James Webb – More than a Lawyer

In the past few months there have been numerous articles, op-eds and comments on what qualities the next NASA administrator should have. Not that anyone asked me, but the best advice I can give the administration and Congress is that they should pick a great leader – a great public servant, regardless of whether their background is in engineering or even the legal profession.

As historian John Logsdon recently put it, the best administrator NASA ever had was a lawyer. However, those of us in the space community do not simply regard James Webb as a mere lawyer prior to becoming President John F. Kennedy’s administrator for NASA on Feb. 14, 1961, less than a month into JFK’s presidency. He had a great deal of relevant experience, which was well-chronicled in the book “Powering Apollo: James E. Webb of NASA” by the
historian W. Henry Lambright.

Webb trained in the Marine Corps as an aviator in the early 1930s and later served in World War II. His long career in public service started in the 1930s working on Capitol Hill. In President Harry Truman’s administration, Webb held senior positions in the Treasury and State departments, as well as holding the title of director of the Bureau of the Budget – the modern-day Office of Management and Budget.

In the private sector, he rose through the ranks, up to vice president of the Sperry Gyroscope Co., and was president of Republic Supply, a division of Kerr-McGee Corp. While in
, he set up the privately funded Frontiers of Science Foundation to improve the teaching of science and math in high schools and colleges.

James Webb “the lawyer” was administrator when NASA was starting the Apollo program, the most complex engineering project ever attempted by the human race. The skills he obtained working in Congress, the Truman administration and the private sector, and his own disposition enabled him to run NASA better than any other administrator, which is saying a lot. It is my hope and belief that President Barack Obama will nominate a person of the same caliber as James Webb.

For those who might not know, James Webb is buried today in
, not far from the president who asked him to serve as NASA administrator. Rather than being remembered simply as a lawyer, Webb’s grave stone has a more fitting description of his career: under his name, it simply states “Public Servant.”

Dan Cano


The Benefits of Prognostics

In the News Brief item, “Satellite Operator Calls for Greater Risk Sharing” [April 6, page 5], the statement that “Vendors need to stand by their products … “ doesn’t reflect the state of the satellite and launch vehicle market. Commercial satellite and launch vehicle suppliers can and have failed to back up their products’ reliability for some 50 years, relying solely on private insurance companies to pay for the losses incurred by their customers, who are willing to play the high stakes gambling of insuring commercial satellite launches and the first year of in-orbit operations. They have been able to do this by claiming that there is nothing anyone can do to stop infant mortality failures from occurring.

As long as no one can prove that satellite and launch vehicle suppliers didn’t use everything available during the design and test to produce the best product possible, there is no financial liability penalty for space vehicle suppliers that produce vehicles that fail catastrophically. Each satellite and launch vehicle supplier has a long history of failures, and this failure history is seldom a factor when satellite customers select a satellite and launch vehicle supplier.

We have discovered that 100 percent of satellite and launch vehicle equipment failures are preceded by deterministic data in completely normal appearing equipment data, or telemetry. If telemetry is available from the equipment during factory tests, we can identify if it will fail within the first year of use with 100 percent reliability.

The technology that recognizes this phenomenon is called prognostics – short for pro-active diagnostics. Prognostics simply recognizes that satellite and launch vehicle equipment failures are not instantaneous and random. When satellite and launch vehicle equipment failures are believed to be instantaneous and random, they cannot be predicted so there is nothing anyone can do to prevent them. This has been the state-of-the-art thinking for the past 50 years of the space industry. However, we discovered and proved the presence of deterministic behavior preceding 100 percent of the satellite equipment failures. It is called “deterministic” because the end result – failure – is predetermined.

By increasing equipment reliability and reducing the amount of redundant equipment, prognostic technology offers a way to reduce the size of today’s giant communications satellites by reducing the need for so many redundant communications channels to meet the long mission life, which will lower satellite cost and shorten the delivery schedules.

We believe prognostic technology can finally make working in space as safe and certain as any other industry and allow the explosion in interest by the public to open up commercial space industry to tourism.

Len Losik, Ph.D

President, Failure Analysis