Blowups Happen

Having nothing to do with the short story of the same name, and with apologies therefore to Robert A. Heinlein …

Twenty-five years ago today — April 18, 1986 — Titan-34D-9 blew up during launch at Vandenberg AFB.

(Titan-34D-9 exploding. USAF image from the linked Space Review article.)

This Space Review article shows several close-up images of the explosion, including the one above, while this Photobucket page shows several photos taken from farther away.

I found it interesting to peruse the accident investigation report. I recognized several names of people on the investigation board.

This doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that should make the space history files, except for this personal connection: as a direct result of this mishap, the Air Force chose to conduct a full-scale nozzle-down test firing of a Titan-34D solid rocket motor at the AF Rocket Propulsion Laboratory at Edwards AFB. My first assignment was to the AFRPL as a bioenvironmental engineer, and that test program — the “return to flight” for the Titan-34D — was one of the biggest projects I worked on while I was there.

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X-Series Flight Testing Continues at Eddie's Airplane Patch

Forty years ago today — March 19, 1970 — USAF test pilot Major Jerauld R. Gentry made the first powered flight in the X-24A lifting body.

(X-24A with rocket engine ignited after being dropped from the B-52 carrier aircraft. NASA image.)

The same B-52 used in the X-15 program (and later in the Pegasus program*) carried the X-24A to about 40,000 ft (13,860 m) altitude, where it was dropped and its rocket engine took the rest of the way through its flight profile. It then glided to a landing on the dry lakebed at Edwards AFB.

Over the life of the program, the X-24A made 28 powered flights, reaching a maximum speed of 1,036 mph (1,667 km/hr) and a maximum altitude of 71,407 ft (21,765 m). According to the project description on this page, NASA later used the X-24A’s shape as the basic profile for the X-38 Crew Return Vehicle demonstrator.

*Full disclosure: When I was stationed at Edwards (1986-90), I was on the Flight Readiness Review committee for the first Pegasus launch from that same B-52.

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If I Were My Own Representative, Part III: Hearings and Caucuses

I’ve been to a Congressional hearing, watched a few more on TV, and prepared testimony for several. Hearings, in general, are effective for Congress to gather information so it can evaluate alternatives and exercise its oversight. But some of the hearings seem trivial, either in their subject matter or their treatment, and become little more than media events for grandstanding by elected officials and witnesses.

If I Were My Own Representative, I could go to hearings on trivial subjects and ask, “Why are we having this hearing? Don’t we have better things to do?” Better things like debating big, substantive issues; reconciling or voting on bills; or even crafting our own legislation so lobbyists wouldn’t have to?

Not all hearings are on trivial subjects, of course, but they aren’t all on matters of great importance to the state, either. And even the ones I think are trivial are obviously important to somebody.* Why, I don’t know … hence, the question I’d like to ask.

Would it be rude to ask the question? Oh, yeah. And not exactly politically astute: I presume nobody questions whether a given hearing is trivial in order not to offend their fellows. If I did that, they might not want to attend my trivial hearings. As quid-pro-quo goes, that’s probably pretty harmless. But it’s not as fun.

As for caucuses — of which, like committees and hearings, there are probably more than necessary — I’d definitely join the Air Force Caucus. I don’t know if any other caucuses would have me!

*For example: A subject I consider trivial, like steroids in sports, you might consider of paramount importance to the survival of our democratic republic. To each, his own.

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DISCOVERY Launches on First DoD Shuttle Mission

Twenty-five years ago today — January 24, 1985, the Space Shuttle Discovery launched from Kennedy Space Center on mission STS-51C.

(Launch of mission STS-51C. NASA image.)

The crew — Thomas K. Mattingly, Loren J. Shriver, Ellison S. Onizuka, James F. Buchli and Gary E. Payton — used an Air Force Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) booster to place a classified Department of Defense satellite in orbit, making this the first dedicated DoD mission.

