Wayne Hale spent nearly his entire NASA career in human spaceflight operations, managing a space shuttle program that valued safety over innovation and efficiency.
But during the final leg of his 32 years with the U.S. space agency, Hale took a headquarters job geared toward bridging the cultural divide between his ‘old space’ colleagues at the Johnson and Kennedy space centers and the ‘new space’ contenders NASA is counting on to carry cargo and crew to the international space station. As NASA deputy associate administrator for strategic partnerships, Hale worked with the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate’s chief engineer, Frank Bauer, to formulate the NASA insight/oversight model that NASA’s Commercial Crew Program adopted as the foundation for the agency’s safety review of new providers.
Now as director of human spaceflight at Boulder, Colo.-based Special Aerospace Services, Hale is helping the ‘new space’ crowd understand and navigate the NASA safety culture they will have to appease if they want to sell crew services to NASA.
Hale recently discussed his personal views on the state of U.S. human spaceflight with Space News correspondent Leonard David.
How can NASA ensure crew safety without taking too heavy a hand with the would-be commercial operators?
It is obvious that there is an internal struggle within NASA as the old traditional way of controlling human spaceflight contractors contends with the new model. It’s all about control, and NASA must relinquish detailed control to allow nimble, innovative commercial companies to provide a low-cost, reliable and adequately safe system to transport humans to low Earth orbit and back. The companies trying to negotiate this turbulent and unsettled process can benefit from the experience of someone who has seen it from both sides. That is what we are trying to do.
What did your time on the shuttle program teach you about balancing safety and efficiency?
Most of my career was spent in flight operations where we strove to achieve the maximum possible return on every flight but were of course limited by the basic design of the system. As such, I had very little insight or control over basic program costs and efficiencies. Later in my career, as the space shuttle deputy program manager and then program manager, I got an in-depth look at the inefficiencies of the NASA management systems, which drove costs up and kept productivity low.
What did you do about it?
At the latter stages of the program there was limited incentive to change these processes, which were built into the culture of the NASA human spaceflight organization. Seeing what processes, especially safety-related processes, provided real value to the program and which were merely bureaucratic drag on the system was a very valuable learning experience. Even in the midst of the push to make safety the No. 1 goal of the last shuttle missions, we fought an internal, not very public battle to improve productivity and decrease costs. These lessons are ones that I think are important to bring to new human spaceflight programs.
Earlier this year, Special Aerospace Services held its second annual human spaceflight forum. What was the upshot from that meeting?
The focus this year was on the rationale behind the human spaceflight enterprise. There is great disagreement on ways and means, which destination and what vehicle. The forum also addressed the problem of internecine war between folks, to lower the heat and rhetoric just a little bit and try and bring more civility into the discussion.
What is the impact of this divided rhetoric?
The space community has confused the policymakers. They hear such a diverse body of opinion from the space experts. It’s not only diverse, but it is sometimes absolutely horrific given the language they use. So it seems like there is so much disarray in the space community that policymakers have trouble coming up with a coherent policy.
In this era of scarce resources, those of us who believe that human spaceflight has value to the nation have to provide a clear and coherent message or the resources will not be there. They will go to other areas where people can make a coherent case for their particular interest.
Today’s space landscape consists of small, entrepreneurial companies that consider themselves ‘new space’ and the more established aerospace companies often referred to as ‘old space.’ How competitive are these two camps?
It feels at times like we are running through a pond of molasses. It’s just so hard to get anything done. Spaceflight is so difficult and the money is not available. There is a huge degree of rancor at the policy level, at the national level in the United States. It’s very hard to make progress.
You can have competition and it need not be cutthroat. A good competition makes you better. I think that’s the bottom line — that competition, in a healthy sense, is good. What’s needed is taking a little rancor out of the interplay.
How resilient is the private spaceflight sector to failure?
Well, it is not very resilient, I’m afraid. The first guys at the plate are going to set the tone for the debate, which is going to happen this year, an election year. So it’s a pivotal year at least for that reason. So having a dud would set the whole enterprise back somewhat.
More than having a dud, I do worry about some untoward event on the space station, something that would call for abandoning it, whether temporarily or permanently. It’s the linchpin holding the human space program together at this point in time. It is our toehold in space, the destination for the near-term for any human flights. If it goes away in this fiscal and politically charged environment, there are plenty of people out there competing for federal government resources.
I must be quite frank. Without the federal resources, probably most of the venture capitalist investment goes away. Not all of it, but a big hunk of it. And that would make life much more difficult.
How would you judge NASA’s ability to listen to the private-sector space groups?
It’s changing. I know how hidebound and bureaucratic NASA can be. My experience at NASA was that it carried the stick, always made the decisions. Contractors could provide proposals or bellyache about it. There was clearly a first-class and second-class citizen kind of an organization at those levels. Before I left NASA, part of my role was trying to set up a little bit different paradigm.
What kind of paradigm?
Where NASA didn’t have to be in control and would give up some of that control. Allow private entities with their different motivations and, frankly, greater nimbleness to take on more, if not all, of the decision-making. That’s what we see happening at least in the Commercial Crew Program Office, and NASA is listening to that. They are not doing it quite as much as I wished they’d do it, but it’s quite a lot.
Isn’t there a dynamic tension between NASA safety standards and private space endeavors seeking to carry humans?
When I was in the NASA Space Shuttle Program, we would wrap ourselves in the flag of safety and say, ‘You’ve got to do it this way or you’re not safe.’ Well, some of that is true, but not all of that is true. There’s a lot of non-value-added stuff that you put up within the government bureaucracy. That does hold back innovation. The goal is to find a happy medium. There are ways to make a safety process work well, be effective and ways to avoid bureaucracy, inefficiency and unnecessary and overwhelming paperwork.
That is the way to the future. Honing that middle furrow down the path that keeps you safe and still allows you to be flexible, nimble, innovative and keep the costs low.
On the larger picture of human space exploration, what’s the roadmap you see?
Cooperation has always paid off. Of course, some of our international partners are really stretched for resources. The U.S. still provides the lion’s share of investment in space exploration. America still has leadership in this area. Where we lead, folks will follow. If we don’t lead, it will create a leadership vacuum that others will step in to fill. International cooperation is key to the future. That was expressed in the shuttle program and so much on the international space station. It kind of was easier to work with the Russians than it was to work with some of the other NASA centers.
In rolling out the 2013 budget, NASA Administrator Charlesdownplayed the proposed cut by noting that in today’s budget environment, flat is the new up. Do you agree with that sentiment?
That is defeatism. He has to defend the president’s budget as a presidential appointee. I think that’s sad and pathetic, personally, that they would try to spin it that way.