The View from Mt. Nebo

When I was a child, 5 or 6 years old, I had a recurring dream that I could fly.  Not fly an airplane but fly like a bird.  Although better than any bird because I could traverse continents in minutes and visit strange and exotic places.  All I had to do was stretch out my arms and point my toes and away I went.  There were not daydreams but recurring dreams that I would recall when awake.   Like all dreams they were kaleidoscopic but vivid.  I could recall them in detail when I awoke.  In fact, I can remember some of them even now, decades later.  Friends, schoolmates, or family rarely showed up; mostly they were about the exhilaration of flying and traveling far from home.

 Now I was never foolish enough, in my waking state, to believe I could really fly; never tried to jump off the roof of the house.  But the memory remains.  Possibly many other young children have this same dream.  Maybe some child psychologist can analyze this, but I can’t.  I can only say that they meant freedom and adventure and a future of unlimited possibilities. 

Over time the dreams changed to other things and now my adult dreams are chaotic, symbolic, and quite literally undecipherable, on those occasions where I remember them.

I grew up with the space age.  Three years old when Sputnik launched, the adventure captured my imagination from earliest childhood.  I ravenously consumed every book, article, and news story about the burgeoning space race:  Ranger, Surveyor, Mercury, Gemini, and finally Apollo were the background tapestry of my childhood and my youth.  The moon missions followed by Skylab and ASTP ran into my college years. 

In the midst of this I was captured by the classic science fiction of the era:  written works from Jules Verne, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and more.  My generation were all destined for a glorious future traipsing about the universe. Or blowing ourselves to bits in a nuclear holocaust with not much anything in-between.  My impressionable mind was influenced by the classics of science fiction in film and video:  Star Trek, Lost in Space, Space 1999, Destination Moon, The Forbidden Planet, a host of B movies mostly about monsters in space, and the like. Star Trek with its inherent optimism showed a better future to aspire to. (Star Wars came later, just after I married my wife).  I still consider ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’ to be my favorite book and the blueprint for what should have followed. 

After the moon landings while I was still a teenager, I felt bitter disappointment at the decisions not to press on to Mars.  Confusion and complete non-comprehension of any reason to stop.  It all seemed so obvious:  back to the Moon to stay, building bases and colonies, and then on to Mars, the moons of the outer planets, and someday, someday, someday, to the stars. Just waiting for Zefram Cockrane.

Thus passed what we have come to call the Apollo generation:  especially those who worked in the space program during the heady days of the 1950’s all the way through the moon landing and Skylab to ASTP in 1975.

Filled with joy at being selected to work in NASA’s Mission Control just before the first launch of the Space Shuttle Program.  The Space Shuttle was just being completed and a flying taxi to low earth orbit was the obvious next step in the plan, right from the Willy Ley/Werner Von Braun TV specials on The Wonderful World of Disney.   In my early adulthood, it seemed certain that we would do this ‘shuttle thing’ for a few years, followed by building the space station.  That orbiting base would certainly be the assembly point to kick out to lunar bases, on to Mars and then all the rest of the solar system.  I was happy in the prospect of a career spent helping humanity spread throughout our solar system.

Needless to say, it didn’t quite work out that way.

I wonder how Admiral Kirk – or Admiral Picard – would have dealt with budget cuts proposed by the Federation Senate – financial constraints based on the premise that we need to solve problems on earth before we take off for the stars.  Hollywood never wrote that episode for TV.

So, my career was spent in doing my best to cart humans back and forth to low earth orbit, including building a space station that was never going to be the jumping off point for the moon.  I don’t regret it, we did good work, had a couple of really bad days, and hopefully laid the foundation for what is to come.   

We carried the torch, keeping human spaceflight alive to see better days. 

Not yet the Artemis generation, those days to come.  Those of us who labored in the 1980s to 2011 must be called the Shuttle/Station generation. 

Now I approaching my dotage, mostly retired, I serve only by giving Dutch uncle advice to the new generation.  Not exactly contributing in the way I expected.  But watching and hoping that they will succeed where my generation did not.  The generation that is, that came between Apollo and Artemis.  The forgotten generation. 

Watching with surprisingly mixed emotions as Artemis takes flight and shows the promise of success, after all these years.  The Artemis generation now in its initial days. 

I feel empathy for the folks still down in the ISS program; every day doing the science, making sure the station is supplied and equipped, planning EVAs for upgrades, making sure the international team holds together.  It is a 24/7/365 job that has just gotten eclipsed by the Artemis mission.  Keep carrying the torch you station guys.

