Status Report

“Adjusting Our Thinking” – Letter from Wayne Hale to the Space Shuttle Team

By SpaceRef Editor
January 28, 2004
Filed under , , ,


Sent: Tuesday, January 27, 2004 5:25 PM

Subject: Adjusting Our Thinking

To the Space Shuttle Team:

I have been doing a lot of thinking lately: the approaching
anniversary of the Columbia accident, reading the new book on the
accident, the incessant questions from the press, the opportunity to
observer our JPL collegues in their time of testing, and most importantly
thinking about the new policy and direction from our leaders. Like many
of you I have had some mixed emotions from all of this. I would like
to share some of my thoughts with you.

The vision of future space exploration existed long before we came to
work here. It is a natural continuation of the American dream. The
vision has shown up over the years in dozens of NASA strategic
planning documents, reports from special commissions, and the like. I
signed onto the vision as a schoolboy, long before I came to work
here. Many of you did the same. The vision has variations in detail and
timetable, but the central theme has not varied for decades. Explore the solar system;
first by sending robots and then with people establishing outposts, then
base camps, and eventually colonies.

In my mind’s eye our progress is like the Olympic torch relay:
each person and each program holds the flame of exploration and
progress high for an allotted portion of the route, and then the torch
is passed to the next runner in the relay. Sometimes we run alone and
sometimes we run together with others, but the goal is to move the
flame forward, to illuminate the darkness, to allow the next
generation to start just a little closer to the goal. The goal of
exploring and settling the solar system will not be completed in our
lifetime or our children’s lifetime. But we – here and now — are
called to run our lap with skill, dedication, vigilance, hard work,
and pride.

It sometimes seems that there is enough commitment or enough
money to accelerate the vision into fast forward. The march to the
future moves with fits and starts. Sometimes we have had to
compromise for what we could get, accept the part of the dream could
be sold at any given time. This is what happens in so much of real
life: doing the best we can with what we have. In spite of this, this
generation has done great things in low earth orbit and our colleges have
made tremendous strides exploring
ahead of us with robots.

The steady grind and necessary constant attention to the daily
tasks has shifted our gaze from the higher vision. We have become
accustomed to putting the vision off, waiting for the day – long to
come — when we could take the next step into the cosmos. Every year
we have tried to been more efficient than the year before in the hopes
that we could sock away enough money to build the future, to prove to
our national leaders that we were fit to be given the permission to
take the next bold step. Our attention shifted from the vision to the
next flight. We came to accept the status quo as the best that coould
be. We became complacent in more than our technical abilities. We
became complacent about the vision. It became enough for us to do
great things in low earth orbit. And in that day to day grind our
hearts have come to believe the vision is something far off, something for
the distant future.

The shuttle is a marvelous and revolutionary machine. You, the
people that make her fly, are incredible in your dedication and
attention to detail. The achievements that the shuttle has produced
will be heralded in the history books of future years. A short list
hardly covers all the shuttle’s achievements: first and only reusable
spacecraft, heavy lift launch vehicle, heavy cargo return vehicle,
delivering three times more people to orbit than all other space
vehicles to date combined, the most successful launch vehicle in the
world, the most efficient engines ever made; the list could go on for
many pages. Don’t believe the critics when they sell her short.

But those of us who know her best know her shortcomings. She is
terribly complex; she is extraordinarily difficult to prepare for
flight, she is too expensive to operate, and frankly, she is not as
safe as we need our human transport vehicle to be.

The shuttle is an amazing machine, but like every other machine
ever built, she is the result of a series of compromises, built within
financial constraints, a product of the state of the art of technology
when she was designed.

So too will be the next space vehicle we build.

The shuttle was supposed to be the DC-3 of space travel; the DC-3
became the first economically successful airliner; safer than anything
flying at the time – not perfect, but just what was needed to cause
air travel to become commonplace. Yet the analogy falls apart when we
remember that in the 31 years between the Wright flier and the DC-3
ten thousand different aircraft types were designed and build.
Designs and technologies were tried, tested, evaluated, and either
discarded or incorporated into future, better aircraft. In the 42
years of human space flight, there have been exactly 9 different model
spacecraft built by all the nations of the world. Without similar
experience of trial and evaluation building multiple space vehicles,
the wonder is that we came so close, not that we fell short. The real
truth is, the shuttle does her job too well. She has never been quite
bad enough to motivate the nation to build the next and better
spacecraft. If the shuttle was not the DC-3 of the space age, the
fact remains that the shuttle remains a huge advance in capability,
technology, and even safety over all other spacecraft.

