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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

STEVEN INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Tomorrow, NASA attempts its first space shuttle launch in nearly a year. The man in charge is Wayne Hale. He is the space shuttle program manager and you will see him on TV talking about thinks like ice, frost, ramps and the aerodynamics of foam. But Wayne Hale has another side. It comes out in the personal emails that he writes to space shuttle team.

They are meditations on life, death, and the meaning of rocket science.

Here is NPR's Nell Boyce.

NELL BOYCE reporting:

Just before space shuttle Discovery blasts off, Wayne Hale will be in the firing room. It's where flight controllers make the critical decision on whether to go ahead with the launch, and where they count down the final seconds.

Wayne Hale knows exactly what they'll be feeling. He spent 15 years as a flight director in charge of reentry, watching the weather and having to make a similar call, go or no go.

Mr. WAYNE HALE (Space Shuttle Program Manager): I have given that go 28 times. Every time was the toughest thing I have ever done. And I've never been a hundred percent certain. It's always been gray, never a sure thing.

BOYCE: That's Wayne Hale reading a recent email. He writes that the control room is not the place to show doubt.

Mr. HALE: It's almost a requirement to speak the words much bolder then what you feel like it was it an easy call. Then you pray that you were right.

BOYCE: Behind NASA's go, go, go, there is a lot of angst, and that's what Wayne Hale often talks about in his emails. They go out to thousands of people in the shuttle program who forward them on to friends and outside contractors. The emails can be pensive but also funny. Sometimes they sound like a sermon and sometimes like a letter from a close friend.

Mr. HALE: I have this impulse that is just almost uncontainable, of an idea that needs to be expressed, and I'm not sure I could suppress it if I wanted to. It's just got to come out.

BOYCE: Wayne Hale admits that for a mechanical engineer who normally just writes technical reports, this is a little unusual.

Mr. HALE: It's not easy for an engineer, maybe, to put words on paper.

BOYCE: But Wayne Hale does, or at least he types the words on a computer screen, often in airports and hotel rooms. His emails deal with things that NASA people might feel but rarely talk about. In one he describes the flight director's last meeting with the astronauts before a launch.

He paints a vivid scene of good friends and co-workers being desperately casual, trying to hide there fear of disaster. There's bad jokes, last minutes reminders about wake up calls.

Mr. HALE: At the end we have the ritual of the handshake. Everyone has to shake everyone else's hand before we leave. We look each other in the eye and say, good luck. They always say, we're looking forward to a great flight. But nobody ever talks about you know, but we all know.

BOYCE: It's a macho culture, he says, and it's one he has worked in for nearly 30 years. Wayne Hale wanted to be an astronaut as child, but he had lousy eyesight. So instead he became the person who sends the astronauts up. And if you read his email you realize that both jobs take courage.

Mr. HALE: Well, you know, the people that go into space they have true courage. They put their lives on the line. They really put their physical person in harm's way.

LUDDEN: All the other people in the program may be physically safe, but they are putting part of themselves on the line.

Mr. HALE: Most of us that sit on the ground - you know, this is something we believe in, and if we're unsuccessful, it can be psychologically difficult. It's an emotional risk.

LUDDEN: Here is an email that Wayne Hale sent out around the anniversary of the Columbia disaster. In it he declares himself guilty in what he calls the court of his own conscience.

Mr. HALE: This is a tougher one for me to read but I'll read through it. We could discus the particulars in attention, in competence, distraction, lack of conviction, lack of understanding, lack of backbone, laziness, the bottom line is, that I failed to understand what I was being told. I failed to stand up and be counted. And therefore, look no further, I am guilty of allowing Columbia to crash.

LUDDEN: Now, he didn't mention this in his email, but Wayne Hale did listen to the engineers who were worried about damage to Columbia. He even requested photos that might have revealed the problem. Another NASA official canceled that request. Still Hale feels the wound, and he wrote that email after a NASA employee told him that no top manager had ever taken blame for the crash.

Hale may talk about this kind of stuff more than other people at NASA, but he says plenty of his colleagues seem to feel the same kind of anguish over decisions that they have to make every day.

Mr. HALE: They don't normally talk about it outside the community very much. It's something that I think most folks, being the tight-lipped technical crowd that we are have difficulty expressing in public, perhaps. But you know, we're all people. We all think about what we're doing and the risks involved and the decisions that we have to make. And sometimes those weigh heavily on you.

BOYCE: Just how much people worry became clear in the run-up to this mission, when two senior officials expressed concerns. They fear that the shuttle is still at risk from the same kind of foam damage that doomed Columbia. This time, however, the crew can be evacuated to the space station if things go wrong. So NASA Administrator Michael Griffin decided the risk was acceptable.

Wayne Hale writes a lot about why people need to take calculated risks. As well as the ever-present angst, his e-mails are full of excitement and inspiration. In one story, he talks about growing up out West, hearing tales of the early pioneers. As a boy, he'd go visit his great-grandmother, who walked alongside the family wagon.

Mr. HALE: What's shown through during these visits was a strength of character, a clarity of purpose, and a directness and communication that made you forget the frailty of old age. Do we still have what our pioneer ancestors had?

BOYCE: For him, the answer is yes, at NASA they do.

Wayne Hale admits that the upcoming mission is kind of pedestrian. It's just bringing supplies to the space station. But in his words, that station is our only foothold in the new frontier.

Mr. HALE: We're involved in what I think is the great and noble activity of our time. I personally am convinced that when they write the history books 200 years from now, 500 years from now, they will say mankind moved out into the universe to stay. And that was the most important thing that happened.

BOYCE: But even if he thinks this is the most important thing he could be doing with his life, all of his writing makes you realize that tomorrow's launch will be nerve-wracking. This is the first flight with Wayne Hale as head of the space shuttle program, so yes, sometimes Wayne Hale longs to get away from the pressure.

Mr. HALE: Oh, yeah, I frequently imagine myself doing something a lot less stressful than this. Yes.

BOYCE: Like what?

Mr. HALE: Oh, I - Wal-Mart greeter, I think, comes to mind. I don't know. It's a great job. I thoroughly enjoy what I do most days. And frankly, I would pay to come get in the door if they didn't pay me to come here. So...

BOYCE: Space shuttle Discovery is scheduled to launch tomorrow at 3:49 p.m.

Nell Boyce, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can read several of Wayne Hale's e-mails in which he explains why you should never stay home, and what makes countries great, by going to npr.org.

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