NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Austin, Texas – 12 January 2010
Today is January 12, 2010. This oral history with Dr. Humboldt Mandell
is being conducted for the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project
in Austin, Texas. Interviewer is Rebecca Wright, assisted by Sandra
Johnson. I want to thank you again for finding time in your schedule
to talk with us today. We’d like for you to begin by telling
us about your background and what led to your interest to apply with
NASA so many years ago.
Well, my entire childhood grew up around airplanes and aviation. I
was always interested in flying and flight. When I was 14 years old
I soloed my first airplane. When I was 16 years old I got my pilot’s
license, practically on my 16th birthday I think, which was the earliest
you could get it. I spent my whole high school years flying around
in little airplanes, so I was always interested in that sort of thing.
When I was going to college I decided I wanted to study aeronautical
engineering. In those days there was mandatory military service, so
I elected to go into the Air Force ROTC [Reserve Officers’ Training
Corps] program here at UT [University of Texas, Austin, Texas], with
every intention of becoming a military pilot. I hadn’t counted
on not being able to pass the flight physical because of my eyes.
I did go in the Air Force; the year I graduated from college was 1957,
and that was the year of Sputnik. So the space program really started
the year I graduated from school. I obviously wanted to become a part
My whole Air Force career I kept trying to get into the space business
of the Air Force. They had other needs for me, so after my tour was
up I got out after three years and went to work for a company in Fort
Worth [Texas] that was doing space engineering business, and that
was General Dynamics. NASA didn’t exist at this time of course.
I guess the National Aeronautics and Space Act was actually written
in 1958, but there were no Centers yet created, so it was 1959, 1960
before the Centers were really created. There was Langley Research
Center [Hampton, Virginia] of course, from the time of the Space Act.
Then that Center spun off the Johnson Space Center [Houston, Texas],
which opened in latter 1961. Because it was in Texas—I’d
always wanted to stay in Texas. I’m sixth generation Texan,
and I wanted to raise my family in Texas. Also, because it was going
to be the home of the human spaceflight program, I was really excited
about getting there. I applied as soon as I heard that they were coming
to Houston, though it took me about a year to negotiate the job that
I really wanted and the salary that I really wanted.
I joined in December of 1962. Why did I do it? It was just because
it’s what I’d always wanted to do. It was the ideal career
path to do what I’d always wanted to do.
Tell us about moving to the Houston area and the whole transformation
of what was going on at that time.
I’d been working on proposals at General Dynamics, including
a proposal for satellite systems and also for the TFX [Tactical Fighter
Experimental] airplane program. I got the job [with NASA] in November,
and I sent word to NASA that I would be there the first week in December.
We had a few delays for one reason or another. As I was driving to
Houston with my family and all of our worldly goods in the back of
the car and in the moving van, I heard on the radio that our company
had won this big contract that I’d been working on for all this
time, so I would have been in on the ground floor of a major contract.
But I had no regrets. We got to Houston in my little 1953 Studebaker,
and I started work for NASA the following Monday, which was December
2, 1962. The processing facility was in a bank building [East End
State Bank] there on the Gulf Freeway [Interstate Highway 45]. There
was no [NASA] Center. NASA had gone in and just really rented every
vacant office along the Gulf Freeway. They tried to get them as close
together as possible, but they were strung out probably over five
miles along the Gulf Freeway. The human resources, or personnel as
it was called then, was in the East End State Bank Building. I finally
found that building and processed in.
They assigned me to an organization which was located in the Rich
Building. The old Rich food plant had gone belly-up and left a building
that had a high bay that had been a meat locker, a frozen food locker.
It was a big building, and NASA went in and built a second story in
that meat locker, and that became my first office at NASA. I’d
worked then for three years in an office building that had no windows,
because it’d been built during the Second World War and they
were afraid of bombs and things, and so it had no windows. One of
the things I wanted was windows, and so I get to Houston, and I have
this office that’s just a complete closed cube, you couldn’t
even see out of it.
But that didn’t last long. We grew fast, we were growing rapidly,
and we were renting new buildings. In fact we rented an apartment
building as it was being built called the Franklin Apartments. Much
of the Engineering Directorate moved into the—I forgot to say
that I was assigned to the Engineering Directorate—most of the
Engineering Directorate moved into this apartment house, which had
a completely functioning swimming pool, but it had never been occupied.
We were the first tenants in this apartment complex. The air conditioning
had never been designed as offices. It’d been designed as residences,
so it was totally inadequate. We just about burned up the first summer
we were in there. They had to come in, and NASA spent a lot of money
cutting holes in the wall and putting window air conditioners in to
keep us cool in those resources.
I was working in an organization that was ironically planning future
missions for NASA, what comes after Apollo, because Apollo was pretty
well underway by this time. So we were looking at what comes next.
My first job, which actually started in December of 1962, was to design
a manned Mars mission. My section chief at that time was a guy by
the name of Oscar Olaf Ohlsson, he was an interesting guy. We had
a little group, probably eight or ten people. We brought in people
from other parts of the directorate and did this marvelous Mars study.
In fact I pulled it out the other day and looked at it and it’s
really—I found a copy on microfiche and had it printed—it
was really a pretty good study, considering we were working with slide
rules, we had no computers, no hand calculators, we had nothing except
pens and pencils and slide rules. Yet, we did a pretty good job on
designing those missions.
They were missions that could have been flown. They would have been
very risky, but they were no more risky than the Apollo mission was,
and the Apollo mission was pretty risky. We worked on that for two
or three months and presented it to the director, and it became the
plan. We continued to refine it and everything. Everybody just assumed
that as soon as we finished the Apollo mission that we would go on
to Mars, because we had the big launch vehicles and we had the launch
In fact when they built the Interstate 10 Bridge in Louisiana, they
built it to our specification of how high the Mars launch vehicle
would be when we pulled it under the bridge there from Michoud [Assembly
Facility], Louisiana to go to launch it at the Cape [Canaveral, Florida].
As far as I know that’s the only residual tangible thing that
remains from that work that we did. In fact when you drive Interstate
10 over east of New Orleans [Louisiana] you’ll come across a
really high bridge, and you wonder, “Why is this bridge so high?”
Well, that’s why it’s so high. That was my first job there.
Were you pleased with that assignment?
I was. I was very pleased with it. It was exactly what I’d hoped
to do when I got there, to work on things like that. With my degree
in aeronautical engineering I had been involved in getting my master’s
program, my master’s degree when I was working at General Dynamics
in Fort Worth, [Texas] I was working on a master’s. My major
field of study there was a field called operations research, it was
the field of optimization. One of the things that we did is when you
optimize something it has to be optimized with respect to something,
and that something is cost. So I had to learn something about how
to do cost analysis.
