NASA Headquarters Oral
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Sandra Johnson
Merritt Island, Florida – 14 July 2011
is July 14, 2011. This interview is being conducted with Alan Lovelace
in Merritt Island, Florida, for the NASA Headquarters Oral History
Project. The interviewer is Sandra Johnson, assisted by Rebecca Wright.
I want to thank you for joining us today and agreeing to talk with
us. I want to talk about the beginning of your career and your interest
in chemistry and how that led you to your work with the Air Force.
I guess my interest in chemistry started in high school. Shows you
the impact of what one good teacher can do in terms of careers. When
I went to the University of Florida [Gainesville, Florida], I studied
chemistry, and took my three degrees from Florida, my bachelor’s,
master’s, and Ph.D. in chemistry. I went to work for DuPont
in Kinston, North Carolina at the Textile Fibers Department.
I was in an Air Force ROTC [Reserve Officers Training Corps] when
I was going through college, and I was commissioned as a second lieutenant,
and I got called to active duty from DuPont in—I think it would
be 1954—and assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio
and assigned to the Materials Laboratory, which had a Polymer Branch,
where I spent a good deal of time. This is during what was then known
as the Korean Conflict, later turned into the Korean War, and I served
my two years.
In the course of my Air Force career, which I will try to truncate
in the interest of interest, I was eventually the Director of the
Materials Laboratory and then moved from there to Systems Command
to be head of all the laboratories for the command, and from there
to the Pentagon [Arlington, Virginia] as Deputy Assistant Secretary
for the Air Force for R&D [Research and Development]. Then from
there I went to NASA as the Technology Associate Administrator for
OAST, [Office of] Aeronautics and Space Technology, and from there
to Deputy Administrator of NASA. That sort of encapsulates my career
up to that point.
you were in the Air Force, I know one of the things you were working
on early on, lightweight composites and how those could be used, and
there was some discussion on early concepts of reusable winged vehicles
for space in the Air Force. Did you have any involvement in that?
To come back to that question, obviously materials are a primary technology
for most applications, and so much of the technology that was developed
through the Air Force programs got used in Air Force vehicles as well
as in some of NASA’s vehicles, including the [Space] Shuttle.
But we were not involved in the direct design of the vehicles or their
testing. We were rather, I guess you’d say, consultants about
the choice of materials.
you remember any of those discussions about the Manned Orbiting Lab
with the Air Force or talking about any of that at the beginning?
No, I really don’t. Nothing comes to mind in the specific that
would be, I think, of interest and use.
talk about when you moved to the Associate Administrator position
with NASA in 1974 in the Office of Aeronautics and Space Technology.
If you can, just talk about that position and what that involved and
some of the things you were working on at that point.
The Deputy Administrator was in charge of, if you will, managing through
the Centers, not directly out of NASA Headquarters [Washington, DC],
but through the Centers the science and technology programs of the
agency, which were in various technologies, not just in materials
but in propulsion, avionics and other technologies. That was the responsibility
of that Deputy Administrator to manage that spectrum of activities
called science and technology.
you have a lot of interface with the other Centers? You managed all
the Centers. Did you visit those Centers?
Oh, yes, sure, a lot. Johnson Space Center [JSC, Houston, Texas] was
never considered to be at that time a research and technology center.
Those Centers were principally Langley [Research Center, Hampton,
Virginia] and Lewis [Research Center, now Glenn Research Center, Cleveland,
Ohio]. It was [Glenn]. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory [Pasadena, California],
which was, of course, under contract to NASA, and Ames [Research Center,
Moffett Field, California] were nominally the research and technology
Centers. By saying that, they were the ones who spent most of the
monies that have been allocated to the science and technology program.
Not that there wasn’t a lot of technology being developed at
the other Centers, but if you want to make the fine distinction between
more fundamental and applied, the work at Marshall [Space Flight Center,
Huntsville, Alabama] and at JSC was much more applied technology.
that time period there was also those early discussions in the Space
Shuttle Program. Apollo had ended and the Space Shuttle Program was
being discussed as far as the design and the development. Since part
of your job was the advances that were required for this aircraft
and for space travel, what are your memories of those early days during
that time period, when you were in that position, of the Shuttle development?
When I was in the Materials Laboratory, we worked very closely with,
I remember, Marshall Space Flight Center, and Bill [William R.] Lucas.
In fact, Bill was a chemist too. He was a materials technologist,
so we used to work fairly close together. Particularly we were interested
in and promoting advanced composite technology, which eventually has
found a lot of applications in aircraft and space programs. So there
was that cross-talk.
As you well know, there are various societies, AIAA [American Institute
of Aeronautics and Astronautics] being one that I know you’re
familiar with or have heard of, and there are other such professional
societies which causes people to come together and exchange ideas
and communicate progress. Just as a parenthetical observation, it’s
one of their major strengths of the United States versus Europe, which
the Europeans have in the past—they’re better today—but
they have in the past been very insular in their individual countries
and not a lot of cross-talk, which I think tends to slow down their
development activities. The United States is a much more open society
both technically and socially, I guess, and that works, I think, to
the advantage of the developments that are taking place in the United
you decided to leave the Air Force in ’74 and take this position,
what led to that decision and how did you make that move?
Well, probably two things. One, I found as one moves up in the government,
as you know, things become less technical and more political, and
I found the position in the Pentagon to be more political than I enjoyed.
I enjoyed the science and technology aspects much more so. So it seemed
like an opportunity for me to move backwards, back into areas I was
much more familiar with and enjoyed, and I think you do the best jobs
in the ones you enjoy doing.
I’m not sure I want to see this in an open record, but my then
wife wasn’t terribly—she never got totally comfortable
with my being in the Air Force. She was never totally comfortable
with that. She was much more comfortable contemplating NASA, which,
as you know, portrayed much more of a civil and an open environment.
I guess that was a contributing factor for me to make that decision,
so I ended up moving over to NASA to the Associate Administrator’s
that position allow you to enjoy your job more than you had? Was it
what you thought it was going to be?
