Advising NASA

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.

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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28 Responses to Advising NASA

  1. Spacebrat1 says:

    not that you need my advice but I think you can contribute more helping startups, just sayin’. whatever you do, thank you for your continued service to your country, you are truly a gentleman and a scholar.

  2. spieltmit says:

    Wow – what a story, what a statement. I don’t know if I understood in detail, as I don’t know the structure of NASA or similar but I’m touched by your words and it is like I can feel the honesty and the love you have for the industry and space exploration in general – allt the best!

  3. Esoth Max says:

    Congratulations and thanks for your continued service Wayne! I was born in ’59 and grew up fired and enthralled by those special Look and Life Magazine issues devoted to NASA, so this comment really hit me, “Somehow it turned into a full career spent exploiting near earth space, not exploring the vasty deep – unless you count all those telescopes.” There must have been times when you were crestfallen, so your valuable contributions to many great and lasting “low earth” and telescopic achievements are all the more remarkable. But this has always been about more than science and engineering, and it’s my hope that as HEO Chair you will add to your legacy and reach, in that way, if not in direct flight, to the future of HUMAN exploration of that still-waiting vastly deep.

  4. Dan Adamo says:

    Kudos, Wayne! I’d been thinking your post-NASA career had turned a bit mercenary, but I realize now your heart is in the right place. What would NASA do without volunteer consultants and other keepers of the katra?

    I’m currently serving the last half of a 3-year term as the Human Exploration Lead on the Small Bodies Assessment Group’s (SBAG’s) Steering Committee. In that capacity, I’m very much a man without a mission after ARM’s demise. Nevertheless, I continue to advocate for asteroids and the moon of Mars as “steppingstone” HSF destinations spanning the formidable gulf between cislunar space and the surface of Mars.

    Given your Special Government Employee status, will ethics policy permit you to continue blogging? If so, I’d dearly like to know your take on upgrading SLS beyond Block 1.

  5. Rabb Muhammad says:

    Thank you for your life long dedication to human spaceflight! I truly appreciate your dedication to duty and your efforts to play the ethical midfield. Keep doing what you’re doing at the strategic level and if I ever get a chance to go to the HEO committee meetings I will!

  6. Fred Mushel says:

    I am wondering what is taking us so long
    to launch our astronauts.
    What is so difficult getting SLS ready to
    fly being that it is composed of mostly Space Shuttle hardware; no great leaps in technology
    and complexity compared to going from
    Apollo/Saturn to the extremely sophisticated
    Space Shuttle just six years after Apollo/
    Soyuz even with the delays caused by the
    tiles and main engines.

    It’s now 8 years since the last space shuttle
    flight and both SpaceX and Boeing are still
    attempting to get the bugs out of their much
    simpler (than the space shuttle) capsules
    with already “proven” rockets.

    The one thing I can’t fathom is how cheaply
    SpaceX can build their rockets while Elon
    Musk’s other company, Tesla can’t make
    a reliable and affordable electric car.

  7. Michael R. Moore says:

    Well, congratulations or condolences as you may see it. I think it is a great opportunity to help ensure that the lessons learned at such cost in the Shuttle program are considered in any new push forward, especially when going beyond what we have done in the past. I especially worry about the potential to pass up good engineering practices when facing an arbitrary deadline. Speaking from some HST experience, “schedule uber-alles” makes for a fine joke after hours but a poor management practice. Best of luck and I hope to be able to listen in to some of your meetings.

  8. Pingback: Wayne Hale | Transterrestrial Musings

  9. Bill Nelson says:

    Wayne – As we discussed at the “lessons learned” event at Space Center Houston, I think it would be good to evaluate the adequacy of on-orbit fault identification and anomaly resolution processes and how they are used by mission management. I don’t know whether the recommendations of the INEEL report on this topic that was published in 2003 shortly after Columbia were ever addressed.

  10. Phillip says:

    Have you gone about recruiting/educating people in college that they may want to serve? You mentioned that you do an audio call in – why not liveStream? Educate on other platforms beside NASA.GOV. Unless you know what you looking for..very few people know it is happening. How often has the chairperson given a talk to NASAwatch or NasaSpaceflight? How do you get people engaged when very people know about it. Does the committee have a facebook page

  11. Patrick Underwood says:

    Mr. Hale, it still amazes me that someone who rose so high in NASA–deservedly!–has a blog and allows random persons like myself to opine in the comments.

