Fifteen Years

Two weeks ago, I participated in the NASA Remembrance Day and lessons learned activities which happen every year around February 1.  I believe it is very important to remember Dick Scobee, Gus Grissom, and Rick Husband and their crews; to remind ourselves of their sacrifice and what we need to do to safeguard future space travelers.  But this post is not about those brave crews or the lessons should remember.

What really blew me away was the realization that fifteen years have passed since the loss of Columbia and her crew.  It seems like yesterday.

Isn’t that what all the old folks say; it seems like just yesterday.

That tragedy sparked changes in my professional life that I had neither foreseen nor desired.  Reviewing the events in my life over the past fifteen years brings so much to mind:  being selected to leadership roles in the Space Shuttle Program, working feverishly to fix the problems, change the culture, and get flying again, making sure that the program would operate safely – or rather, more safely – all that in just the first five years.  Changing jobs inside NASA to build partnerships with other organizations, supporting the President’s commission to plan the future of human spaceflight, helping to develop the initial stages of NASA’s commercial crew program – that took the next three years.  Then retirement from the government and the start of a new career providing support to commercial spaceflight on the industry side – where I am today.  Katrina, Ike, Harvey.  And in between it all seeing my son and daughter graduate from college; experiencing the wedding of my son and his beloved; the blessing of grandchildren into our lives; the passing of my mother, the passing of my wife’s parents, and the passing – oh how hard to write this – the passing of my daughter.  The last fifteen years have been packed full of happiness and tears.

Just like the song: “sunrise, sunset; I don’t remember growing older, when did they?

Fifteen years earlier, at the end of February 1988, my class of flight directors was selected.  Becoming a NASA Flight Director had been my top career goal for years.  It proved to be the best job I ever had.  There is no feeling like leading a team of highly trained and highly motivated folks to achieve great things in a difficult environment.  It was tremendously exciting and equally frightening.  There were tremendous possibilities and “always be aware that suddenly and unexpectedly we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences.”   Making tough calls about the weather and priorities and all the little things that go wrong; participating in Hubble and ISS assembly and Chandra and on and on.   I got to work hand in hand with astronauts, senior NASA executives, scientists; meet numerous VIPs that were interested in our work – everybody from movie stars to US senators to members of foreign royalty.  And through all that watching my children grow, coaching them through all kinds of activities, actively participating in local civic affairs, taking long family vacations.  Its hard to see how I could have done so must; I must have been much younger.

Fifteen years earlier, an astounding 45 years ago, I was a college freshman just trying to figure out who I was – even though I knew who I wanted to become.  In the following fifteen years I met and married my beautiful wife, graduated from college both undergrad and grad school.  I got my dream job at NASA:  Mission Control and STS-1 and Challenger, working with Sally Ride, John Young, and working for Gene Kranz.  And we bought our first and second houses, and in between had babies.  Claudette, Alicia, Allison.  How could all of that be packed into just 15 years.

Fifteen years earlier – can it be 60 years ago?  It was 1958 and I was three.  I don’t remember – who remembers when they were three – but according to family legend I was totally captivated by space; sputnik in October 57, Vanguard (kaboom!), Explorer 1 at the end of January 1958.  Then hanging breathlessly on the adventures of Mercury, Gemini, a hundred robot explorers, and the Moon landing.   It seems I was destined to participate in the great adventure from my earliest years.  Growing up in the 60’s was sometimes a surreal experience and it is filled with memories even of people I knew that never came back from southeast Asia and others we lost.  ‘Has anybody here seen my old friend John, can you tell me where he’s gone?’  It was an unbelievable time.

Sunrise sunset, swiftly pass the years.

Fifteen years is simultaneously a long time and the merest instant.  So much to be learned. So much to experience.  So much more to come.

I just pray the next fifteen years will have more happiness and less tears.

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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12 Responses to Fifteen Years

  1. Tim Gagnon says:

    May your wish come true.

  2. Charley S says:

    So true.

  3. rangerdon says:

    Beautifully put. I’ll forward this to some distinguished NASA friends – as we’re all at that time of life….

  4. pgspace says:

    Memories, reflections and wishes for the future. True reminders that our humanity always guides us as we strive to advance our knowledge and presence beyond the planet.

