NASA Headquarters Oral
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Ann Arbor, Michigan – 9 September 2010
Today is September 9th, 2010. This interview is being conducted with
Dr. Lennard Fisk in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This is part two. Yesterday
we visited with Dr. Fisk as well in his office at the University of
Michigan. This is for the NASA Headquarters Oral History Project.
The interviewer is Rebecca Wright, assisted by Jennifer Ross-Nazzal.
Thanks again for finding time in your schedule for us.
Yesterday we visited about some experiences that you had early on
in your career and left off talking about when you were still Associate
Administrator for Space Science, talking about strategies and how
important strategic plans were. In fact I borrowed one that you had
loaned me. You had a number of them. One of the areas that I thought
was very interesting that you had talked about, that strategy is constructed
around five actions. Establishing a set of themes, a set of decision
rules, a set of priorities for missions and programs within each theme,
and to demonstrate that that strategy can yield a viable program,
and then check the strategy for consistency with resource constraints.
Just from our talk yesterday I would have to think that number five
was sometimes a little bit of a challenge, that you had resource constraints
about budgets. Can you share with us how the budgets impacted the
strategies each year and how you were able to adjust for those?
Remember, that’s 1988. So you are still in the period when the
NASA budget was just rising. It doubled in those years. It’s
after [Space Shuttle] Challenger [STS 51-L accident], and the country
basically said NASA, we want to get you back on your feet as quickly
as possible. Congress did something, it was almost amazing that they
did it. They bought the replacement orbiter in one appropriation.
Just $2 billion, here it is, buy an orbiter. None of that happened
after the [Space Shuttle] Columbia [STS-107] accident. NASA was left
to its own devices after Columbia. But after Challenger the agency
was well supported.
So in the beginning of the strategic plans, it was not really resource
constrained. Obviously there was always more that you would want to
do than you could do. But one of the themes of the early strategic
plans was to demonstrate that we were back on our feet again and that
the nation had a viable space program. So it was possible to sell
large new starts. So for that plan I believe, the new start would
have been AXAF [Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility], which is now
the Chandra Great Observatory. Then the next year it was CRAF [Comet
Rendezvous Asteroid Flyby]/Cassini. Then the year after that it was
Mission to Planet Earth and the big EOS [Earth Observing System] program.
At the same time we were able to sell Small Explorer programs, other
enhancements of the budgets besides these major new starts. So it
was a time to be successful from a budget standpoint.
When you get into the plans though of the early ’90s then you
see this change in the whole landscape of NASA at that point, because
it’s the end of the [President George H. W.] Bush administration.
Economy is not doing well. President says read my lips, no new taxes.
You end up in a period of very constrained budgets. They were constrained
more than we had anticipated. Because whenever you start a new program,
there are these multiple years of funding that you expect. So if you
added all that up you would have had a program that was going to grow
steadily each year. It wasn’t an outrageous growth. It was one
that was approved by the Office of Management and Budget [OMB]. It
wasn’t as if we were hoping for something that no one said we
could ever have. But the landscape changed and suddenly there was
none of this growth there. Then the plans had to adjust. They had
to adjust in a way that you could no longer sell new big things, it
was just out of the question. We were having to descope what we had.
AXAF got descoped. We lost CRAF. We descoped Cassini, descoped Mission
to Planet Earth and EOS. But putting anything big in the budget at
that point was not possible.
But then the plans knew what to do with that. They said okay, it’s
no longer possible to sell big things, so we’ll sell little
things. That’s where you get programs like Discovery, which
are the relatively small planetary missions. Planetary missions are
always expensive. But relatively speaking the Discovery program, which
has been very successful for sending relatively small planetary missions
out, starts at that time, because that was all we could imagine that
we could afford in this constrained budget. You always want to put
something new in it if you can. But at the same time you’re
having to adjust to the fact that you don’t have the resources
we expected to have.
We use the word sell. But what does that exactly mean from the position
you were in?
Well, any time you want to start a new program—at this time
in NASA everything within science was bottom-up. The National Academy
of Sciences has a variety of major committees that do decadals and
plannings and so forth for each mission. For each of the disciplines
within NASA. So you wanted to have the support of the science community
as measured by those academy reports as the basis for what you were
putting forward. Then the division directors within each division
would have things they wanted to get on behalf of their community.
