NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Jennifer Ross-Nazzal
McLean, Virginia– 18 April 2006
Today is April 18th, 2006. This oral history with Joseph P. Allen
is being conducted for the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project
in McLean, Virginia. Jennifer Ross-Nazzal is the interviewer.
Thanks again for joining me for our fifth session.
you, Jennifer, thank you. Is today the hundredth anniversary of the
San Francisco earthquake?
I think so, yes.
Allen: A very
interesting day today.
I wanted to start, actually, by going back and asking you about something
we should have talked about in your first interview, and that’s
astronaut desert survival training in Washington that you participated
in in 1967.
yes. Well, I do have some recollection of it, and it’s just
one of several survival schools that the early astronaut training
had us go to. If memory serves me, one was water survival, another
was jungle survival, and then there was desert survival. I believe
the desert survival may have been the first. The way NASA does that,
of course, is they outsource it. They hire the military to do it,
because the military runs survival schools on a very regular basis.
The military officers are going through these survival schools at
a relatively steady stream. So the appearance was NASA just booked
us into a class, and we were that class. There were not other active-duty
officers there with us. The standard set of instructors gave the classes,
By and large, military survival schools consist of two parts. One
is a classroom, where you learn about things you’re going to
be facing, and then secondly, an exercise in the field. You’re
expected to survive for a day and a half or three days, whatever it
The fundamental lesson, I remember, from all the survivals, is—and
it’s a very good training, excellent training—every survival
situation, if it’s at the hands of the military, has a survival
kit that comes with it. In the kit is a survival manual, a handbook,
and you’re to read the handbook, believe it, and don’t
panic. Follow the directions there methodically. Don’t panic,
because the idea is really—that the military ingrains upon you—is
literally just survive. Don’t make big waves or panic. Just
survive, and we, your military buddies, will ultimately find you and
save you. But don’t panic in the meantime.
In terms of desert survival, obviously the idea is probably to conserve
whatever liquid you have, and don’t aggravate the situation
by a lot of activity such that you lose perspiration. I think it was
really not much more complicated than that. This took place in eastern
Washington state. We were taken as a group there from Houston, Texas,
I think your records show in August.
I had newly arrived in Houston, Texas, from Seattle, Washington, the
nice, cool part of North America. My wife and I had arrived in our
only automobile, which did not have air-conditioning. As we got into
Texas, we began to wonder why so many people were driving with the
windows rolled up, because it was really hot. Then we realized that
cars are air-conditioned. We really were just coming to the city off
the farm, in a sense.
It was extremely hot, is my recollection, and we were to go off to
survival in a really hot situation. Well, we found ourselves being
shipped to eastern Washington state, desert, which is delightfully
cool in August compared to the way it felt to me in Houston. I remembered,
“The government is very strange in the way it does things. This
makes very little sense to me.”
Nonetheless, the few days took place, and in addition to the lesson
that the military taught properly, I also remember the extraordinary
hospitality of the community there, probably military community, but
we were welcomed as VIPs [Very Important Persons] for reasons that
were difficult to know, and given several quite nice receptions prior
to the exercise and after the exercise. It was the most comfortable
survival circumstance I was ever put into, let me put it that way.
I think that even lest we get too uncomfortable, they may have, contrary
to the policy, provided us with more to drink when we were out in
the desert than we should have had; but I’m not exactly certain.
That’s kind of what my recollection is. I don’t know that
I have a lot more about it than that.
Jennifer, I have, by the way—I’m now retired, more or
less—and when I begin slowing down from working on boards of
trustees for various schools and universities, I have enormous boxes
of photographs that I will go through, and many of them are from the
survival schools at NASA. I’ve only just started with eight-millimeter
movies and super-eight movies. I’ve just had it transferred
into DVD [Digital Video Disc] formats, and there’s some wonderful
snippets of the young Neil [A.] Armstrong and the young “Jack”
[Harrison H.] Schmitt at launch sites at the Cape [Canaveral, Florida],
and the young Gene [Eugene A.] Cernan as we mill around waiting for
the various Apollo launches to watch them at the astronauts’
Are these your personal—
are all mine. I’ve taken photographs my entire life, since I
was a boy. That’s the good news. The bad news is I have kept
almost no records, but I have both the films and the photographs,
and I will methodically start to go through those. There may well
be some that would be of interest to your archives.
know, looking several years in the future—which I would be more
than happy to give to you if they show up.
Great. Well, I’ll give you that information. I know that the
archivist right now is looking for personal effects.
Well, I definitely have a lot from these survival schools, and they’re
quite fun photos.
Yes, that sounds like fun. I wanted to ask you next about your book,
Entering Space. Why did you decide to write that book, and what was
the reception of the book?
reception of the book was extraordinary. I think it went through eight
or ten printings, which really—I had no—well, it’s
the only book I’ve done. I’ve written chapters for books,
but the only kind of for-fun thing I’ve done. The reason I did
it is the photographs. I worked very hard in my early years on space
photography, because I was interested in cameras, and some quite early
space photos were not very good. The reason in my view was not the
fault of the astronauts who took them. It was the fault of the photo
equipment given early space flyers, which was military-issued equipment.
For example, the first movie camera that was to have gone aboard a
Space Shuttle had a military number attached to it. It was also used
for taking movies of artillery tracers. It looked like it came from
an Army surplus store from the 1930s. It did not have a way to focus
it. You were uncertain of what you were framing; you just framed it
through a sight on the top. You had to guess at what the exposures
would be. I think NASA, early NASA, didn’t give much attention
to the photography of it. They were so worried about the spaceships,
they just went to the most battle-hardened photo equipment they could
find and put it aboard.
That upset me, because cameras were increasingly capable, and all
cameras were amongst the most tested of objects we humans used, mostly
tested by people in the news business. The cameras are thrown around.
They’re abused. They’re in storms. They’re in disasters.
As a consequence, they’re engineered and reengineered until
cameras, off-the-shelf cameras, are amongst the most rugged of instruments
that we can buy today, and it has nothing to do with NASA’s
making them ruggedized.
I liked the photos and worked on them hard. When the Space Shuttles
first flew, there were a handful of good photos that came back from
them, and there were, as you well know, some wonderful photos that
came back from the Moon because of the Hasselblads that NASA did kind
of sign a waiver and put some Hasselblads, not space-tested Hasselblads,
aboard, although I think they may—well, certainly they had tested
them in vacuum chambers, and were surprised to learn that Hasselblads
would work in a vacuum, European-built cameras.
By the time the Space Shuttle number five flew, although there were
some good photos coming, back the news was typically interested in
two or three the day after the landings. By the way, these photos
came back in film form. They didn’t get beamed down the way
the photos come down now electronically. It was really old technology.
The Space Shuttle’s old technology; the cameras were old technology,
based on today’s standard.
STS-5, on which we flew, had some terrific photos taken, and I’ll
take credit for some. I didn’t take them all, but I set the
cameras up and the people. I think far and away the best photo of
me ever in space is one taken by Vance [D. Brand], and it was taken
with the Hasselblad camera of me in the spaceship in available light.
Again, the photo people said, “No, the Hasselblads are for taking
pictures outside. Use the small format for inside.” We improvised
and took some gorgeous portrait photos with the Hasselblads in the
There was only one photograph published, as I remember, in Time magazine,
and it was a photograph of the four of us crew members that I had
set up and taken with a delayed timer. I told you the delayed timer
story, I think.