I was self-taught. There were no books or courses at that time. I
went and talked to people all over the country, RAND Corporation in
California, who was doing similar work, and people at Huntsville,
[Alabama], Marshall Space Flight Center was up and going by that time,
so I talked to them and came up with a methodology which I documented.
I guess I wrote the first cost model books that were written for NASA.
My part of these studies was to do what they called programmatics,
which was the cost and schedules and basically how do you go about
putting all these pieces together, the logistics and everything. That
was my job.
My one regret was that I wasn’t the guy that was actually on
the drawing board drawing the pictures of the spacecraft, but we had
a really good draftsman who did that. His name was Jim [James C.]
Jones and ironically he was a guy that I had worked with at General
Dynamics. A whole bunch of us from General Dynamics had left there
and gone down to the Johnson Space Center. Our Center was started
by people from Langley, but we also had a large contingent from Canada,
Avro [Aircraft], which had laid off a bunch of people, and people
from industry, and then some military assignees. That was basically
the four cores of our Center.
We gutted General Dynamics. We took a lot of young guys out of there
to start this. Our average age when I got to Johnson Space Center,
the average age at the Center was 24.
That’s amazing in itself.
So we were all pretty young guys.
Did you find that to be very beneficial to what you were trying to
do, to have minds of same thinking and from the same background, although
you had, as you mentioned, the military and some from NACA [National
Advisory Committee for Aeronautics] that had come from Langley, but
yet you were able to work with some of the people that you had worked
with before? Did that help?
Very much, yes. There were a number of cases where we knew people
that we had worked with before, but I think the major advantage was
that we are all so young that we didn’t have any inhibitions,
we didn’t know we couldn’t do anything, we had none of
the built-in fear of failure that now permeates the agency, the conservatism
that has crept in. There was just no job that we couldn’t do.
Most of us had come from pretty successful programs. We had won major
competitions, as I mentioned earlier, and we were full of ourselves.
Was there an adapting period of coming from the corporate industry
world into a government where some things are different?
Not so much then, because I had been working for a government contractor.
I’d been in the Air Force, which is government, worked for a
government contractor, which the government ways of doing business
overlay, as you know in your business. They overlay the way that you
guys do business, and the same with us. Actually I had more freedom
I think when I got to Johnson Space Center. I had the most freedom
of all in the Air Force, because you go in with the gold bars on your
shoulder, and you’re an officer, you can do anything. They would
give you any job and just go get it done, so you had complete freedom
to do whatever you wanted to do. Then the opposite environment at
General Dynamics, and then back to NASA. You again had more freedom
than you did in the private sector.
No, I didn’t feel any constraints there. It’s only been
in recent years where the bureaucracy has smothered the creativity,
I think, of the young people.
I find it very interesting that at such an early part of your career
you were writing these cost model books. It seems like you always
had that link to being the cost analyst person. Tell us about how
you developed these first models and then how your career kept on
branching off in that area and always hooking you back into that.
There was no body of knowledge, I found that out very quickly. I found
a few reports at RAND Corporation as I said. There was a group there
that had been started by [Robert S.] McNamara when he was the Secretary
of Defense. I don’t know if you recall McNamara, but he was
one of these whiz kids that came out of the Second World War. He knew
that he couldn’t hire within the government, the people to do
this kind of work. So he spun off these FFRDCs, Federally [Funded]
Research and Development [Centers], so they could pay the salaries
it took to get these high-powered people. RAND Corporation was one
of the first of those; in fact it might have been the first of those.
There was a guy by the name of David Novick who had done some work
in cost analysis, and I found that. Of course there was no Internet,
you had to just scrounge around and find people that had done this
in card catalogs.
So I got on an airplane. We had lots of travel money in those days,
so I just got on an airplane and went out there and sat down with
him. They gave me reports. A lot of it was just logic. Cost analysis,
cost estimating, is basically just data, data from past programs.
So that was the challenge, was to try to get enough comparable data
to construct these mathematical relationships to estimate cost. They
were able to give me some data. I was able to scrounge some more data
from other programs and put them together. The way you do it is you
take a spacecraft, for example, and you break it down into its systems:
the structure, propulsion, environmental control system, avionics
systems and so forth.
You gather data on that type of system from past programs, and then
you try to correlate it with something. It turns out that mass sometimes
correlates, capacity like on an electric power system, the number
of kilowatts that it generates is something that correlates. You do
these mathematical correlations to establish how these things correlate.
We were operating with very small pieces of data. I had studied by
this time a lot of probability and statistics in my master’s
program. It made your hair stand on end, the lack of rigor in these
things that we created, but that’s all we had, so we went with
I, by this time, had hired a couple people to help do the cost analysis.
One was named Dick [Edward D.] Lupo and one was name Ivy Schneider,
who’s now Ivy [F.] Hooks. You may know Ivy Hooks.
We’ve met her.
She might have been my first hire actually. Another one named Gil
Chisholm who is now retired living down at Yoakum, Texas. He was a
math major at UT here in Austin, a very good mathematician. So, I
put together this little group. Then once that was put together I
was stuck; that became my specialty, which was not all bad, because
it puts you at the core of everything. You were always involved. You
always had to have the cost analysis done. So every program that was
initiated we had a hand in, a very integral part of.
When the Shuttle program came along—I’m skipping a lot
of years—throughout the whole decade of the ’60s we did
studies like ASTP [Apollo-Soyuz Test Project]. The first thing after
Apollo was going to be AES, Apollo Extension Systems, so we did a
lot of cost analysis on that. We did cost analysis, and always we
would do another Mars study, so it was ironic that about every three
or four years we’d do another Mars study. Of course we had this
body of knowledge. The second time around in the ’60s we had
enough money that we actually went out and hired some really high-powered
talent. We hired General Dynamics at San Diego, [California] their
astronautics division, a guy by the name of Krafft [A.] Ehricke. We
had Rockwell [Corporation]. We had McDonnell Douglas, which I think
was just McDonnell in those days. Several other contractors including
RAND Corporation. We gave a contract to the RAND Corporation at that
time, to design these missions.
We had missions called EMPIRE, which is Early Manned Planetary and
Interplanetary [Roundtrip Expedition]. They were very rigorously done,
much more detailed than the 1960 mission, down to really high-fidelity
designs on the spacecraft and the launch vehicles. Again our part
of that was the cost analysis. We also had of course contractor cost
analysts working with us, but we found out that they weren’t
even as far along in the state of the art as we were. So the blind
leading the blind, we muddled through and came up with cost estimates
for all these things.
So that was what we did in the decade of the ’60s. In the late
’60s and early ’70s we had done the Apollo-Soyuz mission.