Space enthusiasts will recognize some of those astronauts’ names. Many know that Ken Mattingly, for instance, was originally scheduled to fly on the Apollo-13 mission; he later flew as the Command Module pilot for Apollo-16 and the mission commander for STS-4, the fourth space shuttle orbital test flight. And many will recognize Ellison Onizuka as one of the astronauts who died in the Challenger explosion in 1986.

My personal connection to this flight, however, is Gary Payton. He’s been the Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space Programs since 2005, and I worked with him when I was writing speeches for the Under Secretary, Dr. Sega. I found Mr. Payton to be a terrific person, extremely smart and talented.

As I said in my retirement speech, if I couldn’t be an astronaut, at least I got to work with a few of them.

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For a Secret Mission, They Sure Have a Lot of Details

Over in the Space Warfare Forum, I posted about a story in Spaceflight Now that included far more detail than you would ever expect to be released about a classified space mission.

Scroll down the Spaceflight Now story to the part beginning, “Details emerging on how the inspection exercise is playing out,” and see if you’re as amazed as I am that anything supposedly “top secret” (or even “secret”) would be released in such detail. Where the heretofore unknown inspection satellites started in the GEO belt, the specific date on which the first one supposedly made its close approach to DSP-23, etc.?

Here’s a link to the full Space Warfare Forum post.

Let’s just say, I have my doubts.

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Thanks to Bloggers for Veteran-Related Posts

If you’re interested in blogs about leadership and management, I recommend Wally Bock’s “Three Star Leadership” blog. One of his recent posts linked to Julie Ferguson’s entry on the “HR Web Cafe” blog about hiring veterans. As an Air Force retiree, I appreciate them calling attention to the subject and just wanted to say, Thanks, y’all!

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US Air Force Memorial

Visited the Air Force Memorial yesterday, just before getting ready to attend a wedding in Springfield, VA. I remember when some of my office mates on the Air Staff were helping to plan the opening ceremonies for the memorial, and I remember seeing the spires under construction, so it was good to see it now that it’s done.

The three spires really draw the eye upward, which is the whole point, and even as a non-flyer I found it inspiring. The Medal of Honor wall was a good touch; I found the name of the recipient (William Lawley) who swore me in as a Regular officer back when I was at Squadron Officer School. And the view of the Pentagon and across the river into DC was also very nice.

In many ways it made me miss the service and regret that my attempts to go to Kuwait and Iraq never came to fruition. And in other, morbid ways I don’t fully understand it made me somewhat sad that I missed my opportunity to be memorialized — though if I had been, I wouldn’t be typing this. C’est la vie … literally.

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USAF Shake-Up

Wow — I was shocked this morning to see that both the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General “Buzz” Moseley, and the Secretary of the Air Force, Michael Wynne, resigned yesterday. (Story here.) Had I seen the news yesterday, I just would’ve been shocked a few hours earlier.

I consider it a great shame that General Moseley was forced to resign — I didn’t have many dealings with him when I was on the Air Staff,* but he always struck me as a straight-up guy. My fondest memory is of chatting with him in the little connecting hallway between the D and E rings of the Pentagon, where he urged me to insert some random Mandarin Chinese characters into a speech I’d written for Mr. Peter Teets — the Under Secretary at the time — just to see how Mr. Teets would react.

Mr. Wynne, on the other hand, I never understood. I had even fewer dealings with him than with Gen Moseley, but my observations from afar showed me a man who was possibly too smart for the practical realities of the job. I got that impression when, as one of his first initiatives as Secretary, he decided to update (or revamp, or otherwise tinker with) the Air Force Mission and focus less on the traditional elements of flying, fighting, and winning the nation’s wars than on delivering “sovereign options.” I still scratch my head over that one.

Of course, this difficult situation is made even worse by the fact that the Air Force has been without an Under Secretary for months now. (It’s similar to when I was there, and they tapped Mr. Michael Dominguez to be the Acting Secretary. I enjoyed writing for him; some of us thought he would make a good SecAF.) I saw this afternoon that the SecDef was going to recommend a new nominee to President Bush, but it will be exceedingly strange for someone to be nominated and confirmed for the last few months of the Presidential term. I suspect there will be another Acting SecAF for awhile; I wish them luck.

