NASA Science Mission Directorate
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
G. Scott Hubbard
Interviewed by Sandra Johnson
Stanford, California – 20 August 2018
Today is August 20th, 2018. This interview with Scott Hubbard is being
conducted for the NASA Headquarters Science Mission Directorate Oral
History Project. Dr. Hubbard is speaking with us today by telephone
from California and this is the second interview, the continuation
of our first interview we had a year ago. The interviewer is Sandra
Johnson. I appreciate you talking to us again, and I’m sorry
it’s been almost a complete year since the last time we talked.
You had mentioned before we started that there was an episode that
you had mentioned in the last interview that you were going to get
back to, and then you didn’t in that interview. So let’s
start with that one, and I believe it had something to do with [Former
NASA Administrator] Dan [Daniel S.] Goldin.
Yes. This goes back to about 1995. This story is really about the
origins of the NASA Ames [Research] Center [Mountain View, California]
assignment of astrobiology and something else called intelligent systems,
which is a computer science discipline.
There’s a phenomenon that you can document by looking back through
the history of NASA that every time an [NASA] Administration changes
there is often a move to realign Centers, reorganize Centers, and
even close Centers. It seems it’s tied to the political cycle.
When NASA was born it was sized for the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo
Programs. Ten NASA Centers were created in those early years. For
the 10 Centers, at that time, there was a huge amount of money put
in over a very short period, and there was work for everybody. Then
as I think I said somewhere else in the interview around 1975 [President]
Richard [M.] Nixon made the decision to pull NASA out of its special
category. The funding which was already going down got reduced to
less than a percent of the federal budget, and that’s where
it’s hovered ever since.
That meant that after the Apollo Moon landings 10 Centers were scrambling
around competing with each other for a much smaller pot of money.
The answer that numerous Administrations have had is well, why don’t
we close X number of Centers. In 1995 or thereabouts, the early ’90s,
Ames, which had been a target in the past because as a research center
some people viewed that as being less critical than the flight centers,
the ones executing the missions, once again became targeted for possible
closure. This was in the early days of Dan Goldin’s tenure as
NASA Administrator, He was named by [President] George H. W. Bush
in 1992 and then transferred and stayed on, one of a handful of political
appointees that made it into the next administration, which I believe
would have been [President] Bill Clinton.
Goldin’s first job was to save the Space Station, which happened
by one vote [June 1993]. Then Goldin announced that he was going to
turn his attention to the makeup of the Agency, the centers and what
they did. There was an infamous “red team white paper”
that was produced that said, “We don’t have enough money
to fund everybody, so we’re going to close a couple of Centers,
and we’re going to close NASA Ames”. Or at least we’re
going to reduce it down to just a few hundred civil servants working
only on aeronautics. The planetary science work there, the space science
work is going to be sent off to either JPL [NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
Pasadena, California] or [NASA] Goddard [Space Flight Center, Greenbelt,
Maryland], and life science work is going to be sent off to Houston
and the [NASA] Johnson Space Center [JSC]. Then we’ll have everything
Of course in political reality Centers have a close relationship with
local elected officials because they represent thousands of jobs in
a given district. We had a Democrat in the White House and Democrats
in the Congress, and there was a very very tense moment when Dan Goldin
flew out to attempt to get an agreement with the guy who was then
the Center Director, Ken [K.] Munechika. He wasn’t there very
long. He had been a Colonel or Lt. Colonel in the Air Force.
Goldin came out to get him to agree to reduce the number of civil
servants from about 1,300 or so to 300, and to give up those assignments
that the Center had and become just Ames Aeronautical Laboratory or
something like that. I wasn’t as high in the administration
of Ames as I was later on, but was with a group of people there who
were intent on saving what we saw as a very unique capability in science
and in research.
It just so happens that word of this impending massive change got
to the local representatives, the elected officials, about the time
that Dan Goldin showed up. Dan had a piece of paper that he wanted
Munechika to sign that would effectively reduce the number of civil
servants by a huge amount. As this negotiation was going on there
was a call from the Chief of Staff at the White House wanting to speak
to Dan Goldin. Goldin took the call and he was told in no uncertain
terms that he was absolutely not to do anything with Ames. In fact
he was supposed to give Ames assignments that were consistent with
their capability and that would make them even more of a standout
Center there in Silicon Valley, which after all was a major part of
the American economy.
The net result of this was that Goldin, who had already put 300 as
the number of civil servants at Ames, had to put a 1 in front of the
3 and make it 1,300, which was roughly the number that was already
there. He went home properly chastised through the political process,
and we, this group of us, about four, five senior people at Ames,
had already been working on what we would do for the future.
We had three friends at NASA Headquarters. One was Wesley T. Huntress,
Jr., who was then the head of all of science. One was France [A.]
Cordova, who was then the Chief Scientist. One was Charlie [Charles
F.] Kennel, who was then the head of what was called Mission to Planet
Earth, basically the Earth Science organization. Those three folks
and this group at Ames began working together on a way of characterizing
the science that we did, which they thought by the way, honestly believed
and said over and over again in public, was a unique interdisciplinary
approach to solving questions like are we alone in the universe. It
was an amazing meeting one Sunday afternoon. Wes Huntress was out
there, I’m not sure if France Cordova was, and we were pondering
what to call this field.
Cosmochemistry, which is one of Wes’s favorite subjects, had
already been taken. That was an existing discipline. People through
different ideas out. I believe it was Wes himself who said, “Why
don’t we call it astrobiology?” This represented the confluence
of Ames’s historical work in space biology, with the Earth science
work that was aimed at origins and evolution, and the space science
work that had gone on through the Pioneer [Program] and the Galileo
probe and the people there like Jim [James B.] Pollack and Chris [Christopher
P.] McKay who were interested in origins and evolution.
That’s how astrobiology was born. As I recounted earlier in
this set of interviews, I had the job of setting up the Astrobiology
Institute, but the actual field was created, as things often happen,
out of an existential threat to the survival of the Center. In addition
to that, Ames’s long long history that started with wind tunnels
and computational fluid dynamics had become much more integrated with
supercomputing. One of the very first Cray supercomputers was located
at NASA Ames, way back in the ’70s.
The other assignment came after Goldin had a chance to think about
this for a little while—I think he had received lots of requests
from congressional delegations and from senators and from the White
House Chief of Staff. He went along with the directive, with the notion,
of creating this new scientific discipline, and in fact really became
quite enamored with it. He went on, Goldin did, to praise astrobiology
as one of the forward-leaning things that NASA was doing. The other
discipline, which grew out of the computational aeronautical work,
was intelligent systems. The idea was to take advantage of Ames’s
location in Silicon Valley and connections to all the companies that
were growing and the supercomputing capability and really advance
the state of the art for space exploration of autonomous systems and
highly sophisticated computation on leading-edge computers.
That was the backstory that I wanted to tell about the interesting
origins of two of Ames’ main roles in the Agency, astrobiology
and intelligent systems, and how that came to be.
I appreciate you adding that because that is interesting, and I’ve
heard from a few other people we’ve interviewed different aspects
of it. I do appreciate you giving the background on how that happened.