We had done the Skylab mission as the Apollo Extensions became Skylab,
so we started to look seriously at lowering the cost of transportation
to space. That’s always been from a cost standpoint, from a
budget standpoint, and by this time NASA was starting to feel budget
crunches. In the Apollo program we didn’t really have much budget
constraint, although some of those guys will argue with you, but we
started to feel budget crunches. So the most expensive part of our
operation was transportation to orbit, as it still is, so we began
to chase this holy grail of lowering the cost of transportation to
The reusability came up. Max [Maxime A.] Faget was still very much
involved, he was the director of engineering and had been ever since
they’d come to Houston. He was driving us toward a reusable
Space Shuttle. We had, again, competitions. We brought in several
contractors, all the big guys were involved – General Dynamics,
McDonnell Douglas and Rockwell. They all brought their individual
ideas to the table.
Our job was to do the government estimate, because by this time it
was a requirement that we have government estimates for everything
before we would submit them to Congress or even to OMB [Office of
Management and Budget]. There’s a little sidebar issue here
that when we would hire good people to do this cost analysis work
we were always—in an engineering organization we were given
the lowest priority. I’d get a bunch of good people put together
and they would get moved over to do some other task in the engineering
process. I would lose them, so I’d have to keep hiring people
and bringing them in, but we kept a modest capability. By this time
[R.] Wayne Young had come into the picture and we put together a team
to do the cost estimate for the Space Shuttle. I led that team from
start to finish.
We actually brought in other Centers and had exercises in Washington
[D.C.] at [NASA] Headquarters. We put together the estimate for the
Shuttle, and there was a deputy administrator of NASA named [Richard
C.] McCurdy. We went up and spent a whole weekend with Mr. McCurdy
going through our estimate. Bill [William E.] Lilly was the comptroller
of NASA at that time, and he had a guy working for him by the name
of Tom [Thomas] Campbell who was his chief deputy. So they were there
scrubbing our estimate and making us explain exactly how we did everything
and how we put all the pieces together. We were there all day Saturday
and all day Sunday and finally got their blessing on this estimate
that we went forward with.
To our credit, the estimates that evolved from that estimate—we
went through a number of iterations—but the estimates that evolved
from that original estimate turned out to be the ones that they based
the contracts on. We finished that contract well within 10 percent
of our original estimate, which we were very proud of, because I don’t
think that’s ever been done before or since.
But then success begets sometimes things that get out of control.
So when the Shuttle program started, because I’d been involved
doing all this cost work, they decided that I should be the program
control manager for the Shuttle program. Wayne Young actually came
in to do that job at the project office level, but I was taken from
the Engineering Directorate. I had no choice in this; I was just assigned
from the Engineering Directorate to the Space Shuttle Program Office.
Big promotion. You don’t often turn down big promotions. I was
given a nice corner office in Building 1. All of a sudden you could
hire people again, so I put together a staff of people to manage the
resources, cost and schedules of this new program. It was a job I
would have not ever applied for, because I still considered myself
basically an engineer. Why should I go off and do management work?
I never wanted to do management work.
But there I was, so I decided to stick with that awhile. Awhile kept
getting longer and longer and longer. To make a long story short,
I was there for 14 years in that job. It stuck to me once I started
doing it. It just stuck to me. I went from doing hands-on doing of
the work to the management side of it in 1969 when they set up the
Shuttle Program Office.
During that 14 years a lot happened as far as changes within the program.
How did that impact your work? For instance when the Shuttle Program
was first announced it had such an aggressive schedule of missions.
Possibly up to 50 a year.
That’s really funny because one Friday afternoon we got a call
from Headquarters. My memory is a little vague on this but I’ll
reconstruct it as well as I can remember it. We had done basically
the development cost, which the predominant part of the cost of a
new program was the development cost. So they said we need some operations
costs, and we need an operational traffic model. Basically how many
flights per year are you going to fly? We had no idea.
We called people at the Cape and said how many can you fly. We did
surveys of industry and put together databases on the number of flights
that were out there. The AIAA [American Institute of Aeronautics and
Astronautics] magazine published a projected traffic in space every
year, and they still do that. We talked to corporations about how
many satellites did they think they might launch, because in those
days we were going to do a lot of unmanned satellite emplacement with
the Shuttle. We just researched every avenue that we could to try
and find out what was likely to happen in space.
So in this crunch of time we just put all these things together, and
it turned out that we needed to do about a launch a week to do these
things. We called the people at the Cape and said can you handle that
kind of traffic. They said well yeah, based on the design you have,
which is basically a completely reusable vehicle. At that time we
had reusable boosters and orbiters, great big thing with wings on
it that was the booster instead of these solid rockets that we have
They said yes, we could turn that around. With a fleet of I think
six vehicles we could turn around one a week and fly. It was based
on nothing more than that, the best knowledge that we could bring
to bear, based on the capability that we thought we could get out
of the vehicles. At that time all the checkout capability on the Shuttle
was supposed to be on board. The Air Force was doing this with their
airplanes. They had a lot of self-checking electronics on board the
airplanes. Basically the concept was it was a three-light system.
You’d get in, and you’d turn it on and you’d press
the button, and it’d do all its system checks, and if the green
light came on you’re good to go.
Of course the devil is in the details. When you start looking at what
does it really take to make that happen, the state of the art was
not only not there, you had this whole body of people at Kennedy Space
Center, 10,000 people or more, it might have been as much as 20,000
at one time, who made their living processing vehicles. They were
not about to let us design a vehicle that you could just skip all
this stuff. So the politics got into it very heavily. We had to process
just as we had processed all the Apollo equipment, through all the
That was never in the plan. The plan was to have this thing just like
an airplane, and you don’t rebuild an airplane. Southwest [Airlines]
doesn’t rebuild an airplane when it flies into Austin and before
it flies to Los Angeles, but that’s basically what they wanted
to do. So there was a difference in perceptions and in philosophies.
I don’t want to make the Cape guys out as the bad guys, because
we were probably way too optimistic about what we could do. Then they
were out to preserve their way of life and insisted that we do all
this processing, so that’s what really got out of hand. That’s
where we really missed things.
We were looking at 60 flights a year, something like that, as this
first traffic model. We were not given very much time to do this by
NASA Headquarters. I still remember we got all the people in my office
one Saturday afternoon, and we got to the blackboard and just started
putting these things on the board and adding them up. It looks like
well, all these assumptions, it could come out one a week.
In our defense, as you know, after the [Space Shuttle] Challenger
[STS 51-L] accident we were forbidden from flying anything, just commercial
satellites. It came down to we could just fly military and NASA satellites.
So some of the traffic that we had envisioned—well, most of
it just didn’t show up. Most of it just wasn’t there,
but some that was there we weren’t able to launch because we
didn’t have the mandate to do it. There were a lot of factors.
I way oversimplified it, but there were a lot of other things involved
in it as well, but that’s the essence of why we missed that
Those costs, they grew substantially. We thought we could turn a vehicle
around for a few million dollars. It’s a few billion dollars
it turns out to turn around, but again the concept is different. We
were using a fully reusable vehicle, but they went to the external
tank that’s expendable, that costs as much as an airliner, and
the solid rocket boosters are very expensive. Of course they say they
reuse them, but really all they reuse is the cases, and they have
to be remanufactured before they can be reused.
