A Clash of Engineering Cultures? NASA Engineers, R and D Culture, and the Space Shuttle as an Operational System

Possible configurations considered for the Space Shuttle as of 1970.

Possible configurations considered for the Space Shuttle as of 1970.

One of the more interesting conferences being organized is set to take place on April 8, 2016, at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. It is called “The Maintainers” and it focuses on what is the norm for engineering practice. It reacts to the emphasis on innovation in America, and plays off of the important 2014 book by Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. Historian Andrew Russell quipped that there needed to be a counter-history entitled, The Maintainers: How a Group of Bureaucrats, Standards Engineers, and Introverts Made Technologies That Kind of Work Most of the Time. Since then many people interested in science and technology studies have been discussing these twin themes in history. This conference is an attempt to bring together some of those thinking about the idea of maintenance of technological systems.

I am proposing a paper for this meeting entitled, “A Clash of Engineering Cultures? NASA Engineers, R&D Culture, and the Space Shuttle as an Operational System.” My abstract is as follows, and I would welcome any thoughts that anyone might have on it.

Abstract: The aerospace engineering culture of NASA emphasizes innovation and the development of new technologies, and those who go to work for the space agency have long been attracted by the thrill of tackling new and unresolved problems. In its first twenty-five years, seemingly, NASA had a new R&D project constantly underway and design engineers happily moved from one to another of these efforts. This was largely the norm until the first orbital flight of the Space Shuttle in 1981. At that point, the program was intended to become operational, providing relatively airline-like space access. This meant that the bulk of the research, development, and testing for the Space Shuttle would be halted—NASA officials intended to pursue only modest upgrades thereafter—as the vehicle would open orbital space to “routine” operations. The Space Shuttle, of course, never delivered “routine” spaceflight and its flights were never airline-like. Most of the explanations for the shuttle’s failure to deliver on this promise emphasize its experimental status, its different flight requirements, and its advanced technology.

Those explanations are fine as far as they go, but in addition the NASA engineering culture emphasizing innovation and R&D ensured that those who were a part of the shuttle program constantly sought to upgrade the system rather than maintaining and flying it as is common among airlines. The result was that none of the orbiters were identical, and that constant efforts to alter shuttle technology meant that no two flights were even similar. The “maintainers” were not dominant at NASA and the constant modification of the technology ensured that there was never an opportunity to operate it efficiently. This paper will explore this theme in the 35-year history of the Space Shuttle program and offer some thoughts on the clash between the divergent ideology of R&D versus maintenance in the context of NASA and the Space Shuttle. As such it addresses one of the central questions asked in the conference’s Call for Papers: “How does labor focused on novelty and innovation differ from labor focused on maintenance and conservation?” To this I would ask another: “How do these divergent engineering cultures interact and achieve useful synergy?”

Please give me your comments. Am I off base?


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19 Responses to A Clash of Engineering Cultures? NASA Engineers, R and D Culture, and the Space Shuttle as an Operational System

  1. Kevin says:

    Hi Roger
    Very interesting.
    Some thoughts on building a case.
    You would need to establish a pattern in the rationales for the upgrades. Some/many may have been conservative changes for safety/operational requirement driven needs.
    Also Roger you can’t assume the shuttles came off the production line in the same identical configuration and those configurations subsequently diverged through upgrades. We would need to dig deeper here.
    Problem with writing about culture is that it is hard to get evidence 🙂
    All the best,

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a really interesting area for a paper and further research. One aspect in NASA was (is) probably sheer numbers of innovators vs. maintainers with innovators greatly out-numbering maintainers. As you say NASA tends to be a self selected group of innovation focused engineers. Another aspect, which comes out in other non-aerospace areas as well, is how you integrate the maintainers into the design and innovation phase. In many cases, e.g. high profile buildings, there is little integration so the end product ends up being bespoke and having high maintenance costs caused by a combination of equipment choice and bad design (for example making access difficult). When maintainers are integrated into the design phase maintenance costs are reduced.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Andy Prince says:

