Trying to figure things out without decimals


There have been a number of events, issues, conundrums, and frustrations throughout life, politics and work lately….  I have tried to figure it all out.  What’s wrong?  What’s right?  Is it just change?  Or is there something much more fundamental going on?

I recalled many periods of time during my career where the mission seemed unclear and the path forward seemed clogged.  These periods always seemed to be frustrating trips, but finite in their duration and effect…  We kept testing flight hardware.  We kept flying or getting back to flying shuttles.  We kept designing, redesigning, and then building the space station.

Other old hands told me of bleak periods after Apollo, where things were really slow.  A lot of folks found other work, chased their fanciful dreams of coffee shops, consulting, teaching, or just playing music or pursuing hobbies.  Still others gutted it out waiting for that multi-purpose space shuttle.  But all of them said they were confident that something else would come around.  It was just a question of how long it would take…  How long they were willing to wait…  What they were going to spend their time on while things got sorted out.

Our current clogged state of government seems particularly vexing in its duration, intensity and effect.  There are tugs of war going on not just with the federal budget, but with the very nature of what our space program is.  Is it different than those post-Apollo days?  Is it different than those post-shuttle catastrophes?  Is it different than designing and redesigning the space station?

It’s not just work….  I read recently about the Mississippi State Legislature voting about 10 years ago to remove decimals and fractions from the public school curriculum.  It is so absurd that I am skeptical if it is true.  I searched the net for a time to confirm  or deny, but I still haven’t found the smoking gun to settle the reality of this claim.  I suspect it is either a fanciful tale, or saner heads prevailed.  But more important is that it wouldn’t surprise me if it was true…  Why?  If it was even debated in Mississippi at all, it points to a level of ignorance that we can’t tolerate.

One of my neighbors has a huge collection of toys.  A Hummer, a Harley, a golf cart for his daughters to drive about the neighborhood, a very large SUV for his wife to do the family chores.  While I am sure she is a very good mother and works hard to care for her family, her labors are not compensated by a paycheck.   Every couple of weeks dad takes the family on long weekend camping trips in a very large and modern travel trailer.  He doesn’t seem to be the only “Jones” on the block with this kind of lifestyle.  He manages a flooring store.  I am not sure when he actually works.  Am I jealous of his toys or his free time??? Not really.   But I wonder if this is the American Dream and I am wondering what will perpetuate it…

Back to work I spent a frustratingly long meeting last week debating the various Powerpoint bullets necessary to tell the “budget story” in the right light to a very high official.  There were about 8 of us participating for the better part of 2 hours, looking at about 6 charts.  I had about a $200,000 interest in a multi-million dollar story.  I cared about that $200,000 and the people and work it represented.  But it was a painful realization that we were appealing to the limited attention, emotions and idiosyncrasies of one man.  It is a noble task to appeal to the logic, regulatory realities, and fiscal constraints at play….  But I can tell you without a lot of elaboration that none of those factors were focused on in this negotiation.  The reality was that the money was available and the requirements are undisputed.  We were negotiating with power.  And we had to cater to the idiosyncrasies.

Perhaps what is most responsible for prompting my rant today is a missive detailing the executive take aways delivered to our agency leadership.  The message that resonated was that these are tough times.  Yes, that is true.  Our guidance is to continue to leverage other resources and apply innovation even in the absence of clear mission definition or direction.  I will let that paraphrase speak for itself.  I will innovate.  I will tinker.  I will leverage.

It is tempting to go down a partisan political trail here, but I will honor my Hatch Act obligations. I can find lots of Tea Party inanities that resemble the ignorance of the fabled Mississippi decimal-banning legislation.  I can rant about liberal atrocities promulgated with or without the tacit approval of our president. This is not about partisan politics.  Nope…  Not gonna go there.

My point today is that I keep seeing signs that the American public, and more troubling, American government, is fatigued, even hostile to, the concept of complexity…of commitment.  We want comfort.  We want refuge.  We want entertainment.  We want our stuff and we want it now.  We’re not concerned about what it takes to build our stuff.  We are not concerned with what it takes to keep our nation strong, smart, and productive.  We are not concerned about what it takes to keep our world safe and secure.  We’re going camping….

So is this just the ranting of an old man who has lost his youthful enthusiasm for life and work?  Perhaps….  I recall that I was thinking just a few years ago that it would be great to push back to the moon before retiring.  Now we talk about some day decades away we might go to an asteroid….  Who’s idea is that?  What do we do when we get there?  Not near the resources available on the moon for continued exploration….  Returning to a lunar landscape — that we have since learned has water, methane, and raw materials for construction — represents a variety of possibilities.  Instead we look forward to leveraging resources and  applying innovation in the absence of clear mission direction.

I want to help fix things.  I want to make progress.  I want to follow an AMBITIOUS plan.  I want to get ‘er done!!!  But I am pretty damn sure we will need to use some fractions and decimals to get there.

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4 responses to “Trying to figure things out without decimals

  1. I’ve thought long and hard about what you said. I do empathize with much of what you say.
    At the risk of cheapening your perspective, I think the entire agency is reacting somewhat like a parent who is seeing his or her immature child leave the house. It has caught us in what amounts to a “Black Swan” event. We never believed in our hearts that we as an agency would ever not have a mission that did not entail launching vehicles and going places. We can still go places but now it will be someone else’s vehicle. It’s quite an adjustment to see the teenage commercial launch industry spread its wings.
    As with any teenager sriking out on his or her own, there will be triumphs and anxious moments – euphoria and heartbreak. There will be times we will be amazed at what private industry can do. There will be other times when we will be wrenched when we will lose another launch vehicle and crew. That’s a part of growing up.
    As mentors, we as an agency have lots to offer. Launch systems and space missions are larger than any one of us. For that reason alone we will need to exercise the care and vigilance of a watchful parent over a fledgling industry.
    People may be incredulous or even sneer at what we are now doing. Others may say “about time”. There is ample room for both opinions. I for one will press on towards the mark and reach for the heavens the best way I know how – by being a decent parent and (hopefully) an inspiring leader who will call a rose a rose and fertilizer fertilizer. We need not settle for inferiority in anything we do. If there is ever a time for excellence, the time is now. Our time has not passed – but it has changed immutably.
    Now to continue to look through the glass darkly, striving for a clarity of vision and a steadfastness of hope.

    • Poetic and profound, dear Ron! I am not sure that my comments are particularly aimed at commercial space… I am concerned more about our national vision and our public lethargy toward technology. If we put half the effort we apply to smart phones into the space program, we would have been on Mars by now…

  2. I didn’t think your comments were aimed at all at commercial aerospace. However, that is the hallmark event that has triggered our season of discontent in the absence of either poorly enunciated or totally absent vision and will. At a time like this, there is little tolerance for the abstract and the diffuse. The quicker we can focus on specifics the better. Just let us finish whatever it is we start next.

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