Oh, yes, and it interfaced with a bunch of bright technical people
and much more at a technology and a technical level. Not that there
aren’t politics involved. By politics, I mean you have to defend
budgets; you have to get your funding from Congress. That takes some
level of political astuteness to do that. But there was a lot more
content, technical content to the position at NASA than there was
in the position I left in the Air Force.
you involved in trying to get the funding for your area?
Yes. You are the person who’s responsible for every year designing
the program or redesigning it or redirecting it, depending on what
the requirements are, of laying out the funding requirements for it
and defending it within NASA proper, which is to say with the Administrator
of NASA and with the other Associate Administrators who were doing
the same thing for their areas. Out of that comes finally the budget
for the agency, for NASA as an agency, up to being called up to Congress
maybe when there were questions about your particular area. So there’s
a good deal of political activity. You had to be reasonably politically
astute, but I think the work in the Deputy Administrator’s position
had a much higher technical content, and for that reason for me was
a fun time.
Administrator at the time was James [C.] Fletcher.
was your relationship like with him?
It was good. He’s since passed away, of course, but he was one
of the people that I really had a great deal of respect for. I’ll
tell you a vignette. I was a representative to the NATO [North Atlantic
Treaty Organization] AGARD Committee. AGARD is the Advisory Group
for [Aerospace] Research and Development for NATO. I happened to be
in a meeting in London [England] when Jim Fletcher called, and he
said, “Just called to let you know that George [M.] Low is leaving
the agency. He’s going up to be president of Rensselaer Polytech
[Institute, Troy, New York], and I want you, if you would, to think
about who might be a replacement for him, and when you get back, we’ll
talk about it.”
So I made a list of potential candidates, and I got back and sat down
with Jim. He said “Well, you’ve got a good list there,
except for one name.”
I said, “Who’s that?”
He said, “Yours. You don’t have your name on the list.”
I said, “Well, I’m not promoting myself. I think these
people are fully capable.”
Long story short, he said, “I want you to consider taking that
position,” and that’s how I moved from Assistant Administrator
to Deputy Administrator, which is one of the two, as you know, political
appointments in the agency that are in the so-called Plum Book [United
States Government Policy and Supporting Positions], which has, or
used to have, I don’t know, 1,600 or so names in it. These are
the positions that any new administration coming in can appoint and
in some respects pay off some of their political baggage by appointing
people to these various positions. That requires a [US] Senate confirmation.
You’ve got to go through all that sheep dip. And that’s
how I ended up as Deputy Administrator under Jim Fletcher, who I found,
as I say, to be just a great guy to work with and work for.
you talk about that Senate confirmation for a minute?
It was pretty much a love-in. At least that’s my perception
of it. Things have changed quite a little bit, I think, in relationship
between NASA and Congress in recent years. It used to be much more
of a—not a love-in, but much more of a healthy relationship.
I think Jim Fletcher carried a lot of weight with the committees,
and they were hardly, I think, going to face him down against an appointment
that he wanted. The committees were very easy to work with, and I
think a lot of that’s been lost in recent years, months. But
it was good then and it went fairly smoothly, and I don’t remember
them asking any embarrassing questions about my life, so it went right
you took that position. Can you talk about those first few months
before Jim Fletcher left and before that period, and what you were
working on? Again, there were talks, I know, during that time period
with the Air Force and between NASA and the Air Force and the development
of the Shuttle.
Sure. Well, for me, there was a bit of a steep learning curve, you
can imagine. There’s a lot I had to catch up with in that new
position. Of course, the Shuttle Program was moving along at that
stage. The Secretary of the Air Force, Hans [M.] Mark, and I were,
I guess you’d say, friends and certainly professional colleagues.
He had been the Administrator of Ames for a while.
I knew Hans’ father before I knew Hans, because Herman [F.]
Mark, his father, was a consultant to DuPont, and I had met him when
I was with DuPont. So it’s a small world when you get right
down to it. Hans was Secretary of the Air Force, and so Hans and I
worked together to make sure that the Shuttle could accommodate Air
Force payloads and vice versa through that period, and that was, I
think, a useful environment and a busy one.
1977 after Fletcher left, you became the Acting Administrator for
a little over a month. Do you have any memories during that time of
anything significant that happened?
Well, let’s see. Yes. As you know, political appointees, as
I mentioned earlier, the one thing you do with a change of administration
is everybody is supposed to submit their resignation and it’s
signed but undated, and it’s to allow the incoming administration
to say, “Well, we appreciate your services, but we want to replace
you with somebody.” So we all went through that, and they appointed—and
Jim Fletcher was a pretty dyed-in-the-wool Republican, and when it
was clear which way the election had gone, he was out of there. He
didn’t stay around long. So I just sort of hung in there, trying
to hold things together until the new administration selected Bob
[Robert A.] Frosch. Bob came in.
That transition went fairly smoothly, and Bob Frosch and I sat down.
I said, “Bob, I serve at your pleasure, and there’s no
wrong answer. If you want to, and I could perfectly understand, bring
in somebody, I’m going to exit stage left and there’ll
be no problem.”
He said, “No, I want you to stay on, and I want you to worry
about Mr. Inside. You worry about the programs, and I’ll worry
about Mr. Outside and the Congress and the administration.”
So that was, if you will, nominally a division of responsibilities
between Bob Frosch and I. Bob was a very easy chap to work with and
very intelligent, in my perception, and so we got off to a very good
you were happy with that decision to worry about the inside and not
have to worry about the more political side of the job?
Yes. The inside at that time was a lot of the technology stuff, but
also the Shuttle Program was coming along, and it was not too long
after that that I used to have to go over with Jim Fletcher with Bob
Frosch and testify before Congress. They always want to know, “When
are we going to launch the Shuttle?”
“Well, soon. Don’t worry. We will. It’ll happen,”
blah, blah, blah, blah. So it got old, you know. You can only do that
a certain number of times and your credibility is seriously in question,
So I called the Center Directors, and I said, “Look. We’re
going to have a meeting, and I want you to bring an extra white shirt,
because we’re going to stay here until we can pick and commit
to a launch date, because I can’t keep going over to Congress
and seeking support unless we’ve got a plan.”
To their credit, Chris [Christopher C. Kraft, Jr.] and Bill Lucas
and the whole crowd came in together and spent probably three days.
