Columnist Lee Dye Remembers a NASA Rebel

— Ollie is dead, ending the long, tumultuous career of a space pioneer of extraordinary skill and courage, although you may never have heard his name.

Oliver Harwood first came into my life in the mid-1980s, when I was a science writer for the Los Angeles Times, and he was a senior engineer for the aerospace giant, Rockwell International. He died recently of a heart attack, the only way anyone could have ended Ollie's desperate battle to change the way this country does business in space exploration.

He was not the kind of guy you could tell to shut up.

In the end, his efforts cost him his job, and left him idolized by some, and despised by others, because he dared rock a boat that for many had proved very profitable. For more than a decade Ollie argued to anyone who would listen, including the U.S. Congress, that the space station envisioned by NASA would prove too costly, take too long to build, exhaust the shuttle fleet, and not end up being what we really needed.

He lost that battle, and the cost of what was once envisioned as an $8 billion station is now above $30 billion and rising, the shuttle fleet is grounded because of a tragic accident, the International Space Station is far from completed, and even many of the scientists it was supposed to serve are disenchanted.

Battled With the ‘Client’

The irony in all of this is that Ollie loved space exploration, and was a key player in the design and construction of the nation's first space station, Skylab. He wanted to see the United States build a station that would serve our needs for generations, gradually evolving and growing in a systematic way as we learned more about what we really need in an orbiting laboratory.

"After you get up there is when you want to design it," he told me in 1987.

My guess is Ollie knew, even then, that he was going to lose. As a veteran aerospace engineer who had worked for several leading companies, he knew better than most that many of the best ideas went begging because no one wanted to offend "the client," which the rest of us know as NASA.

All too often, he told me many times, NASA decides what it wants, and then tells the outside experts to deliver it. No creative input desired.

NASA, of course, disputes that. It claims to be an agency always eager to listen. But if Ollie were still around, he would wonder how, then, we find ourselves in the mess we're in today. Shuttles grounded indefinitely, and so obsolete that even their future is uncertain. An uncompleted and ill-conceived space station. A pot of gold orbiting the earth with few dividends.

Ollie would say unabashedly that even he could have done a better job.

That's probably why many years ago he started glueing toothpicks together.

A Flexible Station

The strongest geometrical structure is an equilateral triangle, he told me long ago, so he began by gluing the ends of three toothpicks in a triangular pattern. Following the design concept made famous by Buckminster Fuller in his geodesic dome, Ollie added other toothpicks to the pattern as his first model grew from a triangle to a tetrahedron, a triangular enclosure with four faces. He found he could make his model grow indefinitely by adding more toothpicks and building more triangles.

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