Oral History Transcript — Dr. Goetz Oertel
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Interview with Dr. Goetz Oertel
Goetz Oertel; February 7, 2001
ABSTRACT:This interview is a follow-up to a previous interview by S. Weart in 1978. The interview deals with Oertel's career since then. Primary topics are Oertel's time at Department of Energy and his participation in various nuclear waste programs. Interactions with environmentalists, other agencies. In 1986, Oertel became president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy. Remainder of interview focuses on his involvement with AURA, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Gemini Telescopes Project, and the astronomy community in general.
Session I | Session II
McCray:Spencer's interview with you in '78, when he left off with that you had just begun to work at the Department of Energy Headquarters and were Director, as your CV indicates, of Defense Waste and Byproducts Management. I'd like to jump back just a few years to how you made the transition from working at the National Science Foundation and NASA to the Department of Energy. Why don't we begin with that?
I guess the jumping off point was really in 1973 '74, in that period. At that time I was in NASA at NASA Headquarters in charge of the Solar Program and also as the manager for one of the other flight programs, but always on a acting basis over the program I was more or less over. In this NASA environment the dominant group were the engineers. That's the way it should be of course because basically NASA is a big engineering airport. It better well work and be safe and so on or else you can forget about working in science so it was right. But it was also true that the engineers had pretty much stereotyped the scientists as people who could, a) would not understand engineering, and b) would not understand management. I was really up to that point had never been a manager of anything, so I was kind of curious about it. When you're stereotyped in the boxes of something you can't do you always get interested in seeing well maybe I should try it.
At that point, I think it was a Nixon White House, Roy Ash was the Director of the OMB. Fred Mallic [?], now with the Carlyle Group here, was the Deputy. Those two decided that the Civil Service was all too provincial in the sense that provinces being the different departments. In that people always stuck with the same department or agency that they'd always been in and they wouldn't go out. Those two tried to change this. They said, "Okay. Let's see if you can't come up with a calvary of generals who might have grown up in one technical area or a nontechnical area or another that we have in common that they have management sense.
If we do that, if we have a problem somewhere we can throw them into that problem. We'd be able to then pull them out of the different departments. That way we are accomplishing a number of things. We've solved that problem presumably. When they go back the departments and agencies will be a little less provincial. And certainly, if nothing else, we're doing executive development for the individuals involved." It seemed like a good thing. They created something that was called the Federal Executive Development Program and invited all GS-15s government wide, which was of ordered magnitude 10,000 through all the branches of the Federal Government, GS-15 and the equivalent in different agencies that had special arrangements.
When this came along I said to myself, "Oh gee, this is really your chance to see if you can manage because this program seeks purely the manager." It doesn't pay any attention to the specialty that you may have. It seemed just the right thing to try oneself. I applied for it and of course I told my agency I was applying for and got a very interesting reaction from them. They encouraged me, but they said, "We had no idea that you had any interest at all in this." Sort of rather confirming the stereotyping that had been going on. Now they went through a process. You had to put in an application.
Then they whittled it down. They got comments from the agencies, evaluations, and so on. Whittled it down in this way to about 100 people. Then they did something that I thought was just the best thing I've experienced because I was one of the 100. That was an assessment center. I don't know whether you're familiar with what it is.
Let me explain it, because it really is a remarkable technique, I believe, for finding people whom you might want to select for a certain purpose. What you do is you get these people together and you give them exercises to do that in which they're being observed by their future peers. In this case these were exercises that reasonably you could be expected to have to do as a Civil Servant in one, two, three level higher positions up to head of departments and agencies that you might possibly get into.
They had the super grade type people and political appointees sitting around and taking notes about how you perform. They had some psychologists in this. I mean it was done very professionally. It was clear that they were giving a high priority to this in OMB so they just made it happen. By the way, I found out later they made it happen over the protest of the individual agencies.
Because the agencies maybe confirmed the premise in the process said, "Well, we know how to do these things. We don't want you to mess around with our people." Eventually they were told okay, this is how it's going to be. I was in the first year of that. There were only a total of three by the time the agencies had managed to kill the program.
McCray:You had three of these ?
Oertel:Only three years that's right. But fine. I should then say I got into the Assessment Center and I didn't think I would do very well because I'd flown in, just by happen stance I had some business in Europe. I flew in on a Sunday night and on Monday morning was the start of the exercise. It was really high pressure. I don't want to get into some of the exercises now, but they're really very challenging.
McCray:These are management types of exercises.
Oertel:Yes. There were both group exercises and individual exercises. They're really high pressure, high stress. The purpose was to assess talent not knowledge, ability to deal with new situations.
McCray:Sort of an intuitive ability to manage?
You might say that, yes. I mean there were never really any tests on, you know, do you know this book or do you know that book or do you know this theory or that. You were just confronted with work situations such as you would encounter. Then the people who live in those situations all time were rejecting you, without saying very much by the way. I mean, they're just sitting in the background.
It got very stressful at times. It was two and a half days of exercises and then two and a half days the assessors met and very carefully evaluated every exercise by every individual and all of that sort of thing. But for me it was just the two and a half days. After the two and a half days were over I said to myself, "Gee, if nothing ever comes of this, this will have been worth it." Because it seemed that I learned so much out of this as to how systems work, how people interact with each other and all of those kinds of things. I ended up being selected for it.
Then basically the 25 of us who were selected were given the run of the government. We were told okay, you can go wherever you want to. You take your village with you. In other words they don't have to pay you, but your home agency continued to pay you. It was one reason they didn't like it. So I said to myself at that time thinking very much in terms of staying in NASA, I said, "Okay, now what are the two, three things that I'm most curious about?" One turned out to be on my judgement then was President's Science Advisor and one was the OMB.
Out of the twelve months two were spent at the Federal Executive Institute as kind of a general training. Then I went five months to NSF, which was then the President's Science Advisor, Ike David. And the other half in OMB. Chua Loweth [?] at that time was the head of Energy, Science, and Space. Loweth who is, by the way, now in the AAS building working for SURA as vice president.
Oertel:Southeaster Universities Research Association. What they do, they run this accelerator in Virginia, CBATH [?]. Don't ask me what that stands for because I never remember.
McCray:So it's a university consortion type operation?
Yes. I went there for the budget season, which is of course the time you want to be there. I mean, I arrived there just before the agency submitted their budges and left when OMB had made its decision as to what should go into the President's budget.
There's a lot that goes on. In fact the workload in OMB was superhuman during that period. I mean they would literally work seven days week and they're usually there until 10:00, 11:00 at night. Then the rest of the year actually they just sort of gather information so it'd be ready for the next time this happens.
Of course I was there right during the high-pressure time. By the way, I got offered a job there to stay as a science examiner before it was through. I decided not to take that job because I felt that what I wanted to do was to make things happen. As an examiner your job is in essence to be negative, to challenge them.
McCray:To prevent things from happening.
Oertel:To prevent things from happening, particularly money from being spent. It just didn't seem to fit. I mean it was quite a compliment because they're at that time extremely selective so I was very pleased to be offered that, but it wasn't me. In any event, it was that process that then led naturally to being courted by various people. NSF came to me. They wanted me to take over the Astronomy Section, as it was called then. Then ERDA was being formed and head of Nuclear Energy there, had some found out about this program.
Energy Research and Development Administration. It was a short-lived interlude between the Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Energy. It only existed for about two, three years. I joined just after, six, seven months after the AEC had been abolished. I was there during most of ERDA and then of course the Department of Energy then followed.
