NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Tacit Knowledge Capture Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Houston, Texas – 20 May 2008
Wright: The day is May 20, 2008. We are in Houston, Texas to speak
with Stephen Oswald, who is currently Vice President and General Manager
of Intelligence and Security Systems for Boeing. This interview is
being conducted for the JSC Tacit Knowledge Capture Project for the
Space Shuttle Program. The interviewer is Rebecca Wright assisted
by Jennifer Ross-Nazzal. Thanks again for coming in and giving up
part of your vacation time to talk with us. Tell us how you first
came to work with the Space Shuttle Program. We know you joined as
a NASA employee and then became an astronaut—so if you wanted
to give us some background information, how that evolved into the
duties that you're doing now.
I actually had no interest in the space program at all; I just wanted
to fly airplanes. So I joined the Navy to do that, and I think my
interest in—or lack of interest—in the space program started
because I'm pretty big, about 6'1". In 1962 in Seattle, they
had a World's Fair. Alan [B.] Shepard [Jr.] had flown in '61, so they
had his capsule there. It’s one of the couple early memories
that are still around. We got in line with my dad to go look at the
capsule, a big long line and stood through it, and got up there and
looked inside. I was looking inside the capsule, which was really
small, and I looked at my dad, who's also about 6'1", and I just
wrote that off. It's not anything I was interested in.
It wasn't until '78, when I got to test pilot school, which was an
entirely separate decision. It's just kind the next step in flying
airplanes. In '78, they selected the first [Space] Shuttle group,
and some of those guys were at Pax River [Patuxent Naval Air Systems
Command, Patuxent River, Maryland]. Hoot [Robert L.] Gibson and a
couple of the other guys, [Daniel C.] Brandenstein and [Frederick
H. (Rick)] Hauck, had already left and gone back to the fleet. I knew
some of those guys and had been drinking beer in the bar with them,
and they were kind of like me. So it became something I was thinking
about. They had the next interview opportunity in 1980, and a bunch
of us applied and went down and had interviews.
I remember I went down there in an interview group that had Charlie
[Charles F.] Bolden [Jr.] and Bonnie [J.] Dunbar and Franklin [R.]
Chang—because at the time it was Chang, it wasn't Chang-Díaz
yet—and Linda [M.] Godwin. I think out of that interview group
of 20, eventually something like 15 got selected, just because some
of us were a lot lighter than others. I didn't get selected. Ken [Kenneth
D.] Cockrell was in that group. So we went back and flew airplanes
a while longer.
I actually got out of the Navy in '82 or '83. When the next interview
opportunity came along in '84—didn't get selected again, and
that irritated me a bit. I was thinking that one was going to work
out okay. Hoot called me after that interview—after I got a
phone call saying I wasn't selected—he called the next day and
offered me a job down as an instructor pilot. Initially, I turned
him down. Because we had this house that we built—we'd been
in it less than six months, as I remember. I had a pretty good job
flying airplanes for a company that is now Northrop Grumman [Corporation]
but then was Westinghouse, flying out of Baltimore doing test work,
so it just didn't make any sense to do.
I was talking to a friend of mine. I was flying F-8s in the reserves
out of Andrews [Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland], and I went down
there for a drill weekend. We were talking, and I was telling him
about the option of going down there, and he says, "Well, you
know what you ought to think about? Five years from now, if they're
launching Shuttles once a month, and you can watch all that happening
and not regret that you didn't go down there, I guess then you might
ought to stay here. Otherwise maybe you ought to go." So I went
home and talked with Diane, and we sold the house and came down here
in November of '84, and I got selected in spring of '85 and started
Eventually you became part of the Astronaut Program and pilot, as
well as commanded.
Yes. We started in August of '85 in the Astronaut Office, which is
kind of a neat way to do it because everybody else came down and was
trying to figure out how to become a civil servant, and I'd already
done all that and checked out in the airplanes, so it was a pretty
easy transition. Good group. Smallest astronaut class since the first
two; we only had 13 folks. We had one of them get killed in an airplane
crash, so we were down to 12. Steve [Stephen D.] Thorne was killed
in a private airplane. He was out messing around with a boyfriend
of another one of our classmates in a Pit Special, they got it into
an inverted spin and it just went into somebody's backyard down here—bad
We started in August, and then [Space Shuttle] Challenger [STS 51-L
accident] happened that next January, and that slowed everything down.
Rick [Richard J.] Hieb and I were down as Cape Crusaders [astronaut
support personnel at Cape Canaveral, Florida]. Our first job was down
at the Cape. Now they've got a very structured, year-long astronaut
candidate thing, and they've got a bunch of stuff that they go through.
We were on a fast track; we were going to fly in two years and needed
to hurry up. We had about five months of generic stuff, touring around
and learning how to fly the T-38s, and then they put us in our jobs.
My first job was down at the Cape with Rick Hieb and Jay [Jerome]
Apt and Carl [J.] Meade. Two pilots and three mission specialists.
Three mission specialists, but Carl was an F-16 pilot, too. We were
down there, Rick and I, and we'd been in the vehicle [Challenger]
the night before the morning launch. We were down hanging around the
families of the crew because we'd gotten to know them because their
office was right next door to ours. They invited us up on the roof
to watch the launch with them, which of course didn't go well. So
we spent the day with the families and then flew back here.
Then, of course, started the post-Challenger recovery, which took
about two and half years and put us, in terms of flying, back a bunch
because the flight rate was slower. We finally started flying, as
a class, about six years after we were selected. Eventually, I got
mine in [January] '92. That was STS-42 on [Space Shuttle] Discovery,
and then flew again 15 months later—caught up pretty quick—in
the spring of '93. Then cycled back as a commander in '95, about two
years later. Flew pretty quickly once we got going.
Then I was really tired of training. The training is structured such
that it trains to the lowest common denominator, and it just takes
forever. You're going through all the stuff again for those that haven't
flown before. It got to be kind of a long, drawn out deal. It was
a great flight, great crew; I had a great time. At the time, that
third flight was the longest flight that we'd flown on Shuttle. But
afterwards, I was just done. I was pretty frustrated with the system
and didn't feel like I could make any—because they assign commanders
about three years into the planning cycle for the flight. About a
year before you're going to go fly, maybe a year and a half, you get
involved in it and it's all planned, and you really can't affect what's
going to go on on the flight. Other than just kind of on the margin.
