Status Report

NASA Internal Memo From Wayne Hale: What I learned at ISOS

By SpaceRef Editor
April 3, 2005
Filed under , , ,
NASA Internal Memo From Wayne Hale: What I learned at ISOS

Sent: Friday, April 01, 2005 8:01 AM
To: Lots of people
Subject: What I learned at ISOS

I spent a couple of days at the Integrated Space Operations Systems review at Nashville, TN.  This meeting of many the leaders in space exploration, both in the government and industry, to provide some clarity as we chart the future work of the agency.  It was a wonderful time to listen and discuss and see the plans that are being put together in detail for the future of space exploration. However, the biggest lesson I learned at ISOS did not occurred before any of the meetings at the convention center.  I arrived  before the meetings started.  One of the attractions in the Nashville area is the Hermitage, the home of the 7th president of the United States, Andrew Jackson.  Jackson came west to the pioneer village of Nashville in the 1820s long before Tennessee was a state.  He built a log house, broke ground, and pursued careers in both farming and the law.  His house is now a memorial with a wonderful museum of pioneer life.  I strongly encourage you to visit The Hermitage when you travel to Nashville.

Something in those exhibits at the Hermitage reminded me of my great-grandmother.  As a very young boy my parents would take me to visit her in central Oklahoma.  As a young girl, she had walked alongside the family wagon as they moved west to new territory in search of land and a better life.  Yet she lived will into her 90s and saw the beginnings of the space age.  

And I had to wonder, as I thought of her and saw the museum exhibits of the difficulties, dangers, and hardships of the pioneers who made this country strong, affluent, and powerful, do we still have what our pioneer ancestors had?  My grandmother was old, small, and frail when I knew her.  What shone through during those visits was a strength of character, a clarity of purpose, and a directness in communication that made you forget the frailty of old age.  Her stark assessment of those pioneer days is still fresh in my memory:  “The cowards never started, and the weak ones died along the way.”  She faced that hardship and danger and had a better life than if her family had not taken the risk to move west.

What is it, I wonder, that has made America a great nation?  Abundant natural resources are part of it.  The availability of cheap labor was a factor.  But other peoples have had cheap labor and abundant resources and have not succeeded in building a strong nation.  I believe that it is due the American character; an innate optimism and the bold willingness to take on risks if they hold the promise of a better tomorrow.  We have become the envy and wonder of the world not because of our wealth and power, but because of our character.

My great-great-grandparents certainly had some appreciation of the risks they incurred by moving west, but they could not have fully understood it.  They knew Risk in the Big Sense: danger, hardship, and death threatened their way:  accidents, disease, wild animals (wolves, bears, and snakes), hostile natives, terrible weather, and the difficulty of travel through the wilderness, all of these they must have recognized.  But the details would have been only vaguely understood.  The details of hardship were of secondary importance, they knew the Big Risk well enough.  They took what preparations they could, and they set out.

Andrew Jackson fought battles against great odds and came away victorious; sometimes due to luck, sometimes due to skill, but always due to the fact that he would face the risk and deal with it the best way he knew how.  Old Hickory made mistakes – ask any Oklahoman about the trail of tears for example.  My great-grandfather made mistakes, he literally lost the ranch in the great depression.  But overall, they avoided the Big Mistake:  not taking a worthwhile risk.  Martin Luther once said “Sin boldly.”  That is not permission to do what you know is wrong, but it is an admonition not to be paralyzed to inaction by the prospect that you might be doing something wrong.  History demonstrates Old Hickory practiced that principle.  I can tell you my great-grandmother did as well.

Today we live in the luxury of their legacy.  Our greatest physical hardship may be mowing the grass; our greatest risk may be driving on the freeway.  These challenges just don’t compare with what our great-grandparents faced every day.  Have we lost the capability to weigh risk and reward, hardship and hope, difficulty and opportunity as they did?

So the fundamental question remains, do we have those qualities that made our ancestors successful?  Do we have the judgment to weigh it all in the balance?  Do we have the character to dare great deeds? 

History is watching. 

SpaceRef staff editor.