Finally, there are mixed emotions: Joy and Pride and Gladness that the first Artemis mission has taken place and gone so well. Disappointment and sadness – and just a little bit of anger, too – that it has taken so long.  Jealousy of the folks in Mission Control and the engineering support rooms where I always dreamed I would be. 

Forlorn at the amnesia that has developed over what we accomplished with the Space Shuttle for all those decades.  Did we not set the foundations for today’s generation to succeed?

I think I will concentrate on the pride and joy that we are moving forward after all.

Justification, if you will, for all those years of service in low earth orbit. 

That is my view from Mt Nebo. 

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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24 Responses to The View from Mt. Nebo

  1. ralphhightower says:

    Hi Wayne,
    We share a lot of similarities, except that I wasn’t employed by NASA. I’m four years older than NASA, so I grew up with crewed space exploration. My wife and I recently had our 45ᵗʰ wedding anniversary, so I put together a timeline of events that happened that year, such as Voyager 1 and 2 were launched, Star Wars premiered, Space Shuttle Enterprise had its first atmospheric glide test.

  2. A spot on summation of how a lot of us in the Shuttle/Station generation feel. I truly hope for long term sustainability for Artemis as a global cooperative and unifying endeavor.

  3. Norbon Clay Jones says:

    Your missive so well reflects the views and feelings of the Baby Boom generation. I think this view extends to just about any subject, be it science, technology, math or art. Don’t despair because recognizing our failed goals, shortcomings and unrealized dreams is a step towards passing them on to our children and grandchildren. The will achieve what we did not. And for me, that is good enough.

    I too had the “flight” dreams as a child. Never repeated as an adult. Maybe, just maybe, my grandkids have the same dream.

  4. Fredric Mushel says:

    Unfortunately our space programs have been in the “control” of our government politicians (mostly lawyers, not scientists) who have cut NASA’s budgets and space projects quite a bit year after year while increasing our military defense budget way too much. Because in today’s global civilization any big power wars with Russia or China is a no win situation.
    Also it’s unfortunate that the private sector (companies) will not pursue space projects unless there is to be (for most of them) a short term profit in return for the very costly human space exploration projects.
    While SpaceX is by far way ahead of any other private company in rocket development and somewhat reusable boosters and capsules (spacecraft), since it’s a private company no one outside of the company executives really know what the costs per mission are.
    As Star Trek is mentioned in this post, humans will not have the capacity (money and infrastructure) to reach for the stars until all nations/people are united in that quest and humanity has outgrown its “infancy.” Unfortunately Gene Roddenberry’s dream of a “United Earth,” based on what is happening on our planet for the past two decades (thanks to another US tax payer funded development, the Internet) taken over by the private capitalist corporations, has divided people all over the planet rather than united them I am doubtful that humans will make it to the stars or survive on our planet mainly due to greed (and power, both in government politics and corporations) and human’s distrust of other human beings racial and cultural differences.
    Until we humans grow up from our infancy, if we ever can do so, we may, like many other species on this planet become extinct mostly due to human profiteering, hate and greed.

  5. says:

    I was a child of 9 when Sputnik occurred and from that moment on my childhood was dreaming of the adventure of space exploits. I was never a good enough student to try to participate as an astronaut of engineer. But model rockets let me imagine I was doing space research. I followed every launch and space flight up until the landing on the moon and then adulthood slowed my interest.

    I still have my childhood scrap books with all things space related trimmed from the newspaper and pasted onto the oversized pages. I still have the complete newspaper I bought the morning after the moon landing, I was training to be an aircraft mechanic in the Air Force and had just enough time to get my newspaper before reporting for duty.

    I was shocked and horrified with the loss of Apollo 1 in 1967, the year I graduated high school. And like so many I remember exactly where I was when we lost that shuttle and was heartbroken and shocked. I continue to watch space subjects but not with the fervor of a child of the 1950’s and 60’s. I blame the US Government and their budget cuts for the lessoning of my attention. Where is the big dream that led to the moon landing, the shuttle, and the space station? Thank you for your very interesting View from Mr. Nebo.

    Dan Breyfogle

  6. Kevin Keenan says:

    Thank you, Mr. Hale. I’m in the same generation, retired from the ISS Program. You’ve expressed it elegantly. We did the most we could with what we were given.

