Hans Mark Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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If we can switch gears a little and go back to this problem of organization of "big science," you were Deputy Director of NASA, and of course, the early success of NASA has not been given to us in the current period, so to speak. I wonder if you might share with us your insights as to what you think went wrong at NASA as an organization, if anything?
I think something did go wrong, and the fundamental problem that NASA has not faced in the last, oh, probably eight years, even though there were people who said that it must be faced, was that the space shuttle is different from the Apollo project, or any of the planetary exploration projects, any of the big projects that we did before. It was different in the following way: the existence of the space shuttle implied not only the development of a new technology and of a new system, but the establishment of an organization to operate it. An operational organization is very different from an engineering development organization. Engineering development means that you are doing something new, that you are doing something that hasn't been done before. Operational organizations are like airlines, the people who run those get their kicks out of getting the airplane in on time and meeting schedules, and so on.
There was a terrible conflict between the operators of the shuttle and the developers of the shuttle during the time I served as deputy administrator. We had to get the thing going, and I played a part in making it operational. Then in 1983, I proposed to the administrator that we split off the operational organization and that we do what NASA did in 1962 with the communication satellites. You remember when they were developed; an organization was set up to operate them outside of NASA called COMSAT. COMSAT, in the beginning, was a government-sponsored corporation with some private investment. The feeling was that if communication satellites ever became a commercially viable enterprise, the government would get out. And that's of course what happened about seven years later: in 1969, the government did get out of COMSAT.
I proposed formally with a letter to the administrator that the same kind of thing be done in the case of the launch vehicles, that we set up something called the United States Launch Vehicle Corporation, that it be a government-sponsored corporation with some private investment but under government control, and that all launch vehicles, the shuttle included, be put into that new organization, and that the Kennedy launch site and the Vandenberg launch site on the West Coast both be turned over to this new enterprise. Well, this was studied for a while, two committees looked at it, one I can't remember who chaired it but it was sponsored by the National Academy of Public Administration, and the other one was an internal committee chaired by Ed Smiley of NASA. Both committees said, "Well, yeah, this may be a good idea, but it's too early and you shouldn't do it now and this and that." I felt very, very unhappy about that because I think that both committees missed the point. It was not that one bureaucracy was trying to get an advantage over another one, it was that in order to operate this bird you needed to get different people on board than you had, and you couldn't do that within NASA. You had to do that by setting up a new organization, and I think that point was never really properly set up. One of the reasons I left is because I felt that was a management failure on my part to persuade people to do that.
Now to make that leap, and it would sound like an important leap to make, is it a problem of building political support? Are you suggesting there was bureaucratic resistance with the organization but no extramural support?
No, I think the resistance came mostly internally and mostly it was the kind of issue over which men of good will can differ. That is, I don't think anyone quarreled with the principle I was trying to establish, namely that there should be a different organization ultimately to operate the shuttle than to develop it. People quarreled about the time scale. My argument was if you don't start it now, and I meant today, not next week or next month but today, it will never happen. Whereas other people said, well, we better do X, Y, and Z before we get this new organization going. So that's really what the argument revolved around. I kept watching good development engineers getting very frustrated because they were asked to do things that they were never hired to do.
I think the most serious mistake that NASA made was not to realize that the development of the shuttle was just like any other project, that there would be an end to it for NASA, and that the time would come when it had to be spun off; and the resistance against that came from people internal to NASA. I think people in the Congress that we proposed to do what I suggested would have debated the issue and there would have been the usual political positioning, but in the end, the Congress approved COMSAT. After all, this wasn't something that was without precedent, and therefore I think we could have sold it had we tried.
Are you satisfied with the Rogers report on the Challenger tragedy?
No. I've said so publicly a couple of times. I was on a MacNeil-Lehrer show once. I thought one mistake was the establishment of an Associate Administrator for Safety. The Rogers commission report said that you need to set up a safety organization. My experience in the business, and I've launched a lot of rockets in my time, is that safety has to be the function of the administrator, not some associate or assistant. In other words, the safety consciousness has to come from the man at the very top, not from some assistant.
In fact, in watching organizations that are concerned with safety of flight, say, if you in fact have a safety organization, the great temptation for the other people is to say, "Well, that's his job and I'm going to go and do my thing and not worry about safety." Safety has to permeate what everyone does, and therefore you can't set aside a separate organization. What has to happen is that the top man has to spend two hours a day worrying about safety and making sure everybody understands it. So that's one objection: I thought that recommendation was wrong and I thought it was actually a step backward.
The other problem I have with it is that I think the commission emphasized the flawed design of that seal that broke more than other contributing factors to the accident. There were several contributing factors to that accident. By emphasizing the flawed design, the commission made it inevitable that NASA could not fly before the design was changed. My own feeling is that it would have been safe to fly with the current design provided certain very strict steps were taken before flight.
It's the same thing that happens very often after airplane crashes. It is very rare that the whole fleet gets grounded for a long time. What happens is that we know something is wrong somewhere, so we fly airplanes under restricted flight rules. I think what the Rogers commission should have recommended is that you continue to fly the shuttle, you fix the seal, but when you fly it you fly it under very restricted flight rules. That would have gotten us out of this terrible bind we're in now that we haven't flown for more than two years, and my guess is that with the next flight scheduled for the period between the political conventions and the elections, somebody is going to find a reason for not flying until 1989. So I'm very worried that we are going to be on the ground for three years, and I think that was really not necessary.
Are there conditions that were not adequately identified by the commission that you feel resulted in this particular tragedy at this particular time?
Tragedy is a strong word. Tragedy is what happens when you kill people. The tragedy you're talking about is the long hiatus in flight, and that's a bad situation which I think we could have avoided. I think the commission was very, very worried about having another accident, and therefore, the most conservative recommendation was, "Fix this thing, and don't fly 'em 'till you do." They didn't recommend that completely, they said, "fix this thing," and then they put conditions on it which made it clear that NASA couldn't fly until it was fixed.
I believe that if you read the report carefully, it could very well have been interpreted in a different way. I think the wind shear that we flew through -- this flight, 51-L, experienced the largest wind shear of any shuttle flight. I think the problems we had assembling the solid rocket in December of '85 for that flight were probably underestimated -- that is, I think they were a contributing cause. Of course, the cold weather was a contributing cause. So, if you take those three things away, cold weather, difficult fit in the solid rocket, and the wind shear, it may very well be possible to fly safely with the current design.
But that's all water under the bridge. Although I argued privately back in 1986 what I've just said, I decided after very, very careful thinking about it not to go public with it, because a continuing argument over this point probably would have been more destructive than what's happened. I'm giving you a technical opinion after the fact, not really a public position I have taken, or would take. I'm not recommending to the administrator that he fly now. It's his decision. It was done. Had I sat in the chair, I probably would have done it differently but that's, again, something that might have been rather than is.
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