"People introduce me as the Chief Scientist and I keep explaining, "I was an intern. I remember sitting in the seats you're in right now and I remember what it was." Al Bowers, retired NASA chief scientist, Armstrong Research Facility
Al Bowers is recently retired from being NASA's chief scientist at the Armstrong Research Facility, but he hasn't lost his passion or drive. Al joins the podcast to talk about his career at NASA and his legacy with the Prandtl Wing, which is this future of flight both here on Earth and other planets. Al also talks about his love of space exploration and inspiring young minds, both students and interns, to pursue a career in science. The work Al did at NASA is still being utilized today and his contributions to science and space exploration are many. Plus, Al confirms that NASA runs on coffee.
Jeff: I'm going to start by saying, Al, thank you so much for inviting us into your home and sitting and talking with me today. It truly is, and I know you're going to not like this, but it's an honor to talk with you. It really is. I have been a fan of science and space exploration since I was a very little kid. My Mom used to read me Goodnight Moon as a kid, and I didn't [crosstalk 00:00:28]-
Al Bowers: Awesome.
Jeff: It never ended with the story. It was never like, "Oh, this is a fun story", and that was it. I would sit on my... I had a bedroom on my second floor and I would sit on my little stool looking out the window at the Moon and it was wondrous. As I grew older, I learned all about the people that made the Moon missions happen and everything about NASA. It's just incredible and to be able to talk to you as someone who is a part of that, it really is an honor.
Al Bowers: Thank you. It captured my imagination as well.
Jeff: We were talking off-camera and you were just talking about how you've just realized just now in your career, and by the way happy retirement-
Al Bowers: Thank you. Thank you Jeff.
Jeff: You just are freshly retired as Chief Scientist of NASA Armstrong. Has it set in yet?
Al Bowers: No.
Jeff: You [crosstalk 00:01:27]-
Al Bowers: I still think I'm on vacation.
Jeff: You haven't slowed down, right?
Al Bowers: No.
Jeff: You're still in that honeymoon phase. It's okay, it's okay. You'll get there. You were just talking about how when you were a kid, obviously the Moon landing was happening and the missions to the Moon and everything, but now you're starting to realize new things about that, even now. Is it something that you constantly think about?
Al Bowers: Yeah, I do constantly think about this. I was... the place that we work, NASA Armstrong, it's the Aeronautical Flight Research facility for all of NASA. As a consequence, because most of the astronauts were taken out of the test pilot pool, those guys were out at our place and so on more than one occasion I had a situation where I'd be standing in line at lunch and I'd be there with my interns and we'd be going through the line waiting for our sandwich and someone went, "Hey, Al! How are you?" I'd turn around and talk to this guy wearing a flight jacket and I'd introduce them to my interns and we'd go through and we'd get our food and we'd go sit down. Interns are always, "Who is that?" "Astronaut, space shuttle commander four times."
Al Bowers: It wasn't an everyday thing, but it happened often enough that eventually most of the kids caught this happening at some point or another. It's that kind of a place.
Jeff: For someone like me who's loved it my whole life, it never gets old and you were saying that, too. You worked for NASA for, correct me if I'm wrong, 37 years?
Al Bowers: Yeah, 37 years.
Jeff: It still doesn't get old. One of the things that I've said a lot on this very show, I was lucky enough on this podcast to talk to two different astronauts, Ret. Nicole Stott and also current Don Pettit. I can never put into words what it's like to talk because we've only had in the history of human existence, 500-plus people have been able to be called an astronaut. When you think of that as a statistic, that's a drop in a bucket of humanity and I think that is an incredible human achievement that we have been in the starts, been in the stars, been among the stars.
Jeff: I kind of want to talk about how you came to work at NASA. You started out as an intern yourself, correct?
Al Bowers: I did. I did.
Jeff: Was that always the goal through schooling and all of that? I know you wanted to be an engineer, but was it always the end goal? "I want to work for NASA"?
Al Bowers: When I was very young, yes, certainly it was. That was in my mind. My father, when he got out of the military, he was involved with electronics. He ended up building spacecraft. I saw that. I had brushes with people who built hardware that went into space, but the working for NASA thing, it became... as I got older, junior high school, high school, that kind of faded. I didn't think about that. I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. I loved airplanes but I had not thought that far ahead, and so the whole working for NASA thing, that faded out in that sort of middle range. Even when I was going off to university studying at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo out on the West Coast, I no longer thought about NASA until I had an opportunity go beyond my Bachelor's Degree. I would stay at the same school and they were starting up a new Master's program. I was actually... there was one student the first year and there were two students the second year, and I was one of the two students-
Al Bowers: The second year that they had a Master's program.
