NASA Headquarters Oral
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Littleton, Colorado – 18 August 2010
Today is August 18th, 2010. This interview is being conducted with
Dr. Noel Hinners in Littleton, Colorado for the NASA Headquarters
History Office Oral History Project. Interviewer is Rebecca Wright.
Thank you again for letting me come to your house this morning and
visit with you for this project. I’d like to start today’s
conversation by talking about when you were nearing the end of your
studies in 1962. You interviewed with a new company named Bellcomm
[Inc.]. This company had been formed to provide technical support
to NASA Headquarters [Washington, DC]. Tell us why you decided to
join this company and about your first tasks there, and what your
Hinners: We need to go back probably to earlier college years when
I was figuring out what I wanted to do in life. I still haven’t
totally figured it out, but we’ll get there. I started out at
Rutgers [University, New Brunswick, New Jersey] in 1954 with the intent
of being a chicken farmer. I went into the ag [agricultural] research
program at Rutgers, which was full of science courses—biology,
chemistry, physics, soil microbiology, poultry problems 202—neat
things like that, and got interested in geology. So I took all the
geology courses as electives. I ended up with as many as the majors
did. Really, really liked geology. I said, “This looks fun,”
so when I graduated, I decided to go to grad [graduate] school in
geology, geochemistry. I liked chemistry also.
So I went out to Caltech [California Institute of Technology] in Pasadena,
got my master’s out there. I intended to get a doctorate, but
Caltech was such a hotbed of faculty turmoil at the time I said, “No
way am I staying here.” Got into geochemistry there, and really
liked it with the faculty there, many of whom had come from University
of Chicago [Illinois]. Harrison Brown, Jerry [G. J.] Wasserburg were
into meteorite studies. That of course says origin of the solar system,
the universe, etc.—the small problems in life. Intriguing and
interesting stuff. That got me pegged on early solar system history,
history of the universe.
I went from there to Princeton [University, New Jersey], majoring
in geochemistry. Got into mineralogy, ore deposit formations—but
kept an interest in the space things, the meteorites, etc. All this
was during the time when the space program was starting to pick up.
Of course while I was at Princeton, ’60 to ’63, was the
period in which the commitment was made for the Apollo program by
[President John F.] Kennedy. But that did not a priori tell me, “You
should go into the space program.” I was still doing a lot and
had interest in the geology end of life, and had worked during the
summer for one of the oil companies. Mobil [then Socony Mobil Oil
Company] had sent me down to South America the summer of ’58.
Did everything from going out on the well sites in Venezuela to the
laboratories, really got a good feel for what the oil companies do.
I said, “I think this could also be an interesting career.”
When it came time to think about graduating, my first thought was
I’ll get a postdoc [postdoctoral fellowship]; the perennial
student. This is after nine years in college coming up. I had gotten
married the year before in ’62 and had a baby on the way. So
Diana says, “Enough of this school stuff. Why don’t you
get a real job?” That got me out of the postdoc arena, which
was a good thing. I did look at two career paths at that point. The
oil companies; I went out for an interview in Bartlesville, Oklahoma
[headquarters of Phillips Petroleum Company]. If you’ve ever
been to Bartlesville, it does not look like the green east coast.
And then I interviewed with Bellcomm in Washington [DC]. This was
early ’63, or it may have been late ’62.
I got linked to them through my thesis adviser, whose brother-in-law
was working for Bellcomm. Bellcomm was an offshoot of AT&T, set
up at NASA’s request in ’62 to provide systems engineering
support to NASA Headquarters. Went out, had an interview down there
at Bellcomm, and it all sounded like exciting stuff, and I liked the
people I had interviewed there. The contrast was Bartlesville, Oklahoma
or Washington, DC. Plugging around the oil rigs and looking at little
microfossils or thinking about helping going to the Moon. Not only
that, but Bellcomm was going to pay me $600 a year more than the oil
company. That obviously was not a swinger.
What were your thoughts of what systems engineering support would
I had no foggy notion of what systems engineering was. When I interviewed
at Bellcomm I interviewed with a group that was focusing on working
with NASA to identify and certify the Apollo landing sites using the
data and the missions of Ranger and Surveyor [spacecraft]. They had
figured we need at least a couple geologists who understand maybe
what the Moon is all about to work on these programs. So I joined
that group there, which had another geologist in it—this was
in summer of ’63—and immediately got involved with the
NASA Headquarters folks in the Apollo Lunar Exploration Office and
the Surveyor program out at JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena,
You’ve got to realize Bellcomm was not an experimental laboratory
organization. It was a people organization supplying talent to Headquarters
to conduct studies, analyze issues and problems, look at what the
NASA programs were doing, critique those. We were in a strange role
in a sense. I didn’t realize at the time that it was so unusual,
but in retrospect it was very unusual. That in itself created some
early problems. You’re well familiar with the Johnson Space
Center [JSC]. The last thing Johnson ever wanted or needed was more
insight and advice from NASA Headquarters and their cronies. Well,
it took a couple of years before Bellcomm people were accepted by
the JSC mafia. I can understand that. “What are these outsiders
doing? What do they know? We’re the experts.” So you had
to prove yourself and become an accepted part of the crew there, the
management crew. Of course Headquarters has always been looked somewhat
suspiciously at by the Centers. We all know the usual tete-a-tete
that goes on between the field and NASA Headquarters.
That was all pretty well overcome, largely I think because we had
people who, number one, weren’t trying to pretend that they
were running the show, but were working with them to help define and
ensure that we were getting, in our case, the data that would support
the Apollo landings. Working with Headquarters, Ben [Benjamin] Milwitzky
was one of the prime ones. I don’t know what his actual role
was, but he was deeply involved in the Surveyor program at Jet Propulsion
Lab. So, I had initially a number of trips out to JPL, started to
understand the Surveyor system, what it was going to do, and I got
involved in the lunar soil mechanics experiment, which was being run
by a PI [principal investigator], Ron [Ronald F.] Scott from Caltech.
The Surveyors had designed into them a scoop to go down, touch the
lunar surface, muck around with it, try to understand its soil mechanics
properties as they might relate to the lunar module landing pads and
disturbance of the lunar surface by the engines on the touchdown.
I got to know and worked with Ron very closely during that period.
At the same time that was going on, NASA and JPL were conducting lunar
roving vehicle studies, robotic roving vehicles. The thought was to
send one on a Surveyor platform—taking off some of the experiments—put
a rover on top, and deploy that rover. So there were two studies,
one with Bendix [Corporation] and one with General Motors [Company
(GM)], who each had competing little roving vehicle designs. One of
the reasons I remember this is we had a review of the General Motors
design out at their Santa Barbara research center out in California,
and there on a Friday afternoon a secretary burst into our conference
room and said, “Just heard news, Kennedy has been shot.”
Everybody remembers where they were when they first heard that. That’s
where I was, out at the GM research labs there, thinking about lunar
roving vehicles. That was an incredible time. Nobody knew what was
going on—whether it was a big international plot, whether it
was a coup—just didn’t know. Airports shut down for a
while. You didn’t know how you were going to get home, what
was going on. That has stayed with me, just a marker in the progress.
I realize that Kennedy started all this—in retrospect, [President
Lyndon B.] Johnson had been the prime architect of an awful lot of
the NASA organization program. Continuity obviously kept on going
there. It was one of those early markers, things you just don’t
The roving vehicles on Surveyor did not last much longer. In fact
the early Ranger and Surveyor series were much more extensive than
that which was flown. They were much shortened after those programs,
which had started off as science programs, and became Apollo support
programs. Then it was obvious you don’t need an infinite supply
of Surveyors and Rangers. Some small number should do it.
