TOPICS > Politics

Changes in Thinking At NASA

November 29, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

DAN GOLDIN, NASA Administrator: It’s very exciting being here, and I want to tell you a little bit about what your future is going to be like.

TOM BEARDEN: It happens a hundred times a year–an audience, a microphone, and Dan Goldin up there on his pulpit, a gleam in his eye, preaching the gospel to anyone who will listen. The message is about space, but, more importantly, about the future.

DAN GOLDIN: When you get assignments in school, don’t just try and do the homework that the teacher asks you to do. Go a little bit beyond that, to always expand your mind, and maybe somebody in this room will be the first person to step foot on Mars, because you’re the right age.

TOM BEARDEN: That gleam in the eye has taken Dan Goldin from a poor neighborhood in the Bronx to become the most controversial person ever to run the National Aeronautics & Space Administration. Goldin was hired in 1992 by the Bush administration. NASA was in serious trouble them. Congress was on the verge of canceling the next big project, the space station. Goldin’s assignment was to reshape the agency for the fiscal realities of the 90’s. So Goldin shook NASA to its core. He performed radical surgery on the personnel roster and pushed those who remained toward ever-riskier projects.

DAN GOLDIN: NASA was formed as a development organization, research & development organization, to always push back boundaries of the unknown, not to be an operational agency, not to do routine things that are comfortable, but to always go to the edge, and to take risk.

TOM BEARDEN: Goldin has a mantra for NASA: faster, better, cheaper. He repeats in appearances before private industry and NASA employees alike and usually adds a coda.

DAN GOLDIN: And design a little, build a little, fly a little, and crash a little, it’s going to be acceptable.

TOM BEARDEN: The physical manifestation of his philosophy is the X-33. Now in early wind tunnel tests, it’s an experimental vehicle to explore new technologies that may lead to the Holy Grail of space flight, getting to orbit in a single vehicle. Scientists have been dreaming about it since the days of Werner Von Braun. Every spacecraft that has ever left the Earth’s gravity got there on a multistage rocket, including the giant Saturn moon rocket. It’s because a single rocket was simply too heavy to heave itself into orbit. So a massive first stage went part way, ran out of fuel, and dropped away, while successive stages repeated the process. The X-33, by contrast, is a very different vehicle. The whole thing goes to space and returns. It doesn’t have wings like the shuttle, because the whole thing is shaped to work like one giant wing. No giant rocket bells but rows of little nozzles, like a harmonica. They’re the exhaust ports for a new kind of engine called the aerospike. It’ll be able to lift itself into orbit because it’ll be much lighter, made largely of composites, instead of metal. That includes the propellant tanks, which will be part of the structure, instead of inside of it. Nothing like this has ever been built before.

TOM BEARDEN: How serious are the technical challenges that remain to make the X-33 work?

DAN GOLDIN: Very tough. But I ask you this: When John F. Kennedy said, We’re going to the Moon in eight years, and we’re going to make it happen, people eye’s were spinning, but you know what happened? America said, God, that’s what we’re about, and maybe the first vehicle will crash, and maybe we’ll have to build some more vehicles, and maybe we’ll have to get some new materials, but I am absolutely convinced ten years from today, we will improve the reliability on launch by a factor of a hundred, and we’re going to cut the cost at least by a factor of ten.

TOM BEARDEN: Given what happened after the “Challenger” accident, do you think the public is prepared to accept that kind of crash?

DAN GOLDIN: You know, we had our tears, I had my tears over the “Challenger.” But we flew again. We can’t afford to lose our heart and soul when we have crashes.

TOM BEARDEN: Goldin also believes NASA can’t afford to put all of its scientific eggs in one basket. Before he came to NASA, scientists spent years developing Battlestar Galactica-style spacecraft for planetary missions. The science was impeccable, but the problem was the spacecraft were becoming prohibitively expensive. After the billion dollar Mars Observer disappeared in space in 1993, Goldin commissioned much cheaper missions that could be built much more quickly, like the Mars Global Surveyor, which was launched in early November, and the Mars Lander, launching on Monday. They’ll use innovative techniques and are somewhat risky but only cost a quarter as much as the Observer. Goldin recruited scientist Charles Kennel as an associate administrator to help him implement policies. He’s since left the agency.