*Full disclosure: I worked in the Secretary & Chief of Staff’s Executive Action Group from 2004 until my retirement in 2006.

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Political Climate: The Democracy Crisis?

It may be natural for former Vice President Al Gore to express discontent with the state of democracy in the U.S. His remark that “we have to solve the democracy crisis” comes a little more than two minutes into his new slideshow on He doesn’t elaborate, nor does he identify a nation whose version of democracy he prefers. Perhaps he would prefer our democracy to be less participatory, so long as it was dedicated to the higher cause of controlling atmospheric carbon.

Historical note: We first encountered then-Senator Gore’s environmental activism about 20 years ago. We were serving at the Air Force Rocket Propulsion Laboratory — perhaps its name had changed to the Astronautics Laboratory by then, we don’t recall — as Chief of Bioenvironmental Engineering, and were called upon to answer a Congressional Inquiry from the senator. We produced a detailed report on the emissions from our rocket testing, to answer the question of whether proposed revisions to the Clean Air Act would hamper our development of national security-related propulsion technology. (These were the days of dot-matrix printers and e-mail did not exist, so we stood at what was probably a 2400-baud fax machine, hand-feeding our 30-page report into the thing; it’s a wonder we got anything done back then, things were so primitive.)

Back on topic: We were very interested in — read, “concerned by” — Mr. Gore’s assertion that it’s one thing to change our individual behaviors, but “it’s more important to change the laws.” What does that mean? If a law typically either requires something or prohibits something, what new requirements or prohibitions would he put on our citizenry? In pursuit of the elusive carbon molecules, would we be required to purchase and use mercury-containing fluorescent bulbs,* or to pay a tax on all our exhalations?

Note that we’re not challenging the scientific argument, because we haven’t studied the subject enough and frankly our days as an environmental engineer were limited and long ago. Some of the evidence, like the loss of ice caps, is quite compelling; we recall discussing the relative thinness of the ice sheet we stood on in North Star Bay at Thule Air Base in Greenland during the spring of 2001. No, what we’re challenging is the idea that governmental action is the best means of addressing the issue.

We challenge the assertion that we have a democracy crisis. Our democracy is deliberately deliberative, yes, and can be slow to act — especially from the perspective of those who feel like they are ones calling in the wilderness. But quick action is not necessarily good just because it is swift; and neither is carefully considered action necessarily bad.

* For the record, we already use them in several of our lamps, despite the fact that their light is quite garish and uncomfortable to our eyes. We’ll try not to break them.

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Upcoming ASPJ Article

Sometimes I think I should stick with non-fiction. I received word that my brief article, “The Mission Matters Most” is scheduled to appear in the Fall issue of Air & Space Power Journal (the USAF’s professional journal).

A couple of years ago, ASPJ published my article, “How the Air Force Embraced ‘Partial Quality,'” which generated some discussion and eventually a review/rebuttal in the Fall 2007 issue. This new article is something of a rebuttal to the rebuttal, which is what “The Merge” section of the journal intends:

In air combat, “the merge” occurs when opposing aircraft meet and pass each other. Then they usually “mix it up.” In a similar spirit, Air and Space Power Journal’s “Merge” articles present contending ideas.

Anyway, here’s an excerpt:

I read with interest Randall Schwalbe’s critique …. [which] is well thought out but somewhat misses the point.

… Mr. Schwalbe made the statement [that] the “fundamental flaw” (p. 16) of my article was that I had confused “quality with process improvement.” That my article dealt with the way the USAF implemented quality improvement ideas in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and attempted to show that the ideas themselves were sound but the execution flawed, did not seem to come through: my execution, apparently, was itself flawed.

… more salient to this discussion, the commercial success of Toyota, Ford, or Motorola, etc., is not the best argument for convincing the military that these new tools and techniques are germane to their mission. Obviously I did not make that point clear enough in my original article, so let me reiterate: for the rank-and-file to see Lean or any other improvement effort as vital to their service’s continued success, these efforts must be adapted to the core military mission as much as (if not more than) they are adapted to ancillary functions.

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