A Sentimental Journey

Winter, a lingering season, is a time to gather golden moments, embark upon a sentimental journey, and enjoy every idle hour.
–John Boswell.



A few days ago space shuttle Discovery lifted off for her final ride to space.  Earlier in the week I read various retrospectives on Discovery.  One in particular was with former astronaut Eileen Collins, who recounted her first journey to space onboard Discovery during shuttle mission STS-63, sixteen years ago this month.  In it she recollected about the mission’s objective to conduct the first rendezvous of a shuttle with the Russian space station Mir, and how it almost didn’t happen due to the loss of a critical jet on the shuttle after launch.

See, I was in Mission Control for that mission, and I was working furiously behind the scenes to make the mission happen.  In honor of Discovery’s final trip, I’m going to share my own special retrospective of my most favorite mission flown by Discovery, STS-63.

(To set the stage, read this very straightforward account by Eileen of the STS-63 mission, and this one from the official NASA files, then come back here.  Don’t worry…I’ll wait.)

In late 1993 I was early in my career at NASA, and I was nearing completion of the training and certification program to become a fully-fledged shuttle flight controller in Mission Control for the rendezvous guidance and procedures position, with call sign “RENDEZVOUS.” In December of that year, US Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin signed agreements that established Russia as a partner in what was to become the International Space Station Program.  Additionally, the agreement called for flying Russian cosmonauts on the shuttle and American astronauts onboard the Russian space station Mir.  One of the key shuttle flights in this sequence was a dress rehearsal for a shuttle rendezvous and close approach to Mir, which within a few weeks was assigned to shuttle mission STS-63, slated to fly in February 1995 – in a little more than a year.

I happened to be in the right place at the right time.  Other shuttle missions already had lead rendezvous officers assigned to them, and to shuffle assignments with mission planning already underway might prove to be troublesome.  Knowing that I was on course to complete my certification and training in a few months, I was assigned as the lead rendezvous officer immediately and began work on STS-63.

In the year leading up to the flight, I became acquainted with the fledgling joint US-Russian cooperative efforts that were being rekindled after twenty years of dormancy, dating back to the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975.  I experienced 6 AM teleconferences, accounting for the nine-hour difference between Houston and Moscow.  I experienced how frustrating and slow progress was when nearly everything had to go through interpreters.  I also spent a lot of time in the simulator, designing the piloting procedures for flying the shuttle to within 30 feet of the docking port on Mir, backing away, then conducting the constant-range flyaround loop of Mir.  I also observed the crew in the simulator with the rendezvous instructors, flying the procedures I designed and getting their comments firsthand.

One other key area of work for me was in creating the set of mission-specific flight rules governing the rendezvous, approach, and departure.  It was the work I did in this area, coupled with the shuttle jet failures to come, that proved to be the area of excitement during the mission.  I had no idea that this might be so in the months leading up to the mission.

See, the Russians (and rightfully so) were concerned about possible contamination on Mir’s solar arrays due to the plumes from the shuttle’s jets used for maneuvering in space.  I quickly wrote a flight rule that said, “The shuttle will not come within 1000 feet of Mir if it is leaking any contaminants.” Frankly (and I’ve never admitted this until now), I took the easy way out; how often does the shuttle leak contaminants – like almost never?  I felt that a long, protracted dialogue over a series of 6 AM teleconferences through interpreters and repeating them the next week in a bizarre recreation of “Groundhog Day” wasn’t worth the effort of an almost-zero probability event, so I wrote the rule as black and white with no conditionals.  I also affirmed another pre-existing rule and applied it to the mission with Mir: if the shuttle loses redundancy in its LOW Z translation mode, it would not approach within 1000 feet of Mir.  (LOW Z is a special translation mode of the shuttle that uses nose and tail jets in concert to avoid using upward-firing jets.  This avoids impinging the rendezvous target with jet plumes.)

So much for the best-laid plans…

Shortly after achieving orbit, Discovery got an indication of jet failures.  One jet failed in the “off” position, which is OK.  However, two other jets failed in the “leak” position, meaning that unless the crew closed the manifolds feeding the jets, they would continue to leak.  That was exactly the scenario that I thought could not and would not happen.  Yet it did.

