A Look Back at NASA

[Editor’s note: Last week, as the SpaceX Corporation’s Dragon vehicle approached and docked with the International Space Station, signalling a new era in humanity’s relationship with its home solar system, Considered Ravings sat down with one of the last remaining administrators of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in an attempt to summarize the past and welcome the future. While we didn’t exactly succeed in this perhaps heroic ambition, we did manage to cull some coherent statements from our subject. Here they are.]

 

CR:    We have with us today Balthazaar Hern, former First Assistant comptroller of NASA.

BH:    Good to be here.

CR:    May I call you B?

BH:    B? Sure, if it floats your boat.

CR:    Thanks. B, how long were you with NASA?

BH:    I came on board in January, 1973. Cernan, Schmidt and them had just splashed down, and there was a big hoohah cause they’d be the last ones on the Moon … [seems to almost nod off]

CR:    “big hoohah”?

BH:    Yeah. People fluttering up and down the halls, One guy all atwitter cause he “didn’t have Alan Shepard’s autograph yet”. That sort of thing.

CR:    Of course, being “all atwitter” in those days…

BH:    … a whole different thing than it is today, right. Next question.

CR:    Were you caught up in any of it? The frenzy, the dismay?

BH:    What dismay? We’d done everything there was to do on the Moon, hadn’t we?  Now we had a new mission. The Shuttle had to work, SpaceLab had to work, and the ISS was in the works already. These were mighty exciting times.

CR:   You don’t sound excited, talking about it.

BH:    Sure I do. This is me, excited.

CR:    What excited you the most about those days at NASA?

BH:    The devil-may-care way those engineers dealt with details.

CR:    Can you elaborate?

BH:    They threw all restraint to the winds. No detail was too small to obsess over. They would measure to exhaustion. I don’t mean them – I mean the hardware. You can only calibrate a screw socket so many thousands of times before it begins to change shape. The metal fatigues, and loses its crystalline structure. Or something. I’m an accountant. What do I know about nuts and bolts?

Of course, all that measurement took hours. I’d estimate we used over five hundred million man-hours measuring and re-measuring stuff that never changed shape until it had been handled more than Madonna’s nipples.

CR:    Being a bookkeeper, that sort of over-commitment to detail must have captivated you.

BH:    It was what I lived for.

CR:    Keeping one’s nose to that grindstone often leads to a lack of perspective. Did anyone feel certain objectives were lost by the wayside?

BH:    O, there were voices raised here and there. Some people submitted proposals to place robot rovers on the Moon, for example. They claimed it was more in keeping with our overall mission to open the solar system to human exploration. They were shot down, year after year. And, of course, nobody ever worked out a method of safely extricating astronauts from failing vehicles. That was a shame, I thought.

CR:    A … shame?

BH:    Yeah. A real shame.

[An uncomfortable pause]

BH:    Well, no one else figured out how to do it, either. The Russians certainly didn’t …

CR:    No the Russians decidedly did not work out how to save lives in great peril.

BH:    Neither has the airplane industry. And they’ve been in business almost eighty years. That’s twice as long as we had …

CR:    Yes. Moving on. B, now that NASA has be re-imagined as a research think tank, with no real property or hardware development, how do you define your role?

BH:    That part is still in flux. I’m still finding my way in this new environment.

CR:    So you might say that you’re looking for work.

BH:    Kinda.

CR:    Have you looked at SpaceX, Elon Musk’s corporation?

BH:    Yeah, no, I haven’t reached out towards them. They seem too interested in actually accomplishing goals, checking them off their lists. That sort of thing.

CR:    Progress. Moving on. That sort of thing.

BH:    That sort. Not my sort of people. Know what I mean?

 

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