NASA Headquarters Oral
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Ann Arbor, Michigan – 8 September 2010
is September 8th, 2010. This interview is being conducted with Dr.
Lennard Fisk in Ann Arbor, Michigan for the NASA Headquarters Oral
History Project. Interviewer is Rebecca Wright. Thanks again for finding
time in your busy schedule. As you mentioned, today is the first day
of class, so I know you have lots going on. We’d like for you
to start today by sharing with us about when you first went to [NASA]
Goddard [Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland]. I think it was
September 1969. Tell us about this opportunity and your first assignments
Fisk: I always
like to joke that I went to work for NASA essentially on the day of
the Moon landing, in the sense that it had been the previous July
[Apollo 11]. It was all downhill from that point on. But let me back
up just a little bit. I’m a Sputnik kid. I was in high school.
In 1957 I was 14. Sputnik [satellite] made me want to be a scientist.
That was the event.
I did an undergraduate degree at Cornell [University, Ithaca, New
York] in physics, and started Cornell in graduate school in space
science. My thesis adviser was a fellow named [Sir William] Ian Axford,
who just died recently. He died last March. He was a very famous scientist
in the field, one of the early pioneer theorists. Halfway through
my graduate career he decided to move. He couldn’t stand the
Ithaca winters where Cornell is. So he went to the University of California,
San Diego, and I went out with him, joined him at that point, and
finished my degree from there.
Then it came time to get a postdoc [postdoctoral fellowship]. I looked
at a number of opportunities at that point, and Goddard was the one
that I chose, and it was a very good choice, because this was in the
height of the space science program associated with Apollo and NASA
in its heydays. So there was a lot of activity. Frank [B.] McDonald,
who was the director of the lab at that point was one of the really
influential people in NASA in space science, so the lab was quite
I’m a theoretician, it’s primarily an experimental lab,
so I was basically what we refer to as a house theoretician, you have
a few theoreticians around, but not too many in an experimental group
at that time. So there were basically two of us. Reuven Ramaty was
the other one. He was a very very good solar gamma ray type physicist.
Reuven died some years ago prematurely, early in his life. But he
and I were the two theoreticians, and I embarked upon my research
career at that point.
talk about some of those first assignments.
the good news about a postdoc position in general—and for Goddard
at the time—was that you were given a great deal of freedom
to do the research that you wanted to do. That was the expectation.
A postdoc position is not a permanent civil service position. In fact
the program was run by the National Research Council, which is part
of the [United States] National Academies. They ran the postdoctoral
appointment at all NASA centers and other government labs as well.
It was a prestigious award. You applied for it as you would a fellowship.
So I applied for this and was successful, and went to Goddard.
Basically as is often the case when you’re a theoretician or
even any graduate student, you tend to keep doing your thesis after
you leave. So I was an expert on cosmic ray propagation. It’s
called cosmic ray modulation. What happens to a cosmic ray when it
comes into the solar system and fights its way upstream against the
expanding atmosphere of the Sun, and how does the intensity change,
all those good things.
So that was the research that I pursued. I was valuable enough at
the end of that postdoc that I was hired on to the civil service at
that point, 1971. Now you need to appreciate the environment at that
time in NASA, because NASA was imploding at that point. Apollo came
to an end in ’72, but NASA was on its way down even before the
Moon landing, if you just look at the budget profile for NASA at that
time. I think if I remember the numbers correctly there were 30,000
or 35,000 NASA employees at the time of the peak of the Apollo [Program],
and by the time the program ended, they were down to 20,000 or so.
Even though Goddard was not part of the Apollo, it was part of NASA.
So Goddard was in the middle of a RIF [reduction in force] at almost
all times. The thought of getting hired in the middle of a RIF was
I did look at other positions, because I wasn’t certain as to
whether or not I could get onto the civil service, and had job offers
from [Johns Hopkins University] Applied Physics Lab [Laurel, Maryland]
and other places like that. But fortunately Frank McDonald was a master
of working the system. So there was a very narrow window when the
hiring freeze was lifted, and I was suddenly trotted through that
narrow window with a couple other people he wanted to hire in 1971.
But for many years thereafter I had the lowest seniority at Goddard,
and was always wondering whether I would be a RIF candidate if the
I am indebted to Frank in a number of ways for that reason. Of course
for being hired, but also for another reason. I got my PhD quite young.
I was under 26. This was the middle of the Vietnam War. I was married,
but no children or anything. So I was never sure exactly what my draft
status was going to be when I finished my degree when I was still
not 26, and I had been on student deferment.
Frank McDonald wrote a letter to my draft board in Elizabeth, New
Jersey where I grew up, which I still have, which said the Apollo
astronauts are going to die unless I predict solar flares for them.
Elizabeth, New Jersey is a working class town in New Jersey, and they
didn’t really have a lot of trouble filling their draft quotas.
It wasn’t as if that was too much of a difficulty. But I always
had this image of this draft board saying yes sir. I never heard from
them. I never heard from them again ever. So who knows whether or
not I would have been drafted. But at any rate I’m indebted
to that protection that Frank provided.
did your interest in studying the Sun and its powers start?
space part has always been my interest, because anyone in the ’60s
would have been interested I think. It was the field to be in. It
was actually a reasoned discussion on my part. I could have been an
astrophysicist, a real live astrophysicist, but I didn’t like
the lack of data. Astrophysical theories were almost like parlor games,
where you say I’ve got one data point and I have this wonderfully
complicated theories—we always refer to these as inverse pyramid
theories where there’s a lot of things built on just a small
point of information.
Whereas when you work in the solar system—where there were a
lot of measurements being made—that was more satisfying to me.
The theories would have to actually explain numerous observations
to be successful. They could be tested I guess is the way to say it.
But probably what happens more than anything else in graduate school—and
this is true today—is when you choose an adviser to work with,
you work on what he’s working on. You don’t ask him to
do something that he’s not personally involved in. Axford was
one of the major pioneers in this general field of energetic particles.
It was energetic particle research. In our cases—in my case
and in Axford’s case—it was in the magnetosphere of the
Earth, in the solar wind and so on. So you just gravitate to that.
He gave me the thesis topic to work on. That’s the field you
ended up in.
I didn’t regret it, it was a good choice, but it was just that
things were placed in front of you as opportunities, and you basically
just chose it. Most students don’t know what to work on until
they are confronted with some opportunities and then they say okay
I’ll take that or not take that. In my case I took it, and it
was a good choice.
I by the way just two weeks ago was out at the University of California
delivering a eulogy at Axford’s memorial service. He’s
ten years older than I am. I consider that young to die. But it wasn’t
terrible. I was having flashbacks for what it was like to be his student.
The style of research that he gave to me. There is a sort of laying
on of hands that takes place, that runs through this field. Probably
any science field for that matter.
Axford’s thesis adviser was a fellow named [Sir Michael James]
Lighthill who was probably the most famous applied mathematician in
England. Axford was a New Zealander but he was educated in England.
So that was a style of research that came to Axford. I don’t
know where Lighthill got it. I can only go back so many generations.
Then Axford’s style of research came to me, and then I try and
impart it to my students and so forth, and it is a style where you
don’t tend to use a lot of computers—which today are more
in vogue. You look at some new phenomenon, you create an explanation
of it through your imagination, you find analytic solutions and approximations,
formulas that describe it, and then you hope somebody looks at data
and says it worked or didn’t work.
You also tend to look for problems which are not understood, and they’re
new phenomena. If you say how do you have a successful career in theoretical
space physics, the best way to do it is get two or three problems
in the course of your life which are preferably new phenomena for
which there is no explanation, and you produce the explanation. It’s
even better if everybody tells you you’re wrong when you first
propose it, and after that you are proved to be correct. If you have
a couple of those in your life, you’re a famous guy at the end
of it. Now high stakes, if you’re wrong, and you turn out to
be wrong, you may not be famous at the end of it. But that’s
the gamble that you try and take.