In that period NASA initiated the Lunar Orbiter program to do the
orbital site surveys, which was run out of [NASA] Langley [Research
Center, Hampton, Virginia]. So we at Bellcomm got involved in the
Orbiter program. A number of the people in our group there worked
on developing the specs [specifications] for the camera systems. Although
some of that was preordained—a lot of that is public now, but
I want to be careful because I don’t know if any of it is still
classified. It was a film system, very very ingenious. Obviously had
its derivations in the black world [classified]. Photography coming
out of the Orbiter program was phenomenal.
At Bellcomm we got involved in helping design the targeting for the
Lunar Orbiter where it would take potential candidate site photography
for the Apollo landing missions. The Orbiter program turned out to
be incredibly successful, as was Surveyor. Ranger had its ups and
downs, the program coming close to cancellation after the first six
[failed]. [Rangers] 7, 8 and 9 succeeded, which provided some very
interesting data. There had been early on a few people, namely Tommy
[Thomas] Gold of Cornell [University, Ithaca, New York], who talked
about this very deep layer of low bearing-strength dust on the lunar
surface. He was convinced that there was the potential for a lunar
module to “sink out of sight.”
As geologists, we couldn’t understand how you could build up
what was then being called the “fairy castle structure”
on the lunar surface. Just didn’t compute. Although yes, who
knows what happens in the vacuum there on the Moon. Then when the
Ranger photos came in, let’s see, that is a big rock sitting
calmly on the surface and not sinking out of sight. So thus anybody
in his right mind would conclude that the bearing strength of the
lunar surface was not an issue. It could hold on to hundreds or thousands
of pounds rocks. What’s the problem? Most of us dismissed that
concern although Tommy Gold kept at it for a number of years. We did
have to deal with him.
George [E.] Mueller, the head of what was then called manned spaceflight,
had an advisory group of scientists to help him understand some of
the lunar science and the factors involved in landing. Tommy Gold
was on that crew so one could never totally get rid of Tommy and his
shenanigans. Interestingly, when post-Apollo people tried to pin him
down he said, “Oh, I never said that.” We could not document
it. He never wrote it down. It was all conversation at meetings.
How different that is from now with 24-hour broadcasts.
Absolutely. That gives you some feel for the things that people were
dreaming up. It was right to do that. “What are all the hazards
you can think of that could impact the Apollo program?” I got
involved in one. There was a fellow who came to NASA Headquarters
for a year or two, Leonard [Len] Reiffel. He was initially I believe
from Illinois. May have been IITRI, Illinois Institute of Technology
Research Institute. Very smart fellow. I think he had a physics background.
One of the potential problems that came up was the possibility of
lunar pyrophorics. “Hm, pyrophorics, what the hell is that?”
Pyro you’ll recognize as like pyromaniac, set fire. The concept
or the thought was you’ve got solar wind impinging directly
on the lunar surface. Solar wind is mainly hydrogen. Hydrogen is a
known reducing agent. So could that hydrogen become embedded in the
lunar surface and chemically reduce the material, that when brought
into the oxygen-rich environment of the lunar module could ignite?
“Whoa.” Is it physically possible? Yes. In theory land,
that could happen. You could not prove by any experiment a priori
that it was impossible.
So Len convened a group to spend a couple days working through thinking
about it trying to understand the probability that such could occur.
We had a meeting out there in Illinois at IITRI and concluded that
no, it’s highly unlikely—you couldn’t say for sure
zero—highly unlikely that this is going to be an issue. I wish
I could remember the details of the thinking that went into that,
because today I’d say, “Let’s see, how did we really
assure ourselves that it was such a low probability that we shouldn’t
sit around worrying about it?”
The whole effort of many of us was to think of things that could possibly
go wrong. This was an attribute of the whole Apollo program no matter
where you were, to think about things that could go wrong and to do
your utmost to document that and work it through and say yes or no,
it is or isn’t a problem. If it is, here’s what we do
to try to resolve it or get more data. It was a very systematic and
thorough environment in which we were all working. Didn’t matter
where you were. JPL, JSC, Marshall [Space Flight Center, Huntsville,
Alabama], the Cape [Canaveral, Florida], Headquarters—the whole
focus was on think of things that might happen and work them off.
I think that still is the going way of operating in many of the NASA
programs. It pays off.
The Surveyor program had some interesting aspects. As you’re
probably well aware, the first Surveyor landed. It somewhat caught
people by surprise. I think they had been used to the Ranger program
where there were so many failures that when Surveyor 1 landed successfully
it was, “Oh my goodness.” Not quite believing the first
time it worked. There was a mindset to be prepared to fail. So when
it succeeded on the first try—a delightful surprise. Demonstrated
immediately that the Tommy Gold fairy castle structure, if you needed
any more evidence, was not a concern.
Were you with your colleagues when you learned that Surveyor had succeeded?
I was not out at JPL at the time. I don’t remember where I was,
probably back at Bellcomm. Our offices were there in Washington. That
and of course prior to that watching those Ranger pictures come in.
You today say, “How could you get so excited watching a bunch
of nested pictures come in as you were impacting the Moon?”
But at the time that was an amazing feat, which gives you an interesting
perspective. We take so many things for granted now that are easy
to do. At the time they were small miracles, fantastic. Everything
evolves and you become used to doing things in today’s environment
and forget what a challenge it was 50 years ago.
Lots of work, lots of thought.
Yes. The Surveyor had some other interesting downstream impacts in
the sense that Surveyor 7 landed near the crater Tycho, down in the
southern part of the Moon, successfully. The mission worked totally
as designed, and had some interesting findings. It indicated from
its chemistry experiment that there was a lot of fluorine in the analysis.
To this day, we don’t understand that, because all the Apollo
samples show essentially there’s no fluorine in any lunar rock
we’ve looked at that amounts to anything, other than trace amounts.
That’s still an enigma today as to why the Surveyor alpha backscatter
indicated a high fluorine content by high, I think it was several
percent. Volatile. Still not impossible that there’s something
odd down there. We’ve seen everything from Apollo and the other
missions that said there’s no water anywhere on the Moon, and
today say, “So sure of that now?” Is it possible there’s
something down there? Yes. You just can’t totally dismiss it.
The Moon may still have some surprises for us.
Back to the Orbiter program. The Lunar Orbiter with its five missions
was designed totally for support of the Apollo site certification
process. The first three missions were so successful in getting the
photography that was needed for the Apollo site surveys that Orbiters
4 and 5 were essentially given over to the science community to use.
So NASA greatly expanded the scope of the photography, now to focus
on getting good photography around the Moon for science purposes.
Not just for site selection, but for really trying to develop an understanding
of lunar geology through the photogeologic studies, a large number
of which were done by the [United States] Geological Survey out in
Flagstaff [Arizona] and Menlo Park [California]. I should mention
that the Geological Survey, through its Astrogeology Branch in Flagstaff,
provided a lot of site selection and mission planning support to JSC
back in the ’60s, led by Gene [Eugene Merle] Shoemaker.
A fantastic bunch of folks there in Flagstaff and Menlo Park. They
were really running the geologic mapping of the Moon, a large effort
in doing the mapping for the Apollo sites and for science purposes.
Gene Shoemaker was a real stimulant. Flagstaff is near Meteor Crater,
which is why Gene finagled the headquarters of the Astrogeology Branch
there. That turned out to be a prime training site for the Apollo
crews, along with places like Hawaii—anyplace that had good
volcanics, things that appeared to be analogues for the lunar landing
sites. We had a fair number of sessions, field trips up there in the
Flagstaff area, Sunset Crater, out on the lava flows to run mission
simulations, plan out the tasks for the astronauts.
And train astronauts—most of whom were pilots, a lot of them
out of the Air Force—to be geologists. The science job on the
lunar surface was to do field geology, as well as to deploy the experiment
packages, the ALSEPs [Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Packages].
These field trips were right from the start designed to get the crews
both interested and good at doing field geology.