Al Bowers: NASA funded me 100% for my Master's degree, and so I went back and did my research at... it was called NASA Dryden at that time, it's NASA Armstrong now, and I did some work that became very fundamentally important in a lot of ways. There's this technique where we solve problems. You can write the equations for how this behaves, and what you do is you make certain fundamental assumptions up front and then you put that into the problem and then the problem tells you, the solution tells you what is going on. There is this very, very narrow class of these problems, because of their importance, people have reversed it. Where you think about, "I need this result. How do I design the thing to give me this result?" That is incredibly rare. They're called inverse solutions in mathematics and I fell into one of those.
Al Bowers: We were designing airfoils. The airfoil people, the flow people, what they tell you is, "You tell me the shape and I can tell you what the flow is." No problem, and that is the state of the art today. We have computers that can give you that answer. It takes time to create the grid so that it can calculate all of this and give you the information at the end. To go backwards is a very difficult thing and we were working on that problem. There was a gentleman, ancient history, named Ludwig Prandtl, and Prandtl was perhaps I would argue the foremost mind in aerospace. He formulated all of these ideas over a hundred years ago, began formulating these ideas. His students became the de facto standard for solving all these different problems.
Al Bowers: One of those students, his name was Erich Truckenbrodt, and Truckenbrodt had a student named Richard Eppler who became a professor. Truckenbrodt and Eppler figured out how to design airfoils. They said, "We want the flow to do this. What's the shape of the airfoil?" The two of them solved that problem. Eppler added his part to the solution and he got a graduate student to write the computer code for it. At that point, Eppler needed someone to test the computer code to see how well it worked. I was that student.
Al Bowers: I was that student, and he was from the University of Stuttgart and I didn't speak a lick of German and we were able to communicate, but this is what I did my graduate work on.
Al Bowers: When I got out, NASA, apparently they were impressed enough to take a chance on me and they hired me right out of school.
Jeff: Wow, that's incredible. What a throw to the fire kind of scenario where [crosstalk 00:09:30]-
Al Bowers: Oh yeah, oh yeah.
Jeff: This is important. It's not like just busy work, "Go get coffee, kid." It's like, "Make this work." Wow.
Al Bowers: There was a certain... I knew as soon as I saw the solution what the thing was we were trying to solve, and my response was, "You got to be kidding me? You want me to do that? No one has done that." That's the expectation out at our place-
Al Bowers: That they give you a problem that's never been solved before. Go figure it out.
Jeff: I think that's one of the greatest things about the legacy of NASA as a whole is it's an organization that was built on the principle of, "This doesn't exist. Make it exist. We've never been to space. Make that happen." We'd be like, "Even before humanity, make a rocket go there." That's amazing about that kind of thing. Kind of building off of that, because you were talking about him, one of the biggest things of your legacy is Prandtl and the Prandtl Wing, correct?
Al Bowers: Right.
Jeff: Can we talk a little bit about that?
Al Bowers: Sure.
Jeff: For our listeners and viewers, there's a great TED Talk you did about it as well, but I'd like to get a little bit of information on this show as well. Can you explain a little bit about what that is?
Al Bowers: Prandtl... In the early days, people had this approximate idea of how wings worked, but how they actually produced lift was a big mystery. Prandtl was the one that came up with a way to explain that. Now, the way he explains it is a little... I don't want to say obtuse, but it's a little obscure and it's difficult to understand. Kids all learn about the Bernoulli Effect, that the flow over the top of the wing is faster, the flow under the wing is slower, and the faster air is lower pressure, and so the wing is literally being sucked up and that's where the lift comes from. Prandtl explained how this happens. If you take the uniform airflow, you say that's zero, and this is a mathematical concept, you take that as zero. You start everything to that so that you're moving frame of reference.
Al Bowers: Now, the flow is moving faster over the top and it's moving slower, that is, there's a negative component underneath. Prandtl says, "Okay, if I now make this air go this way, then that creates the lift." When he calculated that, he created the mathematical model for it. It exactly predicted how wings worked, and all of a sudden all of these things that the Wright Brothers had discovered in 1903 in building the airplane, they said, "Okay, if the wing is this shape and you do this with it, you can change the lift", but then if you changed the shape of the wing, you had this test all over again. This was the way things were done before Prandtl figured out this math model. With the math model, you could do it on a piece of paper and figure out the answer before you actually went to the wind tunnel and actually tested it.
Al Bowers: Prandtl figures this out and he writes this in a report in 1921, and then in 1933, he says, "Hey, that first report I wrote, here's an addition to that." He just does this two-page, real simple, well, simple for him, and I was aware of this report and I'm looking at birds and thinking about the way birds fly. Birds don't need vertical tails, and everything we build airplane-wise has a vertical tail in one form or another, even the B-2. It creates drag at the wingtips in order to create that yawning moment just like a vertical tail would. All the flying wings you've ever seen, except for this very narrow class of vehicles that come out of this idea that Prandtl wrote this paper in 1933. Prandtl I believe did not realize what he had.