You look for things that are unknown. I can think of three or four
such events that I’ve had in my career, and that’s why
I have a certain reputation now after all these years as a scientist
based on the fact that I’ve been able to have these ideal events.
Something new, something you explain, something everybody tells you
you’re wrong, and you turn out after a while to be correct.
would you like to talk about those now?
One of them was a Goddard experience. In the early ’70s, ’72,
’73, there was a new phenomenon discovered in the data which
was labeled anomalous cosmic rays. Cosmic rays are particles that
come from the galaxy normally. Galactic cosmic rays. Or solar particles.
They come in all the usual flavors. Hydrogen, helium, nitrogen, oxygen,
neon. All the elements. In the proportions that they’re supposed
to be in. In an energy range at the low end of galactic cosmic rays
and at the high end of solar cosmic rays, there was a new component
that was discovered that only had helium, nitrogen and oxygen, and
nothing else. So it was labeled anomalous.
It puzzled people. It was interesting, because your explanation depended
on what you thought you were doing in this field. If you’re
a galactic cosmic ray person, you say I’m measuring these particles
that come from the galaxy, and so they are telling me about objects
in the universe. Stars and other things. So if I see this component
which has unusual composition, it must have come from an unusual object
in the galaxy. So the cosmic ray physicists were all excited. Their
field was being made. They had discovered this new thing.
Some very famous people, like Willy [William A.] Fowler at Caltech
[California Institute of Technology, Pasadena], dreamed up an explanation
that—I’ve forgotten exactly the details. But there were
brown dwarf stars colliding with each other or something and giving
out anomalous cosmic rays. So everyone was happy. I didn’t think
that explanation worked. There are some technical reasons about how
cosmic rays behave in solar wind. You could not produce the spectra
that people were seeing and so on.
But that was a downer for some to suggest that their explanation didn’t
work, and it got even worse. In the office next to me was this Reuven
Ramaty, and he had a friend, a colleague who was visiting from Israel
named [Ben Zion] Kozlovsky. One afternoon we were sitting there talking
about this, and all the thoughts galvanized on the idea that these
particles came from interstellar neutral gas, which comes into the
solar system unaffected by the solar wind, because it’s neutral.
Gets ionized when you’re close to the Sun. We proposed that
it got accelerated in the solar system someplace. If you do that you
get exactly the right composition. Because the interstellar neutral
gas had the same composition as this anomalous component.
So we were a downer for everybody because not only was this not from
some exotic object in the galaxy, this was trash from the solar system,
it was just stuff that was made locally. So Frank McDonald, who is
one of my really close friends these days, he’s quite a bit
older than I am, and we’ll come back to some things that he
did good for me even after this background, he didn’t like this
theory at all, because he was one of those conventional cosmic ray
physicists. I found an interesting object out there, don’t tell
me it isn’t an interesting object.
So my life became very unpleasant at Goddard. My colleagues Ramaty
and Kozlovsky—well, Kozlovsky went home to Israel and Ramaty
ran for cover. I decided this was my moment. In the field by the way
it’s called the Parker moment, because of the most famous physicist
of our time in this field, Gene [Eugene N.] Parker, he’s the
man who predicted the solar wind. He was a young man at the University
of Chicago [Illinois], a young faculty member, in the ’50s.
This was in the ’50s. He predicted that the solar wind would
be a supersonic flow. He was untenured. There was another person at
Chicago who said no, it won’t be supersonic, it’s going
to be subsonic, it’s going to be the solar breeze, not the solar
wind. The other guy was big and famous, and he tried to keep Parker
from getting tenure, but Parker had someone who came and rescued him,
and he survived, but no one believed his theory, and then in 1962
with the first Mariner 2 spacecraft that went into interplanetary
space, they discovered the supersonic solar wind, Parker is famous,
the other guy was never talked about again. So that’s the Parker
So I viewed this as my Parker moment. I had a theory. I was convinced
I was right. Everybody was telling me I was wrong. It did turn out
to be absolutely correct as the explanation. But it made life very
unpleasant for me at Goddard, and I left, I went to the University
of New Hampshire [UNH, Durham].
It actually took 20 years to confirm the theory. Just since we are
not obligated to be chronological here, there’s an interesting
final ending to this. The theory became more and more accepted as
time went along, but there was no smoking gun measurement that said
this is the right theory. The first satellite that made that smoking
gun measurement was SAMPEX [Solar, Anomalous, and Magnetospheric Particle
Explorer], which was the first mission I chose as [NASA] Associate
Administrator [for Space Science]. Now I chose it for other than to
confirm or deny my theory. But it pleased me that the first mission
I got to choose, it was a Small Explorer mission, and it was the first
mission that as Associate Administrator I got to select, and it flew
and made the measurements. It was not being strongly debated anymore
after that time, because there was so much circumstantial evidence
by that point that the theory was correct. But this mission nailed
it once and for all. So this goes full circle.
had to be a rewarding moment at the time.
you’ve got me moved. I’m on my way to New Hampshire.
are. During that time though before you left you actually spent just
a little bit of time in Caltech. Did you make association with JPL
[Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California] there at the time?
This was just an interesting opportunity. You can get a part-time
appointment at Caltech, and I was looking just for the exposure to
new things. It’s interesting. It’s actually where I wrote
the anomalous component paper. This is early 1974. We were finishing
writing the paper and negotiating with the referees to get it published,
because that was hard to do, because the theory was considered controversial.
There is a funny story that goes with the publishing of that paper,
because the referee was a person named Bill [William R.] Webber, and
Bill is a wonderful scientist and a wonderful person, but a bit of
a—scatterbrain is too strong a word. But disorganized, let me
put it this way. So he wrote this review of my paper that was very
favorable and said this should be published in Phys Rev Letters. The
only difficulty was we had submitted it to the Astrophysical Journal
Letters. He wrote the wrong journal. So the editor looked at this
and said, “Well, not my problem.” So we lost a couple
months trying to convince the editor that it was favorable for his
journal. It was just one of those flukes.
Fisk: So close.
But we spent—my wife and I and our two small children at that
point—we spent four months in Pasadena as something to do. I
wouldn’t say it was the best experience I ever had, because
it was the middle of the gasoline crisis in 1974, so we couldn’t
drive anyplace. If you live in California, that is not the most convenient
situation—so all the thoughts we had about seeing California
and doing thing, we were limited. The person that I was invited to
join at Caltech, come visit him, just before I got there was denied
tenure and left. I was out there on my own as a result. Ed [Edward
C.] Stone and Robbie [Rochus] Vogt were all part of that group. Ed
was off of course worrying about Voyager as head of the Voyager mission.
Robbie Vogt was ill at the time. He was a major professor at Caltech.
So I was really very lonely at that time. Got a lot of work done,
but none of the things that you want to do on a sabbatical, learning,
meeting new people, was really realized. So I don’t regret that
I did it, but it really had no particular impact on my career.
us about how you were able to move over to the University of New Hampshire.
Fisk: I needed
to leave Goddard. That was the thing. I’d concluded that my
career was being stymied there because I was at odds with the system.
I was going to be forever a GS [General Schedule]-13 or 14, whatever.
Maybe I think I might have still been a GS-13. Other people were going
to get promoted around me. It was unpleasant. So New Hampshire has
a very good space group in space science. Bill Webber was at New Hampshire
at the time. Jack [John A.] Lockwood and others.
They first of all had me interview for a job just to go up as I think
maybe it was an assistant professorship at that point. The chairman
of the department there was a guy who believed all people should be
paid exactly the same amount of money—and if I was going to
enter as an assistant professor I was going to make a salary that
I hadn’t seen since I was a postdoc or something. So I said
thank you but that’s not for me. My friends in New Hampshire
said, “Well, look, why don’t you come here on an IPA,
intergovernmental personnel assignment, for a year.” Frank was
happy to get rid of me anyway. So we moved up in calendar ’76.