So they then sold to me, convinced me that I should try and get this
in the budget somehow. Then I had to sell that to the [NASA] Administrator
to get it into the NASA budget submit to the Office of Management
and Budget. Then it had to be approved by OMB and be put in the President’s
budget, and then it had to eventually get approved by Congress.
They’re known as new starts. The idea was to get a new start.
So there are all these steps in the process working from something
which is a community initiative up through internal NASA Headquarters,
over to OMB, over to Congress. Congress was very seldom the problem,
because, as we talked yesterday, the famous 20 percent rule was in
effect—that 20 percent of the NASA budget was supposed to go
to science. So long as I kept my requests within that 20 percent number,
it was generally fairly easy to get approval. Almost all up and down
the line. If I’d tried to get too far out of the 20 percent,
the agency would probably have objected. They would have said no,
we’re not going to ask for all this for just science, because
that’ll come out of human spaceflight. Congress looked at that
In fact [James C.] Fletcher when he was the Administrator was so convinced
that Congress would give me the 20 percent that he often would only
allow me to propose about 18 or 19 percent, because he was sure that
I was going to get it anyway. He wasn’t going to ask for anywhere
near the 20, certainly not more than 20 percent. So that 20 percent
rule, which had its origins, as we talked yesterday, in this deal
between the science community and NASA on the Space Station, it was
an amazingly useful device for scaling what the resources were going
to be to use within the strategic plan.
I know that you came to work for NASA in your position under Fletcher.
But then a couple years or maybe within the two years, it changed,
and Admiral [Richard H.] Truly came in. Did it change for you under
It didn’t. There was no change. Truly had been the Associate
Administrator for Human Spaceflight at that point, Code M, under Fletcher.
So he and I had worked together before. NASA still ran at that point
with the idea that the science community takes care of itself, that
planning is bottom-up, the organization will screen the programs that
are going to have to be sold, and you have to sell them to the Administrator
to get in the budget. But there was a lot of deference given to the
science community for what it is they want. We were considered to
be a well run organization.
So we were believed if we said this is what it’s going to cost
and various other things. So I didn’t notice any change. I was
well supported by Fletcher and by Truly. We ran just smoothly really.
Those in many ways were our best years, because we were still in this
upswing on the budget. But things changed then in the early ’90s
in lots of different ways.
You mentioned the International Space Station. Of course when Challenger
went down then the launch vehicle for the space area was affected.
Could you talk some about how those two programs impacted either for
or against or both on how the space sciences programs were administered?
It’s a somewhat complicated story that goes with this. Because
of the 20 percent rule, science benefited if someone were to fund
the Space Station, because that basically allowed the whole NASA budget
to go up, and science benefited from that. At the same time of course
the Challenger accident left us with this huge backlog of very expensive
missions sitting on the ground while we had to wait to fly off when
the Shuttle started flying again, because everything had been designed
for the Shuttle. That was the NASA rule of the early ’80s. We’re
going to phase out expendable launch vehicles. We’re going to
design all our payloads to fly on the Shuttle. So you didn’t
want to reconfigure things when they were all finished to go on something
But after Challenger the policy changed—so that the Shuttle
was not to be the only launch vehicle. The DoD [Department of Defense]
of course ran for cover right away and said we’re going to go
start up our Titan lines and everything else. So the American launch
industry was allowed to be developed, and science was allowed to put
its payloads on expendable launch vehicles. So things that had not
started or could be developed or were mainly developed after the Challenger
accident, they could be configured for expandable launch vehicles.
Everything else had to still be launched on the Shuttle.
With regard to Space Station, the space science organization at that
point was responsible for life science and microgravity. We had it
all. We had Earth science, astrophysics, planetary, Sun-Earth connections
as it was called back then, and life science and microgravity. We
were obligated, if you like, to fill up the Space Station. We had
some pressure on us to do attached payloads on the Space Station as
well. But we fought that off, because it’s not the best way
to do the science, it’s not the most cost-effective way to do
the science. Free-flying satellites is the way to do the science.