    I believe you’ve posted on nasaspaceflight.com, and perhaps you’ve perused other space-centric websites such as Ars Technica and SpaceNews. If you visit those sites, you will find many very enthusiastic, educated, talented people discussing every aspect of spaceflight. But by far the most active threads are devoted to comparisons and contrasts between the current NASA “program of record” and alternative means of achieving a robust space program. It seems that most posters–including myself–are not optimistic about SLS, Orion, and the Gateway. Recently, Eric Ralph, a reporter at teslarati.com, wrote a most succinct summary of the situation:

    “In the last 13 years, [Boeing and Lockheed] – combined – have carefully extracted no less than $35B from NASA, all of which has thus far produced a single launch of a half-finished prototype spacecraft (Orion) on a contextually irrelevant rocket (Delta IV Heavy) in 2014. The SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft remain almost perpetually delayed and are unlikely to complete their uncrewed launch debut until 2021, if not later.”

    In the same period of time, SpaceX has rose to become the world’s preeminent commercial launch provider, one of two companies currently carrying cargo to ISS (and the only company bringing it back), and, despite recent setbacks, one of two companies slated to ferry astronauts to the ISS. It has doubled Falcon 9 payload capability over the last few years. It has taken first-stage recovery from laughable folly to routine operation, lowering its costs in the process. The company has been dismissed at every turn–NASA and DoD are scrambling to catch up to the idea that Falcon Heavy actually works and provides an ideal launch solution for large payloads, because they failed to take notice until after the first, amazingly successful, FH demo mission. Starship/SuperHeavy is now in the same hole–no one outside SpaceX and a few enthusiasts can bring themselves to admit that SpaceX will take this revolutionary vehicle to routine operational status. Therefore there will be yet another multiple-year lag as customers begin to realize the incredible utility of SS/SH.

    SLS particularly defies common sense–an enormous rocket, yet unable to send its overweight Orion payload directly to LLO (hence Gateway). A completely expendable vehicle, throwing away priceless Shuttle engines with each flight, unable to fly more than once a year (at best) is not the way to establish a lasting presence on the Moon, much less Mars. Contrasted with the nearly as capable FH, which returns almost all of its hardware and can be re-flown within weeks, it is obviously a dead end (as a launch vehicle, if not as a cash cow). Contrasted with the SS/SH, which may fly before or slightly after SLS at vastly lower cost and with full reusability, it is an obvious failure of imagination, ambition, and policy.

    In my view there is one person, more than any other, who holds NASA in an iron grip of stasis–Senator Shelby of Alabama. His political power, wielded for his constituents at the detriment of the entire country by way of his committee chair, is insurmountable. But it is also perceived by many that top management at NASA is also happy to slow-roll any concepts outside the current POR, even if those concepts promise lower costs, greater capability, shorter timescales and higher efficiency. Even it means actually defying the will of the new Administrator and the Presidential Administration.

    Of course you’ve seen these arguments before, and maybe the term “ad nauseam” comes to mind… but I assure you, there is near universal frustration in the small fraction of citizens who know and care about NASA human spaceflight and US space policy.

    So with great respect I ask you to keep these ideas in mind as you go about your duties as the Chairman of the HEO Committee. Thank you.

  12. Michael Wright says:

    “It surprises me how little public involvement we gather.”

    For most people space has little direct impact. And for just about everyone (tax payers, the little people) have no say in what policies are chosen, what methods are used, and who will get the big contracts.

    “I really must think about the ethics conflicts now.”

    This is very puzzling to me personally because we always read about lack of ethics in just about every agency and company.

    Other than that, I like reading your posts. Easy and straight forward. You mention the Apollo guys, I recently watched this 1998 of Glynn Lunney talking about Apollo on CSPAN,
    https://www.c-span.org/video/?456571-1/glynn-lunney-oral-history-interview

    He mentioned certain people became the perfect fit. Bob Gilruth, George Low, Chris Kraft [and others] as there was a need and the US had the inventory of these people to lead in key areas. Does this country now lack ability to get the right people in the right places?

  13. Ralph Hightower says:

    I think that there needs to be a long term plan, say a 20 year plan. Too often, NASA’s “long term goals” (think air-quotes) are subject to the whims of the president at the time. The next time that the administration changes, NASA’s “long term goals” are sent in another direction. It takes money and time to research, solve, and build for ambitious goals. NASA is usually whipsawed in a different direction when the presidency changes hands.
    Also, it’s probably impossible to change Congress’s mindset, but those Representatives and Senators from states with NASA facilities view NASA as a jobs program for their state. NASA is America’s space program.
    PS: I’m probably the same age as you. I was born in 1954 and grew up watching Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the Space Shuttle, and the Space Station. It never gets old.

