Writing Excuses 13.46: The Unsexy Side of Space, with Bart Smith and Ben Hewett
Key points: NASA is more than just astronauts and rocket scientists. Someone has to deal with money and the logistics of making things happen. Procurement and budget and legal are there to help the technical people get the job done, quickly and as painlessly as possible. One thing that is frustrating is seeing NASA portrayed as inefficient just because it is a government organization. NASA innovation? Consider wearing a ThinkPad on your head as a hat for VR. Or how about doing water aerobics in the neutral buoyancy lab?
[Transcription note: I may have mixed up Bart and Ben here and there in the transcript. My apologies if I got the two of you confused.]
[Mary] Season 13, Episode 46.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, The Unsexy Side of Space, with Bart Smith and Ben Hewett.
[Mary] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] Joining us, we have NASA employees extraordinaire Bart Smith and Ben Hewett. Bart, would you introduce yourself for us?
[Bart] Sure. I’m Bart Smith. It’s great to be here. Thank you for inviting me today. I’ve been with NASA for almost 10 years. I’m a budget analyst. So I help with numbers and funding and financing and all sorts of fun stuff. Just to make sure that we can keep the program going.
[Ben] My name is Benjamin Hewett, and I’ve been with NASA for about 28 days longer than Bart.
[Ben] Which means I know more than he does.
[Ben] I started in the same organization, and the chief financial officer’s office. That’s redundant, I know. I now work in flight ops, in their business office.
[Mary] Which is really exciting. So, for me, one of the reasons that we wanted to have you guys on is that… When we’re talking about space, everybody thinks about the astronauts and the people who… And the rocket scientists. But. NASA’s supported by a huge organization, and a big part of it is dealing with money and the logistics of making things happen. So why don’t we start off by having you guys tell us a little bit about what it is you do? Which is the unsexy side of space, but the absolutely necessary side of space.
[Bart] Sure. I’ll start. So as I mentioned, I do budget. So we just make sure we work with a lot of our technical counterparts, our scientists, our engineers, and yes, even astronauts, to make sure that we are funding our operations appropriately. Some of those operations are exciting, right? Are rocket ships and science experiments. Then, some of them are not so exciting. We gotta make sure that the bathrooms work, that the roads are good, and that we pay for security at the front gate. So my specific role is to just work at Johnson Space Center to make sure that all of our funding sources are going to the right places and making sure that we’re spending dollars appropriately. So if we spend them appropriately, then the mission goes forward. If we’re not spending them appropriately, then we’re doing something wrong. So my main role is to make sure that we’re not doing anything wrong.
[Mary] So, Ben has said that you do things wrong frequently. So, Ben, what does…
[Ben] So there is an inherent conflict, obviously, between the technical side of the house, who wants the best of everything… We call that gold plating… And the budget and procurement side of the house, whose job it is to keep those people in check so that we have affordable programs. And how well the procurement side of the house actually does that… You hear jokes about that frequently, and the cost of a hammer. So, case in point, we’ve been working on a procurement where we’re trying to get stuff done, and the procurement guys or budget guys are coming in and saying, “Well, you should try this contract mechanism.” I’m in the middle because I’m in the business office. The technical guys are like, “No, no. We know this contract. We can get it done. We can get it done fast. We like these people.” So that conflict is kind of where you get that friendly frenemy interplay.
[Mary] I was talking with someone from a different branch of NASA who I will not name because they were talking some smack…
[Mary] They were talking about ordering business cards. That just the process of ordering business cards was incredibly complicated because, as a government agency, you have to have everything bid on. Is it that kind of thing, kind of all the way down the line?
[Ben] So one of my favorite contracts that we’ve just done is a multi-award. Which basically means we’ve gone through, we’ve found acceptable vendors in several different work category types. So rather than having like a two year long RFI/RFP process, you can streamline that a little bit.
[Mary] Sorry. You are from NASA, and you’ve just used acronyms.
[Ben] Request for Information, Request for Proposal.
[Mary] Thank you.
