Wayne Hale retired from NASA in 2010 after a 32-year career that included making the go/no-go decisions on 41 space shuttle missions and overseeing the agency’s return-to-flight efforts after the 2003 Columbia accident.
Today he leads the human spaceflight practice at Special Aerospace Services, a Boulder, Colorado-based consultancy that counts Lockheed Martin, Sierra Nevada Corp., and United Launch Alliance among its clients. He also writes on his blog about his NASA experience, including close calls on other shuttle missions. He serves, in effect, as the conscience of the agency, offering reminders of just how difficult human spaceflight can be.
One the eve of NASA’s annual Day of Remembrance, Hale offered some advice from Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia: “The lesson to take away here is not to give up. If it is unsafe say so. If overruled, appeal.”
On making the call to stop a launch: Back in the days when I was the flight director, there were plenty of times when I was the guy, along with my weatherman or one or two other folks, that had to stand up and say, “We are not going to do this.”
It is hard to stop the train. What is really hard is the third or fourth day in a row where you’ve had repeated difficulties and everybody is getting really tired of showing up at whatever time it is in the middle of the night to be in the [Kennedy Space Center Launch Control Center’s] Firing Room getting ready for a launch and yet again something is not right.
That is one of the aspects of Challenger. They went through so many launch scrubs on that flight and on the one preceding it. People were tired and said, “Can’t we just fly this thing?” You have to guard against that. Every time has to stand on its own merits. You are either good to go or you are not. It doesn’t matter how many times it takes.
On voicing dissent: They tried to implement changes after Challenger and it kind of wore off or didn’t take. We made a concerted effort after Columbia to encourage dissenting opinions and listen to people that had concerns. I know that worked well through the end of shuttle. Of course I’m retired now, but I do keep in close touch with people in the agency and they tell me that dissenting opinions are still elicited and listened to, at least in the human spaceflight part of the organization. I would think it is easier now. Whether or not you can actually prevent a tragedy, you never know. It’s a very low margin [for error] business.
On the importance of not forgetting Challenger and Columbia: It will be sometime before NASA is back in the business of launching people into space again. I hope the folks on that day remember those lessons.
With at least a decade between the end of the space shuttle and Orion’s first crewed mission, it might be a different group of people making the decisions.
Commercial crew certainly will fly before 2021, but it will have been a long time since NASA has been in charge of a rocket that flies. How many people will have changed out of the workforce? We need to keep those lessons alive.
I’m in the middle of reading ‘Truth, Lie and O-rings,’ Allan McDonald’s book. .. It is striking how those people were shut down. I really believe that would not happen today.”
– Wayne Hale