Now you should also consider at the time the energy crisis had hit. I felt that that was a real challenge. I didn't know that much about energy, but was willing to learn it. Having had my ego built up through being selected I said, "Okay, now you're a journalist. Why not try your hand in the energy area?" That is how I got in there. I was initially not in the nuclear waste area. That came later. Initially I was a Staff Director for the Assistant Administrator, one of two staff directors.
McCray:What were your main responsibilities while you were there?
Oertel:In which position?
McCray:Up until 1983, the Office of Defense Waste and Byproducts.
The primary responsibility was handling of nuclear waste defined as that, which was not still useful material. I have to be very careful about this because certain things were included, for example the Hanford Reservation, Savannah River. Other things were completely a closed book. For example, I've never been to Fernalt at that time because Fernalt, you may have heard about the one that has. It's in Ohio. It was in the news big time about 12 years ago and it was discovered that they had uranium all over the place and people got exposed and whatnot.
That was a production plant, so my territory was that which had been declared as, in one way or the other, nuclear waste. Certainly high level waste at the big facilities was in that category. There were three sites where it existed, and still does. The second category was transuatic contaminated waste. This basically contains plutonium mainly. The third area was low level waste that could not be put into regular landfills. It had to be handled separately. There were two aspects to this. Problematically there was concurrent production of all of these things that was going on. Then there was handling of the inventory.
McCray:Of the waste that was bad for existence?
Thrown out. When I heard that this program was given to me, basically they had been only an interim solution. High level waste, for example, was put in carbon steel tanks, which has a life of about 25 years, and those were the good ones, the new ones. Some of the older ones, of course, had begun to leak. I mean a good number of 141 tanks, old tanks in Hanford were leaking, either confirmed or suspected. It was all an interim solution. Transuatic waste was being stored. The only thing that was being disposed of was low level waste that was not transuatic contaminated, but that was not being handled very well. It was basically thrown in the burial grounds.
Holes in the ground, everything dumped in, and then covered up. I viewed my task when I was given that, I said to my boss, "Look, I think we need to go beyond this because if you have forever just stored it, just the inventory will balloon and we'll never address the problem really. So this is no good." He said, "Okay. Give me a plan." So what I did was to have plans in these different areas. For high level waste, for example, I said, "Okay, we may not know exactly where it ultimately goes because there's no high level waste repository, but we certainly know it's not going to go there in liquid form." Nor even in— I mean it was being reduced somewhat in volume simply by evaporation.
McCray:Evaporating the water?
Oertel:Yes. Which still leaves everything behind. So it can not go there in this form. We said, "Alright. Let's find a solid form that it can be put in where you can store it and at least it's not going to go anywhere." For example if you have a lost institutional control or the area got flooded or whatever, this stuff would not just run out, but it would in fact be contained. There were three sites of this. I said, "Okay. The one we're going to do first is Savannah River because that's where the waste is near the ground water table." The others were Idaho and Richland and the stuff was far away from the ground water table. But then around the river it was—
Yes, a swamp basically. The tanks would float in the ground water if they weren't so heavy. So I said, "Okay, we've got to deal with that first." I pushed through in that area something called the Defense Waste Processing Facility, which is a waste to glass plant. It makes glass logs. As these things go, not cheap. The initial cost of it was somewhere around two to three billion dollars. The initial reaction I got to this one was you want to build an aircraft carrier in South Carolina, land locked, and it won't even launch planes. I mean that's what I heard on the Hill from a guy with whom I later got to be pretty good friends. I just chipped away at this one.
We got opposition from the OMB, of course, my old friends who hate to see three billion blown. The Academy even came out against it for various reasons. But I pushed it through. The damn thing has been built. Part of what we did was to, you know, had the DuPont Company in charge, which is technically superb, but not cheap. They were the ones who it was actually a $3.2 billion number they had given us. So I worked them over and we had some technical studies made. I said to them, "Okay, look at this, look at that, look at that." Ultimately they themselves came to me and they said, "For $900 million," which was less than a third, "we can deal with all of the waste."
Because they had figured out, well basically because it was being neutralized, there was a precipitate, which was highly radioactive. Then there was also the salt, which was what was left from evaporation of the waters. It was basically sulfate, calcium sulfate, sodium sulfate was there in large amounts. That in itself is not a problem except it was all full of seism [?] and estrancium [?], the two most radioactive fission products estrancium and seism. The estrancium along with almost all other fission products went straight into the precipitate and that was gone. It was only the seism that was in the salt. There was so much salt we had to precipitate that that was a huge problem. It was going to cost more than half of the total job.
McCray:To deal with that?
Oertel:To deal with that. They came to me finally and they said, "We think we have it. We can process this stuff right in the tanks. We can use the storage tanks themselves as the processing facility." That saves huge money because the so-called canyons that you fill that, you know, 10-, 12-foot walls and they're huge. You can imagine what it costs to put one of those suckers together. They only needed the canyon, the precipitate—
McCray:What is the canyon again?
Oertel:Canyon is the building. It is literally, I mean when you look at this thing, twelve-foot walls or nine or whatever they were. Huge walls on both sides and then it's very long. When you enter this thing before it's radioactive if you know what's good for you, then it just looks like a canyon. It's a canyon with a roof on it. It's just a term that in our field. These processing facilities are called canyons.
McCray:Did there have to be extensive research to find appropriate glass compositions that will work?
McCray:Because I'm thinking glass under certain conditions can corrode and materials can be leeched out of the glass.
Oertel:Absolutely. There was huge research program in that that ranged far and wide. I mean, before we selected glass we looked at ceramics and what not and ultimately went for the glass because the processing of the ceramics was a nightmare. You had to basically make it very hot and put it under pressure at the same time. [Inaudible; both speaking]. Right. Whereas all that was feasible in principle and it had been done on the lab scale, to do it in an industrial scale you'd have to have fantastically good reasons. Also glass if really something goes wrong, you have to the wrong glass you melt the son-of-a-bitch again and you adjust it. You're not going to do that very easily with ceramics.
McCray:Once you've fired it and impressed it and everything it's there.
Oertel:It is what it is, exactly. There were all kind of reasons why glass was better. Then it gets to be a question of what glass to use. Very interesting thickness that by the way that you're running into. For example one of the tests that had been applied to glass to find out how it would last was to leech it with distilled water.
McCray:I'm familiar with that test, yes.
Oertel:I had always thought, well, that's a very clean way. I like clean experiments, so if you take distilled water you know you're not getting into some complicated chemistry. Well somebody suggested well we better also have some tests with real water such as you would encounter in mines and of course we did that. To my amazement it turned out that the toughest thing that you could do the glass was distilled water. For reasons that is very simple, and that's Action Law. The distilled water is hungry. It contains absolutely nothing of anything. It's just water.
McCray:So it's eager to pull something out of the glass.
Oertel:If it can be pulled out, distilled water will pull it out. Whereas other water we found would basically, whatever was in the other water, would very quickly form a surface layer on the glass. It would actually add to the glass rather than leech off it. As soon as that surface layer was established it no longer leeched.
McCray:Because you sort of formed a protective barrier, I guess.
Oertel:Yes. Canadians, for example, had at one point when the environmentalists would still let them do this, there was some glass with high level waste in it in a swamp. Then measure what was happening and really basically nothing happened to this stuff. Of course we've got to be smarter hopefully than to put all of this stuff in a swamp without any packaging. There the idea was that packaging on top of it and to put in a dry situation.
McCray:Such as the storage site in Nevada.
Oertel:Such as in Nevada site. Now there were also considerations of getting into salt mines, and so we looked at salt at brine as a leeching material and thinking that maybe the brine would attack this stuff where it developed also turned out to be a very serious corrosion problem. It's nowhere near as bad as was distilled water. Fortunately distilled water doesn't appear in nature very often.