If we went by the rule I wrote, the crew would have to close the manifold and thus would sacrifice several other functional jets to avoid the leak on the leaking jet.  The problem is that the leading jet was on a critical manifold for the rendezvous, and closing the manifold would violate the LOW Z redundancy rule.  So, we were in a quandary: to be able to approach within 1000 feet, we would have to close the manifold per the contamination rule; however, by closing the manifold we would lose LOW Z redundancy and thus could not approach within 1000 feet per the LOW Z redundancy rule.  Same outcome either way – Kobayashi Maru: the no-win scenario.

Or was it?

At first, I was feeling pretty bad because I took the easy way out before the mission and wrote a rather black-and-white rule that put us in the aforementioned quandary with respect to mission success.  I kept asking myself what if: what if I had thought through the logic and rationale when I had more time before the mission, had the protracted dialogue with my Russian counterparts, and arrived at a different rule that would have avoided the quandary in the first place?

Yet I put that behind me, and with the Flight Director engaged in several days of real-time negotiations with our Russian counterparts, while the clock was counting down to the rendezvous.  Both sides wanted a successful outcome of the mission, yet both sides were still unfamiliar with the other regarding deep-set motivations and decision-making frameworks.  We were still in the process of working out trust, and there is nothing like the pressure of the actual mission happening to put trust to the test.  The Russians felt they were the ones more at risk and thus were rather cautious and conservative in the dialogue.  In the end, both sides agreed upon a plan that modified the LOW Z redundancy rule – basically the revised plan dropped it.  We entered into a series of technical conditionals concerning LOW Z and any next failure that got the Russian side comfortable. I breathed a sign of relief and began focusing on the technical aspects of my first rendezvous execute shift in Mission Control.

I remember the excitement of being in Mission Control that day, following along with the crew as they executed the procedures I wrote for the rendezvous while simultaneously monitoring the real-time data from the onboard navigation system on Discovery.  I remember the crew call-down of a visual tally-ho on Mir at the unheard of distance (for the time) of 190 nautical miles (about 220 statute miles) – up to that point, visual tally-ho’s were usually only possible within a few miles, because we had never rendezvoused with anything as large as Mir previously.  I remember the buzz of excitement in the flight control room when unexpectedly (to us flight controller) we received live video images from Moscow showing Discovery from the vantage point of Mir – we’ve never seen the shuttle live in orbital free flight previously.  I remember watching commander Jim Wetherbee smoothly fly Discovery to within 30 feet of Mir, just as if he were in the simulator.  The speeches exchanged by the astronauts and cosmonauts went passed me as I continued to watch over Jim’s shoulder (so to speak) and focus on the telemetry.  The backaway and subsequent flyaround flown by rookie pilot Eileen Collins was flawless.

In one respect, it went by in a blur.  In another, I remember moments with crystal clarity.  I remember the depths of deep disappointment with the flight rule quandary.  I remember the determination to find a way out of the apparent no-win scenario.  I remember the excitement of watching history being made, and being a participant in it.  I remember the friendships that were forged, both on the US side as well as Russian side, that carry forward to this day.  And lastly, I remember as Discovery sails on its final mission in space, the wonderful achievements of its previous missions.  She is a remarkable machine, made all the more so by the remarkable people who flew her, prepared her for her missions, and cheered her successes.


Text © Joe Williams 2011

Image credit: NASA

A Sentimental Journey


He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.
–Friedrich Nietzsche



I’m amazed at how often over the last few weeks this simple yet powerful word arose: why.

This spring marks 30 years since I graduated from high school, and recently I found myself thinking about those times.  In particular, I was thinking about my high school physics teacher who was a tremendous, positive influence on me.  Whether she realizes it or not, she led me on a quest: to ask why.  Why does the world work the way it does?  Why does gravity exist?  Why should objects in motion remain in motion?  Looking back, I can identify this time as the genesis in me for seeking a deeper understanding of the framework that describes how things work around us.  That is why I chose to major in physics in college, and led to a career at NASA.  Looking back on that journey from high school to NASA, I’m blown away at how a simple question has led me on the path I’ve chosen.  For all that, Ms. Matney, thank you.

