Space Center Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
by Carol Butler
Kirkland, Washington – 26 August 1998
Today is August 26, 1998. This interview is with Dale Myers at Kistler
Aerospace in Kirkland, Washington. The interview is being conducted
as part of the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project. Carol Butler
is interviewer, and assisted by Summer Chick Bergen.
To start, I guess maybe if we could just go over briefly some of your
roles and responsibilities when you started with North American.
This is going to be a long interview. [Laughter] I started as an aerodynamicist.
I worked on airplanes. The first airplane I worked on was Mustang,
which was a very famous World War II airplane, and my first job was
to design a dorsal fin for the airplane. Whenever you see a P-51D,
there's my dorsal fin on it. I became project aerodynamicist on the
Twin Mustang, went on through other aircraft activities, and then
in 1946, I went to a small new group that was called aerophysics,
and that was to work on advanced supersonic cruise missiles. What
had happened is that the United States found that the Germans had
done such an immense amount of technology in World War II, those V-2s
and buzz bombs and all the things that they developed, that the U.S.
realized they were way behind in technology. So they started these
new programs with all the aerospace companies. I was asked to move
over to this Aerophysics group, moved from there, from aerodynamics
to system engineering, to assistant director of the laboratory, and
developed the missile called Navajo, which was a very advanced, high-speed,
long-range cruise missile, Mach 3 ram jets, rocket-powered.
It started a whole echelon of technology that involved the development
of new rocket engines on the part of the United States, in a group
that spun off from our aerophysics group and became Rocketdyne. It
involved the development of inertial navigation systems, it involved
the development of the titanium industry for the United States. All
these things to get to high-speed, high-temperature, long-range operations.
Those same rocket engines ended up being used on Atlas and on the
Delta rockets that are still used today, so they started a whole spinoff
of technologies. Great program, but we didn't know much about how
to do redundancy and backup systems and things of that sort. So even
though this Navajo flew a thousand miles off of Cape Canaveral, as
it was then, at Mach 3, the ballistic missiles were coming along at
the same time, and the decision was made, "Let's go ballistic,
let's not go cruise." So our program was canceled.
Then we proposed a cruise missile to be carried by the B-52, and I
was the program manager on that. That program was a total success.
Then in 196…I was asked to come over onto the Apollo Program,
and I became the program manager for the Apollo Program, which included
the command and service module for Johnson Space Center. I was involved
in that program from '63 actually until about August of '69.
After the first lunar landing, we recognized we had to do something
else as a company to keep other business going, so I moved over to
what was called preliminary design and worked on space station, Mars
mission, Shuttle, anything that I could work on that would get ideas
for the next activities for North American, which was Rockwell by
then. They changed from North American, to North American-Rockwell,
to Rockwell in that period of the Apollo Program.
Then in late '69, I was asked by George [M.] Low if I would leave
industry and come back to headquarters and head up manned space flight.
So I did that and went back to NASA in January of 1970. Our first
launch was Apollo 13. [Laughter] We can talk about that.
Well, I launched more—I put more men on the moon than George
[E.] Mueller did. So I was in charge of 13, 14, 15, 16, 17. I watched
NASA's budget be cut in half across that time period. We have an interesting
schedule back here that was put together by some guys in General Dynamics
that compares George Mueller's schedule of programs that he had set
up in 1968 when he was head of manned space flight, and what I set
up in 1970—I think it was late '70—but I put together
a schedule of what I thought we were able to do, and he had a space
station, he had a Mars mission in his program, he had shuttles flying
out through that whole time period, he had many more Saturn V's in
By the time I got there, we had canceled Saturn V's back to seventeen,
and I don't know whether I was—I think I'm the dirty guy that
had to cancel the space station and the Mars missions, and all the
other things that George had in his program, and just focus on the
shuttle. That's the only thing that we'd be able to do. That was something
that all of us, George Low, and—I can't remember who the administrator
was at that time. Jim [James C.] Fletcher came in in 1972, and I don't
remember who the administrator was in 1971. But anyway, it didn't
make much difference, because the budget was coming down so fast that
there wasn't any question that the only thing we could possibly do
was the shuttle.
So that sort of gets you to where my career with NASA—well,
no, there's another piece of it. The Shuttle Program was really a
tremendously difficult program to get started. We had been looking
at a two-stage fully recoverable system, George Mueller's original
dream. With the budget going down the way it was, and with the OMB
[Office of Management and Budget] the way they were, we kept going
to OMB and getting nowhere on the Shuttle, and finally when Jim Fletcher
came in as the administrator, he and George Low went to see President
[Richard M.] Nixon. I think it was about the second time they saw
him, he said, "You can build any kind of Shuttle you want to
as long as it doesn't cost more than $5 billion." Well, we'd
just spent $24 billion on the Apollo Program, so $5 billion didn't
sound like very much.
So we had to figure out what do we do about that, and that's when
we set up all these Phase A studies with the contractors that led
to many different configurations of the shuttle. I'll want to talk
more about that, because that's a really important part of the game,
and one where Johnson was very much involved.
So we went through that period and finally got the shuttle established
at $5.25 billion, not including a 20 percent reserve for the administrator.
I kept saying all through this activity, "No program with all
the technology and complexity of this program can be done with any
original estimate of the job. So you, the administrator, have got
to have a reserve." Jim agreed, and he got that reserve with
OMB [Office of Management and Budget]. They agreed with him, but he
never got it in writing. So it disappeared the year that Jim Fletcher
left as administrator. So we were back down to the 5.25 again.
We had always managed programs in manned space flight from headquarters
with equal partners at Marshall [Space Flight Center, Alabama] and
Johnson [Johnson Space Center] and...[Kennedy Space Center]. It was
a very expensive way to manage. It took a lot of overhead, a lot of
interaction, a lot of meetings, lots of press talk, lots of competition
between centers, and so on. So I proposed to George Low and Jim Fletcher
that we do this with a lead center at Johnson. After a lot of discussions
and some discussion with Congress, we decided we would do that, and
we gave Johnson the lead center responsibility on the Shuttle Program.