    Very interesting theory. I do have some things you might want to consider. First, the Shuttle Program faced significant obsolescence issue over the last two thirds of its life. Some of these issues were driven by EPA rules, etc. but others were more economic in nature. For many secondary and tertiary suppliers (often niche industries most of us are not familiar with) providing materials to support the shuttle program was at best a break even business. Some only did it out of national pride. Significant resources were expended to maintain existing vendors and qualify new ones.
    Second, in my opinion neither the technology nor experience base was ready to develop a true operational system. In many ways human spaceflight is still in its infancy when compared to other modes of transportation. I am sure that having just gone to the moon we felt like we could do anything. And while reusability did pay economic benefits, the dream of airline type operations was not realistic. A large bureaucracy, both government and contractor) grew up around the need to grow and maintain the knowledge base needed to keep the shuttles flying.
    Third, the Shuttle Program I observed was a strange mix of conservatism and innovation. Many improvements were made to the hardware over the life of the system – which is much to your point about the R&D culture. However, at the same time, other elements of the program remained stuck using 1970’s technologies and processes right up until the end. Generally speaking, unless a change was needed for performance or safety, it did not happen.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Erik says:

    The innovation problem goes deeper still. Airliners are designed to be maintained–Shuttle wasn’t. A culture that understood maintainability would never have designed a vehicle whose engines have to be yanked after each flight.


    Liked by 1 person

  5. mike shupp says:

    You might indeed be off base, but I’d love to see your thoughts anyhow.

    Kevin makes a nice point. The orbiters were built over several years. Rockwell had an aeroheating group which estimated how hot portions of the vehicle got during ascent and re-entry, using wind tunnel data and theoretical models. Roughly speaking, it took about a year to figure out aeroheating profiles for a particular vehicle for a variety of trajectories. This data then went to a second group wihich calculated how much of that exterior heating actually penetrated the skin and thermal sheilding of the vehicle, and how that heat would spread through the structural framework.
    This took about a year, and meanwhile the aeroheat group was preparintg improved estimates.

    The numbers from the structural heating group went off to a weights group, which looked at the heating on the structure, determined if the structure was sturdy enough to withstand operation with those heating loads or should be beefed up in places or could be trimmed down to reduce weight. This took about a year. Their data got transferred to the the people who created the blueprints that eventually went to the people who built the vehicle. Their data was also fed back to the aeroheating and other groups who could repeat their analysis with better notions of vehicle geometry, etc. And the cycle would begin again.

    So yes, there were differences in the individual orbiters, and arguablly the design was refined as it moved from Enterprise to Endaevor. GOLD STAR FOR KEVIN.


    Another point I’d make, taking off from Andy Prince’s observations:

    What struck me when I was in aerospace in the 1970s and 1980s was that no one wanted or expected space flight to ossify as it did about the shuttle. The common notion among engineers at Rockwell, for example, while shuttle was being developed, was that once the first four orbiters were operational, some other manned space project would come along, perhaps a second generation shutle, perhaps a moon program of some kind, because that was the way things went in the aerospace business. I don’t recall something like ISS being viewed as a goal, largely I suspect since ISS has more the aura of an “intermediate” nature rather than that of a true Program. These guys were NOT “maintainers” in your terms.

    Other hand, once you accepted that manned space had settled down on shuttle (and Soyuz), you had another problem to face: where would the next generation of flight vehicles come from? Traditionally, in a long production run of aircraft or automobiles or consumer products, small changes are made along the way — seat belts get added, better alloys go into engines, welds replace rivets, better fabrics are used as seat covers, avionics get upgraded, etc. The 20,000th Boeing 707 was a better bird than the 1st, even if the silhouettes looked similar. When your production run is four or five orbiters, and nobody plans any followup for a decade or more, you’ve got a Major Issue to deal with: do you try to make those vehicles as similar as possible and as close to their original condition as humanly possible? Or do you make changes over time so those vehicles somehow “evolve” to improve their capability despite the lack of 2nd or 3rd generation follow ups?