During all this time, of course, some fair number of those people
in the Astrogeology Branch and others aspired to be astronauts. “Why
should we be training all these astronauts to be geologists? Why don’t
we just send a geologist?” At that time you had to have your
fighter pilot and test pilot credentials to even be considered a part
of the astronaut corps. Scientists in the human spaceflight program
was always at that time a bone of contention among the professional
pilots and the others.
Of course the culmination of trying to get a real geologist flying—turned
out to be Apollo 17 when Jack [Harrsion H.] Schmitt was selected.
Jack had not initially been part of the Apollo 17 crew when the 18,
19, 20, 21 missions got canceled. I think that was a two-step process.
Jack, who was, I think, going to be on Apollo 18 at one point, got
moved up to 17, replacing one of the crew who had been selected for
the Apollo 17 mission. So the last Apollo mission was when they finally
got a real live card-carrying geologist to the Moon. Better late than
As planners during those first days, you mentioned that everyone was
thinking about what could possibly go wrong so that you could dismiss
that or deal with that. How did you start incorporating the objectives
of science on the Moon? I know that you said that site selection was
of course the first preference. Talk about how science became a part
of that as well.
This goes back to some of the early both NASA-sponsored and [the National
Academies] Space Studies Board workshops. One of the first major science
studies of what you could do on the Moon was ’62. It was called
the Iowa Summer Study. It was named that because it was held by the
University of Iowa [Iowa City]. “Hm, strange place,” isn’t
it? Any idea why it was there? Ever hear of a guy named Jim [James
Alfred] Van Allen?
One of the early stars of Explorer 1 [1958 satellite missions], the
Van Allen [radiation] belts. University of Iowa, “Let’s
have it at my school.” That’s how it got to be the Iowa
Summer Study. There were a number of teams put together to start to
consider what could be done scientifically on the Moon, and that laid
the foundation for a lot of the work. NASA was deeply involved and
That was followed by a large number of science meetings and workshops,
getting even eventually into detailed traverse planning, a lot of
which was done internally at NASA. JSC started to build up a group
there to work on the science end of it and they formed a Science Directorate
at JSC. I think Bill [Wilmot N.] Hess was the first director of the
Science Directorate there at JSC. It started to build up an in-house
science capability, which was very good. In fact it was close to,
in my view, necessary. You might say, “Why is that?” The
greatest plus out of having that Science Directorate at JSC was that
now science was a piece of the Center. Previously one always felt
that scientists were the real outsiders, but having them in house
was just fantastic because it just eased the communication. It became
an accepted part of the Center, so a great move to do that.
Tony [Anthony J.] Calio took over after Bill Hess. Tony kept up that
tradition and built the Science Directorate up some more. They got
heavily involved in life sciences as well as the physical sciences
and were instrumental in getting the Lunar Receiving Lab in place
and under way. Sometime in that period, the Lunar Science Institute
[LSI] was formed . It went into that old mansion [Jim West Mansion]
there just adjacent to the [Johnson Space] Center. Bill [William W.]
Rubey was the first director of that. That too was a great adjunct
for bringing science into the Center and its environs there. It was
independent but worked closely with JSC. The LSI became the general
meeting place for all the science meetings in conjunction with the
Apollo planning. It’s still going strong today—it’s
the Lunar and Planetary Science Institute now.
I remember when I was doing some research there seemed to be a tension,
or a constant check or double-check of the players involved. They
had Headquarters, and they had this new Science Directorate. At first
it was underneath the engineering, so there was this growing, evolving
department at JSC, you had Bellcomm and you had USGS [US Geological
Survey]. At some point you began chairing the meetings and hosted
a number of these individuals. How were you able to get the bigger
picture looked at and not what everyone wanted?
Well, we’d fight those out at the lowest levels first and then
work our way up. There was a very methodical process in place to work
on such things as the site selection. At JSC there was the Group for
Lunar Exploration Planning, the GLEP. I think Bill Hess and then Tony
Calio chaired that. They put together a subgroup to work the specifics
of the site selection. For a large part of that I chaired that group
to bring the scientists together.
Generally we’d meet down at JSC to work through the site selection
criteria, understand the engineering constraints and try to find the
science sites that were going to be the most useful. That relied very
heavily on the lunar geologists, a good number of them at the Geological
Survey, to provide the basic interpretations of the mostly Lunar Orbiter
photography. Apollo 11, it didn’t matter where that was going
to land. It was all new no matter what. We had no science input to
speak of for the Apollo 11, because pretty much the goal was to land
safely, get back, deploy a package. Turned out to be a preliminary
experiment package, not the full-up ALSEP, and collect the rocks nearby
the lunar module.
After that, the science criteria became the dominant factor in selecting
the sites. As you might guess, the geologists, our group kept pushing
the limits on what the engineers were comfortable doing. It was a
very dynamic environment, the engineers being super cautious—properly
so, I’m not denigrating that. That’s their job, to have
successful landings first of all. The scientists, we would push to
go to the most exciting interesting geologic sites we could think
of and find, the peaks of Copernicus, the depths of Hadley Rille,
Tycho Crater. Good geology correlates with bad terrain. Good geology,
that’s where you get the exposures. There was a constant back-and-forth
with us backing off. “Okay, we won’t pick that site.”
Then the engineers said, “Yeah, we think we can see how to do
it.” It was a very dynamic ongoing activity there to bring the
two sides to, “Okay, there’s a site.” Final selections
were made at Headquarters. We’d present the results of the site
selection deliberations to—first it was Sam [Samuel C.] Phillips
who was the Apollo program director at Headquarters. Then Rocco [A.]
Petrone took over when Phillips left, soon after Apollo 11. Several
good things happened in that period.
The Apollo missions were initially scheduled every two to three months.
They were on a rapid fire, because nobody knew which one would be
successful. When Apollo 11 was successful the first try, like the
Surveyor, “Okay, what do we do now?” So rather soon after,
the effort was made and followed through to stretch out the Apollo
missions. There was a realization that what you learn from one mission
on two-month centers you couldn’t possibly feed back into the
next mission. Just wasn’t enough time to digest and redesign
So we soon got them off into six-month centers—a little longer
I think for some of them—which gave enough time to digest from
one mission, replan some aspects of the traverses say on the next
mission, but then really impact a couple missions down. It got to
be a fairly well oiled process of site selection, mission planning—both
through orbital science and the surface science, getting the surface
packages together, the ALSEPs. Jim [James W.] Head [III] and Farouk
[El-Baz] of Bellcomm played major roles in that science part. Farouk
focused largely on the orbital science, working with the crews and
the photography from lunar orbit. Jim much more on the surface missions.
During that period, the mid ’60s, there were all sorts of studies
and plans for the initial post-Apollo lunar missions. In retrospect,
these were absolutely wild concepts and thoughts. But at the time,
“Hey, we’re not going to stop, we’re just going
to keep going and do more and more and more.” One concept was
called the MOLAB, the Mobile [Lunar] Laboratory, which would be landed
on a lunar module deck. [It was a] roving vehicle, pressurized, that
could take astronauts off for hundreds of kilometers to go exploring
doing field geology on the lunar surface. I think George Mueller was
even looking at—it was called 6-6-8 as I recall. Six lunar modules,
six command service modules, and eight Saturn Vs [rockets] a year.
It was wild, it was wild. But all on paper. Then it became evident
that the lunar program was not going to be followed by a follow-on
Of course all this in part was dictated by the whole situation in
the country. It was incredible turmoil. It’s hard to put things
in juxtaposition there and make sense out of it. Here we were working
on going to the Moon, an unbelievable feat just to even aspire to
do it. Riots in the streets, Washington burning. Riots throughout
the country. Kent State [University May 4, 1970 shootings]. This doesn’t
compute, this dichotomy: fantastic accomplishments and chaos. Clearly
the whole budget situation and Vietnam [War] had a major impact on
the NASA follow-on programs and it became pretty evident there was
not going to be a follow-on lunar program.
