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Tuesday, Jan 31, 2023
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Flight Insight



William Ballhaus Jr. has been around aerospace all his life, so he has some perspective on the possibilities as well as the frustrations. Ballhaus, who directed NASA’s Ames Research Center and has served on panels investigating missile launch failures, is critical of some of the government’s spending and procurement procedures. After a stint at Lockheed Martin Corp., he became head of Aerospace Corp., L.A. County’s largest non-profit organization, with 3,500 employees and almost $600 million in annual Defense Department funding. The organization functions in many capacities: as an engineering and technical advisor, watchdog and knowledge base for the government’s missile and satellite programs. Most of its work is for the Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base, helping the government select and evaluate the contract work provided by aerospace companies.



Question: Do you think you’ll live to see people walking on Mars?

Answer:

It depends on whether we can get enough momentum around the exploration initiatives and if the societal benefit can justify the expenditure. Civil space also provides an instrument of national policy, like the way Kennedy used it. The question is can we get enough political base to give it traction. President Bush said we’ll go to the moon and Mars, but didn’t put a timetable to it the way Kennedy did.



Q: Does the delay of the Space Shuttle launch bring back memories of previous space program accidents?

A:

I was director of NASA’s Ames Research Center when the Challenger disaster happened in 1986, on my 41st birthday. We knew the astronauts. We were all shocked, it was personally devastating. We rarely invent a new mistake in the space business, but often we just don’t learn from the mistakes in the past.


Q: Does the second shuttle disaster in 2003 mean that we haven’t learned from the first?

A:

It reaffirms a few things about the importance of attention to detail and quality and not letting unresolved problems go unaddressed, which was the case in Columbia. And making sure you’re not operating outside your certifications. The shuttle wasn’t certified to take a hit from flying debris. We never thought that debris could be a problem. Now we know that’s false. The striking thing to me about the investigation was that it said this was nobody’s fault and that there is no clear accountability. Figuring out who to hang is a political decision, but clearly there needs to be individual and organizational accountability.



Q: Are space programs still driving innovation in technology as they have historically?

A:

No. Now consumer electronics is driving everything. So in the space industry we’re trying to hitchhike on this huge electronics industry that’s consumer product oriented, but we don’t have the kind of control we used to.



Q: What are the causes of the industry’s launch failures and cost overruns?

A:

During the 1990s they really lost the recipe. Our mistakes in those days are well documented. It was better, cheaper, faster, which was a good notion, but it was poorly executed. About a third of the missions had critical failures. The whole idea was we could turn everything over to industry and we gave them the accountability. The government, in trying to save money, tried to squeeze all the money it could out of these programs and they put the savings up front.



Q: How do defects happen through cost-cutting?

A:

When you generate latent defects in hardware, it means the difference between finding defects in a component at the beginning instead of at the tail end, when you’re ready to ship. Then it costs more time and money to fix it because you have to tear everything apart and find the problem, and then you have to put it all together again and do the testing again.



Q: Walk us through an example.

A:

A typical problem was electromagnetic interference. One single component has no problems, but when you get the whole package integrated, you get interference, and it can take months to do find out what it is and drive out all the interference.



Q: How would you describe what Aerospace Corp. does?

A:

Basically we’re the technical arm of the government. We help the government formulate space programs that are executable, helping them reduce the technical risk and working with the aerospace contractors to help the government be a smart buyer. Our Department of Defense contract covers work for the Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office stuff we can’t talk about and work for NASA, and for some agencies that have tasks that our expertise can handle, like the FBI.



Q: How does it contribute to business and the economy?

A:

Our main contribution is to national security and intelligence, not to drive the economy. But Global Position Satellite technology, for example, which was co-invented by Aerospace Corp. for the military, has an enormous impact. I drive a Chrysler with a GPS receiver and mapping navigation system.



Q: What’s the next big thing in aerospace locally?

A:

Transformational communications, using net-centric military operations where all the different platforms, ships, tanks, jeeps and planes become nodes on a network, providing information to the war fighters. It takes tremendous systems engineering.



Q: Will that depend heavily on the latest telecommunications technology?

A:

I think it will go the other way. Our challenge will be to design an architecture that will endure as telecommunications technology evolves. Because the telecommunications industry develops a lot faster than new satellites, which take four to five years. The satellite system we come up with has to be able to handle those changes. The military would really like a system for all weather, day and night intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, to know where everything is at a given time. Space radar systems will be essential for that.


Q: What groundbreaking work did you do at Ames?

A:

I spent my first few years figuring out how to solve equations governing the flow of fluids over aircraft bodies, but at close to the speed of sound, which hadn’t been done before. I used the early supercomputers, and it resulted in a tool that the aircraft industry could use to build aircraft. And today you wouldn’t design an aircraft without doing that. For people in aerodynamics, it was a huge advance.



Q: What was your career turning point?

A:

When I became director of astronautics at Ames. I went from running a group of 10 people doing research to running an organization with about 750 people, doing work on the U-2 high altitude spyplanes, the Kuiper Airborne Observatory (an infrared flying telescope built on a modified cargo jet), the infrared astronomical satellite, the Galileo probe to Jupiter. That was a big jump.



Q: Why go from the research side to the industry side at Lockheed?

A:

Financial reasons. We had a Silicon Valley mortgage and four kids going to college. But I also knew at some point I would make that move. I was looking forward to the challenge. I had done public service, I understood how government operated, and I wanted to execute space programs myself.



Q: How did your family end up a three-generation L.A. aerospace family?

A:

My father William Ballhaus was the first generation in our family to get a college education and he felt very strongly about the importance of education. He went to Caltech and worked for Douglas Aircraft and became an executive VP at Northrop in 1952. I saw him enjoying his work, and thought it would be an interesting career. I came to see the beauty in math and science. I was in college in the Sputnik era. And we all really believed at the time that we were going to colonize the moon, and explore Mars, and that really inspired me and a lot of people to go into math and science.



Q: And your son?

A:

My dad worked on building planes when the industry would come out with new aircraft every couple of years. Now my son, William L. Ballhaus, is running BAE mission solutions, working on the network centric command and control communications systems. He sees that as the future.

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