Jeff: He never made it to like an experiment or a physical thing, right?
Al Bowers: He never did anything with it.
Jeff: It was just on paper.
Al Bowers: Just a solution. "Oh, here it is." There were two other brothers that were building sailplanes that ended up doing something very similar. They actually crossed paths with Prandtl. I had these photographs, and photographs like that will screw you up every time because it turns out that the two brothers, one of them goes on to get his PhD and associated with Prandtl in some way, but the two of them never actually talked. They ended up doing very, very close to the same answer. This man ends up, after World War II... These two brothers build gliders, Reimar Horten and Walter Horten. Reimar died in 1994. This was when I first became aware of this as a problem. It wasn't because of Reimar, but I had never really been exposed to the gliders that they made until after he was gone. Walter was still alive. Walter was alive until 1998.
Al Bowers: I was able to interact very briefly with Walter. There was an email buddy of mine that knew Walter and I would send him questions. He would go ask Walter, then I would get the answers back. There were pieces of it that Walter understood, other pieces he didn't. The other brother, Reimar, was the one that got the PhD under Prandtl, but again, they never connected and it turns out that Prandtl's solution was what we call a minimum drag solution. This particular solution, there's a reason birds use this and why it works so well for them. It's that if you make any other solution except for this one, you end up either being heavier or you create more drag. The very bottom of this bucket where these two things intersect, it turns out is this Prandtl 1933 solution. That's why birds are there. They know this.
Al Bowers: Any other bird would have been filtered out, natural selection, by simply because of this. This is the bottom of the bucket. This is the optimum spot. We've never built that airplane.
Jeff: Still to this day?
Al Bowers: To this day, there are only a handful of airplanes that have been built there. All those experiments until about six months ago were mine. Since them, there have been a handful of others that have built airplanes that do this. Part of it is because of this Prandtl 1933 solution.
Jeff: That's incredible. I heard you talk about this as well and you were saying that when you were kind of figuring this out, it took you 11 years to work this out-
Al Bowers: I'm slow.
Jeff: And... Well, no. You're working back from a model that never was tested or existed, so what struck me is that you said that you got to your realization that this must be the solution, but you still didn't believe it.
Al Bowers: That's right. I did not.
Jeff: What is that like as a scientist? The romantic idea is a scientist is in his lab and he's working and he has the "eureka!" moment and it's like, "I did it!" The puff of smoke and the beaker and you did it. You get there, you finish all of the calculations and you still don't believe it. Your brain doesn't allow you to think that.
Al Bowers: My brain did not... everything I'd been trained in all of this aeronautical engineering up to this point was that's not a solution that'll work. Now, the good news was I had an intern working for me. The kid's name was Mike Allen. Mikey is in his 40s now. He and I are still buddies. We communicate on Facebook all the time. His kids are grown up and he went home and I want to say it was over a Thanksgiving weekend, maybe it wasn't, maybe it was a long Easter weekend or something like that. He made a model that did this and it was one of those, "Give me those numbers. Of course I know it's going to work, I saw you calculate it. Give me those numbers. Here, let me show you."
Al Bowers: It was a couple of weeks later. We went out to fly it. I have photographs of that day and the thing flew exactly like a bird. I don't know how to describe this. It was like it was on rails. I abused this little glider, radio-controlled model, and I'm looking at it. "Here, I'm going to fix it." No way. It was perfect and every time it would turn it was just exactly a bird would turn, watching the ravens out here or seagulls at the beach or pelicans when they're flying along the waves.
Al Bowers: One of the other things that we discovered along the way, there were a series of reports we stumbled into literally, my buddies and I. Brian Eslinger was the one that really did most of this work. Dug in and we found out that birds when they fly in formation, they fly with their wingtips overlapped, and yet all the papers for airplanes say for best fuel savings you actually want the wingtips in line, but birds all fly with their wingtips overlapped, and why is that? Well, it turns out that the vortices don't come from the wingtips anymore. It's because of the twist in the wing, the vortex is moved from the tip inboard, and because of that when birds line the vortices up, their wingtips overlap and we can exactly predict how much Prandtl 1933 is in that bird by the overlap in their wings.
Al Bowers: These are pieces that quite literally are just now coming out as we're solving this stuff. It's in a report that we've written up and it's going through the publication process right now.
Jeff: Wow, that is exciting. These glider models, you were talking about the originals like were remote control that you guys were doing, but you've since built piloted ones, correct?