I wanted to try to get into a position where I could actually influence
the process, so they assigned me to a job in D.C. [NASA Headquarters,
Washington, D.C.] that was going to be working with the DoD [Department
of Defense]. I'd been working space staff in the Department of Defense
as a reservist for about five years before that, so I was pretty familiar
with the Air Force and how they worked or didn't work. This job was
as an Assistant Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Space, which
I learned in that job that you never accept any job with more than
one modifier, like Assistant or Deputy. If you're going to be an Assistant
Deputy Under, it's just really a bad deal. But that was actually a
pretty good job, and I was only in it for about 30 days. Maybe not
even that long.
At the time, George [W.S.] Abbey had convinced Mr. [Daniel S.] Goldin
[NASA Administrator] to reorganize NASA such that the Center Directors—because
before they had just been, and are today, station keepers. They keep
the infrastructure going. But the programs are in a line reporting
with the folks that are in Washington. So he put Center Directors,
specifically him, in both the Shuttle and the [International Space]
Station reporting chain, and took the folks out of the line process
at Headquarters. So it went from the NASA Administrator to the Associate
Administrator for Space Flight. It used to go through a guy named
Bryan [D.] O'Connor—who was another astronaut—the Deputy
Associate Administrator for Space Shuttle, down to the Shuttle Program
Manager, who was Tommy [Thomas W.] Holloway at the time.
They cut Bryan out and replaced Bryan with George [Abbey], and Bryan
wasn't very happy with that. Not because he was worried about anything
for him; he was just thinking it was the wrong thing to do to have
the Center Directors involved. So he gave them notice that he was
going to leave; thirty days. I got a phone call saying, "Hey,
we've looked around. You're the only guy that can possibly take this
job, and so we want you to come over and relieve Bryan." I said,
"Well, Bryan left for a reason. Let me talk to Bryan."
So we talked. And they called a couple, three more times. The "they"
were Mike [Michael] Mott and Wil [Wilbur C.] Trafton. I had known
Trafton for 20 years at the time, and Mott for probably 10. I didn't
want to disappoint them; I was just enjoying the job that I was in,
and it didn't sound like a good deal jumping back into that with those
guys—just because of the reason that Bryan was leaving and so
forth. I kept telling them “no,” and finally, the day
before Bryan left, Trafton calls me and says, "You've got to
come over here. We can't leave the job empty. We'll find somebody
else in a couple of months, max, you'll be back over there in your
job." That was two and a half years before I left Headquarters.
I went in and never did get out of that job, and another friend of
mine took the other job that I had wanted to go to. It turned out
to be fine. It turned out that we developed a pretty good relationship
with Tommy Holloway and George, and it worked okay. That was '95 and
'96, and the first half of '97.
Then I came back to Houston. Talked Bill [William F.] Readdy into
going up and taking my place, and he was there until just after [Space
Shuttle] Columbia [STS-107 accident]. In the interim, of course, Mott
and Trafton left, so I called them and I said, "Hey, this has
changed. It's not too late." "Yeah, it is." He was
up there in not nearly as good a position as I was in just because
of the personalities involved. Anyway, came back down here. The intent
was to fly another flight or two or three, so I was back in the Astronaut
Office. I was probably the most senior guy ever to be in the Astronaut
Office. They needed me in SES [Senior Executive Service], so I came
back down. They left me as an SES, didn't take me back to the normal
GS-15 [General Schedule] that you are in the Astronaut Office. I was
there for about a year and a half.
The deal was with George that when you went off on an assignment outside
of the Office, that you'd spend at least a year in the penalty box,
just doing jobs around the office and getting back into flying. It
got to be about 15 months—which is more than a year, at least
the way I did the math—so I was trying to figure out when I
was going to get assigned. Then in December of 2000, they sent me
a letter which said, "We think you're eligible for early retirement,
and we've been offering early retirement for a couple years, but we're
about to stop. We think you ought to check your options with the personnel
guys and see what the benefits would be." So I did, and I got
all the information before Christmas.
NASA had been downsizing, trying to get the number of civil servants
down. Those never go well. They end up losing the folks that they'd
like to keep, and the ones that they'd really just as soon have go
somewhere else don't feel qualified to go anywhere else because they're
not, so they don't. They end up losing a lot of talent. And that happens
everywhere; it doesn't matter whether you're NASA or other places
in the government or industry. Buyouts are just a bad deal for the
organization because it dumbs down the team. They cull the herd, but
it's the wrong folks leaving.
I looked at the numbers, and they were going to give me X amount of
money starting February if I left in January. I was 48. The next opportunity
to retire was 55, and I think there was a $300 a month difference
for waiting another eight years. The math was pretty easy, and I went
home and talked about it with my wife, and she went, "So what's
hard about this decision?" It was pretty clear to her what the
right move was, but it took me another couple weeks to get there.
I went and I talked to George, and he said, "We were planning
on flying you a couple more times. They'd be both [International Space]
Station flights." We talked about the future after that, and
there wasn't a whole lot of clarity. By then, I was kind of mentally
down the road that we were going to go do that. So I retired, effective
the end of January, from NASA. Which was the same month I got picked
up for one star in the Navy Reserve, just coincidentally, and they
offered me a job to start in April back on active duty. I did that
for about 20 months, and then went to work for Boeing and did Shuttle
stuff again for six years.
You joined Boeing. Tell us about what you were doing there. I understand
you were working, at some point, with the interface on the Shuttle
Relationships are important. The same guy I was working with at Headquarters,
Mike Mott, had left and gone to Boeing years before that, three years.
He was running the Boeing human space flight stuff, so he had Station
and Shuttle. He had been told that he needed to move what was being
done in Southern California at Huntington Beach out of there to Houston
and Florida, or they were going to re-compete the contract. Because
they just weren't happy with the way that was working. "They"
was USA [United Space Alliance] and NASA.
The guy who was running the Shuttle Program at the time had ten kids.
