Tag: Commercial Spaceflight
And Then They Broke The Mold: A Personal/Professional Remembrance of John Michael “Mike” Lounge (Part 3)
3rd of 4 parts
Note: The previous version of this ‘chapter’ was published from a prior edit. This version (04/06/2011) is the correct one.
Mike’s suggestion that we work on an approach supporting the commercial space industry mandate generated a series of discussions – some of them passionate – starting with what address first. Typically, Mike’s focus was on business models, though he wanted me to take the lead on it to get a different point of view (aka, not his) into the mix. My focus was driven by a bias that underlies most of what I do in the policy, science, social and engineering realms – that transitions are delicate times that often dictate the eventual outcome of efforts that may be decades long. Abrupt changes tend to drive people to emotional reactions rather than thoughtful planning. I’d been talking with Mike about this at length, beginning the day I’d picked up the phone to call him about the change in U.S. Space policy.
Mike’s initial response was to blow off “all that psychological bullshit” but he soon began to question me closely about it. My most immediate concern was that capabilities of continuing value to the nation found only in NASA would be lost if some sort of evaluation of these against future plans wasn’t undertaken. The goals were to (a) identify capabilities that were under most immediate threat of loss and evaluate those first, then (b) with a bit more time, preserve those capabilities that (it would be decided) might be leveraged by commercial folks, including some that they didn’t yet know they needed or wanted, and (c) determine how to maintain, downscope, mothball, etc., such capabilities against the future, should they be needed for the nation, and/or for BEO (Beyond Earth Orbit) travel.
After exploring the idea with friends in DC and beginning what turned into a months-long series of discussions in various places within NASA, I took it to Mike. We argued about implementation; he felt I was too focused on national investment and immediacy and I felt he was too focused on business models. I went my own way and worked on it for a while, initially to put it into a white paper but eventually determining the timing wasn’t right. In lieu of publishing I started developing the ideas through other channels, haranguing long-suffering friends at NASA HQ and finding like-minded folks elsewhere – notably Paul Hill, Director of NASA’s Mission Operations Directorate (MOD), who had concerns and ideas that aligned with mine enough that we found some common ground.
And I kept bugging Mike about leveraging NASA assets. And he kept bugging me about the business models. That went on for a while.
Mike called me a month or so later (late February 2010) and asked whether I’d have a glass of wine with him at Chelsea’s, a wine bar down the road from the Johnson Space Center and across the parking lot from Boondoggle’s. He wanted to pick my brain about startup companies. He was already involved in three and was a little amused, as well as frustrated, by how hard it is to build business in a startup. I had started three companies in the past 20 years, with lessons learned stories to tell about all of them, and I was glad to accept. I enjoyed Mike’s company, never tiring of his unique point of view and deadly sense of humor.
The “glass of wine at Chelsea’s” became a more or less regular event. We watched with sadness and frustration the difficulties and fights emerging on all sides about NASA and commercial space. We talked programs. We talked about communications and messaging – something I know a little about – and how to go forward. I worked up my chain, and Mike worked up his. I kept bugging him with ideas about how to preserve capabilities. He kept bugging me about communications and business development.
Six weeks later it began to come together. He called, excited, wanted to meet. The ideas were white paper material – about how to develop a transition for moving NASA from current organizational architecture to “new” architecture, with regard to commercial spaceflight. I was strongly of the opinion that a “walk-run-fly” model was required and had already written words to that effect. We were both worried about cost. I was also worried about whether certain capabilities – ops among them – would be around long enough to leverage. Mike went home and over the weekend put together a table laying out a solution – a phased approach. I added the business model evolution. The white paper followed quickly, was shown around for input from a variety of folks, and ended up in a lot of places. (It was recently leaked, much to Mike’s delight, particularly since only my name was on it. I’m going to fix that shortly.)
At the same time, one of his businesses landed a contract.
By then, I knew we were partners. Not business partners. Better. Partners in outlook. Partners committed to bettering the systems around them by offering solutions rather than just complaining. We had become each others’ advisor, sounding board, helper, co-conspirator. My favorite line? “OK, ML, let’s just do it.”
“Partners in crime” I called us once. He agreed enthusiastically.
Mike liked Chelsea’s – not as much as he liked Boondoggle’s, but it’s better for talking. It has an outdoor deck and (as it turned out) no problems with children coming along when it’s early enough – say, 4:30 to 6:00. He sometimes brought granddaughter Brittany, the light of his life. I would hold her on my lap and draw with her, simultaneously holding her off my cell phone – a skill I had mastered years before with my own granddaughter. Then we’d trade, and Mike would play with Brittany. Somehow we managed to keep the conversation going throughout.