Al Bowers: Yeah, we have a piloted one. The models were built by... we have this master builder at our place, Red Jensen. Master, multi-time national champion of various radio-controlled model airplanes. He's a real pilot also. He has all of that background and skill and knowledge buried in his brain. We had a group of really talented guys in our model shop, Justin Hall and Derek Abramson, who helped make all of these crazy ideas of mine. They would turn it into concrete, carbon fiber, and foam and we'd go out and fly this stuff. There was a very, very strong disbelief that this could ever happen, that it would ever work.
Al Bowers: I got small amounts of funding from a buddy who had a little bit of a line of funding, and he was allowed to spend it on innovative things. We had this center innovation fund. It was awesome. I got interns and we would go out and we would do this and we would gather data and we published that. That became our first report, first report-
Jeff: Oh, wow.
Al Bowers: NASA TP 219072.
Jeff: Wow, that's cool.
Al Bowers: I put the name of every single intern that had worked on it at that point in the acknowledgements, so if people want to know what happened, please go ask those kids. Don't ask me. This has turned into a huge, big deal. We went through the first set of a thousand of these in like nine months. This is out of the second set of a thousand and I think we're down to about 300 of these that are left. It's become incredibly popular. It's free as a PDF download. I tell people this all the time. Go download on the net [crosstalk 00:23:00]-
Jeff: I will put it in this show.
Al Bowers: It's for free. Anybody who wants to read about it. The full geometry of the glider is in there. We published that intentionally. I wanted people to go out and build these gliders and if I got it wrong, please publish your results. This is the way science works, right?
Al Bowers: We need to figure this out because there's something here. I think it's so funny when I go talk to the senior VPs at these companies that build airplanes. I say, "You don't do what birds do." "Well, we don't care. Birds don't go supersonic." You're missing the boat here. This works, whether you're supersonic or subsonic, and there's a reason, and I can make this work supersonic out to about mach 2, and we've talked about this. I know how it works. I can make it work. There's so much here and I'm having a really difficult time selling it to people.
Al Bowers: Two days ago, I received a Facebook posting from some kids in Lithuania who used this, used our data, built a glider, and it flew and these five kids graduated and the photos are awesome. I love it. I've got a guy in Italy who's building a hydrofoil using this idea. There's a guy in France who's trying to build one, a human-carrying one.
Jeff: That was going to be my question I was going to have because you're basing it on a glider technology, but this could be, like you said, supersonic. Could this be a passenger jet type design?
Al Bowers: Oh, absolutely. That was my original intention of solving this problem was, how can you minimize your impact on the environment? That was what I was thinking at the time, and if this is the minimum drag, minimum mass solution, then this has to be the right answer.
Jeff: This, as you said, reduces the carbon footprint by a lot. In fact, I was reading online, between the propulsion emission and the drag and all of that, you're looking at almost 60% of it. How is this a hard sell?
Al Bowers: The hard sell is it's something that's untried, and there's a risk. The companies have this... you have stockholders and if it doesn't work, the very first question is, "Why did you do that?" Right?
Jeff: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Al Bowers: I understand and it's a money thing and it becomes very political right there at that point. Being able to take the risk in doing this, isn't that why the organization with this meatball exists?
Jeff: What is so incredible to me is that when you think about the amount of planes that are in the air every single minute of every single day and all of the fuel that they're using, with a model like this, you are taking... even on a base level, and let's say whatever about saving the planet, just saving fossil fuel. This would save so much of that.
Al Bowers: That cost you money either way, and this could result in a 60% savings.
Jeff: Wow. What are the steps that can be taken to make people aware of this to get these companies to back it?
Al Bowers: I could not convince the guys that were the senior VPs. It's a lost cause. Those guys, they're very, very sharp at what they know. I'm now walking in with something that they don't understand at all and I'm the crazy, wild-haired guy. Absolutely there's no way they're going to do it.
Jeff: Albert Einstein 2.0 walking [crosstalk 00:27:15]-
Al Bowers: Who can [crosstalk 00:27:17]-
Jeff: In there.
Al Bowers: Yeah, right? Who can I influence in order to get the word out about this? Interns.
Al Bowers: I had almost 240 interns that came and worked with me, and there's probably another I would guess hundred or 120 that are running around that know this, understand this, and they're going back to their professors saying, "Hey, what about Al Bowers out at NASA Armstrong?" It's going to take off because of those kids. I'm retired.
Jeff: You have to keep telling yourself that. You're retired.
Al Bowers: There's still part of me that it doesn't quite let go and that's why these people are still talking to me and I still have something to give.
Jeff: Wow, that's incredible. The other things about the Prandtle Wing that I wanted to ask you is that you were developing, and correct me if I'm wrong, it was the Prandtle-m-
Al Bowers: Right.