That reduced costs dramatically, put one center in charge, created
some tensions that had to be worked on very hard, but over a long
period of time, we almost met the cost estimates that had been set
up for the shuttle. If you included inflation in it, it turns out
the only missed it about 10 percent, which is pretty terrific. But,
as I'm sure you've heard from some of the other interviews, we ended
up with some—when I left in 1974 and John [F.] Yardley came
in—by the way, I hope you're talking to John Yardley—John
was such a strong manager, he did such a terrific job on the Mercury
and Gemini, that when he came in, he, I think, kind of took away the
responsibilities of Johnson to himself, and allowed Huntsville guys
to come see him about money. That destroyed the system, as far as
I'm concerned, so we lost the real lead center management situation,
and it led to some really difficult problems, which, I think, contributed
to the Challenger accident. We can talk more about that.
There was a huge division between Marshall and Johnson on communication,
like on, for example, quality control and safety and things of that
nature. If you talked to Marty [Martin L.] Raines, you may have heard
some of that problem, because Marty was in charge of QC [Quality Control]
at Johnson at that time. He lost communications with Marshall on a
lot of those activities. So that was a big problem, a problem that
you could probably trace back to the idea of a lead center, that we
were not able to overcome the competitiveness and the…egocentric
views of each center in that lead center activity. I'll get back to
that later, because we got into this same problem with the space station.
I've lost track of it [the space station management], so I don't know
how that's going now.
Anyway, we got the shuttle configured. We did the Apollo-Soyuz the
same way. We had a lead center at Johnson, they did a great job, met
the budgets, met the schedules. It showed that if there's not a lot
of entanglement with another center, a lead center activity will just
work like a charm. The problem is, NASA, in my view, has got to learn
how to work [with] a lead center…work[ing] with other centers
[as subcontractors] and make it work like industry does with subcontractors
all the time. But it didn't work very well on the shuttle from the
standpoint of the safety issues. Worked great from the standpoint
of the technical [decision] issues.
I left NASA in 1974. Couldn't work on the space activities anymore
because I had to recuse myself from everything in space, because I
had been so much involved in it. So I went to work in the airplane
business, and went back to Rockwell as head of the aircraft group
there. We had commercial airplanes, Navy airplanes, and Air Force
airplanes, so had a lot of fun there for a while.
Then from there on, funny things happened, like Presidents calling
me to be Under Secretary of the Department of Energy. Then I got out
of that and got into the construction business at Jacobs Engineering.
I was president of the Jacobs Engineering Company for a while, and
then I retired. Then I became a consultant, couldn't stand retirement.
Then in 1986, after the Challenger accident, Jim Fletcher called me.
He had gone back to be the administrator after Challenger, and wanted
me to come back with him. I said, "No, I've been in the government
twice, that's enough." So the next Monday morning, I got a call
from a young lady who said, "The President is calling."
So [Ronald] Reagan was on the phone with a three-by-five card that
knew all about me, you know, and he worked me over for a while, and
I decided I'd go back.
Hard to say no to the President.
It's hard to say no to a President, especially a big salesman like
Ronald Reagan was.
Anyway, I went back and worked with Jim on getting the Shuttle untangled
from all of the horrible inquisitions and finger-pointing and everything
that was going on, and tried to build the morale back up. Did the
best we could on that. I think it started to work. We got the Shuttle
going again. I told Reagan I'd stay through his administration. Reagan
left. We put in our resignations, nothing happened. We put them in
again, nothing happened. So Jim and I sat down one day and said, "Well,
let's just leave. They know we've resigned. Let's leave." So
we made a deal, he'd leave in April, I'd leave in May. So we did.
He left in April, and I was the acting administrator for a month,
and then I left and went back to the consulting business.
I ran into George Mueller at an AIAA function in '95. I was heavily
in the consulting business by then, and he wanted me to do a little
consulting with him on this new thing he was getting into here. I
don't know whether you know what this is, but it's a privately financed,
two-stage, fully recoverable launch vehicle. It's what George Mueller
has always wanted to do, is a two-stage fully recoverable launch vehicle.
And me, too. Having gone through all that sizing and shaping of the
Shuttle, we never were able to make it a two-stage, fully recoverable
system. We'd throw away the tanks, we'd essentially throw away the
solids, so it's expensive. We figured if we could make a two-stage,
fully recoverable system, bring it back to the launch site, stick
it back together and launch it again, it would save an immense amount
of money and really make a major reduction in the cost of getting
So I found out George was working on this thing, and I said, "Man,
I want to work on that, too." So he got me and Henry [O.] Pohl
and Aaron Cohen, and George to start from scratch and design what
we thought was the best thing to do with this thing. So it's really
been exciting, and has, we think, great potential for—well,
for a profitable business. We're having a lot of fun working on it.
And that's sort of where I am, up to date. Okay?
Wonderful. Well, that's a great overview. Great.
Let's go back. How do you want—let's see, we can start—
Maybe if we can start—
196 when I came on to Apollo.
We were still building up. We had just broken loose from the direct
landing approach to use the lunar module. That decision had been made,
so I knew we were going to carry a lunar module, and SLA, Spacecraft
LM Adaptor, was mine, and we had to make the adjustments to install
the LM, so we were very active at that time, because we were kind
of reconfiguring the program to take care of that. We still had mockups
of the direct lander. The direct lander would have required a booster
bigger than the Saturn V. So we always thought that, [Wernher] von
Braun thought that that was a heck of a good idea, because it would
have…[required development of] a booster big enough to go to
Mars. So he had been dragging his feet on the whole idea of the lunar
module, and so had a lot of people from a technical standpoint, too,
because you were just dropping off pieces all the way, and you get
down to the moon, and you're down to this little tiny thing that has
to come back up, and you can't check it out, and you've got to leave
a piece on the moon, and go up with this stuff. A lot of people thought
that was too complicated, including von Braun. It took a long time
to get him bent around to accepting that idea. He wasn't the only
one against it, either. [Our company had been in favor of direct landing
too.] It was a difficult decision for NASA to make. But once made,
we were sure on our way on that.