As we know, sometimes things happen politically.
Yes. But what happened in this case, and the two things that came
out of it were good, made a lot of sense, a real contribution. Then
shall we move back to where we left off?
Yes, because it’s interesting. Because like you said, Dan Goldin
did ask you to become the person that set up that Astrobiology Institute.
Then because of that experience with the Astrobiology Institute he
tapped you again about coming to [NASA] Headquarters because he thought
you did such a good job. He wanted you to—what you said last
time was—“fix this mess” with what was going on
with the Mars Program.
That’s right. Let me back up just a little bit more. In 1995,
about the same time all of this other business was going on, there
was an announcement out of the White House, out of the Vice President’s
Office, Al [Albert A.] Gore was extremely interested in science, about
the apparent finding in a Mars meteorite of evidence of past life
on Mars. This was a big deal. The paper was peer-reviewed and it was
about to be published, and they arranged for this announcement that
included Dave [David S.] McKay from Johnson Space Center, Dick [Richard
N.] Zare, a professor at Stanford [University, California], and a
number of other really solid people were on the paper that claimed
through four different lines of evidence to have found some indication
that there had been past life on Mars.
At this point there really wasn’t much of a Mars Program. There
was a Mars Program in name, but there wasn’t a plan. Dan Goldin
said, “We’ve got to take advantage of this apparent result
and we need to really go after studying Mars in detail, and we need
to bring a sample back as quickly as possible.” He said, “I
want to see an orbiter at Mars and a lander at Mars at every opportunity.”
Opportunity means a launch window, and a 20-day launch window to Mars
is possible every 26 months. That’s how the celestial mechanics
work out with the launch vehicles that were available at the time.
As a result of that directive JPL and Lockheed Martin [Corporation]
started work on an orbiter and a lander. But Dan Goldin added two
additional conditions. He said, “This Mars Pathfinder Mission
that this Hubbard guy thought of that was so successful, I want these
two missions you’re building, the orbiter and lander, together
to cost no more than what one Mars Pathfinder cost.” He wanted
two missions for the price of one. And oh, by the way, you needed
to follow his philosophy that he called “Faster, Better, Cheaper.”
Experienced project managers shook their head in dismay because typically
those three elements are balanced against each other and you can get
any two of them if you give way on the third one. You can make things
faster and cheaper if you give up on some of the requirements. Or
if you have a lot of requirements and you want it faster you’ve
got to spend more money. Goldin didn’t want that traditional
project management tradeoff to occur, he wanted faster, better, cheaper.
The Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander were built under
those constraints. The project people at JPL and Lockheed Martin in
Denver [Colorado] were operating to try to reduce cost wherever they
could. In the end, after the failure review board analyzed all this
they concluded that the project team ended up taking foolish risks.
You can take some risk if you manage it and mitigate it. But they,
as I’ll come back to in a minute, ended up taking very foolish
risks to meet those mandates of two missions for the price of one
and everything faster, better, cheaper.
Mars Climate Orbiter was launched in ’98. The Mars Polar Lander
was launched a little less than a month later. They were right in
that 20-day launch window. I was not part of those projects, but I
was at JPL during the orbit insertion and then the landing time of
the second mission. When Mars Climate Orbiter was supposed to go into
orbit around Mars, the rockets were fired. It went around in the orbit,
supposedly to be captured by Mars, and it was never heard from again.
The details of all of the players and what happened are in the book
I wrote [Exploring Mars: Chronicles from a Decade of Discovery]. But
the first mission just vanished. Mars Climate Orbiter. The mission
arrived in early ’99 and the orbiter was never heard from. Within
a month or so after that Mars Polar Lander was supposed to land, and
the same thing happened. Everybody was sitting on the edge of their
seat in the control area listening to the signals, and the narrator
was describing what was happening and that it was coming in through
the atmosphere and should shortly be landing on the surface and that
we would hear from it as soon as Mars Polar Lander was safely on the
ground. Nothing was ever heard, no signal appeared.
Of course this was a terrible outcome. The sadness, the disappointment
in the room was palpable. Although Goldin, unlike some previous disappointments,
didn’t yell and scream and throw things, he was clearly though
Whenever a mission is launched by NASA, it is always a plan written
that has actions you would take for various contingencies. There was
a contingency you take if you have a small loss all the way up to
loss of mission. Then over on the human side if there’s a loss
of crew, of course that’s the most serious kind of tragedy.
In this particular case the loss of these two missions meant that
there would be a major failure review. That was chaired by a gentleman
I’ve come to know well and have immense respect for, Tom [A.
Thomas] Young. Tom is the guy that often these days shows up to do
a review when there’s a problem. He just did a review of the
James Webb Space Telescope and why it was not on schedule or budget.
Tom was called to do something called the Mars Program [Independent
Assessment Team] MPIAT, basically a failure review, a big committee.
During all this review he was writing his report up. He’d given
a private briefing, sort of a preview, to Goldin. He said, “Look,
there’s all manner of problems here. There’s not enough
good systems engineering. These people took foolish risks. And oh,
by the way, there’s nobody that’s really in charge of
this Mars Program.”
I was actually investigating an earmark, believe it or not, in my
role as Associate Director for Astrobiology and Space Programs. Money
had been put in for some type of an astrobiology program near Yellowstone
National Park. I got a phone call, actually came in on the phone of
a guy who was Goldin’s Chief of Staff, who was out there with
me. He said, “It’s the boss,” and held the phone
out for me to take, and I believe I’ve already told this story.
Dan said, “I’m going to be in California on the weekend.
I want you to be there, I need to talk to you.”
I flew down to Huntington Beach [California]. What Goldin said was,
“This failure review report is coming out very soon, and it’s
going to say a whole bunch of things that are wrong with the program.
I’m taking responsibility for this, I’m the one who pushed
them into the corner and said two for the price of one and faster,
better, cheaper. But it’s clear that somebody needs to be in
charge of this Program. Because of what you did with the Astrobiology
Institute and Mars Pathfinder, I’d like you to come to Washington,
DC, take the job as this Mars Program lead, and fix the mess.”
That period of time, which was about a year and a half, I worked with
the Centers involved, mostly JPL, with the contractors, Lockheed Martin
and others, with the science community that had to be engaged in any
kind of redirection of this science program, and with the other people
at NASA Headquarters, and put together a team at Headquarters. I was
very fortunate in having a remarkable gentleman at JPL named Firouz
[M.] Naderi who was my counterpart there at JPL to help do whatever
we needed to do. He reported directly to the Lab Director, who at
the time was Ed [Edward C.] Stone.
We set about a massive task really of organizing the science community
to look very quickly—because as was the case with just about
every initiative Dan Goldin was part of, it had to be done quickly,
and it needed to be in time for the next budget cycle. I showed up
at NASA Headquarters in late March of 2000 and we had to have something
to present in time for the next budget cycle, next fiscal year, which
means we had to make an announcement by early October.
