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February 27th, 2009 Vol. 2 Issue 2


How do we create what never was, and why do we do it? Acting Administrator Chris Scolese and Chief Engineer Mike Ryschkewitsch offered some insights at PM Challenge.

(Editors Note: NASA Chief Engineer Mike Ryschkewitsch delivered the following address at the PM Challenge on behalf of Acting Administrator Chris Scolese, who was unable to attend. The text below reflects a collaborative effort by Chris Scolese, Mike Ryschkewitsch, Ed Hoffman, and Matt Kohut.)

Why We Do What We Do

PM Challenge Daytona Beach, FL
February 24, 2009



Thank you for inviting me to speak with you today. Speaking to the NASA family is always a daunting task because I know how critical and analytical you are. So as I prepared for this speech, I reflected on what makes us tick – why do we choose engineering, and what does it mean? Today I want to explore some big questions with you, because big questions are the motivation behind our greatest accomplishments and contributions to humanity.Theodore von Karman, the founding director of the Jet Propulsion Lab, once said that, “The scientist describes what is; the engineer creates what never was.”

This is of course a simplification, but I think it gets at why they call those who build and plan engineers — we create! Scientists study, and without their discoveries and curiosity we would not even know about much of the world that is, much less understand what we are looking at. The partnership between science and engineering is what makes the exploration of our Solar Systems and of our Universe possible. But with apologies to our scientific colleagues, , I’m going to focus on engineering more than science. Starting with von Karman, here are two big questions to think about: how do we create what never was, and why do we do it? To be clear I mean the grand challenges. We can create a better mousetrap, or a better door handle for a car, but why take the risk to develop the tools to traverse the isthmus of Panama? To build a bridge across the East River in New York? Why build a nuclear powered submarine? All of these represented great risks – of lives, of resources, of personal reputations – but they also represented the potential to transform our place in the world.

To start, let’s take a look back to 1862, a year when the United States was truly in peril. The Civil War was raging, and the outcome was still very much in doubt. After Stonewall Jackson’s successful offensives in the Shenandoah Mountains, the Union had to rush troops to protect the nation’s capital in Washington, D.C. It’s hard to imagine such uncertainty about the survival of our nation. As we read the news today, it is worth remembering that we have faced far greater challenges and not only persevered but prospered.

That summer, even as the war was threatening the fabric of American society, the President and Congress embarked on a grand challenge that was not directly related to the immediate threat of the war. In July 1862, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railways Act, which committed the federal government “to aid in the construction of a railroad and telegraph line from the Missouri river to the Pacific Ocean, and to secure to the government the use of the same for postal, military, and other purposes.”

This was the stimulus that would set in motion the grand challenge of completing a transcontinental railroad. At the time nobody knew how the Civil War would end, but Lincoln and others realized the great potential of linking the Eastern and Western parts of the US. They also recognized the great potential of the people then leading and fighting the battles to do great things for civil society. The historian Stephen Ambrose wrote that:

 “The men who built the line had learned how to manage and how to direct in the Civil War, and there were many similarities but one major difference. Unlike a battle, there was but one single decisive spot. The builders could not outflank an enemy, or attack in an unexpected place, or encircle. The end of the track, the place where the rails gave out, was the only spot that mattered.”

Just shy of seven years after Lincoln signed the bill, the Golden Spike was driven at Promonotory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869. Think of the changes that came from that grand challenge:

  • The world got smaller. People could travel distances in days that previously took weeks.
  • The price of information plummeted. Telegraphs could send information near instantaneously.
  • There were national markets for goods and materials. Food grown in California, for example, could reach other parts of the country. Commodities could be traded.
  • Conceptions of speed and time changed forever. Time zones had to be established across the country. As an interesting piece of trivia, we sometimes think it takes us a long time to agree upon standards. Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) was established in 1675 when the Royal Observatory was built, as an aid to mariners to determine longitude at sea. The first time zone in the world was established by British railway companies on December 1, 1847 becaming known as Railway Time and made national policy in 1880. Standard zone time was formally adopted by the U.S. Congress on March 19, 1918.

To put the achievement of the transcontinental railroad in context, remember that when Lewis and Clark began their expedition with the Corps of Discovery in 1803, the lands west of the Missouri River were largely uncharted territory, at least to the newcomers from the east. The dangers were great — unknown animals and peoples, harsh climates and a rugged terrain on a scale not really comprehensible to us who zip across it routinely by car or airplane. There was no guarantee that they would make it back alive.

Just over 60 years later, the railroad had transformed the same journey into a trip that was relatively safe, fast, and routine. We had progressed from discovery to expansion to settlement in a few decades.

Almost 100 years after the Pacific Railways Act, during a Cold War that pitted democracy against communism in a race to demonstrate technological superiority, a different President set a different challenge to the nation: to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth. In President Kennedy’s speech at Rice University in 1962, he famously said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…” Everybody remembers that Kennedy said we choose to go to the moon because it is hard, but we rarely focus on the next thing he said: that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. By setting the goal, establishing the grand challenge, we would force ourselves to organize differently than we had before. We couldn’t fall back on the old way of doing things because there was no old way of getting to the moon. We had to come up with new ways.