Well, there were a lot of interesting things that happened during
the Apollo Program development. Lots of things. We had so many innovative
people that we had great ideas, many of which didn't work, like we
were going to measure the fuel in tanks with nuclear devices that
had nuclear detectors. You put a radiating source on this side, and
a detector on this side, and the fuel would dampen, would reduce the
intensity of the radiation, so you could measure the amount of fuel
in the tank. Didn't work practically. So we had to switch over. Had
a lot of changes like that as we went through the program.
That's what really program management was all about, was to meet cost
schedule and performance, and that meant balancing advanced technology
versus the real world and getting stuff done in time. The whole idea,
I guess my guiding philosophy in everything I've done, is to keep
it simple. During when I did this cruise missile in the '57 to '62
time period, we had a big sign on the wall, about the size of that
wall that said "KISS" [Keep It Simple Stupid], and it worked.
Guys really thought about finding good neat ideas that were simple.
That was what we kept pressing in the Apollo Program all the time.
I worked with Kenny [Kenneth S.] Kleinknecht. He was the project manager
down in Houston at that early time period. Then, well, let's see,
I think I made some notes here on that. Nope, don't find them. Yes,
that's right. Kenny Kleinknecht. Now, I can't remember the sequence
of this, but in '6 when we had the Apollo fire, I don't remember
whether I was working with George Low out of Houston at that time,
or whether George came on the program at that time. The reason I'm
confused is Frank Borman came on the program then also. I interfaced
with Frank Borman during that time period.
I believe Joe Shea was the [JSC] project manager up through the fire,
and then George [Low].
You're right. You're right. Joe Shea had come on the program. Yes.
I don't know when Kenny—when it was switched over to Joe, but
Joe came on the program. Joe was working with me at the time of the
fire. You're right. You're right. Then George Low came on. So George
worked with me. You're right, because I can remember going to those
change boards every week down to Houston with George Low after the
fire, and that was when we were changing over to the outward-opening
door that North American had originally proposed, by the way, and
the two-gas system that North American had proposed originally, and
all these changes were coming into the system.
The other things that were happening, by the way, as a result of that
fire, is we put protective panels on everything like an airplane.
Airplanes don't have wire bundles sticking out to be walked on. What
happened is that—and I don't give Johnson a lot of credit on
this—Johnson and Huntsville fought out what the weight of the
command module ought to be, and they had us scrounging for every pound
of weight on the command module, and they had a big margin on the
Saturn V. Now, I couldn't go back and show that on a piece of paper,
but the fact is, we added a lot of weight after the fire, protective
panels, more insulation in the wires, a lot of things of that nature.
I never heard a peep out of the Huntsville guys. We sort of made it
to the moon that way, so I think they overdid their concern abut weight.
I understand that, because I've been in the business of saving weight,
too [on other programs], and I think when you have a payload, which
the command [and] service module was [along with] the lunar module.
The lunar module was new, nobody knew what it was going to weigh,
so I can see where the Huntsville guys would try to keep plenty of
margin for the Saturn V, and they did it by really milking us all
on weight. So the command module was very lightweight at the time
of the fire.
We had never tested the material at 16 psi oxygen. We had tested at
5, and we had complained about—and I'm sure you've heard this
story from many people—everybody was complaining about the astronauts
putting too much Velcro inside the command module. I don't think that
that was a make-or-break issue as far as the guys are concerned, because
16 psi oxygen will burn anything. It'll burn anything. We got a spark
in there some way. I'll never know what it was, and I don't think
anybody knows. There were so many wire bundles in so many places that
even though technicians were very careful, had protective padding
and all this stuff when they worked on it, the fact was we had a lot
of exposed wire bundles that you could walk on, and cause abrasion
on insulation, and who knows what did it.
After the fire, Lee [J. Leland] Atwood and I were the main testifiers
to Congress from North American, and I know Jim Webb was getting beat
up so badly by Congress that he had to have somebody hide on the deal.
Harrison [A.] Storms [Jr.], who was the overall director of the [space]
activities at Rockwell, which included the S2 booster and the command
module and service module, he was the one that got fired from North
American. Lee was very—what's the word—nonaggressive,
I guess is the word, in the testimony. We never brought up the issues
I just brought up about our original proposals for the command module,
never brought them up in Congress, never tried to protect ourselves
from the criticism that occurred at that time.
The Phillips Report came out. I had never seen it. I was the program
manager on the command and service module, and I had never seen it.
It had gotten stopped someplace. It went to Lee Atwood. Lee saw it.
It went to him, but it apparently went to [other] senior people in
the company, but never came to us. It may have gone to Stormy [Harrison
Storms]. I don't know whether Storms saw it or not.
The program had been such a crash program that there were plenty of
problems. My job after the fire was really to clean up everything
that was in that Phillips Report, and to make darn sure that we did
it right. I can remember, I'll never forget, George Mueller and Sam
[Samuel C.] Phillips coming out and beating me over the head on schedules,
because we weren't meeting the new schedule that they had set, that
they had set up for getting the new door on and all this stuff. I
wasn't going to change anything that would affect the safety of that
thing. I think that was part of the strong reaction they [also] had
to the fire was, "We're going to make this damn thing perfect."
Wally [Walter M.] Schirra [Jr.] was the first guy we were going to
carry into space, and of course, Wally is a great punster, but he's
also a perfectionist. So we formed a team on that thing, and really
went to work to make those things right. Wally got a good ride, but
he still sent me a little piece of teflon that floated around in the
cabin, debris. He put it in a plastic thing and sent it to me. I still
have that on my desk.