McCray:Fortunately and that worked out. You mentioned environmentalists. I'm curious at this point in the late '70s or early '80s, were you have interactions with groups such as say Natural Resources Defense Council or environmental groups such as that who were curious about what was going on?
Oertel:Yes. We had some interactions out of this Defense Waste and Byproducts Management Organization, but most of the interactions I've actually had with those groups were in another connection that I got into before I was getting in the defense programs. I was in charge of something that was called the Nuclear Waste Technology Division let's call it, something like that. I only had that for about a year and it only existed for a year and I had it for as long as it existed. But during that time the West Valley situation had become critical. I don't know if you're familiar with that situation.
McCray:A little bit, but maybe for the tape it would good
it's formerly a Division of GEDI [?]. They had tried to make a go of this and they had all kinds of problems with their plant. I don't want to get into what all the problems were, but they continually were being shutdown by the NRC. Now they were sitting there with a highly contaminated facility with a certain amount of liquid high level waste with spent fuel with stuff in the burial ground that some of which should never have gone into the burial ground.
Including really high level waste, fuel elements that can be seen as high level waste. They really had a very bad situation. Now the company said, "Okay. This doesn't look we'll ever run this thing so we're going to go walk away from the site." There's no way you can do that, but it turns out by that time GEDI no longer owned them, they were independent, and they had only one other facility, which happen to work for the Nuclear Navy and then they knew full well that the Nuclear Navy needed they were making the fuel for the nuclear submarines.
McCray:So they sort of had it at both ends, going in and coming out.
Exactly. So they are why are we going to go belly up? So that could be allowed. I don't know exactly how that was worked that the Nuclear Navy continued to have its thing, but the company actually did go belly up. Then it became a legal issue first and then a political one. Legally this was on the license from the NRC, so the NRC had some responsibility as far what was on the site because they presumably had approved it. I say presumably because they not always have. There were exceptions to that. But then otherwise this had been leased from the State of New York.
This company didn't own this. The landlord was the State of New York. When the leaseholder goes belly up, the property reverts to the State of New York. So here's now the State of New York with this huge mortgage in its lap. At that point it became very quickly a political problem. The New York Delegation did everything it could of course to get Uncle Sam to step in. There was ultimately legislation passed to authorize this because it's none of Uncle Sam's business. I mean the NRC had some comprability perhaps. I walked into this in the middle of that process, of the political process. As usual in such situations, one of the first things that would be done would be to hold public hearings to consult with the local citizen really as to what should be done.
I was involved with four public hearings. My organization organized all of them. I chaired I think two or three of them. They took place, some in West Valley and some in Buffalo. Indeed we had the environmentalist community there. I remember really becoming somewhat disillusioned about this because I had accepted the Nuclear Waste job basically because I felt this is a problem, it's a challenge. Somebody needed to do something about it, and I really honestly wanted to rally the department or ERDA at the time to this job and get it done. I want to solve this thing. We went out there to try to get input on how we should solve it. Of course, what really happened was that we were accused of being the ones who caused it.
We took a tremendous amount of abuse. It became a circus. The media of course were there and they had hidden cameras sitting there between— We were in the school auditorium and there were these curtains. I thought that there was something shiny there between the curtain and I went back at some point and saw that one of the TV cameras was there. They were taking pictures of us continuously in the hope of catching one of us closing the eyes. I put the word out to my troops whatever you do don't close your eyes.
Always look interested even if they tell you that, you know, call you names. The whole thing was absolutely nonconstructive on the part of about 80% of the people who spoke. Then there were 20% who gave very reasonable, rational, and thoughtful comments which were useful in moving this forward, but a large part of this was literally a circus.
McCray:Have there been particular groups during your time with the Department of Energy and dealing with nuclear waste issues, particular environmental groups that have stood out in your mind as being particularly affective at moving the ball forward?
Not really. It turned out that we could work very well with citizens' associations from the area. They included of course environmentalists, in fact they're largely made up of them, but their interests were not in some sense either national or global or religious and all of which can be the case in the intervene organizations. But their issue was okay, let's do this safely. I mean the stuff is here. Let's deal with it and see that we get it out of here. I mean to give you an example of how irrational some of the comments were that we got, people told us two things in the same talk. You must get this stuff out of here, but don't transport it whatever you do. Okay. What are you going to do with it?
It was literally it was either bullshit or in some cases they wanted to create a catch-22 because in some sense, I mean some part of the environment community I think saw this as a wonderful opportunity to show how bad nuclear is. I mean here it is. It's a big mess. I had the impression that they really didn't want it solved, but rather had it continued to fester would be in some sense the best outcome. If you really want to be able to continually point at how bad it is. In the end it got solved. In fact just in the last few years they completed the verification of all of the high level waste at that site.
McCray:I was going to ask you your own personal reaction to this. I mean these sound like very stressful situations to be in, and I was curious how you responded.
Personally, first of all I was disappointed because I was here to solve problems and not be the scapegoat for somebody else's, whoever that might have been, faults in the past. I like about Americans especially that they tend to be very pragmatic: "We are what we are, so let's go forward from here." Well that was the very opposite. I mean how did we get here, and who's to blame and make GEDI pay. I had no objections to that. It was one of the chance that was going up. That was one. The other part that was a little hard to take was the personal insults that we were leveled at us.
Of course at the same time you had to look interested, you know, because there were these cameras. I dealt with that by keeping a book and I made notes, personal notes about everything that was being said. These books I've since thrown away because there was a complete transcript. They're not needed. Then as far as the insults are concerned, in the back cover of the book I had all of the bad names and then I checked off how often they were used. I was keeping a statistical.
McCray:Whether a particular insult was said.
Oertel:Right. But I was really at the end a son-of-a-bitch or whether I was a criminal or, you know, whatever.
McCray:How long of time did this West Valley situation occupy you?
Oertel:Actually that's a loaded question in some sense because it still occupies me in a little way. For the last almost 10 years or so I've been Chairman of a group. What was that thing called?
McCray:Is this the West Valley Chair Technical Advisory Group?
Oertel:Technical Advisory Group. I got to really see that one through in the sense that, not that I was responsible for it, but I was overseeing it with a group of people, international experts from France, Germany, and of course the U.S. It worked, which is Westing House and DOE's doing, but certainly we didn't fail to catch something that would've derailed it. But a more precise answer to your question is that it was about a year or year and a half that it was actually in my bailiwick. Then we got organized along the civilian and defense lines. I think that was when Reagan was elected and he came in, which became very defense oriented. All of the defense stuff was put into one place and I was told, "Okay, you worry about that now. There's somebody else who worries about this other stuff."
McCray:How did the transition from the Carter Era to the Reagan Administration affect your work, or even just the overall culture at the Department of Energy?
Oertel:I would say that one was very positive. Carter of course knew a whole lot more about the subject than Reagan did. But Carter had put in some policies like the Nonproliferation Policy that was being pushed to a point that we weren't even allowed to carryout, or we were going to be forbidden to carryout an experiment on nuclear waste, solely for the reason that if that worked and then it might encourage somebody to reprocess because they could handle the waste problem.
McCray:This is Nonproliferation of Nuclear Waste?
Oertel:Exactly. No, no. Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Because in order to get weapons you need plutonium. In order to get plutonium people might think about reprocessing nuclear fuel, and that's what they usually do.
McCray:The idea then of stopping and understanding the technology of processing to prevent people from reprocessing nuclear waste who produce nuclear weapons.
That I would've understood if it's the technology of reprocessing, and indeed that was completely stopped except, of course, in defense where it was in use on a classified basis. But we're even told not to handle the waste do certain waste experiments because if you did that and you succeeded, then that could encourage somebody to go and reprocess. I thought that was not very sensible. John Doyche [?], by the way, was Undersecretary at the time. He in fact challenged that part. In the end we convinced him to carry it out anyway for other reasons, but it was very tough. So as soon as Reagan came in I found that— I mean by that time had gotten the confidence of the Democratic staff on the Hill.
