"According to several top NASA officials who spoke on condition of anonymity," the journal Science reported recently, "morale among staffers at headquarters has never been lower." What great news!
Washington insiders know that whenever senior civil servants start complaining about low morale, what they mean is that someone is pressuring them to change their ways. In that sense, nothing could be better for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration than a little bad morale. The cause of the complaining is that fundamental changes at NASA are, at long last, after much talk, finally, at long long long long long last, being made. For nearly a decade, NASA has staged elaborate rituals of sham reform in which no entrenched interest has so much as seen its finger pricked. (Remember, after the Challenger fiasco, no one was fired, and the contractor that made the faulty booster promptly got new NASA orders.)
Suddenly, a genuine top-to-bottom agency shake-up is in progress, and the deadwood is displeased. The man responsible is new NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin, a Southern Californian who came to Washington last winter from the Redondo Beach office of TRW.
Goldin is unique in NASA history in several respects. He's the first space administrator not in awe of NASA culture--though TRW, his old employer, is an aerospace contractor, it is one that historically has had hostile relations with NASA. He's the first NASA chief without a career stake in the manned-flight program, which NASA has long used as an excuse to avoid rational thinking about space budget priorities. And he's certainly the first NASA administrator to wonder where to get good bagels, one of the first questions he asked acquaintances after arriving in the capital.
Goldin is also an excellent candidate for another distinction--incoming President Bill Clinton should keep him on. Though Goldin was appointed by George Bush, Clinton has said he may accept some Republicans for his Cabinet. Goldin would be a sterling choice.
"Change" is the official political word of 1992, and if any government agency head has in this year compiled an actual record of commitment to change, it's Goldin. The NASA bureaucracy has been doing its mightiest to drag its feet against several Goldin initiatives, hoping that in January there would be a new boss over whose eyes the wool may be pulled. A prompt announcement that Goldin will stay on would communicate to space-agency officialdom that there is no escape hatch: They must either reform or leave.
What has Goldin accomplished so far? Almost immediately after arriving on the job, he threw the NASA hierarchy into a frenzy by sending out "red teams" of trusted inspectors to various field centers, to determine where money is being used wisely and where it is not. Government officials often talk about such sweeping reviews, but in practice they become self-justification exercises in which everybody's budget emerges intact. Goldin, by contrast, is actually moving budget authority from some non-performing bureaus to those more deserving.
Goldin has extensively reorganized the NASA management chart. Reorganizations, too, often happen in government, but the resulting product is usually even more unwieldy than before, since no one ever loses authority while various new layers of paper-pushers are added. In Goldin's case, several entrenched bureaus actually have been zapped.
NASA's old Office of Space Science and Applications, for example, has been extensively reordered in a way that lends new importance to environmental research--one of the few practical things NASA can do to thank the taxpayers for its existence--and to planetary science, long the most cost-effective NASA pursuit. In the process Goldin reduced the influence of NASA's "microgravity" branch, which has spent many millions of dollars creating dubious rationalizations for the space station.
And Goldin has cut the significance of the NASA life-sciences research division. Life-sciences, the study of the human body's response to space, is a valid NASA research objective, but has become the tail that wags the dog: Men and women will go into space to discover the effect on men and women of being in space. No previous NASA administrator has questioned this as a rationale for major U.S. space investments; Goldin has.
The key test of space enlightenment is the willingness to do something about the most entrenched program of all--the space shuttle. Goldin has decided that the shuttle will probably never be used again for satellite rescue missions. The first shuttle flight on Goldin's watch was the May, 1992, rescue of the Intelsat communications satellite. Nightly news footage of astronauts grabbing that satellite won NASA gushing press; but the idea of sending a $2.5-billion spacecraft, and several precious human lives, off to rescue a $100-million inanimate hunk of silicon chips may charitably be described as nutty.
Goldin has further cooperated behind the scenes with the latest in a long, long line of blue-ribbon commissions advocating that the shuttle be replaced for most purposes with a new series of relatively simple space boosters. That study, known as the Aldridge report for former Air Force Secretary Edward Aldridge, says that less glamorous launchers could cost less than half as much per launch as the shuttle, even when being used on manned missions. The NASA old guard has spent the last three years sabotaging a mainly Air Force project called National Launch System, a relatively cheap new throwaway booster that might have been ready to launch some components of the space station. This would have saved NASA billions of dollars and protected human life, but jeopardized funding for the manned-flight division of the agency.
This fall, anti-Goldin factions rejoiced when Congress canceled the National Launch System, only to see the Aldridge group recommend an even more sweeping shuttle replacement. Goldin has been speaking kindly of the Aldridge idea, which goes by the zoomy name Spacelifter. No NASA administrator has ever spoken kindly of any competitor to shuttle funding.
What are the chances Clinton will keep Goldin? They may hinge on incoming Vice President Al Gore. Gore chaired a space subcommittee in the U.S. Senate, and Clinton has said Gore will be his chief adviser on science and technology. During the campaign, Gore said, "We must make the space program more cost effective and flexible," two of Goldin's principal goals.
The NASA old guard is privately eager to see Gore in the White House, because they feel he will be a pushover. In the Senate, he often criticized NASA regarding technicalities, but rarely challenged its basic way of doing business. Also, there's a line of thought, originating with, of all people, Richard M. Nixon, that says the space program is a Democratic boondoggle. Nixon has pointed out that John F. Kennedy got credit for the moon landing and Lyndon B. Johnson got the big manned-flight centers in favored states like Texas and Alabama; all subsequent Republican Presidents got was the bill for ever more expensive, less proficient missions. Because many NASA insiders believe this line of analysis, they think a Democratic White House will rubber-stamp their wish list, so long as the big contracts go to the correct congressional districts.
Not so fast. Gore may turn out to be a space reformer, too. He has a clear understanding that aerospace is among the few industries where the United States is the undisputed world leader, and that to maintain that leadership, NASA must move forward with innovative new research and decentralized bureaucracies, not endlessly rejustify the space shuttle. Gore and Goldin should be made for each other. Though the Democratic policy set has several qualified potential NASA nominees, none has the combination of new ideas and hard-liner aerospace credentials that is making Goldin a potential great NASA leader. Let's keep him on.