A year or so before I retired, I traveled to the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston for work. This is the NASA center that was in charge of manned space flight during the Apollo and Shuttle programs.
This is where Old Space astronauts lived and trained. This is where flight controllers managed the missions in real time. This is where Gene Kranz said, “Failure is not an option,” during the Apollo 13 mission.1
Window to the Past
My temporary office for the day had a window facing out into a courtyard where sidewalks connected the buildings. As I looked out, I couldn’t help but notice how things inside NASA have changed in the last thirty years.
I visited JSC for work several times during the Shuttle era, and it was always full of real purpose and an excitement that’s hard to describe. Engineers looked like they were doing real work that mattered. They walked between buildings with purpose and urgency. The environment felt magical.
Back then, engineers, flight controllers, and crew were constantly preparing for the next Shuttle mission. It didn’t matter so much what the next mission was. It was that there was a real mission approaching.
If I’m honest, sometimes I felt jealous of engineers who worked at JSC because they always seemed more self-actualized than most engineers did at my home NASA center, which did design-type work.
Window to the Present
Now, six years or so after the last Shuttle flight, in my temporary office with a view, I couldn’t stop looking out the window. Everything felt so different.
Even during my short time there, the tram seemed like a constant reminder of how things used to be. I couldn’t help but feel sad, especially for the engineers who used to work on the Shuttle.
I also couldn’t help but feel a little guilty because my NASA center was the one responsible for designing and building a launch vehicle to replace the Shuttle. Had we done our jobs, JSC engineers and astronauts would still be preparing for an upcoming mission—just on a different launch vehicle.
At that moment, it felt like Old Space NASA was farther from the moon than we were when President Kennedy said we were going there by the end of the decade back in 1962.
A True Story
While I was there, engineers from around the center gathered in a conference room to watch a live stream of a test firing of the launch escape thrusters on the Orion module.
Orion is the capsule that carries crew on top of the Space Launch System (SLS) launch vehicle that’s part of the Artemis missions. The conference room was mostly full, and I was expecting something big because of all the email hype.
Right on time, what appeared to be three motors fired up and started doing what they were designed to do. The test lasted about 15 seconds, and then it was over. That’s it?
In the day and age of Falcon 9 launches with boosters flying back and landing near the launch pad, this test felt like watching an old black and white commercial with no sound. Watching an average sunset would have been more exciting.
I felt bad for the young engineers in the room who wanted to feel purpose. I was so moved with sadness at the looks on the engineer’s faces that I politely stood up and walked out. I wasn’t in the mood to fake it.
This is what Old Space engineers are asked to get excited about when SpaceX engineers get to feel the accomplishment of sticking a first-stage landing on a barge in the middle of the Atlantic.
At the end of the day, NASA engineers didn’t go to engineering school because we wanted an easy path, and we didn’t come to work at NASA because we wanted a cushy job. We chose a very difficult path because we wanted to make a difference.
And that’s getting harder and harder to do inside NASA.