I was very fortunate with the people that were supporting me at Headquarters,
including Ed [Edward J.] Weiler, the Associate Administrator [AA],
and I had Goldin’s support. I won’t in the interest of
time go into all the stories, but we ended up with a brand-new mission
queue. It was done very strategically, I believe very thoughtfully,
in balancing the science objectives, the technology readiness, and
the programmatics. Programmatics meaning what budget did you have,
what were the mission schedules, what was the launch vehicle or launch
opportunity. All those three different elements had to be balanced
against one another and turned into a mission queue and then you had
to go back and recheck that for consistency. That always had to reflect
what were the highest level science objectives.
Out of that, we incorporated Mars Global Surveyor, which was operating.
We introduced the Mars Odyssey mission, because it was launched in
2001. If you remember Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey,
it was actually named for that with Sir Arthur’s agreement.
We sent—I think in those days it was a telex, e-mail wasn’t
really operating in Sri Lanka, and he said, “Oh, yes, by all
means please do name it for that.”
Then came the twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. It was my decision
after a very extensive discussion in public meetings as well as in
private meetings with my Kitchen Cabinet that I cobbled together,
it was split down the middle 50-50 of whether we should have an orbiter
or a lander and my advisers couldn’t make a decision. They said,
“It’s up to you, we’re behind you 1,000 percent.”
For a variety of reasons the launch opportunity in 2003 was a terrific
one for getting more mass to the surface, and it fit with the strategy
I’d put together, of orbiter, then lander, then orbiter followed
by another lander. You want to do orbital characterization of another
world and then you want to go and check those measurements by sending
something to the surface. We used a lot of the heritage that had come
out of the Mars Pathfinder experience and missions would, where possible,
use science instrument sets that had been previously proposed but
not launched. In other words, they had been through the peer review
The mission queue that NASA has been living with for almost 17 years,
of Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey, the twin rovers Spirit and
Opportunity, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Phoenix mission, and
then Mars Science Lab Curiosity was the roughly decade-long mission
architecture that I led putting it together and then selling it to
all of the stakeholders: the science community, the House Appropriations
and Authorization and Senate Appropriations and Authorization, and
Office of Management and Budget, and all those people. I wore out
a lot of shoe leather going door to door to explain what we were doing
and why we thought that “follow the water” was a good
approach and why this set of missions met those requirements.
I have to say in reflection now, all these years later, it worked
I think extremely well. Leading up to the recent detection of complex
organics by Curiosity, all the evidence of past water, all the detection
of water ice. The radar that we put aboard Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
was built by the same Italian group that the radar is that’s
aboard Mars Express. One of them, the U.S. mission, detected a huge
glacier the size of New Mexico that was buried. The other radar by
the same group has just detected what appears to be an underground
lake 20 kilometers in width.
This was I think proven to be a very successful structuring of a major
decade long multi [mission effort], if you add up all the missions
over a period of 10 years or so, you’re talking 5 or 6 billion
[dollars] all told, and it’s worked out well.
Then I had to make a decision about whether to stay on at NASA Headquarters
or whether to come back to Ames.
I have just a couple more questions before we go to that. As you were
mentioning, Dan Goldin, he had that faster, better, cheaper idea.
A lot of what you were talking about just now, that’s a lot
of bang for the buck. Especially with Spirit and Opportunity and how
long they’ve lasted. Spirit is no longer working, but Opportunity
and how long it’s lasted. It wasn’t expected obviously
to last that long, although it was built well. I was speaking with
Steve [Steven W.] Squyres when I interviewed him, and it was just
such an interesting story, and I’ve heard it a couple other
places how Dan Goldin actually came up the idea with when you were
looking at the rover he said, “Why not two rovers?” Steve
Squyres said that that was probably the most astonishing phone call
he’s ever received in his life. If you wouldn’t mind just
going back to that decision and how that decision came about, because
you were on the other side of it. You were one of the people that
was on that phone call, I believe, when he was asked if he could come
up with two payloads. Just go back to that decision itself and let’s
talk about that for a moment.
Yes. Again, I think the details of the timeline I put in the book,
because it was difficult to disentangle. There were so many things
going on in parallel. But what happened was that we had to make very
rapid decisions about whether to launch anything in 2001, because
the missions that were right in the middle of development probably
suffered from faster, better, cheaper shortcuts. I ended up canceling
the lander that was going to be launched in ’01 because it had
as far as we could tell many of the same flaws Mars Polar Lander had,
missing lines of code, and not doing a full check with the flight
hardware and the flight software.
The 2001 decision we made quickly. But in parallel we had to decide,
given the short period of time, what we were going to do for 2003.
There were three options. Do nothing, skip that opportunity. Send
an orbiter that would be maybe a slight improvement on what was done
for Mars 2001 or Mars Global Surveyor. Or three, try to send something
to the surface using the same techniques as Mars Pathfinder.
To help with this decision I surveyed all the stakeholders or people
that might have something to offer. One of the options was a payload
that Steve Squyres had developed called Athena, which was an integrated
science payload that was supposed to have been launched on the 2001
lander but was not, and was pretty much complete, sitting in what
they call bonded stores at Lockheed Martin in Denver awaiting a ride.
To evaluate this, there were multiple teams at JPL, some working on
an orbiter, some working on a lander, using the Pathfinder landing
system. They presented to this group of people that I put together
out of folks at Headquarters, some of the people from the past. Jim
[James S.] Martin, the legendary Viking Program Manager, was part
of this group. Gentry Lee, another exceptional person who is still
working at JPL.
We had presentations; this was a big meeting at NASA Headquarters,
it was a decision meeting. The orbiter presentation was clearly a
safe choice, something that could be done with high confidence. They’d
already started going through all of the shortcuts for the mission
that was Mars Odyssey and had gone back and fixed things that should
have been done as a result of faster, better, cheaper, or to repair
the shortcuts from faster, better, cheaper.
But the science payload for an orbiter based on the presentation would
only be an incremental improvement. It wouldn’t be one of these
things that I was looking for, which was a major step function, each
time we had a new mission pushing the resolution or the spectral range
or something about it much further. Safe, but perhaps the science
was just incremental.
Then the lander, it was called Mars Geophysical Rover I think at the
time, using the Pathfinder airbag landing with a rover that would
weigh about 150 kilograms and the Athena science payload that was
already built that would be provided by Squyres. Steve did a great
job. I’ve known him now for probably 30 years, and he’s
an extremely talented scientist and scientific leader. He made his
case about what he could do that would be really groundbreaking new
science, wouldn’t just be an engineering demo like the Pathfinder
rover was, but would be an honest-to-God mobile geophysical geochemical
We excused the advocates from the room and I went around and took
a poll, and as I said it was essentially 50-50. I think there were,
I don’t know, 15 or 20 people there in my little ad hoc advisory
group. Roughly half said, “Let’s do something that’s
safe. We can’t afford another failure. If there’s another
failure the program is done for.” Then the others, including
Jim Martin, said, “No. The Pathfinder system works, can be made
to work again. You’ve got a science payload that’s pretty
much finished, and the new knowledge will be fantastic, A, and B,
oh, by the way, 2003 is amazingly good. They come along every 15 years,
there’s an amazingly good launch opportunity to get more mass
to the surface, or at least to the top of the atmosphere.”