We looked at using the spare Lunar Orbiter spacecraft—there
were six that were built, five flown—we said, “Well, gee,
let’s use the spare, outfit it with geochemical instruments
to do a geochemical survey of the Moon.” [We] did some early
planning on that, and that fell by the wayside also. Lunar science
just went into a data analysis mode. Continued the operation of the
ALSEPs for a number of years. The lunar program petered out. Oodles
of data, so the data analysis program started up in vigor ’72,
That has kept going ever since, and really demonstrated—we’re
using that today as one of the arguments for Mars sample return, showing
how the lunar sample that was brought back is still today, 40 years
later, being used to do analyses and experiments that were inconceivable
when the samples were brought back. The samples live forever. As you
get new instrumentation and techniques, take out some more sample,
and have at it, and find out amazing new things on the samples you
thought had been sapped of their content. We’re using that as
part of the rationale for, “Let’s get that Mars sample
As you’re well aware, NASA’s near term/far term goal is
Mars for human exploration. I’ve been advocating Mars sample
return, as I’ve been doing for 30 years. You find some interesting
reaction in the human spaceflight community. Some are active supporters,
and you detect that there’s also some reluctance on part of
some of the folks who seem to think that one of the reasons to send
astronauts to Mars is to collect and bring back Mars material. If
you guys have already done it robotically, you’ve taken away
one of our key reasons for going. I counter that with, “I don’t
think you’d dare go to Mars without having had sample back here,”
from a safety viewpoint.
There are things in the chemistry of the Mars surface material that
appear to give it a very high oxidizing potential. Dangerously high
if you were to breathe that stuff. Would you really spend hundreds
of billions of dollars to go without understanding the potential risk
of the Mars material to a crew? To me it is such a no-brainer, I just
shake my head in disbelief that anybody would think of doing it. That’s
one of the battles I continue to fight. We’re actually starting
to make some progress on getting a Mars sample return mission under
way. Another story though.
But one in good relation to what we’re speaking of, because
you had information that you were using to help plan the lunar surface
expeditions, which is what you sound like you’re trying to do
now. You need more information before you can send humans there. And
that was the route that was chosen. You had Surveyor, you had Ranger,
you had information that was coming back so that you could—
Optimize that human mission, yes. Same holds true. Another aspect
of that does in one sense go back to Apollo—Apollo was not done
for science. In hindsight, obviously it wasn’t; it was a political
decision. The same will be true of Mars. There’s a lot of science
to be done, but it’s not for science. You can do most of the
science robotically for a fraction of the price. So you don’t
send humans because you want them to do science. You send them for
all these other reasons, some of which are hard to define in nice
concrete terms. But it’s part of that exploration ethos. “Let’s
do it. It’s neat. Let’s go.” It’s a peaceful
activity of humans. That’s an ongoing discussion that pops up
every once in a while still.
Since you’re talking about astronauts, how much were they involved
in the decisions for those lunar missions?
Quite a bit. The crew office was involved in a lot of site selection.
For example, Jack Schmitt was in on a lot of our site selection activity
later on that impacted his mission. Jim [James A.] Lovell [Jr.] was
chairing GLEP for a while. Jim, after Apollo 13, got very active in
working with us on the science world. Was an absolute gem, he is just
one super fantastic guy. Along with another fellow who was great,
Jack [John R.] Sevier. You’ve probably heard that name along
the way. Jack could also bridge the science and engineering communities.
Having those folks on the inside at JSC was an absolute blessing.
It did evolve, with their help, from much less of an adversarial relationship
to one of cooperation, with both sides pushing where they had to.
It turned out to be in retrospect—and even in real time—just
a good working relationship, once everybody got to know one another,
what was driving them. Dogmatism would stop against the hard facts
of reality. The engineers gave in, scientists gave in. So it was a
real good cooperative venture there as the process got tuned on Apollo.
It did not always keep on in subsequent programs. One that became
contentious was the Apollo-Soyuz [Test Project (ASTP)]. It was an
opportunity to fly some experiments on that flight, and JSC unilaterally
decided what experiments would be flown. That caused a bit of a stink,
to put it mildly, to go up in the science community. Some of those
experiments were frankly not of very good quality. JSC did not understand
the whole science mindset process of competition.
The way the best science emerges is when you’re competitive.
You let people compete on the basis of proposals and what makes most
sense in terms of the instrumentation and meeting science goals and
objectives. So a hold was put on that and a rapid meeting of the Space
Studies Board subgroup was put together to revisit the science payload
selection for the ASTP mission. Some of the JSC proposed experiments,
as I recall, survived that. There were some additional ones put on.
But it was a lesson to us that given their druthers, JSC will revert
to trying to do everything in house.
I’m sure it was easier that way.
It is. It’s a human tendency, we all do it.
There are so many science groups available for making input. They
have all these different boards and the National Academies.
Yes. There’s no one mind of the infamous science community.
It’s only a community when an enemy shows up.
Tell me about some of the missions. You mentioned Apollo 11, that
site selection was for them to get there. Then when you thought you
had more missions you were hoping to plan out greater and long-lasting
experiments, but then of course the program was cut back.
Yes. But there was a tremendous advance made beyond Apollo 11. First
there was all sorts of mass margin. [Apollo] 11 was very conservative,
for good reason. Then they found, “Hey, we can carry a lot more
payload.” So the whole concept of putting the roving vehicle
on, carrying more science experiments, having a bay of the service
module dedicated to remote sensing experiments was implemented. The
ideas had been around for quite a while, but they actually then got
approved for implementation. And were very well supported by Marshall,
JSC and Headquarters.
One thing sticks in my mind. The budget crunches just kept coming
after ’67. George Mueller chaired something called the Manned
Space Flight Experiments Board at Headquarters. That board was responsible
for making decisions on what payloads would fly on the Apollo missions—engineering,
medical, and the science experiments. Budgets were becoming serious
enough that George contemplated canceling the orbital experiments
on Apollo 15 through 17. I was still at Bellcomm at that time and
got a call from Bill [William T.] O’Bryant, who was heading
up the lunar office, just before lunch. He said, “Hey, Noel,
we got to go make a presentation to George Mueller as to why we should
fly the orbital experiments.” So we march over to George and
his Manned Space Flight Experiments Board members.
I went on about an hour talking about the great science that we were
going to get from the lunar orbital experiments, and at the end of
that session George says, “We’re going to do it.”
It struck me at the time. “Hey, good, okay, super, onwards.”
It wasn’t until maybe decades later as I thought back on it,
I said, “Holy smokes.” There was no screwing around with
committee, subcommittees. George made the decision in real time. Today
you’d spend a half year mucking around with groups studying
this, groups studying that, analyzing the hell out of it, and maybe
eventually making a decision. The decision process was so much cleaner
Part of it, the circumstance that you didn’t have time to fritter
away working something to absolute death. And two, I think the nature
of the people. George Mueller was fantastic. He had the capability,
the ability, to make decisions. Sum up in his mind everything he had
heard and make a decision and here’s what we’re going
It had interesting implications. You’re probably familiar with
the all-up testing program for the Saturn V, which was resisted by
JSC and Marshall, by [Robert R.] Gilruth and [Wernher] von Braun,
and probably [Kurt H.] Debus at the Cape. I don’t remember for
sure; I read about it, I wasn’t there. George made absolutely
clear to them, “This isn’t for debate, we’re going
to do it this way.” Giving orders to Gilruth and von Braun,
you better be damn sure of yourself. You’re fighting two big
personalities there who are used to getting their own ways. That was
remarkable. And later on they both admitted that was the right decision.
Because you learned so much from that.
[We] never would have made it; never would have made the ’69
date without that all-up testing. You’d like to see that today.
It’s a different environment—I don’t want to just
say it’s because people won’t or can’t make decisions.
The decision process now is so convoluted. The interference from external—from
OMB [Office of Management and Budget], from GAO [Government Accountability
Office], congressional committees micromanaging NASA—it would
drive me berserk. I don’t think I could survive in the environment
today. Just too much of a bureaucracy. This is not what NASA needs.