Allen: I won’t
go into that again. But it appeared—well, I also have spoken
about this, because I had taken some photos, just a handheld camera,
out on the launch pad before the launch; given it to the technicians
out on the launch pad with you to take back to the photo labs. I think
John [W.] Holland ran the photo labs then. To my surprise, when I
returned, my wife had magazines where some of those photos had already
appeared in magazines. I was thrilled that NSA had printed them and
said, “Hey these are good photos,” and made them available.
After the flight, however, the only one that appeared in Time was
the one of the four crew members, and I was looking in the photo labs
at maybe five hundred, six hundred gorgeous photos. I said, “Maybe
I should think about doing a book on just photographs with captions.”
Jennifer, about two months after that flight, Lynn, Bonnie, and I
came to the Northeast, and we accepted an invitation at a very elegant
home in the Hamptons. It was an invitation from Lynn Sherr, ABC’s
Lynn Sherr, married to quite a wealthy man and was very hospitable,
and we went out.
There, one of her friends who runs a boutique in the Upper East Side
of New York City [New York], very fancy boutique, was a lady named
Diane Love. Lynn had helped me with how one takes some videos, and
so in the weekend we were talking about photography. Diane Love, who
I only met the once, indicated that her brother was very interested
in [photography], and indeed, her brother was a publisher.
His name was and is Andrew Stewart, Andy Stewart, and he was the main
principal in Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, three names; published books
in New York City, and the books by and large were art books or books
about museums, or in some cases, about cooking, but very nice photography
of meals being prepared. One of the books that Andy had been instrumental
in was the text was written by his wife, Martha Stewart.
were a couple. Oh, really. They had one daughter. They were both incredibly—Andy
is quite a handsome gentleman, tall, very well educated, and very
much into the art world. It was wonderful fun.
Well, his sister put me in touch with Andy Stewart, and I think Andy
came to Houston to meet me, because I said to him, “All of these
are public property. You can have them. I would help you go through
them, and I will be happy to help with the captions.” He, of
course, is a businessperson, and he wanted to know what kind of a
contract in it. I asked some NASA people, and it turned out I was
a government employee, so I could not accept any money at all for
doing this, and most of it I would have to do on nights and weekends,
which didn’t bother me a bit. But he, as an individual, loved
that, because that meant no royalties to an author, and the photos,
you didn’t have to pay any rights to get the photos.
So I think that probably swung him to say, “Well, it’s
a little unorthodox, but why don’t we do it.” He also
came into the photo lab and began to go through some of these photos.
He was so excited, because he knew good photography. He said, “Yeah,
we’ll do this.” So we agreed. We just agreed on a handshake
to do it. We started to go through the photos, and I started to build
the captions, and he went away to think about it. In about a month,
he called and he said, “Joe, this is not going to work. We need
text. It just can’t be.”
I said, “Andy, I can’t do text,” and because I was
then starting—I think I was already in a rotation again, and
I said, “I’m not [available].”
He says, “Not to worry. I know a young man who is an extremely
good writer, and I will put you in touch with him, and the two of
you will be the authors of the book.” And he introduced me to
a fellow named Russell Martin from Cortez, Colorado, one of the most
interesting individuals I’ve ever met. Russell is still a wonderful
author of books. He’s written—I’m not sure what
his last one. He wrote a book called Matters [of] Gray and White:
[A Neurologist, His Patients, and the Mysteries of the Brain]. It
was about the human brain. He wrote a book called Cowboy: [The Enduring
Myth of the Wild West], published by Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, that
is an extraordinary book of photographs from the Old West, from the
West, and Russell did the text for that.
Russell and I sat down with tape recorders, and we began to talk about
the STS-5 flight, but also about the human experience in flight. I
don’t know if you’ve looked at the book recently, Jennifer,
the Entering Space.
Not recently. Probably about a year or two ago.
if you look at it, it’s basically just an account of what it
is like for you to go to space, for me to go to space. It’s
not Joe Allen, but were you to be there, this is what you would experience.
He then developed an outline, and pretty much, we just dealt out the
chapters, and I would try my hand at one; he would try his hand at
another, and then we would swap drafts.
He was a wonderful help to me on this. I would call your attention
to the preface in that book, because I thank him in that. I can’t
quote myself, but the sense of it was Russell was such a help. I said
he was an expert on horses and cowboys, and never mind the fact that
an astronaut is a bit of a cowboy, but the horses used are millions
of them—in the power of the rockets—rather than one, but
oftentimes their nature is very much the same, something like that.
But he and I really did work hard on it, and it was a terrible headache,
terrible, as you know from writing papers. It’s no fun at all.
But when it’s finished and it was published, I was suddenly
really extremely pleased with how it had turned out. A lot of it goes
to Russell; a lot of it to Andy, who took personal interest in it;
and then another gentleman he got, who had been the book designer
of the cowboy book, a man named Hans Teensma, who had been born in
Holland. He was a Dutchman. The three of us, Russell, Hans, and myself
really had a great time doing it, and then were every pleased with
the final product.
I think it’s been published in about six languages, and I’ve
got a copy of each of the languages. To my astonishment, a colleague
of mine brought me a catalog that’s a catalog from a rare book
auction house, where they have first editions of Robert Louis Stevenson,
and “for sale in good condition,” and you know, it’s
a thing for book collectors. There was a first edition of Entering
Space in there, signed by me, $500. Wow, I couldn’t believe
it. I only have two or three of them left. They’re all gone,
and they’re out of print. Stewart, Tabori, and Chang is out
of business. I think it may have been their most successful book.
They made a lot of money on it, but it didn’t sustain them.
Then this need not be part of history, Jennifer, but Andy and Martha
were obviously, they were both very, very strong individuals, and
Andy sometimes privately referred to her as “the dragon lady.”
She began to get increasingly successful, for all good reason, and
Bonnie and I once were invited to their house for dinner in Westport
[Connecticut], and attended.
Later when we were doing—there’s a second edition of the
Entering Space, and it has the STS 51-A chapter in it, and it sold
every bit as many as the first. It was published two and a half, three
years later. Came to Houston [Texas], and I said, “Well, you’ll
come to dinner.”
He said, “Fine. We’ll be happy to.”
I went home and told Bonnie Martha and Andy Stewart was coming to
dinner, and Bonnie said, “Not to my house, they’re not.”
She was quite intimidated by Martha by then, and so we wound up, it
was my responsibility to make certain they were entertained. We took
them to the Cadillac Bar and Grill down on Shepherd [Drive], where
Martha was very intrigued by the cabrito being cooked, and she was
also quite intrigued by the tequila being sold. That’s another
story which I won’t even go and—I won’t put that
on the record
Well, these are great anecdotes.
now what else to say about the book? Not so much, other than ever
since, Jennifer, if I’m out and giving a speech, more often
than not an individual will come up to me afterwards with a copy of
the book to be signed—of course, these are the people that are
space buffs, and so they’re coming and aware of it—which
I’m very pleased to do. I got a number of letters written to
me by people that have read the book and enjoyed it. Many of them
I still have.
One of them was an all-time favorite. “Dear Dr. Allen, we’re
a family of four children and, in the evening, we always read books
to the children, or bedtime stories. I began to read excerpts from
your book to my six-year-old son, at the beginning of—.”
He’s in the first grade. He said, “You’ll be pleased
to know that he’s now—let’s see, he’s in his
first few months of his second grade, and he’s able to read
a few of the passages from the book to me.”
Which I really love, because I had wanted the book to be in language
that any man or woman on the street could understand. No NASA jargon,
very little scientific jargon, just English, good, simple English
language. I didn’t know if I’d succeeded, but when I got
the letter, I thought, “Maybe I overshot. Maybe it’s too
simple.” [Laughter] But it was certainly a very precocious youngster
in the second grade that was doing the reading.