We moved our family, rented our house in Maryland where we were living,
and joined the faculty. I was just a visiting professor essentially
I got to know the dean, I got to know the system and so forth. Suddenly
the powers that be decided I was worth something more than just an
assistant professor. So when I came back from New Hampshire—I
had to come back for six months in the first half of ’77. When
you’re on an IPA you can’t just leave. Then they made
a decent offer as an associate professor with a decent enough salary.
I took it untenured, because I hadn’t taught enough to satisfy
them. So I then went on in New Hampshire after that.
about that program there, because the Institute of Earth, Oceans and
Space certainly has a reputation that is well known.
New Hampshire experience was really a great one for me. New Hampshire
is one of those great places. First of all it gave me an open field
to run. There were no constraints. One of the things that I was an
advocate of within NASA was a program called the Solar-Terrestrial
Theory Program. There was a growing recognition finally that theorists
were really important in the space program. They weren’t just
house theoreticians, you shouldn’t just have one or two to cause
you trouble, you should actually have some critical mass theorists
that are able to do real theory—the subject was growing in importance,
and the requirements for explanation were more than just a few folks
proposing cartoons of things. You needed critical mass folks doing
calculation and so forth. So the Solar-Terrestrial Theory Program
was established. I was in the first round of grants. It was big numbers
at the time. It was like $300,000 a year for theorists. So we were
I was able to build a group of theorists, recruited around the country
for people to come and join me. So that got me off and running on
the science side, on the professorial side at UNH. I was tenured and
promoted to be professor and so forth. In the early ’80s I got
on the slippery slope of administration where you just go further
and further into it. I had what could only be described as an unplanned
meteoritic rise in administration. I was starting to get bored just
doing the science. I got asked—I have to check the dates exactly,
but I think it’s 1982—to be the director of research of
the university. It was a dean’s level position. It was my first
foray into any kind of administration at all of any serious size.
So I did that. I apparently was a hit, and at the end of the first
year of doing this thing the administration of the university more
or less quit. The president went off to be the president of Brandeis
[University, Waltham, Massachusetts]. She had a vice president for
finance who no one liked. So he took one look at his cover being removed,
and he ran somewhere else. The academic vice president became the
acting president, and looked around and said who’s going to
run the place.
He asked me to be the vice president for finance of the University
of New Hampshire, finance/administration. I remember saying to him
there’s only two things wrong with this. I don’t want
to do it, and I’m not competent. He said oh, you’re only
going to be there for a year. You just got to help me out. You’re
my friend. As soon as we settle who the president is going to be,
we’ll recruit for the vice president, you’ll get out of
it. So okay.
Then I made a mistake I guess. I looked at doing this thing for a
year, and I said I don’t want to be bored here, I don’t
want to be just a caretaker. So I assembled all the direct reports
that I had—there were people I’d never met, like the guy
who runs the police department, the transportation system, the finance
side, the materials side and so on. It was the infrastructure of the
university. I said look, I’m going to be here for a year, let’s
make a list of the ten problems you always wanted to have solved,
and see if we can solve them.
So we made this long list. The buses never make any money. This doesn’t
do this, that or the other thing. We solved them in that one-year
Fisk: So at
the end of it, the acting president gets the job as president, and
he says look, Len, you’re part of the reason I got to be the
president, because we’re running the place so well. You can’t
leave me now and so on. I said well, look, this is really drifting
away from being a scientist. I want to be the vice president for research
and finance—of which there is none other in the country. This
is the fox in the chicken coop kind of position. So basically he says
fine. You do that. So I become the vice president for research and
Well, concurrent with all that activity, there was a cabal of ambitious
faculty members, Berrien Moore [III] was the key, and a fellow named
Robert [W.] Corell, who were recognizing that the future of Earth
science was in Earth System Science. This was just the recognition.
This is the same event that also led eventually to Mission to Planet
Earth and the Earth Observing System and all the big Earth science
activities we did. But it started in the early ’80s where the
leaders of the Earth science community were recognizing that the way
to study the Earth is as an integrated system. You just don’t
look at the oceans, you look at the ocean-atmosphere coupling, the
land surface, the biosphere, the cryosphere, it’s all merged
together, and that’s where the future of the science is.
So Berrien and Bob Corell and I conspired to create the University
of New Hampshire as a place that would be known for this science.
It was part of the strategic thinking of the university, because when
you’re a university like New Hampshire, a state university,
but you’re in the shadow of MIT [Massachusetts Institute of
Technlogy, Cambridge] and Harvard [University, Cambridge, Massachusetts]
and all the other constraints, you say what are you known for. You
can’t be like [University of] Michigan [Ann Arbor] here where
you’re sort of known for everything. Here we say to yourself
we’re supposed to be number one in everything here, that’s
our mantra. In New Hampshire you say let me find some niches where
I can be world-renowned and put some emphasis on those. Then the rest
of the university will benefit from the fact that there are some things
that we are particularly well known for.
When we looked at our faculty and we looked at the environment that
we were in, namely Earth System Science is developing, we have faculty
that can successfully play in that area, and let’s put together
this Institute for the Earth, Oceans and Space to essentially accomplish
this goal of giving the university something to be known for nationally
and playing into this broader national agenda—or worldwide agenda—of
emerging Earth System Science.
It succeeded for a couple reasons. It succeeded because it had drivers
like Moore and Corell behind it. But it also succeeded because I was
sitting in the power place in New Hampshire and I could make it happen.
Otherwise we would have been selling it to somebody else within the
university. I was the person who had the research portfolio and the
financial portfolio and the support of the president. So that made
an environment where we could make it happen, and it did happen.
Berrien remained the director up until I think two years ago. Corell
left pretty early to be the assistant director of the [National Science
Foundation]. I left in ’87 to be the Associate Administrator
at NASA. So we got it started, all three of us got it started, and
Berrien is the one who really built it. Frankly he built it beyond
even my expectations of what was going to be possible. He really did
a superb job in making it the institute that it is today. But we had
laid the foundations for his being able to do so. But he’s the
one who really carried it to success.
kind of risks were you taking? Because now you were talking about
interdisciplinary studies with scientists that very much liked to
be very proprietary in their work.
Fisk: I think
we weren’t taking a risk in the broader Earth science community,
because this was a national, international movement that was happening.
There were certainly scientists out there that were never going to
leave their discipline. But the community leaders were clearly on
this new trend. The risk at UNH was a different type of risk. EOS
as it’s known, the Institute for Earth, Oceans and Space, was
something they had never had before. On the UNH faculty, there are
ambitious people that are national players, and there are other people
there that really their attitude is I’m at UNH, I can’t
do very much, and I have this big teaching load, and any big research
institution where they don’t have to teach as many students
is the enemy, you got all the support, we get all the work. A lot
of faculty rivalries. In a place like Michigan here, such institutes
are a dime a dozen, we’ve got hundreds of them around here.
Nobody thinks twice about it. But at UNH this was and is today still
the exception to the place.
So there was a great deal of animosity on the part of the broader
faculty, outside the people who were determined to do this, that had
to be mowed down I guess is the polite way to say it. It was a gentle
sale, you don’t get to run over faculty, but I think my position
of authority was essential, because in the absence of that the difficult
parts of the faculty would have found a way to stop it somehow. Resolutions
in the faculty senate. Appeals to the trustees. Who knows? But that
was a risk in the startup of this thing.
There were a couple good events that happened. They got an earmarked
building where their congressman, Senator [Warren B.] Rudman to be
exact, gave some earmarked money for a really nice new facility. That
added to the jealousy because the institute suddenly had this wonderful
new facility. It’s a lovely building. But there were many things
that came together to make this kind of thing happen, and it was successful.
Very recently I served on a visiting committee for EOS in New Hampshire.