    • waynehale says:

      Long term plans are tough with the Constitutional requirement that appropriations are for one year. Plus, of course, future administrations may have different priorities.

      Most people think NASA gets to set its own goals and plans: the current presidential administration sets goals and objectives, and then Congress can approve, or not, and determine how much money to devote to a plan.

      NASA always has wish list plans that they lobby for, but NASA does not get to decide

    • Dan Adamo says:

      I’ve often dreamed of human space flight (HSF) policy continuity such as you’re expressing, Ralph. Such continuity already exists to some extent for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) and U.S. robotic space exploration efforts, thanks to decadal surveys. Through the National Research Counsel, SMD receives dispassionate, competed input from the science community on mission priorities for the next 10 years and beyond. The current planetary science decadal survey addresses primarily the period from 2013 through 2022.

      It would be wonderful if HSF policy were subject to one or more decadal survey-like processes, but funding levels and associated rationale appear to cross a threshold where science and technology must give way to politics. This leads to Congressional staff designing rockets to be produced by constituents they serve. Whether or not such rockets are relevant to performing worthwhile HSF mission concepts for the U.S. is an afterthought at best.

      Another idea with potential for contributing to HSF policy stability is to grant the NASA Administrator a fixed term of 10 years akin to that for the FBI Director. The FBI model didn’t work too well in the case of Director Comey. It might be improved if due cause for dismissal by the White House had to receive concurrence from the U.S. Senate or perhaps the Federal Judiciary.

  14. Steve Frey says:

    I echo the “thanks” given here to you, Wayne. It takes uncommon intestinal fortitude to turn down the money you did in exchange for the gig you’ve chosen. I hope I’d be able to keep my passion at the forefront if ever asked to give my opinion on important things versus a lucrative assignment elsewhere.

    As some others have touched on, I’d like to see the course stayed between administrations. I’m not a polisci major, so I likely lack the understanding of the dynamics involved in regime change. But as an enginerd, I hold out faith that in nearly every problem there is a solution. Perhaps a policy/direction that is rooted predominantly in public opinion and approval rather than one President’s versus the next. An incoming President would have to look “the people” in the face and tell them “your opinion doesn’t matter” rather than look an outgoing President in the back and say “so much for that schmuck’s plan” if he wanted to scrap whatever plan was in place/in motion.

    But as you’ve mentioned, how in the heck do you motivate the general masses to give a darn? This seems to be a problem at all levels of government. As a local municipal employee myself, I’ve seen people care very little about things arguably less important than our national space program. Despite encouraging them to attend public meetings and ask questions to enable an educated opinion, they’d rather drop a few anonymous ignorant comments online and complain later!

    I digress…
    I watched President Bush’s plan of phasing out and replacing the shuttle get scrapped by his replacement. I watched Obama half-heartedly pitch the asteroid idea. Now I see Trump pitch his Christmas list of where we should head. I have little faith that the current “renewed interest” in space exploration will last through the next election (especially if Trump is voted out—anything with his fingerprints will likely be nixed immediately).

    Stability, to sum up my ramblings. Find a way to bring it and congruency between changing of the guards and you’ll have done far more than I could ask you as a taxpayer who’s not paying you anything (except a flight in coach and a night in a Motel 8).

    Thank you, Wayne.

    • Spacebrat1 says:

      Every President seemed to immediately slam the brakes on the Engine so the Train flipped over it as far as the Space Program is concerned. The only reason we went to an asteroid is everything else was already ‘taken’. Space Exploration is long term. The path of a Republic (we are not a Democracy) wends its way, of its nature, short term,. too bad. Otherwise, as Wayne had expected early on, I could be living on the Moon and not having earth-bound back surgery – gravity wins. Musing aside, humans are meant to explore. When America wants to, it can be the best in the World at whatever we do. Too bad our Space Program has suffered fits and starts. Now they are building SpaceX Starship in an industrial park in West Cocoa, across the lagoon from KSC. As one who has watched since the first Cape launch, it gives me heart we are finally going somewhere.

  15. Thanks for your support. This was a delightful read. Put a smile on my face. Good for you and all you do!! #NASA ROCKS!