All of our reusability really went away on everything but the orbiter
itself. Even with the orbiter, we had envisioned that the thermal
protection system, the tiles would last basically forever, like the
Apollo heat shields. We didn’t realize how fragile it was and
all the maintenance that’s going to be involved with that.
Estimating is predicting the future. Nobody can really predict the
future, so there were many things that happened that were not the
conditions we had assumed when we did those original estimates. We
were right on on the development cost; we really missed the operations
I think somewhere while I was reading some of the stuff that you put
together that you made the comment that cost actually drove the configuration.
Oh yeah. The Office of Management and Budget gave us a peak annual
funding constraint of I think it was $1.1 billion a year that we had
to subscribe to. The two-stage fully reusable vehicle, you had a peak
like this [referring to hand-drawn illustration]. They said you can’t
have that money, so we had to design something that fit within this
This was the big reusable spacecraft, reusable booster up here. The
only way we could do it is to have an orbiter, and then these solid
rocket boosters which were cheap to develop, and the external tank,
which was cheap to develop. It’s expensive to buy, but who knows?
If we’d built this thing, I don’t know if it would have
lowered the operational cost or not. It might not have, because then
we would have had to turn it around every time, with all the same
problems, but anyway that was what I meant by that, it was a budget-constrained
There was a stretch of time there one summer where we looked at 40
different Shuttle configurations in a month. We were doing cost estimates
for all of them. Contractors were doing cost estimates for all of
them, and it was a cut and try thing. We’d do a configuration,
and it’d bump over the cost constraint, so we’d take things
out and try again, and change the configuration a little bit. It evolved
from the two-stage fully reusable with the two airplanes, gradually
to what we had at the end of the time, was what we have now, is the
solid rockets, the tank, and then the Orbiter on top. Every one of
these things was to bring down this peak a little bit. This is the
only one that fit under the peak.
You touched on it a few minutes ago about the culture of having the
pressures from, for instance the Cape, of you’ve had this processing
already from the Apollo tradition and there was the pressure. How
did that impact what you had to do as well?
It didn’t really impact us as much. The thing that hurt us on
the Cape was the operational cost. The Cape’s culture didn’t
really affect the development cost much. We began to realize probably
in the early ’70s, like ’71, that that was going to be
a problem for us, that we had not budgeted to keep 10,000 people on
the payroll at KSC [Kennedy Space Center]. So that was probably going
to blow our operations cost, we started to realize that, but there
was nothing we could do about it at that time.
They had a very strong voice at the table. Kurt [H.] Debus was still
the Center Director at KSC and he had been one of Wernher von Braun’s
key guys at Peenemunde [German rocket research center during World
War II]. Von Braun had a huge influence over what we did. Politically
at the table there was Bob [Robert R.] Gilruth, our Center Director,
Wernher von Braun, the Marshall Center Director, and Kurt Debus, the
KSC Center Director, who basically made those decisions working for
George [E.] Mueller, who was the Associate Administrator for Manned
Space Flight at that time.
They just decided that was what it was going to be. We quickly revised
our estimates to catch up, but since it came after the peak of the
development program it didn’t matter much to us, because it
was out here when all that extra cost happened. The Congress, the
OMB, nobody really cared at that time about what the operations costs
were. They were just interested in keeping underneath that budget
ceiling. That was the primary constraint on us.
This time period was prior to the actual development of the Orbiter
and its components?
During this time period here, which was probably ’71 when we
were going through all these different configurations, that was the
Phase B preliminary design portion of the program. I think that we
awarded the contract to Rockwell in 1972 to build the Orbiter. Rocketdyne
had already received the award to build the main engine, but that
award got hung up by protest from Pratt & Whitney for a year.
We estimated the engine had to start at least a year before the rest
of everything, because it was a longer development time. We started
the engine and got a protest, and it hung it up for a year. So here
we are marching through time. We had started our buildup of personnel
at all these other places, including Rockwell in California. They
just had to march in time until we could get this engine under development
and know what we were working with.
The thermal protection system hung us up for a while too, but the
engine protest hung us up for a year. That added a year to our development
time that we hadn’t really counted on, but fortunately we had
budgeted enough reserves in the development cost that that didn’t
blow our estimate. But it did take away all our reserves, at least
a lot of them.
Once the contracts were let, were you constantly reevaluating cost?
Oh yes. In fact that was really what my job was. We were what they
called the Level 2 office. We were managing really four different
projects, the Orbiter, the engine, the external tank, and the operations
program. We had four projects working for us. Bob [Robert F.] Thompson
was the program manager, Aaron Cohen was the Orbiter project manager,
J. R. Thompson was the external tank program manager. We had three
projects at Marshall, one at JSC. The Orbiter at JSC, the external
tank, the engine and the solid rocket boosters were at Marshall. Then
we had the fifth project was the Cape, the launch and landing project
as it’s called. We were responsible for all those. They were
pretty independent; they were off doing their own thing. They didn’t
much like Level 2 meddling in what they were doing, but I finally
developed a rapport with most of those project managers. We could
work with them very well after a while.
We managed the cost part of it. The way that that was managed was
with what they called the Change [Control] Board, CCB, which was chaired
by Bob Thompson and met every week at least one day and sometimes
more often. What they did is every time the contractors would hit
a snag and say oops, we can’t go there, we’ve got to make
some changes, then they’d have to come in and present it to
the Change Board. Then all the projects had to buy off on it basically.
Bob Thompson says in his memoirs that “I never approved a change
that wasn’t mandatory.” Well, that’s a matter of
opinion. I love Bob Thompson. He’s still very much alive and
still a very good friend. I think he did a magnificent job of holding
that herd of cats together during that development period.
He also authorized an awful lot of changes. At one time we were running
3,000 changes in the system at any given time. It was a lot of changes.
Of course we couldn’t keep up with that with our little staff.
No way we could estimate the cost of all these changes. The bigger
ones we would try to do that, but on the little ones we couldn’t
even keep up. The contractors would bring us in a number, and the
program manager would look at me and say, “Have you looked at
this number? I’d say, “No Bob, we haven’t.”
He’d say, “Well you go look at this and tell me if this
is a good number. We’ll be in session until 4:00 this afternoon.
Come back and tell me before we adjourn.”
So you’d have a couple hours to look at this stuff. All that
you did is you just called the contractor and said, “How did
you do this estimate?” He’d tell you. So who are you to
argue? He goes out to his guys in his shop and asks how many man-hours
will it take to do this job. Of course they’re going to protect
themselves. They’re going to say we can probably do it in ten
hours, but they’re going to multiply that by two. Then the boss
multiplies it by two again. So they come in way overinflated, but
you’re at their mercy.