I said, “Let me tell you how to think about this. You’ve
got to think about ham and eggs. The chicken is involved with the
egg, but the pig was committed to the ham. And we have to be committed
to a launch date. We’re involved, there’s no question
we’re all involved, but are we committed?” So I said,
“You guys hash on it, hash it out. Let’s pick a date,”
and they did. In fact, picked the date in 1981, April of ’81,
nearly two years before the first launch, and made it happen, not
my credit but to their credit. We would have made the exact date,
but we got two-day delay because we had a computer software glitch.
There was a problem with the computers handing off on the Shuttle.
Guys out of Johnson ran the simulator day and night there for about
two days and figured out what was wrong, and it was a relatively easy
software fix, and so we went on to the launch, as you know well. That
was really the beginning of the Ham and Eggs Society. It says something,
too, I think to the need and desirability to set a goal, and then,
of course, set out to achieve that goal.
The thing I’m not too happy about the agency right now is I
don’t know what their goal is, and I think without setting one,
unless it’s to put the agency out of business, which could be
a goal, I guess. Even [President John F.] Kennedy set a goal of landing
on the Moon, and I think that had a great stimulating influence on
the agency’s ability to bring together the correct technologies
and hammer out the Apollo Program. So we need to do the same thing
today with the NASA Program, but that’s another issue.
So the Ham and Eggs Society set the date and would have made it except
for that little software glitch, and we went on from there. It was
a lot of fun adventures doing all that.
that time and before the launch, and again the Air Force and NASA
were in discussions about one of the things that the Air Force wanted,
which was assured access to space so that in the interest of national
security they would have the ability to bump payloads if they needed
to get something into space. Can you talk about some of those negotiations
with Hans Mark?
Let’s see. This is where you have to be very careful about,
I think, what we actually publish, because it is always a win-lose
sort of thing, and I don’t want the Air Force to think or take
the wrong conclusion, but understand that the Air Force, and I guess
I should say not just the Air Force, but the Army and Navy, they send
their officers to school, to Command and Staff School. They’re
supposed to command something. And it’s very difficult, I think,
for them to not be in charge of running the Shuttle and commanding
There was a lot of discussions involving Hans and DDR&E [Department
of Defense Research and Engineering]. Anyway, there was a lot of discussions
about the importance of the missions that they had, and it was pretty
much agreed if we were in a national crisis basis, that they would
have priority and be allowed to, if you will, preempt other launches
that were in a sequence. And that never was a problem. Well, it still
isn’t. I don’t think it’s a problem.
the Air Force was going to be building facilities in California.
Did. Put a lot of money into it, and Hans was in charge of that part
of it, and they put a lot of money into it. Of course, later on, this
unraveled, as you are aware, and there never was a launch out of the
West Coast facility, which I don’t know whether that’s
good or bad, but it’s a fact.
I’d have to say Hans played a very important and pivotal role
in keeping the Air Force onboard during these early and tough times,
because they had to spend a lot of their monies, appropriations, to
build a launch complex out on the West Coast, and they had to do some
alteration of some of their payloads to accommodate to the payload-bay
dimensions. I’m trying to remember, but I don’t remember
that weight requirements were so significant as they were concerned
about the actual physical width and length of the payloads that had
to go into the payload bay. And again, Hans was very instrumental
in bringing that along.
[President] Jimmy [James E.] Carter, his administration came in—and
you mentioned it a little bit in some of the changes that were happening—one
of the things he said in ’78 was, “Our space policy will
become more evolutionary rather than centering around a single massive
engineering feat,” and at one point he even considered terminating
the Space Shuttle Program in ’79 and, because of national security
reasons decided not to, and he approved four Shuttles instead of the
five that NASA wanted. Do you have any thoughts on that period?
I never really felt that Jimmy Carter was totally committed to the
space program, as reflected in some of the statements that he made
and policy statements that he made, but I have to say that in the
final analysis it came out all right, and part of it was that it was
not just a NASA program, but it was a US program involving Department
of Defense and NASA, and some of the activities that had preceded
that, which we mentioned earlier about sizing payloads. Many of those
payloads were sensitive payloads involved in the reconnaissance arena.
Just leave it at that. I think that had a tendency to cause the Carter
administration to not push totally to cancel the program.
I think toward the end of his administration, Jimmy Carter got to
be more supportive, having come down to KSC [Kennedy Space Center,
Florida] down here and elsewhere, I think, and seeing what was going
on, I think he became much more supportive of the program.
Transition from his administration into the [President Ronald W.]
Reagan administration was kind of interesting. The incoming administration
usually puts together a transition team in various areas, like NASA
and the Department of Defense, the State Department, who works with
those agencies to transition into a new administration. I got the
pleasure of meeting some very intelligent, bright guys who were the
transition team members for Ronald Reagan, and they came over and
drank all my coffee, and sat around. I finally had to say, “Look.
I’m fairly busy. We’re trying to get the Shuttle Program
focused on a first launch, and I don’t mind meeting with you.
You’re very nice folks, but we’ve got to stop meeting
I had to tell them that we were getting ready to launch in six months.
This was obviously pretty close to the target date we had to launch,
and we were fairly busy. And I said, “You go back and talk to
your betters, whoever they may be. You’re in a win-win situation.
You can ask me to leave, no problem, and you guys can launch. I think
it’ll be successful, and you can take credit for it. You can
say, ‘You can see what the Republicans did, and we did it all
in four months.’ If it’s a failure, you can say, ‘See
what we did? We threw out those guys who caused that failure.’
So it’s win-win for you. But you’ve got to decide who
you want in here and then let’s quit talking about transition
and let’s get on with the launch. I plan to leave after the
first launch, so you don’t have to fire me or anything. You’ve
got my resignation in hand.”
They went away and came back and said, “Oh, it’s all right.
Stay. Hang in there.” Because Bob Frosch had left, too, as soon
as elections were clear that Ronald Reagan was in, and he went back
up to Massachusetts, and I was sort of the Acting Administrator and
the Deputy Administrator for about six months there until about six
months after the first launch, which was, as you know, reasonably
this is the second time you were Acting Administrator during that
time, was there any differentiation as far as what you were allowed
to do as Acting compared to what the actual Administrator was allowed
to do? Did you have the same ability to make things happen?