Let's see. Let's move on from the fire. Any questions or anything
on the fire? Let's see.
You've covered most of what I had.
Yes, I think we covered most of the things we had there.
I was really sorry to see Joe have the problem he had, Joe [Joseph
F.] Shea. I'd been through the airplane business and I'd lost test
pilots, and I had suffered, and understood the problems with the wives
and all that stuff, but I think that saved me when we went through
the fire. Joe had never had anything like that happen to him before,
and it was just a very tough thing for him.
Let's see. So let's get on with the responsibilities there. I said
cost schedule and performance. There's a lot more than that. It was
all the interaction with Johnson. I was the prime interaction with
Johnson, rarely testified, but once in a while I was called back to
testify in Congress. Had a terrific experience. It was a great thing.
When we had flights, I'd go down to Houston and be in the span room
in the back area there with a lot of guys that were later in important
positions. Arnie [Arnold D.] Aldrich I remember in the back room,
and all these guys who were the smart young supporters of mission
control. I was smart and fairly young, too, at that time. At least
Then after the lunar landing, as I said, I went over and spent a few
months in preliminary design, and then George Low asked me to come
back to Washington, manned space flight, head of manned space flight.
At that time I had nothing to do with the unmanned launch vehicles.
That came later [when] they were all put together, but at that time
it was just manned space flight, which was plenty.
I was responsible for the three centers, von Braun, Gilruth, and [Kurt
H.] Debus at the three centers, and all the budget development, all
the development of new programs and things of that nature. The biggest
issue at the time besides safe fight of these various vehicles was,
"What do we do next?"…The only logical thing out of
those three was the shuttle. Couldn't build a space station because
you couldn't go support it. They were canceling the Saturn V, and
the S1B and all that stuff were gone, so you had to have a launch
vehicle. So the shuttle was the only choice we had. With the whole
idea of the shuttle followed by a space station, followed by either
permanent operations on the moon or temporary operations on the moon
leading to Mars, that was the pattern at that time. I don't think
it's changed a lot.
I don't think so.
But the difference was that as I went into that job, we still had
tremendous support from the public. Even though the budget was going
down, and logically it should have gone down, because Apollo's huge
expenditures were over, we'd built the hardware, we were now just
getting into test, and so the industry manpower was really going down
fast, which brings up an interesting point. Part of my problem was,
"Here's industry cutting down to a third of what it was. Why
do we still have the same size centers?" That was an interesting
issue. So part of my job was to defend, defend, defend. Even with
that, we had to make some cuts down at Marshall, a very difficult
thing to do in the government, as you know.
But a lot of fun in the program. We got very good support out of the
industry on these various studies of the shuttle. I'm sure you've
seen all the different configurations that were developed, triple
boosters, and series boosters, and parallel boosters. Max [Maxime
A.] Faget had started the program with a straight wing, and my job
back there was how am I going to sell the shuttle. I had to go get
support from the Air Force. The Air Force came up with this cross-range
requirement, which required that you be able to go in one orbit around
the Earth back to the original landing site. That meant a 1,500-mile
movement of the Earth, so you had to move the vehicle. You had to
maneuver the vehicle 1,500 miles. Straight wing wouldn't do it; a
delta wing would. I had had a lot of experience of delta wings in
my background, knew that that would do this cross-range maneuver,
so we had a big shootout with Max, and since I was the boss, I won.
So Max, ever since then he's thought we did it wrong. If you interviewed
him, I'm sure he thinks we did it wrong. Fact is, we wouldn't have
a shuttle if we hadn't gone to the cross range. I had to have Air
Force support, and I had to get Congress to support the idea that
this thing would carry other military payloads.
We couldn't prove enough payloads in NASA to defend building it, so
that's where we came down. George Low and Jim Fletcher and I all agreed
that we had to go to the cross-range requirement and the big payload.
So it got big and it got cross range. I think it was exactly the right
thing to do, because we wouldn't have had a shuttle otherwise.
I was never very happy with Max's configuration anyway. [Laughter]
Because a delta wing with the slope leading edges reduces the temperatures
on the leading edge. We didn't know much about temperatures in those
days. On the other hand, I give Max all the credit in the world for
being one of the world's greatest configuration guys. The way he came
up with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo was just spectacular, so he
still should get all the credit there is in that world. But when we
had to move out of NASA as to requirements, Max never connected. He
never understood what we were trying to do. But that's the way it
I don't know who sent me this, but I got a cartoon that I had framed
and put on the wall, that showed Max and me standing down at the Cape
watching the shuttle take off, and the shuttle takes off and then
the delta wings pop off, and there's a straight wing underneath it.
The caption was, "That's what's called Faget staging." [Laughter]
When Max had a birthday, and I can't remember what birthday it was—maybe
it was when he retired from NASA—I sent that to him, and I never
heard back. [Laughter] So I've kidded Max a couple of times since
then. You know, he's helped us up here a couple of times.
So he's still friendly.
So let's see. Where were we? Oh, yes. Finishing the shuttle. We ended
up being told by OMB, "Not only do you have to do it for $5 billion,
you have to have a 10 percent return on investment." So we started
a study done by a company called Mathematica, that became a really
vital part of selling the shuttle. We had a very imaginative guy,
whose name I can't remember, that had been at McDonnell-Douglas and
came with us there in headquarters, who put together a program that
drew on all the centers and drew on industry, on how much would it
cost per pound to put payloads in orbit, and how much would it save
relative to…expendable launch vehicles.