And almost exactly 100 years after the last spike was driven, two men landed on the moon and returned safely to earth. It’s an anniversary we’ll celebrate later this year, the result of hundreds of thousands of individuals working literally millions of hours during that span between Kennedy’s challenge and the Apollo 11 moon landing. It wasn’t just the individuals involved in the Apollo program who got Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon and back. It was also every individual who worked so hard on the Ranger and Surveyor robotic programs, and the Mercury and Gemini manned spaceflight programs. Every one of those steps — all the knowledge gained, the failures endured, the lessons learned—was vital to the giant leap for mankind on July 20, 1969. The effort to reach the Moon had far-reaching effects on our society:

  • Our understanding of the earth — and just as importantly, our societal awareness of the earth as an ecological system — grew dramatically.
  • Advances in biomedical engineering revolutionized the fields of medicine and health care.
  • The disciplines of project management and systems engineering as we think of them today came to maturity during Apollo. The challenge demanded new ways to organize our skills and expertise.
  • A generation put their energies into science and engineering—both within the space program and outside it — which helped to spur technical innovations that have continued to this day.

The progress of spaceflight did not end in 1969, of course. So what are the big ideas that will continue to shape our future in space?

First, we will continue to expand human civilization into space. We have a history of nearly 50 years of human spaceflight behind us, and we have achieved some remarkable accomplishments, but there is much more ahead. Much as Lewis and Clark’s first steps westward from St. Charles, Missouri were presaged the crossing of the Rockies, the 400,000 km we have covered to the moon are small steps into the vastness of our Solar System.

The International Space Station has been around long enough that it’s easy to forget its significance. Consider that since 2000, at least two people have lived off this planet’s surface. Just as remarkable is that the crew has never been from one country — it has always been an international crew. If all goes well, in a few months we will for the first time have spacefarers from five nations on-orbit at once. Think about that: we are on the verge of being a space-faring civilization where multiple nations work together to create and manage an oasis in space.

If there are any Canadians here today, they may wish to remind us that Sir Alexander Mackenzie crossed what is now Canada and reached the Pacific and Arctic Oceans more than a decade before Lewis and Clark! North America was too vast and to interesting a place to be explored by only one nation. The scale and scope of what is before us today means that International partnerships will be essential to success. The ISS has shown us the promise of international collaboration. With contributions from Canada, Russia, the European Space Agency, Japan, Italy and Brazil, this is one of the most complex international projects in history. As we expand our capabilities for human spaceflight, we will do so with partners.

The Ares and Orion vehicles will enable us to conduct sustained exploration of the moon. The Apollo program did not solve the mysteries of the moon. When we return for longer durations, we will need:

  • New life support systems that build on what we’ve learned from the International Space Station and then adapt that knowledge to the lunar environment;
  • A new wave of innovations in space medicine to ensure that we can manage the health of our crews for interplanetary missions;
  • Lunar habitats that can shield crewmembers from radiation during solar particle events; and
  • Robotic systems that can assist crewmembers to expand our reach safely.

Just as government expeditions such as Lewis and Clark’s provided the knowledge base for future expansion by others, humankind will not be truly space faring until we have non-government enterprise in space. There will be new commercial opportunities related to human spaceflight, including:

  • The development of launch vehicles, such as the SpaceX Falcon;
  • Space tourism, which Virgin Galactic, Bigelow, and others are planning; and
  • Even private opportunities for scientific research, as Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin recently announced.

Think again of how the transcontinental railroad made travel across the United States safe, affordable, and routine. Human spaceflight has a long way to go in all those dimensions.

In addition to expanding our human presence in space, we will continue to search for life in our solar system and throughout the universe. Think how the microscope led to the discovery of the cellular basis for life, which to this day continues to change our understanding of the world. That kind of discovery in space could be similarly transformational.

In just a few weeks we will launch the Kepler mission, which will be the first capable of finding terrestrial-sized planets orbiting other stars and determining how many of the billions of stars in our galaxy have such planets.

Searching for life also requires sharpening our ability to see into space. Just as the discovery of the cell depended on the invention of the microscope, we continue to develop increasingly powerful telescopes to look deeper into space with greater clarity than ever before. The James Webb Space Telescope is a collaborative mission with the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency—another example of the power of international partnerships. Of course you have also seen the recent press releases on the international agreements for the missions to Jovian and Saturnian systems in the next two decades.

When we think of the search for life, Mars always comes to mind. One of the lessons from the last fifteen years of NASA’s Mars program is that the conclusions we draw from early exploration can be misleading. After the Viking landings on Mars in 1976, which were extraordinary technical feats in their own right, many people thought that Mars was a dead planet. We’ve seen since then, of course, that each new Mars mission raises more questions about the possibility that life existed there.

The Mars Science Laboratory will mark a level of scientific exploration of another planet that far exceeds anything ever attempted before. Its size and rugged construction will make roughly three-quarters of the Mars terrain accessible. The science payload, which will include international contributions, will be able to conduct the most rigorous tests yet of the Martian geology.