Yes. I don’t think there were any constraints on them. Let’s
say the Reagan administration was acutely interested, as they should
have been, in the launch, first launch. So you had to set up a communication
channel without calling the President every half an hour and saying,
“Well, we’re on track,” or, “We’re off
track” or whatever, which Bob Frosch would have normally done
if he were there, because he had the outside contact pattern. I had
to pick that up, which was not difficult but necessary, to know who
Reagan’s office or administration wanted to have advised of
the status of the Shuttle launch, and we did that and it worked out
all right. I felt no impediments to getting the job done.
were, as you mentioned earlier, a number of delays before that launch
date was set, as far as technical problems, cost overruns. Can you
talk about some of those discussions about the cost?
Well, it sounds easy, but it is not easy to estimate the cost of an
R&D project, and particularly a development as advanced as the
Shuttle Program was and is.
I’ll give you one example. I went out to Marshall. At some point
we decided we had to run the Shuttle main engines up to 104 percent
to achieve the initial orbital velocity or escape velocity, I guess
it is, and so I went out to Marshall one time for one of the first
tests of the engines, the 104 percent engines. J.R. [James R.] Thompson,
who was the manager for that part of the program, and I were hunkered
down in the bunker there, and they started it up and it blew up, just
tremendous explosion. I thought, “Well, there goes the launch
We walked out in this big flame trench out there. It was scattered
with hardware all over the place from the engines. J.R. and I walked
out there, and he reached down and picked up a piece of hardware and
looked at it, and he said, “Well, there’s the problem.”
He said, “That valve was clocked wrong.” I thought, “That’s
the fastest failure analysis I’d ever been involved in.”
I think he was right.
I think we went on to a series of tests after that, successful ones,
one after another. Even today I always worry a little bit when they
say, “Throttle up,” on the Shuttle launch, but it went
The other vignette of—I came to KSC working on the thermal protection
system, and I don’t know how many thousand tiles. I used to
know. Each one’s unique in its geometry. I came down there and
they had cornered the market on three-by-five cards. They had a card
for every tile. I said, “This is kind of embarrassing.”
They said, “What’s embarrassing?”
I said, “Here we are, high technology. Why don’t we get
a computer and put this all on a computer?”
“Oh, yeah, there’s a good idea.”
So I came back some months later, and I said, “Come on. We want
to show you what we call Al’s Dial-A-Tile.” You get in
there, you could dial up a tile, and it would tell you the history
of it, because you had to keep track. A lot of them were repaired
and reworked and whatnot. So that was Al’s Dial-A-Tile.
Those were probably two of the leading technologies for Shuttle. Interestingly
enough, we never really thought that the solid strap-ons were of much
concern at all, and, of course, we had an unfortunate failure later
on. But, not because it wasn’t engineered right, because I think
we violated our own ground rules for launch in terms of temperature
requirements, so it bit us. But the solid strap-ons were never considered
to be a major worry. Shuttle main engines, thermal protection system,
So that gives you some idea of the things that were going on leading
up to the first launch.
you visit most of the Centers in the areas that were working on the
Shuttle during that time period?
Oh, yes. Johnson and Marshall were two, KSC, of course, where the
launch complex is, the three Centers that were really the major contributors,
not that the other Centers were not in support. Even Langley was supporting
the thermal protection assessments, but the three major technology
Centers would have been Johnson, Marshall, and KSC.
I visited so much down here, I finally ended up buying a condominium
because I was tired of hotels, it gets old.
was the atmosphere like at these Centers when you visited them, as
far as people working toward this goal of getting this launch in ’81?
I think it was outstanding, and I think they demonstrated it by actually
delivering. All the astronaut training, of course, was done at Johnson.
You never can take an event like the first launch of something as
advanced as the Shuttle was and reduce the risk to zero, there’s
just no way you can do that. We just don’t have the test equipment
here on Earth to do the testing that will assure you absolutely that
your thermal protection system is going to work. So you work the best
you know how, and you keep reducing the risk and reduce the risk until
it’s, if you will, acceptable risk. Well, acceptable to whom?
To me, it had to be acceptable to [John W.] Young and [Robert L.]
Crippen, who were the astronauts to take the first ride on the Shuttle.
They had an open invitation to attend any of the technical sessions,
so that they could develop their own sense of confidence or lack of
confidence by listening to the “experts” discuss what
they knew and what they didn’t know.
I think that was very helpful and has led me to really believe that—let
me say that I love all the astronauts, but I have a short list of
hero astronauts, and John Young and Bob Crippen are on that short
list. There are some Apollo astronauts that are on it, too, because
they took a lot of risk and I think disported themselves with great
grace and dignity, to say nothing of success. So they go down in my
book as, well, hero astronauts. Not that there aren’t a lot
of astronauts. I guess there’s a lot of them now wondering what
they’re going to do with the rest of their lives, but they’re
all bright, capable people.
was the first time that America had launched a test vehicle with astronauts
Yes. Even the first launch of John [H.] Glenn, who was on an Atlas
[rocket], the Atlas had been flown and flown and flown, and I’ve
a plaque in here that’s the 500th launch of an Atlas. There
was a long history of launching Atlases. A lot of it was in the ICBM
[Intercontinental Ballistic Missile] era, but then later on it was
as a launch vehicle for payloads in space. But this is really a lot
of unknown in the Shuttle Program.
There was a big data package onboard the first launch, collecting
data, which ultimately led to—because today’s launch and
the one that was launched last Friday wasn’t your father’s
Oldsmobile, you know. It was quite a different vehicle, a lot of improvements
have been made, and lessons learned and data collected, which we didn’t
have for the first launch. We got a lot of background data, and that’s,
of course, how progress gets made.
Columbia orbiter was rolled out in Palmdale [California] in March
of ’79. Did you see it then?
No, I didn’t. I didn’t see it till it was down at KSC
down here, and they didn’t even have the Orbiter [Processing
Facility] built. That came later in the program. They had the dual
prep building when I saw it. I guess it was in the Vertical Assembly
Building the first time I saw it, and, of course, it looked new. Now
they’re a little ragged around the edge, showing a little wear
and tear, which is good.
did you think the first time you saw it?
