Category Archives: Change

Something to look up to….

Atlantis landed very early July 21, 2011.  This is the end of the longest period of human space flight.  While the International Space Station still orbits, we have less control of our space transportation fortunes.  The landing of Atlantis was very uneventful, and for the most-part, quietly observed.  At the launch a few days ago, I provided a few memories from 30 years ago as the first Shuttle, Columbia, launched in 1981.  As the last mission lands for the last time, I can’t help but look at the present, and gaze to the future.  My memory was slightly flawed from those naive days in 1981.  I hope my view of the future is just as flawed and has some subtle, dare I say, pleasant, surprises.

It is fitting that the landing – the whole mission – of STS-135, went off without a hitch.  We got it right, just as the press, politicians, and much of the cynically vocal public have accused NASA of creating its own bloated problems.  NASA’s problem is that the vast majority of the time, we get it right…quietly.  When it goes wrong, or if people ask questions about why resources are necessary to get each detail right, then there are ignorant rants about waste.

I noted one person on Facebook this morning, paraphrasing an aerospace  periodical, sharing confidently that SpaceX was about to launch a mission later this year to the Space Station, achieving two milestones, docking with and resupplying the ISS in one fell swoop.  A fellow aerospace worker deadpanned that those in the know were just as confident that it wasn’t going to happen this year.  “If it was that easy, everyone would be doing it.”  It’s not.

As thousands of aerospace workers are turned loose, it will be interesting to see how they are absorbed into the workforce.  So far the word is that the petrochemical industry is waking up to the quality of the workforce.  In the wake of the BP oil spill last summer, many energy industry executives are scrambling to make prudent investments in maintenance, safety, and risk management.  The stories are trickling in about how veteran aerospace engineers, technicians and managers are making a positive impact bolstering the energy industry.  I’m not surprised.

NASA is trying to shift its resources to more fundamental investments in innovative space technology – automated exploration, advanced propulsion, efficient ground support processes.  It will take years to get practical results, but there will be something coming from it some day.  There are and will be too many creative, visionary, and stubborn people working on it.  I know the type….

The good news for my little institutional safety part of the NASA world is that when we wrestle with trying new stuff and tinkering with things that burn, go boom, or make sudden motions, there are challenges doing it in a way that doesn’t hurt people.  Keeping things from going boom, or more appropriately, avoiding the worst consequences when they do go boom, takes a lot of work from my folks.  We’ve got the hang of it, and we’re taking some prudent measures to avoid problems.  Been there…  Done that.

So, I guess it is fitting that, as the Atlantis mission came to a smooth conclusion, I was working on my new house this week.  We’ll be here for a while, so I might as well get the family comfortable.  We’ve got more work to do….  NASA has a lot of tinkering to do, much of it on the ground.  That’s where my job is….  Perhaps as my little girl gets going to school, we will have made some progress and we’ll be ready to go back up.  She will need something to look up to….  besides her daddy.

Staying Awake for the First Flight

It was late night April 11, 1981.  I was working on some homework, probably calculus, perhaps circuit analysis.  I watched David Letterman.  I really liked Dave back then (and now).  An acerbic, anxious comedian trying to make a name for himself in late night TV.  I knew the new Space Shuttle was going to launch for the first time about 5:00 am the next morning.  Do I go to bed, or do I stay up the next few hours to watch the dawning of a new era of space travel?

Well, I don’t remember how the few hours till the launch were passed, but I did stay up until the wee hours to see that historic event.  A struggling mechanical engineering student was witnessing his professional calling.  I was amazed!  This was a winged craft strapped to enormous solid rockets and a bulbous white propellant tank.  How could it fly?  I remember the news commentators saying that it would be a swifter ascent than the slow majestic rise we were used to with Apollo.  They went to great detail to describe how the vehicle would jump off the pad and spin around to get in the right attitude for its journey to orbit.  It got off and up….