Flash forward to current events….

In the NASA human spaceflight world, we’re moving ahead to the launch of shuttle mission STS-133 next week, while earlier this week we saw the release of the President’s budget for 2012 that reinforces the direction established last year for the future of human spaceflight.  Closer to home, the team continues to forge ahead on defining a strategic path for mission operations in Houston that encompasses a future of operating the International Space Station in all likelihood, and an evolving and uncertain future involving NASA human spaceflight programs to come and helping the emerging commercial space sector succeed in its role of transporting humans to and from low earth orbit some day.  The word why came up a number of times this week: Why should we help commercial space?  Why should we pursue such-and-such as a strategic element.  And so on.

Although here in the latter case the journey is much shorter in duration than that I described from high school, the outcome is perhaps no less profound.  By asking why questions concerning the future of human spaceflight and our role in it, we begin conversations about “because…”.  From that, we learn a deeper meaning that allows us to ask why again.  Each time we ask why we gain a deeper understanding.

That is what I learned from Ms. Matney.

It starts with asking why.


Text © Joe Williams 2011

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto



Commercial Space and Transitional Change

Change your thoughts and you change your world.
–Norman Vincent Peale



Today I want to share some of my personal thoughts concerning commercial space.

For those of you who don’t know what I mean by “commercial space”, let me give you some background.  A year ago this month, the President unveiled a fundamental change in how the United States would access low earth orbit.  Gone will be Government-based systems such as the Space Shuttle and its successor in the Constellation Program.  Instead, we will rely upon the free market and the commercial sector to provide routine, safe, low-cost access to low earth orbit, despite the fact that the latter is not in existence today and likely will not be for a few years.  In the interim, we’ll rely upon Russia and its Soyuz system to ferry astronauts to and from low earth orbit until our commercial efforts go online in a few years.

Despite the challenges, both technologically and political, I’ve been an advocate of the building of partnerships between NASA and commercial space for access to low earth orbit.  In fact, building partnerships between my organization within NASA and the commercial sector was one of the strategic directions I took forward to my management for moving Mission Control, astronaut training, and mission planning services for human spaceflight into the future. Let me share with you my philosophy as to why I feel strongly about this.

For me to fully embrace the space policy set forth by the President, and specifically the part of using commercial carriers to get astronauts to and from low earth orbit, it has to be more than a transactional change, which would be simply swapping out Government-owned systems for commercial systems to do essentially the exact same thing we’ve been doing for umpteen years with Government systems such as the shuttle.  If commercial systems are to be successful in the long run, the degree of change has to be more than that; the change has to be at least transitional to “something else”, and perhaps even transformational in ways we can’t imagine today.

What do I mean by “transactional” and “transitional” change?

Transactional change is simple in scope with predictable outcomes.  On the spectrum of change, it’s the easiest.  To lead this kind of change, the level of investment needed by the leadership and organizations involved is fairly low.  Typically, little to no modification is needed to the organizational structure, the existing system of policies and procedures, and the individual skills and abilities needed to implement the change.  Much as in a monetary transaction, a transactional change does not alter the fundamental form, fit or function of the components.

So, let me pick on the transactional change thing for a minute.  Because transactional change is simple in scope and complexity, and we can reasonably predict the outcome, I don’t believe the spirit of US space policy is transactional when replacing Government with commercial.  However, much of what I read in the blogosphere talks about it in these terms, so much so that I find it frustrating.  My intuition tells me that if Government couldn’t develop a sustainable system for access to low earth orbit to support Government missions, then how in the world will commercial do it if all it is doing is servicing the Government mission?  (This whole matter gets complicated by the involvement of Congress, which almost always deals in transactional change.  After all, as I was told in a Congressional Operations class, Congress is a “friction-maximizing device.”)

