beth says:

    I read your post with great interest. The road not taken tantalizes all of us at some point; hopefully you do not regret the roads you took.

    I find it frustrating that each new administration is hell bent on dismantling everything from the previous administration. NASA suffers from this more than most, I think. We will lurch along in spaceflight, and advance, but not efficiently. I always thought we would surely return to the Moon in my lifetime…maybe even land humans on Mars. Now, at 59, I’m not so sure.

  6. Dave H. says:

    You may still end up back at NASA. Life is funny like that. Even though he’s currently a professor at Syracuse, Sean O’Keefe has been quoted in the news regarding NASA recently. You may not *want* to return, but you may find yourself in a “You know how to fix it. This is your chance!” sort of situation. If it does happen, I know that you’ll do the right thing.

    It’s who you are.

    At age 61, with retirement looming, I accept that if I’d followed my original career path of broadcast radio my life wouldn’t be anywhere as good as it’s been. Town to town, up and down the dial, WOLD (it’s a Harry Chapin song), no, the world of industrial instrumentation and process controls is where I was supposed to be. It kept the wolf away from the door, paid cash for my son to be educated at Penn State and pursue his dreams.

    On October 14, 1972, the kid who sat across the lunch table from me at school was hit by a car and killed. Next to his yearbook photo were these words…

    “If my life had turned out as I intended, I wouldn’t have the peace I know.”

  7. cyyoung99 says:

    Wayne, you are always needed at NASA……your years in the trenches will always be invaluable.

  8. Dennis says:

    Wayne,
    Your story is not too far from my career path. I decided to become an aeronautical engineer in the fifth grade and do aerodynamics research at NASA Ames. I have always loved airplanes and space. I sometimes wonder what my career would have been if I had done something else, and astronomer or astrophysicist would have been the second most likely. I ended up working as an aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy for 26 1/2 years, then worked the last 8 1/2 years of my career as a systems engineer at Ames. Among other things, I worked on vehicle/system health management and the Constellation Program. I loved working for both organizations, two of the finest on the planet. You and I had a few conversations during the time I was working on vehicle health management at Ames when I was trying to develop how mission control would change with a “fully developed” health management system. My full time job now is being a grandfather to our 8 grandchildren. I also teach aircraft design and gas turbine engines part time at a local university, something I thoroughly enjoy.

  9. heroineworshipper says:

    In politics, you’re a lot more at the mercy of the people than the private sector. The current generation is a lot less literate about the space program than 20 years ago. They don’t even know US hasn’t had a human spaceship in 6 years.

    • Victor Moraes says:

      It is for this reason that new technologies are urgently needed to make it possible to go to the Moon and Mars in a short time, in a simple, cheap and efficient way. We need to overcome this archaic external combustion technology (wood stove) for something more powerful. Perhaps NASA already knows how, but there is a whole political, financial, ego-personal entanglement that has prevented an evolution. The fact is that if a new technology that replaces the rockets arises, many companies will have financial difficulties, governments around the world will be having disadvantages, and many professionals in the field will become over time (some immediately) of obsolete knowledge, Or outdated. There is anti-developmental pressure. May Trump succeed in modifying certain aspects of American space exploration. Do you agree, Wayne?

    • waynehale says:

      I thought the ISS is, at least in important aspects, an American spacecraft

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