We talked a lot about the market, models, spacecraft, launch systems. Mike had been a strong advocate for commercial modules on ISS. While at SpaceHab, he was working on deals with the Russian company Energia to build a module called “Enterprise”. He was an early advocate of TransHab and was interested in what Bigelow Aerospace would eventually achieve with the design, which they had licensed from NASA and intended to use to develop space hotels and science facilities. He was also cautious, realistic about problems with policy implementation, and worried because the political situation was under such tension. Throughout the summer he was continuing as an advisor to what seemed like almost everyone in the human spaceflight (HSF) community, was sitting on the FAA’s (AST) Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), and was a member of the NASA Advisory Council’s (NAC) Committee on Commercial Spaceflight.
With regard to the latter, another “devilish Mike” story comes to mind. On April 26, at his request I attended a meeting of the Commercial Spaceflight committee. That day there was a great deal of back-and-forth about safe operations and mission assurance as would (or would not) be achieved by commercial carriers, with some tension between members of the committee, the Astronaut Office, other NAC committee chairs, and the ISS program. I listened with great interest, both because of my prior experience managing ISS Flight Ops for Boeing and because I knew that over at MOD, Paul Hill was by that time actively exploring avenues for partnerships with commercial entities. It occurred to me that asking Paul to speak with the committee would be a great way to get broader discussion of all of these ideas.
So, sitting there in the meeting as part of the “audience”, I texted Mike the basics of the idea and at the same time texted and then emailed Paul. Mike’s response was that he’d try to get the group to take a break so we could discuss. Paul’s response was that he was certainly willing to speak about the ideas that MOD had been working on and looked forward to a broader discussion. I forwarded Paul’s response to Mike.
I texted Mike again.
I knew he had the thing on “vibrate”, so I emailed and texted him again – something rude, as I recall.
Still no response.
He looked up and, trying to avoid attracting notice, I surreptitiously waved my Blackberry at him.
Mike stared at me, then picked up his Blackberry and mimicked me, waving it back at me non-surreptitiously. Then he spoke up.
“The battery died.”
I shrugged, trying to indicate that we could talk later. At the same time I was sinking down into my chair a little, as our interaction was beginning to get some curious stares from Mike Suffredini, Patti Grace Smith, and various folks from the FAA. Then I heard his voice.
“NO, ML, you’re just going to have to come over here and tell me whatever it is.”
I glared back at him. If it had been anyone other than Mike I would’ve been completely pissed off. As it was, I was exasperated and not a little irritated at being summoned in full view (and hearing) of the committee. Patti (a good friend) was by now beginning to grin openly. Brett Alexander, who was chairing, was obviously following the game but studiously ignoring us, which I appreciated.
I crossed the room, pulled up a chair directly behind Mike and leaned forward.
“OK, here’s the idea” I started, sotto voce.
“No, ML. Here” – passing me a piece of paper. I looked up at him. ”Write it down,” he said in his patient ‘You-must-be-an-idiot’ voice. Almost growling now I looked him full in the face and saw the glint. He was thoroughly enjoying himself.
I jotted down my suggestion about inviting Paul to speak, and laid out several of the major points I thought would be helpful to the committee and not incidentally to the issues Mike and I were writing about. I finished with a flourish, pushed the paper across the table, and got up and walked back across the room, looking around with as innocent an expression as I could muster.
Mike read the note, grinned, and nodded, his complete lack of subtlety continuing to antagonize me (I work very differently.) He then looked up and rejoined the conversation which had continued on without him. Ten minutes or so later, just before the committee adjourned, Mike raised the point – suggesting that the committee might consider asking MOD to come and talk about how operations was done, what kinds of things they were thinking about commercial partnering, business models, etc.
Not missing a beat (or a thing), Brett leaned in.
“That’s a great idea. Why didn’t you mention it before?”
Absolutely straight-faced, Mike replied – “Because I just thought of it.”
I could hear Patti giggling.
Mike remained an active member of the NAC up through today, continuing to advocate for our “transitional” approach. Wishing to focus more of his time on Brittany he resigned COMSTAC in late Spring of 2010, but the Chair, Will Trafton, told me today that Mike took a phone call from him as recently as three days before he died, graciously responding to a request for counsel.
My guess is he helped more people than any of us will ever know.
- to be concluded
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