[Ben] It’s a method of getting bids back. With the multi-award, because the vendors are preapproved, we can turn around some of that stuff in three or four days. We had… For our aircraft for our guppy, we had… We have these shipping fixtures so that we can fly the crew module two different areas of the United States where different pieces of work are being done. They have these… What’s called the chain block, which is basically a tiedown for the crew module. We were able to turn that around in just a couple of days, and get it… Get heavy aluminum drilled to precision and get it done. So yes, procuring is difficult. There are mechanisms that we have. But that’s actually the importance of having a good support staff, and having people who are tenacious enough to talk to the technical team and say, “No, no. You really want to look at this particular procurement strategy, because it can save you money and time.”
[Mary] And then you can spend that money someplace else.
[Bart] Right. I think that’s a great… One of the greatest secrets of our organization is that we are there to actually help our technical people. A lot of our technical folks look at us and say, “Oh, procurement and budget and legal. They’re all impediments to me getting my job done.” But at the end of the day, if you have that great support staff, folks who are trying to help our technical folks get the job done, then they can… Then we can get it done really quickly. Our goal is to help them get the job done as quickly and as painlessly as possible, while following those regulations.
[Howard] The way budgeting was described to me is that the inconvenience of not immediately being able to buy something today is the price you pay for being able to buy things at all a year from now.
[Ben] Agreed. Agreed. Because there’s so many processes in place to track where all those dollars go. Because every dollar that we spend is taxpayer dollars. So it’s important that we’re accountable not only to our technical management, but also to the taxpayers who fund us. If we aren’t good stewards of our funds, then we’ll see those drop in the future.
[Howard] This episode… Getting us to NASA to record things involved some due diligence and making sure that tax money was not being spent on things that it shouldn’t be spent on.
[Bart] We sent…
[Mary] To be clear, we did fund ourselves coming here, but tax money is being spent to give us a tour and to provide the facility.
[Bart] But that’s the same… We would do for schools and…
[Bart] Visitors and Justin Bieber and One Direction and all the other people who have… Who are stakeholders, who are tax…
[Howard] They cover their hotel and their meals, and you take care of them while they are on the campus.
[Bart] Because that’s good for space and science. If people from the community are involved and participating.
[Mary] So, I am curious about… This is one of my favorite questions to ask people when they have an area of expertise that I do not, because it’s very useful as a writer. What are the things that make you want to flip the table?
[Dan] When you see them depicted in media wrong.
[Bart] Ben asked me this question a couple weeks ago…
[Bart] And I sent… It actually took me a week to write this email, because I wanted to get it right. Because there are some things that are challenging. I mean, that maybe aren’t realistic. Maybe things that the popular culture believes that aren’t necessarily true. I think the biggest thing is that, yes, is a support organization, we are trying to move the mission forward, that we aren’t just impediments, but we are here to help as well.
[Ben] You can actually say the part about… Well.
[Howard] I keep waiting for something where my table is being thrown. Throw my table, Bart.
[Bart] So one of my biggest things is that NASA, as a government organization, is just really inefficient, right? Like, NASA can’t get anything done. I read a book several months ago that actually made light of this, where an artifact came out of space and some private citizens wanted to investigate it. So NASA commissioned a study to do a study to review a study to review some proposals to think about visiting… Or procuring some engines to visit this artifact, right? It was… Yes, it was very funny, and I did chuckle. But a little part of me was a little bit frustrated, because it does feel like sometimes the public… Sometimes authors view NASA as inefficient, and other organizations out there can maybe do it better. As a part of NASA, I feel like we do things pretty good.
[Howard] Realistically, if there’s an artifact from aliens that is in space, and the procurement office knows about it, all of the little hurdles involved in getting your business cards printed…
[Bart] That’s correct.
[Howard] Are just going to go away until you’ve got the artifact.
[Ben] You wouldn’t believe how fast you can get a procurement through if the Center Director or the head of NASA wants it done.
[Howard] Let’s break a moment for our book of the week. Dan, do you have that for us?
[Dan] I do have that. So, one of the things that I’ve been thinking… Because we just went through a tour of NASA, and we saw all these things.
[Mary] All these really cool space things.
[Dan] Amazing things. We passed a door that we didn’t even get to go in that said, “Wearable Robotics Laboratory.” I’m like, “That’s the greatest door I’ve ever seen in my life.” But anyway, at every point in the tour, I was reminded that NASA is a group of people using science to solve problems and working together. Which is what I loved so much about the Apollo 13 movie. It’s what I love about Star Trek. And it’s what I love about The Martian by Andy Weir. That is a group of people using… Coming together to solve a problem with science.