Jim Martin said that were he 20 years younger—I think he was
already in his early 80s then or something—he would take the
job on and guarantee it would be a success. We took a ballot and it
was 50-50, and I think one of the people from another Headquarters
area, Carl [B.] Pilcher, said, “You can do what you want.”
I said, “Okay, let’s take a pause. Let me think about
this.” I literally took a walk around the block and thought
about it and came back in and said, “For these reasons I think
we should go for the rover, for the lander. I know it’s a greater
risk, but I think that the scientific payload, the Pathfinder landing
system that’s already been demonstrated, and the fact that the
science payload is essentially done means that this is something that
would really advance the program.” I think somebody else commented,
“Oh, by the way, it would be a major accomplishment for international
leadership and U.S. prestige and all those political things.”
That’s what I settled on, presented it then to Ed Weiler, who
was at first really hard to convince because he didn’t want
to take a big risk. It took a lot of effort to get him on our side.
I did this with the Program Scientist, Jim Garvin. By pointing out
how this mission fit into the overall scheme and the things we’d
already done, eventually Ed got on board.
Next, we had to convince Dan Goldin. Nine o’clock the next morning
we went up with our set of charts. I’d learned by now it didn’t
matter if you took 1 chart or 20 charts up to see Dan, you would barely
get through your introduction before he started hitting you with questions,
because his mind would just race off, leap over where you were, and
go on three or four or five jumps down the path.
I said, “Dan, we thought about this carefully. We looked at
science, technology, engineering, programmatics, what have you, and
we’ve come to the conclusion,” and Ed nodded his head,
“that we want to recommend a rover lander for the next mission.”
He asked a couple questions about I think why we were so certain and
why that made sense. He, unlike Ed Weiler, was immediately convinced.
It didn’t take much time at all for him to be convinced that
going from an orbiter in 2001 to a lander in 2003 was a clearly strategic
move. The science payload would be terrific, and the landing system
was something that had had one fully successful demonstration. He
bought into that almost immediately.
Then after a couple more questions that’s the famous point where
Dan turned to me and said, “What if we were to do two? Could
we do two? What would be the impact of that?” This is when you
have to be very fast on your feet. The question of whether or not
the value of—for example there was Pioneer 10 and 11 that were
duplicates. Viking 1 and 2 were duplicates. Jim Martin had often,
when I would have him in these review things, remind me of the power
of having two. The Agency has gotten away from that. Now they often
will just build one – it’s called protoflight unit. It
starts out as a prototype and then it ends up as the flight unit.
They’ve eliminated a lot of this redundancy because it’s
The idea wasn’t a complete shock. Thinking on my feet, I said,
“Okay, you got to do the following. If you’re going to
have two, Dan, they’ve got to be exactly the same. No fooling
around with a tweak to the payload and add a little something.”
I said, “It’s got to be exact repeat. You’ve got
to go buy another launch vehicle. Of course you’ve got to get
the agreement with JPL and Lockheed Martin.”
He said, “What would it do? What would it do?”
I said, “You’re going to cover a lot more science. Same
payload, but two completely different places.” I told him Mars
has 80 different sites, 80 different geological regions. You could
He said, “What about the failure? How does this contribute to
I said, “I can’t do the binomial statistics off the top
of my head. I’ll get you a number. But two is better than one,
what can I say? In terms of if one fails you’ve still got the
Later on I did the calculation and if you’ve got let’s
say a 90 percent probability of success of one, if you add a second
one and if there’s not a systemic or systematic failure problem—in
other words all the transistors are bad in both vehicles—but
it’s just random failure, then your probability of success with
one goes up to 98 percent. So all these things were swirling around
in the room that we were discussing.
I said, “But sir, it’s going to add a bunch of extra cost.”
He said, “How much?”
I said, “If we’re saying that the first one is going to
cost $250 million and it’s an exact repeat, then you add an
extra launch vehicle, it might double the cost or something like that
total. But we have to work through this.”
He said, “Okay, all right, here. Here’s what I want you
to do. I’m going to Morocco next week. I’m the U.S. representative
to a meeting over there. You run these things up. You talk to JPL.
You figure out what the statistics are and some rough number of the
cost, and we’ll talk about it. But it’s got to be done
I said, “Okay.” That then set the ball rolling for a whole
series of phone calls and discussions and calculations. First thing
I had to do before I talked to Steve Squyres was to talk to Ed Stone
at JPL and say, “Ed, you know what dealing with Dan Goldin is
like. Here’s an interesting idea that could be really good if
we can pull it off.”
I explained the background and he said, “Okay, let me think
about it, try to write down what the conditions are on which the Center
would sign up to do this, and we’ll talk to our suppliers and
Lockheed.” Because Lockheed Martin would be building part of
that. Most of it would be in house at JPL.
Then there was the call to Squyres in which I said, “Steve,
we’ve got an interesting idea here. What about doing two rovers?
I need to know two things. One is could you duplicate—exact
duplicate, no changes at all—the science payload, and what would
be the science payoff.” Of course I had my own science group
at Headquarters that was helping with that as well. Then we had to
figure out what the incremental improvement would be. Then we had
to work out what the cost would be.
We’ll have to go back and modify what I just plucked out of
memory a minute ago. But I think we were saying that a rover by itself
would be around $350 million. But then another launch vehicle is another
$50 million. Then it’s an exact repeat, which shouldn’t
be as expensive. I think we came up with a number of something like
total for the two around $750 million or something like that. It was
a fenzied process, calls to all the folks that I mentioned, calculations,
trying to get a quick sanity check from whoever we could. Goldin then
called from Morocco. We put together a short description of what this
project would be with a really rough cost estimate, a statement by
Ed Stone from JPL of under what conditions the lab would sign up to
do both. I don’t know if I included anything from Squyres then
or not, can’t remember, but we did talk to him and tell him
that it had to be an exact repeat.
Goldin got that. We faxed it to him in Morocco. He looked at it in
almost real time and said, “Yes, yes, yes, looks good, looks
good. It’s exhausting here, I’m really tired, I’m
going to go to bed, you guys keep going.”
We had an agreement that Squyres thought he could reproduce the second
payload exactly, gave us a round cost. JPL, Ed Stone the Lab Director
said he would sign up to it under the conditions that they were exactly
alike and that they would have the full control over producing both
of them. If they needed to take parts from one and give them to the
other to keep schedule they would.
Remember, this decision was made with 39 months to launch. Usually
you start these preliminary discussions five years ahead of launch
time. This was just a shade more than three years. It had tremendous
Then was the question of who’s going to pay for this. In the
book I describe the meeting that Goldin never attended, usually chaired
by his Deputy, the former general, Jack [John R.] Dailey. It was a
meeting of all the associate administrators. Goldin popped into this
meeting, said, “Jack, I got something I want to bring up.”
