Wayne Hale and the incredible legacy of the Space Shuttle

No one on the planet knows more about the operation and management of NASA’s Space Shuttle than Wayne Hale (MSME ’78). He served as Flight Director for nearly a third of all Shuttle flights. He helped NASA return to flight after the disasters of Challenger and Columbia. And he eventually rose to manage the entire Space Shuttle program, overseeing 25,000 people and an annual budget of $5 billion.

But this unassuming hero doesn’t give off typical “right stuff” spaceflight vibes. In fact, during our interview at Space Center Houston, nobody would have recognized him — had he not been wearing the bright blue NASA jacket normally reserved for astronauts. “A retirement gift from the Astronaut Office,” he laughed.

The next big thing

Born and raised in New Mexico, Wayne grew up reading science fiction novels and dreaming of spaceflight. Little did he know how many of those dreams — inspired by Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein — would one day come true.

The seeds for his path from Purdue to the stars were planted at an early age. “I attended an air show in high school,” remembered Hale. “And I was talking to an Air Force colonel there about the Apollo astronauts. He said that outside of the service academies, Purdue had more astronaut alumni than any other university. So I did some research, and sure enough — Neil Armstrong, Gus Grissom, Gene Cernan — they were all Purdue grads.”

After finishing his undergraduate degree at Rice University, Hale chose to pursue a graduate degree at Purdue. He studied heat and mass transfer with Dr. Ray Viskanta, researching thermal storage for solar energy. “At the time, the aerospace industry was somewhat depressed,” said Hale. “So I thought I had to look at other fields. I’m a mechanical engineer, so I had a lot of options.”

However, Hale still had space on the brain. “A NASA recruiter came to Purdue,” he said. “They were trying to staff up, because NASA hadn’t had a lot of activity in the mid ‘70s, and a lot of people had retired. But I followed NASA very closely, so I knew that the Space Shuttle was going to be the next big thing. They hired me and put me on the Propulsion team for the Shuttle, and I was so excited.”

Hale’s initial job was to develop procedures and rules for how the Shuttle’s engines operated during the first few flights. “They had built this beast, and now we had to figure out how it actually flew,” said Hale. “One of the issues we faced, which we still face today: the gas gauge never worked! We knew how much propellant had been filled on the ground, and we knew we had to save enough to bring the crew home. But determining the amount of fluid in a tank in zero gravity remains a difficult technical challenge to this day.”

He also represented the Propulsion Systems team in Mission Control — and that is where he began to find his true calling. He was part of an early Mission Control team that prototyped new computer systems, moving from the large mainframes of the 1960s to more distributed workstation architecture where users were responsible for their own applications, displays, and controls.

By 1988, Wayne Hale had become a Flight Director himself. He served on the console for 40 of the 135 total Space Shuttle flights — more than any other Flight Director in NASA history.

Each of those missions had its own particular nuances. “The first few missions, we didn’t really know what to expect,” said Hale. “Once we got our feet wet, we began to understand how the systems worked. But every mission was different. Some had problems, some went perfectly. But each one took a lot of work from a lot of people.”

And occasionally, those people needed to blow off steam. Hale recalls one embarrassing anecdote from STS-3, the third ever Shuttle flight: “Before our current satellite technology, Mission Control could only communicate with the Shuttle when it passed overhead. You’d have five minutes of something to do, and then 90 minutes of nothing to do. So while the astronauts were sleeping, we decided to have an ice cream social in Mission Control. We made a huge mess, with sticky stuff all over the consoles. And to make matters worse, the crew had woken up and were waiting for instructions — which we’d forgotten to send because we were too busy eating ice cream! It all turned out OK, but let’s just say there were significant repercussions after that night shift!”

Wayne Hale served in Mission Control for nearly a third of all Space Shuttle flights, more than anyone else in NASA history. (Photo courtesy NASA)

Return to flight

Alongside the excitement and prestige of spaceflight comes a certain amount of danger. While most people at NASA seemed to understand this, no one was really prepared for the first tragedy of the Shuttle era: the Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986.

“I remember distinctly having a meeting in the Astronaut Office in Houston that morning,” said Hale. “Any time there was a launch, we would all stop and watch it on TV. When the accident happened, it was just a shock to the system. But it led to positive things: a lot of improvements were made for both and crew and vehicle safety. It took more than two years before we launched again.”

The Shuttle returned to a regular flight cadence in the 1990s, with Hale leading the team at Mission Control. “I was a flight director for more than 40 flights,” said Hale. “And that doesn’t include the 15 or so that I worked as a Propulsion Systems officer. The Shuttle and I both arrived at NASA at roughly the same time, and we really grew up together.”