The Space Station is actually a bad place to do astronomical observations,
for example. Debris is around the Space Station. Stuff comes off it,
contaminates instruments. There’s a variety of bad things that
But the stuff that you do inside, which we always referred to as the
indoor sports, life science and microgravity, it is the place to do
it. It’s what that community had hoped to realize. So we had
a program that led to that, Spacelab. The use of Spacelab on the back
of the Shuttle to do various kinds of research for the duration of
a Shuttle mission. Microgravity and life science for the interval
that the Shuttle could be up. I think it’s 20 days or something
like that. There are some relatively long duration Shuttle flights.
But of course the ultimate aim was to go to the Space Station, use
the Space Station.
NASA has often had trouble figuring out how to interact with the life
science and microgravity communities. The difficulty is that parts
of the human spaceflight program treat life science as an internal
event. But the science organization is all connected to the external
community out there. In life science and microgravity, the best and
the brightest in the country do not work for NASA, or even necessarily
think about NASA. Think about life science research, well, you have
the whole NIH [National Institutes of Health], and they are busy.
Some of the best and the brightest are off doing medical research
on behalf of humanity, that sort of thing. One of the things that
we could do in the science organization, because we were recognized
scientists, was to get these people involved in NASA’s program.
They wouldn’t naturally go interact with Johnson Space Center
[Houston, Texas, JSC], because that was considered to be a captive
not necessarily peer-reviewed scientific activity. But we introduced
the peer review process to life science and microgravity because that’s
the way we normally did business.
You select payloads based on their merit as viewed by the entire science
community. So one of our tasks was also to cultivate those people.
To get them involved in NASA, make them feel that this was a legitimate
science activity that was worth their time to do, given that they
had other choices of things that they could do. They could work for
the NIH, the NSF [National Science Foundation], the Department of
Defense. There’s lots of money out there in those fields for
the best and the brightest in the country. We were trying to get them
to come play with NASA, and we were the interface. In some ways we
were the best possible interface, because we were all card-carrying
scientists and recognized for our own scientific accomplishments.
So the Space Station was to be filled up. We had payloads under development
to fill it up. We should at some point talk about where that whole
thing is today. But at that time there were plans for the full utilization
of the Space Station racks and experiments and scientists who were
going to do it. It was like every other NASA program, they could think
of a lot more things to do that you could actually afford to do, but
nonetheless it was well expected that the Space Station would be utilized.
Now the Space Station wasn’t developing very rapidly. There
was design study after design study and so on. But the community was
preparing to use it in a constructive way and taking advantage of
Spacelab before the Space Station came into existence.
You mentioned the Department of Defense. How were they involved with
you with the science programs, especially those that were Earth-observing?
Very little. Like anybody in one of those jobs, you have the clearances
necessary to talk to them. But I made a studied attempt not to talk
to them. Because I always felt I don’t want to even know any
secrets that I don’t need to know and have to remember that
I know, that sort of thing. So we didn’t have a tremendous amount
of interaction. The big interaction took place at Hubble [Space Telescope]
when the Hubble mirror went bad. This is hardly a national secret.
The Hubble Space Telescope looks just like the spy satellites except
it looks the other direction. You say how do you know that. Well,
it was built by Lockheed, who built the spy satellite. It was designed
to fly in the Shuttle bay, which is where at that time they were launching
the spy satellites from and so on. So I can’t say I’ve
ever seen a spy satellite, but it’s not a stretch of the imagination
to imagine that one looks up, one looks down.
But the Hubble had of course a lot of other things that were required
of it. Its fine guidance sensors to be able to point at a star and
hold it for a long period of time and other things like that.
But the obvious question that was asked was why didn’t we test
the Hubble mirror like they do for spy satellites? The mirror was
built by the same company that built the mirrors for spy satellites.
How come you guys didn’t do what the spy satellites did? They
tested their systems, and would have discovered the spherical aberration
in Hubble, and so why didn’t NASA do that? That was the question.
Of course you had to go into a classified briefing and classified
discussions to say why we didn’t do what the other guys did.
There are good reasons. Those are not classified reasons. Hubble works
in the ultraviolet. So if you get one molecule thickness of contamination
on the mirror it’s blind in the ultraviolet.