We talked about Apollo 11, and you mentioned before about you knew
exactly where you were when Kennedy was assassinated. Where were you
when Apollo 11 landed?
At JSC. I was down there with George Mueller and some of his colleagues.
We were just outside the [Mission] Control Center, we weren’t
inside. We were down there waiting and watching the TV, being somewhat
astounded, as I recall, that the crew decided that there was no way
they were going to take a snooze on the lunar surface at that point,
so let’s get out and do something.
There’s a decision.
Yes. Well, they made it. That was another one of those, remember where
you were. And all the news coverage. I had been on for an interview
with Walter Cronkite [broadcast journalist] explaining what some of
the crew were doing when they got out there on the lunar surface.
I know that each one of the missions had its own goals and objectives.
Do some stand out more than others for you?
Oh, they were all superb missions. Look at what we learned. We learned
so much from each of them, including getting surprises. Apollo 16,
that was a Fra Mauro [formation] mission. What it turned out to be
was not what all the photogeologic interpretations said it would be.
So it really did bring home the limits of your ability to interpret
orbital photography in terms of what’s actually on the ground.
Even today as you look at both lunar and planetary photography, Mars
photography, and you listen to interpretations, you somewhat shake
your head and say, “Yeah, you may be right,” but you may
not be if you really go down there and look on the surface. Orbital
photography has come a long way but it still has its limits in your
ability to interpret in very concrete terms what’s actually
there on the ground.
How did you see that part of that package? You had been working with
engineers. You worked with scientists. Then of course orbital photography
grew into its own being. There was an evolution there, what originally
started and then how it evolved through the lunar missions. How much
were you involved with that? Were you helping with that or was it
just something that you were overseeing and watching yourself?
At Bellcomm initially it was a mixed bag. We got involved with the
actual details of planning. When I say we, people who were working
in my department like Farouk and Jim Head. They were the real workers.
And others in the group. It was a highly cooperative venture where
the roles just somewhat melded. You hear about this infamous badgeless
kind of environment, and at most times it was. People didn’t
care where you were from. If you had good ideas, good thoughts, throw
them in the hopper, we’ll talk about them.
That whole relationship that developed during Apollo did not carry
over in the same mode to the follow-on programs. Never figured out
totally why. I mentioned the ASTP. Then when the [Space] Shuttle was
approved by [President Richard M.] Nixon it became evident that there
was going to be an awful lot of tete-a-tete between the manned spaceflight
world as it was called at the time and the science world.
Basic fact that you can’t avoid is that doing science on human
missions is expensive. You can do a lot of the science a hell of a
lot cheaper robotically. Some of this comes down to who’s going
to pay the bill. On Apollo, the Apollo program funded the bulk of
the science. So in a sense to space science it was a freebie. Most
of it did not come directly out of the science budget.
Subsequent to that, it became evident that the science program itself
would have to fund a lot of the what was called utilization of the
Shuttle. We were pressured off and on. Say almost, “Wish this
would all go away, not bug us, just let us do our science.”
But obviously recognizing human spaceflight is part of NASA, so we’ve
got an obligation to say how do we best use some of this capability.
John [E.] Naugle was very instrumental in trying to foster that. He
was the AA [Associate Administrator] for Space Science prior to me.
At that time also the program was becoming international, when it
became evident that NASA could not afford to outfit the Shuttle with
all the capability they wanted to have. So that’s when they
started this major relationship with ESA [European Space Agency],
some other countries, on providing a lot of the equipment that would
go into the payload bay.
In the science office we had started a program to conduct science
on the Shuttle missions. Initially putting our budget together, that
was the first year I had the responsibility for it. So that must have
been ’74. I put in the five-year budget, a budget for science
payloads for the Shuttle. As I recall it was around $30 million, which
today would be what, $150 million. Went up, gave the budget presentation,
which was run by George [M.] Low. He had come up to Headquarters after
Apollo as the Deputy Administrator. Real top-notch super guy. All
business, and demanding, but a super super guy, much as he could be
a thorn in your side if you didn’t specifically know what you
were doing. [He] put the fear of God into you, as did Rocco Petrone.
And there’s some merit to that.
George took a look at our budget proposal, and in his usual way told
us that we were not being responsive and needed to significantly increase
the budget for the Shuttle science. So that was imposed on us. We
were trying to minimize it so we could do stuff we really wanted to
do and George says, “Some of this other too.” So our budget
was upped. It had the great benefit in those days that it was not
an a priori constraint, what you proposed in the budget. Today you’re
always working on a very firm budget limit. In those days there was
more flexibility, even though you had guidelines from the equivalent
of OMB. So actually putting more money in it just increased the space
science budget. We did set up a new office to deal with science and
started to work the relationships with, in large part, Marshall. Marshall
had a lot of the responsibility for the science that was going to
be done on the Shuttle.
Did you have concern that the Shuttle was expected to be the only
launch vehicle at some point in time?
Yes, darn right. At that time the expendables were part of space science:
the Titan, the Atlas and the Delta [rockets]. So I had that responsibility,
had a group that worked launch vehicles under Joe [Joseph B.] Mahon,
because we were of course the only ones in NASA using them. As the
Shuttle program evolved—it started off with this unbelievable
proposed flight rate. Twenty-five missions a year, it was going to
be every two weeks there was going to be a Shuttle launch. I just
could not conceive of how anybody was going to develop payloads for
that kind of launch rate.
I was at a meeting with George Low one day—we wanted to fly
something called the Shuttle Infrared Telescope Facility, SIRTF. George
in one of his less lucid moments, my interpretation, said, “We’ll
just fly it multiple times.” Like tens of flights. Quick calculation.
I said, “George, it’s very evident that doing this as
a free flier is a hell of a lot more economical than putting it on
a Shuttle 10 or 20 times. We want a year of observations, that’s
25 Shuttle flights. Can’t afford that.” George didn’t
like that answer. But it did bring home the reality of the fact that
there was no way you could conceive of funding payloads at that kind
of rate. Then other things of course transpired to say there are other
issues that they can’t fly anywhere near that rate. Just pure
budget issues on outfitting the Shuttle, the solids [solid rocket
boosters], the external tanks. Let’s get back to the expendables.
One way that NASA conspired to get the Shuttle used was to propose—I
think Hans Mark was a big factor in this decision, he was still Secretary
of the Air Force—that the Shuttle would become the one and only
US launch system. An absolute cockamamie scheme. They wanted the Shuttle
to be used and had to justify it with all sorts of users—DoD
[Department of Defense], NASA, commercial. The only way you could
make Shuttle economical was to capture all the users. That was what
was behind that. Of course at that time the Air Force was busy outfitting
a launch pad for the Shuttle on the west coast at Vandenberg [Air
Force Base, California]. Put what, $3 billion I guess, into getting
that launch facility set out there, before it all fell apart.
George put out a dictum, must have been around the ’76 timeframe,
that we would phase out the expendable launch vehicles and become
totally dependent on the Shuttle. He was looking for a pretty fast
phaseout. I argued that was not a reasonable path to follow, that
at least we should keep the expendables going until the Shuttle had
been demonstrated, was flying. Because ’76, it was all still
on paper. It was supposed to fly in ’79, but it was ’81
before it actually had its first flight. So we would have been totally
without launch capability.
George did not like that input. Must have been around a month after
I resisted his proposal that he decided to transfer the expendable
launch vehicles out of space science into manned spaceflight, where
they could control the phaseout of the launch vehicles. I guess he
must have thought, “Okay, if I can’t convince him, I’ll
just take it away.” That’s what happens in Washington.
But I got a gift in return. He transferred life sciences from the
Manned Space Flight Office to Space Science. There was actually some
merit to doing that, because the chief of the Manned Space Flight
Office just did not understand how the hell you do science.