This was the fallacy of the culture of the way that NASA has done
business from the outset. You’re just at the mercy of the contractor
once you get them on board. Fortunately we had contractors with some
integrity. I was pleased with the integrity of the contract management
we had around the program. They helped us hold the line on cost, otherwise
it could have really gotten out of hand. Our job was really just oversight,
mediator, look at the big stuff, sign off on the big stuff, be the
adviser to the program manager on matters of budget and cost.
How did your tools change over the years? I go back to when you were
talking about your first Mars study with the slide rules.
Well, see, this era here is the ’70s. We still didn’t
have computers. They had big vacuum tube computers to crank out the
trajectories and things like that that required a lot of precision.
I told you I hired a guy by the name of Dick Lupo out of Georgia Tech
[Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta]. Brilliant, brilliant man.
He developed software for us; took these things that we had been cranking
by hand and turned them into software. The old punch card things that
we’d do a box of punch cards and then take them over to Building
12 where they had the mainframe computer, it was a UNIVAC computer.
You’d hand your cards in to the window, the guy would put them
in the card reader. You’d go back an hour later and you’d
have an error and you’d have to debug it. It was a long process.
We developed a lot of—mid ’60s we started. I think that’s
when I hired Dick Lupo and he started developing. It was just taking
the equations that we’d already developed by hand and putting
them in the computer so you could run them very quickly and very accurately.
Other than that we were always data-starved, because again your accuracy,
your integrity of your estimate is always predicated on having analogous
data. There were not too many human spacecraft around. We had the
Apollo program, we had the Apollo-Soyuz and we had Skylab and Gemini
and Mercury, and that was it. We had three points of data, so we did
a lot of these estimates based on three points of data.
I guess that’s the good news. You didn’t have to incorporate
a whole lot, but it was very limited.
Yes, it didn’t change a lot. The accuracy of the methodology
didn’t change a lot. For example, in developing the original
Shuttle estimate, we knew it was going to be a big airplane, so we
did go out and gather a lot of big airplane data. We went out to Boeing
and got the development cost of the Boeing 707 airplane, which was
one of the first jet airplanes, and used that for the body structure.
That helped our accuracy some, but the cost analysis, cost estimating,
is a function of how good of data analogies you have, and if you don’t
have very many you don’t get much better.
We’ve talked a lot on the business side of it, but I wanted
to ask you on the personal side about your thoughts of when you saw
the STS-1 take off and land safely and the work that you had done,
what that meant to you on a personal basis.
I developed a friendship with Bob [Robert L.] Crippen. He’s
a University of Texas alum. Through the alumni activities we had I
had developed a personal relationship with him, he was a good friend.
I talked to him enough to know that they were very confident. John
[W.] Young and he were very confident that the machine was going to
work. They had been spending their lives looking at a lot more details
than I’d ever looked at, so I was pretty confident that it would
work, because everything that we had done—there was the Apollo
 fire—but everything we had done up to that time had worked,
except for that one exception.
We just didn’t dwell on the fact that it might not work. In
retrospect I look back and I think you’re talking about heroes,
John Young and Bob Crippen when they crawled in that thing for the
first time. That was a pretty risky deal, because all the things that
have happened since then. All the dings and the tiles and all that
killed [Space Shuttle] Columbia [STS-107] and all the stuff that killed
Challenger. All those failure parts were there at that time.
It’s a good mark, to know that the work that you went through
was such a success for all. At some point I believe in the mid ’80s
you moved from Shuttle into [Space] Station.
Yes. I had a good friend again from here at UT who was named Clarke
Covington. Clarke had been named program manager of the Space Station
Freedom program. So he called me one day and asked me if I would be
interested in being his program control chief. Again it was a promotion
for me, so I said well, let me think about it. I went and talked to
my bosses. They said yes, we’ve peaked out, because this program
was 14 years old. So they said sure, go ahead and do it.
So I accepted the job and went over to the Nova Building and moved
out of my nice corner office in Building 1 and over to not-so-nice
quarters in the Nova Building. I guess I started working full-time
in ’82 on the Space Station. So that was where we really started
getting into politics. Gradually NASA programs have gone from pure
engineering to almost pure politics. At least five Center Directors
insisted that they be given a role. Their congressmen insisted that
they be given a role in doing the Space Station. In fact one of the
Center Directors didn’t even want to participate but his senator,
who was Barbara Mikulski from Maryland—this was the Goddard
Space Flight Center [Greenbelt, Maryland]—he didn’t even
really want to play. He was happy doing what he was doing, but he
got told how the cow ate the cabbage, so he decided he would take
a work package.
Well, work packages are the antithesis of good management. To do a
big job like this you really need to have strong central management.
What they were going to do is they were going to give the Johnson
Space Center a role for integration. Marshall was going to have the
role for their usual launch vehicle things, but then they were going
to have responsibility for one of the modules. That created a lot
of strife, because there were a lot of power struggles going on as
to which module would be the one that was the dominant module, and
who would in fact be the program manager. Marshall was pushing really
hard with their congressional delegation to have the lead role on
But somehow we came out of it intact, that JSC was going to have the
lead role, but all this politics swirling around, we started doing
the design studies and let contracts, and it just went nowhere because
of all this squabbling, all this bickering. So after a year or so
NASA Headquarters realized that this was the greatest fiasco that
had ever been created. They just threw up their hands. They brought
in a new guy, and they said we’re going to do away with this
project office in Houston. We’re going to change management.
So basically we got fired. Nobody ever really gets fired in NASA,
but we got fired. Clarke Covington got pushed off to the staff. They
brought in Neil [B.] Hutchinson, who was a flight controller, and
John Aaron to head this new program office.
So I was without a job. I was relieved actually, because it had really
turned into such a political mishmash. So, I just shopped around,
and I found Mark [K.] Craig, who had been authorized to start a Mars
program again, the Lunar and Mars Exploration Program Office. I said,
“Aha! I’m going back to my Mars roots.” I jumped
ship and went and asked Mark for a job. Well, actually he came looking
for me and offered me a job, so I said yeah, that’s what I want
So it’s back to Mars and another promotion. I became the deputy
program manager after Mark left for Washington. Doug [Douglas R.]
Cooke took over and then I became Doug’s deputy. When Doug left,
I became the program manager. That was the ideal job that, if 30 years
ago before that I had sat down and said what’s my perfect job,
that would have been the perfect job.
Took it 30 years to get there, but you got there. So talk to us about
those first days and the 90-day study that was going on, and Aaron
Cohen was leading the effort, but yet you were so much a part of what
that was all about.
Well, I’ve got all the documentation for the 90-day study, but
basically it was you got 90 days to do this, now come back and give
us the right answers.
But what I found very amazing is it wasn’t just you, it was
90 days with a very large contingent of interagency work within 90
days, and coming up with the report, how that worked together.