I now also had the support of the Republican Administration for what I wanted to do in nuclear waste. Basically what they had done or was to recognize that they couldn't just move this stuff around anymore. Just to give you an example of how crazy that got, it was actually my winning argument with the Democratic staff. In Savannah River there were 40 let's say tanks full of, one million gallon tanks full of nuclear waste. We had to build new ones all the time for the new waste. But in addition we also had to build new ones because some of the old ones were rusting out. When you only have 25 years in any one tank, you have 40 tanks, you have to build more than one tank per year just to keep even with what you already have, not to speak about the new production.
So I did a study of this. I found that if nothing were done and the weapons production would continue and the waste production would continue as they had planned, that by the year 2100 the entire Defense Budget would go just for moving waste around in Savannah River from tank to tank. And of course, plastering the countryside with nuclear waste tanks. I said, "This is no good. Let's solidify this stuff, and then you can basically store it forever and you save all this mark in time."
McCray:Were there particular Presidential staff you were interacting with on a regular basis?
Oertel:Yes. It was an HAS's Committee basically.
House Armed Services. There were two fellows there by the name of Schwiller and Kline, Cy Schwiller and Adam Kline, who were known as the Neanderthals. Why were they called the Neanderthals? Because they would listen to anything. Defense was the only thing and they saw all the rest of the world united against them. The environmentalists, the communists, the Soviets, you know, everybody was against them. They are the only ones who were moving up the banner of what was good for the country, which was of course a strong defense.
They treated everyone with tremendous caution and suspicion. I was able to gain the confidence ultimately of Schwiller, who was actually in the envy and the more active of the two, simply by giving him rational arguments such as I just did. I also pointed out to him that if this sort of thing became known then it would weaken the resolve of the South Carolinians to continue to host this facility and it might actually affect Nuclear Defense directly. So he finally bought the aircraft carrier.
McCray:Savannah wasn't in operation at this point, was it? In the early '80s?
McCray:I mean it wasn't producing tritium or anything?
Oertel:Oh yes it was producing tritium and plutonium. In fact it was producing 100% of the tritium and about 80% or 90% of the plutonium. The rest being produced at Hanford from the ??? unit.
McCray:I thought it had been shutdown and was only in the early '80s with the Reagan Defense buildup that they attempted to put it back in operation.
Oertel:No that is not correct. It had been running through the Carter Era. I mean this was still Cold War time. There was a certain amount of consideration to increasing further, and yes, in fact there was one reactor there that had been, I think it was L-Reactor at—
McCray:Maybe that's what I'm thinking of.
Oertel:That's what you're thinking of, and it had been shutdown and there was a lot of money spent to put it back into operation. There was a cooling pond built for it and all of those things. You're absolutely right. But that was going from three reactors to four, not from zero to one.
McCray:One of the things that your CV lists, which caught my attention, was taking part in an Air Force Nuclear Accident course. I'm asking about this just because somebody may be interested in this. I was curious. What is such a thing, if you can talk about it?
Yes I can. It is always possible to have a nuclear event of some type. It could be a terrorist that blows up something that contains radioactive material and claims he has a bomb. It could be a real bomb. It could be something that falls out of an aircraft. It could be, as has been the case, radioactive generator out of the Soviet Spacecraft that re-enters the atmosphere. I mean one such thing, I think, did come down somewhere. There are a variety of ways in which you can have a nuclear event. When you have a nuclear event then, you know, whoever is in the area where it happens or whoever is close enough with any expertise would find themselves being called to the scene and say now deal with this. So now what do you do? This course prepares you for what you do.
I mean it has to do with such simple things as how do you work with the local police. What's the first thing you do? You establish a security zone, a secured zone around the thing, you know, all of those kind of things. The course I attended was for senior officers. This is not the one that tells you how you go around picking gravel off the highway or something like that. But it just had to do with command and control of such a situation. Get it under control is the first thing you want to do secure it and stuff like that. That's what the course did. Why was I given that course? In this job in Albuquerque I was second in command.
McCray:This is when you were at Sandia's Department of Energy, Deputy Manager of the Albuquerque Operations Office.
Exactly. But the Albuquerque Operations Office is in charge of virtually the entire nuclear weapons program. Research, development, testing, delivery to the Armed Services, and maintenance of the stockpile, and taking it back for decommissioning at the end of the useful life of other things, that whole system. Why do I say virtually? It's easier to name the exceptions. Of the three weapons labs, only two are with Albuquerque; the third one, Livermore, is with a separate Operations Office and Sciences School.
That's one exception. The second exception is the Nevada Test Site, which is another separate office. The third exception is the reactors themselves that are, had four then in Savannah River and some activities also in Idaho. They were under those local offices, but basically the whole development, the engineering of these things all go through Sandia. The making of all of the components took place all over the country at various classified plants. The assembly, the transportation from the assembly plant to the military, and so on and so on and so on. That was exclusively under Albuquerque. So if anything were to happen anywhere, a likelihood that Albuquerque was in charge was well over 50%. Therefore, it seemed rational to have me trained in this area. That's why I went out.
McCray:While you were in Albuquerque as Deputy Manager, what were your specific responsibilities?
I was basically to backup the manager in all matters. I mean the system was so wide, so far flung, more than half of the budget of the Department of Energy was in this Albuquerque Operations Office. The manager was Or-I [?], or forever off working problems, reviewing programs, visiting and inspecting plants, going to Washington, interacting with the military, what have you. So we divided that up and basically he did what he wanted and I did everything else. One of the areas that I was particularly expected to handle was science. We did have, of course both at Los Alamos and Sandia, a good bit of science in there, so I interacted with the scientists.
My boss was an engineer and wasn't interested nor did he want to really learn about the science that was involved. That was fun, of course. A good bit in security. We had, John Dingle [?] was on our tail us being the Department of Energy at the time. There were inspections and evaluations, independent ones usually without notice. Suddenly a team from Washington was there and some bad guys were around.
I got into the control center and as the manager. Since Robitowski [?] usually didn't go to these things so wasn't there, it was usually my job to manage the emergency. There were some real emergencies to manage, but by far the largest number were really tests. We had some pretty interesting tests. I mean we had, in some cases, the headquarters group had asked the FBI to send a team to see what they could do. At that point you have a pretty competent advisary.
McCray:How would one of these situations go?
You'd get a phone call sometimes in the middle of the night saying we have discovered an intrusion at such and such a fence, so they would question what should we do. If this is a real intrusion, they say okay, activate the Control Center or whatever. That meant that I would get in the car and I would get in the car. I had a car with a radio and so on so I could be in contact and drive out there. Everybody would be called in and there was, everybody else being as a set cast of characters that were needed in general. They were always needed and depending upon which facility was involved was a facility specific cadre.
If it happened in Los Alamos, normally I get on an airplane and fly over there. Then you'd sit in the control room and you'd basically get all the information that you have. Okay, now you have the report from the intrusion site and of course people have been deployed. I mean they weren't just waiting for me, but were people responsible for various areas for carrying out their job and then they were reporting in. Other things were simulated too. Like the Senator was calling and the secretary was calling. What's going on? Media on the phone. We usually had a media person who handled almost all of those outside interactions, with the exception of his secretary.
Then they have to make decisions as to what to do. I mean the team would say okay, we think they may be after this, that, and that. What do we do? Well there would be a Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C, and I'd pick one and tell them, "Okay, we go with Plan B, but be ready to jump into A or C depending what we see next." It was that kind of exercise. It was basically a war time situation. We were under attack and we were responding based on the information that you were getting and were doing the research that you had. You knew, of course, who had to be protected.
