NASA: End of an Era
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SPENCER MICHELS: In ten years as head of NASA, Daniel Goldin served as engineer, administrator, salesman, and, most visibly, dreamer about the future to anyone who’d listen.
DANIEL GOLDIN: And maybe somebody in this room will be the first person to set foot on Mars, because you’re the right age.
SPENCER MICHELS: NASA was a troubled agency when the first Bush Administration hired Goldin in 1992. Some said it had no mission. Its biggest project, the space station, was facing cancellation. Goldin came aboard as a hard- charging, abrasive manager. He made drastic cuts in the workforce, and pushed those who remained toward more risk- taking, but he got results. Before he came to NASA, scientists had spent years and billions of dollars on a few huge spacecraft carrying multiple scientific missions. Goldin commissioned smaller missions, but more of them. His motto: “Faster, better, cheaper.”
DANIEL GOLDIN: Design a little, build a little, fly a little, and crash a little– it’s going to be acceptable.
SPENCER MICHELS: And crash some of them did. Goldin’s philosophy yielded successes, such as 1997 Mars Pathfinder that explored the Martian surface with a miniature ground vehicle. But in 1999 there were two highly publicized losses of other Mars vehicles: The Polar Lander and the Climate Orbiter. Outside investigators later said the Polar Lander’s engineering was compromised by its low budget. Goldin accepted his share of the blame.
DANIEL GOLDIN: I pushed too hard, and in doing so stretched the system too thin.
SPENCER MICHELS: Goldin persevered. He fought congressional efforts to cut NASA’s budget. He scored a success with the repair in orbit of the Hubble space telescope. Under his direction, NASA turned the operations of the space shuttle over to a private contractor. Studies said cuts in the shuttle work force had eroded safety margins; in response, NASA hired additional workers. But Goldin’s most visible and expensive legacy is probably the space station. He forced a redesign of the long-postponed project, convinced a skeptical Congress to continue funding it, and brought Russia in as a partner. Goldin’s successor will have to deal with an outside task force, which recently said the station’s budget isn’t credible and called for major changes in how the station is managed.
JIM LEHRER: Ray Suarez spoke to Daniel Goldin earlier today.
RAY SUAREZ: Dan Goldin, you came into an agency that was still laboring in the shadows of the “Challenger” disaster. Now that you leave, how would you describe the last ten years?
DANIEL GOLDIN, Former NASA Administrator: Oh, it’s been fabulous. The people at NASA aren’t afraid of failure. They’re dreaming. The space frontier is tough, it is sometimes overwhelming, and if you’re afraid and you set mediocre goals, you always have success, and you keep the critics at bay. You want to keep the critics really on edge, you want to keep them coming after you, because it is the American spirit that pushes forward, and I think the people at NASA have done a fabulous job.
RAY SUAREZ: You know, in the profiles that have been written about you upon your departure, the ideas that keep popping up are “visionary” and “cheapskate,” which don’t often live in the same package. Can you live with it?
DANIEL GOLDIN: Absolutely. NASA in the decade before I came had a budget that doubled. People were sitting at the campfires, feasting. The issue became, how do we increase the capacity at the ten campfires around the country, ten centers? The issue is, how do you provide the American people hope and inspiration at the lowest cost? We took $40 billion out of the planned budget from fiscal ’93 till the day I walked out the door, tripled the number of spacecraft, one-third the cost, 40% less time, and instead of having a few large ones, we now have 60 spacecraft under development right now. It changes everything. And it is not bad, because when people have too much, they say, “What’s the problem?” When people have to live with less, it gets their hearts and mind focused. You can be a visionary and use prospective technology, not be afraid of things and use retrospective technology. It’s an oxymoron: Vision and low cost go together.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, the number of spacecraft may be large, but are they doing the same kind of big things that we were looking forward to doing ten years ago?