That exists to this day. It’s just this, as we’ve talked,
the dichotomy between science and engineering. Two different ways
of working in the world. That made some sense, so we started the Life
Sciences Directorate there in Space Science. Dave [David L.] Winterhalter.
That became an embedded part of the Space Science. Later on somewhere
a lot of the human-related medical stuff went back into Manned Spaceflight.
I don’t remember when that actually happened, it was after my
Meanwhile, in the Air Force, the Secretary of the Air Force, Pete
[Edward C.] Aldridge, [Jr.] also thought this is not good for the
Air Force to become dependent on a single launch vehicle. That’s
when he initiated the Titan IV program with a buy of ten. The Air
Force contracted with Martin Marietta [Corporation] to evolve the
Titan III into the Titan IV system to deal with the large payloads
that were coming along. This was all before [Space Shuttle] Challenger
[STS 51-L accident].
Then of course when Challenger happened there were a lot of people
around who were very glad that he had made that decision, or the Air
Force would have been grounded with all the NRO [National Reconnaissance
Office] payloads. That whole concept of flying everything on Shuttle
was flawed from day one. The foresight of, “We’ve got
to use the Shuttle to the max, got to capture all the users,”
that goal just overcame, in my view, common sense. We just cannot
afford to become dependent on any one launch system.
Of course that’s now one of the big problems at NASA: where
are our launch vehicles for the future? Shuttle is going away. Ares
I [Constellation Program project] seems to have died or is in the
process thereof. The EELVs [Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles]—the
Atlas V and Delta IV—have limits on their payload capability.
Ares V is quite a ways off, so the country is in another bind on launch
vehicles. Been there before, but there’s not that backup. The
Titan IV is not there ready to take over. So we’re in another
launch vehicle bind, more serious than the last one in my view.
You started [as AA] in June in ’74, and kept that job five years.
At the time you went to work as the Associate Administrator for Space
Science, you really had minimal experience working directly with Congress
and OMB, yet you hit the ground running. A number of achievements
and accomplishments, programs were done during that time. Tell us
about how you were able to adapt professionally to this new role so
Oh, no sweat. I say that not as, “I can do anything,”
but it was easy in this sense: it’s always been part of my management
style, and it goes way back. I am not anywhere near as good either
a scientist or technical expert as so many people are. What I do like
to do is I love working with people and getting the best out of them,
helping them get the best out of themselves. There’s so much
talent around that all you have to do is surround yourself with that
talent and off you go. Let those people do what they’re good
at doing, they’ll do it. And they thrive on it.
My belief is that the great experts who become managers frequently—I
shouldn’t say frequently—at least often, quash the talent
beneath them because they view themselves as the experts. One recent
glaring example of that is Mike [Michael] Griffin. Mike is very very
talented technically, but tends to cow the people reporting to him.
I think in some ways he quashed good debate that I think is so essential
to a program. Unilaterally make decisions. So did George Mueller,
but it was a totally different personality at work there, and capability
My whole career has been built on just surrounding myself with the
best people I could find, letting them do their job. If they don’t,
change them out. And [I] had to do that. It’s always painful.
None of us like to do that, but if somebody’s not doing their
job, you owe it to them to get them out. I had one experience with
a fellow heading up one of our divisions. He just wasn’t doing
a good job, and I brought him in. I said, “It’s not working.
I’m going to have you go out to Goddard [Space Flight Center,
Greenbelt, Maryland]. You’re a scientist. Do some science out
there. Let us get on with changing the management here.”
“Oh, give me some time to fix it.”
Six months later brought him back and said, “It’s not
working. You’re going out to Goddard.”
He said, “Thank God. I’ve never liked this job.”
Sometimes just not a good fit.
Yes. And he couldn’t bring himself to tell me that the first
time. It was like too much admitting that it wasn’t working
and he couldn’t do it. Frequently you’ll find changing
somebody is something they actually like when you do it. I had that
with the Hubble [Space Telescope] out at Goddard. Fellow heading it,
not getting along with the [Space Telescope Science] Institute, with
Headquarters and with Marshall. I concluded, “It’s not
their fault, the problem is yours.” That’s when I brought
Frank [A.] Carr in.
When I told him, “I’m taking you off this,” he said
he had major problems with one of his children and had major health
problems, and now he could spend time. So when you find somebody’s
not working in a job, there’s frequently a reason that’s
not obvious on the surface, and if you can figure out what that is
and get them in a position where they can deal with the personal problems
and issues they have, everybody’s better off. But you have to
be sensitive to those factors, because people are in those jobs and
if they have real strong personal problems, it creates havoc in the
I have to think when you were working on those lunar planning mission
teams with all these different people of different backgrounds that
you certainly learned a lot of different characteristics that can
help. It was then too you started working internationally.
Yes. I never realized what “it” was. After my freshman
year at Rutgers I went out west for the summer with a bunch of my
colleagues, a couple of guys from Cornell and his brother, went out
to thin apples in Wenatchee, Washington. Thinning apples is one of
the most boring, tedious jobs you’ll ever do. You climb up in
an apple tree, a ladder, see a clump of three little green apples,
you snap two off so that the remaining apple grows nice and big and
gets rosy eventually and you eat it. After a week of that I said,
“I’ll go berserk doing this all summer.” The state
cops had come in looking for one of the immigrant workers who was
wanted for murder. I said, “I’ve got to get out of here.”
So my buddies took me to Seattle [Washington] and dumped me off there.
I looked for a job. Boeing [Airplane Company] was all full for the
summer so I couldn’t get a job with them.
I answered an ad [advertisement] in the paper for a traveling salesman,
sell ironing board covers door to door, traveling crew. They were
looking for people, men and women. So I got an interview and they
signed me up, they bought me some new clothes. And after failing at
being able to sell ironing board covers very effectively, Tom Fitzjohn
said, “I’m going to make you a crew manager.” Somehow
even though I can’t sell ironing board covers, I could manage
one of the crews. That was probably the first time—looking back
on it, I had no idea at the time—that someone saw that I had
some people skills and likes that worked. Even though I couldn’t
do the job I could get others to do it. So I didn’t have to
do all that much, just get others to do it. It’s worked ever
It’s good to learn a lesson and apply it, as you were talking
Yes. But I had no idea I was doing that. When I was still at Bellcomm
I had a session with Rocco Petrone. He asked me to come over, spend
some time talking about some astronomy. We were going to go for half
an hour, start at 1:00. We started to talk, went on and on—interrupted
by phone calls from Jim [James A.] McDivitt about lunar module issues
down at JSC. Rocco would hang up, we’d just go back and start
talking about something. We went on for three hours. Rocco had this
incredible thirst to understand what was going on, from the universe
on down to its small parts like Earth. He said, “Someday you
could be the AA for Space Science.” I didn’t think anything
of it. He was right, it happened.
George Low was a big piece of that. They had tried to get, I think
it was Riccardo Giacconi, to take the job when John Naugle moved up.
Riccardo decided—smart move on his part—he didn’t
want any part of being part of NASA bureaucracy. So it was largely
George and John Naugle that said, “Well, let’s try this
young guy Hinners and see what he can do in the job.” George
with John said, “Yeah, we have to bring some of our younger
people along, put them in positions. Most of them will probably perform.”
So that’s how that all happened. As much as I had problems with
George Low, I owe a good piece of my career to him. I did like him,
but he put the fear of God into you.
I don’t work that way. It’s just not in me. I don’t
put the fear of God into anybody, just the opposite. But I would make
up for that. I’d hire deputies who could put the fear of God
into people. It was just a natural—because I didn’t go
out with that in mind. I had Tony Calio as my second deputy. My first
one, that was George Low’s suggestion, a fellow from Goddard,
who did not work out well. I finally got him to leave, and then brought
Tony in as my deputy. Tony was a very strong, good engineer, no-nonsense,
so he complemented me. I was Mr. Nice Guy, my deputy was always the
bad guy—beautiful. Then Andy [Andrew J.] Stofan was my second
deputy when Tony went over to head up the Earth Science part.