Jeff: For Mars.
Al Bowers: Right.
Jeff: What is the difference? What are you changing in this design to have it work in that atmosphere?
Al Bowers: Dave Berger was the guy, the principal for that and the lead on that. Dave is still working on it and he's trying to get this so that it will fly on Mars. It turns out that the atmosphere on Mars is so incredibly thin. I want you to imagine this. That paper airplanes fly at airline speeds on Mars. There is not an arm that exists that you can throw fast enough to make a paper airplane fly on Mars. You need a special launcher to get the paper airplane to go-
Jeff: To go-
Al Bowers: 400 miles an hour so that it can fly on Mars because the air is so thin. Now, because of this, you're not interacting with that many molecules, and it turns out that there is a stickiness, viscosity. You guys deal with fluids, viscosity, right?
Al Bowers: Imagine honey has a certain very high viscosity. You tilt the honey jar and it takes forever to pour out, as opposed to coffee. You pour the coffee, it's much closer to being like water. You have this difference in viscosity. That change in the viscosity, it's not that the viscosity changed, but it's the density of the air changed, and so the momentum of the air versus the viscosity of the air on Mars fundamentally changed, and because of that we couldn't make those long, skinny wings work on Mars. It had to be a fatter wing.
Al Bowers: We made a fatter one and we twisted it just exactly the way we describe in here, and Dave and I would go round and round on this. Dave would say, "Yeah, but I want to do this." I said, "Okay, we can go there, but I don't think it's going to work as well for doing what you want." We would iterate. We must have gone through I want to say a dozen designs to get to the point where we think we're close to a realizable solution.
Al Bowers: Now, there's a funny story here. I've talked to you about some of the crazy things that just happen to fall out of the sky, you know?
Jeff: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Al Bowers: I don't think are coincidence but that's what you could call them. I was visiting with interns down at JPL and we had started talking to this JPL guy, and JPL is a really big place. Saptarshi, Indian kid, everybody is a kid for me now, he's probably in his 30s. He's got his PhD. Brilliant guy. He's a real scientist. He wants to make this distributed network to try and measure the atmospheric water that evaporates and condenses during the daily cycle on Mars, but to do this, he needs a distributed network of Wi-Fi, and it turns out that the Wi-Fi signal changes by the amount of water vapor that's in the atmosphere.
Jeff: Oh, wow.
Al Bowers: He's got this calibrated. What he was looking for was, how can he create little Wi-Fi nodes and evenly distribute them over a small area in order to measure the transpiration, is what they call it, of this water vapor? This was what he wanted to do, and so the experiment that Dave and I were working on right up until I left, and it still hasn't happened yet, we want to make a bunch of these little, tiny Prandtle-ms with these Wi-Fi things on them and they're completed unguided.
Al Bowers: You'll just dump.. it's sort of like a balloon popping and all of these little Prandtle-ms are going to fly out and they're just going to spread themselves out over this area. What we want to provide for him, we want to do this off of a balloon launch over the lake bed at our place with interns, students, and we're actually going to get the dispersion and how that distribution is over a certain area and we're going to give that data to him to find out how much of an area he can then get his data for his experiment.
Al Bowers: I'm standing in line getting my lunch at JPL and I've placed my order. I have to go down to the other end of the counter. They'll get me my sandwich. I'm standing next to this young, very sharply-dressed Indian kid and he is looking at my badge and he says, "Are you Al Bowers from NASA Armstrong?" I said, "Yes I am." He says, "I'm Saptarshi!" We're shaking hands in the middle of this lunch line and it was so funny and [crosstalk 00:33:28]-
Jeff: That's so [crosstalk 00:33:28]-
Al Bowers: We were just laughing and everybody is looking at us like something is wrong with us.
Jeff: "Let's go back."
Al Bowers: Those sorts of things have happened so many times on our project. I love it. Again, NASA is that kind of place.
Jeff: That's so cool, and I love that you're so forward-thinking with utilizing interns and the younger generation [crosstalk 00:33:52]-
Al Bowers: Oh, absolutely.
Jeff: They're the ones who are going to bring that into [crosstalk 00:33:54]-
Al Bowers: Absolutely.
Jeff: Into this next phase of space exploration and engineering and all of that. I kind of wanted to talk about the iLEAD Schools. You've worked with iLEAD before, right? Have you done-
Al Bowers: Yeah.
Jeff: I know you've talked with the students, but have you done stuff with them experiment-wise? Or-
Al Bowers: They've done experiments, yes, and it's funny. I'll walk into iLEAD and there'll be a class of them and they'll be flying foamy Prandtls down the hallways-
Jeff: Oh my gosh.