  16. Edgar Zapata says:

    My thanks first of all on a wonderful presentation and discussion at the Space Congress covering lessons learned, NASA culture and decision making. However, I could not help but think there was an important part missing in the discussion, as many times as you and other panelist talked about the need to “speak up”. (I couldn’t help but over hear audience members afterwards repeating the phrase to “speak up” and mentioning some moment they had done so.)

    Left out of the entire discussion was incentives and systemic barriers making speaking up career limiting. It’s quite easy to speak up at times, getting the respectful nods, seeming to be adding to the conversation. Yay! I expressed my concern! The hard part is following up, getting action. When pushing harder eventually the anti-body reaction kicks in and now “she/he is difficult”, “interrupting”. Speaking up on a regular basis is rarely rewarded but commonly punished, usually indirectly. The next time there is a review board, your phone does not ring. The next time there is a new project the outlook invite does not come your way.

    Look at how IPAO was neutered into oblivion over many years. Talk about slowly boiling the frog. As well, after Constellation, Standing Review Boards of experts were disbanded, the ones who spoke up back then about Constellations flaws and did the intervention. (The intervention did not work).

    Less and less in-house independent analysis is funded every year. Most recently the cost analysis division was disbanded. If we can’t even reward “speaking up” in the process, by policy, in non-advocate roles, how are we supposed to expect the inside team member to do so? The speaker-uppers that had the actual job were punished until morale improved. What’s the message to those on the inside? We are left with the external reviewers, not allowed to actually speak up as the dirty laundry gets redacted into pleasant “challenges” and lukewarm “concerns” from the beltway consultants. Eventually, even when the GAO or IG “speak up” they are routinely ignored. (Loved as much as police love Internal Affairs; an IG person told me recently they get insulting looks when they show for the meetings with a certain project).

    So the question again – where does the system get revamped to incentivize, to reward speaking up? It takes two to tango! Otherwise Darwin just eliminates the speaking up that’s really needed (of course evolving to keep just the surface gloss to fool the outside observer.) And right now it still seems the notion we ask everyone to speak up places all the burden on the lone person, and none on the system, the group, to react properly, seriously, vs. having an antibody reaction, slowly boiling the frog that spoke up.

  17. Richard C says:

    Firstly I have enjoyed your blog posts immensely, trawling through the archives at NASA have been a joy and have influenced my thoughts in the field in which I work (I wish it was aerospace, but unfortunately it is much more prosaic). Anyway, down to business:

    One thing that I have been greatly influenced by is the change in the NASA mission statement from “Quicker, faster cheaper”. I often cite it as an example of how to change the culture in an organisation, or sometimes what is wrong in the culture of the organisation.

    Looking at the comments, and reading your post, I believe that the purpose of space travel has been lost. It has gone from exploration, to beat the “other side” to…well I’m not really sure. This is the singular issue that we have, and what we have been struggling with as a species since the glorious day on July 20th 1969.

    However, a lot has happened in the last 50 years. Technology has improved, and our understanding of the universe, and humanity place in it has improved with it. To my mind it has lead to one assailable conclusion: We are not special; the earth is not special; the solar system is ordinary, and nor is the Milky Way galaxy. This has brought into sharp relief that our species existence is precarious. Whether it is from a nuclear war, global warming or an asteroid impact.

    This is surely the NASA mission (and the other space agencies such as Roscosmos and ISRO etc). We must look to ensure our species survival, and use our collective resource to support that. Whether that is developing better EO coverage, or gaining a better understanding of our universe, being able to deflect asteroids or being able to develop a cradle of humanity out in the wider reaches of a space station, the Moon or Mars.

    Is it possible to develop a strategy with that as an end goal, with each piece fitting into those building blocks? The challenge is immensely difficult. I don’t believe that the general populace understand quite how hard it is to achieve any degree of success in each of those statements above. However someone needs to be thinking about, and someone needs to start to plan for “what if” and what is our contingency.

  18. Steve Lilley says:

    Wayne-thanks for a fascinating and useful blog. Kudos to you for making a choice of conscience; your experience is needed at the risk owner decision-making level now and in these next formative years!

    As government and industry cooperate and compete to launch, it strikes me that we need to improve on the pioneering aviation fly-crash-fix-fly paradigm of the last century. But in the way stand both nationalistic and proprietary barriers to sharing certain information essential to human survival in space. Now is the time to establish rules of engagement on what must be cross-shared, and what’s free to compete…much like ethical rules to develop AI for medicine, defense. I hope you and your peers will tackle this problem–no one is better equipped.

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