Transitional change is much deeper than transaction change.  Either the scope is huge and complexity is high with the outcome being reasonably predictable, or the scope is simple and complexity is low with the outcome being unpredictable. To lead this kind of change, the level of leadership and organizational investment needed is higher than that for transactional change.  For the change to be successful, modifications are needed to the organizational structure, the existing systems of policies and procedures, and the individual skills and abilities needed to implement the change.  Furthermore, this type of change touches upon and raises an examination and refinement of mission, strategy, and organizational culture. This kind of change is harder to do.

So, call it faith, or intuition, or whatever.  As I see it, it doesn’t matter whether the number of firms engaged in commercial space is large or small; for the transitional change to be successful, we (NASA) need to engage with commercial space to help with the complex integration of multi-tiered companies, or to provide mission assurance to commercial companies that don’t fully realize the nature of the complexity of getting to low earth orbit safely and successfully.  (After all, it is “rocket science”).

A few months ago I met with a firm that is positioning itself as a business to provide training services for pilots and passengers on commercial systems.  The CEO of the company said he’s talked to a number of commercial space firms on the need to address this kind of training once their respective systems go operational.  Whether this particular company is viable or not is not as important in my mind as is the potential for the creation of other commercial firms selling products and services to other commercial firms.  What else might there be besides training services?  What is the potential market for services for human spaceflight, selling products and services to others?  Isn’t that the definition of building a robust commercial market for human spaceflight?

When I step back and consider where we are, I think of the possibilities offered by having the commercial sector handle routine access to low earth orbit (and make a profit along the way), allowing Government to focus on the risky edges of pushing the boundaries of human exploration of space.  This is by no means an easy endeavor: the commercial sector might fail in building a sustainable business model for access to low earth orbit, or the American people might decide that human space exploration is not a national priority.  Yet I don’t see either happening.  I believe the future of human space exploration is wrapped up in a partnership of the best of entrepreneurial and Government efforts.  The challenge is ours to make the future we desire.

Text © Joe Williams 2011

Commercial Space and Transitional Change

“No, Because….”

Build bridges instead of walls and you will have friends.

Have you ever been bothered by the response, “No, because…”?

Towards the middle of the week the team and I took a well-deserved break from our strategic task to attend a management retreat for all the managers within NASA’s mission operations in Houston.  Besides getting away for two-plus days, the retreat focused on our organization’s culture and brainstorming on organizational structure changes in response to changing US human spaceflight policy.  It was so nice to engage with the leaders within mission operations, who feel and believe and live the purpose and meaning of human spaceflight.  Yet I was bothered by a small minority of leaders (not on the strategic team, thankfully!) who, more often than not, struck me as negative with responses rooted in the “no, because…” realm.

What’s the problem with “No, because…”?  Here are two:

  1. It stifles conversation. “No, because…” is followed by a justification that is intended to push a viewpoint that is not open to further examination or discourse.  Instead of building upon ideas, it rejects ideas because it doesn’t fit some preconceived notion.  It is more the tool of debate – arguing of positions – rather than of dialogue.
  2. It is condescending. A “no, because…” response sometimes contains an explanation that leaves the other party with a “you clearly don’t understand” message.  This belittles alternative ideas and can even go beyond attacking the idea and instead targets the person.

Leaders should be seeking to open conversation, not stifle it.  Leaders should be seeking to explore options and encourage people, not whack down both.

When the incidents occurred, I bit my tongue.  My immediate reaction was to attack back, even though I was not the target.  However, I quickly noted my reaction, paused, and later figured out what was going on.

What am I going to do about it?  First of all, I’m going to pray that this minority of individuals don’t assume higher levels of leadership authority in our organization; if they do, we’re doomed.  In all seriousness, I’m taking a lesson from what I observed and am going to be even more conscious of my reactions to the ideas of others.  I renew my commitment to avoid “no, because…” in all my conversations.

It’s bigger than the lead-in quote above…it’s to build upon ideas, and value the people around us.  After all, isn’t that a key ingredient of successful leadership?


Text © Joe Williams 2011

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto


“No, Because….”