Right, and actually it worked very well, because these were hand-selected
people. We knew each other. We had grown up together in NASA. They
were at other Centers, but we either knew of them or knew them personally.
We traveled a lot; we had a Gulfstream airplane that we traveled a
lot in. For a while in Marshall during the Skylab program we had a
contract airplane, which was an old Lockheed Electra, that flew to
Marshall every week and back. In fact it might have been more often
than that. Anybody could just go out there without travel orders.
You’d just get on the airplane, go to Marshall and spend a day,
and then come back that evening. So we’d gotten to know these
people over the years just because we’d worked with them a lot.
They could do the same thing, they could come over and work with us.
Aaron Cohen was a good boss. He could be really stern and demanding
when he wanted to, but he was a people person. He was a mean son of
a bitch when he had to be. He could crack the whip on you. Everybody
was terrified of this little short Jewish man. If you ever got called
in to his office—
He seems so gentle, right?
Yes, that’s right, but just his authority and who he was, having
been the successful Orbiter Project Office Manager, made everybody
happy with him as a boss. We met at a lot of different places. We
met in Washington, we met in Houston, we met at Langley. At one point
in time they had a building set aside for us at Langley that we did
some work in. I’ve forgotten all the nitty-gritty details, but
it was I think a very successful study. We had trajectory guys working,
we had engineering guys working, we had business people working. I
think for 90 days it was one of the more successful things I was involved
with with NASA. It could have been done. It could have been. It was
an executable project.
Part of what your results were was the cost.
Yes. Again I had the cost team for a while, but I had other duties
as the deputy program manager. I had other duties to deal with. I
guess I got drafted back to do my old cost stuff, but we had a lot
of good cost people in NASA by that time. We had a bunch at Marshall.
Marshall put emphasis on cost analysis a lot more than JSC did. Bob
Gilruth and Max Faget treated the cost analysis people as stepchildren,
but at Marshall it was given full engineering status and they hired
good people and kept them involved.
So we had some really good folks working from Marshall. From Langley
we had some good people. JPL had some good people that we leaned on
every once in a while.
What your study came up with were acceptable plans, but was just the
cost so much out of range?
What happened was this. We had put together costs that I had cautioned
everybody when this thing started, that we were going to be slapped
with a cost ceiling again. I got lectured to by a guy by the name
of Frank Martin who was at Headquarters saying, “This is the
President’s program, we will receive whatever resources we need,
don’t worry about cost constraints.” Well, I knew that
wasn’t right, but we proceeded that way. Aaron Cohen, bless
his heart, we took him in cost estimates. Instead of saying go back
to the drawing board and bring me in lower costs he’d say—because
we’d been under such pressure up to this point in time, because
NASA had been, ever since that first Shuttle R&D [research and
development] cost came in, everything after that we’d blown
every cost estimate that we’d put in there, so we were under
a lot of criticism from OMB, from Congress, from NASA Headquarters,
and all the way down from the President, that NASA couldn’t
be trusted on their costs. So Cohen says we’re not going to
go in with a lowball cost, we’re going to go in and tell them
what we really think it’s going to cost.
I said, “Look, Aaron, it’s a mistake, because it’s
going to kill it when it hits the Congress.” “Oh, I don’t
think so. I think they really want to hear the truth.” I argued
with Aaron for a while but once Aaron got the bit in his teeth there
was no use to argue with him. I don’t know if you know him very
well, but he starts to build this anger inside. After you worked for
him for a while you could see it coming up. So you knew okay that’s
as far as I can go, I got to back off.
You knew your limit.
Yes, so I backed off, so we went ahead and here’s the basic
mistake we made on the 90-day study. Here’s the NASA budget
rocking along like this [refers to hand-drawn illustration]. In here
is all these different codes at NASA Headquarters. Code M, which was
the Office of Space Flight, which was the biggest. Code E, Code S,
which was the Science Directorate, and so on. All this added up to
this NASA budget that rocks along like this.
Well, instead of taking this and some of this and some of this and
applying it to the 90-day study estimates, this we called MERTS, because
those were the codes, M, E, R, T, S. Instead of taking some of the
MERTS stuff and applying it, which we could have easily done, they
said no, that’s sacrosanct; you got to add everything on top
of it. I said that’s a mistake. Well, no, that’s the way
it’s going to be.
So no, we started coming up with all these different alternatives.
They would have these really high peaks. They’d say this is
A, this is B, this is C. You could extend it out for a while. So they’d
go forward and present these humongous costs. The word we got back
was that when they took it over to OMB that it was a nonstarter. They
said uh-uh, it’s just too much money, you can’t. There’s
no way we can give you that much money. It just killed it right there.
That was DOA [dead on arrival] as they said when it hit the OMB.
So that ended it. Here I was, my ideal job. The thing that really
got us though was not even this, now that I think back on it. This
was a big part of it, but as I think back on it, it was a presidential
election year. We had a Democratic Congress, and we had a Republican
President, George H. W. Bush, who was trying to get reelected. The
head of our committee in the Senate was Senator Barbara Mikulski from
Maryland. She was totally attuned to this S thing here, the science
people, because that’s the people that she had to protect. So
she didn’t like some of the propaganda that was going around
as if you put this money in here you’re going to have to take
money out of here.
Well, it wasn’t true because we had preserved all this money.
The truth of the matter is that every time this goes up this goes
up also, it always has. She had that built-in bias, but the main thing
that she objected to is this was a George H. W. Bush program, and
she did not want to give him any talking points for reelection. Now
I don’t know if that’s well known or not, but I do know
that we got a call from Kevin [P.] Kelly, who was Barbara Mikulski’s
chief of staff at that time, and Kevin basically told the Administrator
to shut us down.
So I got a call. I guess he called Aaron Cohen, who was the Center
Director. I got a call from Aaron, who said you are hereby shut down,
so that was it. End of ideal job, end of Mars program. We had recruited
really really good people. That’s what I spent most of my time
doing as the program manager, was bringing in people. Mike [Michael
D.] Griffin was our program director at Headquarters and later our
associate administrator at Headquarters. Mike and I were totally in
accord on how this program should be managed, in fact I’ve written
a document. That’s what I wanted to present at this conference
in Galveston [Texas]. All these years as I was doing this job I was
doing research on the more successful [programs], because I was always
interested in how do you really lower costs.
Turns out that the only way to really make substantial improvements
is to change the culture of the organization. We had made major strides,
and as I was hiring new people I was making sure, much as Admiral
[Hyman G.] Rickover had done when he started the Polaris program.
He personally interviewed every person that went into that. I had
benchmarked him, and Doug Cooke and Mark Craig and I were doing the
same thing, making sure that everybody that came in was attuned to
doing things in a different management culture.