I always found those things quite challenging in the good sense. I never felt over burdened by them. I usually rise to an emergency very well. As a result they always wanted me to be in the control center. Control center is what we called it. I got along well with the security types as a result. We good people. I mean I we had I'm thinking now in particularly about
Oertel:Captain Wood's Green Berets retired who had signed up with our contractor, and he was the contractor's representative in the Control Center. That fellow was very, very impressive. I mean he was as cool as a cucumber, always on the mark, not a single word wasted. I tend to be that same way in that kind of situation. We had some very good experiences. As a matter of fact, I don't know whether that same in there, but when I was asked to go to Savannah River as the acting Manager I was told that the day before I would go down there, which was on the 30th of November and start there on the 1st of December, I was told that by the way the next inspection and evaluation is in January. The previous one had been failed, that the Center had failed. Dingle was breathing down their necks because of it. Yes, all kind of work had been done since then. I mean the failure had occurred about a year earlier, January '83 I guess it must have been. They're going to retest in January '84, but for me of course that gave me only four weeks of which two were holiday.
McCray:To get ready for this inspection.
Oertel:To get ready. I said, and you never say no because emergencies, you know, you can't say no. I said, "Well at least don't do it early in the month. Do it late in January." They did. That gave me three more weeks; basically doubled the time I had. We passed the inspection and evaluation with flying colors. That of course included exercises such as I described.
McCray:Emergency types of—
Oertel:Yes, simulated emergencies.
McCray:I'm curious how you made the transition from the Department of Energy where it sounds as if you were involved with some— I'm curious how you made the transition from that back to astronomy.
Oertel:To me the surprise was that the astronomers would come back and look for me even though I had been in Defense Programs there in DOE for over a decade. I was very pleased with that.
McCray:How did this happen?
Oertel:How did it happen? Well, the President of ARA was leaving.
McCray:This was John Team.
Oertel:John Team. There was a search committee and the search committee, as usual, is customary of looking far and wide. My name apparently had come up from a number of sources, so they contacted me and asked me if I would be interested in applying for the job. Right around that time, Secretary Hudell, formerly Anterior, with whom I had gotten along extremely well and had an excellent relationship, had left. A new Secretary was coming in, Secretary Harrington. I didn't have any rapport with Harrington. I didn't like some of what Harrington or his troops were going to do in the department. One of the things they did was they called me out of Albuquerque and said, "We want you in Washington." That was my third move in less than three years.
McCray:I noticed that looking at your CV, going from South Carolina to Albuquerque and back to Washington.
Right. I'll be happy to go through that. It's kind of an interesting side light on how departments work. I had been in Waste for quite a long time, five, six years. I'd resisted being moved, giving as the reason that my children were in a school, a German school that only exists in Washington, or did at that time there was no other in the states. I didn't want to move anywhere else. They accepted that. There was another reason. I really wanted to set this program in motion. I mean I gave you the high level waste aspect of it. There were other elements. When you're dealing with a long-term situation you don't want to deal with it two years and then hand it over to somebody else.
At least I wanted to get the major projects going. For that reason I had resisted. But as soon as my youngest child left the German school it didn't take them more than six weeks and I was told I would go to Savannah River. It was quite a compliment because normally when you go out of headquarters into the field, unless you have a lot of field experience already they will not put you the head of field office. I'd never been in a theory field office before, and here I find myself being the head of one. Also because of a failed inspection and evaluation I think that may have had something to do with it because a number of people are afraid to go there because it was seen as the very hazardous assignment. You might fail.
I never was worried about taking a job like that, because if people expect you to fail then even if you do fail you've met expectations, so why not give it a better shot? That was the first move. The second one, it was kind of interesting. I had been put in there as the acting Manager working out of the Deputy's slot because the manager, Bob Morgan, was on assignment elsewhere and was not expected to go back. The idea was Hudell would put me in as the manager when Morgan actually resigned. Now it came about that Morgan's assignment ended and they didn't give him the other assignment he'd wanted.
He'd wanted to go to Vienna. He didn't get that so he was coming back. And Hudell said to me, "Now look. I do not like to have a Deputy exceed to full manager because the contractors get used to seeing the Deputy as the second man. They'll always appeal to the next." And they'll do it even after he exceeds. So he said, "I still want you to be the Manager here, but you need to go somewhere else for a while. It happens the Albuquerque Deputy job (which was seen as one of the best in the department) is open. Would you like to go there?" And of course you always say well, whatever the department needs. That was the end of it. I went to Albuquerque. That was the reason for that. But now after about a year in Albuquerque, Hudell leaves.
Harrington comes in who's of course not party to any of this. Harrington says well there's that Oertel sitting there big, fat, and happy in the cushy Deputy job in Albuquerque and I need him hear for this job that you've seen there. I was Head of Safety, Health, and Quality Assurance, which he wanted to give much higher emphasis. He said, "I need somebody who knows how to work Washington and I need somebody who's respected in the field."
McCray:Back to Washington.
Oertel:Back to Washington. Now of course I got into that particular regime and I didn't like it. I didn't really get along with anyone near as well as I had with Hudell and with Hudell's predecessors.
McCray:So when the ARA post begins, you begin to get wind of it, it doesn't—
Oertel:Well, I already had been recruited for it while I was in Albuquerque. Then, you know, now comes the move to Washington. One of the things the ARA job would've meant is leave Albuquerque and come to Washington and that would've been a decision. Well that decision has already been made for me. I was already in Washington doing something I wasn't particularly enjoying. There it was and to leave the Civil Service, and we get stereotyped as a beaurocrat working with Civil Service. Then to get a CEO assignment in a nonprofit looks pretty interesting. It kind of gives you another look, another realm that you haven't done yet. I mean I had never worked in the private sector and so this was the way to do it. A very nice one at that because the content is so beautiful.
McCray:Going back to astronomy.
Oertel:Exactly. So that's how that there happened.
McCray:I'm curious. How aware were you whenever you returned to astronomy and took the ARA post of what was going on in the astronomy community? Had you been keeping in touch with that over the years?
Oertel:You mean while I was in Defense?
Oertel:No. I had not kept in touch with it very much. Now there were some things that I did actually become involved in, just seeing it comes back to me. For example, the Air Force was closing SAC Peak or planning to close SAC Peak. That happened to occur with I was in Albuquerque. My friends from SAC Peak found me and asked for help. No, it was a little differently. The Air Force had previously turned it over to the NSF. That had already happened. At that time they were going to close it. It was ARA in fact was going to close it. I was asked about this by these guys and so I asked them some very simple questions. I asked then, "Well, what kind of a process did ARA go through? I mean was the Academy involved? Did they have a distinguished committee come in and say for the best of Solar Physics this is what we should do or for the best of astronomy?" It turned out none of that had happened.
McCray:This was sort of a unilateral decision that somebody had made?
Oertel:Well, you know, the budget is never large enough. The Director at the time, John Jeffries, wanted to build a large telescope, a large national telescope, a national new technology telescope. He needed money and he realized that the way to get money is to close facilities, particularly get out of sites because it's very expensive to run the site even if you do very little there. He decided to do this in the board and run with it and the President. They also had not talked to the Congressional Staff. I had some friends on the Congressional Staff and I talked with them. They were all up in arms. It ended up that I was conspiring against my future employer's decision. Conspiring with the Air Force, Reed Asagalin [?] of Air Force Cambridge at the time, conspiring with the local political and the local representatives in Congress, with my friends at SAC Peak and so on.
McCray:So the physicists that you knew from your previous work.