What do I remember most?  I remember the loss of Skylab.  It was to be the first remarkable mission of Columbia.  Rescue the fledgling space station and begin the next phase of a permanent presence in space.  Instead the 1981 launch of Columbia was two years too late.  Skylab plunged to its fiery death over Australia .

I remember the 1982 landing of STS-3 on the gypsum flats of Northrup Strip near the White Sands National Monument.  A perfect landing marred by a fierce white dust storm immediately after Columbia came to a safe stop.  Another TV viewing while continuing my college struggles.  But the dream of a career in space continued, even as I struggled to pass thermodynamics.

In 1985, the PBS series, “Nova”, explores the future of the space program.  I remember the narrator,  Martin Sheen, announcing that future DoD Space Shuttle missions would be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.  I used that knowledge to show interest and enthusiasm later that year with a college recruiter, Bob Steele, with the Western Space and Missile Center at Vandenberg.  I would call Bob on at least two occasions after the interview.  Finally, in May, as graduation loomed, Bob called back.

July 8, 1985, was my report date with the Western Space and Missile Center.  A GS-7 General Engineer, starting salary $23, 170 per year.  There were several rotations in various organizations.  I remember aggravating table top reviews of the Operations and Maintenance Instruction (OMI) for activation of the Orbiter Lifting Frame to remove the orbiter from the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft for transport to the Orbiter Maintenance and Checkout Facility.  We were going to launch a Shuttle from California!!!

But then in January 1986, I heard someone say the Challenger blew up.  I returned to my boss’s office and on the TV was a horrifying replay of the Challenger accident.  But we’re going to launch Discovery!  There’s work to be done.  Months later the inevitable news filtered down.  The California plans had been abandoned.  No!  Can’t be true!  We’ve spent too much money and made too many plans!  I like living in California!

I remember a good friend, Lee Mountfort, calling from New Mexico.  He had left Vandenberg some months earlier.  “Do you want to work for NASA?” he asked.  Well, yeah!!!  But I insisted that I grew up in New Mexico, and there’s no NASA in New Mexico.  He begged to differ with me.  They need safety and quality engineers.  I visited the little town of Las Cruces.  The home of the dreaded Aggies of New Mexico State University.  The little White Sands Test Facility lacked the space operations discipline that I had cut my teeth on at Vandenberg.  But there was something about the possibilities, the need and yearning for growth  and organization.

I remember reaction control system thruster testing at Test Stand 401.  I remember what seemed like endless tinkering to perfect water flush techniques to remove iron nitrate build-up in RCS propellant valves.  I remember a trip to Aerojet in Sacramento to buy off the rebuild of our OMS qualification engine.  I remember late nights digging through OMS/RCS qualification test reports to index the test results at the component level.  I got my Snoopy doing that.

I remember waking up at 3:00 am to drive out in the pitch black night to prepare for the mere possibility that the Shuttle would land on the white gypsum of White Sands Space Harbor.  It never did again.  The dust storm of 1982 was just too much of a bad memory to the Shuttle Program.

I remember meeting Laurel Clark when she visited our facility.  When I told her I grew up in Albuquerque she told me she went to school at Monroe Junior High in Albuquerque in 1973.  She said it had been torn down.  I knew that because I was there too the last year it was open.  Laurel volunteered to me that it was a difficult time for her.  Her parent had split up and she had gone to a number of schools over the years travelling between her parents.  This was an astronaut who had succeeded despite challenges at home.  This was a real hero who had overcome adversity to achieve a dream.  Shortly after that in 2001 I got to introduce Laurel to a crowd of fellow employees.  I found her Monroe yearbook picture and shared it with the crowd….  along with my own.  It was easy to distinguish the two — a straight-laced, smart young lady and the disheveled delinquent.  She signed a picture for me saying, “There is life after junior high.”  Laurel Salton Clark died on her first flight aboard Columbia on February 1, 2003.