We cannot let the familiarity of long years and the investment of
our personal time and energy in any one program or any one vehicle
confuse that program or that vehicle with the vision. The shuttle has
its place and time in the great relay but it is not an end in itself.
Those of us in the shuttle program need to take care lest we become
the battleship admirals of the new century; failing to understand when
times have changed and in which direction progress is marching toward.
We must move out of what is comfortable and familiar.

It is time to adjust our thinking.

In a virtual reality age, spaceflight is profoundly real.
Surrounded by imitations of real life on computers, at the movies, on
television, our work has real consequences. Every time we light the
SRBs, the stakes are high. First of all the lives of the crew are on
the line. Next, a great investment of our nation’s treasure in the
form of the vehicle itself and the facilities that support and
surround it are at risk. They are at real risk, not theoretical or
philosophical or virtual risk, but risk of life and limb and physical
destruction. There is more. You must understand that every time the
countdown clock reaches T=0, we bet the future, and we do it with the
whole world watching. Not only are we wagering the program; we lay
the agency on the line. Not only is the agency at risk, but national
pride and esteem are in question. Not only national pride is at
stake, but we place the human exploration of the cosmos for a
generation on the table. Until the wheels safely kiss the runway,
everything is in play. I don’t know any other agency or any other
organization where that is so completely and thoroughly true. We all
of that at stake, the very best of our abilities and efforts is

When we build the new human space launch vehicle and count the
clock down to T=0, we will make same gamble. It is the only way to
get to the universe; bet everything every single step forward.

Last year we dropped the torch through our complacency, our
arrogance, self-assurance, shear stupidity, and through continuing
attempt to please everyone. Seven of our friends and colleagues paid
the ultimate price for our failure.

Yet, the nation is giving us another chance. Not just to fly the
shuttle again, but to continue to explore the universe in our
generation. A year ago it was my firm belief that a second fatal
accident in the shuttle program would result in the lights being
turned out at NASA, the vision would go into hiatus for a generation,
and we – all of us in the agency – would be through. Instead, the
nation has told us to get up, fix our shortcomings, fly again – and
make sure it doesn’t happen again. That is the goal to which we are all
working now.

No matter how hard we worked before, now is time to redouble our
efforts. The vision runs right through the next launch of the
shuttle. We cannot be found wanting again. The future steps depend on
flying the shuttle safely and building the space station. These
accomplishments are the necessary requirement to go on to the future.

Now we have been asked to raise our eyes to the bigger vision
again. We are asked to look at what and who will run the next leg of
the relay. Our lap may come to an end sooner that we had come to
believe but the distance we have yet to run ahead is longer than it
rightfully should be for those who have dropped the torch. We must
not fail. It will demand constant attention in the face of many many
many distractions, doubts, and critics. The task ahead is not easy.
But then, it never has been easy. We just understand better what is

Therefore, do not worry about the future. We have work to do
today. If we do it well, there will be even more work for us to do in
the very near future. The foundation for that work is to fly the
shuttle safely. We have been given a great mandate. Those of us who
are in the shuttle program now will be required to help the next
generation succeed. Write down what you have learned; pass it on to
those who are starting to consider future designs. Many of you will
be called on to lead that effort. Eventually, all of us will be
called. But until then, stay focused on the task at hand. We must
make sure that the next launch – and landing – and those that follow
are safe and successful. That will be our finest contribution to the
future, carrying the torch ahead.

P. S. A final, personal note: a worker at KSC told me that they haven’t
heard any NASA managers admit to being at fault for the loss of
Columbia. I cannot speak for others but let me set my record straight:
I am at fault. If you need a scapegoat, start with me. I had the
opportunity and the information and I failed to make use of it. I
don’t know what an inquest or a court of law would say, but I stand
condemned in the court of my own conscience to be guilty of not
preventing the Columbia disaster. We could discuss the particulars:
inattention, incompetence, distraction, lack of conviction, lack of
understanding, a lack of backbone, laziness. The bottom line is that I
failed to understand what I was being told; I failed to stand up and
be counted. Therefore look no further; I am guilty of allowing Columbia
to crash.

As you consider continuing in this program, or any other high risk
program, weigh the cost. You, too, could be convicted in the court of
your conscience if you are ever party to cutting corners, believing
something life and death is not your responsibility, or simply not
paying attention. The penalty is heavy, you can never completely repay

Do good work. Pay attention. Question everything. Be thorough.
Don’t end up with regrets.

SpaceRef staff editor.