    Kevin Keenan
    ISS Cargo Contract
    Lockheed Martin

  7. I was 29 years old when Apollo ended in 1972. It never crossed my mind that fifty years later nobody would have visited since then. Your post beautifully captures the evolution of my feelings as well. I had the honor and privilege of supporting the Shuttle program from 1991 through 2013 when I retired to write science fiction. It wasn’t planetary colonization, but it was a major contributor to making space a real place rather than just a dream. Now it’s taken for granted that people can work there productively not just as a stunt but as a career. I think we’re ready to move forward again, and like you, I look back on it fondly.

  8. Tony Jobusch says:

    Well done Sir. You have much to be proud of and Shuttle and Station was a must intermediate step just as Dr. Von Braun told us. I think of it as the “ Gemini “ program to Artemus. As General Collins write years ago… we can still be like kids hearing the train at night… only now it’s Artemus… dying to climb on board!!!

  9. Les Elkins says:

    FWIW: I grew up with similar dreams of flying. Not so much soaring over the plains, but popping up to look over the next hill or treeline, with an action sort of like swimming.

    I tried my first FPV (First Person View) drone half a dozen years ago. Back then they were a one poundish quadcopter with an analog (NTSC) camera in the nose, feeding a video receiver in a pair of goggles that are sort of like VR glasses. The equipment is finicky, heavy, reception has static, and so on…. but it gets darn close to that childhood dream, and having the video right in my eyes with the goggles is really an out of body experience. I recommend it. There are drone racing leagues all over and one might be able to spot you a pair of goggles for a ‘ride along’.

  10. Sam Ortega says:

    Here here Wayne. What a solid foundation we laid for the future of space flight. Space exploration did not end on our watch, we gave it a leg up.

  11. Dennis Romano says:

    I’m a bit older than you, decided to be an aero engineer in the fifth grade (the same year as NACA became NASA) and work in the wind tunnels at Ames. I signed up for MOL via my physics professor at Santa Clara University just before it was cancelled, started my career as a civilian aerospace engineer doing in-service engineering for the Navy. I finished my career at Ames, including about 2 1/2 years on the Constellation Program. One difference is that I actually did jump off of the roof.

  12. Dan Adamo says:

    As a Shuttle Generation FDO, I’d always wanted to be “GO for TLI” during my career, so I can relate to your frustrations, Wayne. We were truly “keepers of the katra” on our watch. I also see some false promises being made to the Artemis Generation akin to the multiple Shuttle launches per month we were expecting early in our careers.

    For example, a Block I SLS may generate more smoke, thrust, and decibels at liftoff than any other rocket yet launched, but that doesn’t make it the most *powerful*. A more appropriate power metric for rockets in this context is payload mass deliverable to cislunar space. A Block I SLS can only deliver 57% of the payload mass a Saturn V did onto a translunar trajectory.

    The best advice this geezer can give the Artemis Generation is: “Think critically and soldier on.” Wernher von Braun thought he was less than 20 years from landing humans on Mars in 1948 when he wrote “Das Marsprojekt”, so we’re all in good company standing on the shoulders of giants.

    • Fred Mushel says:

      Yes. The Saturn V was able to send to the moon both the spacecraft (capsule) and the Lunar Module (lander) along with a lunar rover. Neither the Artemis variations of rockets nor SpaceX’s “Starship” will be able to do the same without either multiple spacecraft launches or re-fueling (“Starship”) to land humans back on to the lunar surface. All current rockets are pretty much just two stage rockets, where as the Saturn V had three stages with a single engine thrust of 225,000 pounds to place both the Apollo capsule and Lunar Module in to a TLI course to the moon. If I am not incorrect, the Saturn V could put 310,000 pounds in to “low” Earth orbit. I do not know the specs for SpaceX’s “Starship” as far as how much payload it might be able to place in low Earth orbit, but it cannot send humans to the moon without re-fueling in Earth orbit. I do not recall the name off the top of my head, but I recall reading about a Von Braun rocket that was bigger and more powerful than the Saturn V but was abandoned due to its huge cost.

      • psuedonymous says:

        “I do not know the specs for SpaceX’s “Starship” as far as how much payload it might be able to place in low Earth orbit”

        100-200 tonnes, depending on orbit and upper stage recoverability or lack thereof. The neat trick is that with prop transfer (new for cryogens, half a century old in general), you get that same 100-200 tonnes onto a high energy trajectory.