    I think you can make a case that “maintenance” wasn’t a likely option for those working on the “operational” space shuttle, that the very constraints that surrounded those engineers pushed them into “innovation”, even if the politicians and program managers or the era never foresaw this happening.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. dphuntsman says:

    Roger, as someone who was a proud shuttle participant at NASA for my first 15 years in the agency, I understand what you’re trying to get at. But, I think you may be missing the larger picture entirely; and taking the wrong lessons-learned from the shuttle experience.

    The primary lesson learned is not in the engineering and operational details per se; the prime lesson learned was that we NASA/government engineers, and government in general, are not good at: designing, building, owning, operating large space systems that are intended to be ‘operational’, except for maybe the purely scientific instances (e.g., telescopes, probes, et al). All of the ‘incentives’ in our NASA/governmental system work against it. I could give you another list of those negative incentives!

    Even Apollo proves the point. For while Apollo could work at its primary (political) goal of flags and footprints on the ground by a set date – it was NOT good at being the first step in a sustainable program to KEEP us in space. It was unaffordable to own and operate (the incentives weren’t in that direction, neither by politics or schedule).

    SLS/Orion fall in the same category. Do you really think, over 50 years past Apollo, that having us NASA guys design/build/operate a large, throwaway rocket that may only fly once every two years, is going to be “operational” in any economic sense of the word? It won’t be. And like Apollo, it won’t be part of any sustainable space future. i.e., like Apollo,it really doesn’t pave the way for cheaper or more economic or much more frequent use that yet even more people/corporations/countries can then build on to produce even more economies of scale.

    For a space system to have strategic and economic “legs”, one must think in terms of each part being a cog in the process of space economic development. And having us government types do the design/building/operating, etc., under government controls, and not having the proper economic outlook and practices (by definition), you’ll get the same results.

    Yet one of the reasons, as one commentor above notes, we have stagnated since shuttle, is that over time we in NASA – with help from our myopic Congress – have been on an almost continuous decline in sponsoring, doing, and demonstrating real cutting edge R&D that the rest of America – i.e., the private sector – can then use to make economic space systems. And it’s the private sectors that have the incentives to do that.

    To give a brutally brief summary:
    1. Without re-energizing NASA’s space tech R&D to create new seed corn to grow things, we’re not going to have the breakthroughs that “we” – especially the private sector, who will need to implement and expand things – that are absolutely required. The reduction in real space tech R&D over many years now is roughly coincident with the shuttle, and ISS, “operational” programs absorbing so much of NASA’s energies and monies. We’ve got to fix that indirect, understated problem that started with the shuttle program’s shift of focus to operations.
    2. Final development of real operational systems can be spurred on/jump-started by NASA – evidence, the COTS, then CRS (where NASA served as an anchor tenant for the systems developed under COTS), and now commercial crew. A key point of these successful/succeeding programs: the government was not the designer/builder/owner/operator. (though it clearly serves as an inspector, guide, help mate, etc.). In both cargo and crew cases, the systems are ultimately those of the companies, which are incentivized to keep on going with them, and not just to feed solely off of the government trough completely. And we are getting competitive, non-single point systems to boot, unlike a single big massive unaffordable government system.

    So I guess I’m saying that, instead of looking at the details of what NASA was doing with its government designed/owned/operated vehicle and trying to directly extrapolate; don’t let the trees obscure the bigger forest, the bigger picture. The lesson is: For chris’ sake, having a government agency turn into an operational thing is not only not what it does well, it also means that necessary R&D for the future is increasingly not done. AND, final development of products intended to be ‘operational’ can be partnered with government; but must in the end be in (multiple!) private hands, with the right incentives to build increasingly cheaper, more reliable systems, that all can then use to bootstrap even more human (not just NASA) expansion into space.

    Dave Huntsman

    Liked by 1 person

  7. chrisbpetty says:

    I think this sounds like a really interesting approach and obviously has major implications as we move more towards re-usable commercial systems that NASA may purchase flights on while still creating their own space access systems.

    I think at the heart of this there’s a question whether NASA is really the appropriate organisation to be running an ‘airline-like’ space access system (if such a thing is even possible!) – maybe that’s just not the best use of their time, budget and effort. In the same sort of way, the NACA never tried to manufacture aircraft or run an airline – they were able to concentrate on R&D and passing those benefits down to industry who could then apply them commercially.