The way we were going to do this is basically, we were going to have
a very very small program office, 15 or 20 people. We were going to
delegate a lot of this to a competitive private sector environment
where we would have very well defined pieces of work, and then we
would go to people like—for rovers for example, we’d go
to Ford Motor Company or General Motors instead of going to aerospace
contractors. We would get the foreign governments to take major pieces,
like the Italians were wanting to do the communications infrastructure
for us at the planet Mars, because that’s their thing. Ever
since [Guglielmo] Marconi [inventor of radiotelegraph system] they
had been the communications people. The French were willing to do
the nuclear reactors. The French have a major nuclear industry. We
had talked to all these people. We had talked to their representatives.
Some of it is not even for publication probably at that time. I don’t
think anybody will mind me talking about it now, but we had a lot
of backroom discussions on can you do this, can your country do this.
We were starting to get all the pieces in place to do these basic
The idea was to disconnect everything, that unlike [International]
Space Station, where everything was connected, every piece of the
Space Station is connected to every other piece through the system,
we wanted to have everything disconnected. We had come up with a mission
where we would commission somebody to develop the habitation modules.
We would deploy these things. Instead of making a heroic Apollo kind
of a mission we would deploy basically a little village on Mars before
you ever commit people. You would put it together robotically. The
concept was that when the people got there all they had to do is go
from their landing spacecraft over to this little village and go in
and turn on the lights, and the refrigerator is already stocked with
cold beer or whatever, and they could relax and get a good night’s
So that was the concept. It would have worked, it would have been
very low-risk. Not only that, we could have done it, we continued
to refine, even after they shut our program down. I still stayed involved,
and we started cutting the cost down by doing these different management
approaches to where we were convinced that we could take a third of
the NASA budget for a decade and have a really good safe Mars mission.
I still believe that by the way. I still believe that, because NASA’s
budget, what is it now, $18 billion a year, something like that. For
$5 billion or $6 billion a year for 10 years we could do a very good
safe Mars landing program.
That’s where it sits. After I lost this job, Aaron Cohen was
still the Center Director. I went in to see him and I said to Aaron,
“What do you want me to do?” He said, “Well, what
do you want to do?” By this time I had 35 years in or something
like that. I don’t want to retire. I was still young, still
having a good time, so I just shot from the hip. By this time I’d
just had two grandchildren here in Austin, so I said, “Well
how about an IPA [Intergovernmental Personnel Act] assignment in Austin?”
He said, “You set it up and I’ll authorize it.”
I called these guys here, Byron [D.] Tapley and these people, and
I said, “Can you provide me with an office? They said, “Sure,
we’ll do that.” Called the governor’s office and
said we’d be willing to supply a person to work with him on
an IPA assignment. They said sure, come on. Ann Richards said send
him on up here. It’s free labor for them. It doesn’t cost
them anything. So, I came up here. It was part of my Senior Executive
Service requirements to do this sort of thing anyway.
I came up here and it was supposed to be for 14 weeks. Well, 14 weeks,
you can’t get much done, so they asked me to be reextended.
By this time this was about the time Aaron Cohen went out and Carolyn
[L.] Huntoon came in to replace him, so I talked to Carolyn and she
said, “Well I think I’m just going to assign you up there.
I think we need a permanent presence in Austin, and I think you’re
doing a fine job, so I’m just going to assign you up there.”
I said okay, fine, so I built a house here, brought my family up here.
I’d been here for about a year and George [W. S.] Abbey became
the Center Director. He had Duane Ross call me up and he said, “Mr.
Abbey says that we’re getting some more Mars money, and he wants
you to come back.”
So I went home and I talked to my late wife, and I told her what the
deal was. She said, “I’m not moving back.” We still
had boxes in the garage that we hadn’t unloaded yet. She said,
“I’m not going back.” So, I went down and I just
got an apartment in Houston and worked with Doug Cooke and all the
guys on Mars missions for a couple more years. Then what happened
was my wife passed away. That caused me to reassess my life. By this
time I had a good rapport set up with these guys here in this building
and our office had moved from the university out to here. It was close
to my house. I said this might just be a good time to hang it up,
so I did.
I’m glad it’s worked out well for you.
I’m having a really good time. I get to work as much or as little
as I want to. If I want to take three weeks off to go to Egypt, as
I did not long ago, you don’t have to ask anybody, you just
go. I don’t get paid anything by the Center for Space Research.
I’ll show you my office. It’s a nice office, and all the
logistics and secretarial help that I need and computer support, so
it’s almost a perfect situation for a retired guy.
I still write papers. I still go to symposiums, but the thing I like
most is that occasionally I get to teach classes down at the university.
I’m always working with seniors designing spacecraft. Every
semester it seems like I have a class that I’m monitoring. The
Space Grant Consortium is in this building as well, and they have
a thing that’s called a design challenge. The design challenge
is from El Paso [Texas] to Beaumont [Texas]; UTEP [University of Texas]
El Paso all the way to Lamar University in Beaumont. We have something
like 20 different universities that are involved in this, so we put
out these projects for these kids to work on. They can select them.
I nearly always have at least one team, last year I had five teams,
so I get to work with these kids and mentor them on how to design
spacecraft and what to do and what not to do, how to do cost analysis.
Then I teach cost analysis occasionally, so it’s perfect retirement.
I read somewhere that you think that engineers need to also be estimators.
So are you able to help them learn that?
Yes, in fact that’s the major point that I make with these kids
that I teach, is that the temptation is going to be for you guys to
just stick to designing, which is basically all done with computers
now, and there’s not a lot of judgment involved, just cookie-cutter
stuff. It’s going to be tempting for you to try to hand all
this off to a business major or something to do your costing for you,
but bear in mind that your future is going to be tied up in how accurately
you can estimate these cost numbers. If you go in the private sector
you better hit that cost number pretty close or you’re not going
to have a job. So you better get involved in this stuff.
It’s had an influence. I’ve had kids come out here and
spend time with me on how do you do this. I’ve gotten the access
to the NAFCOM [NASA/Air Force Cost Model] that’s run out of
Huntsville, out of Marshall Space Flight Center. I have it on my computer
terminal. I’m the only authorized person to use it, but I can
help them do things using the NASA cost model, so I still do stuff
That’s great. You’re using all your lessons learned to
share with next generations coming up.
Yes, so I have varying levels of ambition. Sometimes I’ll say
it’s time for me to write another paper, and I’ll do some
research and slap together a paper and go present it somewhere. I’m
busy. I am busy.
Sounds like it.
I put in only four hours a day usually here, but I’ll be down
at the university, I’ll be at the LBJ [Lyndon Baines Johnson]
School [of Public Affairs], I’m involved with the continuing
education program here in Austin [University of Texas at Austin Osher
Lifelong Learning Institute]. It’s called UT FORUM. That’s
mainly for retired persons like myself, but we have professors. Living
in a university town like this there’s so many things going
on, there’s always something going on. We get experts in just
any kind of field that you want to come and talk to us about the latest
and greatest developments in that field. They love doing it, and we
love learning things, staying up to speed on things.
