Category Archives: NASA

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.

Brand Name Recognition in Chile

Yesterday I had the pleasure of listening to an incredible story.  Two of our NASA Flight Medicine folks treated hundreds of us to a presentation about how they contributed to the Chilean miner rescue.  It’s not often that a story like this comes up to showcase what NASA does and what NASA can do.

In case you’ve been in a cave, or should I say underground isolation, here’s the background in a nutshell.  Since earlier this summer, 33 Chilean miners were trapped over 2000 feet underground.  Chile has a rather elaborate mining history and capability.  They have been working continuously in the mines for well over a hundred years, and they have had to dig ever deeper to reach the still valued gold, silver, and copper reserves.  One might think that once you’ve had the entrance collapse, you’re done.  Well, because of the depth and experience with mining, they had established a very elaborate network of underground refuges with survival supplies, and supported by a fairly robust variety of ventilation holes.  The miners were alive with a hope of rescue.

The President of Chile did not hesitate to call for all the help and support the world could provide.  Understanding the circumstances — extended isolation, limited quarters and supplies, harsh living conditions, the need for rapid technological application, etc. — NASA recognized that this was a challenge we could definitely contribute to.  Our Space Medicine folks were dispatched to assist with the physical, mental, and technical challenges associated with the rescue.

Immediately upon establishing contact with the miners, there was a rush to make sure they had enough to eat and drink.  For the first couple of weeks, they had been rationing 3 days worth of provisions and were near starvation.  Our NASA docs immediately understood that too much food too fast could be fatal.  Their metabolisms would not be able to absorb the carbohydrates, and they could potentially die.  We were reminded of just this fact from history when our troops had liberated the death camps in Nazi Germany.  American soldiers had rushed to provide chocolate bars and rations to the emaciated prisoners only to watch them perish as their bodies went into shock.  Our flight medicine guys had long ago worked out routines for rationing and recovery in event that astronauts were left to survive for long periods in orbit until the next resupply flight could arrive.  The Chilean miners were beneficiaries of this advice and as a result a strict diet was arranged for delivery through their 4 inch ventilation pipe.  It worked and their health was managed well during the underground stay.

Habitation was a challenge.  How do you make use of a few hundred square feet of space to keep 33 people occupied, exercised, and sane?  Sounds a lot like a Space Station orbiting for years with just communication, work and exercise to occupy your time.  A regimented series of exercises, diversionary activities, social interaction, and communication with the surface was developed to support what could be a very long stay.

And the mental and emotional aspects….  The miners were conditioned through counseling and emotional monitoring to have hope, patience, and a sense of connectedness with their families and the rest of the world.  The families were accommodated right at the rescue site and counseled on the right tone and content of their communications with their loved ones below.

The technical aspects of the rescue pod were thoroughly addressed by our NASA emissaries.  How do you stand scrunched up for nearly an hour, sensory deprived, while you are pulled through a pitch black hole.  Think of standing in a too small coffin that has been nailed shut for just 5 minutes…..  Now multiply that by about 10….  Get the picture.  There were challenges of medication, mental preparation, remote health monitoring, and maintenance of the physiological environment….  in a too small coffin.  Who does that sort of stuff?

Probably the most amazing aspect of the story from a NASA employee’s perspective….  In the first few anxious weeks while the rescue effort was being formulated, the miners families were huddled in a terrified vigil at the surface.  The Chilean government announced that an agreement had been rapidly arranged for NASA to assist with the rescue.  Telling us the story, Dr. JD Polk paused, overcome with emotion, as he recounted the reaction of the families upon their arrival.  Children were crying tears of joy as they saw NASA coming to save their loved ones.  Dr. Polk said, as a parent, there is no value you can put on something like that….. Who else gets that kind of reaction?

In the cold hard business vernacular it’s called Brand Name Recognition.  The NASA brand means something to the rest of the world, particularly in the Chilean mountains where 33 people are alive and with their families today because of their caring government and NASA’s human spaceflight science and technology.

The NASA political arm-wrestling over the last few months seems hopelessly petty after that kind of story.  My pride has been restored just a little bit.  My hope has been restored a lot.