Well, I was a little scared. I guess I have to say it was from that
that I developed such a great respect for John Young and Bob Crippen,
because I’d been up the tower out there and I’ve crossed
over and into the cockpit of the Orbiter, and just sitting on top
of that thing is a sobering thought, and yet they did it with what
I call cool precision.
some of those negotiations, and with Congress, you said they kept
wanting a date, wanting a date, and I’m sure the cost was an
issue too. Were you able to convey some of those feelings that you
had to them during those negotiations?
Yes, I think so, and I think I have to say the Congress was still
very supportive, and as it became clear, particularly after first
launch, that we had a success on our hands, albeit we had a lot of
improvements that could be made, I think the Congress was very supportive.
I sense—and I’m not obviously in Washington doing it today—but
I sense that we’ve lost some of that confidence that Congress
always felt about NASA. When they came over and said something to
them, they just took it at face value and there was never—there
seems to be a lot of dancing around today about, “Well, what
are you going to do?” “Well, I can’t tell you today,
but maybe tomorrow. I don’t know.”
“That is not confidence-building, so I think we’ll pass.”
But what will be afterwards, I’m not sure. We’ll have
to find out.
The Congress was good, was really very supportive, and we had massive
overruns. You just don’t bring a program off like that and make
a prediction eight, nine years in advance what the total cost is going
to be. You can’t predict what the problems are going to be very
well, much less what it’s going to cost to fix them. So it went
well. I think it was a good investment on the part of the country.
Something that I was struck by this last launch [STS-135], the number
of people who came out and why. Why do they come out? It’s a
fair question. Oh, yes, it’s a launch, but we’ve had 135
launches. I think there’s a bit of national pride wrapped around
this, which I think we will have to replace with something, and I
don’t know what that is. But we’re going to have to replace
it with something, and I think the country needs to feel like they’re
living in a first-rate country with high technology and that sets
tough goals and meets them. Maybe that will happen.
you think NASA has some responsibility as far as the public perception?
Of course, we have Public Affairs [Office] that takes care of that.
Do you think that during that time of the Shuttle buildup that we
were able to get the rest of the country behind it?
I don’t know what NASA does today, but I know what we did. I
don’t know quite how to express it, but I don’t think
I ever felt like that program was my program, but it was the country’s
program, and they needed to know as much as we had time to share with
them about the program. Most of us, I know Jim Fletcher and Bob Frosch
and I, and George Low before that, used to spend a lot of time talking
to various groups around the country, from schoolchildren to business
groups to whatever, about NASA and about the program and where it
stands, so they felt some ownership. I’m not sure what we feel
today. We don’t know what there is to own. What is there to
own? Well, heavy-lift launch vehicle. Yeah. What is that? Who knows?
I don’t know. I’m a little bit at sea at the moment, as
I think a lot of people are, about what we can pin our hat on for
the next generation. We’ll see.
that launch, they had the approach and landing tests out at Edwards.
you see any of those, or what are your memories of that?
Oh, yes. Well, it’s an interesting—see, you’re talking
to a technocrat, so the things that might interest me, you’d
say, “Oh, come on.”
we want to hear what interests you.
Well, it was interesting to me to find out. As you know, we did the
drop test from the 747, and it was always interesting to me that the
Shuttle Orbiter actually dropped the 747, because the Shuttle Orbiter
generated so much lift that as they powered back the 747, the 747
dropped. I thought that maybe that vehicle will fly back, and, of
course, they flew it back several times onto Edwards [Air Force Base,
California]. It was an interesting thing.
I remember after the first launch down here, Susie Young, John’s
wife, was obviously concerned about the event upcoming, and we commiserated
some about it. After the launch and the landing, they were getting
ready to land out at Edwards, and I flew out to Edwards for the landing.
I remember walking out on the hard stand above one of the hangars
there, and I hear this voice saying, “Al! Al!” And there’s
Susie Young. Oh, she was so happy that they had landed safely. They
hadn’t even gotten out of the Orbiter yet, because they were
hooking up the cooling towers. But she was so happy, and I can remember
I went from there back to Johnson, where the crew went back there,
and we had rented a plane. Turns out it was John Denver’s [singer/song
writer] plane. John was a great space supporter, as I’m sure
you know. We got onboard, Kathie and I, my wife then, and there’s
this bucket of ice with a bottle of champagne in it that says, “From
John. Congratulations.” So it turned out well.
I stayed on with the agency until July . I went overseas with
John and Susie and Bob Crippen went over, I think, with his wife.
We visited some different countries and people who wanted to meet
an astronaut, so we went to Spain, for example. But that was all sort
of powering down and my trying to exit stage left. Jim came in to
replace me, or replace Frosch, actually.
[James M.] Beggs.
Jim Beggs. Jim was in General Dynamics. Jim had a position at General
Dynamics, and I joined General Dynamics after he left as Vice President
for Science and Technology and went on out to set up the Space Systems
Division in San Diego [California] and to commercialize the Atlas
as a launch vehicle, which it still is being used as such. So, small
world, small community. That’s pretty much the life story of
about the launch real quick for STS-1. In Hans Mark’s book,
he quoted you as saying, “We’re number one again,”
when the launch went off.
you talk about that day?
Well, you get carried away. You know how it is. But let me tell you,
it doesn’t matter how much you know, but when, as you’ve
seen these launches, you know, it goes up and then it translates,
turns, so that the Orbiter is really underneath and the external tanks
up top. I thought when that thing started to rotate, I forgot it was
supposed to do that, and I thought, “Oh, my god, what’s
it doing?” Then I thought, “Oh, that’s right. It’s
supposed to do that.”
It was a good time and I really felt most proud of all the people,
and I mean not just the NASA people, because there were an awful lot
of industry people that contributed in many, many ways, but I was
really proud for them. I had a few thoughts about what if it fails.
