Thursday, October 15, 2009

When Did I Know

AIAA has been running a campaign to get members to tell when they knew aerospace was the field they wanted to pursue. For most members, this is a simple task. For the past few months, quotes and pictures on the AIAA website have highlighted the Apollo landings on the Moon. Those events were indeed inspiring and, for many people, thought provoking as well. Many people did decide to commit to aerospace because of the Race to the Moon.

My own story is, as people who know me might suspect, rather more complicated. I can say I knew on at least three different occasions, in very different circumstances, led me to a commitment to aerospace. There are days I wonder if I have made a huge mistake. There are days I am really encouraged by events and thoughts of people around me.

The first time I knew was back when I was a child. Adults started turning their thoughts toward space partly because of events in WW II. The German rockets attracted much attention. After the war, some scientists and engineers -- in many countries -- began thinking of doing many things in space, ranging from communications satellites to guided missiles. Some even thought a trip to the Moon was becoming a possibility.

As a bright child growing up in New Jersey, I was exposed to this kind of thinking in school, on TV, in movies and more. I can remember class being stopped so that we could watch things like John Glenn's ride into orbit. There was a different kind of thing as well. I was involved in the Boy Scouts for some years. My stays at Camp Paquarra in northern New Jersey were the first times I went away from home over night without my parents. It was also the first time I remember seeing the night sky without city lights nearby. The view of the Milky Way was awesome. Back home were experiments with a chemistry set. Observing the skies with a telescope. Science and math classes at school showed me I could understand much better than most people -- even most adults when I was still a child. All these things led me embrace science as a future career.

Interestingly enough, though, this commitment faded to almost nothing after Apollo 11. Why? Well, in part, an economic downturn in the 1970s for tech people especially caused many of us to seek different careers. Then, too, some experiences in the world of work -- partly caused by that downturn -- made tech fields less attractive.

I wound up trying to become a social psychologist of all things. During that period was when I knew for the second time space was for me. I hadn't completely lost interest in tech fields. Polymaths rarely lose interest completely in anything. While doing grad work in psychology I stumbled upon Gerry O'Neill's book "The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space." I became fascinated. I saw space development as the solution to so many problems facing the human race. Next thing I knew I had joined the L5 Society and became an advocate of using space resources to solve problems for humans on Earth. To learn more about that phase of my life, let me recommend my blog posting Background of an L5 Society Activist. During this period, a sadder but wiser man, I once again turned to technology to make a living. By picking information technology during the 1980s, I found a way of making a decent living with hope for the future. My life was more happy than not. This could be the second time that I knew. I had an avocational interest in space development along with a technical career that brought some satisfactions. Life had clearly improved from the downturn of the 1970s.

Finally, in 1990, I began work at Goddard Space Flight Center's supercomputer center. I had managed to merge my avocational interest in space with a career move that promised much more than my previous work in IT. Finally, it is reasonable to think, my career was in the phase that most AIAA members would think as reasonable. My path to this place might not have been as direct, but it still led me to a place where I was happy.

When I arrived in March 1990, many people were happy to have a man who not only was good at the technical side, but also demonstrated superior communications skills. The fact that I had not only written technical things, but had also been published in mainstream publications (e.g., Trenton Times) and a few space interest magazines aimed at the general population (e.g., L5 News) impressed more than a few people.

The center, though, was poorly led.

Let me give a few data points. My group was supposed to be in house consultants, helping scientists make better use of the supercomputer center. We were supposed to inform said scientists about the latest and greatest things that were available. I, for example, became the group's graphics expert and taught classes on how to use visualization packages. We were also supposed to listen to the scientists and find out what things they wanted to do that they could not currently do.

I began work there in March 1990. I was told that, because of my writing ability, I would be writing the minutes of the monthly computer user committee meeting. My group was banned from the April meeting because the users wanted to discuss the poor performance of my group. In May I got an easy to describe failure. Until I arrived, they had been writing the minutes in the following way. A company secretary -- who did not understand the matters under discussion -- wrote a first draft. My group went over her draft and corrected her errors. I took one look at her first draft in May and told the company not to send her again. I would write the first draft. Eventually people as far away as NASA HQ contacted me to congratulate me on my fine work. There were other things as well, but this should give you some idea.