We became convinced that there were two things you could do. One,
because the shuttle could go up and service payloads, you could save
money by servicing and extending the life of payloads in orbit. That's
part of the money you'd save. You could build simpler payloads. Didn't
have to worry so much about weight, so you could build a rugged sort
of bus and put different instruments on it, and build many of the
buses. So you could save on a learning curve on the payloads. Of course,
we thought you could save a lot of money on the reusability of the
main part of the shuttle. So all of those elements came into the study,
and we became convinced that we could, in fact, meet this 10 percent
return on investment.
I'm a pretty good salesman, so I went over and convinced OMB that
that could be done, testified to Congress about it, believed the inputs
that I got from everybody on what the operational costs would be.
How shall I say this? Our people were very optimistic.
A good way to say it.
What happened is that I honestly—well, we got blindsided a little
bit, too. We hired American Airlines to help us on this study about
what would it cost to operate this thing, and the problem is that
we didn't really teach them. We didn't teach them the huge difficulties
of dealing with space vehicles as opposed to airplanes. When they
thought about checking out the actuators on an aileron, they thought
about how you do it on an airplane, and they worked with our people,
and I think our people felt, "Gee, we've been through Apollo,
we understand space now, we ought to be able to do it more like an
airplane." Maybe it even got to where they said, "We can
do it like an airplane," but with the American Airlines guys
and our people not really having good operational experience, we ended
up with way too optimistic an estimate of the operations costs.
Now, there's a little thing that's missing always in the criticism
about the operational cost of the shuttle, and that is that we estimated
the cost on the same basis that we estimated the Apollo Program, and
the Apollo Program never included the costs of the—well, in
industry we call it overhead, but it's really the infrastructure that
would be there anyway. Okay. Whether or not you're flying, you have
an infrastructure there to handle all the maintenance and the equipment,
and blah, blah, blah. In the Apollo Program, we didn't include those
guys in the costs. They went into a different bucket in the accounting,
and so the $24 billion for Apollo is really not the total cost of
the Apollo Program if you included all the other people that are around
to support the activity.
We did the same thing on the shuttle. I don't really know what that
percentage is, but it was a significant percentage. I wouldn't want
to say, but it was a big chunk of money that we left out of our costs
when we were estimating the cost of the shuttle. So we did several
things too optimistically. We got up to sixty flights a year, and,
you know, a reusable vehicle, it is absolutely dependent on how many
flights per year you have, because you've got a big original investment
in an expensive vehicle, that if you can fly it over and over and
over again, you get lower and lower and lower costs. So we had sixty
flights a year. We had this terribly optimistic input supported by
American Airlines. We included all these ideas like simplifying payloads,
and…[service satellites] and all that caused this thing to look
cost-effective. Thank God, it did, because…[then] we were able
to sell it.
They never should have asked NASA to do 10 percent return on investment.
They never have since. I was just one of those things that come out
of a sort of a green eyeshade OMB approach that they thought was supporting
a President who wasn't very enthusiastic about starting anything new.
But we did it, we got it going.
Then OMB double-crossed us because they decided that they had given
us 5.25 billion, and they should have really given us only 5, so they
gave us the budget in the following year at 5.25, which meant that
they did not include inflation for a year. The dirty guys. [Laughter]
So that was one of the things that we took away as a great memory
of our OMB experiences.
Let's see. Now, let me backtrack a little. Apollo 13, first launch,
everything looked great down at the Cape. I got on an airplane to
go back to Mission Control to stay at Mission Control during the flight,
and when I got off the airplane, my exec was there to meet me. I said,
"How are things going?"
He said, "Well, we seem to be having a little problem with the
I said, "Ah-oh. Let's get over to Mission Control."
By the time I got over there, it wasn't a little problem, it was a
great big problem. I set up a committee with—let's see. I got
Sam Phillips off of vacation. He had left NASA by that time. I got
him back. He was in the Bahamas someplace and I got him back to Houston.
I can't remember who else was on that committee, but we had about
five guys [including the CSM and LM program managers] that met every
eight hours through the flight and just kept in touch. We were in
the position to be able to talk to the congressmen and the outside
people. Still tried to keep it all within Mission Control as far as
the activities are concerned, but we just wanted to stay up to date
and bring in any ideas that we could think of that would help in the
invention that had to go on during that [flight].
You know the results. It was a very hairy deal. It was almost a death
experience. This balancing of all this stuff, and then taking the
chance on having not enough battery power to take care of the separation,
but it worked. So it was a very educational experience for a first
flight and in charge of manned space flight.
What a way to come into a job.
We had another one that was just about as challenging technically,
and that was Skylab. The write-up on Skylab is not how I remember
what happened. It's kind of interesting. The write-up says that the
micrometeroid shield on the Skylab was lifted by the air pressure
as the vehicle went up and was torn off. That's not what I remember.
What I remember is that McDonnell-Douglas, in their zeal to do things
perfectly, had sealed the micrometeroid shield with tape, and I guess
maybe to keep it from lifting off or something, but it was sealed
to where as the vehicle lifted, the air pressure inside stayed at
14.7 psi, and the air pressure outside decreased, of course, and that
pressure inside just bows the micrometeroid shield out to where it
tore off. If they had left it unsealed, it would have vented the air
from inside and not caused that micrometeroid shield to come off.
Now, that's the interesting difference. I thought that my view was
exactly the way everybody thought about it, but I just read the safety
report on the Skylab just two or three years ago, and found the safety
guys thought it was the…ram air pressure that tore off the heat
shield. It's a little detailed difference, but the results are the
same. We lost half the solar panel, tangled up the other half. We
knew we only had…[twelve] days to fix the problem, because the
temperature – this thing was also a heat shield – …was
going up inside the Skylab, and we figured that once the temperature
got above 120 degrees it would wreck all the electronics…so
we knew we had to get a flight off quickly.
I went down to Mission Control, worked with the guys down there trying
to invent things that would be usable by Pete Conrad and the guys
when he went up there. That was one of these twenty-four-hour-a-day
deals, too, where everybody's just working until they drop to get
stuff fixed and invented.