I’m not a pessimist, but you have to think about how will you
disport yourself if, in fact, it turns out not to be a success or
successful as you might hope it would be. But that was all a waste
of time. Somebody said, “Every bit of worrying is a waste of
imagination.” So I wasted some imagination, I guess, worrying
about that, but, fortunately, I didn’t have to.
was a good moment, I’m sure, watching that first one go off.
Oh, yes, it really was. We’d gone a long time without any major
successes in the space program, although some of the science activities
had gone on. I remember the Viking Landers, which I found to be very,
very interesting, but aren’t quite the eye-catcher that flying
people in space is. There’s no question that you need to put
people there to really get the attention of the public, certainly.
of the things that I wanted to talk about before we got off of that
time period was in July of ’79, we were talking about people’s
perceptions of NASA, and Skylab reentered the Earth’s atmosphere.
was some worry and fear going around. Do you have any memories of
that period and any stories about that time period and that experience?
I kind of got tagged with worrying about what we do about Skylab.
We looked at all the options. There were really three major options.
One of them is don’t do anything. The other one is boost it
up into higher orbit. The other was boost it down into the ocean.
After much discussion, we decided to leave it alone, and principally
because we didn’t have a way to really boost it up with any
accuracy, nor were we very confident about boosting it down. I thought
if we boosted that thing down into the Orange Bowl when the game was
on, there would be no tomorrow. So we decided we’d just let
Mother Nature take its course, and, as you know, it did impact in
the western Pacific in the western part of Australia, scattered some
hardware in there, but nobody was hurt, so I thought, “Home
Then shortly thereafter, I get this call from the Australian Embassy.
Their science and technology guy was going to be in town, and he wondered
if he could meet with me. I thought, “Uh-oh. Now I’m going
to hear about that Skylab.” So I said, “I’ll be
I went over there, and a very nice chap. He said, “Say, old
chap, you wouldn’t have another one of those you could drop
on us, do you?”
I thought, “This guy—.”
He said, “You can’t imagine how much that’s improved
tourism in Western Australia. Everybody out there who got a few pieces
of hardware set up a museum and charged money for people to come in
and look at the pieces.”
In fact, we had set out to collect all this and bring it back to the
United States, because legally, I guess, we had the right to do that,
but we stopped doing it. It turned out not to be politically astute,
because these people were really—it was a cottage industry.
There were several museums set up over there.
I told that chap, I said, “I don’t have another one, and
if I did, I wouldn’t want to be worried about it again. I’ve
lost enough sleep over this one.”
But it’s what it was, and it was interesting, too, that we had
to make sure we had a communication system around the world, because
we didn’t know where it was going to come in. I learned something
in that process, and that is that the civil aviation authorities have
the best worldwide communication system that I know of, better than
NASA has. We talked with the chaps over there, and they were reluctant,
but they agreed that we could in fact use their system to make sure
we could communicate back, depending on wherever it went, because
there’s always a commercial airport closer, and they’re
all very well linked up. I don’t know why I never thought about
that before, but it sort of was news to me. It worked well. But no
more Skylabs, please.
your time there—and we were just looking at the photo—you
won some awards. One of them was the Citizens Medal.
There’s a Presidential Citizens Medal, which I accepted on behalf
of about 35,000 other people that made me look good, and that was
just before I departed. It was during the Reagan administration. Jim
Fletcher was, I think, instrumental in causing that to happen. I mean,
here he was, a Republican, and of course now he’s got a Republican
President in there, and he said, “You’d better do the
Those were the days, too, when I think NASA’s general image
was much better than it is today. I say that not because the Centers
and the people in the Centers are less qualified; it’s the perception.
Was it Marshall McLuhan who said, “Perception is reality”?
In your business, you know that to be true. It’s what people
perceive to be the case that generally turns out to be the case. Unfortunately,
I think there’s a perception that NASA is not what it used to
be, which is a little sad, for me, anyway. I guess that will change.
I hope it changes for the better. NASA has to worry that every institution
ages, just like people age, and some of the symptoms of aging are
they get hardening of the arteries, their communication is poor, they
get more lethargic, and they aren’t very light on their feet.
It’s very important to move forward and to change with the times.
Religions have this problem in spades, because some of them, like
the Catholic religion, has been around for so long and so steeped
in tradition, and yet even they have to work a little bit to change,
to try to stay in tune with the popular beliefs that are reflected
in their constituency. I think NASA has the same problem, and one
hopes that that will happen again, but NASA’s older now and
so it’s very important that NASA pay attention to that, and
I guess [current NASA Administrator] Charlie [Charles F.] Bolden will
hopefully do that.
the time when you were an Administrator or Deputy Administrator, they
were choosing the new group of astronauts that were going to be Shuttle
was the first time minorities and women were included in that.
you remember any of the decision-making that led to that?
Sure, sure. I remember Bob Frosch and I discussed what I felt the
need to start including. Minorities were always a challenge, and it
was a matter of you couldn’t find enough minorities that had
had the advantages of college educations. That’s less true today
than it was thirty years ago. But women was a purely prejudicial thing,
and so we decided, “We’re going to open up the astronaut
corps. We’re going to get women in.”
We were out for a meeting in Los Angeles [California]. It doesn’t
matter what group it was, but Bob Frosch and I were out there, and
we asked Chris Kraft to meet with us. Bob said, “You tell him.
You tell him,” because Chris, to be honest with you, he did
not think that women had the capability to really execute the things
that were needed in an astronaut, a good astronaut.
We had a big discussion. Our wives were out there, and I think they
had their ear glued to the door in the other bedroom, listening. We
discussed it, and I finally had to say to Chris, “We’ve
kicked this around and we’ve made a decision, and the decision
is that we’ve got to start including females in the astronaut
Well, to Chris’ ever-loving benefit, he said, “Aye, aye.”
I mean, that’s just the kind of guy he is. He fought his case,
he knew the decision went against him, he didn’t quarrel with
that. He went back and instituted what has now brought—I don’t
know how many there are. I’ve lost track of how many astronauts
there are, but there’s a whole banana bunch of them. He went
back and executed the program. He earnestly believed that it was asking
too much of a female to do some of the things that the male astronauts
had to do, but when he knew the decision had been taken, he saluted
and he went off and I think did a good job on it.