He still works for Boeing—Stan Albrecht, great guy. Ten kids
in the area, parents in the area, and it was pretty clear that he
wasn't going anywhere out of Southern California, and he's still there.
That opened up an opportunity for somebody else to take his place,
and Mott asked me to interview for that. I had a really awful interview
because it was just post 9/11 [September 11, 2001] and my head was
other places. The good news is that I guess the other guy they interviewed
had a worse interview than I did, so I kind of backed my way into
For six years, we did basically three different things. First two
years was transitioning people out of Southern California, and we
moved about 700 jobs out of Huntington Beach to mostly Texas, but
probably a couple hundred of them went to Florida. We only retained
about 25 percent of the original people with those jobs, which it
turns out is pretty normal. Somewhere between 20 percent and 30 percent
are what you're going to get, and it doesn't matter whether you're
going from California to Texas, or Texas to California, or Maine to
Washington state, or the other way around. People tend to have reasons
to stay, whether it's kids in high school, joint custody of kids in
the area, ailing parents in the area, family ties. There were a few
folks that just liked the beach and wanted to stay at the beach. There's
a big herd of them that just don't like change. So they ended up,
most of them, choosing not to go.
It is possible, though, to influence how many go through leadership.
We had three different major program areas, if you will. We had Orbiter,
and we had Integration, and we had Flight Software. Flight Software
we didn't decide to move until a year later. But Orbiter and Integration
we were moving immediately. Let's start with the Integration guys.
Dick [Richard N.] Richards was leading the Integration bunch, and
he didn't want to leave Southern California, his wife didn't want
to leave Southern California. But he'd been in the Navy, and he was
used to moving around, and he saw the handwriting on the wall, understood
the reasons, and got his team fired up about leaving. So they had
about 33 percent of the folks moved. Orbiter just refused to believe
that they could do that work anywhere else: "They can't do it
without us and if we resist this, they'll change their mind."
We didn't. We only got about 20 percent of the Orbiter guys, and it
was pretty ugly.
But the good news about the whole Space Shuttle team is that they're
pretty loyal to the mission. They may not be very pleased with what's
going on in their immediate leadership and the decisions that get
made. They do give ex-crew guys a lot of slack, and I noticed that
I could get away with talking to those teams, and it was never personal
with me. They were mad at some other people, but they were never mad
at me, which was nice. But I was kind of the guy that was pulling
the trigger on the thing. We came up with a pretty good transition
plan and just basically had a really good leadership team with Dick
and Bo [Bohdan] Bejmuk and some of the rest of the folks. We went
back and we moved Flight Software later. That was actually kind of
harder. Tony Fleckland [phonetic] did a nice job. Because we got almost
nobody to move out of the Flight Software bunch. That was kind of
an interesting study in human dynamics.
We ended up being successful in moving all of that work out here,
and it said a lot about the loyalty of the folks involved to the program.
Some of the jobs it only took a couple of weeks to get the new guy
trained up. In others, it was eight or nine months of running two
people in parallel and trying to teach the new guy the job while you're
flying. The government did a good job of funding that. I think they
funded it to the tune of about $35 million, which was partly \ physically
moving people, but mostly it was covering two paychecks in a single
job for however long it took to do the transition. That was done almost
We were just finishing it up, and we were planning on going down to
less than 100 people at Huntington Beach—we started with about
800 or 900. Then we lost Columbia, and we were down to about 250,
300 folks at Huntington Beach in the tail end of that transition.
Then it became obvious that we needed some help in getting back flying
again. We were very lucky with timing because there were some other
big programs that were kicking off within Boeing in Southern California.
The Ground-Based Missile Defense Program and the Future Combat System
Program—there was a lot of work that was going on, so I don't
think that we had to lay off more than about 35 folks out of about
600 that left the program. Again, a lot of that had to do with luck.
I think half the people that we laid off wanted to catch a lay off
with their retirement and just left.
Then post-Columbia, we needed to do some more design work to make
the boom and the brackets—to put the boom into the payload bay
and work all of the static and dynamic loads numbers and so forth.
So we ended up getting about 300 or 400 people came back. They had
left and gone off to other programs where they had a secure job, and
came back to the Shuttle Program to get us flying again even though
they knew that they were going to end up needing to find another job
within a year and a half or two years. Again, just a demonstration
of loyalty to the program.
There was about a two-year recovery program that took us from 2002
to 2004, so '04 to '06 was kind of the recovery from Columbia. Then
during the Columbia downtime, they had the Vision for Space Exploration,
which was good, going back to the Moon and on to Mars. The bad news
was it had Shuttle shutting down in 2010. So the last couple of years
I was working Shuttle—and they're still going through it now—how
do you keep folks motivated? I'm confident that's going to work out
okay for the same reasons that we were able to transition the program
and then recover from Columbia, just the loyalty that folks have got
to the program.
But you can help that by giving folks a financial lifeboat, if you
will. So we have some incentive programs. Even if folks end up being
laid off out of this, I think the majority of the folks, at least
the critical ones, will end up having a lifeline to the next job.
Because you can end up getting yourself in a position where people
don't have any choice. If they're coming to the end of their job and
they're only going to get a month and a half of severance pay or whatever
because they're a relatively new employee, if they got kids in school
and so forth, they just need to make sure they're taking care of their
families. So we have, for most of those guys, incentive plans that
would bridge them for as much as a year.
I think that at the end of the day, as they look back on the phasing
out of the Shuttle Program, hopefully we'll have done better than
we did in the Apollo to Shuttle Program, where they basically went
cold iron for six or seven years in between and lost a huge chunk
of the workforce. Because if you lay folks off, even for a few months,
and they get in a new job, and they're pissed off about the way they
were treated, they won't come back. On the other hand, if you treat
them with dignity on the way out, you may get them back again a couple
years later. But if you've got a multi-year gap, it's just really
going to be hard.
Wright: Did you do some interface work with USA between, with Boeing?