Okay, I don’t have anything more about the book that I have
Let’s talk a little bit about the Challenger accident and then
your work with the Challenger Center, and how you became involved
when I left NASA in the summer of ’85, so this is post-NASA,
and I think that some of this I’ve put onto your tapes before.
I apologize to you. You probably remember, and I don’t. Stop
No, no, absolutely—it’s.
me if I’ve [said this before], but I decided it was now time
to leave. I was—I’ll do the calculation—what was
I? I was forty-three, I would have been. If I ever was to leave, now
was the time. I’d also been on two missions that, to my mind,
had a very interesting, simple symmetry. The first had to do with
the first cargo to space. The second had to do with the first cargo
to be brought back from space. The first one, the spacewalk had failed.
The second one, the spacewalks had worked beautifully, even including
overcoming really huge difficulties, but we had gotten through it.
So I didn’t have anything stuck in my throat, so to speak, that
just totally unfinished.
Additionally, Bonnie, who had suffered through this for eighteen years,
desperately wanted to be out of the business, and with reasons that
every one of us can understand. So we decided to leave.
I was pretty certain I could be appointed at a relatively high level,
again, because I had been an Assistant Administrator at NASA, thanks
to George [M] Low and Jim [James C.] Fletcher. Somewhat to my dismay,
none of the NASA higher officials had anything they thought they could
offer me, not even a deputy position at a Center, a research Center,
if I would have. I didn’t really sense going into a directorate
at JSC made much sense, because we’d lived there a long time,
and we like Houston a lot as the people, but we’re still sort
of Midwest, and we miss seasons still to this day, miss seasons to
So I then thought, “Well, I’ll go back to university.”
That said, I was many—let’s see, ’67 to ’85,
that many years out of the university. I would have had to have gone
back to school for two years to retread my Ph.D. in physics, and then
I could have probably done that, but at a fairly low level. We didn’t
have the money or the time to do it.
Flown astronauts were still hot property with the big aerospace companies,
and there was no problem getting hired, and I indeed was talked to
very seriously by people at Rockwell and Lockheed—I think Martin
was a separate company then—and the individuals I had known
through the business and liked very much, but I could not understand
why they wanted to hire a forty-three-, forty-four-year-old individual
who knew nothing about business, and give them some serious responsibility
for a business. It didn’t seem right.
So I decided I would go with a small business and learn the business,
and I went with Max [Maxime A.] Faget, who had just started Space
Industries, and he was a dear friend of mine then and was till the
end of his life. I admired him greatly, and I know that I’ve
said that he reminded me some of my grandfather, whom I adored, who
had been a Methodist minister. The similarity is a little bizarre,
but the two had an approach to life that was very similar. Max’s
was a little more profane, but nonetheless, the approach was the same.
And Space Industries was started.
Now, tell me, what question did you get me on?
I was asking you about the Challenger accident.
Challenger, right. This is important, thank you. We had a perfect
business plan for Space [Industries] not very much money, but a perfect
business plan. Well, it turned out it had some imperfections. One
was it would depend on a robust space transportation system. So in
that fateful day in January of ’86 when we lost the Challenger,
we had a business with just enough start-up money to sustain ourselves
for two or three years, but we now no longer had a space transportation
system. We were essentially out of business.
I was also heartbroken, because I knew every person aboard, and it
is like losing seven family members. That’s—no more simple
way to put it.
With us, though, was a man named David [H.] Langstaff, so Max and
David and myself. David is the male version of the “Unsinkable”
Molly Brown. During his then short lifetime, he had had many challenges
and trials and tribulations, but none of them got the best of him,
and this one was not about to. Although we didn’t have a business,
he said, “Look, let’s just stand down for a little bit.
Let’s you and me work on doing a benefit concert to raise money
for the families.”
A concert was put on in Jones Hall in Houston, Texas, and I’m
certain—and I think it was in April, so it would have been about
twenty years ago—that there are surely news accounts of it.
I think it is the only time, Jennifer, where all the performing arts
of Houston were brought together at one time. Each put on a performance
as a benefit, and Jones Hall was sold out. John Denver served as the
master of ceremony. He had even written a song for the occasion, “Flying
for Me,” which he performed for the first time there. My memory,
I remember something like $100,000 were raised, which were put into
a trust fund that was being set up for those family members.
Now, also during that time, because I was no longer at NASA, I had
become the Chairman of the Space Foundation, which was a little sort
of commercial space entrepreneurial—we had a luncheon every
month or something, either out in Clear Lake [Texas] or sometimes
downtown Houston. Just in being around the area, it came to my attention
that someplace in Building 1 where these stacks of letters were being
received, condolences. Someone had decided that the monies being sent
to the families could not be accepted—they had to go back to
the individuals sending the money—and then started to do that.
When I found out about it, I was infuriated, because I thought it
was discourteous to those that had sent the money. Sometimes it was
pennies that children had put in envelopes. It was discourteous; it
was heartless; and just because there was a government policy about
the government couldn’t accept money on behalf of. Totally beside
I met, I think, with Hank [Henry W.] Flagg or somebody, the chief
lawyer. They, we all became convinced that, “Well, we can just
put it in the hands of the Space Foundation, and the Space Foundation,
which is a not-for-profit, and it has a board of directors, etc.,
it will be fine.” So that’s what was done. So monies from
the benefit went in with monies coming in from elsewhere. Then ultimately
the monies were transferred over to the family members in some sort
of a formal way; I can’t remember quite what.
About that time, also in April, June Scobee had a meeting in her living
room on a Saturday morning. “What do we do with these monies?”
And it was, “Well, what kind of a monument?” and it was
decided, they decided, that the mission of Challenger was a mission
of education, and the mission should continue. And they started what
became the Challenger [Center], a learning experience, and it evolved
The first thing that was done was a simulator was conceived and actually
built there at the museum in Houston. It was built by Carolyn Sumner.
Do you know her?
I know the name, but I’m not sure I know her.
an educator that is still there, and she was involved—she’s
a science educator—was involved with the museum. She’s
still involved with the two Learning Centers in Houston. I haven’t
seen her for years. I’m not sure I’d recognize her. But
that was, and actually that idea, was June’s—well, June’s
with her fellow widows, and Chuck Resnik, Judy’s brother, was
involved. Steven McAuliffe, Christa’s husband, was involved,
before he became a federal judge.
Well, the Space Industries, by changing its business plans dramatically,
evolved, evolved, evolved, and changed business plan every year, but
somehow still further proof that David Langstaff is the “Unsinkable”
Molly Brown, we wound up going onto the New York Stock Exchange. I
don’t think I carried my comments that far, and we don’t
have to go into it here at all, but we managed as a business to survive.
The way we did is we sold ourselves to a company who wanted good managers,
and they thought we would be good managers. Then two years later we
bought ourselves back, because under our management, the company wasn’t
doing very well, either. But we were able to get ourselves refinanced
in still a different business venue, and in June of I think ’03—maybe
it was ’02—’03, we became an overnight success in
going on the New York Stock Exchange. Never mind the fact that it
had taken us eighteen years to do it. Let’s see, is that right?
