Meeting one’s heroes

Michael and Jonathan at NASA Glenn

My colleague Jonathan Pearce and I at the NASA Glenn Research Centre

I have just returned from an exhausting trip to the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Staff there had sought out someone to teach them how to ‘measure the temperature’, and settled on NPL: What an endorsement! And representing NPL were myself and my colleague Jonathan Pearce. We worked night and day for weeks beforehand to prepare the course and then had an exhausting three days teaching and talking about temperature measurement, but the staff at NASA seemed happy, so I guess it was worth it in the end.

Beforehand I was terrified. In my mind NASA represented the ultimate in technological capability and I was anxious that we simply wouldn’t be able to answer their questions. Rationally I knew that Jonathan and I are pretty expert at what we do, but that didn’t stop me being scared – especially at the start. But it quickly transpired that although the people on the course were very expert in their fields too, they appreciated a little clarification about some subtleties of temperature measurement. In short, the people at NASA were not ‘super beings’ but instead they were just like myself, and Jonathan and our colleagues at NPL.

NASA is an awesome organisation which is having some difficulties at the moment. According to recent testimony to Congress by  the first Man on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, NASA has rather lost its way.

In summary, some significant progress has been achieved during the past year. However, NASA, with insufficient resources, continues to try to fulfill the directives of the Administration and the mandates of the Congress. The result is a fractious process that satisfies neither. The absence of a master plan that is understood and supported by government, industry, academia and society as a whole frustrates everyone. NASA itself, riven by conflicting forces and the dashed hopes of canceled programs, must find ways of restoring hope and confidence to a confused and disconsolate work force. The reality that there is no flight requirement for a NASA pilot-astronaut for the foreseeable future is obvious and painful to all who have, justifiably, taken great pride in NASA’s wondrous space flight achievements during the past half century.

Winston Churchill famously stated: “The Americans will always do the right thing after they have exhausted all the alternatives”. In space fight, we are in the process of exhausting alternatives. I am hopeful that, in the near future, we will be doing the right thing.

I obviously don’t have Neil Armstrong’s insight, but I think perhaps his perspective is a little distorted. He was after all a single individual who was carried aloft at the pinnacle of a stupendous technological enterprise costing 4% of the Gross Domestic Product of the USA*. And now I think perhaps he is being a little hard on his colleagues who are having to cope in more humble roles and in less affluent times. I recognised many phenomena at NASA because similar changes have affected NPL. The people at both organisations are being urged to do more with less, and to do work which is ‘more relevant’. On the ground, this can be personally difficult for committed staff who find themselves working with ever diminishing resources, and fewer and fewer  colleagues. And in the background there is still the glow of the glory days which will never return.

It’s always difficult when one meet’s one’s heroes. Visiting NASA I found out that my heroes were not ‘super beings’ , but real human beings. And since their achievements are the achievements of real human beings, I find them even more admirable. ‘NASA, you’re still my hero.’

*For comparison NPL costs roughly 0.003 % of UK GDP.

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