They were our customer the whole time. Still are. USA was formed back
in '96— between Lockheed and Rockwell, and then Rockwell was
acquired by Boeing—so it ended up being Lockheed and Boeing
that were the parent companies of USA. The original plan with USA
was to have them do all the ops [operations] work, including the propulsion
stuff. But the first phase of the SFOC contract—SFOC, Space
Flight Operations Contract—was mostly the Orbiter and Integration
work, and all the ground processing work at the Cape, and the Flight
Operations. Lockheed had the ground ops work in Florida, so there
were 6,000 or 7,000 people there. Rockwell had the Mission Operations
Contract, doing the flight planning and crew training and so forth.
Then Boeing had the Orbiter work, Integration work, Flight Software
work. When they put all that together it was, a billion, two, worth
of work that was being done. But it didn't come out even for the two
companies, and the two companies were going to share the earnings
50/50. When they put that together, the Boeing work ended up being
more than the Lockheed work, and so they took Orbiter, Integration,
and Flight Software that we did—we were doing backup flight
software—USA ended up eventually doing the primary work. But
as they put that together, it made more sense to have us stay as a
Boeing team working under a subcontract to USA. So when I joined them
in 2002 essentially, we were working as a sub[contractor], and still
are. So it was NASA, then USA, and we were working for USA, which
worked okay. It was fine.
What are some of the challenges that you encountered as you were going
through some of the changes working with the Space Shuttle Program,
especially after you were at Boeing? Some of the lessons learned during
those challenges. You already mentioned one about loyalty; if you
treat people with dignity, that they have a great loyalty to the program.
Are there other ones that you learned during that time period?
A lot of folks are in this position, where they've seen it from both
sides; they’ve been government management types, and then they've
been on industry. I think that NASA generally does pretty well at
the senior management level in terms of recognizing the contribution
of the contractor workhorse. In most of the teams, it's relatively
badge-less; it's not so much which badge you're wearing as what you
know. Knowledge, expertise, technical skill, leadership skills are
highly valued by most of the folks on both sides. You see some folks
in government who look at the industry workforces as being hired help.
Less so than in DoD, but it's still there. That ends up being bothersome.
It bothered me when I was a government guy that some folks thought
NASA is especially challenged now because of what we did to them in
the 90s. There were decisions that were driven by [United States]
Congress to outsource operations, which ended up in the formation
of USA. A lot of the work that NASA used to do because a lot of folks
were actually driven out of government, incentivized to leave government
and go to work for contractors. That transfer of expertise to USA
was one of the things that enabled them to be successful. But it also
gutted NASA of any significant technical expertise. The guys that
were working the big programs and had done the development work for
a lot of that Shuttle stuff left, and the work that NASA was doing
was the odds and ends, say over here at the JSC Engineering Directorate.
They had a contractor that did an awful lot of work. The government
guys did an awful lot of watching contractors do the technical work.
The challenge that Mike [Michael L. Coats, JSC Center Director] is
left with is trying to figure out how does he get significant technical
contribution out of a team that hasn't done it for a long time. The
government hasn't really designed and built anything of significance
for a long time. A generation. All these folks who are off trying
to lead this really tremendously huge development program, Constellation,
haven't done any of that. They're being asked to integrate that, and
I don't know that that's going to work well. I don't work in it anymore,
but I'm still emotionally wedded to it. It's puzzling to me why we
would think they could be successful doing that. I think they're going
to need a lot of help.
And Mike is in a box. When you're put in a situation where you can't
close a Center because you've got to have ten healthy Centers because
it's not politically acceptable to not have ten healthy Centers. You've
got 16,000 employees and you can't riff any, so you've got those 16,000
paychecks that need to continue. You've got two and a half or three
billion dollars or more tied up in the employees and the infrastructure,
and you're budget's essentially fixed, and you have an operation to
run and, you've got to go develop stuff, and you can't spend any less
money on earth science or space science—you can't get there
He has an overly constrained problem, and there aren't very many places
in government where they would do it this way. If you look at DoD,
they BRAC [Base Realignment and Closure] bases. Shut them down. And
over the long haul, you end up getting more efficient. They have enough
money such that they are able to phase in new acquisitions. They don't
end up having to shut down all of the F-18s in the Navy while they
build F-35s to replace them over time. Don't have that luxury; there's
a defense thing there. In NASA, this is discretionary spending—as
is the DoD budget—but it's not as essential as national defense,
so you can choose to play or not. The box that Mike has been put in
is one where he is forced to shut down Shuttle and rely on foreign
upmass and downmass and frees up that money to go off and develop
the new stuff. It's a huge gamble. If somebody pulls the plug in the
middle of that, you're just out of luck. It's not a very good situation.
Knowing all that you've just said, if you were charged with training
the new people coming into the Space Agency, what would you want to
equip them with? What would be some of the lessons that you would
like for them to know if they're going to work in the Space Agency?
How do you best train that next generation of space leaders?
I think they need to be technically credible. If you're not, in an
organization like NASA—and it doesn't have to be in any specific
thing—but all of the successful leaders that I've ever seen
within NASA have some significant technical background. Whether it's
operations at the Cape, ground operations, whether they worked in
mission operations, or they worked in engineering, or they're a crew
person. There are a few exceptions where there are folks that are
more political in their experience base than others—and those
folks, by the way, are incredibly valuable. The only way that you're
going to be able to fly Shuttle longer, for instance, is to get an
extra billion or two in the budget, which is a political nightmare.
People in the field really don't understand the value that the Washington
crowd bring. Without them, the budget would be a disaster.
Folks in Houston and folks in Florida [Kennedy Space Center, KSC]
and folks in Alabama [Marshall Space Flight Center] disparage those
folks that are in Washington, and they generally won't go there. If
I had one change that I could make—and this has been tried before—I
would not allow a GS-15 to be promoted to SES unless he had spent
at least a year in Washington and at least three years at another
Center. I would never allow anybody to get Center-centric. I'd drive
it more toward the DoD model. You never see a guy in the military—Air
Force, Navy, doesn't matter—that is more loyal to their base
than they are to their service. At NASA you see that all the time,
and it limits the future for the Agency. I would blast these guys
out of their Centers. In fact, I wouldn't even let them make [GS-]
15 unless they'd done a tour at another Center. It would cost more
in terms of travel cost, but you would begin, in a generation or so,
to change the culture.