I was there because Weiler and Goldin and I had organized the plan
that this is where Goldin was going to twist people’s arm and
pass the hat. That’s what happened. Goldin said, “We’ve
got an extraordinary opportunity. It’s a new program being put
together. These guys have convinced me that the next mission in ’03
should be a rover lander. Big science, but to mitigate risk and get
more science we need to do two of them. So I’m here to collect
$350 million from you guys.” He went around the table and almost
everybody agreed to chip in. I think the one holdout at least at the
meeting was from the Earth science people. Mike [Michael R.] Luther
I think was the rep. He said, “I just don’t have the authority,
Dan, to commit a piece of this.”
But that was quite an event, and in the end the money was identified
and OMB [Office of Management and Budget] agreed to let us transfer
it over. Congress agreed as well. You can’t move more than $500,000
from one program line to another without an agreement and approval
from Congress. That then set the path in motion.
When we rolled out this program and announced that we would have in
2003 two rovers, not just one, I remember being on The CBS Morning
News with I think it was Bryant Gumbel. You remember him?
He was incredulous. I said, “We’re announcing in 2003
we’re going to have two rovers going to Mars.”
He said, “Why? Why are you going to waste that much money?”
I said, “Excuse me.” I said, “We’re going
to be going and landing and roving around on the red planet. If you
have two rovers you can get far more science, number one. Number two,
it means that it really increases the chance that we’re going
to have a success.”
He said, “Well, all right. Have a good weekend.” He was
noted for being cranky with his guests. So not everybody was enthralled
with the idea of two rovers.
But the science community, people on the Hill, the advisory committees,
everybody thought, once they’d had a minute to think about it,
that this would be an extraordinary opportunity for the program. At
the time we had to set the mission success criteria. I could not find
anybody who thought, with the dust collection that occurs everywhere
on Mars, that it would last longer than six months. We set the so-called
mission full success criteria; this had to be achieved in three months.
As I often say, the warranty was only good for 90 days. But with a
combination of help from Mother Nature, dust devils that blew off
the dust, and a lot of good engineering, Spirit lasted for seven years
and Opportunity has lasted longer, it’s in its fourteenth year.
Right now there’s a global dust storm and we don’t know
if it’s survived that or not. It’s been silent now for
I believe almost two months, certainly more than a month. We’ll
see if it comes back or not.
A little longer than 90 days, anyway, 14 years.
Way longer, yes. The taxpayers got their money’s worth.
I think so. I thank you for going back, and I know you’ve covered
a lot of that in your book, but it’s always good to get another
perspective, since we’ve talked to different people around that
decision. It’s good to get these different perspectives in these
oral histories, so I appreciate that. As you were going to talk about
before I interrupted you, you did have a decision to make after the
Yes. We successfully created, defined, and sold, if you will, the
new architecture. We announced it to the world in October of 2000
and there then began a series of international meetings because the
rest of the world wanted to know how they could participate. At the
same time Ed Weiler and Dan Goldin were both lobbying me to stay on
at NASA Headquarters.
My late first wife and I had gone to Headquarters in a big rush. There
was no time to do anything other than grab some luggage and the cat
and find an apartment in Alexandria [Virginia]. I began thinking much
more deeply about the future and where I wanted to go, where I thought
I could contribute the most.
My Center Director back at Ames, Harry [Henry] McDonald, one of his
deputies and a close friend of Harry and then became a friend of mine
was Jack [Robert] Hansen. Jack dropped by Headquarters one day and
said, “We’d really like to have you back at Ames to help
to guide the Center.” They were talking about a very senior
After weighing everything, my wife’s connection with her family
back in the Bay Area, the success of getting the program going and
selling it with a budget profile that looked good for the future,
and getting everybody’s buy-in to that, and of course the coming
change of administrations, I made the decision, a difficult decision,
to go back to Ames. I went back there and accepted the position of
being one of the Deputy Center Directors. This was the Deputy Director
for Research. I was responsible for the whole research portfolio at
Ames and information sciences and the new field of nanotechnology,
astrobiology research, aeronautics, and also working on strategic
collaborations with other Centers, and developing competitive proposals
and overseeing what we were doing down and in in the mission component.
It was quite a high level job and one step removed from being the
Center Director, and I was in that job for a year or so, 2001 to 2002,
and then was the change of administration, and the new Administrator
was Sean O’Keefe, who was brought over from OMB. I think he’d
been the head or deputy head of the Office of Management and Budget.
As often happens, the new Administrator wants all new people reporting
to him, and that means the Center Directors and the people at NASA
Headquarters. So there was quite a lot of churning and changing. As
part of that, there was a new guy in charge of the care and feeding
of Ames at Headquarters. In those days each Associate Administrator
in addition to responsibility for program content would have responsibility
for certain Centers as well. The gentleman who was the head of Aeronautics
at NASA Headquarters had responsibility for the Centers that had been
or were major contributors to the aeronautics program. That included
Ames, Langley, and Lewis, which is now Glenn Research Center in Cleveland
[Ohio], as well as the Dryden Flight Research Center, which is now
the Armstrong Flight Research Center, [Edwards, California].
I got a call from that AA one day. I was in actually a meeting being
held at JPL. I think I was sitting in a meeting of the NASA Advisory
Council. I was in the audience, I wasn’t part of it. Somebody
tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Headquarters is calling,”
and I stepped out. The Associate Administrator for Aeronautics, Jerry
[Jeremiah F.] Creedon, said, “We need to have you come to Headquarters
really fast, can you be here in the morning?”
I said, “Yes, I’m certain there’s some kind of way
to do it.” I got a late flight out of LAX [Los Angeles International
Airport] and off to NASA Headquarters. The result of that meeting
with Jerry was that he told me that Harry McDonald was stepping down
and that Sean O’Keefe wanted to have a new Director of Ames.
He’d asked Jerry Creedon for his recommendation and Jerry said,
“I recommended you. Would you be willing to do that?”
I said, “Yes, sir, how can I serve my nation’s space program?”
They said, “Okay, you will be meeting in an hour or two with
O’Keefe. How will you characterize what you would do as different
than what’s been doing, or what would be your new initiatives?”
I said, “There’s a lot of great stuff there that I had
a hand in. Astrobiology, intelligent systems. I would like to push
the relationship that we just started working on in creating the NASA
Research Park. I think what I would say to O’Keefe is that it’s
a terrific research center but it needs to have a little more I would
say top-down strategic integration.” The knock on Ames for all
those years had been yes, it’s on the left coast, and it’s
the University of Ames. I remember Jack Dailey once saying, “Only
in NASA is a direct order considered an invitation to a debate.”
He was applying that particularly to the research centers although
the flight centers were in there as well.
I sat down with O’Keefe and gave him my vision for the future
and talked about integrating the strategic directions of the Agency
with the capabilities of Ames and how that would work from the basic
lab research all the way through mission applications, and how in
my own experience I had seen that happen with things like Mars Pathfinder
and the Astrobiology Institute and intelligent systems and thermal
He then formally offered me the position as Center Director and I
accepted. Then there was a period of a little bit of delay. He wanted
to come out to the Center and have a major formal announcement. He
had been very briefly something like Acting Secretary of the Navy.
He really wanted to have something like a change of command ceremony
which occurs in the military when you go from whoever was the commandant
of the organization to the new person. But he could never pin Harry
McDonald down on a date to do that.