Al Bowers: And it's so cool. They think I'm some sort of hero or something, which is really sad. Get a real role model, kid. They're awesome. There's so many things that they don't know they can't do this, and if they listen to us adults, they're never going to do anything new because we always tell them, "Don't do this, don't do that. Don't waste your time with that. Don't go do this." You got to stop, and the good thing is they don't listen because they need to... it's like the little kid when he discovers that the stove is hot. Maybe he gets a blister on his finger, but they figured that out. There's things that they figure out along the way that they connect with. Some of those things, and this was where I struggled and why it took me years, it's when I saw in reality didn't match what I was being told this is what reality should be. My brain didn't quite... it couldn't handle that. I had difficulty with it. Why is that?
Al Bowers: These kids, and I know I do this to my students as well. The iLEAD kids are awesome. Kathleen, she's working on her third Space Station experiment. Who does that?
Jeff: It's incredible.
Al Bowers: I have high schools students doing... when I was going through high school, there was no way I was going to get into an experiment that went into space. The funny thing was, again, just the town that we live in and what's going on. A friend of mine through our church, she's a school teacher, and one of the classes at her school had an experiment that they needed just a few minutes of space. They didn't need to go to The International Space Station, they only needed a few minutes of Zero-G. It so happens I know some of the guys that work for Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company. I went to my buddy and I asked Steve, "Is there a way that we can get an experiment, a small, standalone experiment flown on Zero-G on SpaceShipTwo?" "I don't know. Let me go ask."
Al Bowers: We have this every other Friday breakfast thing. Steve shows up, "Yeah, the boss says we can do this." I connected the two of them up and so now these middle-school kids are making an experiment to try and do this little material process where they create a solid in Zero-G. It's going to be in this little coffee can experiment that they're going to fly onboard SpaceShipTwo. They're going to get it effectively for free, but there are certain things they're going to have to do in order to be able to fly their experiment. Just having the right connection, knowing who to talk to and, yeah.
Jeff: That's one of the greatest things about when we got a chance to tour iLEAD and see that. The connections that they have and the ability to just teach kids that. Like you said, if you want this to exist, you have this question, then go and find the answer.
Al Bowers: Find it out, that's right [crosstalk 00:38:06]-
Jeff: There is no "no", and that's incredible about it and I think that's what's awesome about this younger generation. Also, hearkening back to it, the ethos of NASA and what that is. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about you started out in NASA in the '80s, '82 I [crosstalk 00:38:26]-
Al Bowers: Yeah, '82 [crosstalk 00:38:26]-
Jeff: When you were an intern?
Al Bowers: Yeah.
Jeff: There's been lots of changes in NASA in the space and space exploration, but I think one of the greatest things now, as I was saying this just five years ago, five, six years ago, people knew NASA but it wasn't really in the public consciousness, the public conversation. Now, I can go anywhere in the U.S. and be walking down a random street and I see someone in a NASA t-shirt or [crosstalk 00:38:58] a NASA pin. What do you think that is from? Do you think it's just we're excited about space exploration again?
Al Bowers: I think there's multiple reasons. The current administration is bringing a little extra attention to NASA. We are thinking of going back to the Moon, 2024. I think that's a very ambitious date. I would love to see that happen, which means that the current crowd of astronauts, which are having to fly Soyuz to get to International Space Station and back, they will have the opportunity to fly to the Moon.
Jeff: Which is, wow.
Al Bowers: That would be amazing. It's also a dress rehearsal for what they're going to do with Mars. It was about three years ago when I would visit schools and talk to the kids, especially middle schools, I would talk to the kids and I would say, "We think that the first person that's going to step on Mars is in the seventh grade." That was three years ago. Now, that has slid a little bit, so I would imagine that right now the thinking is that the first person that's going to step on Mars is in the ninth grade. It's not quite one for one, but when you walk into a high school and you say that, all of a sudden all of the freshmen are going, "What?" I'm going, "Yeah."
Jeff: One of you.
Al Bowers: It could well be one of you. The other thing, and I emphasize this to kids. Sometimes your dreams seem crazy, right?
Jeff: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Al Bowers: None of the guys that walked on the Moon when they were growing up, the job astronaut did not exist, and yet all these guys ended up walking on the Moon. I think about that and the really, really cool thing about those Apollo astronauts, I knew two of them personally-
Jeff: That's awesome. Which ones? Can you say?
Al Bowers: Yeah, I can. I can. Vance Brand, he was one of the last Apollo rookies and he was in the room when Neil and Buzz landed on the Moon. I got to spend a day with Buzz Aldrin.
Jeff: Oh, wow.
Al Bowers: We were on a panel of experts together. I caught him a couple of times when I was answering a question, he thought he was going to get the bureaucratic answer every time. I caught him a couple of times looking up at me and going...