They're still fighting wars between Marshall Space Flight Center and
JSC, and it's been three generations. They hate each other. They don't
really hate each other personally, but it's all about work share and
who's driving the bus, and it's not getting any better. The only reason
KSC isn't as bad is they've always been the orphan stepchild of the
two, and they've got geographic advantage. They launch from there.
So they're pretty secure, but they're pissed off about getting table
scraps from Alabama and Texas. They argue about which way the money's
When SFOC came in, KSC was all upset because instead of getting their
money directly from Washington, it went to Houston first and then
came down. Same amount of money, nothing changed, but Texas was getting
their hands on it first. I think the one thing that I would change
would be the way that they raise their leaders. If you look across
at the program managers today running Shuttle, Station, Constellation—all
good guys. Not one of them has ever had a tour outside of the Johnson
Space Center. I think that's borderline irresponsible.
The experiences that you have, especially in the transition with Boeing,
must have taken a lot of planning. What are some of the lessons or
the suggestions that you would offer anyone trying to build good planning
technique? Or maybe some of the ones that didn't work that you could
share with us.
You need to hire the right folks. Sometimes you don't even know who
the right folks are until you get into it. There are some people who
understand where you're trying to go, and buy into it and will help
you get there. There are others that just can't stand change. It helps
to have a model. There are a lot of them out there. When we were moving
from Southern California to Texas and Florida, we used a book by [John
P.] Kotter called Leading Change. It was a big deal six or eight years
ago. It is an eight-step process that starts with creating a sense
of urgency, and ends with imbedding the change in the culture of the
organization. The steps in between are create a vision, communicate
the vision, get some early victories. It's a pretty structured process,
and we used that in Shuttle and graded ourselves against steps one
through eight as we went through it. We were pretty close to being
through five, and we were getting there. Then we lost Columbia, and
then we got out of the transition mode and into the recovery mode.
Once you get everybody's head wrapped around the fact—that's
pretty clear to maybe a few leaders—that if you don't change,
it's going to get ugly. If you can get that core group of leaders,
if you pick the right leaders and you really all believe in where
you want to be and the best path to get there, then you can end up
communicating that to the rest of the team and get folks on board
as they see things moving in the right direction. But you have to
make them believe that there's a light at the end of the tunnel—and
it's a train. The sense of urgency with that transition was they were
going to re-compete the contract. It's real. You will be out of a
job. You have an opportunity to do the right thing for the program,
do the right thing for the company, and do the right thing for yourselves.
Or not. Your choice. That was the first three or four months that
I was on board. It was that mantra over and over again.
You've got to pick the right team; you've got to pick the right vision.
There are certain people that have planning skills that are really
extraordinary. There are others that don't. They're executors. It’s
kind of like trappers and skinners. You've heard about people that
are BD [phonetic] guys—they're the trappers. Most of those guys
can't execute. There's a whole other group of folks over here that
are the skinners. They can execute. There's some folks in between
that are the folks that can plan, and they're not very interested
in trapping, and they really don't like skinning, but they can see
where you are and they can see where you want to go, and they can
make the plan. Those guys are really valuable. So when you find them,
it's a good idea to hang onto them. A senior leader's job is mostly
personnel. If you can pick the right people to go off and do certain
things for you, because you can recognize talent—that's one
of George Abbey's greatest talents was to recognize talent and to
go after it.
Once you recognize that talent, how do you make sure that you have
established a system that you can have good managers and good performance
in that management? What are some lessons about management performance
that you can share with us?
I don't think I've ever had to fire anybody. I might soon, but never
had to do any yet. If you're really kind of straightforward with folks,
and you have them understand what your expectations are in terms of
performance, and set the bar, generally they'll step up. The ones
that either can't or won't tend to recognize that after you've had
a couple of conversations with them, and they generally find something
else to go do. That makes life easier on everybody. If somebody is
failing or not meeting your expectations, you really have to sit down
and talk to them about it.
I think one of the biggest mistakes that some leaders make is they
just don't do that hard thing of sitting down and having those discussions.
They're not necessarily pleasant, but they can be the most valuable
discussions for the other person in terms of critiquing his or her
performance, and it can be the greatest favor you can do for them.
But it's still hard, so folks tend to not do it. The government's
the worst. Industry's bad. The bigger the industry organization, the
more they're like the government because the bureaucracy is proportional
to the size of the organization and the length of time that it's been
around. Boeing's been around [about 90] years. So there's a lot of
bureaucracy in Boeing. The same kinds of hiring things and firing
things that the government has, we have in Boeing.
What people tend to do, because they like to have a lot of pleasant
conversations when it comes to be performance evaluation time, is
they don't sit down and grade people honestly. They really do have
85 percent to 90 percent of their team is doing a good job. They have
a few rock stars working for them. But they've got 10 percent or 15
percent of their organization that are just showing up. And generally,
we don't take the time to have the tough conversations and document
them, and if you haven't documented two or three years of substandard
performance, you don't have any option. The best thing that's going
to happen to you or the person that needs to leave your organization
because they're not performing is they're going to go screw up somebody
else's organization. You can't get them out of the government, you
can't get them out of the big company. So they continue to hang around,
and one of the key challenges for government organizations is to try
to keep these guys engaged.
But when somebody decides they've been a GS-13 for eight years and
they've figured out they're never going to be a GS-14, it's tough
to motivate them. You're going to get 40 hours of showing up out of
some of those folks, so trying to get them to be engaged and members
of the team—and most folks are. They show up, they've got pride
in their work. But there are some percentage—and it's more than
15 percent —of those people that have realized that they've
maxed out, that are just kind of hanging on. The government needs
to proactively manage those folks. You can lead people that will allow
themselves to be led, and those that won't, you need to figure out
how to manage through the process. That's hard, and it's unpleasant.
And most people are nice people, and they don't like to do that.