I’ve met several astronauts before and since Laurel.  She was the first one who struck me as a real person.  They all are, but she was the one who broke the mystique for me.  She also represented to me why we have to keep sending humans into space.  Their adventures are what kept me going to engineering classes when it would have been easier just to quit.  I still have the images burned into my brain of astronauts saluting the American flag on the Moon.  But more importantly, I remember Laurel dressed in her working mom scruffies needing a private place to change into her flight suit for another in a long line of public appearances.  Their adventures in space are our adventures….

Today, July 8, 2011, some 30 years and 3 months after my late night watching Letterman, and exactly 26 years to the day since I started my civil service career at Vandenberg, Atlantis flawlessly launched toward the International Space Station.  There are thousands of stories just like mine, and millions of stories about young people pursuing math, science and engineering because they saw people in their upbringing achieving incredible things, like astronauts, in science and technology fields.

As Atlantis makes its way to the International Space Station for the last time, the American public has to understand what July 8, 2011, represents.  And they can’t let it slip away.

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.

Technology Rant II

The challenge was to get Natasha through the “Online Learner Workshop” in order for her to register for online classes.  The Workshop is intended to help students understand the modern virtual world of internet-based education.  It is a wonderful techno-service-friendly world in which we live!!!

After successive weekend attempts to help Natasha access her college Online Learner Workshop, I sent a very thoughtful note to the college help desk (yes, it was really objective and polite….really).  The “Off-hours Help Line” did not pick up after about 20 rings.  We had tried about three different varieties each of her user id, password, and student number, because different variations are required for the college “Blackboard”, “WebEducator”, and “Student Services” pages.

NOTE:  I am using thinly veiled pseudonyms for the pages and I am closely guarding the college identity.  I am a part-time employee and Natasha is a student.  We value those roles.  But I suspect the experience is very much the same at community colleges throughout the country.

Natasha and I were then called and emailed on separate occasions by multiple members of the college online services staff.  I was called at work by a pleasant woman who sympathized with our situation.  Everything was re-set and we were sent a 17 step instruction on how to gain access to the Workshop and proceed through the learning experience.

Flash back a couple of years ago and I was going through a similar experience to get access to the college system to work as an adjunct instructor.  Back then each user was required to take a 3-day orientation.  Let me restate that for effect…. 3, three, THREE eight-hour day, orientation….  That’s 24 hours!!!  This is required to access to a web-based education system that is intended to simplify the college education process.  I simply told the college I was not going to take leave from my day job for 3 days just to learn how to post my student’s homework to the internet.  It was a very wonderful woman with my department that made it all better.  And I am posting homework the old-fashioned way….  I hand it back to the students at the beginning of class.

Well, unfortunately, my Natasha does not have the same advantages now as I did then.  She is one student among thousands of others.  She is indistinguishable from the computer-illiterates meant to be weeded out by the benevolent Online Learner Workshop.  So, I suffered along with her this time around.

We finally got on the Workshop.  Three hours and about 180 questions later, Natasha had completed the Online Learner Workshop.  The questions ranged from recall of the value and utility of the Online Learner Workshop, to what a PDF file was, to how to attach a file to an email.  At the end, Natasha and I could not help but feel that after successive attempts to get access to the system, to the hours invested in the “education”, that we had both lost a good part of our lives….

There were two modules of the Online Learner Workshop dedicated to “Technology Knowledge” and “Technology Uses”….  What does the Workshop consider as “technology”?  You got it…email, internet, digital photography, word processing applications.

OK, folks, I am officially a grumpy old man.  If this is technology, and it is supposed to make our lives simpler, then I am going to go back to living in a cave.

The Online Learner Workshop taught me nothing and it taught my wife nothing that isn’t already obsolete….  And we won’t get that time back.  Whatever is invented that WILL get us that time back….Now that is technology!!!

Local Color and the Technology Pages

Years (actually decades) ago when I was struggling through college, I was taking a class in Operational Programming.  We were studying information analysis and among the topics we discussed was the concept of “Local Color”.  Without getting into the socio-analytical details, which I would be challenged to recall anyway, Local Color is a characterization of the observable indications of what a community considers important.

