NASA: Mission Impossible?

NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin rallies political support for the agency's survival

P> In 1958, NASA was established to beat Russia to the moon. It accomplished that goal -- a quarter century ago.


But today, as NASA struggles with budget cuts and political turmoil, it's hard even for NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin to define the agency's mission. Goldin wants the agency to become a "science-based" agency -- even as he is forced to continue support for expensive engineering projects such as the space shuttle and space station, which many say have questionable scientific value.


In an interview with WT, Goldin described the direction of the agency as an institution "to answer the fundamental questions of space." But what is NASA really producing? The Cold War is over, NASA budgets are shrinking, NASA employees are leaving out of frustration -- and those who remain are afraid to talk for fear of being fired. Rather than any clear sense of mission, NASA seems to be driven by the sheer weight and momentum of its myriad projects, which have sprinkled money to just about every congressional district in the nation.

One thing is clear: NASA is not what it used to be. At one time NASA was the premiere place to land for the nation's best and brightest scientists. In the 1960s, the awe and wonder of space captured the world when NASA sent the first man to the moon. And NASA could count on the Cold War to galvanize political support for its projects.

Now the world can view NASA's dirty laundry on the NASA RIF Watch home page (http://www.reston.com/rif/watch.html). NASA's 10 centers are engaged in a life-or-death political struggle as budgets continue to decrease. And few star graduates of the nation's science programs today would consider a career at NASA.

Goldin -- by choice -- is the man caught in the middle. He left a cushy job as a general manager at TRW to preside over an agency many say is in terminal decline. Supporters say he has a golden, deft touch with people -- a real charmer and expert politician, which is perfect to save NASA at perhaps its most critical juncture in history.

Critics contend he is causing NASA to die the death of a thousand cuts -- a gradual strangulation that involves giving just enough money to a myriad of projects to ensure that none will be a success.

In the meantime, NASA faces the most dramatic budget cuts in its 38-year history. Its budget could decline from $13.8 billion this year to $12.3 billion in the congressional plan and $11.6 billion in the president's budget. To put those figures into perspective, NASA, at its peak in 1994, had an annual budget of $14.5 billion.

Along with the budget cut comes a personnel reduction plan. NASA and all federal agencies are under orders from President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore to reduce the number of headquarters' employees by one-half before October 2000.

On April 17, Goldin announced a plan to eliminate headquarters personnel from a high of 2,200 people in October 1993 to between 650 and 700 by Oct. 1, 1997. NASA headquarters currently employs 1,430 people, which means an additional 730 to 780 people will be eliminated by the October 1997 deadline. By October 1997, NASA will eliminate at least 68 percent of the people at NASA headquarters in 1993, and 51 percent of the people currently employed.

The Mission Thing

Amid all this turmoil, Goldin must find a compelling vision around which to rally political support and focus dwindling resources. After the launch of Sputnik in 1958 and the publicity surrounding it, the Eisenhower administration moved quickly to create an American civilian space agency. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was too small for the task.

The White House decided that a new agency was needed with NACA at its core, but also including rocket and space engineers involved in various defense programs. On March 5, 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower approved a final memorandum ordering the Bureau of Budget to draft a space bill immediately. It was ready three weeks later and sent to Congress April 2. The legislation that enabled NASA's existence said, "an act to provide for research into problems of flight with-in and outside the earth's atmosphere and for other purposes."

NASA's mission today is to manage a non-intelligence, non-military, non-commercial civilian space program. But critics wonder, as Goldin and Congress continue to hack away at NASA, if the nation should even make the effort to retain the agency. One might argue that NASA has achieved its primary goals of making space a viable enterprise -- for both scientific and commercial applications. With the work of creating enabling infrastructure essentially complete, NASA can hand over its functions to those in industry and other agencies who use space to perform their respective missions.

According to John Pike, director of the space policy project at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C., NASA may be just another space shuttle disaster away from such a break-up.

He suggested that NASA might be folded into other agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Weather Service or the National Science Foundation.

The former two agencies have clear reasons to use space to pursue their own easily defined missions, and the National Science Foundation would be the logical place to park NASA's more purely scientific activities, such as the search for life on other planets.

Goldin said NASA is migrating to a science-based agency to perform astrophysics, space physics and earth and atmospheric science. This raises the question: If NASA's activities are purely scientific, why not fold its activities into the National Science Foundation, which manages the nation's scientific enterprise?

"Goldin has been successful in justifying NASA's existence in the post-Cold War rationale of a cooperative instead of a competitive agency," said Pike. "What he hasn't done is articulate the rationale of NASA." He added: "With the way Congress is cutting the budget, NASA will not exist 15 years from now. NASA is about boldly going where no one has gone before, or it's about nothing."

Pike sees two rationales for NASA. First, he endorses the exploration of space for the sake of science -- the search for life on other planets, attempts to use space as an observation platform for learning more about Earth itself. The second rationale is to help the U.S. space industry compete internationally.

Pike believes Goldin has done a poor job selling NASA to politicians because of his excessive focus on making NASA a "science-based" agency.

Nonetheless, Goldin is popular in the industry from which he came.

He plans to form partnerships with industry to develop and use the discoveries and technical innovations of NASA -- something NASA has always done, but never as a primary focus. His attack on administrative bloat also has held out the prospect of increased "outsourcing" business to the aerospace industry -- provided NASA can survive.

"Goldin is a bright man and he is doing what Congress has asked him to do," said Margaret Grayson, chief financial officer for SPACEHAB, an Arlington, Va.-based company formed in 1984 to commercially develop space habitat modules for the space shuttle's cargo bay. The company's current revenues are generated from its two principal NASA contracts, which are valued at $238 million.

Molly Macauley, an economist for Resources for the Future, a think tank in Washington, D.C., agrees with Goldin's direction toward a science-based agency.

"It's possible to do a lot of good science with the kind of funds NASA is receiving," said Macauley. "NASA's mission obviously needs to return to science."

All this talk, however, may miss a fundamental point: The fact that Goldin would accept the position at NASA -- at a time when the agency's decline already had begun -- is a testament to his native optimism. An optimism that drives him in the hardest job he's ever had.


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