CHARLES KENNEL, Former NASA Associate Administrator: In many cases, you know, there’s much more–it’s very unsettling, and the engineers and bureaucrats and administrators didn’t know whether they could actually pull it off at the low prices that we were having to shoot for. And, as it turns out, I think to Dan’s great credit, the NASA science program continues to exist with its essence intact, and, in fact, in many ways, it’s more flexible and more agile, and I think that we managed to improve the science while cutting the cost.

SPOKESMAN: We have the Unit three pressure fuel turbo pump, space shuttle main engine turbo pump–

TOM BEARDEN: Goldin also brought something else to NASA, besides a willingness to take risks, a management style the likes of which the agency had never seen before. It earned him the cruel nickname “Captain Chaos” from people who say his pushy impatience is often counterproductive. Some call him abrasive, brutal, even paranoid. But others inside and outside the agency also call him brilliant, innovative, and a genius. Charles Force was an associate administrator who saw what happened when Dan Goldin’s style ran head-long into NASA’s corporate culture.

CHARLES FORCE, Former NASA Associate Administrator: Dan comes in and says, gee, maybe we should explore Mars, which is outside of the Earth’s orbit, so then the organization immediately starts building and planning a spacecraft to explore Mars, and the next thing he comes buy and says maybe we ought to go to Mercury instead, which is getting close to the Sun. And so to the organization, that’s very difficult to cope with. And yet all he’s trying to accomplish is to get people to consider for themselves.

DAN GOLDIN: Am I prepared to have a perception of chaos? You bet. A little discomfort is okay, not brutalizing employees, but discomfort. You must have a vision, and you must move towards that vision with focus. A little chaos doesn’t hurt anyone when you’re making progress.

TOM BEARDEN: But there’s another factor at work that undoubtedly makes Goldin’s style even harder to swallow for NASA employees. The administrator is under strict orders to downsize the NASA work force and infrastructure even as he tries to transform its mission. People are afraid a rift is coming. That’s civil service jargon for a reduction in force, in other words, a big layoff. These people work at NASA’s Lewis Research Center in Ohio. When they got together recently on a rainy evening for their annual union picnic, downsizing was on everyone’s mind. Many we talked to said pressure from Goldin to act quickly led to bad decisions.

SHEILA BAILEY, Lewis Research Center, NASA: I think Dan Goldin had several options, of which he availed himself of only one. He had an option to thoroughly analyze and downsize in a realistic, logical way. I don’t think he exercised that option.

TOM BEARDEN: Case in point, the Lewis Center once had its own fire department.

VIRGINIA CANTWELL, Lewis Research Center, NASA: Well, Sen. Edgar here and Mr. Campbell was told by the agency administrator, Mr. Goldin, to come up with a cost-effective plan to cut the costs within a two-day period. Well, of course, there wasn’t time to do a cost analysis study.

TOM BEARDEN: So out went the fire department, but the firemen didn’t go; they were reassigned. And nobody bothered to coordinate with the Cleveland area fire departments, who now had to take over responsibility for fire protection. Congress got wind of that story and asked NASA’s inspector general to testify.

ROBERTA GROSS, NASA Inspector General: Where they fell down was in the transition process. They gave themselves a year to coordinate with the three jurisdictions that would be affected by Lewis. One fire chief found out about it because somebody happened to chat with him at a training and said, oh, by they way, you’re going to be responsible for fire response and emergency responses. And they called Lewis and said, is that true?

TOM BEARDEN: None of this involved very much money, but it raised questions about how the changes were being carried out.

REP. STEVEN LATOURETTE, (R) Ohio: In this case, when we got down to that level of pressure, things could have gone better.

TOM BEARDEN: Goldin insists the results are what matter, even if the process is messy.