I may still be on it but it doesn’t seem to meet very often.
But I was surprised at some of the animosities that 25, 30 years later
are still there. They’re still there. A university like New
Hampshire will still have the people that are perceived to not have—the
haves and the have-nots. Rather than take advantage of all the good
things that EOS could provide even to everybody, there’s still
a fair amount of resentment built into the system.
about the response that you get from not only graduate students but
new faculty members moving in on this new whole concept of how to
study the Earth.
Fisk: In the
community of future thinkers, this has never been a hard sell. They
found this exciting. In some ways it’s obvious when you think
about it. The Earth is a coupled system. You’re talking about
the global warming problem. Well, how much heat is absorbed in the
ocean? It’s not just an atmospheric heating problem. Changes
in land use pattern are going to affect the climate. So anyone who
thinks at all says this is a coupled system and therefore needs to
be studied as a coupled system. There are people for whom that was
outside their comfort zone. But it’s not a scientifically defensible
position. So they can say well I don’t want to play, but it’s
hard for them to say that this is not the right way to do it, just
because of the nature of how the Earth works.
The famous event in this field was the Bretherton committee of the
early 1980s. Francis [P.] Bretherton—I think he’s deceased
now, I’m not sure—had this committee that met in the early
’80s to essentially launch in some ways Earth System Science.
I was on the Bretherton committee. In some ways I was there—this
was when I was at UNH—as the token solar-terrestrial physicist
on this. I think my own community viewed that I was supposed to defend
them against whatever the Earth System Science Committee was going
to do. As it turned out, I became interested in the subject as a result
of that too, although it’s not my own research.
But Francis was an amazing chair. People measure sound volume in Brethertons.
He’s a very loud speaker. So at some point you say, “Francis,
you’re up to two Brethertons.” Also he produced something
called the Bretherton Wiring Diagram, which shows how all the systems
are interactive. If you ever ask was there a report of the Bretherton
committee, I don’t believe there ever was one. At least I have
never found it, and I was on the committee. But the Bretherton Wiring
Diagram has lived forever. It is the document that basically showed
how all the systems are wired together, and also it’s a diagram
that basically sold the Mission to Planet Earth and the Earth Observing
System when I was Associate Administrator, because all I had to do
was take that Bretherton Wiring Diagram and overlay the missions that
we wanted to do it, color-coded, this mission addresses these processes,
this mission addresses these processes, and show that we had created
a program that was going to study the system as a whole. So it was
a one-stop shopping diagram that showed how the Earth worked and how
NASA’s missions to address this were going to satisfy the science
that needed to be done by the Bretherton Wiring Diagram. It was a
very clever diagram as a result.
of your time as Associate Administrator and the Bretherton report,
how were your projects at University of New Hampshire impacted or
supported by NASA funding? You had mentioned you had gotten a grant
when you first had started there. But was there other grant funding
For anyone involved in space of any kind, it’s mainly NASA.
NSF provides a small amount of money. So we were all funded by NASA.
In my case more the solar wind interplanetary type physics. But the
Earth scientists also. The Earth Science program has other funding
sources available to it. NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration],
the USGS [United States Geological Survey] and so on. But the big
bucks have always been in NASA. NASA has the largest by dollar Earth
Science program in the world. Part of that is just the cost of space.
But if you want to briefly leap ahead to the Earth Observing System,
the concept was under development before I became Associate Administrator.
The person who was leading that was Shelby [G.] Tilford, who was the
division director for Earth science. Shelby was mustering his community
up to be able to do this and designing this very large program that
was incredibly expensive. It was off scale by anything else that was
going on in the space science area.
But there was a wonderful window of opportunity in I want to say ’89.
It would have been ’89, when the first [President George H.
W.] Bush administration was under pressure to show that they loved
the environment. Being Republicans, they didn’t want to regulate
anything, and they wanted very much to study it. We literally almost
got a call that said give us an Earth science program, and we don’t
care how big it is. So that window allowed us to take up everything
that Shelby wanted and more so.
The run-out cost for OMB’s [Office of Management and Budget]
official run-out for the Earth Observing System, was $50 billion.
It’s over 30 years. It’s a long program. But it had everything
anyone could possibly want. It had all the missions that we needed.
It had a huge interdisciplinary program in order to connect the research
and the ground-based activities as well. It had the very large data
system, the EOSDIS [Earth Observing System Data Information System],
built into it to handle all the data that was supposed to come back.
We were selling this program in effect as a major policy shift in
NASA, because it was comparable to Space Station, when you compare
the numbers at the time. The agency and OMB bought it briefly, but
it was outside of NASA’s comfort zone to have this in effect
rival to human spaceflight. It was outside OMB’s eventual understanding
of what the government should spend on these sorts of things. So the
program began to be downsized almost immediately after the new start.
It got painfully downsized in the mid ’90s after I left to the
point that to be blunt the nation does not have a climate monitoring
system today that it requires. There’s no debate about that.
We had put in place in the late ’80s a system that had it been
executed would have ensured that whatever policy decisions we need
to make, they would have been based on sound science, because we would
have made the observations. It was destroyed in the mid ’90s.
Even though the [President Barack] Obama administration has added
money back to Earth science, all that did was really just stop the
bleeding. It doesn’t recreate the program that is necessary
to make the climate measurements that the country is going to depend
me take you back to the time in May ’87 when you decided to
take the Associate Administrator job. I guess my first question would
be what prompted you to do that. It was a time that NASA was recovering
from [Space Shuttle] Challenger [STS 51-L accident] and just changed
Administrator, and about ready to change Administrators again.
It’s an interesting story. Space has been part of my life ever
since I started, still is. So I cared a lot about NASA, and the fact
that it was in trouble after Challenger was a motivation for me to
help ride to the rescue. But the actual mechanics of that was earlier
in I guess it was ’86. I was approached by the National Center
for Atmospheric Research out in Boulder, Colorado, NCAR, to be their
director. I had been in an administrative job at UNH, and most of
that job, despite the fact that I had the title of research, was really
being a financial vice president. Chief financial officer of the university.
So I’m drifting further and further away from my own science
and from the space program. So there was a certain dissatisfaction
on my side. But we were having a good time. I was enjoying it. We
were building buildings and changing the university and starting the
institute and so on. So it wasn’t as if I was really unhappy,
but I was worried about whether I was going to end up just out of
space business forever and into this financial world, which gets dull
after a while.
NCAR came looking, and I thought I want to know how saleable I am.
I hadn’t recruited for anything; I hadn’t looked for any
other jobs. I thought let me find out. I said there’s no way
these guys are going to hire me, because I’m not an atmospheric
scientist, I’m space. There is a solar portion of NCAR called
the High Altitude Observatory, which was one of the nation’s
better solar physics research programs at the time. But still I thought
there’s no way in creation they’re going to hire me. But
I’d never had a job interview. I figured I’d learn what
it was like.
So I go out there and I have this job interview and thought well that
was fun, they won’t call me. I discovered I made the next round.
So somewhere along the line I had to get some references. I said okay,
well, I want to see what happens, I’m going to play this thing
through. So I got some references from people. I kept making round
after round after round and finally there were just two of us left.
I’m thinking holy moley, what have I done, what happens if they
offer me the job. My wife and I had just built a house. My wife was
the mayor of the town. We had settled in. My kids are growing up there.
Everything’s fine and dandy. I’m thinking what have I
So finally at the last minute they choose the atmospheric scientist.
A fellow named Rick [Richard A.] Anthes, who’s now the president
of UCAR [University Corporation for Atmospheric Research], which is
the parent organization. I remember when the guy called me up to break
the bad news to me I said, “Oh, thank you.” I kept thanking
them for not choosing me. The guy was absolutely confused. That ended
that chapter. But I had sent a message out to people that I was movable,
because there were references and things like that. So when [James
C.] Fletcher became the Administrator he did something that the agency
didn’t do under the [Space Shuttle] Columbia [STS-107] accident.