I will get to my point eventually…..  But first let’s do a little Local Color exercise.  If you were to walk about the streets of Baghdad sometime around 2004 you might see scores of suspicious looks from the natives, dark streets patrolled by heavily armed American soldiers.  During the day, the traffic would be stifling with multiple check-points, barricades, black-market deal-making, and the occasional improvised explosive device detonation in the distance (if you are lucky enough to be on the opposite side of the distance).  So what’s important in this community???  Survival.  Protection.  Silence.  Power.

Contrast that analysis with a quick look at the daily cruise schedule on board the “Voyager of the Seas” during Natasha’s and my honeymoon….  A dozen different meal options, para-sailing, talent shows, musical theater, shopping….  Oh, and a visit to an exotic island nation.  What’s important in our little ship-board culture?  Comfort.  Fun.  Relaxation.  Entertainment.  Eating.  Got the idea???

Back in class one of the quickest ways to sample Local Color is to take a look at the newspaper (this was back in the 80’s remember).  So, if I was to take a look at the modern version of the newspaper, perhaps the internet would do.  How about USA Today?  That might be a reasonable approximation of American Local Color.  I was curious what America thinks is important about technology.

Here comes my point….  Click on the “Tech” link of USA Today.  What do you see?  The headline on the Tech page of USA Today on November 20, 2010, is “Prevent the ‘holiday bulge’ with new fitness games”.  It doesn’t stop there.  A total of 13 out of 16 stories on the page are dedicated to either social networking, internet entertainment, gaming, or cellular phone features.  The other 3 stories….  One is about internet medical consulting, and buried at the bottom is detection of a new planet, and finally, dead last is the story “Scientists claim breakthrough in antimatter hunt”.

OK, let’s do our Local Color analysis.  If we accept that USA Today is a reasonable approximation for American culture, what is important to this community from the perspective of technology?   Entertainment.  Social connectedness.  Virtual physical fitness!!!  And ho-hum….anti-matter.  Remember, this is the “Technology” page…..

So, when exactly did technology become synonymous with computer gaming and internet surfing?  I thought technology had something to do with physics, transportation, manufacturing, medicine, oh yeah….AND communication.

Years ago futurists like Marshall McLuhan and John Naisbitt predicted an evolution from the manufacturing age to the information age.  I was ready for that.  I think we were all expecting America to become smarter — the designers, managers, innovators, communicators, and leaders of the world.  What have we done with all of this information age leadership?  We are entertaining, surfing, sharing, gaming, dissing, blogging,…… hypnotizing ourselves and the rest of the world.

It starts with what we teach our children about technology and science — about what technology really is.  It starts with planting ideas about what is NEEDED in our world.  It continues with government investing in big, bold achievements that inspire change in our priorities and values.  That creates opportunity for industry and entrepreneurs to contribute to the vision and look for new markets.

But, alas, we are focused on the new iPad.  It seems Apple has figured out how to host a bunch of really cool fitness game apps…

The Keen, New, Innovative, Uniquely American Idea!

I voted the old-fashioned way this evening after work. On Election Day. Yes, November 2, 2010. I got in line at the neighborhood middle school gym. I showed my identification and signed the roster. I had done the absentee ballot thing in years past. And I actually had an opportunity to do early voting a few days ago…..

Early voting…. I don’t get the concept. Seems like it was our responsibility as American citizens to get to the polls to vote for the candidates of our choice. Get to the polls!!! Sometime after the time they open and before the time they close. Have we gotten so lax that we must have several opportunities to vote at a time of our convenience???

Last week I was getting my car registration taken care of at the county annex. I was a bit irritated to see the parking lot full and a small crowd of people milling about a specific distance away from the entrance. They had signs. They had cupcakes. They had smiles as they offered the cupcakes and small cups of cold water. “Are you here to vote, sir?”

I glared back. I wasn’t ready for this. I was girding my loins for the DMV, not for kindly political soccer moms offering me cupcakes. “No,” I muttered as I rushed to the door to the DMV netherworld.