’80, ’85, ’95, ’03, and we went on in ’03,
A year later we were bought by General Dynamics, somewhat to our surprise,
which meant that David and I no longer had a job, properly so. But,
Jennifer, virtually every one of our 8,000 employees had a continuing
job with a very good, large corporation. And because many of them
had purchased shares of us, of Veridian, in a savings plan as we evolved
and grew, owned some serious chunks of the company, and General Dynamics
bought us for $35 a share, cash. That went into their savings plans
So I take considerable joy in knowing that in 2003 and in 2004 when
General Dynamics bought us, we did exactly the opposite of Enron,
also a company from Houston, Texas. We guaranteed the continued employment
of our employees, whom we cared dearly about, and we made many of
them wealthy, rather than causing them to lose all their retirement,
which is what Enron did. I don’t know if you know any of the
Enron folks in the Houston area.
I don’t know any of them, no.
it’s a total tragedy. Many of them were in their forties, fifties,
sixties, no job and no savings plan at all left. All gone. And Mr.
[Jeffrey K.] Skilling is explaining how that came to pass, even as
we speak, right now.
Okay. I followed Challenger [Center] with considerable interest as
it evolved, for probably five years, and then June asked me to come
onto the board, and I agreed. That would have been after I had left
the Houston area and we’d brought the business up here, so it
would have been in the early nineties. So I think I’ve been
on the board about fifteen years, and I’ve been the Chairman
about nine, which frankly is a privilege and an honor; it’s
also a heavy responsibility, and I’m now old enough to—it’s
now time to be getting additional new people involved, because it
is a continuing challenge.
We’re fifty-one centers now. We grow about three a year. There
is considerable irony in knowing that twenty years ago this month
the first center was built, and it was to kind of celebrate the mission
of flight 51-L. A few weeks ago the fifty-first center was built.
Isn’t that weird?
Where was it built?
Mississippi. I think it’s Hattiesburg; I’m not exactly
certain. But it became operational. It’s quite extraordinary,
a weird coincidence. Indeed, it was dedicated by June a couple of
weeks before the twentieth anniversary of observation of the tragedy
at KSC [Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida], and she spoke
at that. Rick [Frederick H.] Hauck, who returned us to flight, spoke,
and I spoke, together with several members of Congress and the Center
Director, and Rick Scobee, his son, spoke.
If you’d like a copy of those remarks, I don’t know if
you guys do that, but because it’s my recollection—more
carefully thought through—my recollection of what the Challenger
Learning Centers were or had become. The essence of it, Jennifer,
is through the courage and the commitment of the Challenger family
members—in spite of the tragedy—their commitment and courage
has turned a national catastrophe into an educational triumph. It’s
heroic on their parts to have done that.
We’d love a copy. We can put it as an appendix to your oral
history, and if anyone would like more information, we can set it
up so they can click on it.
see. We have an annual budget of about three and a half million a
year that’s consumed by the national headquarters. Each of the
centers has to worry about its own budget, so it has to be a break-even
operation, and it’s always—like many educational things,
it’s a struggle. But some centers do it easily; others struggle
on. But they’re still all operational.
Our main problem right now is that the simulations which they do are
as obsolete as the Space Shuttle, and we are desperately attempting
to upgrade the quality of those simulations, now with big flat-screen
TV and high-resolution and better operating computer systems and so
on. It needs money to do, and we are constantly attempting to raise
money. Every time there’s another national disaster, it gets
harder for us to raise the money.
It’s not been helpful that the number of aerospace companies
has dwindled dramatically in size. There was a time when each one
would contribute. Now Lockheed Martin and Boeing both are very generous
contributors, but there are only two of them. Much less are from the
Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon, almost none. But we’ve begun
to attract such international corporations, though, as some of the
big Japanese firms, and they’re starting to help us out.
I’m very sad to tell you, and I’m—should this? Yes,
this should go on the record. Twenty years ago Vice President George
[H. W.] Bush, under [Ronald W.] Reagan, was very helpful to June in
helping her get this started, and through then Vice President George
Bush and Jake [Edwin Jacob] Garn and Don Fuqua, and other leaders
on Capitol Hill, an endowment fund was set up to endow the Challenger
Learning Centers every year—not endow—to pay, to help
support at the level of a million dollars. So this, say, $4 million,
we get 25 percent of it from the feds, which is helpful; which is
helpful. Provided—the way the public law reads—provided
that we have raised at least an equal amount from private sources.
Now, I don’t know the precise number. We’ve been around
now for twenty years. We’ve gotten now $20 million, maybe 19
[million]—or actually, I think we’ve gotten about 16 [million].
It took a while for that law to get passed. But we have raised upwards
of $70 million in this twenty years’ time, so we are way oversubscribed
in gleaning money from nongovernment sources.
That said, the payment that we have received—NASA is the custodian
of this endowment fund. Problems occurred between NASA and OMB [Office
of Management and Budget] that I do not know the nature of, and there
have been a series of letters from me, from June, to various members
of Capitol Hill and to the NASA Administrator underscoring the urgency
that these monies flow. NASA wound up nearly a half a year late in
paying their last fees, so we’re down a half a million dollars.
They blame it on OMB. OMB blames it on NASA’s squandering the
I don’t know what the real facts are, but if a university squanders
an endowment fund, they lose their accreditation. If it were done
elsewhere, at a not-for-profit, there would be individuals that would
go to jail, because that’s a violation of the law. Now, the
monies were actually paid a week ago, and I still don’t know
what happened. When they were paid, I personally talked to Mike [Michael
D.] Griffin, who’s a good friend of mine, the NASA Administrator,
and thanked him for solving it.
He said, “Solving what?” He had been unaware that anything
was going on. So the “eyes-only” letter which I had sent
to him never even got to him. So I don’t know what’s going
on. Ask Josie [A. Soper].
We’ll have to ask.
Josie. I think she’ll suggest it has something to do with White
House appointees in NASA right now that certainly have complicated
several people’s lives.
Jennifer, were you aware of the problems in the press raised recently
about the NASA scientists talking about global warming? There were
some news articles up here, at least, about NASA Public Affairs officials
are sitting on this NASA scientist. Do you know what happened from
that? Are you aware?
I thought I’d heard that the gentleman was let go [or resigned]
because his university degree was not official.
is correct. You have a good sense of it. Well, the official responsible,
a little snippet of his bio wound up in some papers, that he was a
graduate from Texas A&M [University, College Station, Texas].
Some people from Texas A&M couldn’t remember him, and they
went back, and they couldn’t find any record of his having graduated.
He was either fired or quit, but he had been appointed by the White
Mike, to his credit, has come out with a policy now that’s a
real tribute to how these things should be handled, about scientists
within NASA. It’s now the poster child for keep—but in
the meantime there are a couple of other appointees there that are
causing him all sorts of trouble that I think he’s not aware
of. Anyway, it’s not my problem to solve.
Well, the Challengers now, we touch in a positive way hundreds of
thousands of children each year, and it’s a good thing. It’s
always complementary to what’s going on in the school system.
Teachers in a school system can take a trip to a zoo. They can go
down to this. They can also take a class to a Learning Center, and
it’s all kind of a nice experience.
I’ll say one last word for it. In my mind, why it’s valuable
to a community is increasingly, our young people, for reasons that
are very distressing to me, as an old technical person and an individual
who actually went on every one of my adventures because of help from
adults—be they teachers or parents or coaches—when I was
a youngster, in getting past the fact that some early math, arithmetic,
and some early science is pretty boring. But they helped me get past
that, and because I got past it, that’s why you’re talking
to me here. I wouldn’t have been NASA. Who knows what I would
have been? Well, actually, I would have been a good science teacher.
That’s what I would have been, which is an adventure in itself.
But thank goodness, they got me past it.
Increasingly, if you look at statistics now, Jennifer, we have youngsters
that are just as gifted as anybody and interested in math and science
up till the time they’re about twelve years old. Then by the
time they’re about fifteen years old, we can barely compare
with any third-world country in those that are interested in it, think
they might want to do it. It is just abysmal.