I said you need to have a credible technical background in order to
be successful in NASA. A thing we don't do within NASA in general—there's
almost no financial background for any of these leaders. They're a
flight director. So they come out of the flight director's job, and
they might work in scheduling and ops and program management end of
things. There’s only two rules in the government in terms of
money: don't overspend, but spend it all. I operated like that for
along time. I'd spend it all, obligate it all, because if you don't,
they won't give you any back. That's just a really bad way to do business
in any kind of business. But most government folks don't know any
better. If we could get some of these leaders out and get them some
financial acumen so that they understand how business guys think—it's
entirely different in industry. It's a profit and loss thing, and
there's margins, and there's margins that are considered acceptable.
They're getting better—but for a while, if you were making 7
percent or 8 percent margin, NASA was doing you a favor. When the
industry looks at that and goes, "I've got these tremendously
talented folks," and they are. There are some of the best in
all of the industry that come down here and want to work for NASA.
If you could take those same people and have them go work for a different
customer and make 15 percent margin, why wouldn't you do that? For
a long time, the guy who was the head of one of the big companies
wanted to drop NASA like a hot rock, and he couldn't because the one
guy that was senior to him was kind of a NASA kind of guy and wanted
to support NASA. We've finally gotten to the point where there's opportunity
through good performance to get margins that are up in 9% or 10% range,
which is at the low end of DoD stuff and half of what commercial is.
It's almost a labor of love for industry to come in and work for NASA
because NASA still looks at it like, "8 percent of a lot is a
lot." Well, that's true. But 16 percent of that same amount is
twice as much. And you're having those people go off and work for
If we could get NASA folks out into Wharton School of Business, into
Harvard Business School, out to Stanford [University], and sit in
a classroom. Not for a week, for six months, with industry guys, doing
a short course or something, I think that they would come back and
be really enlightened about the ways of the world. We allow folks
to live in this insular world like we talked about: "Yup. I went
to work, got out of college, and went to work at Huntsville, Alabama.
I've been at the Marshall Space Flight Center ever since." It’s
a 20-year career unaffected by any look at the outside world. I think
we need to get out more on the government side.
When you started your time with NASA, you were in the Astronaut Corps,
so you understood risk one way. Then, as you've been on the other
side, on the contract side, you understand risk a whole lot more ways.
Share with us about risk mitigation, risk assessment, risk management—lessons
that are important to continue the program forward in a safe and secure
way, but at the same time, moving it forward.
Everybody struggles with managing risk. I remember after Challenger,
there were some people that came in and said that they could do a
probabilistic risk assessment on the Shuttle, and it didn't work.
They were doing it in nuclear power plants. The problem was we didn't
have enough time on the Shuttle, enough operating experience, to really
know what the reliability of the components were, so when we did that
risk assessment, it came out to a number that nobody believed. We
had one failure in 25 flights, but the numbers said we should have
lost half the vehicles we ever launched. That wasn't, obviously, a
good way to do that. So we kind of went back to the more or less gut
As you design things and operate things, if you're paying attention
and you're designing quality and reliability into whatever the system
is, you'll generally minimize the amount of risk. What we didn't do
in Challenger was listen to the hardware as it was telling us that
it was being stressed. There were a few folks that knew that it was
aggravated by low temperatures, but we weren't listening. The hardware
was talking to us, and we weren't listening. Same thing with Columbia.
Nobody believed that the foam could really hurt the vehicle. It was
all about turnaround time and dinging tiles, but nobody imagined that
you could end up punching a hole in the leading edge with a big piece
of foam. We failed to listen to the hardware.
Some folks within NASA and the industry will tell you that if the
engineer and the quality guys are doing their jobs, then risk will
take care of itself. I think you need to look at it differently, and
there's multiple ways of looking at risk. There’s the five by
five cube, and it's red in the upper right and it's green in the lower
left, and it's a matter of likelihood of the event and then consequence
if it happens to you. You can do those trades for financial stuff,
you can do it for schedule risk, and you can do it for technical risk.
The problem is—if you look at what happens with any kind of
a space launch system, generally the consequences are a five if it's
an important component, so now all you're dealing with is likelihood.
Trying to determine how many nines you need in terms of reliability
is difficult when you have an awful lot of critical components, which
kind of brings you right back around again to the design and understanding
the behavior of the hardware as you first test it and qualify it and
You can have as many five by five matrices as you want. Some stuff,
you can actually do probabilistic risk assessment. But at the end
of the day, the way that you minimize risk in this business is by
having the right people with the right skills in the critical jobs.
And that's for ops folks, both ground ops and flight ops; it's certainly
for the engineering technical design teams. You need to be willing
to pay for those folks to hang in there after you're doing operations.
In Shuttle, we did that pretty well. We had a sustaining engineering
workforce that is just world class. They're really good at what they
do, and it doesn't matter whether you're talking software or hardware
or thermal. Then keep a management team that is willing to listen
and to ask the right questions.
Any time you're changing something, the risk goes up. Everybody ought
to realize the change is important but carries its own risk, and that
sometimes better is the worst enemy of good enough. We have really
good engineers. I don't know very many engineers that have looked
at something and couldn't figure out a better way to do it, and so
they will constantly tinker. “A, you can't afford that, and
B, it adds risk.” Except for when it reduces risk. The technical
leadership needs to understand the difference between the ones that
are nice to do but unaffordable, and the ones that are needed to do
regardless of how much it costs. Those are tough calls. I think risk
is always going to be tough. The tools will continue to get better,
but at the end of the day, it's all about the people that are using
the tools. It's like golf. It's not the clubs, it's the operator.
You can buy as many sets of clubs as you want, and if your golf swing
sucks, you're going to be a bad golfer. It's not any different with
the tools that these guys have got.
Can you give us an example of a time that you've seen good risk management
tools applied and actually maybe have turned around a decision that
was going in a different direction? Or maybe just someone's sense
of practicality, with their experience, has affected risk assessment
or a risk management decision?
There was a process—and this is a different kind of risk than
technical risk—during Space Station. There were two meetings
that were cranked up in the management process that, I think, saved
the Space Station. One of them was when George Abbey dragged in all
of the senior leadership—government and industry—on Saturday
morning, every Saturday morning for two years. Maybe longer. That
got folks' attention that the Station was at risk. That was during
the time frame where the Station was kept alive by one vote in Congress.