Unfortunately, things, after Jim Beggs took over, seemed to get more
political. The decision process seemed to get less technical and more
political, and I mean we were flying schoolteachers. God bless the
one that got killed [Christa McAuliffe]. Senators. Bill Nelson from
Florida flew. What’s-his-name from Utah.
Jake Garn. I think Bill Nelson, when he found out how dangerous it
really was, was really, really upset that nobody had told him, and
I somewhat agree with him, and I do with the schoolteacher. Everybody
says, “Oh, well, NASA will take care of me. NASA can do anything.”
That was the kind of ethos, and, of course, that isn’t true.
You’ve got to stop believing and drinking your own bathwater,
as the saying goes.
It turns out, I think that was not the high point of the Shuttle Program,
frankly, certainly not when we killed that schoolteacher with all
her pupils watching it on television [STS 51-L, Challenger accident].
But what else? It’s easy hindsight. Easy, easy hindsight. I
know why they did it, but I tended to be more interested in the technical
aspects of it than the political aspects of sell the program.
that first group of astronauts, and of course the women that were
chosen, did you get a chance to meet some of them?
I was never part of that process. I met some of them later on, but
not in the selection process. I stayed out of that. I think JSC did
a good job in the astronaut selection, and the only changes that were
made were to try and include women in that and minorities. We weren’t
trying to exclude minorities; it was just harder to find them. There
were more capable women available than there were capable minorities.
But, no, I never dabbled in that process. If it worked, it ain’t
broke, don’t fix it, and it didn’t need fixing, except
needed to consider the gender problem, and Chris Kraft fixed that.
was going to see if Rebecca had any questions.
have a couple, and one I’m just going to piggyback on that one.
You’re looking at women in the astronaut corps. Was that also
down through the ranks of the agency, as far as promotion in some
of the levels?
I think it was, but as you probably know, and it’s hard to reflect
back on what things were really like thirty, forty years ago, but
there were fewer women in engineering schools. It’s not true
today. I know when I was going through school, I was always terrified
if there was one woman in a physical science class because I knew
we were in trouble. But they were really a minority, not gender minority,
but a minority in terms of trained engineers or flight test pilots
and this sort of thing, that so many of the astronauts had to their
credit to get selected. But that has changed, I think, dramatically
in the last ten, twenty years, and should have. Should have happened
earlier but didn’t. So there you go.
was going to ask you about your years, so many years in the Air Force
before you came to NASA. Then right about the time you came over to
NASA, we were closing out the Apollo Program, and we had the flight
with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.
was thinking about all the training that you had during that time
period in the Air Force, and what your thoughts were of the first
mission that you were somewhat involved in had to do with the Russians.
Well, it was the last Apollo mission, as you just observed, and it
was the only Apollo mission that I was personally involved with, and
I thought it had its unique challenges. Language. [Thomas P.] Stafford,
he was a unique astronaut in the sense that he learned enough Russian
that he could communicate with his cosmonaut colleagues, and I think
that it was a success. Well, it was a success, I guess, on two levels.
One, technically it was a success, obviously, but I think it was a
success as it related to international cooperation and ability to
work together, something that we’re going to have to learn to
do even better for some time now because we’ll be relying on
the Russian capability to access the [International] Space Station.
of Station, during those years that you were there and Shuttle took
up so much of people’s energy, were there a lot of discussions
of Station and how Station was going to work into that project as
There was some discussion. In fact, there was some discussion about
our having our own Space Station. One of the things that has always
intrigued people, they said, “You’re taking that external
tank up, right?”
“Then what do you do with it?”
“We throw it away.”
“Well, why don’t we keep them and hook them all together?
We’ll have a space station.”
Well, it says easy, does hard, as the saying goes. There was a lot
of discussion, and I think the thing, of course, that gets in the
way of international cooperation is nationalism and the feeling that,
“Well, we can do it better than you can do it.” But I
think we’ve made a lot of progress in that, and I think even
today with the fact that our astronauts ride the Russian vehicles
up to and back from the Space Station, but we may have to learn how
to do it even better because it is expensive business.
If there’s anything to convince you that the world is small,
and smaller today than it was then, just look at the economic conditions
around the world and how they affect our local economics. We’re
already worrying about if Greece is going to go bankrupt, and the
stock market goes down or the stock market goes up. So it is a small
world that we live in, and all that means to me is that we’re
going to have to learn to have more cooperation amongst countries
that have the wherewithal technically and financially to do some of
the things that need to or should be done. Certainly going to Mars,
that says easy, but that’s quite an undertaking.
had talked off and on about goals and attempting to achieve them.
You were also a participant, or a victim, of having to be part of
a number of presidential transitions. How does that impact the goals
or hinder the goals of what the agency may or may not want to do when
you have so many political or presidential administrations that have
It’s always a challenge when you go through a change in administration,
and I think they have gotten more challenging as time has gone on.
I think, frankly, that the transitions that I went through, notwithstanding
some of Jimmy Carter’s remarks, were really a piece of cake.
But [President] Barack Obama represents a challenge that I think we
have not calibrated, or I haven’t got it calibrated. You always
worry a little bit about what this means for the programs, the ongoing
programs, because there are no one-man, one-day jobs left worth doing.
There aren’t. The jobs that are left to be done require more
people and a longer time period and financing than one administration,
so the continuity is always of concern.
It ties back to my earlier comments about my anxiety about the perception
of NASA today. Principally, I think the political perception, which
seems to be getting a little more strident with—I read in the
paper that Congress wanted Bolden to explain to them what they were
going to do, and he said he can’t do it right now and brushed
it off. So I don’t know. It’s nervous-making.
think at some point you’d mentioned that sometimes we believe
that NASA is not what it used to be. When you were so involved during
those days, what did you believe NASA was and what NASA could be?
I think NASA was one of the institutions in the United States, not
the only one, but a major institution in promoting technology and
technology growth. In fact, it’s almost a little embarrassing,
I think, sometimes, and I’m not quarreling with you folks who
are in the P.R. [public relations] business, about these are all the
spinoffs. In fact, we used to print a booklet—maybe they still
do—spinoffs of the NASA technology. Most of it was true. Some
of it was taking a little bit more credit for some things that were
going on and went on before NASA was even around. But, that really
was another way of promoting NASA and maintaining a positive image
of NASA, which I always had.