Oertel:That's right. I mean this didn't occupy very much of my time because I didn't have much time, but at least I did stop in at SAC Peak on the way back from the Waste Site Solution Pilot Plant one time. I talked with the folks. I held a meeting at the Officer's Club at Kirkland Air Force Base. That brought all the people together who were interested in maintaining SAC. It was done based on process. The due process had clearly not been followed, so therefore it failed. ARA had to retract.
McCray:And Jeffries left his post as Director pretty soon after that.
Oertel:He actually was still the Director when I came in as President, but he left soon after that. That's a whole other story.
McCray:Let's talk just a little bit more about just your taking the post at ARA. I was curious. What was your sense about how John Teems management style compared and contrasted with your own? Did you know him very well or did had a sense of how you would be doing things differently?
Oertel:No, I didn't know him very well. I had one month of overlap with him where he was still in charge and I was there as a full time consultant.
McCray:Is this a learn on the job?
Oertel:Yes exactly, a transition period. I certainly wasn't impressed with the way that the attempt to close SAC Peak had been handled. I also found in the corporate office that there was a vice-president there of whom I did not know what he was doing. I had no idea.
McCray:Who was this?
Eldon Taylor, Ed Taylor. Ed resigned the day that I came on as consultant. I was kind of, I mean I wasn't ready to fire him, but I was ready to look at what he was doing. As near as I could tell he spent most of his time reading the Wall Street Journal. He wasn't really accomplishing anything and that of course is not acceptable. That was one change. I had a lot of respect for what Teem did in putting together the proposal, the ultimately winning proposal that brought the Space Telescope Science Institute under water. But I think he had sort of gotten old by the time I was there.
He was complaining that he couldn't travel anymore. The troops, the directors basically felt that he had lost his effectiveness. The boards felt that he had not built any relationships to speak of on Capital Hill. I don't really know what his style was. I mean I kind of came in and I used my own, which is very communicative. I shouldn't say that. I manage by exception. I work hard with my directors. I walk around with them at the different sites trying to get a feel for what they do, but I don't micro-manage them. I let them do their thing. If they don't do their thing then I might come in and, you know, coax them into doing it. There was a little of that with John Jeffries. I mean John and I are friends, but—
McCray:He's a solar physicist, solar astronomer as well.
Oertel:Yes. John, as the NOEO Director, was keeping things too close to his vest. He didn't talk to his people very much. He kind of made these decisions at the top and then forced them on people. I believe in a participatory management, particularly when it comes divvying up the spoils. The spoils being the budget. You don't just divvy up the budget. You really sit down and go through it. I really developed some techniques in DOE, which I think helped make my system work, better in there I think than most, in the department. This didn't apply in the ARA job because I could decide how much goes into NOEO and how much goes into Space Telescope. This was different contracts from different agencies, and different agencies decided how much should go in so there was no spoil to divide. My job there was completely different. But that's not true with the Directors level. Ricardo was in charge of Space Telescope.
McCray:Ricardo Giaconni [?].
Oertel:Giaconni. He worked with his people in his own way. He's also very autocratic, but he always knew, he always interacted. He could get away with picking autocratic because he was that well tuned to everything and of course he had Stan Goodidea [?] in charge of it. In Jeffries case, he might've had also very good judgement, but it never got through to the troops. I mean they never bought in. In Ricardo—
McCray:They never had a chance to see it in action.
Oertel:No. I think it was that he made his decisions and didn't tell anybody why they were good decisions. Where Ricardo would always talk with people and so pretty soon everybody was attuned with that.
McCray:They understood why it was a good decision.
Oertel:Exactly, and they all bought into what Ricardo did. They didn't buy into what Jeffries did. So I held with him a workshop in which my plan A was to get him to go into participatory management style, at least as far as the budget distribution was concerned. Of course the plan B was that if he wouldn't, then I might have to become more insistent. We held a retreat in the Envirosphere area, which had only just begun.
McCray:Outside of Tucson?
Oertel:Outside of Tucson. It was 1986.
McCray:So that would up toward Oracle in Arizona.
Oertel:Yes. Beautiful. It used to apparently a corporate retreat, a very nice complex. Beautiful little houses too that we stayed in and the accommodations. The directors were there. Bob Williams was there.
McCray:Bob Williams at this time was Director at CTIS.
Oertel:Yes. Sidney Wolff was there as Director of Kit Peak. Those people were there. Jack Beckers [?] was there. So we worked in a participatory way through the issues facing NOAO and what should be done about it. NOAO was under siege, under pressure. It always has been at some level. I obviously listened to everybody involved and in the process made John listen. We all participated as equals in this. It came across very well with the staff although there were, you know, with the directors below John it didn't come across too well with John. I mean John felt insecure in this. It was not long after that retreat, maybe another month, or two and he let me know that he didn't want to continue.
McCray:When you joined ARA, what was your perception of what the major issues facing American Astronomers were?
Oertel:That is of course the question that I was asked by the Search Committee. Martin Schmidt was there on that Search Committee. Vic Sadonis [?] most recently provost at Cates Western. People like that. Len Cooley [?]. I had of course done my homework and I knew particularly what the issues were that related to the ARA Enterprise. They had to do with leadership; they had to do with the access to facilities, which was very uneven and very unequal.
McCray:In what sense?
Oertel:Well, some departments, particularly Caltech and to some extent Carnigy and a few others, had as much access as they wanted and others had only as much they could get by competing for it at Kit Peak. It was very ??? ???. Then of course there was the question of the future: what would happen in ground base astronomy? There were people— Starr had begun to talk about building eight-meter telescopes. There was the NNTT still on the table as the National New Technology Telescope, basically for eight meters on one spar.
McCray:Like a giant multiple mirror telescope.
Oertel:A giant multiple, yes. The binocular telescope is a smaller version of it.
McCray:Half of it essentially.
Oertel:Half of it essentially. My private opinion is much more sensible, though I won't say that the NNDT could not have worked. I was never convinced that it would work, and I always worried about the fact that if one built it and it didn't work you'd have four beautiful telescopes forever condemned to look in basically the same direction. That's all very good. I'm now glad that it didn't get built. And of course technology had advanced and made possible eight-meter telescopes that were basically as powerful or even more so than the NNDT would have been.
McCray:Through adaptive objects.
Through adaptive objects, through modern detectives, and things like that. And then of course there was the other big issue was the future of the Hubbel Telescope. The Challenger accident had happened while I was in DOE in my last year. Little did I know at the time that the software that the that NASA was developing that the Institute was supposed to use was not only way behind schedule, I knew that, but when it was delivered it was basically by a factor of 100 too slow. What that meant was or as they said, "It doesn't answer your question." Because I didn't find this out until about a couple three months on the job. But what this meant was that if you wanted to plan one day of operations for the telescope it'd take you 30 days to do it because of the slow speed of the software. Just do one Kadunkin [?] experiment.
The launch was in April. The flaw was basically discovered let's say 30 days later. At that time, of course, it was possible to program faster than in real time. But if it had been the way it was when the software was developed, was delivered to the Institute, it would've taken 30 times 30 days, 900 days, two and a half years to figure out that you had a flaw. Or might've taken that long. I kind of suspect it would've been faster. But it just dramatizes how disastrous this software was. That software would've been used if the Challenger hadn't gone down. It would've been a disaster that would've, in my opinion, killed the project because the nerve flow was bad enough.
But now to not be able to run it either, it would've really been a Rube Goldberg and then would've and probably should've been abandoned at that point. This is one of those very strange things in our lives that this terrible tragedy of the Challenger bought us time to fix the software to where it was finally working by the time that it was really launched.
McCray:Who wrote the software?