He cleaned house. Fletcher went through and got rid of all sorts of
Associate Administrators and to some extent he brought in his friends
from the first Fletcher administration. But the NASA Associate Administrator
for Space Science was not involved in the Challenger accident obviously.
But they had an Associate Administrator named Burt [Burton I.] Edelson.
I never could decide whether he was really clever or the clown he
appeared to be. He was one of these people that the community just
felt—he wasn’t a scientist. He was a person who came from
the Comsat [commercial satellite] side. Burt couldn’t relate
to the science community. He was always cheerful, but he gave me always
the impression I can’t be that smart because I’m always
this cheerful. He was even oblivious to insults, that sort of thing.
So the science community had been complaining about him for a long
time. His one claim to fame, he was Jim [James M.] Beggs’s college
roommate. So there was a connection there. But Beggs apparently—I
didn’t see this. I wasn’t at Headquarters at the time.
He used to abuse him. He’d come and make a presentation on the
space science program. Beggs would just ream him out. So science did
not consider it was well led under Burt.
I think he got caught up in this let’s clean house and start
all over again. So Frank McDonald was the Chief Scientist at that
point under Beggs, and he was still there under Fletcher. Frank led
the search committee, and Frank called me up and asked me whether
I would be interested in the job. That one I couldn’t turn down.
I cared too much about the space agency. It was a trauma for my family,
as you might imagine. I have a very tolerant wife. She goes where
we go. But we literally had built a house that we had spent a year
designing and we’d lived in it less than a year when I got on
my power trip to Washington.
I have three sons. Two sons, they think it was the best thing that
ever happened to them. The third son not so true. I think as a family
thing on the whole it was a good thing to do. But it was nonetheless
a family sacrifice for me to go off and do this. But that’s
how I got to Washington. I went down and interviewed with Fletcher.
He was a strange man at that point. I don’t know what he was
like in his first time through as Administrator. I thought he was
pretty good but there were times when I thought he was gaga too, that
sort of thing. But maybe that was a style. He had some good people
around him. Dale [D.] Myers as Deputy and so on.
I also think he was amazed at what he got in me, because as far as
he’s concerned, he was doing this to appease the science community.
You guys wanted to get rid of Burt, and so we’ll hire a scientist.
But I don’t think it ever occurred to him that I was a sitting
vice president, and so his expectations for me were just this fuzzy-minded
scientist who had never run anything. Well, NASA is bigger than the
University of New Hampshire. But my theory of management is any time
the budget is bigger than my checkbook it’s a different kind
of administration. So the fact that it was a $130 million budget at
the University of New Hampshire, and I had a couple-billion-dollar
budget at NASA, still those are just zeros at the end. The management
techniques, the personnel of running an organization, they are the
same. I made mistakes at UNH just in terms of things that would not
work—personnel mistakes and other things. Because I had come
to this from no experience in administration.
But by the time I got to NASA I had learned from those mistakes and
I didn’t have to repeat them. So there was no startup for me
to be the NASA Associate Administrator, as it would have been if I’d
come cold out of the science world. I think Fletcher was amazed that
I could do this stuff, just as he would have expected an administrator
to. I never knew whether he wanted to go back to the science community
and say you made me do this and look what you got sort of thing. That
was my experience.
he have expectations? Or did he state his expectations for you of
what he wanted from the science program?
This was true almost throughout my time, and all my predecessors.
Basically the science program at NASA ran completely separate from
the agency. You had to sell things to the Administrator and to OMB
if you wanted a major new program or something like that. But there
was no top-down direction. You were the CEO [chief executive officer]
of science. That was true of my predecessors as well. That was the
expectation that I went into the job with. It was true.
That changed primarily under [Daniel S.] Goldin where so much of the
direction came from on high. So the strength of the science community,
the science program of NASA, has been the foundation of this very
large external community that believes it is an integral part of the
program—it plans things. It sets the goals. In some ways the
community thinks that NASA works for them. For the rest of the agency,
the external community, the aerospace industry and all those things,
they obviously work for NASA. I think many NASA Administrators have
not understood the science community, but so long as it caused them
no harm and brought them good news they would leave it alone to do
its thing. I think that’s perfectly acceptable given the different
cultures between the science community and the agency versus the aerospace
industry and the agency.
[Michael D.] Griffin is the one that also got that so wrong. He looked
at the science community and said well you’re just a bunch of
subcontractors, I’ll turn you on and off. That caused so much
of the friction between NASA and the science community. Administrators
who understand this difference and let it run successfully are really
in some ways the best Administrators.
you mentioned there are always some programs. If you could talk about
some of the things that you inherited and then in the midst of this
you didn’t really inherit but you got another Administrator
who happened to be a former astronaut. So tell us how that worked
when the programs and how you defined what was in existence and which
ones you wanted to move forward.
a couple dimensions to this. Obviously the Associate Administrators
are SES [Senior Executive Service], they’re not political appointees.
When I went to work in ’87, which was what, one year before
the election, under the [President Ronald] Reagan years, and I said
to Fletcher, “Look, there is going to be an administration change
by definition. I’m moving my family to Washington. I don’t
want to discover that I’m out of work the next day.” He
said, “Well that never happens. Absolutely never happens. Only
the political appointees change.” Nothing. He was absolutely
right. We went right smoothly through that administration change.
Dick [Richard H.] Truly is a dear friend. When he got the position
he checked with me to make sure that I would stay. So it was like
please Len stay. I thought I’m glad you think that way rather
than please Len go. So that was an absolutely smooth transition.
When Goldin came in of course that was the end of my being Associate
Administrator. That’s an interesting set of stories which you
should get at some point. But even he had to work to make me go away.
Or anyone else. There wasn’t any summarily dismissing the Associate
Administrators at a change of administration. In my judgment Mike
Griffin set a terrible precedent, because he did that wholesale. The
rules are at the end of 120 days a new Administrator can transfer
SESs, before that time he can’t, and make their life miserable
so they go somewhere else. It was never done before in NASA until
Griffin. Then he came in and he—now there are some people that
I agree with him would have been removed—they were good people
to have do something else. But this wholesale 50 people are going
to disappear. It set the mindset. People worried about that when Charlie
[Charles F.] Bolden [Jr.] came in, and he hadn’t done it to
my knowledge. But it should be only if the individual is really not
performing, but then it should be part of just a natural evolution.
Not the fact that now you got a new boss, you have to leave. The question
is are you doing your job, should you go off and do something else
different. It’s very individual. But this wholesale removal—it
makes them political appointees basically, the SES are made political
It keeps people from taking the jobs as a result. If Fletcher had
told me that was the Griffin system, I would not have gone to Washington.
That would have been a foolish thing to do, the risk would have been
me some of the challenges that you had to tackle when you first came
biggest single challenge of course was the backlog. There was a huge
stack of missions that hadn’t launched, because the development
of the Shuttle to start with, and then the Challenger accident. It
cost space science—I believe my number is still accurate—about
$2 billion to have those missions sitting on the ground long after
their projected launch date. Hubble [Space Telescope] cost $5 million
a month just to watch. Of course Galileo was at the Cape [Canaveral,
Florida] at the time of Challenger. Ulysses was at the Cape at the
time of Challenger, and it had to be sent home, to Europe, and JPL
in Galileo’s case. There was just mission after mission that
was just stacked up.
Now on the positive side, the nation and the administration responded
very positively to NASA after Challenger. The NASA budget doubled
after the Challenger accident into the early ’90s. Space science
actually had—formula funding. Space science got 20 percent of
whatever NASA got. I’m glad you’re going to reassemble
this in some way. But in the early ’80s when Space Station was
being sold, Beggs was looking for support from the science community.