Net result was that he came out in I think it was September of 2002,
something like that, and we had a nice big meeting with all hands.
Jerry Creedon was there and Sean and myself. I gave a presentation
to the whole Center about how I saw the future and the things that
we could be involved in. It was quite a nice event, quite a nice ceremony.
Then I began my role as the Director of NASA Ames.
Talk about what you did envision for the Center, what you saw. Basically
there were a lot of changes. Almost a reorganizing of the Center and
streamlining of some of the operations, and then collaborations between
NASA and academia and the private sector and those sorts of things
that you implemented.
Yes. The Center had undergone a major physical change or institutional
change with the acquisition of what had been Moffett Naval Air Station.
In 1994 the Base Closure Commission [BRAC] had decided that Moffett
Naval Air Station was no longer needed, that they could consolidate
west coast naval aviation up at one base further north.
Norm [Norman Y.] Mineta was then the congressman representing the
Bay Area, I think the position now held by Anna Eshoo. He reached
into the BRAC, Norm did, Norm Mineta, and pulled Moffett Naval Air
Station out and gave it to NASA Ames. So overnight the size of NASA
Ames went from 500 acres to 1,700 acres, the acquired its own landing
strip and airfield.
Today there’s still about something a little less than 3,000
people at Ames, about half contractors and half civil servants. Budget
is in the $750-million-a-year range, with this big physical plant.
Being the Center Director there is, like other Centers, akin to being
a mayor, because you’ve got fire departments and police forces
and buildings to worry about.
One of the things that we needed to do, I thought, was to have greater
integration with some of the flight programs that were going on elsewhere
in the Agency. This had been I thought a point of difficulty with
Ames in the past, that because of how it was born out of World War
II in 1939 in what had been just—Silicon Valley wasn’t
Silicon Valley, it was orchards. It was nut and fruit tree orchards,
agriculture. Ames Aeronautical Laboratory was very much an entity
unto itself, self-contained because you had to be. There was no resources
nearby. But of course by 2002 all of Silicon Valley was in its second
or third generation of development going back to when Lockheed first
came there back in the either late ’40s or early ’50s.
I was determined to integrate the Center into Silicon Valley more
thoroughly, and I thought this would pay benefits in the area of intelligent
systems and all the work we were doing that was to be applied to the
In particular one thing that I was responsible for was bringing Ames’s
supercomputing capability back up to par with the rest of the world.
At the time that I took over as Center Director I think in the list
of the top 500 supercomputing capabilities in the world Ames was number
499. We were about to fall off the list. The way in which we were
able to leap to the top was an interesting collaboration with Intel,
one of the world’s largest computer chipmakers, and a company
called Silicon Graphics, Inc. [SGI]. Two individuals there, Paul [S.]
Otellini, who recently passed away unexpectedly, he was the COO and
then the CEO of Intel, and Silicon Graphics, a gentleman there named
Bob [Robert R.] Bishop, who I still work with, who was the CEO, and
had a supercomputing architecture that was particularly useful for
the kinds of scientific problems that Ames worked on, the computational
fluid dynamics for aeronautics, the astronomy and astrophysics, airborne
Earth science, and related types of projects. The flow diagrams for
entry systems. All that research needed supercomputing capability.
That was Ames’s interest. SGI’s interest was of course
in applying that, using their special computer architecture. Intel’s
interest was in regaining the championship for world’s fastest
supercomputer. There is a, I don’t know what you call it, a
Bake-Off, a competition every year where companies that want to enter
it run a certain type of algorithm called a benchmark algorithm, and
whoever can run it fastest becomes the champ at least for that year.
Intel really wanted to take that back from the Japanese. The Japanese
had created the so-called vector machine that was the leader.
We worked on a very innovative—this is one of the things I think
that I really brought to the Center. Working across public-private
partnerships, working with industry and academia and whoever to really
expand or leverage the capability of Ames into the rest of the world.
The rest of the Agency but also Silicon Valley. This was a classic,
I believe, example of how those three groups, SGI, Intel, and Ames,
I was very fortunate in finding a person at Ames named Walt [Walter]
Brooks. He had a computer science background and was willing to take
on the task, which was extraordinary, of bringing online at Ames in
120 days the world’s fastest supercomputer. Walt had a saying,
“A miracle a day is all we ask.” As Center Director I
made the strategic decision, worked the arrangements with Intel and
SGI at the strategic level with my counterparts, also worked with
the person who was then the Chief Financial Officer at NASA, Steve
[Steven J.] Isakowitz. Steve had been the Office of Management and
Budget branch chief who was there at OMB when I was the Mars Czar,
and he was the guy I had to convince that the new Mars Program was
in fact a good one and could be afforded and had good strategy to
Steve and I had become colleagues and friends and I think he trusted
my judgment, in that if I was going to bring him something it would
be based on solid thinking. When I brought this idea of a collaboration
that would greatly improve NASA’s capability and would win the
flag for the U.S. and work in a public-private partnership, all the
elements were very appealing to Steve, and so he was absolutely instrumental
in helping move the money around in a fiscal year to allow us to execute
this amazing thing. In the span of four months we brought from a standing
start to operating the world’s fastest supercomputer. Ames had
always led in that. It had declined over years to almost going out
of business, and that one action brought it back I think, based on
discussions I’ve had, to where the Center is today, still a
leader in supercomputing for the entire Agency. If somebody wants
to do some very special calculation they can go to Ames for that and
they’ll help them with the research. That was one thing I think
that made a mark on the rest of the Agency.
I also worked out in 2005 the very first agreement between NASA and
Google. Back when Google was not as ubiquitous a name as it is today,
we signed an agreement for joint research and at the time for them
to actually incorporate part of our Research Park footprint into research
space. I believe that’s moved ahead, but it was another thing
where when we announced it the rest of the people in the Agency were
saying, “You’re working with who?” That was quite
an accomplishment as well.
In terms of the program assignments, SOFIA [Stratospheric Observatory
for Infrared Astronomy] flying observatory was getting well into its
development phase. My tenure as Director would have followed a lot
of the programs that I was interested in and that the Agency had capability
for. But there was a tragedy that intervened in 2003.
On February 1st, 2003 the Columbia Shuttle [STS-107] disappeared,
and of course we know that that was a tragedy, a lost crew, all the
seven crew, loss of the vehicle. Per the prelaunch criteria there
would be a Columbia Accident Investigation Board set up. I got called
by the Deputy Administrator Fred [Frederick D.] Gregory. O’Keefe
was down at the Cape [Canaveral, Florida] expecting the crew to land.
This was about 6:30 in the morning west coast time February 1st, 2003.
Did you know that it had happened before you got that call or did
it wake you up?
There’s a whole story. In fact there’s an hour, hour-and-a-half
lecture that I give on lessons learned from that. I’ll try to
give you the short version. Six thirty in the morning 2003 February
1st. My late wife Susan had the radio on and she turned it and said,
“Listen to this.” The announcer was saying that the Shuttle
is overdue for landing at Cape Canaveral, at Kennedy Space Center.
