An Open Letter to NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden - 2010-02-24 14:09:03
Feb. 24, 2010

MG Charles F. Bolden, Administrator
NASA Headquarters
Washington, DC 20546-0001

Dear Charlie:

It was my pleasure to introduce you as NASA's new administrator at the National Space Club's 2009 von Braun dinner. We had a nice conversation and I was impressed by your obviously sincere love of our country and spaceflight.

It was for that reason, I guess, that I was so surprised at how you've treated a lot of the people who work for you, all of whom also love our country and spaceflight. Maybe you weren't aware that many of those people were pulling 80+hour weeks doing everything they could do move the Constellation moon program forward. The impersonal manner in which you informed them that their work was no longer needed was not good, Charlie. Nor was the fact you allowed the program that defined NASA's future to be closed down with nothing concrete to take its place. I mean, a good manager would never allow a thing like that to happen. That's why I think you were as surprised as everybody else when you got your orders from the White House. At least, I hope you were.

Anyway, Charlie, the reason I'm writing you is to let you know that many of your people are traumatized. They are reticent in expressing their pain to you directly because, by nature, they're not complainers but, believe me, they're hurting. I know because I'm the guy they've lately been turning to, mostly through their personal email accounts, to tell me how frustrated and even scared they are. Maybe you think you've done the best you could for them, all things considered. I guess you can tell by how well you sleep at night. But, Charlie, many of your people are having difficulty sleeping because they are fearful for the future of the agency they love, and their personal futures as well.

I want you to know I'm doing my best, Charlie, to buck up your troops. I tell them I can't really believe you're going to let them go down the tubes or hang ABANDON IN PLACE on the amazing facilities that NASA has.

I understand that you testified before a Senate panel today concerning your new budget. Because I had a Public TV film crew with me all day, I didn't get a chance to see it but a lot of your people have emailed me about it. They told me the Senators got a little rough with you but I'm sure you handled it just fine.

I think the Senators were pretty curious about what you had in mind when you talk about "game-changing" technologies. I mean that sounds really great and all but so far you haven't told anybody, especially your people, what those things might be. Mostly, you've just talked about throwing work over the fence to SpaceX and other companies and also the Russians. Well, all right, that's fine if you think so, but maybe there's some things you could think up for your people to do, too. In fact, if I must reluctantly accept there's not going to be a moon program, I have a few suggestions you might consider:

1. Embrace the X-37B. The United States Air Force has very kindly spent a barrel of big bucks to create a real honest-to-goodness spaceplane that is a step up from the Shuttle. It's to be launched this spring from the Cape aboard an Atlas-V. Once in orbit, it will go through a series of tests, then land at Edwards Air Force Base. Charlie, I think you should be there when it lands and run over and hug its nose wheel. You should then ask Boeing to build a couple more of these wondrous spaceplanes, launch them, control them from Huntsville and Houston, and start your people thinking about how to scale them up and use them as astronaut and cargo carriers, boosted into orbit by EELV's or an evolved shuttle architecture. I'm telling you, Charlie. This would be some great work for your folks and, by golly, a game-changer!

2. Build a two-stage-to-orbit crewed aerospacecraft that can take off and land on a runway. And build it in five years, Charlie. The holy grail of space, of course, is single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) but let's take it one step at a time. My suggestion is to make your TSTO a winged scramjet/turbojet combo with an attached, disposable rocket to kick it into orbit. Talk about game-changing! It would open up space like nothing else.

3. Build a test version of Buzz Aldrin's moon cycler at the Space Station and send it for a loop around the moon. Why not? A version of Shuttle-C could bring up some hab/lab modules to bolt together by astronauts on an EVA. If nothing else, this would give you an excellent reason to keep open the Neutral Buoyancy Lab. I guess you were otherwise planning on shutting it down, right? Be an awful waste if you did.

4. Bring tether technology to the Space Station to boost its orbit and/or provide power. We tried it a couple of times on Spacelab missions but there was always a glitch. Give it a go again. Also maybe deploy a solar sail. More EVA's! Some great new technology, too! Use the ISS for this kind of thing. Trust me on this, the American people would take note and applaud such cool technology.

Anyway, Charlie, just a few suggestions if we're not going to the moon. I'm just trying to help. I hope you take them in the spirit in which they are offered. You can still be a great Administrator, Charlie. I truly believe that. But please, I beg you, take better care of your people, OK? We're both Vietnam veterans so we know what it feels like when our leaders stop caring about us, don't we? Your people will work their hearts out for you if only you let them know you care which I think you really do. My best to everyone at headquarters.


Homer Hickam
Author, Rocket Boys/October Sky and many other fine books (and a former proud NASA grunt)

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