They invented these two ways to go. One was the umbrella that went
out through the scientific airlock that JSC came up with, and one
was a kind of a—I call it the awning—that was done by
Marshall. We had the two groups come in and present which way to go,
and I chose, and convinced Jim Fletcher that we ought to go with the
umbrella, because it could be done from inside the vehicle and didn't
have all the EVA work to be done. And it worked, thank God. It was
not as totally effective as the [awning], so the [awning] did go up
later. On the second flight we put it up—the awning, excuse
me, the awning was the second one to be put up.
That was a very productive program. I don't think Skylab ever gets
the credit it should get. It was just an immensely productive operation.
The way JSC responded to that problem of inventing all this stuff
and then stowing it in the command module, nobody realizes what a
tremendous job was done there, because it used to take us thirty days
to change anything in the command module because of all the paperwork
and the approvals and the weight changes and all that stuff. We did
it all in three days that time. So that was a huge victory for JSC
on getting that thing done.
I think the productivity of the program in terms of the instruments
and the quick changes in experiments the guys did during that program
is a pretty good precursor to what they're going to have to do for
the space station. It was a really good experimental program.
Let's see. What else now. Where are we? We're doing pretty well. We're
right on schedule.
We're doing pretty well.
Let's see. Apollo-Soyuz. I went to—who was the black general
in Desert Storm, very personable guy, working with children now? What's
his name? They talked about him being President.
Right. Colin Powell. Colin Powell was head of security—I've
forgotten what it's called. It's a security panel for the President
when I was there in manned space flight. They were trying to find
something that would work to sort of help work with the Russians and
cool things down a little bit, and this idea of Apollo-Soyuz came
up. I don't know who invented it. But it was kind of tossed into our
lap, and that was one I gave lead center to Johnson [Space Center].
A kind of interesting side story on that. The Russians would come
to Houston on that program, and go out and buy tennis shoes and spark
plugs and all that stuff, and take them home. Our guys would go to
Moscow, and the Russians got a little sensitive about that, they said,
"You guys are coming to our capital and we're going to Houston.
Why don't we go to the capital and have dinner with some high roller
up in the capital?" So it came up, floating up to me, I guess,
from [Glynn S.] Lunney, who was the project manager down there on
the Apollo-Soyuz at that time. I turned it over to Jim Fletcher, and
Jim talked to the administration. Nobody up there wanted to have dinner
with them, and Jim didn't want to have dinner with them. I said, "Well,
[heck], I'll have dinner with them."
So we were going to have the two cosmonauts and their KGB guy, and
two or three guys from Johnson. I think we were going to have eight
for dinner, and that kind of stressed us a little bit, because we
were in a little house up there in Washington. So the guys came to
Washington, they had lunch at the Russian Embassy, and I was invited
to the Russian Embassy, and we had a nice lunch over there, a little
vodka and all that stuff. As I was leaving, the Russian ambassador,
whose name was [Anatoliy Fedorovich] Dobrynin, a very nice guy, the
nicest spy I ever met, he stopped me, and he said, "Mr. Myers,
I understand you're having the cosmonauts over for dinner tomorrow
night." Tomorrow night, remember this.
I said, "Yes, I am."
He said, "Would you mind if I came?"
I said, "No, I'd be delighted."
He said, "I'm an aeronautical engineer, and my wife is an aeronautical
"She's certainly invited."
"May I bring my deputy?"
"Oh, yes. Sure."
So I went rushing back to the headquarters and told Jim Fletcher what
was happening. He said, "Oh, boy…I'd better come, and I'd
better call [Olin] ‘Tiger’ Teague," yet another guy
who was head of the Authorization Committee over in Congress. So we
ended up going from eight to twenty-four.
Because everybody wanted to come once Dobrynin decided to come. Fortunately,
we had a recreation room in the basement that was—it wasn't
very neat, but it was paneled. I don't think it had anything—I
think it was a concrete floor. But we got card tables and big disks,
and were able to put like eight people around each one. Marge and
I had been taking Russian, my wife and I had been taking Russian for
a year, and we were rotten at it, but we made up place cards for all
these guys in Russian. That broke the ice. These guys laughed because
we had spelled things wrong, we put Cyrillic letters backwards, you
know, and all this stuff. It broke the ice to where they started to
try to speak English. They didn't normally speak English. Everybody
had a nice time.
Turned out Dobrynin told me that he met his wife in the halls while
they were going to school, and she was crying, and he helped her with
her mathematics, and later on Mrs. Dobrynin told me she had tutored
Mr. Dobrynin. [Laughter] So I don't know which of them was telling
the lies, but one of them was.
That was an interesting program. So anyway, I had a great experience
at NASA headquarters in that time period. Spent a lot of time at…Houston.
I had known all the Houston guys anyway before I went up [to NASA
Headquarters], so I had no problems in working with the Houston guys...
I got to know the guys down at Marshall [and Kennedy], found they
were a terrific bunch of guys, too. So it was a good experience.
The shuttle got under way, and I saw seven years before any flights
were going to come along. I'd always felt that I had gone back there
partly as a duty, and so I left in 1974.
I really didn't have much contact with NASA from '74 until—see,
because I got off in these other things. I was in the airplane business.
Even though I was at Rockwell, I never saw the guys at the space activity.
I was up in my ears in building B-1s and Sabreliners and things like
that, so I didn't see the guys. So I kind of lost track of the guys
at that time.
Then I went to the Department of Energy. I don't think I ever saw
a guy in NASA while I was in the Department of Energy. Oh, that's
not true. We had a couple of committees where we worked together,
but it was still very minimal contact with NASA.
Then [after] I went into the consulting business, well, I was in the
construction business. That's as far away from NASA as you can get.
I was building chemical plants and refineries for petroleum industry
and things like that. There's nothing to do with space.