Jeff: That is cool.
Al Bowers: Afterwards, he insisted on having a photo taken with me.
Jeff: Oh, wow.
Al Bowers: I have that photo, of course [crosstalk 00:41:49]-
Jeff: Of course. That's amazing.
Al Bowers: It was a great day. It was a great day, and I think our last email was probably about four years ago, five years ago, and he still remembers me.
Jeff: Oh, wow. Wow.
Al Bowers: It's pretty amazing.
Jeff: Back to what you were saying, it is incredible to think that people like Buzz... he was just a pilot. He wasn't looking at like, "I'm going to be an astronaut", because that didn't even exist. These kids in ninth grade might be the first person on Mars and that never existed.
Al Bowers: There's this funny story. Buzz is the one that figured out how to the space rendezvous. That was his PhD at MIT. He's the one that has to go to the Moon. They're sending him to the Moon. It's like, "Okay, this is for real." He goes. The amazing thing is if you go look up his PhD dissertation, it's online, you can find it, in the dedication he talks about, "Oh, that I could be one of the people that are going to use this."
Jeff: Oh my gosh.
Al Bowers: Here he is, he's on the first crew that lands on the Moon. He's the second man on the Moon. To me, the serendipity of all of that coming together like that is just so incredible. That's the amazing part of this story. Guys like Neil Armstrong. He was the test pilot's test pilot. X-15 before hand. Just fantastic pilot and fantastic engineer. I did meet him once. He was just an airplane crazy guy. He did not particularly care to talk about landing on the Moon. He wanted to talk about flying airplanes.
Jeff: That's so crazy.
Al Bowers: He wanted to talk about flying airplanes [crosstalk 00:43:49]-
Jeff: You've been on the Moon. He's like, "Yeah, but"...
Al Bowers: There's actually a great quote by him. He said that it was surprising even to him that he had never had a dream of being on the Moon. In all the years since, he had never had a dream about having been on the Moon. It's didn't... that wasn't [crosstalk 00:44:08]-
Jeff: Just didn't... crazy [crosstalk 00:44:10]-
Al Bowers: That wasn't it. The ability to pilot and land the thing on the Moon, and that Apollo 11 landing, it was dicey because the place that they had targeted for him was a boulder field. It was death, and he had to overfly all of that before he found the place and he found a place to set it down, a safe place for he and Buzz. There's... I can only imagine what the elation in their minds when that happened. All the transcripts say they turned and looked at each other and they shook hands and slapped each other on the back because it was like, "We're here!"
Jeff: "We're here! We did it!"
Al Bowers: "We're here!" That was just mind-blowing.
Jeff: Oh my gosh [crosstalk 00:44:59]-
Al Bowers: Must have been mind-blowing.
Jeff: All those guys, it's just... I'm a big proponent of... actually talking with Buzz and what he wrote in his paper, I'm a big proponent of if you say it out into the universe, you are willing it into existence. Whether or not it does come to fruition is a little on you, but it is a little on the universe as well. For him to write that in the paper, it's almost like that put him on the path, that one sentence. Again, that hearkens back to NASA. The idea that it doesn't exist, say it's going to exist and then make that exist.
Al Bowers: How can you do that?
Jeff: Exactly. That brings me to the question I get to on this show all the time. We are all about fueling your passion and what drives you in this world and leaving this world a little different before you leave it for good. I wanted to ask you, what fuels your passion? What kept you passionate about this throughout your career? You are retired. I'm going to keep reminding [crosstalk 00:45:56]-
Al Bowers: I am retired.
Jeff: You that, but even through your retirement, what fuels your passion for all of this?
Al Bowers: I've been asked that a lot of times. I have no good answers. I will say that I love things that fly, powerless flight in particular. There's something about that. The ability to use the natural power of the atmosphere to stay up and to go from one place to another and to use that energy to stay aloft. That attracts me. I started out flying hang gliders. I transitioned into sailplanes. I still run the Western Workshop for The Soaring Society.
Jeff: Oh, wow.
Al Bowers: We do that every September right up here up the road at Tehachapi. Reimar Horten, the German sailplane builder that died in Argentina in 1994, his son still lives in Argentina. He's coming to the United States this year. He's coming to speak at the Western Workshop because we were talking. We're friends on Facebook. We talk all the time. His name is Diego and Diego Horten is coming to talk about his father's work and he's going to give the keynote speech for us.
Al Bowers: I think about all of this stuff and how it all lines up and what it all works out to and it's amazing to me, but things that fly, I love things that fly. It's more than just the flying itself. It's the understanding of, how does that work so that you can recreate that and replicate it? If you're in a different situation, how does that fit? That understanding, that's the piece to me that really... I just love that.