    I’d be interested to know if any conclusions on this subject were reached within NASA and how much this influenced decisions and attitudes towards the ill-fated VentureStar in the 1990s. Clearly lack of budget to build and maintain a fleet of SSTOs was a big factor here, but was there also a recognition that NASA really wasn’t suited to the role of owner/operator?


    Liked by 1 person

    • dphuntsman says:

      how much this influenced decisions and attitudes towards the ill-fated VentureStar in the 1990s. …… but was there also a recognition that NASA really wasn’t suited to the role of owner/operator?

      Chris, the simple answer is, not only has the agency – which I’m still in, after 41 years – not recognized that it isn’t suited to the role of developer/owner/operator (.e.g, it’s doing so for SLS/Orion), it took exactly the wrong “lessons” from Shuttle and VentureStar
      et al. Before he retired from NASA, I brought this up to the head of Exploration Systems Development at NASA, Dan Dumbacher, and he essentially said the same (wrong) thing that the rest of NASA senior management is going by: Shuttle, Venturestar, etc. proved reusable launch vehicles won’t work (!); we know what will work (i.e., the Apollo paradigm); end of story. I got that from the NASA chief engineer, also.

      And those are the absolutely wrong lessons.

      We, as a government agency, are never going to be good at designing/owning/operating any truly economically operational launch system. But we can help be the jump-starter, partial investor, advisor, etc. etc. to help jump start new competitive industries that will do those things. The examples of the types of ways forward are clear: COTS-style then CRS-style, commercial crew likewise, jumpstarting whole new cost-effective rocket systems and spacecraft capabilities with more than one competitor and design/operational solution.

      While the agency is at least continuing on with commercial cargo and crew, since 2010 (when commercial crew started), NASA has essentially 100% gone back to the old way of doing business. The way that led to ever-increasing costs, decreasing capabilities, loss of economic competitiveness, and loss of any confidence that we can lead to a true sustainable, growing, space-faring civilization, led by a free people.

      We know what works: Making sure NASA becomes once again a technology generation engine, not just for the agency’s internal missions, but for the country, in a way similar to what NACA was for aeronautics; and that NASA then partners, in the right way, with the nascent commercial space industry to invest in them, advise them, and expand their capabilities in a way that helps us all. And come the next new Administrator, we need him/her to understand that, and to lead that absolutely necessary change, if we are to have a real space future.

      Dave Huntsman

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Damara Arrowood says:

    You are absolutely not off base. On the bright side, I’m told the culture has changed considerably for the best. Having a former shuttle pilot as an Administrator most likely sped that process, which is what any org or company is required to do in order to survive. I will refrain from using any of the standard-issue Silicon Valley buzzwords..

    I would like to comment (possibly advise) directly on the subjects of the abstract offline if possible. Is there an email address for anyone who may choose to comment offline? In other words, may we have permission to speak freely?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. tony galeano says:

    From my own experience, NASA is certainly not unique in showing the wide cultural gap between “dreamers and doers”. The U.S. Army and the airlines were replete with “who the hell designed this?” frustrations. The M-16 rifle seemed to be designed by someone who never imagined cleaning it. The Embraer 135/145 regional jet cargo bin has a sloping floor, so all the bags are constantly sliding downhill into you. On my first car, you had to remove the right front wheel to change the oil filter. These are exceptions, for the most part.
    I believe that NASA and its contractors lost touch with their military aviation roots, and the designer/maintainer working relationship that went with it. The progression from blueprint, to mock-up, to prototype, to initial production, and then into service gave both groups multiple opportunities to discuss and hash out issues. Even after something goes into service, this process continues- as many pilots have said, “Don’t fly the A model of anything!” Once in regular service, emergency safety issues aside, there is an established procedure for grouping improvements together to avoid addressing them piecemeal. The A model is followed by the B, and within models, upgrades are still made en mass; witness the F-16C, Block 40, Block 50, Block 52 etc.
    Obviously NASA didn’t have the luxury of a large fleet to directly translate this idea over, but it feels like the spirit of the process was forgotten in the quest for the next improvement.
    I also wonder if NASA is a perfect storm of the prototypical American desire for the latest and shiniest toys, vs. sticking with ‘old reliable’. We would never be content to fly the same booster for almost 50 years like the Russians’ Soyuz, but we also shouldn’t be the space equivalent of always standing in line for the newest iPhone. “Faster, Better, Cheaper” was just a rephrasing of “2nd best tomorrow” or, “perfect is the enemy of good enough”. Militaries, airlines, and auto makers all seem to have settled into a more realistic and practical mindset (for the most part), but NASA definitely swung in the other direction.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. spacegary says:

