Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace
By Dr. William H. Jones
… NASA Glenn Research Center needs to learn how to get off its collective butt and be relevant 365 days a year - not just during those brief annual episodes when their programs are threatened and they need people to go to bat for them. Moreover, GRC needs to make itself more relevant to the community within which it resides - and not just be that place with X number of jobs out near the airport.
-- Keith Cowing, Editor, nasawatch.com
Perhaps our Center-Director-to-Be, Dr. Earls, should start his quest to boost the impact of the John H. Glenn Research Center by a little re-education of Mr. Cowing, the esteemed (though possibly misinformed) editor of the independent NASAWatch.com web site. If this quote from Mr. Cowing is to be believed (which it isn’t), we at Glenn just sit about irrelevantly for 364 days a year doing nothing for anybody and then cry at Mama Bear on that last day for more porridge. From my nearly three decades at Glenn, I can testify that that is not an accurate portrayal of the facts. But while Mr. Cowing’s words don’t reflect the facts, they may reflect the appearance achieved by the facts.
For the facts, the fact is that the Glenn Research Center turns out aerospace propulsion and power conversion research with some considerable reliability and accomplishment. Perhaps the one, telling statistic is that NASA, as an agency, has won some 100 IR100 Awards for Innovative Research and Development and, of those 100 awards, about 80 have been won by the Glenn Research Center. The remaining 20 might be reasonably distributed over the other 3 centers having “Research” in their name, giving each about 6 awards. Whatever way you slice up the leftovers, Glenn’s track record doesn’t seem to be one of a group that needs to get off its collective butt.
The appearance that Glenn does nothing is probably due to the fact that our contributions are often incomprehensible to those not deeply involved in those particular technical disciplines. When Dryden flies an experimental aircraft, people see and understand in some way an experimental aircraft; but when our materials group comes up with a new hot-section material, people look at it and say “Yeah, a block of metal – so what?” Our work does not excite. What does another 150 degrees of turbine inlet temperature mean? Every passenger in the air today is pushed about the sky by one piece or another of Glenn technology, but hardly ten of them know it. So we develop an oil-free turbine bearing – who will ever see it? If the pilot mentioned during the climb-out that, by the way, our bearings have no oil, I’m certain most of the passengers would react as though their imminent doom had just been announced.
As for research relevant to our community, Glenn is again in a somewhat difficult situation. Perforce, Glenn is into aerospace, but there is relatively little of that here in Cleveland. Cleveland used to be a steel town, now it is largely a steel ruin. Cleveland used to a be the seat of oil power until Mr. Rockefeller’s views on what his taxes should be led him to a more charitable community. Cleveland used to have aeronautical interests – the great Cleveland air races were conducted on the very site the Glenn Research Center now occupies – but those companies, too, moved away, became focused on pieces rather than the whole, or were passed by others. On the whole, it is difficult to find anyone close at hand to use Glenn’s research products.
Despite the relative lack of handy, direct places to transfer our technology to, if you ask Glenn’s technology transfer people, I know you will find that Glenn does have many productive commercial relationships, many of them technology spin-offs into non-aerospace disciplines; but, again, those relationships will probably be invisible when viewed from the public perspective. I, myself, am transferring my efforts in Technical Integration Technology to two companies, one of them Cleveland-based; but what is Technical Integration Technology? Like many Glenn technologies, if and when it works, John Q. Public will never know.
Mr. Cowing’s blunt remarks were made in response to the general hoopla of changing Center Directors at Glenn – Mr. Campbell is out, Dr. Earls is in, and now a dynamic, new leader will straighten everything out with our help. Well, I hope so. But I also must say that, from my seat, this is much like changing the guard at Buckingham Palace – one fellow in a red coat and big fuzzy black hat marches up and another such fellow marches off. The show is impressive, but the Palace stays pretty much the same. The truths of the Glenn Research Center are politically unfortunate and difficult to alter. Having watched a number of Barkers-in-Chief pass by, I do not expect sudden improvements in fortune to attend upon the ascension of Dr. Earls, not that they wouldn’t be welcome.
Research such as the Glenn Research Center does is a tough sell every day of the week, every week of the year. Such research is something that can always be put off or cut out when budgets are tight and, with a grounded shuttle straining to fly and a space station still moaning for money, budgets are tight and only getting tighter. I recently approached a project manager about some ideas I had and, while she very much liked the ideas, her basic problem was that she had eighteen million dollars of planned, budgeted research that she had just been told by the Oracles of Washington to slash to seven million dollars. Dr. Earls may look more resplendent in his new red-and-white-striped blazer than Mr. Campbell did, but with a budget-balancing act like that pushed on under his big top by Washington, he has got a tough task ahead. I wish Dr. Earls well. I’ll bet Mr. Campbell, a man of considerable experience in this area, does too.
Dr. Jones is available through e-mail at William.H.Jonesfirstname.lastname@example.org and also reads the grc.talk newsgroup regularly; however, he reserves the right to say nothing at his convenience.