Keeps our minds moving in the right direction, doesn’t it, learning
Yes it does.
As you look back on those years that you spent with NASA is there
a time that you feel like it was the most challenging part of your
Well, there were several times that we had real challenges. I guess
when we changed management on the Space Station Program, every time
there was a change in management, it created a lot of stress, because
you have new personalities to deal with. As far as the job itself
goes, there was always stress, but it was manageable stress. People
were always fair, you were always dealing with intelligent people
that you could reason with. That’s what I like about this place
here too, because they’re all rational intelligent people. I
think by far the worst part of my career was the Barbara Mikulski
phone call that shut down our program, because we had just let a contract
to McDonnell Douglas, a support contract, which was small, it was
$40 million. As contracts go at NASA, that’s not too big. They’d
already hired a bunch of people. I knew that those people were going
to be let go, and they they all had families and they were going to
be out on the street.
That was the hardest part of my career, is calling up the contractors
and saying they’ve shut us down, they’ve taken our money
back. We have enough money left to pay your termination liability
and that’s it. It was a human tragedy. That was the toughest
part of my career, because I was not concerned for myself because
number one, I had enough years to retire, number two, I knew that
there’d be interesting things to do. When I went out to California
and sat down with the contractors and had to look in their faces and
tell them these things, that was tough.
What do you feel to be the most rewarding aspect of those years?
There was never a day that I didn’t want to go to work in all
those years. There were days I didn’t feel like going to work,
but there was never a day that I didn’t want to be there. That
in itself is a reward. The most rewarding thing about NASA was the
people. No question. The associations with the exceptional talent
that we put together. If you stop to think about it, you probably
know this, but when we were hiring and building up our Center, we
could only hire engineers. We couldn’t hire business majors
or anything without going through a civil service register, so we
had to take engineers and turn them into business people and that
kind of work. A guy that graduates from engineering school, he’s
probably come out—at least the engineering school here in Texas—there’s
nobody in that engineering school that wasn’t in the top 10
percent of his class in high school. Then those people, of the entering
ones to the graduating ones, about three fourths of the people are
screened out between the entry and the graduation, in a lot of these
engineering programs. So there’s another tough screen. Then
NASA comes along, and at the time we were hiring we always had more
applicants than we had people, so you’d have this other screen
of taking the best out of that best of best of best. You take that
and you put it over the entire population of people, 3,000 people
that we had there, civil servants, and we had some really really good
people, some genius kind of people. It was just fun to work with.
That was my greatest reward, was to be able to work with folks like
that. You didn’t have to explain things to them.
They helped, right, instead of having to hinder.
Well, as our time is about to close for now, is there something else
that you wanted to add where we are?
Well, as I think back on my years at NASA, NASA was a good employer.
It was always rewarding to work there. We had as much freedom as we
were willing to take. We were not exceptionally well paid, but we
had enough money to send our kids to college, to live in nice houses,
buy a new car every once in a while. We had enough resources to live
the good life. We had opportunities to travel internationally. NASA
sent me to Europe a number of times on various things and I wound
up taking my family on some of these, at my expense of course.
Living in Clear Lake was a perfect place for us because it was suburban,
in the country, where we were living. It was a good place to raise
kids, it had a really good school system. Never had any problems with
any of our girls as far as things that happened at school. There were
no gangs at that time. There was just no problems in kids growing
up. Living in good communities with good neighbors. I can’t
think of a thing negative about working at NASA. I can name a few
individuals, but for the most part, it was almost idyllic, looking
back on it. The high-stress times were when I knew that I was in the
right and that decisions had been made that constrained me to do things
that I knew were stupid. I’ve enumerated a couple of those.
That was the toughest times, except for that final thing with the
Still got hope we’re going to Mars?
Well, that’s a good question. Even after I came up here to Austin
I was running a project to develop a drill. When I got called back
to Houston by George Abbey, I went over and talked to a bunch of people
at the Center. I talked to a lot of the scientists. I said what’s
the next thing that you want us to do at Mars so you can learn more
about Mars. I got various answers, but the consistent answer was we
need a drill to drill below the surface and see what’s down
there, because all we’ve seen now is the surface.
I said well, we’re here in Houston. We got drilling people that
drill stuff all over the world, so I put out a call and got responses
from two people. I got responses from Baker Hughes [Incorporated]
and from British Petroleum [BP] willing to help us. Well, I didn’t
have any money. British Petroleum said that they wanted money, so
that ruled them out. I sat down with the CEO [Chief Executive Officer]
of Baker Hughes. He said, “This is just so exciting to me. I
just really love this project. I’ll give you whatever resources
So he assigned two full-time engineers to me. These guys knew everything
there was to know about drilling, so we actually over the next five
years, developed a drill that’ll work on Mars, and tested it
in the Arctic. It’s ready to go. It’s there in Houston.
It’s packed. It just needs a ship to get there.
Yes. I don’t know if you know about Technology Readiness Levels,
but it’s about Technology Readiness Level 6 or maybe 7. You
have to be around 8 or 9 to fly, so we got some more testing we’d
have to do and more qualification for space. We’ve not qualified
it in space yet, but basically the technology is there. They developed
the cutter heads for the drill. Baker Hughes did all this on their
own money. We scrounged money from some—I better not say who
we scrounged it from, because they’re still there.
They may be looking for that money.
Yes. That gave us money for our shop. We basically built the drill
in our own shop except Baker Hughes supplied the drill bits that they
made in a little private shop out in Nevada someplace. Maybe it was
Utah. We got it put together and it worked, in fact I’ll take
you back by my office. I’ll show you some of the cores that
it drilled in sandstone, but it drills in basalt, it’ll drill
in anything, permafrost. It operates on 40 watts of power. That was
the thing that blew the mind of the Baker Hughes people. They’re
used to putting 1,000 horsepower into a drill stem. We were talking
about 40 watts. They said 40 watts, what can you do with 40 watts,
but they did it. Doesn’t drill very fast, but it drills about
an inch a minute.
I’m sure the people on Mars when they use it will be glad it’s
only 40 watts.
Well, it won’t be people. This is to be an unmanned mission
to go and actually drill a water well. We’d go to someplace
where the gamma ray spectrometer tells us that there’s water.
We could drill as much as a kilometer deep with this drill. As it
sits right today it could drill about 20 meters, but with automation
of the adding of drill stem and all we could go to a kilometer.
I think someday that may actually fly, but I don’t know, because
they got wise to our funding. The machinist that was working on it
for us got put off on another project. The guys, the engineers that
were working with us that were taking it to the Arctic for testing,
got pulled off on Constellation work, so it’s there. The people
are still there. We could put it back together if we had to.
I bet you can. We look forward to hearing about that. Well, we’ll
stop for now and see where we want to go next.