    Well stated and very moving, Wayne.

    Paul Gillett
    (A Canadian fan)

  5. Fredric Mushel says:

    Very sorry to hear about the loss of your daughter. Losing a child is one of the worst things that can happen in life.

  6. Thomas Moody says:

    Profoundly put, Wayne…yes, it is amazing that fifteen years have gone by since Columbia. My son was five and just beginning his first year in city park league basketball. We watched him play his obligatory ten minutes that Saturday morning, or I should say we watched him run energetically up and down the court, too afraid to touch the ball, and when I returned home, I got on the internet and the first thing I saw was “NASA loses Columbia.” I got a little angry, thinking that the media messed up again; my thoughts were that there was the normal comm loss during re-entry and that somehow this got media attention. It wasn’t, of course, until I turned on NASA TV that I received a blow like few I’ve received before. I must have watched coverage for the next eight hours or so, mesmerized and unbelieving that another Shuttle was gone, and especially right over my home in Texas (the sonic boom could be heard directly above me had I been outside and the debris field started only about 75 miles away). Anyway, as you say, it’s difficult to believe that it’s been fifteen years. Keep on blogging, Wayne, great stories!

  7. Dennis says:

    I can’t believe it has been 15 years already either. I’m just a few years older than you, but of the same generation and can relate to your experiences. I retired as a systems engineer and project manager from NASA Ames in 2009, and 5 days later our first grandchild was born. Being a grandparent is wonderful. Our tenth grandchild was born Sunday.

    I am so sorry to hear about the loss of your daughter.

  8. Lewis Van Atta says:

    I’m only four years younger than you, Wayne, and I grew up with my eyeballs glued to the Gemini launches when I was a small kid. By the same token, I remember Challenger and Columbia all too well, and the contrast is interesting: someone at work told me about Challenger from what he heard on his car radio; I ran to my girlfriends house (now my wife of nearly 32 years) and watched it unfold on TV news in successive replys. Columbia, I was monitoring the re-entry on Space Todays web page after I got up that fateful Sunday morning and still remember the first words I saw: “Columbia is now an hour overdue”. I knew at that point something awful had happened.

  9. Dave H. says:


    Condolences on the loss of your daughter. Losing a child is one of the worst things life can do to you.

    I planned to reply on the 14th, then two things happened, one which made anything I could say irrelevant…

    Parkland, Florida.

    The second was humorous in its own way…I was typing my thoughts in when my other laptops’ Windows 7 decided that it needed to reboot to install updates. In a modern version of “the dog ate my homework”, the computer shut itself down without allowing me to save my work. This computer is an XP machine, so there’s no danger of updates here.

    That said, I could go on about the past 15, 30, or 45 years, but there’s really no point. Two photos say it all; the first, of the 15-year-old version of myself leaning against a rocket engine in the Rocket Garden at KSC in early July, 1971, and the second, taken 40 years later to the week if not the day, of the 55-year old version of myself standing beside that same engine (they have “Do Not Touch!” signs nowadays), this time not as a visitor but as a guest to witness a history I never planned on being a part of.

    As the song goes, life is what happens while you’re busy making plans.

    But, after reading and re-reading your post, I find myself going back to “Objects In The Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are”.
    Those events and people who make up the tapestries of our lives may only reside in our memories, but as long as we remember them then they’re never truly gone. In their own way, each has made us the kind of people that we are, for better or for worse.

    And so we roll on, the years and miles going by like mile markers on our life’s highways. The past recedes in our rear-view mirrors, while the future is before us. We try to use the good things, and sometimes the bad, to lay a firm foundation that the future, the next generation, can build upon and carry civilization forward.

    “Where are you going?”
    “With luck, forward.”

    You have grandkids; you’ll know where that comes from.

  10. A fellow club member says:

    When you first posted this, I tried, but couldn’t leave a comment. As I was rereading some of your old posts, I came across this one and I will try again. Unfortunately, we are both members of a club that no one ever wants to join, the club of those who have had to bury a child. In my case, it was my only child. I am sure you have experienced the memories that bring a joyful smile to your face as well as the ones the bring searing pain in your heart and tears to your face. I pray that one day, we will all be reunited with our loved ones and our hearts healed once and for all. Dang it! Here come the tears again.

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