The chair of the Space Studies Board at that time, the big academy
committee, was Tom [Thomas M.] Donahue. Tom is deceased now, but he
was on the faculty here at Michigan, and my endowed chair position
is named for Tom. Tom was still alive when I was here. He actually
recruited me here to Michigan. But Tom was the chair of the Space
Studies Board. He was leading the charge of the science community
against the Space Station.
Frank McDonald was the Chief Scientist, and Frank brokered a deal
between Donahue and Beggs in which Beggs—and I have a copy of
this letter—Beggs sent Tom Donahue a letter which in effect
says we’ll give space science 20 percent of the NASA budget
if you just keep quiet in effect. He wasn’t looking for support,
they were looking for silence. I can find the letter someday if you’d
like to see it.
It’s inconceivable to me that that happened. I find that whole
event just an amazing piece of NASA history. But the consequence is
that 20 percent formula lasted for easily more than a decade, where
the expectation was that the space science budget, the budget for
OSSA, the Office of Space Science and Applications, would be 20 percent
of the overall NASA budget. You have to be very careful with the accounting
when you think about that. Because someone in NASA will tell you that
space science today is 30 percent of the NASA budget or some number
like that. We didn’t pay for launch vehicles back then, and
we didn’t pay for tracking, and we didn’t pay for civil
service manpower. This was back in the days of RPM [Retro-Propulsion
Module] and the launch vehicles were done by Code M at that time,
and tracking was done by Code T and so on, Code R, whatever it was.
So the money was a more significant number. If you had all the other
things, you’re probably I would guess in excess of what the
number is today, but I wouldn’t be sure of that. Someone would
have to reconstruct.
So if the NASA budget doubled as a result of getting to work more
seriously on the Space Station and recovery from the Challenger accident,
the space science budget doubled in the time that I was there as well.
We were able to put in new starts and many other things. We had a
very good time with new initiatives as well as the just keeping track
of all the assets that were ready to launch but were grounded because
of the delays.
I was a very successful Associate Administrator. I’m not sure
it was my doing. But the environment made it possible to be very successful
in selling things because we had this envelope in which to work.
going to use the word in the midst of the time, the issue with the
Hubble happened. Tell us about your background or involvement with
the Hubble telescope project prior to that or to what extent that
was, and then about the situation where you were basically in the
midst of trying to sort this out.
of all when I went to NASA Headquarters, I’d had no involvement
with the Hubble Space Telescope prior to that. I’m not an astronomer.
I’m a space plasma physicist. So I watched it from afar. It
had a lot of development problems. It cost a lot more than anybody
said it was going to do, and it had some management problems along
the way. So by the time I got there, there was actually a separate
division that ran just the Hubble Space Telescope. We didn’t
keep that when the development was finally over, just because it made
no sense. Merged it back into astrophysics. But it was done by the
time I got there. It was in storage at Lockheed.
We had reviews as you would imagine. Preflight reviews and so forth.
Of course the glories of the mirror were advertised in the course
of these reviews, and one of the questions I would always like to
have asked but never did was—in the middle of one of those reviews,
“How do you know this mirror really is as good as you say it
is?” But I didn’t say that. I didn’t ask. We just
merrily went on that the problems were solved. The mirror was never
even in debate. It was a diffraction-limited mirror. So it was ground
according to spec, everyone said. In fact in reality it was ground
to a smoothness that was unprecedented—not unprecedented in
the DoD [Department of Defense] world, but it was unprecedented as
far as anyone knew in the open world. So this was going to be the
greatest mirror that had ever been flown anywhere.
So we marched merrily along. Of course by the time we finally figured
out when we were going to get a launch slot to get this thing up,
we hyped this thing. First of all, you wanted to justify all the money
that had been spent. It was a huge amount of money. So we hyped this
thing. I had interviews after interviews. I sat down with senators
and congressmen, because they wanted to be seen with this thing. [Senator]
Barbara [A.] Mikulski and I would have a little TV show together,
TV clips talking about this thing. Advertising its virtues. I had
all these wonderful sound bites I can’t reconstruct now. Like
at last we’re going to be like the little kid who needs glasses,
and finally gets his glasses, and he can see what the teacher is writing
on the blackboard. Something like that, some wonderful sound bites
for this thing.
So we hyped Hubble gloriously. As a sign of the NASA attitudes at
that time, in the press conference for the launch of Hubble Space
Telescope, NASA wanted to do it as it normally did, which was just
advertise what the astronauts were going to do. I said you got to
be kidding, the astronauts are going to dump this thing off, this
is the biggest science mission ever—so we hijacked the NASA
press conference to advertise the glories of the Hubble Space Telescope.
The launch campaign was full of all sorts of guests and things like
that. We even had Harvey Hubble, who was the descendant of Edwin [P.]
Hubble. Funny story with that. Harvey Hubble owned a hardware store
now. So Harvey Hubble thought this was an opportunity to hawk his
hardware activities at the launch. So we had to get Harvey’s
hardware off the page while we were launching the Hubble Space Telescope.
There’s these wonderful little glasses and things. I’ve
still have goblets with the Hubble Space Telescope on the side. It
was a big deal.
So the thing gets launched, and I move on to other things that I was
responsible for. I hear about the fact that the first light, the focus
is a little out of whack and stuff. But didn’t think too much
about it. This was just after I had sold—well, I had sold three
new starts by that point. I had sold AXAF [Advanced X-ray Astrophysics
Facility], I’d sold CRAF [Comet Rendezvous Asteroid Flyby]/Cassini,
and I had sold the big Mission to Planet Earth. I had been in Europe
finalizing the arrangements on Mission to Planet Earth with the Europeans.
You have these remember where you are kind of experiences. I remember
I was flying home from Europe, and I’m thinking Fisk, you’ve
got this job knocked, you got the Hubble Space Telescope up, you just
sold three new starts, everything is wonderful, you are terrific.
It was over a weekend. Monday morning. Not sure I could reproduce
the date, but I think it was in June sometime. We launched in April
if I remember correctly. June, I come into my conference room Monday
morning, and there were these sad-faced people sitting in my conference
room from [NASA] Marshall [Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama],
who was responsible for the Hubble Space Telescope.
They said we have spherical aberration. Now I’m a plasma physicist.
I don’t know what spherical aberration is. But I could figure
out pretty quick it wasn’t a good thing. They were convinced
and correctly that the mirror was distorted. It was as smooth as it
was supposed to be, it was just ground to the wrong shape. Something
I remember saying to them, “Space science just had its Challenger
accident.” That’s the impact of this thing. I don’t
remember if it was then or later but I remember saying that we were
going to get measured on how we respond, not what happened. We put
together a review panel almost immediately under Lew Allen [Jr.].
We got everybody that we thought was important. We weren’t playing,
we wanted to get the best people, and Lew was the ideal chair of this
thing. They went to PerkinElmer [Inc.]. I guess it wasn’t PerkinElmer
at that point, it was Hughes Danbury by that point. But it was the
PerkinElmer facility in Danbury [Connecticut] that built the mirror.
We had a real stroke of luck, which was the PerkinElmer people had
fallen on hard times after they had done the Hubble mirror. Their
business base had eroded for whatever reason. So the device which
was used to set the shape of the mirror—called a null corrector—was
still sitting there in the corner of the lab 20 years later. You could
look at it, and you could see that there had been an extra spacer
placed into—it’s a mechanical device. It shoots light
around and it bounces off mirrors and lenses and stuff. Then you get
what’s called an interferogram, which when you got the mirror
to the correct shape, the lines are all straight on the interferogram.
So the mirror was built to the shape that the null corrector said
it should have been, but there was this extra spacer that was put
Apparently when they reconstructed back in the late ’70s I guess,
maybe early ’80s at the latest, this was just a routine piece
of equipment. They had a workman building this thing. They didn’t
have a lot of QA[quality assurance], it was GSE, ground support equipment,
and they didn’t have QA guys looking at the thing. The guy said
oh this bar doesn’t fit quite right, I’ll just put a washer
in. It was really that simple. No material deviation kind of report
or any of those things was ever filed, and the company actually believed
that they had—this null corrector was in itself a new design.