Oertel:Who wrote it? TRW.
McCray:This is from TRW.
Oertel:I have the contract. This is not to point the finger at TRW necessarily. I think the real issue here is that this particular project was badly mismanaged by NASA. The mismanagement consisted of trying to beat themselves, there at NASA themselves act a general contractor. If they'd given this shuttle to TRW or anybody else and said okay, now pull it all together and everything has to work, this would not have happened. Because surely a good manager would have figured out that the software won't do the job before you got to basically around launch time. But NASA insisted giving out all of these packages. That makes them of course responsible for doing the interface. They thought they did it, but they did it so poorly that things didn't work together.
McCray:Of brining all the parts together and they didn't work.
Oertel:Exactly. That is the integrating contractor. That's what was missing. NASA de facto had —
Oertel:you know, there were all of these pieces that were individually working very well. They met the interface specifications.
McCray:But just putting them together.
Oertel:But they didn't work together because the people who had done the interface specifications hadn't been smart enough about it.
McCray:When you joined ARA, how aware were you about how the overall structure of it worked with the board and the members of the board from the different universities? You and I have talked about before certain inherent conflicts of interest that exists there. How did that appear to you?
Well, I know it existed. It had been pointed out to me. In fact, Leo Goldberg, since you mentioned him earlier, told me that one of the things I should do early on was to go to the NSF and tell the NSF to back me up in kicking certain universities out of the ARA consortion. Which would've been Princeton, would've been Caltech, and Chicago I think, possibly also Arizona, but I don't remember him mentioning that. I guess he did because he said all of those that have substantial projects of their own should not be members because there is just such conflict of interest when they sit on the board. He was of course right that the conflict exists. I never really went along with this suggestion. I listened to it. I said to myself, "Well that keyword could very easily kill the patient." I also didn't think that was necessary to apply a keyword that drastic in that, you know, among people with good will it is possible to contain conflict.
You first of all expose them. You just disclose them. Then after they've been disclosed then people can listen in, but now they know that such and such who use biased and should not be considered beyond a certain point. Then in certain decisions, of course, people may need to be excluded from the certain decision itself, but they could be heard in the discussion before hand and then there'll be a final discussion without them.
McCray:What in particular conflicts that you, what would be a good example of one of these that comes to mind readily?
Oertel:I think the most fundamental conflict is that the typical university administration, particularly the one who does not depend on the national centers is looking for NSF funds for grants. That is how you get instruments. That's how you support your science program. The fact that there're national centers "burning up" a lot of money is of course, you know, that's a competitor. It's a competition that doesn't do anything for you because you have your own telescope and so you resent it. Therefore you will advise the NSF explicitly or not so explicitly why don't you put more money into grants.
McCray:And take money away from the national centers.
And take money away from the national centers. This is the number one conflict I lived with through the whole period. Interesting in a way from an organizational point of view, it got creative, this conflict. At the very time that I was at NSF instead of the Astronomy Section, though I never shirked responsibility, I wasn't responsible for doing this. I'm not saying what is was, but it rather caused me to leave the NSF at the time. There were some more personal reasons. What did NSF do? Before 1975 they had the grants and the national centers in separate parts of the organization and at separate parts of the budget. The centers did not compete head on against grants and the grants did not compete with the centers. They were kind of different pockets of money.
Whereas people might still have said yes, we'd like more money for grants and why should there be centers, they kind of recognized that if the money was not spent on the astronomy centers it would probably be spent on atmospheric centers or the polar programs or somewhere else. They would not be the beneficiaries. I think it kept that flack under control. When NSF decided to combine all of the astronomy activities, the centers and grants—
McCray:So astronomy is just all put together.
Oertel:Exactly, in one division then the competition is direct. If whatever money you do not spend on the national centers is automatically available for grants. There is nothing else.
McCray:When was this done and by whom?
Oertel:It was done in 1975 and it was an overall reorganization of the NSF. I remember the fellow who was involved with this. His name may come back to me in a little while. He was also at OMB. He resigned at NSF. He later became a big power on the staff at the National Academy of Sciences. I think his name is Smith. I'm trying to say Phil Smith and that's not who it is. You can check on that.
McCray:I guess I'd like to talk about two of the main projects that ARA has been with. Let's spend some time talking about Hubbell and the decision to have ARA and John's Hobkins manage Hubbell was made in 1981. I'm curious why you were at the Depart of Energy were you following this process at all?
McCray:When you took over as President of ARA, what was some of the major issues other than the software that we were speaking of earlier that were facing ARA in terms of managing the Space Telescope Science Institute and Hubbell?
There was considerable friction between Ricardo Giaconni and Charlie Coloran [?]. Charlie Coloran was at that time in with the Head of Space Science. Charlie and Ricardo had little respect for each other. They were both normally great egos. They're also both control freaks. You can't both control the same thing. It was very bitter. It could've been more easily controlled than it was and it wouldn't have become so public so often.
If Ricardo had sort of kept these things to himself, but he really denied it. I mean he was just lethal about pointing out all kind of failures on NASA's part or inconsistencies in policies or whatever and do it in a very public way. That grated NASA to no end, as you can imagine. Anyway, it was not a very useful thing to do actually, but he was like a big kid. I guess he couldn't help himself. It would come out. Then he would survey the damage.
McCray:So he just couldn't help himself in saying these things.
Oertel:That's my view. You should ask him himself. But he did not and so as a result things got very tough. Then at one point when I was asking also to approve the renewal of his contract, it should have been routine.
Giaconni, yes. He's the Director's key personnel, the only key person. No, the Director and his Deputy are key personnel under the contract, which means no change can be made without an outside approval. I made the mistake of going back and saying, "Are you okay to continue him?" I probably should've just quietly done it. But I got a lot of flack at point. And in fact Helleran got very close to telling to fire him, but he didn't. Instead he asked Goddart [?] to handle it. I made an arrangement that the then Goddart Director that protected Ricardo. It was very cleverly done. I mean Helleran had said, "We want you to control this guy. If you can't control him then he ought to be put out. Now, how are you going to control him?"
The Space Center's Commensive Council, which of course is what Ricardo reports to, he reports to me through the Council and he reports to Board through me. The Council played a very important role. Headquarters had apparently told the Goddart Director well, you don't control the Council. Now we set it up where the Council was, the Goddart Director was always invited to the Council meeting. He could attend any and all parts of it. That was a compromise that was finally made that allowed Ricardo to stay in the job. I mean that got very close to getting him removed, which is very unusual for somebody at that level, of course as you can imagine. But these difficulties and the relationship with NASA persisted. Another difficulty that was always there was that Goddart and the Institute competed for some of the same funds out of the Hubbell Program.
McCray:Let me see if I understand. There's the overall Hubbell Program and Goddart and the Space Telescope both derive their funding from that program.
That is true, but there's also within Goddart, there is the HST Project Office. That project office funds a number of people. It funds the spacecraft operations out of Lockheed. By the way, those are now being taken over by Orabas [?], newer development and had already begun a couple of years ago before I left.
But then there's also in R and D organization a technology development organization, which develops for example new gyros and new tape recorders without tape, you know, purely silicon based, things like that. The people who run that organization are very aggressive. They're very good engineers, but they're also very aggressive engineers, including an Italian whose name may come back to me. But he was the one person really Ricardo respected the most.
McCray:I think Massemo Trangui [?] is the person?
Oertel:No, no. He's in ESO European Southern Observer. No, this is an engineer. Anyway, Ricardo was forever fighting with him over money, and of course the Goddart troops are always there and Ricardo is only there at a time. Part of the time he's insulting them. It got to be a very interesting time there. There was a competition and talking about conflict. There was another one, which is intrinsic to all NASA programs and that is the competition between what it takes to keep a hardware going and what it takes to analyze the science data. In that sense the Institute is actually, it is I think uniquely set up in that it not only grants the observing time autonomously it's not a NASA decision but it's an Institute decision who gets on Hubbell. But it also grants the money that goes with it without NASA involved.