[Bart] So, yeah…
[Ben] You’ve talked… The name of the episode, The Unsexy Side of Space, that’s something that I really enjoyed about The Martian, and I think a lot of people in the industry did, because he doesn’t just talk about Mark Watney. There’s a part in the book where I’m starting to get bored with the whole potato farmer thing, and he switches… He must’ve had a good editor or something. He switches to talking about what’s going on back at the Johnson Space Center. You get this sense here are all these people. Legal is involved. HR is involved. Public Affairs is involved. There’s a lady who’s looking at the satellite images that’s involved. Not only is it just NASA, at the Johnson Space Center, but they pull in real characters, real people who real… They feel like this is a person I know. In fact, the joke was for a long time, “Hey, did he talk to you before he wrote this book?”
[Ben] “Who does this character look like to you?” Hands down, there were a number of characters in that book where people would identify somebody currently in the… In a role. That’s what I liked about that book is he’s done due diligence to the unsexy side of space. He’s talked about people in a way that makes them come alive.
[Bart] You see the full picture. I think that’s the brilliance of it, is you see the full picture. It’s not just a one or two dimensional book, but you see from beginning to end how everything has to work together to bring Mark Watney home.
[Ben] It doesn’t… It talks about the length of time for procuring a rocket, right? You can’t just go and build a rocket. So he talks about, well, they get one from the Chinese. That doesn’t work out. Then the astronauts themselves come up with a solution to solve the problem. But it’s a very… Very lucid in terms of how things actually operate.
[Howard] I’ve said before that The Martian… And I’m standing by this stake I’ve pounded into the ground. The Martian is the finest hard science fiction novel ever written. Because it does great hard science fiction in a way that I am willing to sit and listen… Read about how to make oxygen out of hydrazine, and I care.
[Ben] And not just blow yourself up.
[Howard] That was amazing to me.
[Bart] I did want to say, so, Andy Weir was here and did a presentation. One of the most… I got to ask him a question, right? I asked him, “What came first, the characters or the problems, the technical problems?” He kind of grinned. He’s like, “Oh, the technical problems.” This is why it’s the greatest… According to you. Because he figured out what can break. Here’s the mission architecture. Here are all the pieces that I’ve put in place. What can break? Now I’m going to break…
[Howard] And he knocked dominoes down in increasing order of disaster. Oh, yeah.
[Ben] Then he comes back and says, “Oh, I need a character who can handle this.” Then he feels in the character so that the character works with the technical breakages. That… So I liked that book as well. It’s fun to read
[Dan] As a total side note, I have to say that at a convention, I don’t know which one, I assume San Diego Comic Con, Andy Weir was in the green room with the two writers behind The Expanse series. They are both fans of each other’s work, and decided that canonically, they exist in the same universe.
[Howard] I would read that book. I would read that book.
[Dan] So, anyway.
[Mary] So. So while we’re talking about the unsexy side of space, I mean, there’s nothing… So there’s a lot of stuff about procurement and things that are going to be consistent from organization to organization. We’re talking about space, though. Are there things about your jobs that you feel like are unique to NASA culture and NASA situations? To the fact that you are shooting people into space on giant bombs?
[Ben] I have… So we did a procurement recently where… You have to test for ammonia, for example. So you have this device called a Dräger chipset measurement system. Basically, what it does is it sniffs the air to see if there’s ammonia or other chemicals present. You can put a chip in it and it will come up with readings. So you can actually do training on the ground. We have that on the stations, right? I don’t think a lot of people understand this, but you… There are scenarios that come up that you wouldn’t expect or that the little chips that have ammonia in them don’t represent. So what are technical community said was, “Hey, we want to train our astronauts on these different scenarios, but they need to train on a unit that feels and looks and acts like a normal unit.” So one of the coolest things that we did is we basically paid a company to hack into the back of this thing, add a chip and add a wireless interface so that our instructors can goof the system, so one astronaut gets a reading that’s like, “Oh, my gosh. All right. Facemasks, everybody dive for the airlock.” Kind of thing. It’s not that dramatic, but…
[Howard] Let me take apart this piece of hardware and make it lie to the user via Bluetooth.
[Ben] And then switch it back, so it’s not lying, halfway through the process.
