The Road Not Taken

I always knew what I wanted to do:  anything in the space program.  Getting a job offer to come to work at NASA Mission Control in Houston was beyond my wildest dream.  To tell the truth, I would have paid them to let me come and sweep out the floors.  But it worked out much better than that.

The very best job I ever had was that of Flight Director.  Each flight was different, but we put together the teams, decided how we would approach the challenges, and trained like the devil.  Every shuttle flight was an exercise in pure adrenaline rush.  Whether it was two days or three weeks, nothing else in life mattered while the shuttle was in flight – every waking moment spent reviewing, planning, preparing, and then executing the most difficult and riskiest work I know.  After the flight was over, well, sometimes I needed to sleep for a week.

One short illustration; as the Entry Flight director (26 times!) I had to go over to the press room after the landing and sit with the Program Manager for the press conference.  Generally, there were only a handful of reporters present, but there were many more watching the video and tied in by phone to ask questions.  I was always exhausted; running on fumes as they say by that point.  I learned that the Entry Flight Director got to make a little opening statement, how great the landing was, how challenging the weather was, so forth.  Then the Program Manager made a statement about the flight just over and the challenges upcoming.  Then the media questions started.  I quickly learned that there were never any questions for the Entry Flight Director.  After all, the landing went fine; it was over, what more could I have been asked?  All the questions went to the Program Manager.  And the Program Manager could drone on with long and involved answers as to what might or might not be next.  There were two cameras in the media room, a wide shot that captured both the PM and me, and a narrow shot that was focused on whichever of us was speaking.  The red light indicated which camera was active.  When the narrow shot was on the PM, I could nod off – for just a short while – close my eyes, rest my brain.  But I had to be awake enough to know when the PM was winding up his long answer and the wide shot was going to be selected.  Time to look alive!  I practiced this trick many times.

Getting to be Deputy Program Manager, and later PM, I got to practice the other end of the media role – a lot less fun, I must say.  In fact, I never enjoyed the Shuttle PM job as much as being a Flight Director.  To this day if the Chief of the Flight Director Office were to call me up and ask for my help, I would be there in an instant.  Unfortunately, being a Flight Director is a young person’s job – quick reflexes, quick study of the issues, and indefatigable alertness even in the wee hours of the morning when all is going boringly well because the next moment may not be boring at all.

After five years in the Shuttle Program Office as deputy and chief, Mike Griffin asked me to take a role that would let me learn about ‘the whole agency’ as he put it.  It was really time for me to have a change, so I went on HQ staff – but they allowed me to work and live in Houston.  It was an eye opening year as I learned a lot about Washington, and about the various parts of NASA beyond human space flight.  Sitting with the Administrator in the Heads of Agencies meeting in Paris gave me a glimpse at how hard it is to hold together the fragile international coalition that keeps the ISS going.  Sitting in on Congressional hearings gave me the strong sense that, in spite of the theater involved, the real work at HQ was earning the respect and support of the legislators who ultimate decided what resources the agency would get.

Just as my year of ‘education’ was ending, poof – a new administration came in.  Everything changed, subtly but nevertheless significantly.  I was pleased to help support the Augustine Commission during the summer months; another intensively educational experience.  Following that, Bill Gerstenmaier assigned Frank Bauer and I to develop plans for the proposed Commercial Crew program since that was clearly one of the common themes from Augustine Commission likely to be approved by the new administration.  Meanwhile, Charlie and Lori were nominated and confirmed as the new heads of NASA.

I made it known that I would be happy to have to more substantive role, feeling that my ‘sabbatical’ was over.  But, despite repeated inquiries at NASA HQ, JSC, KSC, and MSFC, there appeared to be nothing for me other than to continue in my support role.  As the shuttle program wound down, most of the other senior leaders in that program found themselves in the same situation; no place to put that talent to good use inside the agency.  With the cancellation of the Constellation program, NASA was awash in senior leaders without jobs.

Being well past the age and years of service to take my retirement, I turned in my paperwork and thought about what would be next.  Bill Gerstenmaier offered to bring me to Washington to be of closer assistance to him, more about that later, but by the time of that offer I had made my decision.

I found a small, family owned specialty engineering firm run by ex-NASA folks which was a good fit for me.  It was a place where I could bring my experience and lessons learned to the aid of the new companies building the new vehicles on a commercial basis.  This continues to be very exciting work and I like to think that I have provided critical help to several organizations.  It has been a new component to my education to closely observe how private industry makes decisions.  Certainly different from the government.  And it has been extremely interesting to deal with some of my old colleagues and organizations from the vantage point of the outside.  Makes it much more clear how the government could be more effective.  Finally, I have been asked to volunteer my time (that’s right – unpaid volunteer) to advise both NASA and the FAA Office of Commercial Space.  Additionally we are working with Johns Hopkins University Energetics Department to document lessons learned from reusable space vehicles.  Hopefully this will help future programs be more successful, especially in the financial sense.

Still, my heart is with NASA, and I wake up about once a week wishing that I were back in the agency, back in the trenches fighting the good fight to advance human space flight.  Maybe back in mission control making sure that we get the most research possible accomplished.  Maybe back in Washington haggling with the OMB about funding levels.  I don’t know, back there somewhere substantive.

I wonder about that last minute job that Bill G offered me, to come to DC and help him directly.  Would I have made a difference?  Would plans and goals have evolved differently?  Could I have made a difference in the budget wars?   Or would an old Flight Director just have mucked things up? But one thing is for certain, that was the road not taken.  And you can’t change the past.

I believe I am making a contribution in a different way right now.  And, oh-my-goodness, I don’t miss the sheer bureaucratic nonsense that my still-working colleagues remind me about on a regular basis.  Changing an Agency is very hard.  I think that there may be a number of folks in the new administration who will try to change various agencies in their goals and internal culture.  I wonder how likely that is to succeed.

When I was having a particularly hard time with some of the bureaucrats at NASA HQ, I encountered a group of retired senior JSC leaders one day and asked them how they dealt with HQ in their day.  They just laughed at me.  And then one of them said: “Just remember, they won’t be there very long.”

You can take that several ways.  And for the record; I really don’t want to work in Washington.

The Road Not Taken