Probably an oversimplistic reason for it is when you get twelve and
thirteen, particularly if you’re a girl, your friends are telling
you, “Don’t do that, because you don’t want to appear
smarter than boys. Plus it’s just not cool. It’s just
geeks and nerds. It’s just not what’s happening.”
What the Challenger Learning Center experience does, it takes kids
of that age in, and using just a little smattering of some math and
science, enables them to go on a terrific kick-ass adventure. Our
fervent hope is that at the least that this does is put these kids
on the horns of a dilemma, that when Mikey tells them it’s not
cool, they begin to think, “Well, maybe Mikey doesn’t
know what he’s talking about, because it seemed pretty cool
to me, and gosh, it was fun.” So we’re very hopeful that
that’s what these are doing.
We’re attempting—it’s very much up-to-date to develop
what you call metrics. When you give a lesson and so on, does it have
an effect? Do kids remember it? We are in the process of developing
metrics so that we can measure whether we indeed are having the positive
effect we think we’re having. Now, there are hundreds of stories
about it, but you want to have some things that statistically prove
these are just not the occasional random lucky story. We need those,
because it’s very useful in raising money.
Are you partnering with the Sally Ride [Science Club]?
Sally [K. Ride] was a Director of Veridian, Veridian was a sponsor
of all of her early shows. Challenger does not partner with Sally,
but it’s exactly the same idea. Sally has kind of a specialty
niche. It’s aimed in at about the same age, but it’s aimed
primarily at girls. In fact, I think it’s exclusively at girls.
I’ve been, actually, a speaker at a couple of hers.
One of them was with Kathy [Kathryn D.] Sullivan, so Kathy and Sally
and I spoke, and they sort of held me up to say—their message
was, science was woman’s work; that science is for girls. “That’s
what we do. It’s for you.” Well, boys can be scientists
if they want, and they held me up as exhibit A. But girls, don’t
worry about that. Science is woman’s work. I was perfectly agreeable
with being the token male there, because what she was doing was terrific.
When we did that, Jennifer, our company, Veridian, would sponsor it,
and we encouraged every one of our employees that had a daughter or
a granddaughter, and so it was widely publicized, to go. We would
do it in places where we had hundreds of employees, and so they already
had a good audience. But then that they should bring their friends,
as well. So it was a pretty easy, one-fell-swoop marketing to get,
and then it would be publicized in the community. They would be very
heavily attended. I don’t know if you were aware, you go in
and you get a Sally Ride T-shirt, and you get to hear her speak. Then
if you want something, she’ll autograph it for you, which is
pretty amazing, because she then sits at a table and autographs for
about three hours.
But in the meantime, you can attend workshops on these little science
projects, and every one of the workshops would be taught by one of
our employees, a female, an engineer, a scientist, a technologist
of some kind, and which they would do as a volunteer. So it was great.
So the girls were going to classes taught by women that said, “Look
it, if you follow this, this is what my profession is like, and believe
me, it is a lot of fun.” So we were having a very good effect.
Of course, she continues to do it now, but without—I mean, there’s
no longer Veridian. But it’s exactly the same idea.
Let’s turn to the Augustine Committee, which you served on in
Allen: I did.
I did. I have very little recollection of—well, my problem,
Jennifer, I served on a Don [Donald P.] Hearth Committee, and then
I served on an Augustine Committee, and their charter was virtually
the same. In my mind the memories are jumbled. Now, the Don Hearth
Committee had been chartered by Jim Fletcher, and it was to assume
that we have a working Space Shuttle in the late 1970s. What should
we use the Space Shuttle for, and what other big pieces of equipment
do we need to augment it? In that, Max Faget, Joe [Joseph P.] Kerwin,
and myself were representatives on that. That was an all-NASA committee
from the Manned Spacecraft Center. We were to sort of deal with the
human aspects of spaceflight.
At one point we came up with our recommendation, which Joe Kerwin
and I wrote, and Max agreed to. It was a little bit irreverent, but
the assumption was we now have a Space Shuttle going to and from,
and the way we summarized ours was, “After serious thought,
our study group will thus advise our nation. We’ve built a railroad
into space, and now we need a station.” [Laughs] Well, I’ve
come to regret that advice, because I’m not a fan of the Station,
and we no longer have a railroad into space, which is still another
The Augustine group, it sat in what year and reported out in what
Nineteen ninety, you were selected.
I was no longer a NASA person when I sat on that group. I was Space
Industries. Tell me one or two of the other members of that group.
They were non-NASA people, is that correct?
They were. I don’t have that with me.
were they all NASA people? Norm [Norman R. Augustine] was not a NASA
Norm Augustine? I don’t believe so.
Allen: I think
he had just stepped down as the—he had been the president and
CEO [Chief Executive Officer] of the—well, what had he been?
He had been within Martin, and then he became—Martin went into
Lockheed Martin, and then he became the president and CEO of Lockheed,
which was an extraordinary corporation, and he is one of the most
remarkable individuals I’ve ever met.
Well, we had a series of workshops, and we’d talk about this,
and we would do position papers, and then come up with a sort of a
clunky, weird draft. Then one weekend Norm disappeared with the draft,
and he came out with a report, which was beautifully written. Some
of the essential ideas in the draft are in his report, but it is ever
so much better told in a more compelling and—he as an individual
condensed it down, but basically rewrote the whole thing, and he is
an extraordinarily gifted writer. I would be interested to go back
and even read now what he wrote. I suspect that it’s as true
today as it was then.
Let’s see, we’d already lost the Challenger when he wrote
it, though. Yes. Yes, I’m sure. Jennifer, he’s also done
the same sort of a thing for education in nation America. Are you
aware of that? And I think the title of it is The [Rising Above the]
Gathering Storm: [Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter
Economic Future]. It’s got a very provocative title. But if
you go as an older individual like my—go to read it, you’re
going to fall into despair about where our nation is going to come
out, because of our lack of good education and interest on the part
of our young people in things scientific and technically. We’re
going to become the service sector to the world. “Do you want
fries with that?” Uneducated, with vast economies going elsewhere,
away from nation America.
You put that up with our frivolous use of federal dollars now, and
the massive debt, and the total neglect of where we’re going
to get the energy of the future from, the future for my grandchildren
and great-grandchildren is being mortgaged to the hilt right now by
totally unthinking federal policies. Well, do I stay awake nights
worrying about that? I really don’t, because it won’t
be my problem. But I’ve done all I can do to put modest resources
in the hands of my grandchildren right now, and starting with education,
which is the only thing that’s going to sustain them. Hopefully
they can, with it, survive.
We’ll see. I’m a very optimistic individual. This sounds
less than optimistic. Maybe something will happen, but it has to be
a reawakening on the part of our national leaders that this is very
serious business, and we just have to get after it.
Oh, let’s see. So from the Norm Augustine Report, I have this
vivid recollection of him as a megathinker and as a very thoughtful
chief executive. In many ways I wound up in the world of serious business,
and many people there are from the Harvard Business School [Cambridge,
Massachusetts], the Darden School [of Business, University of Virginia,
Charlottesville, Virginia], the this or that, very extremely well
educated. Not I. However, I do feel I had gone to the Norm Augustine
school of business ethics and how one views tough problems, because
of just the workshops I sat in with him. I really felt myself so fortunate.
