BY MARGIE PENSAK
Baltimore native Stanley Fishkind is so down-to-earth, it is ironic that he reached for the stars — literally and figuratively — and accomplished it! For two decades, the former National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) chief engineer oversaw and assessed all of the details of America’s entire national and international space program.
He explains that for any program (like the Space Shuttle program, or the International Space Station program), one has to answer three questions: What is it? Why do it? How do we do it?
At NASA headquarters, Stanley was responsible for the What and Why, and he oversaw the How as performed by thousands of people. At the end of the day, he — and all of those associated with the program — had to make the “go” or “no-go” launch and landing decisions. Typically, with each of these life-and-death decisions, tens of billions of dollars were at stake; even more important, about ten lives were on the line as well.
“Knowing that on any one Space Shuttle mission we had at least 13% chance of loss of life, one really sweats buckets of nervous perspiration,” admits Stanley, who calculates that most of the parts used on the shuttle have a very good reliability value of 99.9995%. “Thirteen percent is something very few people would put their lives at risk for; it is a risk too great to take. In our business, the phrase ‘Landings are mandatory, and launches are optional’ is a truism. Voting for or against a manned space launch is very, very serious!”
Stanley explains that the Space Shuttle is made up of over 2.5 million parts. Of these, about 3,000 of them are rated as “Criticality One.” If a Criticality One item fails, the lives of the astronauts could be lost. The mission will also be lost. In NASA parlance, it would be a “bad day”!
Stanley notes that as he began to understand the shuttle program, in light of some NASA tragedies during his career, “I have gone on record to say that the shuttle should have been shut down. NASA would simply announce that it was ending the ‘experimental’ program and would pursue other vehicles to ferry people into space.”
As in everyone’s life, there were pivotal points in Stanley’s life. These incidents of obvious hashgachah pratis led him to his NASA career. Perhaps the earliest was in 1955, when Stanley was 11 years old.
“I remember the first professional attempt by my school, P.S. 218, to address my reading and spelling issues — which was eventually attributed to my dyslexia,” recalls Stanley. “The principal taught us how to read using the phonics approach, instead of by memorizing words. Her approach worked well for me and marked a major turning point in my ability to read English.”
Stanley’s interest in science and how things work was obvious at a young age. At the age of 12, he would accompany his uncle who would repair jukebox music systems in Baltimore’s restaurants and bars. At 13, his mother took him to the Department of Labor to get his first work permit, which allowed him to work in a radio repair shop.
And in 1958, when it was time for Stanley to choose a high school to attend, he had to make his first serious decision regarding what he was going to do in life. His choice of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute brought him another step closer to his NASA career, with its college prep courses in math, science and engineering.
The Path to Yiddishkeit
Although Stanley grew up in a Reform home, it was his parents’ suggestion that put him on the path of Yiddishkeit while attending the University of Maryland at College Park in 1962.
“My mother and father made the best suggestion of my life: ‘Why don’t you go to the B’nai Brith Hillel House and take your meals there?’” reminisces Stanley. “At this point in life, eating kosher was not a priority for me, but I decided to go… Being asked if I could stand in as the tenth person for the minyan I passed through on my way to the dining hall was brand new to me, as was eating, hearing Kiddush, and washing and bentching with the more than 200 students in Hillel on Friday nights.”
That year, after a visiting Chabad delegation came to the university in an outreach effort, Stanley started to put on tefillin daily and eat regularly at the kosher Hillel dining hall. He is one of 50 fellow students who became fully observant and remain frum until this day.
In his sophomore year of college, Stanley participated in “Project Meteor Bounce,” building a complete 30-foot parabolic dish antenna 10-meter radar station in his cousin’s pasture to track Perseid meteors. Using some special electronics from Westinghouse Electric Corporation to determine their distance and speed, led Stanley to a summer job and, eventually, full-time employment at Westinghouse.
It was bashert that Stanley attended the University of Maryland for another personal reason as well. That is where he first met his wife-to-be, Renee, with whom he later met up again and married in 1967.
“There are two major parts of my life that were really energized,” shares Stanley. “Towards the end of college, I got connected with a couple of fellows who learned at Ner Israel… The ‘buzz’ of the beis medrash, the ‘arguing’ between study partners, and the one-on-one approach to learning was new and exciting. As time and circumstances changed, my learning shifted to other locations. The next time I felt the ‘buzz’ of the beis medrash was very shortly after I retired, but this time in the newer Ner Israel campus.”
Job Offers in Eretz Yisrael
When the Fishkinds were expecting their third child, they visited a friend from Eretz Yisrael who asked Stanley the classic question, “Why isn’t a nice Jewish boy like you living in Israel?” Explaining that neither of them had contacts there for job hunting, his friend proposed, “If I can get you a job, would you consider coming?”