Al Bowers: When we would get a new group of kids in, there's a certain expectation that the kids have about NASA. I try and diffuse a lot of that. People introduce me as the Chief Scientist and I keep explaining, "I was an intern. I remember sitting in the seats you're in right now and I remember what it was." I try to diffuse that some so that they have the ability to ask questions to try and understand. I'm not very good at it, but at least I'm aware of where those kids are.
Jeff: That's one of the most inspiring things about getting the chance to talk with you and hearing your story is that you know where you came from, you know where you went, and yet through all of it, you are still... permit me to say this, I feel like you're still that intern.
Al Bowers: I'm still that kid.
Jeff: You are still that [crosstalk 00:49:13] kid. You still really love what you do, love everything that you are a part of, and it's still exciting for you. That's inspiring because anybody, I don't care if you are working for NASA or you're working in the steel mill or whatever it is, you work there for your entire career-
Al Bowers: That's right.
Jeff: It can weight you down and it can be, "I'm just punching a clock and that's it and I don't like it anymore", and that's not what I gain from you. I gain that I'm still talking to that intern.
Al Bowers: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Jeff: Who just came into NASA, and that's so inspiring.
Al Bowers: There's a hang glider 40 feet from here.
Jeff: That's absolutely amazing. The final question I want to ask you is for any of our viewers or listeners out there who would love to get into the field, who would love to work for NASA. What would be your advice for them?
Al Bowers: Stay in school, study hard. The math, the math is the language. If you can figure it out and figure out how to describe it in the math, it will work. I get a lot of students who come from a physics background, and to them physical objects are difficult. Engineers, we want to talk nuts and bolts. How do you put this thing together? Being able to bridge that and then the math, if you can connect all of those things, it's like all of a sudden you can do anything. Study hard, don't stop dreaming. Do the things that motivate you. Go visit your local space, science and industry, whatever it is museum. Talk to people who worked in the field. Get motivated.
Al Bowers: This year is amazing. 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing. It's [crosstalk 00:51:19]-
Jeff: We actually just passed the 50th anniversary of Apollo 10, which was incredible, and Apollo 11 is coming up in...
Al Bowers: Apollo 10, the most experienced crew ever. We [crosstalk 00:51:30]-
Jeff: They'd all flown [crosstalk 00:51:30] before.
Al Bowers: Tom Stafford, Gene Cernan, and John Young.
Jeff: All [crosstalk 00:51:35]-
Al Bowers: Multiple times [crosstalk 00:51:35]-
Jeff: Geminis, right?
Al Bowers: Right. All multiple times. What a crew. Tom Stafford never gets to walk on the Moon, and that just blows my mind because he is one of those guys that... I did the autograph collection thing, right?
Jeff: Mm-hmm (affirmative). You have a collection of astronaut [crosstalk 00:51:57]
Al Bowers: Yeah. I have all of the guys that walked on the Moon. I have one person from every crew from the very first Mercury to the very last... except for one. There's one Mercury mission I don't have, but I have every other mission. I have one signature from one person on the crew, but I have all three from Apollo 10.
Jeff: Oh, wow.
Al Bowers: All three.
Jeff: Wow. It is a shame that he didn't get a chance to walk on the Moon, and it's funny because I remember I was just reading about the 50th anniversary of Apollo 10 and everything and how they were laughing how they actually made sure that when they were doing the test flight around the Moon that they didn't put enough fuel in there because they were worried that they were going to land on it anyways.
Al Bowers: That's the joke.
Jeff: That's the joke.
Al Bowers: The reality of it was the lunar module that they had at that time was too heavy, and so they wanted it to be the right mass, so they didn't put as much fuel in and you could still do the mission, but they didn't put as much fuel in so it would have the same reaction as when Buzz and Neil got there. It would have had that. There was a method to their madness and it wasn't just, "We don't trust you guys."
Jeff: Of course. Of course. I can't thank you enough for taking time and talking with me. This was absolutely amazing and I'd be remiss if I don't end it by asking this. Throughout all of NASA, how much did coffee help you? Did it keep you going?
Al Bowers: If it was a five-cup day, it was a pretty intense day. There were some days that were seven cups.
Jeff: Oh my gosh.
Al Bowers: Coffee, most of NASA runs on coffee.
Jeff: That is [crosstalk 00:53:56]-
Al Bowers: It really does.
Jeff: That is good to hear. That is good to hear. Al, thank you so much for talking with me.
Al Bowers: All right, Jeff.
Jeff: Awesome. Thank you.
Al Bowers: Thank you for supporting iLEAD. Those students are awesome.
Jeff: I love the entire organization. It's so great.