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.

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.