My first manager, while not all that good a leader, was still a decent man who tried his best and was decent to his staff. When he burned out, his replacement was truly awful. She had been first brought in as our group's team leader. She did not listen all that well to people. Some group members commented on how controlling she was.

Let me describe a couple of incidents.

Joe was about 40 and had been there 12 years. He was a good employee. At age 40 he finally managed to get it together with a woman who became his wife. This, as you might expect, brought about some changes in Joe's life. Most employers welcome such developments. Our hypercontrolling manager did not. She told Joe "Forget about the marriage. Concentrate on work." Joe was, fortunately, able to get a transfer to another group.

The first time I was hauled on the carpet was with the words "Do you know these computers are for government work only?" I was then led into a room where an older male manager was present -- possibly for backup. The woman manager then slapped down in front of me a piece of paper. On the paper was a spam message from a web pornographer. I simply said "This is spam." People who work in IT should be able to recognize spam when they see it. People who know me at all well should recognize that I wouldn't use government computers to look at porn sites. Good grief, I rarely look at the stuff from home -- and then only when someone points me at it for some reason. It's not something I am particularly interested in in.

In 1999 it was becoming apparent that things were not going well at the supercomputer center. At one general meeting the civil servant in charge -- a real abusive bully who did not listen to people -- stood up and said "Why are people unhappy? This is NASA!" The next person to quit was a quiet civil servant who had a number of certificates on a wall in her office attesting to her accomplishments. After a user committee meeting the chair of the group said to me "I don't need this place."

In June I was effectively told quit or be fired. This was a bit out of the blue. There were people there whom I thought did not really belong -- like the man who told me "You can believe that science stuff if you want, but my belief that the universe is 6000 years old that I learned in church is just as good." He was part of the religious fanatic element at the center. Religious fanatics? Yes. Their authoritarian personalities helped them fit in to the dysfunctional group.

Fortunately I did land a reasonable job in a few weeks. Still, though, I was not happy about what had happened. I began seeking out old haunts -- especially the National Space Society -- to try and alert people to what I saw was a significant problem. Those efforts initially went nowhere.

Then, late in 2002, I got the idea to write a paper for the Princeton Space Manufacturing Conference to be held in the spring of 2003. I got the abstract in by the January deadline.

The space shuttle Columbia burned up during reentry on February 1st. I suspected my paper would not draw much attention. I phoned friends in Central New Jersey Mensa and offered to give a talk on dysfunctional NASA management at their annual convention. They accepted instantly. The talk was a huge hit. People were surprised at what I said. I gave a few more talks to Mensa groups.

A year after my first talk, CNJ Mensa invited me back to address their 2004 convention. I came prepared to substantiate my observations with those from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. My talk was an even bigger hit. Sitting in the audience was one Steven Yaros -- a career NASA Civil Servant. At the end of my talk, he stood up, told us who he was and agreed with what I had said. He told us NASA was trying to change. Later on he encouraged me to find work at NASA, telling me people like me were needed.

Later that year I joined AIAA -- and found a good group of people with whom I could work. I also got active in Maryland Democratic Party politics. Why? Because my views are more in line with today's Democratic Party and because I thought I could more easily advance my admittedly unusual interests. I've now been at it for five years. People are starting to pay attention to what I am saying.

What can we learn from this personal history?

The first thing is that inspiration, while important, is not enough. The inspiration to get involved with space faded after Apollo. There just wasn't enough work. Other priorities arose. I reconnected with my youthful interest in space when I read a book that raised the possibility that this space stuff could help humanity in other ways. While I did learn that O'Neill colonies were much farther in the future than we originally hoped, O'Neill's book got me and others interested in space as more than a place of excitement. It was the first attempt I saw to try and connect space to the broader mass of humanity.

Getting work at Goddard also drew me in. Being able to work with good scientists doing things that benefited humanity in the present was important. Once again, this was a mature connection to things that are valuable to humans.

Being driven out of Goddard by poor management definitely affected me. But, once again, I eventually found people with whom I could work on addressing important problems. This was also positively reinforcing.

Summing up, while inspiration is important, other things are as well. An initial inspiration won't necessarily carry humans through an entire career -- especially when disappointments mount. People need to be listened to and reinforced as they go through their careers. They need to think they are making a difference.