I’ve been passionate about space exploration from my earliest memories. According to my mother, Sputnik was event that captured my imagination when I was 3. Well before Apollo I had decided the only career for me was in the space program. When I got my job offer from NASA just before college graduation, I was, well, over the moon. Starting to work I was surrounded by a pantheon of heroes: Chris Kraft, Gene Kranz, Max Faget, Glynn Lunney, and so many more. And the astronauts: John Young, Al Bean, Owen Garriott, Bob Crippen, Dick Truly. I showed up a week before the Thirty-Five New Guys, you know: Hoot, Sally, Judy, Dan, Dick, Guy, El, Pinky, and the rest. My first boss was Steve Bales who saved Apollo 11; every office was populated with Apollo veterans. I felt sure that we would do this ‘shuttle’ thing for a couple of years, build the space station quickly, and head out to the Moon, Mars, and the rest of the solar system very shortly thereafter.
Real life did not turn out the way I had imagined it. We had some great achievements in low earth orbit: Hubble and Galileo, Compton and Chandra, SpaceLabs and SpaceHabs, culminating in building the ISS. Somehow it turned into a full career spent exploiting near earth space, not exploring the vasty deep – unless you count all those telescopes. Regrets; I have a few – as the song says – January 1986, February 2003. At the end of my career, NASA wanted me to go to Headquarters in Washington. Somehow, I knew that my engineering and operations skills would not be very helpful there. Diplomacy was not my strong suit. And I had family commitments that held me back from a move across the country.
So, I retired from government service and started a second career helping industry build and operate the complex devices required for spaceflight. It allowed me to use all that engineering and operations knowledge and very little diplomacy was required. Most of all, I could stay based near my family, even as I increased my frequent flier miles.
But it turns out that the US government wasn’t done with me. Just over four years ago, Charley Bolden called me up and asked if I would serve on the NASA Advisory Council to help the agency chart the future. I couldn’t turn him down. Not sure we helped him much, but we did what we could.
The NASA Advisory Council – the NAC – is a Federal Advisory Committee subject to the Act of the same name – FACA. By agreeing to serve, I became a Special Government Employee of NASA. That’s right, you can look me up in the NASA directory just like the old days, but with my company phone number and email rather than the old one with @nasa.gov on the end. It is a volunteer job for me; they pay my travel expenses, but my time is unreimbursed. So, Charley, and now Jim, get my advice basically for free – before I retired, they paid me for my thoughts! But three times a year I get to gather with the group of ‘graybeards’ at some NASA center (meetings rotate around), listen to all the interesting projects the agency is doing or planning to do, get a tour, and give our ‘advice’ in the form of observations, findings, and recommendations. Not just human spaceflight but science, aeronautics, STEM support, and organizational topics. So, my ‘pay’ is getting to hearing it all firsthand and seeing directly the work in progress. My only failure so far is that I was unable to get a ride on the SOFIA flying telescope. That would be really neat. And maybe best of all I get to interact with old colleagues and some really exciting space celebrities.
A FACA committee must do its work in public, all in the open, discussion and debate, warts and all. The agendas and minutes are published on the NASA web page and you can always dial in to hear the discussion (although the audio quality is not always good). If you are local to the meeting you can attend in person. There is always an open mike period scheduled for public comment. It surprises me how little public involvement we gather. I wish I knew how to encourage more people to come and/or comment. Of course, the space beat reporters do a great job of covering the meetings and you can read about it in their articles, but you can get the whole story firsthand if you wish to devote the time to it.
As a Member at Large I got to kibitz on the subcommittee meetings. I especially attended the subcommittee on Human Operations and Exploration because that is my special interest. Ken Bowersox chaired that subcommittee – which like all the NAC subcommittees is made up of about a dozen retired experts in the field. The subcommittee makes recommendations to the ‘big NAC’ for the agency but also to the Associate Administrator for HEO – Bill Gerstenmaier – directly.
Since Ken decided to go back to work for the agency, Jim Bridenstine asked me to take over the chair of the HEO committee. Rats. As a Member at Large, I could show up when I wanted to, partake in the debate, and leave. As committee chair, I will have to lead the committee to some sort of consensus and provide a formal briefing and report to every NAC meeting; plus getting involved in the logistics of setting the meeting date, arranging for the location, building an agenda, etc. Work!
Even worse, I really must think about the ethics conflicts now. Earlier, the NAC was consumed by the long view and worked on policy directions such as whether NASA should send astronauts to the Moon first, Mars first, or maybe and asteroid first. No conflict there any with my business interests. As the lawyers would say, no ‘specific matters’ were discussed. Now, with the new direction from the administration, I can see the NAC – and especially the HEO committee – being very involved with the next level of details. And might very well impact some of my business interests. So, in the last month – since my new appointment came out – I have been walking away from work. Several major aerospace organizations – and some new starts – have asked for my paid consultancy on their near-term projects, many of which will compete for government contracts shortly. I have had to turn them down. No work for me that will provide even the appearance of impropriety. My dilemma is where would my help be best – down and in helping the builders to succeed in design and execution – or up and out with the policy and strategy discussions at the NAC. I’ve made the choice to serve on the NAC.
My goals for the HEO committee and for the NAC itself will be to listen thoroughly, research broadly, think clearly and give the best advice possible. I would also like to work with the agency to make the HEO committee more diverse – not only in the usual sense of diversity but also more diverse in experience and opinion.
So, a long post and probably too much about myself. If you have thoughts or advice for the agency – and I may regret this – please send them to me. Many folks already do. Please attend the HEO committee meetings whether in person or by audio conference – I will make sure you get access to the agenda and logistics.
NASA has an opportunity today. There is a new push to go past low earth orbit, on to the Moon and Mars. There is national leadership and opportunity. As a nation we should not waste the opportunity.
I care because I really am passionate about space exploration. Have been as long as I can remember.