When you went over to work for Headquarters did you still have involvement
in the lunar conferences that were going on?
Yes. I would usually go down to the conferences to give a talk, listen
to some of the science results. But it was not in-depth involvement.
That was handled by the lunar office, which was by then integrated
with the planetary. The lunar office started separate post-Apollo,
and then it was put back in with the lunar and planetary. By that
time the lunar conference was becoming an annual event, a real focal
point for presenting the lunar science results.
Talk there, I think it was at one of those conferences, that got me
in a bit of trouble back [at] Headquarters with Al [Alan M.] Lovelace.
In the talk I was giving I talked about the Shuttle. Somehow what
I said became a headline in the Houston Chronicle, made its way to
Headquarters even before I got home. “The Shuttle is overweight,
over cost, behind schedule.” All true. But NASA did not like
to see that in the headlines. Got my butt chewed out when I got back
to Headquarters. Was not a politic thing to say.
One of the other items that I thought was of interest while you were
in that position is that you took a group to Russia [then the USSR/Soviet
Union] to talk about a possible Shuttle-Salyut joint mission. Do you
remember that trip?
Charlie [Charles F.] Kennel mentioned it.
Yes, Charlie was on that trip. I do not remember who the whole delegation
was. It was post-ASTP and there was a desire at NASA at least to look
at doing a follow-on mission to keep the momentum going with the Soviets.
There wasn’t a lot of energy behind it. George Low was advocating
it. My recollection, it was more of a, “Let’s see if there’s
something there that makes sense.” We had our meeting over there.
It pretty much fizzled. There was not a lot of enthusiasm on either
side. Of course we were going into it from the science side, and the
Soviets didn’t seem to have a lot of energy in it either, and
I never really understood the total dynamics of that situation.
Was that one of the first times you had worked with the Russians?
No. [I had] been over a number of times. First time we had a meeting
over there was a COSPAR [Committee on Space Research] meeting, 1970
it must have been. It was post-Apollo 11. We had a conference there
in Leningrad [now Saint Petersburg, Russia], had a lot of presentations
on the Apollo science, and met with some of the Soviet delegations.
We had a number of follow-on sessions on robotic cooperation both
looking at lunar missions and Venus and Mars. This went on through
the ’76, ’77 time period. The Soviet delegation was still
heading that up on their side. They did not really understand why
we wanted to cooperate with them. I guess they figured after Viking
[Mars mission] that, “You people can do all these things on
your own.” Then it also turned out that Viking put some—limit
is the wrong word, but decreased their desire to do Mars missions,
because they said essentially, “After all, you’ve shown
there’s no life on Mars.”
That comes back to the fact that the whole life issue, the astrobiology
piece of Mars exploration, still to this day drives a lot of the impetus
to explore Mars. If it were only the interest in planetology and geology,
geophysics, you wouldn’t have seen this tremendous emphasis
on Mars exploration. Geology per se just doesn’t get you that
far in terms of that kind of investment. First time you see a new
body, like the outer planets and the satellites, and the amazing things
you’ll see—Io [moon of Jupiter], Enceladus, Titan [moons
of Saturn], real eye-openers. But doing detailed geologic studies
beyond a certain point—for the dollars you spend on it, you
ask yourself, “Is the return on investment there?”
Somewhat like the lunar missions. Great geology, but geology and the
interest in geology alone would never garner the budgetary and political
support necessary to do that kind of extended Apollo exploration that
went on. Science is in an interesting position that you’ve got
to keep doing forefront science to get the resources.
Jumping forward to today, that leads to ever increasing cost and complexity
of missions. They just grow and grow and grow as scientists want to
do more but also the instrumentation is getting so much more complex,
therefore expensive, that mission costs zoom. That’s a major
issue right now, one I’m working with Headquarters on, which
is looking at the total cost of missions, and why is it that every
NASA mission has a cost overrun. There are reasons for it. Whether
they’re good reasons or not is a debatable topic.
Were these some of the same issues you were facing when you first
moved into the administrative job in the ’70s, because the Shuttle
was first coming up with their budget issues, and then now you were
trying to keep science going?
Yes. You always do come down to what does something cost and how do
you allocate the budget that you do have and distribute it among the
things that you have as a priority. You try to prioritize and eventually
some of the things at the bottom do drop off, but you just cannot
afford to do everything. Managing the cost is a pain in the butt,
but you have to do it. Because there’s not infinite budget,
you’ve got to make priorities and decisions. At the same time
there’s an inexorable march towards complexity and large size.
There are two NASA missions right now under way which have not been
subject yet to detailed cost reviews even though both have overrun
tremendously, the Mars Science Lab at JPL and the Jim [James] Webb
Space Telescope, which Congress just a couple months ago asked for
special cost review because there was a prospect of having major overruns.
Cost continues to be a major driver. Trying to understand and better
control those costs is a key challenge faced by NASA.
Nothing new in that sense. As I pointed out at our meeting a couple
weeks ago with [Christopher J.] Scolese [NASA Associate Administrator]
and [Michael G.] Ryschkewitsch [NASA Chief Engineer] at Headquarters,
in 1981 what’s called the Hearth Study [Project Management Study]
looked at science mission costs and their overruns and made a number
of observations and recommendations. This problem was seen and known
and to some degree diagnosed 30 years ago. Yet today we have the same
problem. So you ask yourself, “Did we do anything about it?”
The answer was in large no. We didn’t learn the lesson learned.
Just like Challenger and [Space Shuttle] Columbia [STS-107 accident].
I don’t know why it is we seem incapable of applying these lessons.
We can find the excuses, but are they good reasons? No. Just sent
a note off to Ed [Edward J.] Weiler [Associate Administrator of the
Science Mission Directorate] on that topic. Our [observations] coming
out of that last meeting. We’ve got to make some tough decisions
and relook at how they’re doing the management, because if we
don’t, clearly on [Capitol] Hill—the environment in these
budget times is getting tougher and tougher, and if we can’t
demonstrate to OMB and Congress and GAO that we’re responding
in their view responsibly to the criticism of cost overruns, we’re
going to pay a price for it. You lose credibility. Go up with a proposal
for a new mission, and it’s no different than 30 years ago,
“Why should we believe your cost estimates?”
Part of your opportunity while you were in that leadership position
was that the [James E.] Carter [Jr.] administration came on with their—
Zero-based budgeting. Oh yes. Yes, that was an interesting several
months that first budget go-around. One of the first things that happened
on feedback we got from OMB and the President’s science adviser,
Frank Press, was cancel Galileo [Jupiter mission] as unaffordable.
We resisted that. We went over and talked to them and somehow we talked
our way into keeping it in the budget.
In those days it was a different environment in the Office of Management
and Budget, the budget folks. It was a lot friendlier. I think today
it is significantly more adversarial. We had great support from the
examiners for the science missions. A fellow named Hugh Loweth headed
up the section that dealt with NASA. The year we were trying to get
both Hubble and Galileo through as new starts, we got very good support
from OMB, and got it through the White House in the NASA budget submission.
When that went through Congress we had the fight with Congress on
the Galileo mission and Hubble.
How were you involved with that? Did you have to do the testimony?
Yes, the usual cycle of the testimony with the authorizing committees,
appropriations committees. The NASA Appropriations Subcommittee in
the House [of Representatives] was not inclined to keep both Galileo
and Hubble going in the budget. The Hubble external advocacy did a
pretty good job of lobbying on the Hubble side, so the committee decided
we’ll take the Galileo out. The authorizing committee, Don Fuqua
had approved the NASA budget, which included both missions. So they
raised an issue of who’s in charge of what. They noted that
it’s up to authorizers to say what’s in the budget, it’s
up to appropriators to appropriate funds to support what has been
authorized. So it was drawing a very sharp distinction of responsibility
between authorizing and appropriations. It came down to a vote on
the floor of the House.