      • waynehale says:

        It was the NOVA rocket and Lunar Orbit Rendezvous rendered it unnecessary

  13. John Curry says:

    I come from the same Shuttle/Station generation and I feel the same as you about boldly going where no one has been before. A lot of my time was spent on the US/Russian relationship including extensive work on the Mir Phase 1 program which laid the foundation for the wildly successful ISS program. I’m proud of my contributions and I learned a lot from you and many other great leaders at NASA. The good part of what we did was make commercial spaceflight truly successful. We are on the verge of an explosion of commercial efforts in LEO, MEO, GEO, and DRO orbits. This is huge….I’m working on a constellation of LEO microsats that will collect data to make planet Earth better and we’ll probably send some to the moon one day…..I’m very excited about the future of commercial space as well as human exploration of space. They go hand in hand! It is a great time to be alive!!

  14. Kyle F. says:

    Thank you, Mr. Hale.

  15. Robert says:

    I was excited to see the title of your post, because I thought it meant you were visiting close by 😀

    Loved the article – thank you.

  16. Larry Clark says:

    Happy New Year Wayne. Oh you have so eloquently described what those of us whom spent their entire career on Space Shuttle feel. Your life’s timeline and mine are identical. Thank-you and cudos.

  17. Mark Ross says:

    When the Space Shuttle era is remembered, often the only highlights are the building of the ISS and the Hubble deployment and rescue missions. Also noteworthy during the early days before the Challenger accident were the Solar Max, HS 376, and Syncom rescue and/or repair missions: amazing displays of what humans on orbit and on Earth could accomplish working together to problem-solve in space.

  18. Anthony Thomas says:

    No Shuttle program amnesia here, sir. It was an amazing vehicle that did amazing things, in spite of all its design compromises and, sadly, inherent flaws.

  19. Patrick says:

    My nephew worked ISS at JSC and now works Orion. He sometimes goes “on console” but I don’t know in what capacity. His first name is Cody. The level of envy I have for that young man’s accomplishments is truly vast! Every time we talk I feel like there’s a big neon L on my forehead. 🙂

  20. Steve Pemberton says:

    We were of the right age, at the right time, for dreams to be born. I doubt if any generation before or after experienced such a perfect combination of hope and promise, in spite of the dangers and challenges.

    1965 was the year for me. I was six years old. Too young to remember Mercury, but I followed every Gemini flight. By the end of summer that year a total of twenty-one people had left the planet and gone into orbit in the entire history of humankind. Ten of those were American astronauts. The first humans had left the planet just four years earlier. But by August 1965 the first EVA’s as well as initial attempts at rendezvous had been performed, and the U.S. held the duration record of nearly eight days in space. Project Apollo was well under way with photos of CM and LEM mockups widely available. Space probes had already visited the Moon, Venus, and Mars. X-15 rocket planes were probing the edge of space. All of this created a sense of awe and stirred the imagination of what was possible.

    But in conjunction with this we also had some amazing visionary artistic expressions to experience, ponder, and be in awe of, which seemed to amplify the real-life accomplishments in a very visceral way. This combination of reality and prediction was overpowering in many ways.

    In the last week of summer that year, on Wednesday, September 15th, 1965, my father told me that a new television show about space travel would be on that night if I was interested in watching it. That night I watched the premiere episode of Lost in Space, which I have vivid memories of. I even had a bit of trouble going to sleep that night thinking of the frightening scene of the robot trying to destroy the Jupiter 2. The first season of Lost in Space was in black and white and was pretty good sci-fi even by today’s standards, especially the first half of the first season. Most people have only seen the color episodes after the show had pivoted to campiness the second season in response to competition from Batman.

    Of course all of this was only the beginning for a decade of both real and visionary accomplishments that included Star Trek TOS, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and of course in real life the first humans to visit another world.

    The excitement, awe and unbounded optimism about humanity’s first real-life tentative steps off the planet, combined with equally exciting and optimistic artistic drawings, science fiction books, movies, and television, was a combination that will likely never be experienced again by any generation. You had to be just the right age to get the full effect, not too young and not too old. What that age range was I don’t know, I’m sure it depends on the individual, but whoever experienced it will never forget it. In other words, you had to be there. The effect proved to be life changing for many people, even affecting career choices. We are very fortunate to have experienced it. I just wish the current generation had a similar combination of hope and promise, in spite of the dangers and challenges. I do see a bit of it in the response of young people to what is happening in commercial space. But there is a worrisome negativism that can also be seen in young people today, including the large number of them who doubt whether we ever even landed on the Moon. Whereas in our generation we never doubted that we wouldn’t.

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