Their affirmative response led to the next step in the amazing chain of life events for the Fishkinds. Selling their house in Baltimore, the Fishkinds moved with three children under 3 to Kiryat Tiv’on, their interim home until they moved to Kfar Hasidim Alef, a moshav in northern Israel.
Stanley’s talents played an integral part during the Yom Kippur War, fought from October 6-25, 1973, when a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria initiated a surprise attack against Israel.
“I worked in the factory making artillery shells on Sunday and making radar decoys on Monday,” recalls Stanley. “The third day on, I was part of a team of about 20 engineers who dug up the remains of Russian SAM missiles to analyze them. In the span of about six or seven days, we figured out how the systems worked and found ways to defeat them. Our knowledge was taken back to the States and used to save American pilots in Vietnam, where these same units were being used against American forces. I felt I was part of a team that saved both Israeli and American lives.”
Without money for a down payment to buy a house in Eretz Yisrael for their growing family, the Fishkinds moved back to Baltimore. The Fishkinds’ fourth child, their only daughter, was born less than a year after the family resettled in Baltimore. Soon after his return, Stanley was hired by Operations Research Incorporated (ORI), where he worked from 1974 to 1988, doing state-of-the-art systems engineering.
“I started on NASA’s LANDSAT space and ground systems for NASA and the Department of Interior while at ORI,” recollects Stanley. “When the company was bought out and seemingly arbitrary firing was taking place, my former boss went to work for NASA, in its DC headquarters. I decided to join him a couple of weeks after he left, after winning the competition for a position he posted for me.”
Career Takeoff at NASA
“I started working at NASA headquarters in late August 1988 and it was a dream come true,” avers Stanley. “Because my boss was outspoken and truthful, he was ‘let go’ before the end of his first year, and I was appointed as his replacement!”
Stanley made good use of his 90-minute round-trip commute on the MARC train to DC and the half-hour walk from the station to his office, learning Mishnah Berurah, Daf Yomi, and various Torah topics, over the years. Conveniently, he was able to join the Minchah minyan in the HUD building two blocks away from his office.
Stanley’s initial responsibilities at NASA headquarters included managing the parts of the Space Station program that were closely linked to the Space Shuttle program. However, due to a shrinking NASA budget, attrition, and retirements, Stanley was appointed the Acting Mission Director of the Office of Space Communications — a.k.a. Code O.
“In Code O, I did a couple of memorable things, among them being the chairman of several of Interagency Tracking and Communications Panels — one with the Russian Space Agency, one with the European Space Agency, and one with the Japanese Space Agency,” describes Stanley. “These panels were forums where NASA could ‘trade’ assets with another space agency without money changing hands. We would have meetings all over the world — in Tokyo, Germany and Moscow — to host these panels.”
Of course, while traveling the world, kashrus challenges for Stanley were bound to arise. One of the funniest stories he experienced was with “Boris,” a former KGB colonel, his counterpart in the Russian Space Agency.
“In Moscow, I was the leader of a 15-person delegation,” relates Stanley. “Although I tried to get out of going to the treif lunch in the commissary dining room, Boris literally dragged me by the arm. At a very long, elegantly set table, I was seated in the middle of the American side of the table; directly opposite us were the 15 Russians.
“I said ‘No, thanks’ to the first two courses when they were served, but after I said ‘No, thanks’ to the main course, Boris asked, ‘Stanley, why no eat?’ I told him that I had a very special diet and that I could not eat the food. When he asked me what I could eat, I answered, ‘I can eat whole, fresh, uncut fruits and vegetables.’”
The server said, “No problem!” and in a couple of minutes, he brought Stanley a dish with three whole plum tomatoes. After trying to figure out how he could eat them without the use of the treif silverware, he slowly ate them with his fingers. He thought he was “home free” until it was time for a toast — starting with Boris’s — for working together in peace and harmony.
“He drank his full glass of whiskey and then turned to me to say, ‘Stanley, your turn!’” recollects Stanley. “I chuckled and said, ‘Give me a minute to put together a toast.’ I couldn’t drink their stuff. Who knew what was in it from a kashrus point of view, even if I was permitted to drink with non-Jews? Plus, I don’t drink liquor! Without anyone noticing, I filled my glass with their mineral water and gave a nice toast. This process of alternating Russian and American toasts went on for about half an hour until we heard 30 toasts. Towards the end, the toasts were rather silly, but who was sober?”
A CIO Kashrus Challenge
“I was asked by the Mission Director to be the Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the entire organization,” shares Stanley. “My organization was involved with the spending of tens of millions of dollars annually on computer/information systems. One of my most valuable experiences was creating a forum for me and the four field center CIOs — at the Johnson Space Center, the Marshall Space Flight Center, the Kennedy Space Center, and the Stennis Space Center. The forum was very successful and taught me that when people put their efforts into such a forum, all kinds of benefits are realized.”
