Roy Estess was one of the smartest and best that I have ever met. He spent most of his career testing large rocket engines at the NASA installation now known as the Stennis Space Center. In fact, he became the Center Director for SSC later in his career. Everybody who knew Roy came to appreciate his insight, his high level of integrity, and his managerial skill.
In 2001, Roy was appointed acting Center Director at Johnson Space Center where I really got to know him. On one business trip together, I heard him tell the following story, full of wisdom, which you should appreciate.
Roy said that as Stennis Center Director he got a call from the NASA Administrator about once a month. In between these calls, his pride would suffer. ‘Aren’t I a Center Director? Isn’t Stennis a NASA Center? Don’t we deserve more attention than one call a month?’ He asked. Then with a grin, Roy said, ‘Now, I’m at JSC and every day the NASA Administrator calls two, three, four times.’
“And I’ve decided that once a month was just fine.”
Working as a Flight Director on the overnight shift was at once a hardship and a delight. After all the senior managers made their last phone calls, generally before midnight, and before they all started showing up for their morning pre-briefings about 6:30, the Flight Director was master of all. Or so it seemed. From about midnight to 6 AM you could decide what the shuttle team would do without any oversight or interference. Except of course that Mr. Abbey always came in right about 2 AM. But he generally did not direct, he just wanted to say hello. Every morning. You could set your watch. But Mr. Abbey never stayed very long and never ever gave any direction – at least not to me.
Being the master of your own fate is a great thing, until you need advice or don’t know what to do. A very important fact that I learned early in my career: calling people at 3 AM is not a good way to get advice. I did that exactly once. Thereafter I decided that there were no troubling issues that could not wait until 6:30. And in the meantime I could decide to do anything – anything that would be over by 6:30.
For decades, folks at NASA have wished that they could get the attention of the President, like Webb had with JFK. Occasionally that happened, GHWB proposed a Mars mission in 1989. That did not work out well. Reagan finally approved a Space Station, but Clinton almost cancelled it. So on and so forth. Good and bad but nothing spectacular and not like JFK. Probably never happen again.
Now, NASA has the attention of the President, the Vice President, and a whole bunch of Very Important People.
It will be interesting to see how it turns out.