Columnist Lee Dye Remembers a NASA Rebel

In Ollie's plan, the toothpicks would be replaced by struts that would support various components of an evolving space station. It would grow until it eventually became a giant structure, sort of like a geodesic dome, orbiting the Earth. Then Ollie would wrap the entire assemblage in plastic, creating a huge warehouse to serve the needs of all the components in the structure.

With that kind of flexibility, the station could be whatever is needed today, and change quickly to whatever is needed tomorrow. We would build as we learned.

Ollie's plan so intrigued me that I took it to several NASA engineers I knew pretty well. All said it was terrific, brilliant in its simplicity, but that nothing could be done because that would require stepping on the toes of bureaucratic warlords.

Finally, I ran across Rex Ridenoure who was then at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and is now the chief executive officer of Ecliptic Enterprises Corp., of Pasadena, Calif., the company that builds the cameras that provide those neat pictures as the shuttle and other spacecraft blast off.

"I thought this was one of the most elegant things I had ever seen," Ridenoure told me then, and he began circulating the plan at NASA headquarters. Eventually, it reached members of Congress, and Ollie was invited to Washington to tell them what he thought.

He gave them an earful.

And, of course, it all went nowhere.

Our Own Station

Ollie's employer, by the way, had also had an earful. One day Ollie and two of his colleagues received a letter from Rockwell stating that if they continued talking publicly about his plan they could be fired.

Ollie, of course, called me up and read me the letter, which I published in the Los Angeles Times. He retired from Rockwell soon after that.

I didn't hear from him for several years, but in 1993 he began circulating an essay briefly outlining his thoughts on why the United States shouldn't start construction of the space station because it was a lousy design. He argued, once again, that NASA needed to learn how to listen better.

As I reread that manifesto recently, one argument leaped out at me. The space program isn't NASA's, Ollie argued. It belongs to all of us.

And somewhere along the way, NASA and the corporations who do its bidding have, as Ollie said, "forgotten that the best way to succeed in business is to give the customer his money's worth." It wasn't too late, he argued, to start all over with a space station design that could be useful for decades, if not centuries. No one listened then, either.

Only recently did I learn that Ollie died quietly in his sleep on June 2, at the age of 80. So this one's for you, Ollie. Wherever you are, give 'em hell.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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