By 2003, Hale had elevated to senior leadership at NASA. While he had overseen dozens of Shuttle launches, he had never personally witnessed a landing. So he was invited to Cape Canaveral on February 1, awaiting the return of Columbia. When it was late in arriving, people’s cell phones started to ring. That’s when Hale realized that Columbia and her crew were not coming back.

“That was a really bad day,” said Hale. “We learned that we hadn’t fixed everything that needed to be fixed.”

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe was looking for someone to take charge — someone who could address the technical problems, but also the management culture at NASA. Wayne Hale became that ambassador. He sat in meetings with engineers, middle managers, and technicians on the ground, making sure each individual concern was heard. He worked with everyone involved — all 25,000 people — instituting safeguards to prevent such a disaster in the future.

By 2005, when the Shuttle roared to life once more, Hale had become manager of the entire Space Shuttle program. Under his watch, it did not fail again.

“The Shuttle was an experimental vehicle to the very last mission,” reflects Hale. “It was a very complex and temperamental vehicle. It required constant care and attention in order to succeed. But we did so much together. We built the International Space Station. We serviced the Hubble Space Telescope four or five times. I have a great deal of pride for what we accomplished.”

After the Columbia disaster in 2003, Wayne Hale was put in charge of reforming both NASA's technological issues and management culture. Under his watch, the Shuttle did not fail again. (Photo courtesy NASA)

The future

Nearing the end of his time at NASA, Wayne Hale began blogging on their official website. One of the last entries recalled a favorite science fiction story from 1949, Robert A. Heinlein’s “The Man Who Sold The Moon.” The story’s main character, Delos D. Harriman, was an American businessman who had privately funded a moon rocket. Hale describes him like this:

Think Elon Musk but with Bill Gates’ fortune, and Donald Trump’s ethics. Of course he succeeded, despite of all the difficulties, including the roadblocks set up by the government. At the end of the story Harriman famously tells his best friend: “I would cheat, lie, steal, beg, bribe — do anything to accomplish what we have accomplished.” Where is Delos D. Harriman today? We sure could use him.

At the time of this blog entry in 2010, Hale was wistfully lamenting the end of the Space Shuttle program without any viable replacement. Within a decade, however, the truth would become stranger than fiction. Donald Trump became President, and Elon Musk did indeed spend his fortune to privately fund a human spaceflight program at SpaceX — which to date has launched eleven successful crewed missions, and hundreds of successful uncrewed missions.

Musk partially has Wayne Hale to thank for that success. “My last assignment at NASA was to help kickoff the Commercial Crew Program,” he said, referring to the NASA initiative to launch astronauts using vehicles from private industry. “I think it’s great that we once again have options to launch our astronauts from American soil. NASA’s budget comes from politicians, which is not at all a straightforward or reliable process. Private companies don’t have to deal with that bureaucracy, so they can act much more quickly. I look forward to the commercialization of low Earth orbit, cislunar space, and eventually the Moon and the rest of the Solar System.”

But Hale doesn’t sugarcoat his opinions, as his Twitter followers will tell you. Now semi-retired, he openly shares details from his NASA history on his own personal blog, where you can read fascinating one-of-a-kind insights from the Shuttle era. He also serves as a consultant for Special Aerospace Services (SAS), a tactical engineering firm specializing in aerospace and defense.

One opinion he frequently shares? His love for Boilermakers. “There are so many great people here at NASA, but Purdue grads come with a specific understanding of how to do not just the technical work, but how to make the organization work,” he said.

He also offers some advice for current Boilermakers: “Some engineers are great at the technical stuff, and want to be engineers all their career. But many of them wind up as managers, and aren’t prepared. You need to think about that while you’re at Purdue. Extracurricular activities are very important to learn those leadership and organizational skills. You could also take business or management classes as a way of understanding the psychology of people. As a manager or leader, that’s always something you need to be aware of.”

Time for one final question. Half-jokingly asked if he had a favorite out of the five Space Shuttles, Hale offers a sincere answer: “They’re all different and they all performed well, but it’s the crew that makes the difference. The crews are what I’ll always remember.”

Wayne Hale now keenly follows the burgeoning private space industry, generously sharing his expertise and experience from 32 years at NASA. (Purdue University photo/Alan Cesar)


Writer: Jared Pike, jaredpike@purdue.edu, 765-496-0374


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