[Ben] And it reverts to… But that’s incredibly useful for somebody who’s going to have the training here on Earth, and if they just do one or two run-throughs, it’s not going to stick with them. So what you want is you do the training here on Earth, and then six months later, there up and they gotta handle this thing and it has to look and feel exactly like it did on Earth and behave in very functional ways.
[Howard] What is… Bart, what does a workday look like?
[Bart] Probably a little bit less exciting than you would think. You get indoors…
[Howard] I’m already thinking it’s not very exciting.
[Bart] So you might be right.
[Bart] The fact of the matter is we don’t come in and play with cool toys or get to mess around with the robots every day. You come in and…
[Howard] Not as a budget analyst.
[Bart] Not as a budget. Maybe the robotics do, but not as a budget analyst. You come in, you have a boss, so you have a set of tasks for… A set of responsibilities that you do, you have your email that you check and that you respond to, you answer lots of questions. So a lot of what I view as my role is… Quite frankly, I do a lot of customer service, right? We get calls from engineers, we get calls from scientists who are like, “I need to purchase this,” or “I need to spend some money.”
[Ben] Or why am I $400,000 over this month?
[Ben] Oh, because all your people from last month billed this month and didn’t bill last month.
[Bart] Right. So there’s an element of you come in and you help people. Again, like I said, it’s about helping the mission move forward. The best way we can do that is to make sure that our technical folks aren’t too bogged down in the minutia of financial tracking and how to purchase something. When they do start to get bogged down in those areas, to make sure that we’re there as a resource.
[Howard] So, when your phone rings, it is, “Procurement, I have a problem.”
[Bart] Right. Yeah, exactly, exactly. I should rename my office Houston, right? To make it work. But, yes. Quite frankly… Or, “I have a question.” Sometimes it’s not quite to the problem stage, it’s the “I’m about to do something. How do I avoid it a problem?”
[Howard] How do I create a problem?
[Ben] So, early in my career, when I was still working for the OCSO. This is a little bit embarrassing, but I’m going to share it, because I like embarrassing myself. But I’d been on the job for probably six months, and I got put in a program office. Which is a place you never put a rookie budget analyst. But they were having trouble hiring people, and I was a sharp up-and-comer. Top of my class kind of thing.
[Bart] Is that what they told you?
[Ben] That’s what they told me, Bart.
[Mary] So you just didn’t back away when they ask for volunteers fast enough?
[Ben] Yeah. Yeah, I know. So I was in charge of looking over two budgets. Both about $25 million. We had a program manager who was always giving away money. It was like… Yeah, fund that research, fund that research, fund that research. My boss was like, “Ben, you gotta hide some money from this guy.”
[Ben] So we… Because something’s going to break, and then he’s not going to have the money to solve it. So we did that, very judiciously. We get into a budget meeting. It’s this program manager and all of his direct reports, right? He’s like, “Ben, what’s this line right here?” I was like, “Oh, we use that to fund research.” Pretty soon… He just kept digging. “But what research? What are we doing with that?” Pretty soon, all of his direct reports are just laughing, because they know what’s going on. They know that that’s his slush fund, that he supposed to hide from everybody else and keep in case there’s an emergency. He totally blew his own cover.
[Ben] My boss is kicking me under the table. He’s like, “You… You… Really blew it.” Then afterwards, he laughed and he was like, “No. It was fine. He had that coming to him.” But…
[Ben] That’s a little bit of a story of kind of the unsexy side of space.
[Howard] It’s a heist novel now.
[Mary] But actually, that circles back to something that we were talking about when we were talking about with The Martian, about lining up the dominoes and just knocking them down. Are there things that you can spot when you’re doing budget analyst… Analysis or when you’re doing procurement, are there things that you can… Problems that you can spot before they happen? Just by the way things line up?
[Bart] Absolutely. So one of the biggest things we do is we, as Ben mentioned, we track things. People put a plan in, and then we status to that plan. If you’re blowing your budget, if you’re 50% over budget, early on we can, of course, flag our technical people and say, “You’re going to blow your budget if you don’t slow down, or if you don’t find an additional funding source.”
[Ben] Why are these costs coming in right now? What, what… Oh, we just… We needed some extra support for X, Y, and Z. Then you can take that and say, “Well. Okay, here’s the long term ramifications of taking that outside instead of handling it in-house.” Because we have vendors, we have contractors that do work for us. In fact, NASA’s 85% private sector, and only 15% civil service. Or you can take somebody that’s already paid for. If they can do that work, then technically they’re not sitting around. So those are some things that Bart would look at in a month-to-month budget analysis.
