Careful What You Ask For

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.

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 Careful What You Ask For

  1. Fredric Mushel says:

    Unfortunately today almost no politicians really cares about the NASA human spaceflight program, at least government funded. SpaceX will probably send humans to the ISS, the Moon and perhaps even Mars long before NASA ever will, if at all due to lack of funding by our politicians. And perhaps Blue Origin will be next after SpaceX.

    Since the SLS is based on so many Space Shuttle components although somewhat different, why is it taking NASA so long to get it flying? After all we went from Apollo capsules/Saturn rockets to the Space Shuttle, an entirely different, very much more complex and huge spacecraft with wings in six years. NASA should have had the SLS flying by now. Shuttle was approved by President Nixon in April 1972. Construction of Enterprise and Columbia began construction in June 1974 and Columbia was scheduled to fly in 1978 (delayed by difficulties with the SSME’s and the tiles).

    NASA needs a much bigger budget.

    • cthulhu says:

      “NASA needs a much bigger budget”
      Really? Why, so that they can build more Senate Launch Systems?

      I think that NASA’s budget is fine; it’s the priorities (largely mandated by Congress) that are screwed up. I’ll give one example: in the manned space flight arena NASA should be focusing on technology to enable exploration (propellant depots come to mind), not building a wasteful rocket to nowhere. IMHO.

  2. Spacebrat1 says:

    like the Chinese say, ‘May you live in Interesting Times’ ? (initial caps mine). Since I swore off politics online I will stick with you Wayne, and wait to see how Interesting our program gets. Must admit I am a Moon-Firster tho… thanks as always for your anecdotal insights.

  3. Andrew_W says:

    Yep, NASA’s principle function has almost nothing to do with space, it’s principle function is political – to service the desires of the politicians that control it.

  4. Ray Gedaly says:

    Nothing I say hasn’t already been said better by others but …

    SLS is unsustainable mostly due to cost. Major programs require a decade or more to implement but NASA’s directive changes every 4 or 8 years when the administration changes. The President and both Houses of Congress need to be on the same page. Members of Congress have turned NASA into a jobs program for their districts. When framed in terms of taxes and national debt, too few citizens see human space exploration and exploitation as a priority.

    I see none of this changing until another nation’s dominance in space makes us fearful of our security.

  5. Gary Church says:

    Same old Musk mob propaganda comments.

    • waynehale says:

      I am so confused by this comment.

      • Gary Church says:

        They patrol the internet looking to promote the flagship company and silence any critics. The SLS, which competes with that company for tax dollars, is of course damned. The subtext of their campaign revolves around also damning the space agency and whatever state-hate they can babble about. That is my honest view on NewSpace.

  6. Walter D Hougas Jr says:

    There are plenty of people other than Musk fans asking why NASA hasn’t been able to develop a manned launch vehicle with 20 years and billions of dollars to work with. It’s almost like the contractors keep getting paid despite not producing.

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