I knew that there’s no such thing as an overdue Shuttle. That
big heavy glider, once they commit to entering the atmosphere and
returning to Earth they have almost no control authority. They line
it up and they got to land it. That meant that something terrible
I raced upstairs, turned on the TV, and there was CNN with pictures
over Texas of the Shuttle in the sky but what looked like a bunch
of bright pieces surrounding it. It was that point where the phone
went off, my cell phone, and it was the Deputy Administrator saying,
“We’re activating the contingency plan for an investigation
board. It looks like the Shuttle is gone. We don’t know what
happened, but there is a slot for one NASA person, one and one only,
on the investigation board. It has to be somebody not associated with
the Shuttle Program because of conflict of interest. The Administrator,
Sean O’Keefe, would like you to play that role.”
I said, “Yes, of course, sir, I’d be glad to serve. What
They said, “This afternoon the chairman,” I think that
O’Keefe had already talked to Hal [Harold W.] Gehman, a retired
four-star admiral who had investigated the USS Cole bombing accident
[Co-chair of Cole Commission], Cole terrorist accident, “ [Hal
Gehman] will be the chair. But this afternoon there’ll be a
telecon. We’ll have the members of the board on the telecon
and then we’ll talk about what we do next. All the members will
probably assemble at one spot tomorrow or the next day.”
At that point after the telecon what Hal Gehman thought we were doing
was a 30-day investigation. As it turned out, it lasted seven months.
That investigation was really a life transformative event in the sense
of being involved in it for that period of time, having to find a
way to still have the Center running with all of the things. We had
a major agreement with the University of California system through
the University of California, Santa Cruz, for development of our Research
Park and NASA’s University Affiliated Research Center. This
was going to be a big element of developing this 1,200 acres that
was the old Moffett Naval Air Station. That was running in the background
that I had to keep on top of, as well as a whole lot of other decisions.
Now we were faced with a true tragedy and a very major impact on the
Agency, the loss of one of the Shuttles. Challenger had occurred in
1986 [STS-51L], seventeen years ago. Here it was happening again.
We had a very important job to do. I had to devote my full attention
to that, because it turned out that it was not obvious. Unlike Challenger
where they captured the breakdown of the O-rings on launch with one
of the cameras that was watching the launch, and where the cause was
known almost from the very beginning, notwithstanding the famous demonstration
by [Richard P.] Feynman in front of the House committee, here the
cause was not obvious at all.
That call in February led to a seven-month odyssey where the group—it
was originally eight people all from outside NASA, people like the
person who was the chief accident investigator for the FAA [Federal
Aviation Administration], a person who was the head of safety and
mission assurance for the Air Force Materiel Command, and positions
like that, and one NASA guy, who was me.
We self-selected into groups that would consider different parts of
the accident. I put myself into the group dealing with the physical
cause because I thought my background, the fact that Ames worked on
thermal protection systems, and my training in physics might be better
There were two other groups. One was operations and the other was
crew and different aspect of operations. Those people were doing interviews
to see if they could figure out what had happened, if there was any
operational reason for the Shuttle accident.
The three or four people who were interested in the physical cause
got together, and we started looking at what little data we had. It
was a huge search through snake-and-poison-oak-infested country in
Texas to find the black box, the recorder that was on board. But they
found that. It turned out only two cameras were operating and only
one of those was high resolution, but we did have that. We had some
ground signals that had been received. The recorder was eventually
opened and the tape played back. That gave us more data about that
accident. They started assembling parts. Some 20,000 people at one
point were searching in Texas and Louisiana looking for the parts
that had survived reentry to the surface.
But there was a continuous question about exactly what the cause was.
The one piece of high resolution film, the 35-millimeter camera that
caught the ascent down from Kennedy Space Center showed something
falling from the area of the main tank. The Space Transportation System,
STS, consists of what most people call the Shuttle, it’s really
the Orbiter piece where the crew sits, that was attached to the side
of the main tank that had the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen and
the two booster rockets on either side, solid rocket boosters, SRBs.
Something appeared to be falling from where the Orbiter was attached
to the main tank and apparently hitting the left wing and then a big
shower of shards coming out the back side.
This material, it turned out, was a block of foam that was used to
cover the main tank and that basically kept that very very cold cryogenic
tank from just being an ice ball. It was the insulation for the liquid
hydrogen and liquid oxygen. I should say, by the way, that there have
been three or four documentaries about the Columbia accident produced
professionally and shown on TV. The best one in my view was the one
that was shown by [PBS] Nova which I think is called Space Shuttle
Disaster. It was originally shot by a French film crew and the PBS
people, the Nova people, saw it and bought the rights to it. They
recut it, did a few more interviews, and had it renarrated by Neil
deGrasse Tyson. That gives a very very good process or step-by-step-by-step
description of what led up to the accident, what happened, the people
involved, and what the impact was. They interviewed me extensively
on that, so that’s part of the public record as well.
But the role that I ended up playing was sort of an extraordinary
one in the sense that while the circumstantial evidence that the foam
hitting the Shuttle must have played a major role if not the major
role, not everybody wanted to believe that or could believe that.
O’Keefe himself, who’s not a scientist or engineer, he’s
a budgeteer, went on nationwide television and held up a piece of
foam and said, “These foamologists,” he called them, “think
this did it but how can this? This is like you’re throwing your
Styrofoam cooler out the window at 60 miles an hour, and how could
that possibly cause the problem?”
As it turns out, the relative velocity of the foam and the Shuttle
rising on its rockets was more like 1,100 feet per second, or what
would that be, about 750 miles an hour, hit your Styrofoam cooler.
If you just do the basic physics calculation it shows that a piece
of foam about the size of a small briefcase weighing about 2 pounds
or so hitting the very heat-resistant but brittle carbon composite
leading edge of the Shuttle could in fact exert literally a ton of
In addition, many of the people at the Shuttle Program were highly
conflicted. This was a sociological as well as psychological as well
as technical issue. They struggled emotionally with having had this
unspoken contract with the crew that the people on the ground will
do everything they can to keep the crew safe on launch and operations
and reentry, and the crew side of the bargain was they would do everything
they could to make the mission successful.
It was clear as we were observing all these interactions that there
really needed to be something more done other than a few pieces of
film and some recovered remains where most of the left wing was missing
sitting in a hangar at Kennedy Space Center or some thermocouples
that went offline in the left wing. You could put those circumstantial
pieces together and say, “Okay, something happened on the left
wing, probably in the front, and then maybe the heat got inside on
reentry and began to melt the Shuttle.” That was the thinking.
But because of resistance or disbelief or psychological issues of
not wanting to feel they had violated this contract, there was a significant
denial or lack of agreement on the physical cause.
Fairly early on when this all was starting to be clear at least to
me and some other people on our team, I said, “We need to conduct
a test that is as close as possible to actually what happened on the
Shuttle.” It turns out that thoughts about doing some kind of
an examination of the possible effect of falling foam had been underway
at Southwest Research Institute [SWRI] in San Antonio, Texas.