They were convinced it was the best one that could have been built.
There were actually a number of measurements of the mirror that were
made along the way that showed the spherical aberration, and they
went through other null correctors, other devices, and they said oh,
this one is the best one, so we’re going to believe it. This
is self-delusion that took place.
But the beauty of knowing exactly what was wrong made it possible
to build a correction which was very precise. Otherwise you would
have been guessing. You didn’t have the mirror in front of you,
and you would have had to guess as to what the correction would be.
It really literally is a pair of eyeglasses that were built in the
COSTAR [Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement] instrument
that was placed by Shuttle astronauts and put into Hubble. COSTAR
essentially is in the optical train of Hubble and with a corrective
lens that’s like your eyeglasses it refocuses the light the
way it was supposed to be. All subsequent instruments have built the
correction into the instruments themselves. But COSTAR worked for
the instruments that were up there.
The agency and space science took a terrible beating. The cover of
Newsweek, the $1.6 billion blunder. My kids were at home at that point.
They were still in high school. They were living this with me a bit,
as you would imagine, and they went to see this movie—it was
one of these Leslie Nielsen movies. I’ve forgotten which one
it was. But they went to see this as a diversion. There’s a
scene in that movie of the blues bar, and it turns out that on the
wall of the blues bar are all these various tragedies, like the Hindenburg
and something else, the sinking of the Titanic, and then there’s
a picture of the Hubble Space Telescope.
So my kids come home. God, we can’t even escape this thing going
to the movies. A lot of hearings, a lot of posturing congressmen,
senators, wanting to have somebody to yell at. I was the guy who was
seen with it last. But we never deviated from saying—the beauty
of Hubble was the astronauts could fix it. That’s the thing
that scares me about the James Webb Space Telescope. It’s out
at L2. It cannot be fixed. They’ve got a very complicated instrument.
You really worry about whether or not it’s going to work the
In the case of Hubble, it was designed to be serviced. We just said
okay, we’re going to service it. Stop yelling. The agency did
very well on this. Joe [Joseph H.] Rothenberg got his claim to fame
at Goddard by being the person who led the recovery team, the COSTAR
and the repair mission.
Before we discovered what was wrong we had all these wonderful solutions
to solve the problem, because we put a general call out. Anybody got
any ideas how to fix this thing? That was before Lew Allen had completed
his discoveries. We had one which was called the toilet bowl solution,
because the distortion of the mirror is on the outside, and so the
idea was to put an annulus around the cover. It would reduce the amount
of collecting area, but the focus would have been good. Then there
was one which I put an immediate end to. They were going to have an
astronaut crawl down the barrel of the Hubble Space Telescope and
change the secondary mirror, it’s a Cassegrain, so the secondary
mirror is in the middle. I thought that’s all I need, is an
astronaut dying on television in real time stuck in the mouth of the
Hubble Space Telescope, that’s more than I could think of as
problems to deal with. So that one went away. But the easy solution
was the COSTAR.
Then I had to raid money from other programs to fund it, because of
course it wasn’t in anybody’s budget. Associate administrators
were given a lot more freedom then than they are now to raid. Today
there’s an awful lot of constraints by Congress and OMB that
wouldn’t have let that happen. I borrowed here and borrowed
there so we could make it happen. The actual repair happened after
I left NASA. But all the pieces were put in place. I do think space
science’s reputation was restored by the way it handled the
problem rather than simply roll over and be embarrassed by it. We
systematically fixed it.
while all of these solutions were being analyzed and your team was
coming up with the solution you were still in the business of space
science. Were you attempting to sell new projects? Then also tell
us about some of the methods that you used to sell some of those new
were two intervals. After Challenger and up until the early ’90s
you have the agency that is well supported, the funding, the budget
is doubling, and we’re doing just fine. In the early ’90s,
’91, 2, 3, it’s a very different environment. You remember
the first [Norman R.] Augustine report, which was on the future of
NASA. The budget assumptions that they were working under were 10
percent growth to the agency every year. That was an OMB-sanctioned
schedule. Well, then you get into the early ’90s. George Bush,
read my lips, no new taxes, economy is going bad, and suddenly all
the planning assumptions that we had turn over into a flat budget.
NASA has got the embarrassment of the Hubble Space Telescope and hydrogen
leaks on the Shuttle all at the same time.
So the agency is in trouble. The budget doesn’t support it.
So the environment for selling anything big just ends, poof. On top
of that all flight programs start small and grow. So when we sold
AXAF, CRAF/Cassini, EOS, it was under the assumption of a continuously
growing space science budget, which was what we had been allowed and
told to plan to. It wasn’t that we made this thing up. But when
it didn’t materialize suddenly you have a different world—you
can’t afford what you even sold, least of all think of anything
That’s where I lost CRAF. I got asked to choose one or the other.
I chose Cassini. There are a lot of I think good reasons for that.
But it made the CRAF people kind of mad. Many of them were here in
Michigan by the way. That was before I came here. They remind me occasionally
of that. We downsized even Cassini and AXAF. They became smaller missions
than the ones we sold. The turndown on the Mission to Planet Earth
and EOS to a more modest program began in earnest at that point. So
when we talked about selling new things, we only sold small things
after that. Enhanced the Explorer program, things that kept some vitality
in the community. We sold the big things basically when it was possible
to sell the big things, and we didn’t sell big things when it
wasn’t. It was as simple as that.
of the EOS that you had mentioned earlier—goes back to one of
the original things that you talked—one of its segments was
data and being able to share data. Would you describe why you had
such interest in that part of the EOS and its value?
of course Earth Science program produces an enormous amount of data.
You’re looking very close. The basic philosophy on EOS and Mission
to Planet Earth Observing System, which was the core of the Mission
to Planet Earth, was to err on the side of completeness. The global
climate problem is basically a feedback problem. You know you’re
putting carbon dioxide, greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere, you
know you’re doing that. The question is what’s the response
of the atmosphere, and is there any mitigating effect or negative
amplification that takes place. Because if all you did was put greenhouse
gases in the atmosphere, you know that the Earth is going to get warmer.
There’s a 20-degree greenhouse effect today just because natural
things in the atmosphere. You add to the greenhouse gases, it’s
going to get warmer. But the question is what does that do to clouds,
do they reflect things, more things, less or fewer, sunlight, how
much is absorbed in the oceans, do the phytoplankton grow or do they
die, there are all these feedback things that take place, many of
which at that time and I think to a large extent today are not well
So whenever you study a problem that has feedback mechanisms in it
you want to make sure you don’t miss the dominant one. You may
find a feedback mechanism, but if there’s something else going
on over here that you weren’t studying that was more important,
you would miss the result that you want.
So we had a lot of instruments covering a lot of different processes,
erring on the side of completeness. We were going to produce a lot
of data. The difficulty at the time was that people did not believe
that we could handle the data. For simple things like data storage.
Of course there were all these sound bites. The EOS mission is going
to produce three Libraries of Congress a day or something like that.
How are you going to handle this data? All this stuff. These were
legitimate questions to ask.
So the data system was constructed to essentially answer those questions
and to deliver the science and tell the world how we were going to
handle the science. Now a couple things happened I guess. One was
the video industry took off completely separate from NASA and created
all the storage media we could ever possibly want. Every now and then
NASA thinks it drives technology development. This is a case where
NASA drove nothing except saying oh gee thanks guys for creating all
these capabilities out there in terms of video games and other things
that just solved the problem. Nobody even mentions that problem anymore.