    You are not off base. It sounds like a fascinating analysis. The comments seem to indicate a wealth of people with experience/material for you. I look forward to reading the results. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Your hypothesis suggests that “NASA engineering culture emphasizing innovation and R&D ….sought to upgrade the system rather than maintaining and flying it and that constant efforts to alter shuttle technology…. The “maintainers” were not dominant at NASA and the constant modification of the technology ….

    I don’t see that there were that many upgrades or such significant upgrades made over the 40 years of the program. Columbia was significantly different from 099, 103 and 104, and 105 came along a bit later so had some additional changes but was still not that different. . 099, 103 and 104 were the ‘production’ Orbiters and were all pretty close. They were all configured and built within just a few years at the start of the program. Even 105, which appeared after Challenger/51L, was largely built to the same design and specs using spares constructed in the earlier years.

    Most upgrades were for purposes of technology updates in the face of obsolescence, like the glass cockpit, or specific relatively minor improvements of performance (lithium ET) or for safety reasons (SRB joint redesign) . Significant and noticeable changes to the configuration were pretty few and far between and the vehicles did not change dramatically in appearance over the period of the program. If you compare changes to the Shuttle with changes to something like the 737 or 747, which had a similar length of development and operation, I would guess you’d see a lot more serious configuration changes on airliners.

    My first day on the job at Rockwell, in configuration management, with Glynn Lunney as the new Program Manager in January of 1982, shortly after STS-2, Lunney asked the top rank managers ‘ok where are we going from here; what are the big changes we need to make, maybe canards on the nose?” (one reason for canards was because the Orbiter landing gear was designed for 165,000 lb Orbiter mass, and OV-102 was flying at about 240,000 lb, and the short nose gear meant some of the greatest forces occurred during nose wheel touchdown). They had also experienced some unanticipated issues with respect to flight aerodynamics during ascent and entry. Another change discussed in August, 1982 was the addition of an explosive charge around the hatch and equipping all crewmembers with parachutes-this was just before STS-5, which was the first crew of more than 2 and after ejection seats were to be deactivated. No significant changes of these sorts were ever made, except in response to specific issues. The hatch and bailout option was added after 51L in response to that accident. In the early 90s, the change to the lightweight AlLi ET was made in response to a specific problem. The superlightweight aluminum lithium ET had been studied and considered earlier in the program, but actual changes were never introduced until addition of Russians to the ISS and an increase of the ISS orbital inclination to 57 degrees, caused a loss of Shuttle performance, and so they were forced to a new material to gain back several thousand pounds of performance. So I do not see that there were big or significant changes being researched or made to the design or to most hardware over the course of 40 years. And other than the hiatus after each accident, I don’t think the changes had a dramatic effect on costs or schedules. The response from the assembled engineers that first day that Glynn Lunney ran the change board, I particularly recall Max Faget,saying, “no Glynn, we think this design is a final design and now we want to fly the design, make changes where required, but mainly make it operational”, or words to that effect.

    In fact, by 1984, 1985, NASA was planning to turn over operation of the Shuttle to a “commercial” operator so NASA could get out of the Shuttle R&D and maintenance and the operation could be run efficiently. This became the STSOC contract and the start of the USA contractor. By early 1985, I had moved from Rockwell to NASA and became subsystem manager for crew equipment and stowage. I was the only NASA SSM in this function and oversaw a small ILC contract of about 10 people who would turn around all intra-vehicular hardware for flight, including the total design and installation of stowage. In that year, 85, with a dozen missions in the flow, we could hardly keep our heads above water.