I know, as I mentioned earlier, my wife felt that it was quite different
to be in a position of responsibility with the Air Force than with
NASA. In truth, it wasn’t quite the difference that she thought,
but back to what Marshall McLuhan said, the perception for her was
the reality, and she was a lot happier if she could say I worked for
NASA and not for the Air Force. But everybody has an opinion and is
entitled to it, as a matter of fact.
have one other question, and hopefully you’ll tell us some good
stories. Would you give us some background of the Ham and Eggs Society?
We’ve heard people talk about it, and the group of men that
belong to that group are very closely bonded because you’ve
got such a long history together. So if you could give us some background,
because it’s such a brain trust when you start to see who all
I’m not going to tell any stories out of school, but Tom [Thomas
L.] Moser I give credit for setting up this last encounter here, and
also I should say Charlie Bolden supported the Ham and Eggs Society
group in terms of viewing the last launch. Many of them are not with
us. Walt [Walter C.] Williams is gone. I can’t recall the number
of people who have passed on. Certainly, give it another ten years;
they’ll probably all be gone except for a few of the young bucks
who will still be around. But, no, I don’t have any stories.
I’d better keep to myself about that.
the common thread with all of you?
I think we all set that date two years in advance and then set about
to make it happen at the lowest risk we could, and it was a lot of
work to be done at Marshall and at JSC and in the industry and down
at KSC. The facilities weren’t even complete down here to accommodate
the launch. So I think it’s almost unbelievable that viewing
the workload that was in front of this team of people, that they could
sit there two years in advance and set a date and then make it happen.
We had an unforeseen software glitch, which if we had shut down and
cranked up again would probably have gone away, but that’s not
the way NASA works. So we said, “We’re going to find out
why it shut down,” and the Johnson team, simulator team out
there did find out. I don’t know that that answers your question.
important was it for this group to have someone in your position to
be part of that decision? Because you had to support that date, Headquarters
had to say, “Yes, we’ll support that date,” because
as you mentioned, you had to go defend the program in front of Congress
to answer those questions. You bought into it just as much. You had
confidence in them.
they must have had confidence in you that you would support them.
So you put all those ham and eggs in one basket.
Make an omelet pretty quick, huh?
I would have to say that the fact that I accepted, because I left
the room and I said, “You guys hammer away on this thing, without
my being present, and then I’ll come back and we’ll talk
about the date.” I think the fact that I accepted that date
without saying, “Oh, well, did you consider this?” was
a display of confidence in this group, that there was no other better
way to demonstrate than to say, “Okay, you believe it, I believe
It certainly made congressional interface easier for me, but that
wasn’t entirely what I had in mind. It was a massive research
and development program that rolled on and on and on and on, and the
Congress said, “That’s wonderful, but when are we going
I think they had confidence in me, but they had confidence because
I had confidence in them, and they were just a bright group of people
who worked hard and came up with the right date, right answer.
was my last question. I just wanted to ask about your thoughts about
that brain trust of men.
Well, yes, and, you know, there wasn’t a woman in there, and
that’s a tragedy. Here I used to go around the country and I’d
say, “Look what we did. We put a man on the Moon and we brought
him back safely. Isn’t that wonderful?” Oh, everybody
clapped, clap, clap, clap, clap. I said, “Do you realize we
did that without 70 percent of the intellect of this country? We never
even used it. We didn’t use any females. Minorities weren’t
in the picture. So whatever you think that is, 70 percent or whatever,
that’s what we accomplished. Can you imagine what we could do
if we could get it all together?” I still believe that today.
I would think you two would appreciate it. We made some progress,
but it’s miniscule compared to where we were. We’ve got
a long way to go, and we’re going to see a female President
one of these days, maybe upcoming. I don’t know. We’ll
have to see.
So it is a case that we don’t use the whole intellectual capability
of the United States. We say, “Well, that’s a man’s
world.” That’s baloney. There’s other words for
that than baloney, but we’ll be polite.
there anything we haven’t talked about that you wanted to mention?
I think you’ve covered the ground pretty well. I probably have
said more than I should about my anxieties about the current administration,
but they’re real.
were in charge of a lot of the commercial launch services for General
the idea of going into space and using commercial for the future,
what do you think about that compared to what you were doing?
Well, I spent a lot of General Dynamics’ money, I guess, redoing
the launch complexes down here and getting the production back up
for the Atlas, and it got to the point where they developed a new
financial unit. It’s called the Lovelace Unit. It was 100 million
dollars. Well, we did put a lot of money into it, and but we couldn’t
convince NASA that they needed to have commercial launch services.
“No, we don’t need that. Air Force doesn’t need
it. We don’t need that.”
Our first launch was for the Italians. We got some overseas launches,
Japanese and Italian. Then we got some U.S. launches, a few U.S. launches
into it. It’s ironic to hear the Obama administration saying,
“We want a commercial launch service, and we’re going
to turn a lot of this over to the industry and they can make the investment.”
Where were they when I needed them?
all about timing, isn’t it?
It’s timing. That’s exactly right. Born thirty years too
soon. But having been in that business and knowing the costs associated
with doing it, I’m a little bit skeptical about how successful
they’ll be in convincing private-sector people to invest the
kinds of money that are going to have to be invested to do that. I
can’t ever think of his name now, but there’s a couple
of these digital millionaires around that are putting money in, but
even by their standards, this is going to be a long haul. I’m
not, by saying that, unhappy to see them attempt this. That’s
not the issue. It’s that I would be much happier if we had a
good marriage of a government-sponsored and industry-executed program.
I think that was the success of Apollo and was the success of the
Shuttle Program, and it’s really unreasonable to expect industry
to step up and shoulder that financial burden. We’ll see. I
think we’re making some progress, but as I say, they weren’t
around when I needed them.
there’s nothing else that you wanted to talk about, I want to
thank you for doing this today and talking to us.
I don’t think it’s of great value to you.
Don’t break your pick writing it all down. Okay?
right. Thank you.
Attachment: The Story
of the Ham and Eggs Society, by LeRoy Day