Again the question why do this? The discovery of life, if it occurs, will certainly change our views and understanding of the universe around us. But Mars is a hard place to get to. It’s far away and it’s difficult to land on. There is barely enough atmosphere to help us decelerate and more than enough to make things difficult. We have to do it with autonomous vehicles that make decisions, since the light delay prevents real time intervention from Earth. So engineers take this challenge, mitigate the risks, and develop technologies and tools to make these missions possible to answer the question about life—but we also know that there are still further benefits from this activity.

In addition to expanding human spaceflight and searching for life, space also affords us the opportunity to improve our lives on Earth. Earth-observing satellites have profoundly increased our knowledge of the planet and its atmosphere in the past fifty years, and they have made enormous contributions to our everyday lives, including our ability to:

  • Predict weather has improved dramatically; and
  • Monitor severe storms and extreme events, and take steps to mitigate their consequences.

One of the greatest issues that we face as a society today is climate change. The ability to measure evidence of its effects, such as changes in the coverage of Arctic sea ice, is a critical function that Earth-observing satellites perform. As you know, the National Research Council’s Decadal Survey indicated that there is a great deal of work that remains to be done.

Another Earth-based challenge relates to air travel. After 100 years of flight, our air traffic system is at its limits. We are helping to develop the next-generation air system that can handle increased capacity more economically and environmentally friendly as possible. We already know how to create safe, high-reliability, high-performance aircraft—the next challenge is how we realize improvements that help us meet our goals in terms of carbon emissions and noise reduction while increasing performance ability. The solutions will be based on new technologies, but the problems are fundamentally about systems engineering: a change in one area has ripple effects across the larger system.

It should be clear by now that I think the best days are still ahead of us. There are myriad challenges left to tackle. Many will require unique, one-of-a-kind solutions that have to work right the first time — there are almost no chances for “do-overs” in space. We operate in a very unforgiving environment. Just this morning we lost the Orbiting Carbon Observatory mission to a failure during launch. We do not yet know what happened but we will learn from this and make the next mission better. With the benefit of all the learnings from more than a half century of space flight, these missions will continue to push the frontiers of technology, and to contribute benefits beyond those that we anticipate at the outset.

So what will it take to accomplish these tasks? The same things we’ve always needed to be successful in space:

  • Good tools—Advances in modeling and simulation improve our ability to predict how our systems will perform, which is essential because of the cost of doing business in space.
  • Rigorous planning — The complexity of our systems requires careful planning, painstaking reviews, and rigorous testing.
  • Smart people — The next generation of aerospace professionals will be distinguished by their ability to think across a system.
  • Standards — When done properly and coordinated with our partners, standards reduce risk and increase our likelihood for success.
  • Processes — A good process captures our essential lessons learned and best practices, as our recently revised NPRs for project management and systems engineering have shown.
  • Communication — A hallmark of great organizations is effective internal communication. This means empowering individuals to raise concerns and providing an effective process for airing dissenting opinions.
  • Training and Learning — Our challenges demand innovation and rapid on-the-job learning. Our workforce development strategies have to address individuals, teams, and the agency as a whole, which calls for greater knowledge sharing across boundaries. We must learn from our failures. I call your attention to a special session we have added tomorrow morning from 7 to 8:20. Where Nigel Packham will present “The Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report — What Happened to the STS-107 Columbia Crew and What Can Be Learned from It.” The report was one of the hardest things I have ever had to read. I know it was very hard for the people who did the investigation and wrote the report and it is now hard to share their learnings for the benefit of future spacefarers. They didn’t shrink from this hard learning and we need to learn from them, both from the report and also from their example of doing the hard things to get better.

So back to where we started with von Karman: how do we create what never was, and why do we do it? How we do it is dictated by physics; those are the requirements that bound every design. The common language is math and science, which is the intellectual toolset engineers use to solve the design problem.

Why do we do it? We do it because these challenges hold out the potential to revolutionize the world. The transcontinental railroad connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through a single, continuous mode of transportation. The moon landing showed that it was possible for humans to leave the Earth, explore a different celestial body, and return home. These achievements permanently changed human conceptions of time and space. The ability to travel distances that once seemed insurmountable made our world smaller and more interconnected.

New, daunting challenges are waiting for us as we expand the human presence in space, search for life in the universe, and improve life here on Earth. They will demand the absolute best we have to offer and just as the vision for the transcontinental railroad was laid out during the dark days of the Civil War, we cannot let our current troubles makes us pull back. If history teaches us anything, it teaches us that there will be failures and losses along the way. History also teaches us that if we persevere and learn, success will bring benefits that extend beyond what we can imagine today. That’s why we do it: because through creative and dedicated efforts to address our most pressing problems, we are able to transform society. Much as Lewis and Clark and Mackenzie could not have imagined transcontinental railroads and interstate highways, much less airplanes and rocket ships, our successors will see and do things on the Earth and beyond the Earth we have not yet imagined. We must continue up that path. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

Thank you.

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