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CFS Keynote Speaker: Paul Dye

Paul Dye has over 40 years of aviation experience as an engineer, builder, and pilot. He earned his degree in aeronautical engineering with a specialization in aircraft design and flight testing from the University of Minnesota in 1982. He continued to work in increasingly responsible roles within the U.S. manned space program, both as a technical expert in spacecraft systems and eventually as the overall lead of many missions to space. He retired from NASA in 2013 as the longest-serving Flight Director in U.S. history. “I had an amazing opportunity to serve mankind getting into space. Commercial space is coming back, and I am happy about that,” he said.

Dye has won many prestigious awards throughout his career, and he delights in bringing the lessons learned from the most advanced flight operations back to the general aviation community to understand. “I learned that no one is going to take away from me what I am in charge of.” As a risk-management specialist, Dye continues to advise designers, builders, and pilots on ways to build and operate aircraft with greater margins of safety. “As air traffic controllers, you are charged with safety, which is integral in the NAS. Thank you for all that you do daily to keep those who operate aircraft safe,” he concluded.

After the conference, Dye answered four questions from attendees who heard his presentation:

Did the space shuttle have the capability to orbit the moon?

Dye: Unfortunately, no. Aside from the fact that the systems just weren’t designed for that kind of a mission, pure physics answers the question. It takes significant velocity to get to the moon – on the order of 36,000 feet per second. Orbital velocity at normal shuttle altitudes (about 200-250 miles) was about 25,000 f/sec, and we carried enough fuel to get to 350 miles if we had to. That extra hundred miles took about 200 feet/second of velocity, so you can see that we were way short of having enough propellant to get to 35,000 ft/sec.

Interestingly enough, you’re not the first one to ask that question. One quiet evening in the control center, on something like the 30th anniversary of Apollo 11, we were watching over the shuttle while the crew slept. I asked my navigators how much propellant it would take to send the shuttle to the moon, just to keep them awake. They came back a while later with the news that the software to compute lunar trajectories was still in the Mission Control Center computers, and that it would take roughly 250,000 lbs of propellant to do the job. The shuttle, of course, only weighed about 230,000 lbs at the time (including the fuel on board), so it was pretty obvious that we didn’t have enough to do the job!

In your opinion, why is the shuttle program shut down?

Dye: I think that fundamentally, American leadership has lost the desire to take risks, and that is really a reflection of our country as a whole. Everyday, we get more risk averse. Now, I am not an advocate of taking ridiculous risks, or being a daredevil. We took great pains to make sure that everyone made it home after a mission. But we DID feel that the missions were worth taking calculated risks, so we went. And sooner or later, if you don’t “go”, you only have what you have – and nothing more. It really is a lack of will to go boldly, as a nation. Private industry will now take risks that we didn’t want to take publicly. I am sure that if we had continued flying the shuttle, eventually, we’d have lost another one. But think of how many ships are wrecked upon the shores of the West Indies, and the Caribbean. Men (and women) were willing to take risks for “God, Gold, and Glory” and they reaped the rewards in opening up a new world. Shouldn’t we be just as bold?

With the advent of commercial space flight and private spaceships (e.g. SpaceX, BFR), how will history view the space shuttle program?

Dye: I believe that the shuttle will always be remembered as the real workhorse of the early days of space exploration, and it will be a long time before we have a crewed spacecraft that can carry as much into orbit and back. I doubt that the memory will ever truly fade. Someday, we will once again have large spacecraft with wings, but for now, we’ll go to space the old fashioned way. When we get back to crewed, winged, reusable ships, the folks who do it will be amazed at how much we did with 1970s technology.

I remembered there were a lot of problems from the Columbia mission prior to the Challenger tragedy. There were delays because of these problems. Did this create pressure to launch the Challenger on time? What I remember from that day, the WX conditions were not ideal for the Challenger launch.

Dye: NASA clearly succumbed to outside pressures as well as internal ones – all of which contributed to the flawed decisions to launch the Challenger on its fateful flight. The accident reports clearly identify the causes – both proximate and root. The terrible thing is just how easily an organization that prides itself on making good technical decisions can slowly fall into bad decision making due to non-technical considerations. It happens to every organization that does great and dangerous things. The trick is to recognize the process and intervene before a mishap occurs. That is the true challenge for any team engaged in a high energy/high risk activity such as aviation!