DAN GOLDIN: We don’t have the leisure of doing studies completely defining it and then going public. Everyone watches us as we go. If you will, the public is in a sausage factory. When it’s done, sausage tastes good, but it’s pretty ugly as you go along. If we had to worry about a public relations situation, where everything has to go perfectly, we will be so bureaucratic we will accomplish nothing.

SPOKESMAN: The two biggest problems look like the thermal protection system and some weight issues and their–

TOM BEARDEN: Goldin and his associate administrators want their people to make quick decisions and fix mistakes later, instead of doing what he says NASA used to do, study a problem to death for fear of failing. Keith Cowing follows all of this in cyberspace. He’s a former NASA engineer who set up an Internet site that functions as a kind of super water cooler for all of NASA’s far-flung employees. He calls it “RIF Watch.” It features rumors, editorial comment, jokes, cartoons. It also frequently publishes high-level internal memos that NASA employees send to Cowing. He says there are a lot of unhappy people out there in NASA Land.

KEITH COWING, RIF Watch: Dan Goldin’s approach is he’ll walk into–metaphorically–into a stockyard with a machine gun and shoot up all the cows. And somebody will come back later and say, now, where’s that prize bull, and he’ll hand ’em hamburger and say, here, put it back together; it’s all there. Dan constantly changes things, but he never leaves them in place long enough to accomplish anything.

TOM BEARDEN: One NASA icon Goldin definitely doesn’t want to leave in place is the space shuttle. He wants NASA to do research, not launch spacecraft. He’s taken the highly controversial step of turning over all shuttle processing and launch operations to a single civilian contractor, the United Space Alliance. NASA hopes that’ll slash the enormous costs and lengthy preparation time needed to prepare shuttles for their next flight. But some in NASA are deeply worried about that approach. Last summer, Cowing’s RIF Watch turned up a memo from the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, an internal group formed after the “Challenger” disaster. It said the rapid transition to the contractor was a threat to safety. Goldin denies that.

DAN GOLDIN: We have set up a process that’s very, very formal, very disciplined, in terms of transitioning from NASA to the USA Company, United Space Alliance, that will take over the shuttle. And at each point in the process, we have a place where anyone could stop it. We have independent oversight. But this is something that has to come. And just because there could be a safety implication doesn’t say you shouldn’t do it.

CHARLES KENNEL: After the “Challenger” accident, one of NASA’s responses was to add ever more layers of control and checks and procedures before every shuttle launch. And, of course, the employment at the centers went–at Kennedy went up, and more and more, you had people checking people. But at a certain point you could arrive at the feeling that you were losing safety by having such a complex system.

TOM BEARDEN: Goldin not only wants NASA out of the launch business; he’s actively encouraging small companies like Kelley Space & Technology, which is trying to develop a cheap launch system, using aircraft to launch a reusable orbital vehicle from high altitudes. No other NASA administrator has ever encouraged private competition.

DAN GOLDIN: So we at NASA really salute and applaud those that want to take risk. It’s a different way of going at the space business. But I submit we had a 25-year experience where the governor was in total charge, and we played it safe and didn’t develop one new rocket engine in America for 25 years, while in the rest of the world, they developed 29 rocket engines.

TOM BEARDEN: There is no question that Goldin’s style and decisions have shaken NASA, but that’s just fine with Mark Albrecht, the man who originally hired him.

MARK ALBRECHT, Former Director, National Space Council: Perhaps he could be a little more cautious; he could be a little studious; he could be a little more Washingtonian, a little more suave in handling all people, in all times, in all situations. But if I had to sacrifice some of the passion, some of the innovative thinking, some of the impatience and the qualities that I think are so important about Dan for a little more attentiveness to the niceties of existence inside Washington, I wouldn’t make that trip for a minute.

TOM BEARDEN: Despite the conflicts and controversies, odds are that Dan Goldin will be one of the few high level administrators likely to continue in the second Clinton administration. Four more years of faster, better, cheaper, a prospect likely to bring both grins and groans inside America’s new space agency.