[Bart] We also get policies from the government that come in, and they say, “Hey, you have to conform to X, Y, and Z.” Quite frankly, sometimes Congress passes these regulations and they don’t see the real world impact. So we take a lot of those and we translate into what that means for our engineers.
[Ben] Or the real world impact isn’t as important to them as the policy that they’re enacting.
[Bart] So it’s figuring out those as early as possible. If you can figure those out before it’s implemented, than that of course can save you a lot of pain and innocent heartache.
[Howard] These are things that show up in… For want of a better term… A spreadsheet? You push the graph function and you can see very clearly, “Oh. You’ve made yourself go faster, and now you don’t have enough fuel to decelerate and land.”
[Ben] And you’re explaining in a way that people… One thing. Spotting issues. So, in the business office, one of my jobs is evaluating the responses that we get from bidders, and kind of performing the translation from what the technical staff wants to… Like I’m a words and communications guy… To what the budget analysts and the procurement people need. When you have a skilled procurement official on your source board, and you’re getting these bids in, they will save you years of time. I’ve had experiences where we’ve had a less experienced procurement official who has to go to someone higher than them to ask questions and to kind of keep things moving. Unfortunately, sometimes mistakes are made that then cost a lot of time. Then you maybe have to slip the mission, because this contract isn’t awarded when it needs to be awarded.
[Mary] When you say slip the mission, just because it’s jargon, I want to make sure that people know what it means.
[Ben] So your schedule… In other words, we were going to fly this flight in September, now we have to fly it in December, because we didn’t get the landing gear hinges that you needed.
[Howard] Well, in some cases, when you slip the window, for things like the Juno mission, your window doesn’t happen again… Doesn’t open again for years, because of the positions of things.
[Ben] Two, 10, 15 years down the road. Yeah.
[Dan] All right. I’ve got a different question for you. Actually, Ben and I, in college we both worked on the Leading Edge magazine. Very briefly we were there together. Which was a small press science fiction magazine run by students that… One of the reasons that that was such a valuable experience for me is because we didn’t have any money. So it taught us the business side of publishing in addition to the creative side. So, I want to ask, is there a similar analog for you, where the lack of resources or the inability to get exactly what you want actually improves your innovation or the creativity of the space center?
[Bart] I think so. Absolutely. NASA gets $19 billion a year, which sounds like a lot of money, but it’s less than half of a percent of the federal budget. So in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a lot. So that’s one of the functions I do is that we take these very limited resources, and we work with our engineers and scientists to determine the best ways to spend those resources. Sometimes that means you invent this brand-new technology to be able to accomplish something. Sometimes it means you buy something right off the shelf and modify it. So…
[Ben] And don’t pay $30,000 for an engineer to go design it. If you’ve already got something that works. It meets the minimum criteria, rather than…
[Howard] That thing we saw in the virtual reality lab today, which is…
[Mary] So cool.
[Howard] Well, we turned a laptop upside down. We strapped a pair of goggles to it. Then we wrote software that would let you do VR while wearing a ThinkPad on your head. As a hat.
[Mary] In space, so you didn’t have to deal with the gravity.
[Howard] In space.
[Mary] Because that was the way they needed to solve VR when VR goggles were not a thing you could just get.
[Ben] One other piece of innovation that my office has been a little bit involved in that’s been interesting is what unique capacity do we have where we do not compete with the private sector, but… So, we have a big pool. The neutral buoyancy lab. It is a unique facility. Well, is it used 100% capacity? Well, yes, we use it efficiently. We’re always training. But there are sections of that pool that aren’t being used. So we have had commercial partners come in and say we will pay some of the rent for this facility and we will… We’ll give you money for that. That makes NASA’s dollars go farther because they’re offsetting our costs.
[Howard] So, on Tuesday mornings, there’s water aerobics.
[Ben] I will bring that up at our next staff meeting.
[Howard] I have done enough damage to NASA already. We are out of time. I hate to cut it short.
[Howard] Ben, do you have a writing prompt for us?
[Ben] Absolutely. My writing prompt for you is write a story about when a budget analyst and a procurement intern actually helped.
[Dan] So, fantasy.
[Ben] You clearly weren’t listening.
[Howard] This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.