One of the oddest events as an official NASA employee that Stanley experienced was in 1998, while he was the CIO. He received a letter of dismay from the administrator of a kashrus organization, asking NASA to remove human waste supposedly left by the astronauts on the Moon, citing the monthly blessing made by observant Jews upon the appearance of the new moon.
“It is impossible for waste to be cast off onto the Moon; waste products, inside their sealed containers, are brought back to Earth and properly disposed of,” explains Stanley. “After consulting with a Rav, who advised me not to reveal that I was an Orthodox Jew, I wrote back, ‘Therefore, we believe when congregations pray towards the moon, they will be able to fulfill their obligations to a much better extent as compared to those who bless large bodies of water (like an ocean), where people regularly dump untreated sewage and human wastes.’”
Rendezvousing with Astronauts
Stanley knew a lot of the hundreds of astronauts, among them some Jewish ones, including one Russian and about 13 others. Among the Jewish astronauts was Judith Resnik, a”h, who made history as the second American female astronaut in space, the first Jewish American in space, and the first Jewish woman of any nationality in space. (She perished when the Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed during the launch of mission STS-51-L on January 28, 1986.) Another was Colonel Ilan Ramon, a”h, an Israeli fighter pilot who became NASA’s first Israeli astronaut. He perished when Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart during reentry into the atmosphere over Texas on its way to Kennedy Space Center in Florida on February 1, 2003.
“I worked with Ilan Ramon in a couple of areas,” notes Stanley. “To be completely honest, Ilan Ramon was not particularly careful about kashrus when he was here on Earth, but he knew, as a Jewish person and as an Israeli, he was representing all of Yiddishkeit going into space. He asked NASA to provide him with kosher food in space and worked very closely with Rabbi Zvi Konikov of Satellite Beach, consulting him on the logistics of, for example, making Kiddush on Shabbos and the proper time of saying Krias Shema in outer space.”
Interestingly, says Stanley, rather than kasher the Space Station by any one kashrus agency, the decision was made that Ilan would use pre-packaged food manufactured on Earth under different kashrus supervisions, so no one kashrus agency would be able to claim, “We were the sole provider of kosher food for outer space.” Ilan would bring home his freeze-dried kosher food, made under various hashgachos, and taste it — and give some to his family to taste — before rating it and deciding what to pack.
“Ilan wanted to take along something that reflected our history,” continues Stanley. “He brought up a miniature sefer Torah used in the concentration camps, brought by a bachur who used it to practice leining his bar mitzvah parashah early each morning while in the camp, and who subsequently used it for his bar mitzvah there. Ilan was very proud of that, and he made a point of showing his fellow astronauts and the world that he was a Jewish person who really, really cared, indicating his belief that the ideas and philosophy found in the sefer Torah are the truth. You could see him change as he approached the Shuttle launch.
“Hundreds of people came to the launch and to the pre-launch party, as I did; the night before the launch, you have these celebration parties all over Satellite Beach and Cocoa Beach,” explains Stanley. “The Israeli contingent picked the Cocoa Beach Hilton Inn to stay in. Knowing that they were coming, the hotel went out and bought all brand-new keilim, in anticipation that this is going to be a Jewish Israeli kosher event. I don’t know how they knew to buy them, but they did.”
Choking up, Stanley remembers, “The next day, I was out there to watch the launch, and there were people out on the observation stands davening, singing and saying Hallel. It was a real kiddush Hashem all the way around.”
Although Ilan did not, unfortunately, make it home safely, Stanley has observed while working with those astronauts who did, “One of the most interesting things about astronauts, wherever they go, whether they are a pilot, co-pilot, or a Mission Specialist, is that they all seem to come back to Earth with a heightened religious sensitivity. Being out in space, seeing that their life is on a very thin string, seeing that they are wearing a space suit while in a very fragile rocket ship, is an incredible religious experience… Their personalities change as they approach the experience; they become very humane, humanistic and at peace — stronger in a religious sense.”
Time to Retire
During Stanley’s last two years at NASA, he was part of a large experienced team from all of the NASA centers and leaders in the field from different organizations. He was a major contributor to the revised NASA Systems Engineering handbooks and related publications used throughout NASA.
In August 2008, after Stanley reached his twentieth year in the civil service system working for NASA, in addition to his employment in the private sector for decades, he decided the time had come to retire.
“I felt that it was time to let others take over,” admits Stanley. “I could have stayed longer, but the ‘end’ of the major programs I was working on was being planned. I have been on programs that were shutting down and it’s demoralizing for everyone, so I retired.”
Several days before retiring, Stanley arranged for a “kosher” food event at NASA headquarters, to which he invited his friends he had made through his work and his coworkers. In his characteristically humble style, he claims it was a very memorable “milk-and-cookies” occasion, as he put it: “It was what I wanted — an informal opportunity to say ‘thank you’ to all.”