I proposed this test to the people over at Johnson Space Center who
were working on a long-term program of materials testing using the
device at SWRI, and they didn’t want to do it. They said, “No,
no, no, no, we can’t possibly do anything quick. This is a long-term
I went back to Gehman and said to Hal, and the other people on the
physical cause team were fully in support, “We really think
we need to do something to make it very clear, to put an exclamation
point, to connect the dots, whatever words you want to use, about
the physical cause of this accident.”
He said, “Okay. Let me make a few calls.” What he did,
he told me later, was to essentially call O’Keefe and tell him,
“We’re taking over your testing program. We’re going
to use it for the Shuttle accident right now.” That’s
how I ended up being in charge of this program.
The people working on it, I had people from the Office of Naval Research,
ONR, helping me, and people from FAA Commercial Space Office helping
me. The people in charge of this, they called it the chicken gun,
this is a facility in San Antonio used to test cockpit windshields
on bird strikes. This facility existed but mainly what they did was
to fire thawed out chicken carcasses at Plexiglas and windshields
of different kinds of airplanes or at cowlings and engine intakes.
Because that’s a huge problem, bird strikes. If you ingest too
many birds into a jet engine it’ll tear it apart.
From about April or May until July 8th was this intensive program
of me orchestrating a group at San Antonio Southwest Research, at
NASA, mostly JSC but a few other Centers involved. Ames did a bunch
of high-fidelity calculations using computational fluid dynamics of
what the tumbling foam would have—where it would have hit.
All this led up to a series of tests starting using the fiberglass
from Enterprise [OV-101, used for Space Shuttle Approach and Landing
Tests]. That was the first Shuttle, just a fiberglass mock-up. We
were using the fiberglass sections and firing pieces of foam at it.
We would incrementally adjust things to make it as exactly like what
happened on Columbia as possible. But firing it at fiberglass of course
is not the same thing as the Shuttle is made of. Fiberglass is flexible
and will bend.
I told Gehman, after we’d done a number of these tests, that
we were ready to do a real one, and we needed a piece of the real
graphite composite material that made up the leading edge of the Shuttle.
That ended up being a big kerfuffle, a huge fight, between the Columbia
Board and NASA. It went all the way up to O’Keefe really. They
kept pushing back, said, “It takes seven months to make these
things and they cost $500,000 apiece and we only got two more in spares
and if we give you the one off [Space Shuttle] Atlantis that means
we’re down to one spare and blah blah blah blah blah.”
Gehman came back to me and said, “NASA really doesn’t
want to do this. They don’t want to give you that piece to test.
They’re too expensive and they’ve only got a few of them.”
I said, “Hal, you’ve heard the talk inside NASA.”
By now he had heard from his other investigators who were interviewing
people about the denial and the uneasiness and statements like, “Did
we not do a good job and couldn’t it be something else?”
People were coming up with all manner of explanations, lightning strikes,
high altitude sprites, bolts that fell out of the bolt catcher, anything
else other than the foam, which was something that the ground people
controlled and put on the vehicle. If they didn’t do a good
job or something was lacking that meant they were responsible for
the death of their colleagues. It was a big emotional issue.
Turns out that there had been foam strikes, small ones, every single
flight of the Shuttle. The other groups were looking into the history
of the Shuttle, and they found out this happened all the time and
people just started ignoring it because it had never resulted in a
severe accident. There’s a whole set of lessons learned about
how institutions forget and don’t apply. If something hasn’t
hurt you yesterday, it won’t hurt you tomorrow kind of thinking,
which is not very good thinking if you’re operating in a high
consequence high risk environment.
We only had two votes in the entire history of the Columbia Accident
Investigation Board. The first vote was to select five more members.
We started with eight, that was what was in the contingency plan,
but we realized that we had certain skills missing, certain knowledge
missing, and so five other people were added, including Sally [K.]
Ride, who’d been on the Challenger investigation [Rogers Commission].
Sally became quite a friend as a result of all this.
The second vote we ever had was whether to tell NASA that we understand
this is expensive and you don’t have many of these but we need
to do this. Hal set up a meeting of the whole board. I think everybody
was in the room except two or three people who were on the phone.
He said, “Okay, over to you, Hubbard.”
I explained what we wanted to do, why we wanted to do it, why we thought
it was absolutely critical we conduct this test, and why the test,
if we didn’t do it as exactly as we thought were the conditions
with the Shuttle, it wouldn’t be valid. We took a vote and it
was 13 to nothing. It was unanimous. You’ve got to do this.
Hal said, “Okay.” Admiral Gehman called O’Keefe
and said, “We’re taking your reinforced carbon composite
panel and we’re going to do this test.”
Leading up now to I think it was July 8th, everything was in readiness.
We were standing there, it was about 110 degrees out in the desert
of Texas in San Antonio. We had all of the TV and reporter people
over in a little area. Had a bunch of astronauts standing with me.
The [Astronaut] Crew Office as you can imagine was extremely interested,
because they had to sit on the top of this bomb, (a launch vehicle
is basically a controlled explosion that puts you into space) in how
this was going to happen.
The people who were immediately helping me, a guy named Dave [David
B.] Pye from the Office of Naval Research or Naval Research Labs,
and Paul [D.] Wilde from the FAA, they’d been helping me do
the calculations and do the setup. They said, “How are you going
to report the results?”
I said, “What do you mean how are you going to report the results?”
They said, “We can do the test and you can take pictures of
it. Are you going to hold a press conference then?”
I said, “You don’t understand. There is going to be a
live television camera watching this along with the rest of the world
and with us.” They were horrified.
I said, “Look, if we’re not completely transparent somebody
is going to come up with some crazy nut theory that NASA is concealing
something or NASA is hiding something. The only choice we have, like
all of NASA launches through all of its history, is you do it completely
in the public for everybody to see. That’s what we’re
going to do.” They said, “Okay, all right, yes.”
We stood there and counted down to the firing of this gun to the one
and only test we were going to get with this graphite composite leading
edge of the wing. There was this boom and a little haze because when
the gun fires it creates a little condensation. There’s a little
mistiness around the impact. When the mist cleared—it took a
second to do that—there was a hole 14 inches in diameter.
Everybody that was there went, “Huh!” It was just a sharp
intake of breath. I had these two incredibly conflicting emotions.
One was sort of, “Yes, this is what did it.” Then immediately
saying, “Oh my God, this is how these people died.” This
made it completely undeniable.
I had engineers coming up to me with tears in their eyes saying, “Yes,
this is what happened beyond all doubt.” This foam at that velocity
hitting that piece of brittle stuff punched a hole in it. Our calculations
later said maybe it was only 10 inches in diameter in the actual accident,
but it was a big enough hole as the Shuttle was reentering to let
those 3,000-degree gases in, melt the Shuttle from the inside out,
it broke apart, and that’s how you lost the crew and the vehicle.
That was one of the most extraordinary events in my entire professional
career was doing all of that, and having it be on live television.
It’s out there where the whole world could see, as you said
you planned for. But at the same time it’s quite a result.
Yes. We wrote the report and then I went back to NASA for several
more years. We’re about out of time and I’m about out
Yes, I was going to say we’ve been going a couple hours. I think
at this point we can stop. But I appreciate you talking to me today.
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