Chair Force Engineer

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Stranger Than Fiction

I recently read Houston, You Have a Problem, the autobiography of Danny Deger. This review of the novella (96 pages when printed) is based on two assumptions:
1) The author is the Danny Deger described in the text, a real person, and
2) The text is an accurate description of real events

With both of those caveats, I will add that the story would be interesting even if it was a total fabrication. If it were a movie, it would be equal parts Top Gun, Office Space, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

The narrative begins with Danny Deger as an intelligent, God-fearing young man who decides to serve his nation as a pilot in the US Air Force. He flies the legendary F-4E Phantom II during the height of the Cold War and learns quite a bit during the adventures that ensue. After a brief tours as Air Liason to the Army and a civilian in the field of "Special Weapons," he goes to work for NASA's Johnson Space Center. He trains the astronauts in launch aborts and entry procedures, then goes to work designing displays for the shuttle cockpit. Along the way, he experiences bullying managers and the banality of NASA internal regulations. The stresses of a hostile workplace culminate in a message from Deger to the much-despised JSC Director, George Abbey. The consequences of that action would be very profound for Mr. Deger. He would eventually return to JSC and play a formative role during the Orbital Space Plane and Orion/Ares I programs, but the long-ranging consequences from the earlier incident would come back to haunt him.

In the story, Mr. Deger admits that his language skills are weak compared to his analytical reasoning. With that being said, he does write well. His prose lacks the polish that would be expected of a commercial publication, but it is servicable to a reader with some technical knowledge. I would complain that the descriptions of dogfighting and other combat while flying the Phantom II are hard to follow, especially for those uninitiated in aerial warfare. Frustratingly, much of the story hinges on the e-mail to George Abbey which is neither reprinted or paraphrased for the reader's benefit.

The heart of the story will undoubtedly engender much controversy. Should it be viewed as an expose of an agency whose management is steeped with the culture of narcissism on multiple levels? Or is it merely the diary of a madman who is trying to convince the world that he is sane? Without being able to hear a rebuttal from NASA JSC, the jury is out. But it doesn't take a stretch of the imagination to envison a large federal organization lashing out in an illegal fashion to silence a whistleblower.

If you have spare time on a weekend, I would definitely recommend reading "Houston, You Have a Problem." If it's accurate, then it's a disturbing look inside Johnson Space Center. If it's all fiction, then it's nonetheless a story that vacillates between amusement and horror while never boring the reader.