That reduced political risk and technical schedule risk through that
leadership technique. Pretty onerous, but it worked.
The other one was with Jay [H.] Greene—had a much lower level,
technical meeting on Space Station stuff. Jay is one of the best leaders,
I think, that NASA's ever had, flight director. But Jay can be a little
hard on some folks. It was not a pleasant meeting for some folks.
I was the Astronaut Office rep [representative] to that meeting, and
it would have been like '98. Jay made a real difference, and he ran
that meeting for years and he made risk decisions. I remember one
that we were worried about had to do with a hatch, and he just said,
"I think you guys are making this up in the crew office. It doesn't
make any sense to me." He just wrote that one off, wouldn't fix
it. I remember getting a note from him a long time later when they
launched that particular piece of station, the hatch worked okay.
It said, "Hatch worked."
At management levels those kinds of calls are routine, whether it's
at the Shuttle PRCB [Program Requirements Change Board] or whatever.
You need to have somebody with enough technical background, enough
knowledge of the team, so that he knows who to trust. Because nobody's
going to be an expert in everything. You need to know who is the guy
that you trust in entry thermo [thermodynamics] of the RCC [Reinforced
Carbon-Carbon]. How about tiles? Who would you call to find out how
much conservatism is in the thermal modeling such that you can make
a decision to enter as is, or whether you've got to put somebody out
there on the end of the arm and go fix something which has its own
set of risks? You've got structures guys and you've got thermo guys,
trying to understand the facts of the situation, and then they bring
all that stuff forward. But they just know about what they know. They
know about structures, or they know about thermo.
They don't know how to integrate those, and so that's left to some
manager that's going to make, based on his or her judgment and his
or her knowledge of the people involved and how conservative each
of them are. Because some people will come back and they'll give you
a belts and suspenders answer every time. Other folks will tell you
what they think the answer is, period. One belt. Unless you know the
people, unless you know who to trust, your ability to manage risk
Do you have any thoughts to share on how best to instill trust within
Do what you say you're going to do. And over time, you'll get there.
It's one of those things where it doesn't take very many times of
not doing what you say you're going to do and you will have lost them.
You need to be consistent. People respect folks that respect them
and what they do. They can see through a phony a mile away. Some people
are born leaders. Gross generalization—it is not very often
that you see many folks that have really world-class technical capabilities
and are great leaders. Sort of like having a Miss America who is also
a top five player on the LPGA [Ladies Professional Golf Association]
circuit. God doesn't hand out very many royal flushes. Occasionally
you see some. I didn't know von Braun, but I heard that he was a real
long ball hitter technically and a great leader. I can think of half
a dozen that are around here right now that are that way.
But they're pretty rare, and I don't think that you can make somebody
a good leader. I think you can make somebody who is a good leader
better through some training. If people generally don't like people,
but they like sitting at a computer all day and writing code—you
see an awful lot of folks that try to get out of there because their
perception of their self-worth and their career path is along the
management line or the leadership line, and they get out of technical
stuff where they're really good, and they get over here and they just
flail. They try to be something that they're not, and therefore they
end up not being able to identify with folks and they don't do well
as a leader.
Leadership and management is different, by the way, and everybody
knows that. Basically, to me, you manage stuff. You manage money,
you manage widgets, you manage schedules. To a certain extent you
can manage skill sets, but that's different than people. You lead
people, and leadership is about getting people to do things that they
wouldn't ordinarily do for some greater cause. So in the Marine Corps
it would be why would you run up the beach? They're shooting at you.
That's an abnormal thing. People do that stuff, been doing that kind
of stuff for years. Not based so much on the leader—the leader
has to help. They do that because they're worried about not doing
their job in front of their peers. You'll hear folks talk about being
in battle, and they're not there for their country, they're there
for the guy next to them in the trench. Which is why they followed
Pickett up the hill at Gettysburg. It was dumb. Everybody was going
to get killed, but they did it anyway.
This is different than that, but it's still really tough work, and
it's long hours. You end up doing it for the mission, but leadership
is important in trying to keep the team together. Again, that peer
pressure thing: if you get little pockets of people heading in undesirable
directions, a good leader can drag them back in and get them aligned.
So I think it's critical. I think that on occasion we try to stuff
a square peg in a round hole. NASA has a lot of really good technical
folks, and good leaders are more rare than that. So NASA will try
to take a guy who is successful as a Flight Director or a crew guy
and put him in a leadership position, and it's not a good match for
Personally, what do you feel is the best, or maybe the hardest lesson
that you've learned working in the Shuttle Program and with NASA and
I don't know that there's any one lesson. The hardest lesson—there's
a cartoon. There's a tree in the middle of this painting, and there's
a biplane that's stuck in the tree, and it says, "Aviation in
itself is not inherently dangerous. But [to an even greater degree
than the sea], it is terribly unforgiving of [any carelessness, incapacity,
or] neglect." When you lose an airplane, you can track it back
to something that somebody did that wasn't right. Usually not because
they got up that morning and decided that they were going to kill
somebody, but they just screwed something up. It could go back to
the guy that designed the airplane, or it can be the guy that maintained
the airplane. More often or not, it's the aviator that's driving the
airplane. But something happened such that there's a bad day at the
end of the time.
Human space flight is like flying airplanes on steroids. It's just
really unforgiving of neglect. So when you have a bad day in the human
space flight world, it's really ugly. Hardest lesson is how do you
avoid doing all of the memorial services and stuff? Because as tragic
as it is for the people that end up losing loved ones and friends,
I think the folks that you lose would tell you that maybe the biggest
tragedy is what it does programmatically. Because it shuts you down
for two or three years, so you're in the recovery mode for a long
time because you lost sight of something. Whether it's an O-ring in
a solid or whether it's foam that we watched for years coming off.
I sat in a bunch of those meetings, and I missed it. So did everybody
else. That's a tough one, and you can never get complacent because
it's just pretty dangerous stuff. That's the hardest lesson. The best
lesson is what great groups of people can do when they're motivated
to do great stuff. Two sides of the coin.
I'm going to ask for the last question. You've talked about your experiences
and a little bit about the Vision for Space Exploration, but knowing
what you know, what kind of advice would you give for someone who'd
be interested in joining the programs that are associated with the
space adventures at this point in time?
