Few people take Kansas’ motto as literally as Stan Schaefer does. As deputy chief of NASA’s systems division, which includes duties for both shuttle and space station operations, this WSU-educated engineer has felt the exhilaration, and the pain, of years of exploratory missions “to the stars through difficulty.”
With just a hint of sheepishness, Stan Schaefer ’87, an 18-year NASA veteran who has held the post of deputy chief of the Johnson Space Center’s systems division for four years, admits to being hooked on episodes of Lost in Space when he was growing up in Derby, Kan.
“I remember making my sister, Lisa, play Lost in Space when we were kids,” he says.
The 1960s TV program revolved around the adventures of the Robinson family, who were, of course, lost in space and busy voyaging off to a different planet every week. Flight, whether through alien regions of space to planets of fictional origin or to real destinations closer to Earth, is a recurring theme in Schaefer’s life.
His mother, Janet, relates that Stan’s early affinity for airplanes was nurtured by his father, Marlin, a career Air Force pilot, and eventually led to a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from Wichita State, a choice of university that proved popular in the Schaefer family.
“All three of our kids went to WSU,” Janet Schaefer says. “Lisa has a bachelor’s degree in education, and our youngest, Ryan, got his in aerospace engineering.”
Both Stan and Ryan ’97, who, in 2000, completed two master’s degrees from MIT, one in aerospace engineering, the other in technology policy, and who now is an aerospace consultant in the advanced technology area of SRA International in Alexandria, Va., took advantage of WSU’s cooperative education program to complete tours of degree-related and paid duty at Houston’s Johnson Space Center.
“My whole college experience was wonderful,” Schaefer says over the phone in his office at the Johnson Space Center, “but one of the most important things I brought from Wichita State to my work here at NASA is engineering common sense — the fundamentals of how things work. I didn’t take any courses in business, though, things like budget and personnel management. I’d recommend students who see themselves in future management situations get a mix of those kinds of classes, too.”
As deputy division chief, Schaefer helps oversee the budget for and the 350 professionals who work within the systems division, which comprises six branches that are, in turn, made up of 18 groups of specialists who handle such vital areas as, to name only a few, communications, space shuttle guidance and control, space station guidance and propulsion, and life support.
Overall, the systems division covers flight control issues and shuttle and space station operations — a monumental charge.
“I was a bit overwhelmed at first,” Schaefer says about his first few weeks on the job. But his new duties didn’t intimidate him for long. “Stan,” relates division chief Richard Fitts, “has the rare combination of technical and people skills that enable him to tackle any problem facing our large and diverse organization. He is an excellent deputy division chief, and I’m glad to have him on my staff.”
Schaefer’s training ground in NASA management was serving as chief of the systems division’s DF6 Guidance and Propulsion Systems Branch, a position he landed in 1997. As branch chief, he oversaw some 65 NASA civil servants and contractors. Schaefer welcomed this move into management, but found he missed the immediacy of manning a Mission Control Center console during real-time operations.
Back in the early 1990s, he was one of only two NASA engineers certified to work on the ascent guidance, navigation and control (GMC) console. “I don’t work the console anymore,” he reports, the wistfulness in his voice only fleeting. “There is still a technical side to my job, which I love, but my work interests have broadened to include project and budget management. Managing a budget may sound boring, but it’s actually interesting — nothing can happen without the money going to the right places. Added to that is the people aspect. One of the most important parts to this work is seeing that our people are supported, that the right things are there for them.”
Triumphs and Tragedy
During Schaefer’s 18-year — and counting — career with NASA, he’s amassed a hefty résumé filled with science-and-technology adventure stories and feats of engineering that have played major roles in furthering the success of America’s space explorations.
In 1995, for instance, Schaefer, then a GNC officer, monitored the Shuttle Endeavour’s systems and stood ready to lead his team into action if anything went wrong with the craft while in orbit.
Nothing went wrong, and experiments performed aboard the shuttle helped engineers design vibration-resistant components for the International space station and assisted scientists in unraveling some of the mysteries of ultraviolet radiation emanating from galactic objects deep in space.
Even at that time, Schaefer already had played a part in sending 29 flights into space, all of which, like the scores that flew before, gathered information and inspired research activities that have enriched numerous fields of inquiry, from the vast reaches of astronomy to the microscopic realms of pharmacology and medicine.
The mission he counts as perhaps his most rewarding is STS-61, the first shuttle flight sent up to service the optically impaired Hubble Space Telescope.