    As STSOC came in starting in FY1986, the NASA organizations that were responsible for subsystem management which included R&D-my function and I were in Space and Life Sciences directorate- were forced out of the Shuttle program. We were forced to turn over all engineering, design and operations responsibilities to USA. I say “forced” because a lot of our higher level managers thought this was really a bad idea as far as maintaining NASA/JSC capabilities, many protested; but we were not given a choice. The idea was that Shuttle design had stabilized and would be relatively static, not requiring R&D in the future.

    Over the next few years I saw a USA organization that was big, cumbersome, bureaucratic,, not too well organized-it was fortunate they had the Challenger accident that gave them a couple years to come up to speed. But I never saw an efficiently operated organization. But they were not doing R&D or serious upgrades of any sort. In fact just the opposite; they were sticking with old and inefficient methods.

    There were changes they could have made. For instance in 1990/91 I was put in charge of utilization on the Spacehab commercial modules. For efficiency, we specified a hands on stowage/packing approach for all flight lockers-same lockers as in Shuttle. In fact we routinely traded our Spacehab locker contents for Shuttle locker contents, so our stowed lockers flew just as easily in the Shuttle. But our lockers could be packed and ready for flight within hours; we took some photos and weights. Lockers being packed by the Shuttle program went through an extensive drawings compilation process (Crew Compartment Configuration Drawings). Every stowed item had a picture drawn of it, usually several perspectives, drawings of the item, drawings of how it was stowed, drawings of the entire stowed assembly, drawings of the entire crew compartment, for every individual flight. These were highly accurate dimensioned drawings, mass properties, and the process took 2-3 months. Not only drawings, but every piece of equipment required custom cut, custom fitted pyrel foam cushions. That was a very expensive and time consuming holdover process from the first few years of Shuttle that had previously been used on Apollo, But we showed on Spacehab (and later for Mir missions) that it was not required. We got away from use of custom cut foam and we never did drawings. But Shuttle practices never improved, at least not through the NASA Mir program or the early years of ISS support. I know. that throughout NASA-Mir people would come in with late stowage changes and Spacehab and Mir could always accommodate them, even in the last few hours before flight, and Shuttle would say the same change would be a multiple week/multiple month impact to the launch schedule.I think it never improved because I don’t believe there were any experienced ‘experts’ in the NASA Shuttle program office who knew what was required and I believe that USA was making money on every individual employed, and on every schedule hour, so there was no inclination for them to reduce costs or schedule.

    So, I don’t think it had anything to do with R&D or improvements of any kind. If you think about the problems leading up to the Columbia accident-shedding of ET foam, or the wearing and erosion of the RCC leading edge wing panels, not only was there no R&D being done to try and improve the design or materials (and these were known problems), at least not within NASA, there were no longer even subsystem managers looking at the design and performance from flight-to-flight.

    So I suspect you would have a hard time showing that NASA was trying to conduct R&D, upgrade systems, etc. or that it was this “culture” that was preventing operating Shuttle like an airline.


  12. Fred Ledley says:

    There is an extensive literature in Management (yes, Management professors do interesting research) about the challenges of innovation in established organizations. Two of the principles seem particularly relevant. First, Clayton Christensen has written that “an organizations capabilities determine its disabilities” (in Innovator’s Dilemma). This is seen over and over again in companies that have invested in the resources, people, and infrastructure associated with a specific set of capabilities, often find it difficult (or unpalatable) to jettison these capabilities to move in other directions. One of the most famous examples of this is the demise of Polaroid Corporation, which was certainly aware of the impending emergence of digital photography (and held >1000 patents in this area), but was unable/unwilling to abandon their expertise in nanolayer chemistry that had made them a leader in film and the enormous profit margins that these products provided. In contrast, Polaroid had less expertise in electronics or electronic manufacturing, and would have had no advantage competing in these areas.

