Rocket man

Former NASA engineer Tom Moser dreams about launching the next generation of spacecraft from Texas soil

At first blush, his corny approach seems to naively ignore the selfish nature of political types. But by putting them all together in a single room, his strategy works masterfully. They sit and listen as representatives of a consulting firm that studied each of the proposed sites report how they fared, on a scale of zero to 16, on 56 different assessment criteria--everything from the weather to environmental sensitivity. Some local officials squint at the overhead projector that reveals the scores in color codes. Some on the same team whisper and shrug their shoulders, not understanding why they were graded yellow in a certain area when it so obviously should be blue. But few are so bold to object out loud. That's because for every official who haggles to increase the overall score of a particular site, there are six others who view the interference as hurting the chances for their own site to emerge as the favorite. Every official in the room is outnumbered 6 to 1.

Besides, Moser is not removing anyone from contention, or so he says. He is leaving it up to the individual regions to voluntarily step aside. In another corny but cunning management move, Moser has declared that the consultant report is to help each region understand its qualifications to better determine whether to continue bidding for the spaceport. It's self-assessment, he says, not a cutting of the roster.

Chris Kraft, who was Moser's boss as director of the Johnson Space Center from 1972 to 1982, says Moser is one of those 500 or so engineers who actually knows how to manage people.

"Engineers notoriously are idiots when it comes to management," says Kraft,who is retired in Clear Lake, near Houston. "They can't write, can't talk, and don't understand how to get people to do things. The ones that come along that have the capability to do all of those things are not easy to come by."

At NASA, Moser gained experience dealing with prima donnas of all varieties. Contractors to the Apollo and shuttle programs had their own narrow objectives and agendas. Engineers and scientists from Stanford, Cal Tech, and MIT arrogantly criticized NASA's work. And politicians, of course, knew that they knew best.

"Everyone thought they knew what had to be done, and most of the time they didn't know what the hell they were talking about," Kraft says.

Today, Moser has to deal with a Pecos County official in momentary crisis because he mistakenly told his constituents back home that the $14,300 study cost would be refunded if the Fort Stockton site didn't win the Texas spaceport derby. Pecos County Commissioner Gregg McKenzie has a reprieve, however, because Fort Stockton is still in contention.

Admitting that several months ago the only thing he knew about future commercial space travel was from what he had seen on the Discovery Channel, McKenzie says the idea of space launches from a cow pasture in West Texas isn't as nutty as it sounds. Fort Stockton survives on ranching and oil. The biggest outside industry there is a test track where Firestone checks the performance of its tires. But the place is perfect for a spaceport, he says. Population is sparse (9,072 in Fort Stockton and 16,144 in Pecos County). The land is flat. The weather is predictable. Air traffic is light. And the petrochemicals needed by VentureStar are nearby.

"Aw, for a while people were kind of skeptical," McKenzie admits. "People around here, they laughed at me."

Then he told them about the 2,000 to 3,000 jobs that a spaceport could create and the potential of hundreds, even thousands of tourists visiting to watch the launches. ["Just like at Cape Canaveral," McKenzie says.] And they got as pumped up as he did.

"We're definitely in the scientific age," he says. "I'm 65 years old, and I remember the Flash Gordon days when I was a kid. I think we've already passed them days."

Jobs also are on the minds of the folks pushing the spaceport in Brazoria County, but economic revolution is of interest to the boosters from South Texas, where the unemployment rate, as high as 16 percent in some areas, soars over anywhere else in the state.

"We realize it's a long shot, but we have a responsibility to pursue it as far as we can," says Shirley Clowers, president of the Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce and liaison to a coalition formed to lure the spaceport to South Texas. "This sort of thing can change the entire complexion of South Texas because of the potential for spin-off industry and job creation."

Moser has helped her see that potential. "He's definitely a marketing person," Clowers says. "Those of us not in the aerospace industry don't understand what the possibilities are. And he does."

Back in the summer of 1969, Tom Moser understood that a limited number of creative possibilities existed in displaying the American flag on the moon. His design would stretch the banner along the length of a collapsible aluminum rod, which would be pulled to extend straight out horizontally from the tip of the flagpole.

"That was the only way to get the flag to stand out, because there's no atmosphere up there," Moser says.

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