An aspect of his success is he really cared about his fellow workers
and his employees enormously, and he listened to them, and it was
genuine. A consequence was the corporation he ran, an extremely successful
We attempted to build Veridian as what we called the “employer
of choice.” If a smart individual could go anywhere he or she
wanted to go, we wanted to be the company that she chose to come to
or he chose to come to. We could state that’s what we wanted,
but we couldn’t make it that way. They had to decide whether
we were doing it. But we would always say, “We will continue
to work such that we will be the—we may fail, but we’re
going to keep trying to be the employer of choice.”
Strange things started to happen. To do that, you’re often not
as profitable as your shareholders want you to be, and it’s
often taken a longer time. But strange things started to happen. We
acquired small companies, bought them, usually from the original owners
and founders. Typically they’d be a company of maybe two hundred
or three hundred people. The individual selling them would be an individual
that was maybe sixty-five years old; had started the company as an
energetic, naïve thirty-year-old, but over the years it had grown
and been successful. But that individual always cared so much about
the people that worked for him.
On at least two occasions, Jennifer, we found ourselves—and
that individual also would have a board, but he usually held the controlling
share. He could do whatever he wanted. In at least two instances,
we found ourselves buying a company where the offer we had made for
it was not the highest offer, and realized that we were now the acquirer
of choice, as seen through the eyes of some of these individuals,
because they knew that their employees, for whom they cared about,
and their traditions, would not be trampled on by new flippant management
style. We’d gotten that reputation, and good for us, because
later it paid huge dividends.
But Norm was exactly the same way. I mean, I can’t say I hadn’t
thought about it at all. I saw him doing that.
Where else would you like to go?
I just have a couple more questions.
you still recording okay, can you tell?
I am, yes. We probably have about another twenty minutes. I wanted
to ask you about the Hubble Space Telescope EVA [Extravehicular Activity]
assessment that you participated in, and my notes indicate that you
wanted to talk about a Dan [Daniel S.] Goldin conversation.
Sometime back you told me this.
This was in—
things happened, and I don’t want to get them confused. Dan
Goldin called me twice—well, several times. I thought he was
a wonderful public speaker and quite good on Capitol Hill. I was distressed,
as virtually every thinking—well, that’s self-serving;
let me not say that—as many of my former NASA friends were,
that his employee practices were really heavy-handed. He would say
one thing and do something else. He tended, in my opinion, to be two-faced.
That said, he was extremely good public as a speaker and extremely
good on Capitol [Hill], and he had some considerable success. He put
boundless energy into being the NASA Administrator. I don’t
fault him on that.
He also was hired to become the President of, I think, Boston University
[Boston, Massachusetts] when he left the agency. When I saw that,
I thought, “That is probably the worst choice a university could
make, because a university president is far different from what had
been a mercurial NASA Administrator.” I thought, “The
faculty are going to eat this guy alive.”
Within a month, there was an out-of-court settlement where he took
several millions of dollars and said, “Okay, the contract is
now no longer valid,” or, “I will nullify the contract.”
But it was a stupid move on the part of the Board of Trustees of that
university, for which they’re still paying. That’s an
He called me twice. Once was when one of the missions, after 51-A,
had attempted to grapple a satellite to repair it, and they couldn’t
grab it. The grappling thing didn’t work. They’d tried
during two EVAs. I was still at Space Industries in Houston, right
across the street from the Space Center, and rather strange that nobody
from JSC called me, because I’d handled a satellite. I had some
ideas, and I was following it with great interest, obviously.
I went into the office after the second failed EVA, and the phone
rang. I was usually one of the first in the office. The phone rang,
and I picked it up. Said, “We’re trying to reach Dr. Allen.
The NASA Administrator is calling him.”
I said, “Oh, yeah.”
Dan Goldin called me on the phone. “Joe, you were an astronaut
that did this.”
I said, “Yes, sir.”
He says, “Well, you’re over in the mission control helping
“No, sir. Nobody’s called me at all.”
“What?” He went through the roof. “No one? Well,
you tell me, what should we do here?” He was so upset.
I said, “I’d be pleased to go if somebody—no one’s
asked, but mainly I ought to stay out of the way.”
“No, get in—I want you to—.” So several people
did briefly talk. He said, “I don’t need to waste your
time about it.”
But a result—I won’t say that I told him to do this, but
they put, I think, three people outside. Did we have an EVA with three
people? And they three together were able to grab it with their hands.
I don’t recall that mission, but—
maybe it was just two people, but it was just hands-on and hold it
and fix it. Don’t try to use this grappling feature that was
not working. Don’t try to do it that way. Just go research the—and
it was physically a heavy satellite and more massive—that was
the problem—than the communication satellites we had handled.
But it worked.
Now, the other instance, and I’m a little uncertain if this
involved Goldin or not, but it had to do with the first spacewalk
to refurbish Space Telescope. The specific crew members to do that
had not been selected, and I was called by somebody at [NASA] Headquarters
[Washington, DC]—it may have been at Goddard [Space Flight Center,
Greenbelt, Maryland]—to do an independent review of the EVA
procedures that they were setting up to do this.
Well, I was very well aware, Jennifer, that there were about six reviews
ongoing, and the last thing that the people trying to do these procedures
needed was still another blue-ribbon panel looking over them. I didn’t
see—plus, I’d been away from it for long enough, I was
attempting to run a business, and I didn’t want to be an unappreciative
NASA alum, but I didn’t really want to do it.
But finally I said I would do a review with the following [unclear].
I would be the only reviewer. I wasn’t going to have a committee.
I just wanted to talk individually with three people or four people.
Then I would give a report that would be a letter written back, and
that would be the beginning and the end of it. Whoever assigned me
to it—and maybe it was Goldin; maybe it was. Was he the Administrator
during the first—
That was in ’93. December of ’93 was the first—
he would have been the Administrator. He would have been. That was
the one that put the contact lens on the—?
okay. Okay, so he would have been. Maybe he was. In any case, I did
perfunctory interviews of some individuals, and it looked to me like
they had done everything possible to assure that the tools they were
going to use to grapple it were going to work, and that they had a
hangar queen, in other words, sort of a backup space telescope, that
everyone swore was identical to the real one, at Goddard, such that
they could test the tools against it, which had been the problem with
the satellites we’d grappled. They had built the tools to work
against the blueprints they had of the satellites, but they didn’t
have a hangar queen or an identical satellite like it. It turned out
it was not built according to the blueprints exactly, and that’s
what had confounded us.
But once I had determined that, I looked at the timelines. It looked
like they had been given plenty of time to do this, such that they
weren’t going to wind up just short of hours. But the one thing
that I remember was they had not yet selected the spacewalkers, and
in the letter—and again, I’m embarrassed I don’t
know who it went to; it probably is in files someplace. God bless
you if you have to—I don’t wish this on you at all to
try to go find it; it’s not worth it. However, I gave it considerable
thought, but the main recommendation was that the spacewalking people
assigned the spacewalk, the consideration should be the exact same
consideration that had been used to select the United States basketball
team for the 1992 Olympics.
They called that team “the dream team,” and what they
had done is taken the very best professional basketball players in
America from the Celtics and the this, and put them all on one team,
and trained. There was not a beginning basketball player anywhere.
That year we dominated the Olympics in basketball. I said, “Do
the same thing for the spacewalkers. Take your very best spacewalkers,
and give them the assignment. It’s no time to train rookies.”
And the spacewalkers were Jeff [Jeffrey A.] Hoffman and [F.] Story
Musgrave. Is that who wound up—
I think there were two teams.
Okay, there were. Okay, there may well have been. But they were equally
good spacewalkers, so there was not a rookie spacewalker. And they
said, “Oh, that’s interesting,” and they did it.