McCray:This is the money for data reduction and what have you.
Oertel:Yes. But it runs, it can run as high a million or two in one grant.
McCray:For running one of the key projects for example.
Oertel:Yes, for a major project. It's a substantial amount of money. This is handled by the Institute, but it is compartmentalized. It was decided early, it was set up in such a way that data analysis money can not be used for other things. It's controlled separately. There was of course always one of the other crisis, if you can think of many of those, where people said, but this data analysis money is not doing us any good if we don't have a spacecraft so let's borrow from it, or ate from it. That was a big issue.
McCray:How did you get involved with these decisions or what was your role? I understand that once you joined ARA you were on various management councils related to Space Telescope. How did you participate or what was your role?
Oertel:Role was really several fold. One, of course I'm the supervisor of the Director and so that I hold the Director accountable so the Director and I would sit down and talk about what was going on. I would get involved that way. Once every four months, the Space Telescope Institute Council would meet. That would be a more comprehensive presentation of the whole program.
McCray:This is what's abbreviated as the STIC, Space Telescope Institute Council.
Oertel:Right. The Council had some decisions to make if it would approve or not approve policies or this or that and the other thing. It did never approve budgets. The budgets are basically worked out between the Director and Goddart. So I did not really become involved in this very much however the final decision on what the contract would be like was mine. The corporate office negotiated the contract with the help of the Institute and I signed it. Of course some parts like the ARA fee were entirely ours. But my policy always was that even though it is an ARA contract, not a Space Telescope Institute Council contract, it's ARA that I would delegate as much authority as possible to the Director and hold the Director accountable as opposed to micromanaging them. That's how that worked and it worked better with some directors than with others.
McCray:Explain how the money then gets— you mentioned a management fee that ARA gets.
McCray:I guess what I'm trying to get a sense of that I've never fully understood this is how ARA gets its own funding. This comes directly from NASA or from the National Science Foundation?
No, it is part of the contract. The contract includes program money and it includes a management fee. The management fee is negotiated and their formulae that I used to broadly scope it, but then in the detail negotiated between the two sides. We tell NASA what we think we need and why we need it. NASA tells us how they'll give us. I should say here that the word fee does not imply profit. There is no profit. Rather the fee is given in lieu of general administrative overhead for the corporate office. It is easier for the government to handle the fee because then they don't have to audit it.
It's easier on us because we don't have to be audited ourselves and we have more flexibility in how to use it. But it is based on, you know, as you go on to a negotiation you'd sell well okay, here's my rent that I pay and here's this and the employee payroll and everything else. Then we'd say okay, we have three business units. So we divvy this up based on the percentage of funding that we get from different units, with the exception of those things like the STIC that are an expense only for one unit you're expected to pay 100% of that. So you come up with a formula that way and that gives you a number.
This number has always worked out to be very modest, a fraction of a percent of the total. In fact, NASA usually gives several times that much as a straight profit on top of the administrative and general administrative and overhead. They give companies a profit. For us not only do they not give us a profit, as they shouldn't, but the general administrative expenses which can be very large with big corporations in our case are so small that they're a fraction of what they would pay in profit alone to an aerospace contract. It's really an inexpensive operation.
McCray:I don't know if you can speak to this, but just so people in the future will understand sort of the annual ARA budget to run it's own operation.
Oertel:Of the order of a little over $1 million as of the time I left.
McCray:This is salary for everybody and office space.
Oertel:Either salary, it is office space, it is office equipment, it is insurance, and there's a substantial amount of insurance because the corporation is liable for all kind of things or could be liable for all kind of things. It covers the operation of the Board of Directors.
McCray:Bringing them in for meetings and things like that.
Oertel:Yes. They do not get a fee, but—
McCray:Reimburse them for travel.
Oertel:You have to reimburse travel and the annual meeting is a big event. They usually have a number of community service kind of things in there. I mean they come to the ARA Corporate Member of the American Astronomical Society, corporate members of a number of other equally, almost equally worthy organizations. We've made grants to the Chileans, for example Chilean universities to help them strengthen their astronomy programs.
McCray:Gemini Fellowship Program does that money come directly from NSF or does that come from ARA to bring South American Astronomy students to the States to be trained?
Oertel:That in various general area fellowship programs funded in different ways, but the one that I'm most familiar with that has been added for many years while I was president was funded in part by NSF and in part by Fundeseo [?] Hernandez, a private foundation in Chile. The corporate office donated the administrative expenses. They're brand new administrative expenses. I mean all the money that NSF and Fundeseo Hernandez gave us, 100% of it actually went to the students involved.
McCray:This is the Andes Foundation?
McCray:Just finishing up with Hubbell, this is a question that perhaps is hard to answer, but I think future historians will be interested in. What is your sense of, after having been involved with Hubbell for many years, of how Hubbell Space Telescope has changed astronomy, both from a scientific as well as an organizational perspective?
Oertel:I think from an astronomy point of view you'd have to ask research astronomers because I'd be reluctant to answer. Perhaps in— I will give you one partial answer. It has given people on a purely democratic basis, purely merit basis access into not only the fantastic data, but also to money. So from the sociology of the field changed things dramatically. The second big thing that I've seen also in a sense in the sociology is that even at the time that I left the organization the usage of data from the archive, Hubbell archive had already dwarfed the data stream that was given out of people from real time observations. I don't know of any part of astronomy where this is the case. It is in a sense an indicator of the interest in the information that is contained in this data. People wouldn't go after the assumption enormous amounts of data if they couldn't still get new value out of it.
McCray:So by having this public archive not only do the principle investigators get some benefit, but people after the proprietary courtesy has expired—
McCray:Can access it and use it for their own scientific purposes.
That's right. Then there was yet another sociological advance, and that's the Hubbell Deep Field. You're familiar with that of course, but a number of things are different with it. First of all, it was probably his decision to do it. He was under a lot— he was being attacked a lot at the time or was attacked a lot about this because he said, "Well here you are taking away so many orbits from my great proposal where, you know, I could've used all these orbits to do my science much better. I do new science. You did not gave it to me, and instead you're blowing two weeks of observations on just looking into an empty piece in space. I mean what a waste." That kind of thing. Of course you know the rest.
We got so much more out of that empty piece of space than we could've gotten out of incremental science elsewhere now matter how full it might've been. That's one aspect, but the other aspect is that all the data from the Hubbell Deep Field were immediately made available to everybody. That was not a proprietary thing. As a result the research that's been done on it has really taken off tremendously. I mean people said, hey this is fantastic data, but if I don't look at it John Doe is going to do it. People did it and Caltech spent a lot of time, the Kitt telescopes are getting red chips for some more unusual objects that are in there.
McCray:Following up in a sense.
Oertel:Following up in a sense, but I mean if I remember correctly their entire issue of the actually letters was devoted to the Hubbell Deep Field. It was certainly a fundamentally different way of doing business that has come in. As far as the scientific results are concerned, the Hubbell Deep Field is maybe the most important piece that's come out. In my opinion it is, because it's a combination of sociology and science. I should've put the science first because the in science is new.
McCray:I think it'll be interesting for historians or sociologists in the future to look at something like the Hubbell Deep Field and see what the citation rates for it are, and see how those results have proliferated in the community.
Oertel:Have I answered your question?
Yes I have. I'd like to pause again for a second. Alright, we're just going to pause for now. We will come back to this.
Session I | Session II