DANIEL GOLDIN: Even more. Even more! And the beauty of it is, you don’t have to wait a decade for the last ship to leave port. If something goes wrong, we can fix it. You know, in that video we saw before, we lost two spacecraft on Mars in ’99. There were some very significant navigation errors that we didn’t realize. Within two years– we just orbited Mars last month– we improved the navigation error by a factor of 300. We cut it by a factor of 300. So when you build things in small pieces, you could react and adapt and react and adapt. So you design failure into the system. Without failure you don’t learn.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you brought a lot of excitement to your job, and you were clearly fired up by the idea of the United States continuing to work in space. Yet NASA has twice as many engineers over 60 than under 30. Why is that?
DANIEL GOLDIN: In the period of the most productive time of our economy, enrollment in engineering and science has gone down over 25%. I was just with the Council of Scientific Society presidents on Monday. People in America are walking away from Science and Math and Technology, yet it is the fuel in the furnace of our economy. It’s hard to explain. But you know what? We’re going to reignite. We’re going to come back. You know, don’t get me wrong, we need lawyers, we need accountants, but in the limits, we can’t do the books for the world, and we can’t do legal battles for the world, and we just can’t have people managing people. We need value-added base. There is a technological tsunami that’s going to be hitting us in the next five or ten years that’s going to change everything. So for our young people who don’t go into Math and Science and Technology, where’s the future of the country? And this is where the battlefield for the hopes and dreams of America is going to be.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, we just saw you a few moments ago telling young people that they could be the first person on Mars. Given the sort of almost out-of- fashion nature of manned space travel, or human…
DANIEL GOLDIN: I’m glad you said “human.”
RAY SUAREZ: Is that likely, and given the expense, in this faster, better, but cheaper era?
DANIEL GOLDIN: Mark my words: In no less than ten and no more than 20 years, we’re going to see a spacecraft land on Mars, an astronaut’s going to get out, and she is going to set her foot in the red dust of Mars. It’s going to happen. It’ll be some combination — maybe not just the government. There may be some opportunity to go in the private sector. The American people have a very big load ahead of them, especially with this war on terrorism. There are some ideas, and maybe you’ll be hearing from me in the future about them. We are going to Mars. My life won’t be complete until that event happens. The first job I had when I came to NASA in 1962 was to work on a mission to go to Mars. We were thinking about 1979, ten years after we landed on the Moon. In ’67 I left NASA because I knew it wasn’t going to happen. I knew Apollo was going to end. I came back in ’92 hoping it would happen, and we made a great start. We have a reconnaissance program with robots at Mars over the next decade that’ll help us really understand the fundamentals. We will land on Mars with an astronaut in the next ten to twenty years.
RAY SUAREZ: And are you heading into that commercial space world now?
DANIEL GOLDIN: I’m heading into the commercial world, and I’m also going to head into the policy world. I am very, very concerned about where our society is going. If you take a look, the enrollment in science and engineering is going down. It’s going down even faster for minority Americans and women. They make up such a small fraction of the workforce. If our economy is to grow over the next decade, we’re going to have to have two million additional scientists and engineers; yet if you take a look at the statistics, it isn’t going to happen. White males are disproportionately represented. If we could just bring parity to how America is made up, we will solve this problem. Every American needs to worry about this. Nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology: It’s going to have revolutions that’s going to change everything. And if you look back some decades, the threshold for entering new markets was measured in billions; now you get a bunch of smart kids and some tens of thousands of dollars. So the threshold is not going to protect American markets that want to make small, evolutionary changes. We’ve got to prepare our society for the next decade because that’s where the action’s going to be.
RAY SUAREZ: Dan Goldin, good luck, and thanks for coming by.
DANIEL GOLDIN: Oh, it’s been my honor. This is a wonderful day, and I’d like to end by saying I went to have a meal in a Chinese restaurant and my fortune cookie said the following: “You are full of hopes about the future.” That’s how I entered into this job, and that’s how I’m leaving.