We talked about it a little bit, but I think this is really an interesting
time. There's a lot of opportunity in building new stuff, really for
the first time in several generations. Not without risk, and it's
all kinds of risk: technical risk, and budget, and schedule. And international
intrigue. What are the Russians going to do when you shut Shuttle
down? I would bet that the cost of riding to orbit for the Russians
is going to get a lot higher. But we'll see. They've been good partners
here when we've been not flying before. I think there's going to be
a whole lot less space flying going on for folks that are in the Astronaut
Office. Flight rate's going to be tiny relative to what it was in
Shuttle. You're flying six or seven folks a flight on Shuttle. They'll
be flying—I don't know—three, four. When they're flying
with the Russians, they'll be flying one or two with the Russian flying.
That'll be twice a year for a while. So the numbers of people flying
is going to be significantly reduced, but the missions are going to
I actually liked Shuttle. I was almost of the Fred [Frederick D.]
Gregory school of human space flight, which is it's all about entry
and ascent. “This on orbit stuff is okay, but three days is
enough.” I wasn't quite that bad, but at the end of the 17-day
flight, I was ready to come home. I don't think I'd have been very
interested in four to six months to a year. The Mars thing is going
to be two years plus. That's a long mission. I've been on cruises
in the Navy and they were long, and they were only six months. But
different folks like different kinds of things, so for folks that
like being in orbit for six months and working as part of a Station
Crew, there's going to be some opportunities to do that. There won't
be quite as many folks flying. I think the carrot of being able to
go back to the Moon and going onto Mars is really, really inspirational.
It would be a very good thing for us to be in that. It's not a matter
of whether or not somebody's going to go back to the Moon, or whether
or not somebody's going to land on Mars, it's just a question of when
I think we're kind of at a crossroads here. It’s an election
year; who knows what's going to be important to the next president?
The only thing I know for sure is it's not going to be in the top
ten things they're going to worry about. They're going to be worrying
about lots of things having to do with healthcare and having to do
with Iraq and Afghanistan. So sometime around May, after they take
office in January, they'll get around to thinking about who the NASA
Administrator is going to be. It will be very interesting to see where
they go with Shuttle. Is there more money that you could put in there?
I think it will be a more—from everything I read—a more
Democratic Congress than we've got today.
The good news for human space flight is it's not a partisan issue.
You end up having zealots on both sides of the aisle. It is sort of
geographically oriented. If you're from Alabama or certain parts of
Texas or Florida, you tend to be more spun up about space flight than
you are if you come from Montana. I think that the next year is going
to be really kind of pivotal in how this transition is conducted.
Or if there's a transition. Because there is a possibility, I suppose,
that somebody might decide that the Moon's going to be there in ten
years or four years, and so we'll put that off for a while. And you
guys over at NASA, keep doing what you're doing. On the other hand,
they can come in and say, “Full speed ahead. Shut Shuttle down
in 2010.” Or, like politicians tend to like to do, maybe they'll
do something in the middle. Compromise. I have no idea how that's
going to go. I hope we end up getting there eventually.
Shuttle is just a magnificent vehicle that was before its time. I
think once we shut it down, we won't see anything like the Space Shuttle
again for probably 100 years, if you look at the way programmatic
cycles go. But eventually we'll get back to something with wings that's
reusable. The current design really is more fragile than you'd like.
And it's all about the wings. I don't think those of us that were
flying it really thought about it because we were thinking about ascent.
Entry was pretty benign because there wasn't a whole lot of chance
of really loading up the vehicle. If you were going to do that, it
was going to happen on ascent.
So when we lost Columbia, it shocked a lot of us, and it changed my
view of Shuttle and its long-term viability. On the other hand, adding
a few more flights, four or five, eight—the way we're operating
it today, I think is an acceptable risk. If that's what the country
decides to do in order to maximize the return on this $100 billion
Space Station investment that we've got, and to get us through the
gap and not be dependent on somebody else. But that's going to require
additional money at a time when deficits are up. The economy's not
doing so well. So I don't know. We'll see.
We'll have to see. Before we close, are there any other thoughts about
sound processes, best practices—anything else that you want
to add before we close out?
I think it's all about people, and as long as NASA keeps attracting—and
they do attract some of the best and brightest. As I mentioned before,
I think we could do a better job of training and preparing leaders
for their positions 10 or 15 years down the pipe. Part of that's formal
education. A lot of it is getting them out of their Center into another
Center. Learning to appreciate the value of the folks in Washington
by going there and being one of them. I said a year. I don't think
you could learn what's going on in Washington in a year.
Because I was going to go to Washington and change the world, right?
It took me a year and a half to understand the fundamental truth that
the Founding Fathers put this whole thing together to resist change.
If you want to amend the Constitution, it's two-thirds of the Senate
ratified by three-quarters of the states. It's hard. So getting anything
done there is hard for a reason. It can be really frustrating if you
come from the colonies and you're used to just making decisions and
away you go. So I think going there and spending a couple years is
something that every senior manager ought to do.
They're doing better in terms of assignments of Center Directors.
The guy who is in Alabama today [David A. King] grew up on the Cape.
Bill [William W.] Parsons has worked everywhere. Mike [Michael L.]
Coats was in the Navy. Arguably he's JSC, but he's been everywhere.
So I think we're trying to do better at the senior leadership positions,
but you still get very Center-centric once you go down one level from
the Center Director. You're right back into, "Yup, grew up on
the Cape, still at the Cape." I think if we could fix that one
situation, and over a generation had people grow up from the time
they were GS-11s realizing if they wanted to be in the leadership,
they needed to get off the Johnson Space Center, they needed to go
to Marshall, they needed to go to Washington; it's an expectation.
In the military you see that. You're just going to go from place to
place, and it's expected. And you can make a decision along the way
that that's not worth it to you, that your family situation is such
that you're just going to max out at GS-15 or something. That's fine.
But if you want to be a real decision maker in the Agency, that you
would do these other things. I haven't seen them doing it yet, and
until they do, I think they're going to continue to be Center-centric.