It’s in one of the other stories about a conversation with Jim
[James C.] Fletcher, who was the [NASA] Administrator. Before all
this came to a head, Jim had said—I went up to his office—“You’re
going to have to give up one or the other, Hubble or Galileo.”
“No, I can get them both. I think I can do it, Jim, let me give
it a try.”
Bless his soul, he said okay. A lot of Administrators would say, “No,
I made the decision, which one do you want to give up?” He said,
“Okay, give it a try.”
So we got to work, and came down eventually to a vote on the floor
of the House as an issue between authorizing and appropriations. Tom
[A. Thomas] Young and Jesse [W.] Moore and I went up to the gallery
to watch the vote. We won, by close to two to one. The head of the
appropriations subcommittee and his chief staffer, were they pissed.
Unbelievable, because it was a major defeat for them. But as you know,
on the Hill, there are winners and there are losers.
Then the next year at the appropriations subcommittee hearing with
Eddie [Edward P.] Boland and Dick [Richard N.] Malow [staff], “Okay,
Dr. Hinners, let’s start to go through the space science section
of the budget.” Got to the Hubble, and I started to talk, went
into a great description of the great things Hubble was going to do.
All of a sudden Boland got red in the face, pounded the table. “I’ve
heard enough. Turn to section blah blah blah.” So I was being
given the shaft. He had not forgotten the year before. I had been
fiercely defending all these great things they had approved. We went
out and Jim Fletcher said, “Noel, I’m glad you said what
you did, but I’m glad you stopped when you did.”
That’s a good lesson learned too.
Interesting times with Congress and OMB. But that’s somewhat
the norm. I agree it’s a lot tougher today. Those days, you
could go up and just meet with them one on one without having a whole
bevy of staffers from NASA along with you. Go up one on one with Dick
Malow, who was the chief staff guy on appropriations subcommittee,
and spend a Saturday morning talking about the budget and issues and
what was bothering them, what we were trying to do. It seemed like
a good normal way to do business, which it was, but you can’t
do that today. The bureaucracy is running the town, bureaucracy in
its worst form, where the less you know seems to get you more power.
Before our time is up today, just a couple more things on the Apollo
era. One that came out of it was Skylab. Were you very much involved
with the science and what was being done with Skylab?
No, I had very little direct involvement in Skylab. Almost none to
speak of. So I just can’t speak to it. [I] look back with interest
on what was done so rapidly when that solar array came off during
launch and how in 30 days or so NASA developed a fix, engineered it,
got it ready to fly and flew it. The response time was incredible.
That still remains today in NASA. If something happens the resources
available to rapidly understand, analyze, come up with a fix is phenomenal.
You can see that today with [the International] Space Station, some
of the things that go on. A big problem will come up, and boy, the
folks on the ground and in space come up with these fixes in close
to real time. Some of the Hubble repair stuff when things weren’t
working, somebody will come up with that bright idea, try this, try
that. It’s a phenomenal and rare capability I think in both
government and industry to have teams that well trained, honed, integrated,
and knowledgeable that can come up with those rapid solutions.
We were talking briefly about Apollo 11. You mentioned about remote
sensing, the element that had been part of that package. Then Landsat
[Earth observing satellite program] was introduced in the ’70s.
Was that something that you were involved with as well or administrated?
No, Landsat was in the Earth Science or applications area. That was
separate from Space Science. You’ll see through history those
things merge, unmerge, merge, separate. Today they’re together,
and we rapidly expect that someday soon they’ll be separated
The other thing I had listed was the Viking and the Pioneer programs
that were ongoing. Did you move into those programs at that time?
Viking was under way. The Viking program as it finally flew started
in ’68, having evolved from an unsustainable monster to something
doable. Again somewhat a lesson learned here. NASA will often start
with these grandiose projects that rapidly outgrow your ability to
implement them. They get restructured into something that’s
doable and still spectacular. The original Viking, which was called
Voyager—had nothing to do with the Voyagers that eventually
flew—was two monster spacecraft, orbiter and lander, two sets,
on one Saturn V. That did fall under its own mass and evolved into
what became the actual Viking program. I got involved in Viking in
the site selection in ’72 to bring in some of the Apollo site
selection experience, and met with the Viking site selection teams,
usually down at Langley.
Then of course in ’74 I got responsibility for Viking, which
was in deep trouble budgetarily and technically at the time. So I
got rapidly immersed in dealing with budget issue, and again found
how the power structure works. The experience on the Viking cost overrun—this
was probably ’75 or may have been ’74. I got a call from
Ed [Edward M.] Cortright, who was the director at Langley. Before
I returned the call, Bob [Robert S.] Kraemer, who headed Planetary,
came up to my office to tell me he just had a conversation with Cortright.
Cortright was asking for another $30 million, which meant today it’d
be $150 million or $200 million. Bob said, “Tell him no.”
It was just here they are overrunning again.
So I said, “No, Ed. Not going to give you any more money.”
Hung up. It couldn’t have been more than guess an hour, couple
hours before I got a call from George Low, Deputy Administrator. Ed
Cortright and George Low were buddies. George said, “We’ve
got to give them the money.” This is a national program with
high visibility and we can’t afford to do everything we can
to make it work. So I went to the Comptroller and had the Comptroller
give me $30 million. Didn’t come out of my hide, and on we went.
It was an interesting play of the politics, but also the view of where
you do and don’t want to add any risk. Lesson learned.
One of many. I’m never quite sure where the Space Station began,
but where’s your first recollection of where you first became
involved in or started making input into thoughts of long duration
I didn’t pay an awful lot of attention to it early on. Partly
it didn’t pick up internally in NASA until after I had left
the AA job in ’79. I don’t recall being involved in any
discussions on the Space Station. Then I was over at the [Smithsonian
National Air and Space] Museum until ’82. Then, when I went
out to Goddard in ’82, the Space Station activity had started
up and the question there at the time was what role, if any, does
Goddard play in the Space Station. Jim [James M.] Beggs was Administrator
at the time. We had some debates internally at Goddard whether we
wanted to touch the Space Station or not. We did what I think is the
first strategic planning activity in NASA. Did it at Goddard. I was
trying to figure out how the hell do we figure out what to be involved
in, what not to, make decisions. So we did start, and completed a
strategic planning activity, and looked at and analyzed why should
we be involved in this or that. Space Station was a big piece of that,
the whole involvement with human spaceflight.
I decided at that point we should be involved in the Space Station.
It’s part of the major piece of NASA’s program, they’re
going to do science on it, and we can contribute to the implementation
and the quality of the science that gets done on Space Station. Always
in your mind is it’s also work to bring to Goddard. The Center
Director is always thinking, “Okay, what work can I bring into
the Center?” Your perspective changes depending where you sit.
So [we] decided to go into the Space Station and find a role involved
in the implementation of the science. Have to think through again
and look at some of the background of the pieces we were looking at.
Outfitting a laboratory, attached payloads area. It was not a uniformly
popular decision, but so be it. You’re not looking for a vote.
We got support from Headquarters. Hans Mark, who was the Deputy with
Jim Beggs at the time, was very supportive of us playing a major role.
Also building up a capability at the Center to do large Shuttle size
payloads in house at Goddard. We ended up sending some people out
to support the activity in Reston [Virginia] where some of that early
Space Station activity was headquartered.
Again, I don’t remember all the shenanigans that went into establishing
Reston as a Level II for Space Station. It was to provide the Headquarters
equivalent of the integrating facility for all the Space Station work
for Marshall, Johnson and the Cape. Then anything that Goddard or
JPL would add to it. We did supply some people to go out there to
work in Reston in the Space Station Program Office, which I think
John [W.] Aaron may have been heading up at the time.
Well, why don’t we stop there for today, and tomorrow when we
start out we can talk about other projects. More about the space telescope
efforts that you did at Goddard.