And get them assigned right now such they can get a lot of work in
the WETF [Weightless Environment Test Facility]. Somewhat to my surprise,
those selections were made about a couple of weeks after I sent the
letter. Story later said thank you to me.
I said, “Story, I didn’t cite you by name.” But,
of course, you’ve interviewed Story, I’m sure.
We haven’t, actually. He’s on the list.
you know him at all?
I don’t, but I’ve heard he’s quite a character.
the Lord made Story, he threw the mold away. No doubt. No doubt. He’s
as unique an individual—I mean, every individual is unique,
but Story sets a new record for uniqueness, in large part, Jennifer,
because of the enormous obstacles he overcame as a young man growing
up. He came from quite a bizarre, dysfunctional, and I think maybe
even an abusive family, and he himself was just an accident waiting
to happen growing up. Somehow he got through it all and became an
astronaut, and he’s among the most of the flown astronauts,
he and Franklin [R. Chang-Diaz] and I’m not sure who else. Oh,
you have to get Story. But pack your lunch; it’s going to be
an all-day journey.
All right. Let me change the tape.
I wanted to ask you about your role as an astronaut advisor on two
films, Mission to Mars and Armageddon.
me go to the Mission to Mars. That was a Disney production, or maybe
through a—and I was called onto it. They already had an advisor.
Story was on that. They were filming it in Vancouver [British Columbia],
and somehow I got—I think maybe the producer, I believe was
a young Yale [University] lawyer or something, but he had a Yale connection,
and he was aware of my Yale, and he somehow wanted me to—and
so I won’t even remember his name. I agreed to come, but got
up on the set in Vancouver, and Story was already there. In fact,
that’s the last—we had a great, nice visit, and talked,
because they didn’t need us around there for a while.
But they did during that time want each of us to give kind of the
first intro briefing to zero-gravity to the cast. One of the cast
members was—I think his name is Tom or Tim Robbins. He was in
Bull Durham, and he was married to a famous actress. Oh, he was in—did
you ever see The Shawshank Redemption?
was in that, and it was an extraordinary movie. Well, he was in this
movie, and he’s a very interesting individual, quite tall, and
it was fun to meet him. Tim Robbins, and I think Gary Sinise was in
it, who has since become a very famous actor. I saw him briefly, and
then I forget who else. But we talked to them, and they were ever
so pleasant people.
I will not remember the name of the director, but he’s a famous
director, and I think he had done in earlier times—he’s
rather known as eccentric—[A] Clockwork Orange or something
like that. I met him very briefly, and he struck me as the most bizarre
individual, and I left thinking, “He’s wacko.” He
may have made great movies, but I—and I looked at what they
were going to do, and I thought it was a dumb—well, the story
inherently is maybe interesting. I thought, “This is going to
be a terrible movie.”
After that one day I left and said I didn’t think I was going
to add all that much to it, with all due respect, and they wouldn’t
do any better than Story. He spent a lot of time on it, and I think
he was even in the movie. I think he’s even in it briefly. But
as far as I know, Jennifer, the movie came and went without a whisper.
Now, Armageddon, somewhat of a different story. Way back in the 1960s,
my wife and I became very good friends with Dick [Richard] Fox and
his wife Olga. They had children slightly older than ours. They were
neighbors in Nassau Bay [Texas]. Dick was a wonderful engineer, graduate
of MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts],
an honors engineer. He was also the chief test engineer for Grumman
on the lunar module. That’s why they were in Houston. The modules
were being tested in some vacuum chambers there, or a test article
was being—we became very fast friends.
After successful Apollo, Dick looked at his options, and he went to
work for Walt Disney. Moved his whole family, and he became the chief
engineer for Walt Disney. Because we were friends, he brought me in
from time to time, after I left NASA, as a consultant to the Disney
organization, and I consulted on things that involved motion-based
simulators and even a part of the early Space Mountain.
They paid me serious money to do that, and it was great fun, partly
because we could stay with Dick and Olga, and we were just super good
friends. He, Dick, has long since passed away, but Olga is still a
good friend and was a houseguest just a few weeks ago. But he, Richard,
had gotten increasingly ill and passed away. However, a few maybe
months or maybe a couple of years after that, I got a call from people
at Walt Disney. They had found my name in their records as a good
consultant on space. Would I consider—they were going to do
Well, Walt Disney is involved in a lot of things, and the Dumbos and
the Bambis of the world, Walt Disney does. However, some of the more
high-powered they give to other studios to produce, although it’s
Disney money that’s doing it. And Touchstone is one that does
Well, they were going to do a picture on the end of the world because
of a meteorite, and the director was to be Jerry Bruckheimer, very
successful, well known producer. He had a young hotshot with him named
Michael Bay. The two of them had done a movie called The Rock—it’s
about a break in Alcatraz—that was extraordinarily successful.
They were now going to do this. Would I consider going out?
I said, “Sure.” So I did go out and was paid good money
for several weeks’ work. Found them fascinating as individuals.
The whole thing was just totally outrageous, and it had a cast of
thousands, but it included Liv Tyler, Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, and
some lesser known actors. Oh, well, Steve Buscemi—do you know
who Steve Buscemi is—and Peter Stormare. Steve Buscemi has been
on The Sopranos fairly recently, and Peter and Steve had been in an
earlier movie, Jennifer. The name of that movie was Fargo.
Yes, okay, now I know who you’re talking about.
were the two criminals in Fargo. Well, I went out, and on my first
day out there I met Michael Bay and the producer—well, Mike
Bay was the director—and the producer. But on the set a peer
introduced himself to me. He was just a very good looking individual,
tall, and he had a slight accent. I asked him where was he from. He
was from Sweden.
“Oh, Sweden. How did you get here? Have you been—?”
“Well, I’ve only made one movie here,” he said.
“I had a lesser part in a movie, but I’ve made a number
of them in Germany.” He said, “I always played the bad
guy, and I can always speak—,” and it turned out he could
speak German, good German but with an accent. So he’s a foreign—and
he spoke beautiful English, but with a slight accent. “Yeah,”
he said, “Steve and I were in a movie called Fargo.”
I said, “Oh.” Then later I got to thinking about Fargo.
Then I realized he was the guy with the blonde hair, the killer that
wound up at the end stuffing Steve into the woodchopper. It made my
hair crawl. He was just as nice as pie.
Then an enormous black man, whose name is Michael [Clarke Duncan];
he since was in The Green Mile with Tom Hanks, and this movie made
him a very successful, known actor. Prior to coming to Hollywood,
he had worked in the sewers of Chicago. He just was so nice. I spent
a lot of time sitting with Michael and talking, and he was so happy
to be in a movie with Bruce Willis.
My wife Bonnie was with me at the time, and she really took to him.
She said, “Michael, it looks to me like Bruce Willis is in a
movie with you.”
He says, “Well, that’s a way to think about it.”
But he plays one of the roustabouts in this, a very funny man. In
any case, the beginning and the end—maybe three like recollections.
One is I was the technical advisor, and I was to help them make it
look real. Every time I would say something about this does really
not look real, they would say “blank, blank, blank.” They
had very colorful language, and very profane. “Blank, blank,
blank. It doesn’t matter. It’s only a movie.” So
nothing I told them technically they cared a whit about. I had no
idea why I was there. However, I was very helpful in getting them
through the various NASA wickets, including some of the filming was
done at JSC, including in the WETF, in the big one. I found it very
Oh, Billy Bob Thornton was in this movie. He’s a character.
