Miracle Workers

Scotty : Oh, you didn’t tell the captain how long it would really take, ya?  Oh, laddie. You’ve got a lot to learn if you want people to think of you as a miracle worker.

In July of 2005 we returned the shuttle to flight on STS-114.  I wrote about it earlier:  https://waynehale.wordpress.com/2012/04/18/how-we-nearly-lost-discovery/   We had made a terrible mistake that had to be rectified before the shuttle could be flown again.

At the end of August 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans and nearly submerged the factory at Michoud – the only place in the world was that we could make or modify the External Tanks.  Even though the factory was saved, the nearly 2000 people that did the work to make those precision tanks lost their homes, their cars, and anything else that could not be evacuated in time.  It was weeks before we could even get in contact with all the evacuated workers and it would be months before their soggy houses could be made livable again.

Bill Parsons was the Program Manager and I was his deputy.  But Bill had close ties to the region and especially the hard-hit Stennis Space Center just a few miles again.  NASA tapped Bill to lead the recovery efforts for SSC and the other affected NASA facilities.  They promoted me to take his place in the program.

It was not long into September when headquarters started asking how soon we could get the Michoud factory going, fix the problems with the tank insulation in a definitive way, and when could they expect us to fly the shuttle again.

There were so many unknowns; first we had not yet begun to diagnose the foam problem or formulate a solution.   While the facility was largely undamaged, managing the human tragedy for the workforce was a huge question.  Infrastructure was in shambles; roads and bridges, electrical power and drinking water.  No grocery stores – or any other kind of store – was open anywhere nearby.  Having a dry, functional factory was worthless without people to operate it.

During the initial return to flight period when we sought to retrain the management to avoid poor communications and decisions, we hired Dr. Tufte to educate us on how better to communicate.  He gave (still does) a stirring indictment of the dangers of powerpoint presentations and highly recommended that writing white papers – requiring the use of complete sentences and organized paragraphs rather than bullet points – was superior.

So, wanting to demonstrate my new management tools, I gathered all the available information and wrote a white paper on the problems, potential solutions, and most critically about the schedule regarding flying again.  By shear dumb luck and overestimation of the problems my conclusion was that the shuttle would likely not fly before September 2006 – basically a year away.  Rather than having the typical NASA briefing, I mailed all the principal leaders – like the Administrator – my white paper.  Initially the response was gratifying; no significant questions, all issues and problems understood.  And while the gap in flights was disappointing, it was understandable, and we should proceed.

One of the most important qualities about NASA that you need to realize is that NASA cannot keep a secret.  Before we had any press releases or media briefings, like magic it was being reported that the shuttle would not fly before September of the following year.  Mike Griffin kept asking about the basis for the media reports.  The answer:  Wayne Hale’s white paper.  Somebody had passed it along.

Oh well.  The cat was out of the bag and even though we didn’t get to frame it as we would have liked, it was an accurate report.

Meanwhile, the real miracle occurred.  The dedicated workers down in New Orleans came back.  They came back to soggy houses that had to be gutted and rebuilt.  They came back to long commutes to the grocery store and any other kind of store.  They came back to the mess and in spite of it all, they came back to work.  Sooner and faster than anyone imagined that they would.  Lead by Wanda Sigur, the Lockheed-Martin workforce came back to work, and the factory came back on line months earlier than I had estimated.  In the meantime, John Muratore and his band of aerodynamics geniuses did the hard work to prove the fixes necessary to the ET would be safe.

Those are the real miracle workers, not us upper management dummies.

In the end, Discovery flew again on July 4; about two months faster than I had predicted.  It was hailed as a great success, both because we finally fixed the foam problem and because we flew sooner than we had predicted.

I learned a lot in those days.  Not the least of which was how to build a practical schedule to solve complex technical problems.

These days the space program is facing huge technical and schedule challenges.  There are all kinds of questions about deadlines and plans.  It seems to me that many of the schedules and launch dates that are published are invariably optimistic and don’t allow enough time to solve the inevitable problems that arise.

Sorta makes you want to give those folks the ‘Scotty’ advice.  Rather than building the quickest, shortest, most optimistic schedule, put some extra time on it.  Then, if you are good, or lucky – or perhaps a miracle occurs – everyone will be pleased.  The other way is not so pleasant.

When the Captain absolutely positively had to have warp drive back on line before death and destruction, Scotty always had a plan which got the job done – and sooner than required.   Somewhere there is a model to follow:  even with a demanding deadline, build a plan that can be done in less time than the deadline.

Just think about it.


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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8 Responses to Miracle Workers

  1. Beth says:

    What a great post, Wayne. Especially the final image.

  2. Fate's Lieutenant says:

    Too true – an honest appraisal is worth more than unrealistic chimeras. Another quote to keep in mind (at least in my mind) is:
    “Enjoy these times, Geordi. You’re the chief engineer of a starship… it’s a time of your life that’ll never come again… and once it’s gone… it’s gone.”

  3. DARREL says:

    Wow, Wayne the paragraph about training the management team brings back some memories! Both good and bad ones! I lost a lot of sleep during that time frame. Hopefully they haven’t forgotten what we were trying to teach them back then…

  4. Ray G. says:

    I learned from experience to count up the minimum possible number of days, then pad the schedule by 30%-50% to account for the inevitable problems and delays. For years, this served me so well that I made a great reputation for myself, and eventually received a fantastic job offer from another company.

    However, my new manager disagreed with this approach to project scheduling. I don’t remember his exact words, but it was basically that “Padding the schedule is in essence stealing from the company.” Of course, he didn’t take any of the blame for a missed deadline or project disaster. No surprise how the next few years panned out. Finally, one day my boss called me into his office and told me that he had been obviously misled about my abilities. and that he was sorry he hired me. So now I’m much happier and far less stressed in early retirement.

  5. Spacebrat1 says:

    Wayne, you show exceedingly well why some Managers are not dummies: first, you had Faith that you could do what was asked of you, and second, you knew how to listen and take smart advice that let you accomplish your job in an intelligent fashion. Good on you. Now, can you share that with all the US launch efforts under way?

  6. rangerdon says:

    A fine post. It reveals to me how important it is, and how often NASA uses, what could be called the STEAM approach – bringing in the artist’s vision. In this case Tufte and Star Trek. This will be of use in a writing project of mine.

    Many thanks.
    D M Scott, NASA-AESP ret.

  7. Lewis Van Atta says:

    Also makes me think of a line in one of the Star Trek novels: from a Vulcan ship captain to Capt. Kirk: “Have you noticed how we may command our ships, but our chief engineers own them?”

  8. Jim Banke says:

    This epic story about the Gulf Coast space folks in the aftermath of Katrina is still one of the great untold tales of the history of the space program. I felt the same way about the Columbia recovery efforts — and now that book has been written. Some day I hope this saga is documented. Using the hurricane as the focus, it would provide a chance to fully explain the importance of both Michoud and Stennis to the history of the program, from Apollo through Shuttle and beyond. That piece of the story is much neglected.

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