Then as my mind wandered in the DMV line, I thought….early voting….hmmmm….. Am I ready to vote early? No, not really… But, what if….maybe…. Could I get an absentee ballot and contemplate the choices in the comfort and convenience of my home? Now that’s American thinking! I had neglected to mail in my ballot request, but how could they possibly turn me down now that I was at the county clerk’s office? Especially with all this early voting hub-bub going on! Well, you would think…

I quickly took care of my truck registration and hopped over to the county clerk’s office. As I approached, the woman at the counter asked me, “Are you here to vote?”

Now I was ready for the question! I explained my keen, new, innovative, uniquely American idea…. “Could I just get a ballot and take it home???”

“But early voting is going on right now!”

“I understand, but I’d really like to take a ballot home so I can make some informed decisions.” Man, what a smart, responsible idea!!!

“Would you like a sample ballot?”

What was it this lady didn’t understand? I calmly explained that didn’t fit my keen, new, innovative, uniquely American plan.

“But, you need to send in your ballot request and the date has passed for requests and the completed ballots need to be post marked by tomorrow.”

She sounded like one of the adults on a Peanuts cartoon….Wah wah wah…. wahwahaaahhhh…. She just wasn’t grasping the keen, new, innovative, uniquely American voting scheme. I gave her a sarcastic smile and rushed off to put on my registration sticker.

The moral of the story? I wasn’t sure whether I was angry with “the man” for oppressing my creativity, or if I should be ashamed of my audacity for expecting just one more accommodation to exercise my voting obligation. I have since decided I was ashamed of myself.

What happened to everyone in America voting on Election Day? What happened to every employer accommodating their employee’s obligation to vote on Election Day? How can the latest poll results mean anything if half of the voters already voted two weeks ago? What about those sudden blizzards that throw the election out of whack in the Midwest states and offer the underdog candidate a prayer of a chance to pull off a win?

Bottom line…. I voted on THE DAY. If you didn’t vote, then you basically have run out of excuses. You had early voting, absentee ballot voting, and just plain ordinary voting. But don’t try doing any combination of those at the same time… That old-fashioned bureaucratic oppression still exists….for now!!!

A Good Start

I was a recent participant in a length of service award ceremony at work.  It struck me how when we are young, we don’t tend to think much about things when we have plenty of time to make the best decisions.  Then as we age we tend to mull things over a bit more just as time becomes an ever more precious commodity.

During the ceremony the 25 year service awardees, like me, paled in comparison to those veterans of 35, 40, and even 50 years.  I wondered if those long-time veterans had figured out how to ease the passing of time.  Obviously they had made peace with their workplace.  Had work become another example of their patience and harmony with life, or was work a refuge of routine away from a life less lived?

I couldn’t decide whether to envy my more experienced colleagues or suggest retirement counseling.  Of course, I am not in a place to judge, nor are you…  The answer is that there is no one answer.

Some of us are truly happy coming to work each day and perfectly willing to keep doing that until the very last day we are alive.  Those are the lucky ones who have found their true calling and love what they do.  Either they are doing what they have always loved, or they have learned to appreciate the subtle joys of professional accomplishment.  The years go by like weeks in a vocation more like a vacation.

Then I remembered my dear friend who ticked off the days to her retirement, starting back at T-minus 3 years and counting.  It wasn’t that she despised her work, or struggled for motivation to fulfill responsibilities.  In fact, this woman was in demand as a natural leader, objective thinker, and a creatively productive worker.  But she had other stuff to do….  Greece, Italy, wine on the back patio, independent children with comfortable, loving relationships with their mom.

Back at the ceremony, as I approached the big boss, he smiled and said, “That’s a good start,” as he shook my hand and we posed with the 25 year certificate.  All I could think about is all the things I haven’t done.  Yes, there is unfinished work…  But I can’t help but think there is much more left to do in life.

I can’t start counting down just yet.  I think this grizzled civil servant has to quit mulling things over and get busy, whether it’s at the office or in the back yard.  After all, like the boss says, I just got started….