So then let's see. Came out of the construction business and went
in the consulting business [again], and there I started getting back
with companies like Aerojet and General Dynamics and people like that,
where some of the things were military, some were NASA. So I began
to connect a little bit with the programs, but very little with the
people. So when I was asked after the Challenger accident to come
back, well, a lot of the guys were the same people. They had moved
up [to] higher positions. Arnie Aldridge was up in Washington by that
time, the guy I used to spend time in the span room with, so the connection
was still there with people in both Marshall and Houston.
That wasn't nearly as much fun, because the problem was that morale
was just at the bottom of the barrel. Congress was trying to find
somebody to put in jail, and a lot of our time, both Jim Fletcher
and my time, was to convince Congress that this was not a premeditated
situation, that if they were to choose a guy to put in jail or to
indict or something like that, it would just wreck the total future
of NASA and probably wreck even any laboratory activities in other
parts of the government. So that was part of our problem was to try
to—well, we did finally get them to back off of this indictment
feeling that they had. We fired a couple of guys in NASA, but at least
there was no jail sentence or anything of that nature that was involved.
They just were told, "We don't need you anymore." So the
job then was to rebuild the operation.
When I got in there, I found that the lead center system had disappeared,
I think mostly due to John Yardley, but maybe after that other people
that were in there never really understood what we were trying to
do, or at least they did not accept the ideas that we were trying
to do of focusing management in one place, putting the responsibility
in one place, use the other centers as essentially subcontractors
to that center, having that center be responsible for the balance
of funding for different centers to be able to bring about the project.
And that was gone. By the time I got there, funding was going directly
to Marshall and directly to JSC. So JSC had really lost their lead
Oddly enough, when I talked to J—not J. Eric Thompson, but Bob
[Robert F.] Thompson?
Yes. I think he would disagree with me. I think he thinks he still
had a lead responsibility, and in some sense he did. He had still
the technical integration people and had developed the technical part
quite well, but the communication between Johnson and Huntsville had
fallen apart. All the issues associated with particularly quality
control, which no one I remember particularly was—had broken
down completely. [When] the problems were developing on the O-ring,
they were not ever discussed with the people at JSC, who supposedly
were in charge—supposedly. So the system broke down.
One of the first things that we got into when we got back there was,
how do we organize the Shuttle Program now, and how do we organize
the space station? I had been so shaken by that breakdown of the responsibilities
between the two centers that I didn't fight for a single [lead center]
set of responsibility. Sam Phillips was brought back in, and he strongly
recommended that for both the shuttle and the space station, that
we go back to the old manned space flight management system that I
had had in '74 on everything else, which was a lead responsibility
in headquarters, and funding from headquarters for each of the different
centers. I didn't fight that, because that system had broken down
so badly. So that's what happened. They went back to the old Apollo-type
management system and stayed in that system through the continuation
of the Shuttle Program, and the then building-up of the space station.
Space station is an interesting story. I'm probably about where I
will end up. Well, I don't know where to start. I think you've probably
been all through that stuff of Jim [James M.] Beggs starting the program
with $8 billion, getting all the center directors together and agreeing
that we really ought to spread this stuff out, because that way we
can get the support of Congress. So they got—I don't think they
got every center into it, but they got almost every center into the
program and got the congressmen on board to support the program. When
I got there, we had—I don't know—yes, Goddard [Space Flight
Center] was involved. I guess every center was involved in the space
station. So we had a huge management problem, a huge overhead problem,
and we were seeing the cost of the space station going up like crazy.
One of the problems was getting all the centers into it, and then
they were finding that all of their constituents and all of their
supporting scientific base and so on, were putting inputs into the
requirements, and the requirements were being gathered by Washington,
DC, and nobody was trying to simplify them because they thought, "Gee,
we need that congressman's support, so we can't say we don't want
to do his microgravity kind of stuff."
We had a guy in Congress, Dick Mallow, who was the Chief of Staff
for the Appropriations Committee, who was very active in his ideas
of what the space station ought to be. As far as I'm concerned, the
requirements for the space station got out of control. They grew too
far too fast, and made too big a space station without clear definition
of the requirements. I saw it coming, and I saw that the costs were
going to go out of sight.
That was the other thing we were doing. We wanted to get European
support like I did on the shuttle. I got European support on the shuttle
by getting them to do the…Spacelab for the shuttle, and that
was a separable and not fundamental requirement. We could fly without
it. So if it didn't work, it would be okay. And that was clearly in
our mind. We didn't know whether the Europeans were going to carry
through on the Spacelab or not, so we needed something that wasn't
fundamental to the shuttle.
The space station went the other way. We got fundamental requirements
tied in with the Europeans, so it had to work. Fortunately, the European
space programs have gotten mature enough that when I got there and
found that was happening, well, there wasn't anything I could do about
it anyway, but I convinced myself that the Europeans were stable enough
that they probably would come through on the program. The Japanese
were so eager to get into space that we thought they could do it,
too, and if they didn't make it, it was not going to kill us. That
piece was pretty separable.
But I could just see that we were in big trouble on cost, because
the overhead of the centers, the cost of manning-out in the centers,
and the subcontract relationship, a huge integration job for headquarters.
So part of my activities were trying to simplify the space station.
I spent, oh, I bet, 10 or 15 percent of my time working with the space
station guys, trying to find ways to simplify it. I failed. I really
failed on that. I tried. I got Jim Fletcher to agree that we'd go
run a little quite study over in Langley called the KISS Program,
where we would try to simplify the space station and simplify its
The then program manager for the space station, I can't remember his
name, and it's probably just as well I can't, went to Jim Fletcher
and said, "Boy, if we carry out that study and it gets out that
we're doing that study, we'll get the space station canceled."
Jim Fletcher talked to me like a dutch uncle and decided I ought to
cancel that program. So I canceled this program that would have simplified
the space station. I'm not sure I would have gotten away with it,
because the simplification would have also reduced the number of senators
involved, and by that time the Center-congressional relationships
were so strong that I doubt if we would have been able to do it anyway.