There’s also a lot more use of the Internet these days than
was back there, even at the time. So there are lots of things that
I think the EOSDIS system may have gotten wrong—I’ve lost
track of it but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was too rigid
for the flexible environment that ultimately resulted out there. Maybe
they’ve adjusted it to be such. But mainly it was recognition
that we were going to have a lot of data, and there were some big
technical challenges to handling all that data—perceived to
be technical challenges at the time—and that EOSDIS had to address
it if this was worth doing. So the EOSDIS was created to do that.
It also had some wonderful political consequences because they had
these Distributed Active Archive Centers which are called DAACs and
it was possible to put a DAAC in various political constituencies.
You too could have a DAAC, Mr. Gore [former Vice President Albert
A. Gore]. I used to joke that I was going to put the DAACs on railroad
cars and as the political landscape changed I was just going to drive
them off to the next political district of substance. There was a
certain spreading of the wealth of the EOS program that gave it a
political base too that was useful.
also had a global attraction to it. Talk about that for a few minutes.
the Earth Science program even today of course, is a global program,
because in many ways other nations actually care more about global
climate change than we do. You live in the Netherlands, you want to
know what the sea levels are. There are certain islands which are
saying blub blub, I’m going under, if you guys don’t do
something. It’s very strong in Europe, and they have a major
satellite program. Japanese as well. So it really made sense to integrate
these programs in such a way that—this is a global problem,
it should be solved with the technologically advanced nations of the
world all contributing what they can to the solution.
So the Earth Science program of NASA has like 150 or so international
agreements at any one time. Just sharing of data and resources and
so forth. There are today various coordinating bodies. I believe I’m
accurate on this. Things like CEOS, the Committee on Earth Observing
Satellites, which is an international body which tries to coordinate
the planning that goes on in various nations to make sure that the
Earth Observing System will work for us.
When the US withdraws from playing its part in the way that it should,
you lose your position of leadership in those kinds of organizations.
But it was always part of the planning on the Earth Observing System.
We didn’t try and do something that somebody else was going
to do and vice versa. That’s what needs to happen. Because many
nations, almost even emerging space nations, one of the first things
they do is Earth observing. Because it’s the stuff that their
society recognizes is most relevant to the society. Much more so than
space science for example. That’s a luxury of an advanced nation.
you find a hesitancy among the scientists about sharing data?
in the US. In Europe there was a move afoot at the time—I can’t
tell you I know what it is today—that they wanted to sell the
data. But the US has always freely exchanged data. Earth science was
among the best. We had some science disciplines in space science in
which you get a PI [principal investigator] who says I worked my life
building this thing, and I’m going to get all the good stuff
out of it before anybody else sees it. But that attitude died 20 years
ago. People have a legal obligation under NASA contracts to get their
data out and share it almost immediately, and very few people fight
that at all. There’s a few old curmudgeons left over from the
old years. But the rest of the world is good. We are very good in
this country in that regard.
you remember some of your first international interactions and how
different that was for you from what you had done in your career?
Fisk: It was
not that different. I’ve always maintained strong contacts in
Europe. I got my political spurs selling the Ulysses mission, the
international solar polar mission. It started when I was at Goddard.
NASA Headquarters asked me to represent, be part of a delegation that
met with the Europeans at ESTEC [European Space Research and Technology
Centre], which is their facility in the Netherlands, to pursue what
was then called the solar polar mission, this mission to go over the
solar poles. That was the meeting where we decided there’d be
a US spacecraft and an American spacecraft and they’d go out
to Jupiter together and one go north, one go south. Great mission.
I took on the responsibility of being the person to sell this in the
United States, in a political campaign. That’s the way I learned
how to lobby Congress. It was one of those things that you don’t
instinctively know. I didn’t even know the difference between
authorization and appropriations committees—I remember I called
[James A.] Van Allen to get him involved and told him I was running
this campaign and I wanted him to see if he could exert some influence
on it. I’ve forgotten what exactly I asked him. He said well
is it the authorizers or the appropriators you want me to influence.
I realized I didn’t know. So I said okay, I want to learn here
before I even mobilize the community. But we did all the war charts
where you have the list of congressional districts and scientists
who can influence things. It was all this very professional, semiprofessional
done by a bunch of amateurs, political campaign to get the new start
It was done in coordination with a similar campaign which was taking
place in Europe to sell their half of the mission. Axford, my thesis
adviser, had moved to Germany by that point, and was leading the European
side of that. Johannes Geiss who was from Switzerland—I was
part of an experiment for that mission that he was a PI on—was
leading it. So there was this international coordination. Because
you have to sell these new starts simultaneously. So that was taking
Being a working scientist, you travel all over the world. Our science
meetings are in Japan and they’re in Australia and so on. So
you travel all the time, and you know the players. So I happen to
believe that space science should be conducted internationally. I
have no issues there except positive ones. So I just continued what
I’m doing. And I had the contacts left over from my normal business
prior to becoming Associate Administrator. It was no change in life
that took place.
what a great start, to be able to work with your former adviser and
people who could help support your effort. I was looking at the time.
Is this a good place for us to stop and pick up tomorrow? Or do you
want to finish a little bit more about being --
entirely up to you. Is there a short subject? I make very few subjects
could be. You can decide on this one. I know as part of when you were
there and as part of Administrator Truly’s goals you put together
a strategic plan called Vision 21, and you were a participant contributing
to that plan. But of course it was cut short later in ’92. So
maybe if you could, you could start on what some of your goals and
objectives were to put in there.
more to that story. I’ll tell you the story. This is going to
sound somewhat pompous but I believe it is an accurate statement,
that I introduced strategic planning to NASA. It goes back to Fletcher.
When I arrived as the Associate Administrator, I said, “I need
a strategic plan, I don’t know how to run something without
one, I don’t know whether I succeed if I do something. So I’m
going to develop a strategic plan for space science.”
Fletcher said, “Oh, you’re nuts. You never do that. Don’t
tell them what you want to do. They’ll only give you the lowest
thing on your list. Just keep it all close to yourself.”
I said, “I don’t know how to do that. That doesn’t
make any sense to me. I’ve done administrative things before.
The university had a strategic plan. That’s the only way I know
how to do it.” So I ignored the advice or direction or whatever
it was, and developed a strategic plan. They’re behind you there.
You can see them. They go back into essentially almost the second
year I was Associate Administrator, I’m guessing ’88.
It was very successful, because we sat down with the community and
we drew up priority lists of things that were going to be done.
But more important, we had what I refer to as decision rules. You
can’t predict the budget. So we would say if the budget is this,
this is what we’re going to do. If we have to make a decision
at a lower level—essentially this is how I as Associate Administrator
am going to make decisions. Everybody could see what the queue was.
So the effect was that everybody supported all missions, because they
understood that if they were second on the list, the only way they
were going to get their mission was to get the first guy through.
So the community ended up uniting behind the plan. Industry loved
it, because they could say okay where am I going to make my investments,
I’m not pursuing this big portfolio of things which may or may
not happen, I know the order in which I’m going to put my investment.
Congress liked it. Maybe even Fletcher liked it at the end. I don’t
know. But it was a very successful activity which continued every
year that I was Associate Administrator.
I have forgotten the ’92 plan, but I’m assuming that was
basically the agency trying to do something similar. But we had done
it in space science from the get-go. I was just reminded last week.
I’m on one of these decadal surveys for my own discipline. Dick
[Richard T.] Fisher, who’s the division director, was talking
about the beauty of that strategic plan of 20 years ago. Now I’m
sure it’s because I was sitting there. But nonetheless, it is
fondly remembered as the way that planning should be done. Because
it creates a community cohesion which is very hard to achieve.
One of the biggest problems of anybody who takes those jobs when they’re
selling a program in Congress is a bunch of other people in the community
that come in from somewhere else and say I want to be put in the budget
ahead of this and use their political connections to do so. Then you
get the chaos we have today. The plan at least at the time did not
have that chaos associated with it.
don’t we stop today? We’ll pick up what happened to the
right. It’s a plan.