    The second, related, principle is that organizations have an organic structure that is hard to change. One way of characterizing an organization that I particularly like (again from Christensen and his colleagues) is to examine the “Resources, Processes, and Values (RPV)” of an organization. In this context, values relates to the values that are prioritized in decision making. Organizations find it much easier to pursue innovations that are consistent with their established RPV, than those that require the essential characteristics of the organization to be changed. The aforementioned Polaroid was a remarkable corporation, which valued their commitment to long-term employees and the communities in which they operate, making it difficult to abandon, or sell off, these assets and move in new directions. IBM, was only able to develop the PC in the early 1980s by creating a distant organization, which was explicitly freed from the organizational constraints that had traditionally characterized “Big Blue.” It would be an interesting case study to look at the “values” of NASA in the Shuttle era (some of which may have been legislated, for example those related to government employees), and examine the characteristics and capabilities of the organization, that disabled the organization from achieving the kinds of innovations it had in an earlier era.

    Finally. I would add that there is increasing recognition that innovation across our economy began to lag in the 1970s and 1980s. While this observation is counterintuitive given the explosion of computer and communications technologies, it is worthwhile to review the data from Pew http://www.kauffman.org/~/media/kauffman_org/research%20reports%20and%20covers/2014/02/state_of_entrepreneurship_address_2014.pdf as well as the work of people like Robert Gordon (The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War) and others.


  13. This quote from Max Faget’s oral history points out the lack of changes and further development after the Shuttle was first designed and built.

    But I’m just trying to illustrate some of the [arbitrary] decisions that were made as we moved along and that ended up providing a penalty to the program. I want to make it clear, I think that the Shuttle vehicle is a masterpiece of engineering. The fact that we’ve flown it that many times and only had one loss of vehicle—by and large, it’s performed marvelously every time. But it’s the only case that I know of where a major change, a major new kind of system has been created, put into operation, with no process of evolution to improve that vehicle. We not only built the Shuttle, [if] we had an opportunity to build a second [generation] Shuttle, we’d make it a lot safer, we’d make it a lot better performer, a lot more economical, so forth and so forth and so on. The unfortunate thing is you can’t build a second one without building a first one, and we only had enough money for one.
    The other thing that has been kind of bad is that the Shuttle has been so expensive to operate, there has never been any money set aside to improve it. It’s unusual. All of our airplanes that go into operation, they get improved. I’m talking about military airplanes, but particularly they get improved as they go along. So there is not an evolution in the case of species, but there is an evolution within the particular vehicle. That didn’t take place, didn’t take place [in the Shuttle]. Virtually, from an engineering standpoint, there’s hardly any difference between the Shuttle we’re flying today and the first time we flew the Shuttle.


    • Faget was the JSC Director of Engineering. The current Director of Engineering was interviewed for an oral history last year and provided some additional related information. http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/history/oral_histories/ISS/HansenLN/HansenLN_8-13-15.pdf
      Following some review where we’d gotten in trouble for something, all of the civil servants were supposed to be moved into the Space Station Program Office. The program office was big for a program office. Actually the program office is still big today compared to some other programs. System managers were moved into the program office; they were no longer in the Engineering Directorate or the JSC institution.

      ISS pulled the spacecraft software development into the program office. Software was pulled out of the institution; out of the line organizations. In Shuttle, the JSC institution built the backup flight software for Shuttle. Software for Space Station was pulled into the program office; this was convenient for the program. It puts that resource under the program’s direct control.

      Station was the first human spaceflight program to set up an operations function within the program office. That was a big culture change and there was a little bit of stress around that. I was only aware of that peripherally, since I was on the development side, not the operations side, but certainly there was some stress. Where it crossed my path was in the assembly sequence: what are we doing on the development side, and what is Mission Integration and Operations Office (OC) doing versus what was JSC institution Mission Operations Directorate (MOD) doing?”

      In hindsight, and looking at it from a different perspective as the Center’s Director of Engineering, it really meant that we were not preserving engineering capability at the center. A program has a short-term horizon. Even a program like ISS, which is up there for decades, still has a short-term horizon. Their job is not to preserve a technical capability for the long term. The program’s job is to either get a product out the door or to maintain the product, while the institution is responsible for preserving the technical capability. The center had really lost that capability. It was probably not a good move for the program to pull all these functions in, such that the institution was not caring for it and not nurturing it for the long term.


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