Let's see. Oh, yes. I tried to go to a single center on the space
station, which would have been Johnson. Jim Fletcher was wary of it.
I kept trying to convince him that if we had plenty of time we could
then set up by procedure and regulation, essentially, how the system
would work, and how everybody would have to pay attention to Johnson
as lead on the program. Jim got Sam Phillips in, and Sam went through
this thing again, and we ended up deciding to do it like Apollo. That
was really to support the idea of all these congressional supports
to the centers that are involved.
So I left NASA feeling very uncomfortable about the space station.
I thought it was too big, I thought its requirements were too extensive,
I thought that the management system had just terrible overhead problems,
and having had all that background in industry, it just was very unsettling
for me to see it go that way.
Let's see. What else did [I] do while [I was] there? One of the other
big things that was going on while we were there was to try to support
commercial space. We had set up an organization to work on commercial
space. I remember we had some bad proposals, some good proposals.
We ended up supporting Spacehab on a deal where the agreement was
that it was going to be a privately financed deal. We would buy half
the payloads. We would fill half the Spacehab if they would get half
from outside sources. Made that deal. I think they got a few things
from outside sources, but the half was always NASA's and we always
had half, more than half, NASA payloads. But at least we got [one]
commercial system started.
We were going to buy a Titan 3, which was a big launch vehicle, and
the price kept going up. It started out at—I've forgotten what
it was. I think it was $70 million they were going to sell it to us
for, and as time went on the price went up over 100, so we canceled
We started a lot of microgravity experiments, and we started an upper-stage
launch vehicle that was private financed by Orbital Science. I can't
remember the name of, but that program went on, and I lost track of
it. I think they had one or two launches, but I think the Boeing upper
stage, third stage, having been developed with government funds, was
cheaper to build, because it had amortized all its development costs.
I think it pretty much set aside that Orbital Science system.
But there was a lot of activity on commercial activity at that time.
We set up a couple of centers of microgravity experiments. We were
trying to establish things that would later produce interest on the
part of industry for experiments for the space station. So there was
a fair amount of activity in that.
I guess the other thing that we did, that I did at that time, was
worked through with Dick [Richard H.] Truly the issues of what kind
of launch rates we ought to have for the shuttle, because one of the
real troubles with the shuttle was this great pressure to get the
higher launch rates to reduce the cost per launch. That got to be
almost a rhythm between the media and NASA about, "Why aren't
"Well, it rained yesterday."
"Well, why aren't you launching today?"
"Well, we got a little problem with the thing."
And the pressure was on all the time, and we think that probably contributed
also to the Challenger problem. So the issue was "What do we
do?" We finally settled down on about eight launches per year,
and that settled the guys down to where we didn't have that kind of
pressure. Actually, the media, I think, felt a little embarrassed
about the pressure they had been putting on NASA, and they backed
off, too. So that was fortunate. We gave them a lot of lectures about
that, so they kind of backed off, too.
So what have I missed? I think I've covered everything I dealt with.
I think you've covered pretty much everything. We can always have
a chance to look [unclear].
Yes, as you go through it, or as you see holes or conflicts with other
people's discussions, you can give me a call.
Yes, I'd be glad to help in any way I can.
Wonderful. Well, this has been fascinating.
I want to thank you. [Brief interruption]
This is part of the interesting things that happened in a program,
okay? On the Apollo Program, we had titanium tanks that were used
for the fuel for the reaction control system to stabilize the vehicle.
They had N2O4 in one tank and—I want to say UDMH in the other
one. I don't even remember what the chemicals were. But if you stick
them together, they burn. We were testing these tanks. We always tested
them with fuel out in the back parking lot there in Downey. One morning
a guy came in and said, "Hey, one of those tanks popped."
I said, "What do you mean 'popped?'"
He said, "Blew up."
I said, "My God, what caused that?"
Because we had these things, we'd been using them on different vehicles.
I think it was before we had a manned fight, but we had used them
on some of the earlier unmanned experimental flights. They had a lot
of experience with them, and they had been qualified, and they were
good tanks, wasn't anything wrong with them.
So the guy started looking into it to see what was wrong. Two days
later, another one popped. I think in about three weeks we had lost
something like four tanks. We started calling around. The guys back
East had been testing these tanks, too, and they weren't having any
trouble at all. We kept saying, "What's the difference between
what we're doing and what they're doing?" We began to get ideas
like, "Is there something in California like smog that's doing
it?" We couldn't see what was different between what we were
doing and what was going back East. We found that if we filled our
tanks in California and pressurized them, they'd pop in about three
days. [This is what we used to call an “Unk-Unk.” An unknown,
something we don’t even know is a threat. When the tanks started
popping, the problem became an “unk.” We knew what was
happening, but we didn’t know why. “Unks” are fixable.]
So we finally traced it down to where the Air Force, who supplied
the fluid, wanted to be sure that the stuff they sent us was the best
that you could have, and they found that they had about a half a percent
water in the fuel. So they filtered it and cleaned it and fixed it,
so they got all the water out of the stuff. It turned out [that] the
water was what was keeping this corrosive material from attacking
the titanium. Half a percent of water made the difference. Having
cleaned all of that water out, our tanks popped. The guys back East
were using an old tank of fuel, so they didn't have any problem at
But those are the kind of little subtle things that you get into when
you do that early work in space, where nobody has done it before,
you try to do it perfect. The Air Force was trying to do their job.
There wasn't any criticism of what they were trying to do, but we
said, "Add a half a percent." [Laughter]
Put the water back in.
Yes, it fixed the problem. But isn't that an interesting part of the—it's
kind of a snapshot of the kind of world we dealt with in those days.
Wonderful people working the job, all very competent, both sides,
NASA and North American. So it was a great experience.
Wonderful. Thank you.
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