Holy—he’s from Texas, and he’d just come off that
incredible success and an Academy Award, called Slingblade, which
is a powerful movie that he wrote and starred in. Scary movie, as
odd a duck as he is. But he pretty much—his career was working
in rental agencies and playing drums in a country and western band
around little towns in Texas, before he got into acting. Go figure.
In any case, they all knew each other and rather liked each other,
but they were more than anxious to meet real astronauts. Well, the
real astronauts were keen to meet these actors, very famous actors,
and I was the Dali Levi [phonetic]. I was there. I could introduce
them to each other, and it was just a hoot, Jennifer. It really was
fun for me to do that.
A dear friend of mine, Vince Primatera [phonetic], who loves movies
and actors, had come over on the sets there and wound up talking at
length—he’s this little Italian psychiatrist in Nassau
Bay that was a dear, dear friend of the Foxes and the Allens for years.
Came over and got deeply engrossed in conversation with Bruce Willis.
The director, Michael, “Bruce, we need you on the set now.”
“Michael, cut me some slack. Can’t you see I’m talking
with the astronaut and his friend the shrink?” [Laughter]
In any case, that was fun introducing them around, and then for reasons
that still escape me, as a joke, they said, “Well, we’ll
put you in a couple things. It probably won’t be used in the
film.” I still get a check every quarter for about $16 from
Screen Actors Guild, because I had a speaking part.
Then they had a premier for that film at Cape Kennedy [Florida], in
a special facility there, and invited a lot of space people. Aerosmith,
Steve [Steven] Tyler’s band, Liv’s dad, performed afterwards,
and a Space Shuttle was out on the launch pad, all lighted, and you
could look through past them at the lighted—and did just a knock-down,
drag-out concert. KSC’s [Kennedy Space Center, Florida] never
been quite the same.
An event then happened—well, that’s where my daughter
and wife went, and they played the movie, and that’s when my
daughter said, “Dad, that’s your voice.” And then
I was—I wasn’t sure. And I was in the film.
My wife looked at me, and she said, “You’ve got some explaining
to do.” I hadn’t told anybody, because I thought it was
going to be on the cutting-room floor.
Then later Ben Affleck brought his girlfriend, at the time, by to
introduce me, and he picked me up like a little boy. He said, “Joe,
you’re a movie star. You’re a movie—.” He’s
quite physically a large guy, very, extremely handsome guy. His girlfriend
was Gwyneth Paltrow at the time, who is just amazing; beautiful individual.
Anyway, what happened after the concert and the premier, the various
cast members went around, and these were people that were the sound
and the lights and the makeup girls, and sort of hugging each other
and saying, “That was a great adventure. Thank you. It was a
good movie. We did a good job.” They all scattered and went
their separate ways.
It occurred to me that a mission, a space mission, ends at the Cape,
and you’re in the hands of the doctors, and then you hug each
other and squeeze each other, and you pretty much all go your separate
ways. It was exactly the same scene. One was about a movie, because,
see, they’d worked together for a year. And the other is about
the end of a space mission that succeeds. I’m very struck to
this day by how similar it was, because people that work in teams
care a lot about each other, work horribly long hours, and then there’s
a result. In the case of a space mission, it’s whatever the
goals of the mission were. In the case of a movie, it’s a good
Armageddon is not Enchanted April. It’s not totally my cup of
tea. But it’s very good entertainment for a lot of people, no
This time is good, five minutes. The question is my most significant
Your most significant accomplishment and your most challenging milestone.
milestone. Challenging milestone.
Some folks have a hard time with it.
a milestone is a—what was the toughest challenge? Do you know
the secret of success in business?
There is a secret to success in the business world, and the secret
is there is no secret. It’s just one bit of attention to detail
after detail after detail after detail. To my mind, NASA for me was
not suddenly an enormous milestone someplace that I had to get around.
It’s just attention to detail over the course of a long period
of time. In some cases, the details are aggravating, and in some cases,
maybe anxiety-producing, but with the proper help from team members
and so on, you get around it and on beyond it. That’s what it
was. So I think milestone is a hard word for me to deal with as a
very definite, hard thing.
Now, significant achievement. I’ve got three minutes, so this
is just about right. I’m very pleased with elements of things
I did accomplish during my NASA years, but in large part, none is
a milestone. They’re just a series of modest contributions,
but in some cases, had some value to them.
Jennifer, I’m going to digress for just a second. There is a
poem called “Ithaka.” It was written by a Greek, and it’s
translated from the Greek some hundreds of years ago. But it’s
a prayer to the gods to help me as I undertake this hazardous journey
that lies ahead in order that I may reach Ithaka, where I will find
vast wealth, vast riches. Then it goes into, you know, I’ll
be at the sea, and I may be beset by these sorts of monsters; help
me here. Then I’ll be here on the lands and then among strange
people. Then it has a wonderful ending, because then when I get to
Ithaka and look around and discover there are no riches after this
lifetime of a journey, it will not matter, because it’s been
the journey. That’s the important part all along.
I was at NASA eighteen years, and the journey really was, to my recollection,
quite an extraordinary one, starting with being the first sort of
among the group that was strangers in a strange land, scientists who
were now astronauts. That was definitely a shock to the astronauts
and to us scientists, but both groups survived it beautifully, and
I think both groups were the better for it, and ultimately completely
integrated. You can’t distinguish one from the other.
Being involved in the early parts of the Apollo in the mission control
was just a wonderful experience, and there will never, during our
lifetimes, be an undertaking as successful as Apollo by this nation.
It was extraordinary. I think in many ways elements of Apollo will
be to nation America what the pyramids are to Egypt, looking back
from many, many centuries. There may be other things about America,
but that’s definitely going to be one of them, the first human
excursion out from Earth.
My contribution there, by the way, I think was as a translator. I
was quite good—maybe in some just sort of a natural, I don’t
know—at enabling hard-nosed, and in some cases Nobel Prize-winning,
scientists to talk and communicate successfully with hard-nosed, world-famous
test pilots, and enabling each to understand the other’s point
of view. I was quite good at that. Later that was useful in the business
world, as well.
My contribution into early Space Shuttle speaks for itself. I was
just a crew member, one of several, no better than anyone else that
went, but let’s face, it we were all quite good at what we did,
thanks to NASA training, and I think thanks to diligence on the part
of each one of us as an individual. I do think I contributed significantly
to improve camera technologies and techniques and methods, and now
it’s just there, being used beautifully. But it was a struggle.
I think I had a definite hand in getting, for example, an IMAX camera
on Space Shuttle flights, early Space Shuttle flights, which has added
tremendously to what the human space program has been able to bring
to those of us on the Earth, which is to sort of see it up live and
close and gorgeous.
I was an extremely successful, in my view, thanks to Josie Soper’s
training, as an Assistant Administrator, ’75, ’76, ’77,
part of ’78. When the Congress was being asked for and was funding
the completion of the Space Shuttle, the implementation of the space
telescope, the construction of the first big, great probes going out
to the planets. Let’s see, the Jupiter Orbiter probe, which
I think is later called the Galileo; some of those enormously expensive,
big instruments. We got that out of the Congress, authorization and
appropriation, at a time when the administration, and that would be
the—[Richard M.] Nixon, [James E. “Jimmy”] Carter,
weren’t interested in space at all. So that was a good accomplishment.
I think that’s a nice assortment.
Well, you’ve had a colorful career.
Moved from physicist to astronaut to businessman.
far, and now as I approach my seventieth year, I say half of my life
is done. I’ve got a lot left to do. And I’d be even more
confident if I had a number of friends who were 140 years old. [Laughter]
That’s a good place to stop, dear friend.
All right. Well, thank you very much. I appreciate it.