“I guess I’m just a space geek,” Schaefer says with a laugh. “I still get excited about being a part of things like the Hubble repair. There have been two upgrades to the telescope since that mission, and the discoveries about the universe that have come from that telescope are just amazing — I don’t have the words to describe how amazing. In my mind, the costs of the space program have been paid for many times over with discoveries like that.”
Since its inception in 1958, NASA has accomplished many triumphs of discovery. Yet, like most great treks into the unknown, the triumphs have been tempered with tragedy. Crews have been lost despite elaborate safety measures and stringent training for not only astronauts but Mission Control personnel as well.
“When we train for shuttle missions, we train hundreds of simulation hours,” Schaefer says. “These sims are of the highest fidelity — they’re very real. We’ll train to handle 10 or 12 system failures in an hour so that on a real flight if there’s one or two, it’s no problem to recover those systems or reconfigure them to get the crew home. The one thing you can’t get in training is the feeling that ‘this is real.’”
It was real Feb. 1 when Shuttle Columbia and its seven-person crew — Commander Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon, a colonel in the Israeli Air Force — re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere at Mach 25, its skin blazing in 3,000 degree F heat.
And something went wrong.
“Bringing a shuttle back home is risky and dangerous business,” Schaefer says. “With the Columbia, everything seemed to be going as expected. The de-orbit burn and entry targeting were done successfully using well-established procedures, and it was a fairly quiet time frame, in the navigational sense, when — when the folks who were in the control center started asking, ‘What can we do?’, they realized they couldn’t do anything. We had lost the crew, and we each went through our own little bit of hell.”
NASA immediately deployed a team to collect debris to determine the cause of the accident and also to protect the public from hazardous materials. Initial team members were sent to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana to set up a field center.
“I asked Stan to assist in setting up the recovery efforts after the disastrous loss of the Shuttle Columbia,” Fitts says. “He helped establish the organizational structure and processes that contributed to the overall success of the recovery effort.”
Schaefer’s immediate priorities were tracking every single one of the debris reports raining in not only from Louisiana and Texas but also, illogically, from all across the country.
“When I first got there, I was kinda doing triage on the reports coming in so we could get search teams to the right spots,” he says. “We then built a database for all the reports and later mapped out all the debris data that each team identified. We needed to find every scrap of information we could to help us understand what happened.” Searchers recovered 70,000 items, 37 percent of the shuttle by weight.
Schaefer was posted at Barksdale for 10 days.
“When I came back,” he says, “it hit me that the most amazing thing about the recovery was the level of cooperation we had. There was just a tremendous coming together of people from four different NASA centers and from organizations we don’t usually work with, like FEMA, the Coast Guard, the EPA, the Air Force, the U.S. Forest Service. And people from the communities in Louisiana and Texas were incredible. They came out to do whatever they could to help.”
Members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board have yet to announce their final conclusions about the cause of the accident.
The remaining shuttles remain grounded.
“We’re looking carefully into all of the things we need to know and do to return to flight,” says Schaefer, who is fully aware of the argument of some NASA critics who say the space program’s cost — especially the cost in human lives — is too great.
His responses to this debate over human beings in space center on a sense of wonder he shares with no less a figure than Leonardo da Vinci, who, having flown only in imagination, nonetheless wrote: “When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the Earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
And on a pragmatic yet no less poetic reality: “There’s this cartoon by Bob Gorrell that pretty much sums up the issue for me,” Schaefer relates. “The first panel has a NASA astronaut standing there saying, ‘Some of you may be asking if we belong in space.’ The second panel is a scene of Earth from space, with galaxies in the background, and the astronaut’s words continue, ‘Well, it’s not like we really have any choice!’”
Eyes Turned Skyward
“We’re getting deeper into our return-to-flight actions,” Schaefer reports. “There’s a lot of work to do, but people can see where it’s leading and that keeps our spirits high.”
One focus of Schaefer’s current work is helping ensure that one of the most complex engineering and construction projects in the history of the world, the International Space Station, stays on budget and can reach, first, core complete status with a three-person crew and then on to assembly complete with a fully manned six-person crew. Aboard the ISS now — shuttled via Russian rocket and busy with dozens of experiments in microgravity — are Expedition Seven crewmembers Commander Yuri Malenchenko and NASA’s Ed Lu.
“The station is truly an international venture,” Schaefer says. “Sixteen countries are contributing to this pinnacle of manned space flight.”
He pauses a moment before rocketing off into other possibilities: “Before my career is over at NASA, I wouldn’t mind working on a lunar mission or a Mars mission.” Or whatever might be the next staging ground for adventure.