So you don’t do any tests that you don’t have to do, you
don’t handle it if you don’t need to. Hubble unlike the
spy satellites looks at infinity. It’s looking at objects very
far out. So you have to build a device, an optical flat, to shine
on the mirror, to know that you’re properly focused. You have
to create the equivalent of an object at infinity in order to test
the mirror. If you’re only doing it 200 miles away as with spy
satellites, that’s a lot easier. If you’re trying to do
it at infinity it’s very hard. So the flatness of the device
that you were using for your signal had to be built to an accuracy
that nothing else had ever been built to. So in some ways the test
is very difficult because the test equipment has to be built to a
standard that’s never been built.
You may just be simply measuring how effectively you built the test
stand rather than how effectively you made the mirror. So the decision
was made. It was not my decision. Again the Hubble was all buttoned
up by the time I got there. But they made what probably is the same
decision I would have made, which is this is not the worth the risk,
and we won’t learn what it is we need to know, because it’s
going to be very sensitive to the test stand that you have to use.
The sad part about Hubble was by optical standards the mirror was
so bad that Galileo [Renaissance-era astronomer] using what is known
as a knife test would have found it. If Galileo were still alive after
400 years—he made the first telescope—and he held up his
little knife test to test whether the mirror was the proper shape,
he would have been able to see the distortion. Because even though
it’s—what is it? A fraction of a human hair. By optical
standards, it was a bad thing. But nobody thought they were testing
for a bad thing. They thought they were testing to the precision that
the spec [specification] had said that they were trying to achieve.
That was something that you actually couldn’t realistically
The classified interactions on Hubble were with the National Reconnaissance
Office [NRO], in classified hearings. The National Reconnaissance
Office is an unclassified thing now. It was not an unclassified thing
when I was there. I can’t remember which side of Hubble that
was on. But the existence of the National Reconnaissance Office was
classified when I first went to NASA and by the time I left they decided
to admit that the nation actually had spy satellites, which everybody
knew anyway. There was an assistant secretary of the Air Force who
was in charge of the NRO and he and I had some classified hearings.
So that was the main interaction on the classified side.
On the Earth science side there was not a lot. There was a project
which started after I left NASA known as Project Medusa which was
an effort to see whether or not any of the data that’s collected
by the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] had relevance for Earth science.
That was a classified activity, but that was after I left.
Before you left the Shuttle program returned to flight, and before
you left Magellan was launched as the first project. Talk about that
time period. Did you have any hesitancy? Or was it mostly anticipation
of knowing that it was going to be released by the Shuttle?
Oh, I had no hesitation about the Shuttle. We set Magellan on fire
just about three months before we were delivering it to the launch
pad. That gave me some pause. Magellan is one of the great stories
about quality control, because during the construction of the Magellan
spacecraft there was a technician who was working on it that was assembling
part of the system, and the usual quality assurance guys were standing
around, people were signing forms, everything was hunky-dory. The
guy goes home, wakes up in the middle of the night, said I didn’t
do it right.
Comes in the next morning, says I didn’t do that right. They
said oh, everybody signed the form, we’re working 24/7 to make
the launch, we’ve already put thermal blankets on top of what
you did. The guy said I didn’t do it right.
They finally tore it apart. He had not done it right. It was not something
you could have tested for. It was a mechanical hookup, and it was
the motor that would have let Magellan stop at Venus and it wouldn’t
have worked. We wouldn’t have discovered that until we got to
Venus and kept right on going.
My thought was fire the QA [quality assurance] guys and monitor the
sleep patterns of all the technicians. That may be the better way
to maintain quality control. So there were a lot of issues about getting
Magellan ready for flight.
When it was ready to launch, the Shuttle had launched a couple times
by that point. Safety was not the issue. We had a grand time doing
this. This became an odd phrase after Dan [Daniel S.] Goldin became
the Administrator. But this was known as the second golden age of
space science, because we had this great deal of activity in space
science in the ’60s when NASA had lots of money and they were
launching things all over the place in the science program as well,
and then in the ’70s it dribbled off, in the ’80s you
had this terrible dearth, because the Shuttle was under development,
everything had to fly on the Shuttle, and the Shuttle goes down. There’s
this huge gap in launches. Then when we started to fly again with
Magellan, big blip. We’re going to launch Magellan and Galileo
and Hubble and Ulysses. The list goes on and on. We’re having
a wonderful time.
So we labeled this for the public relations effect the second golden
age of space science. When we went to the Cape [Canaveral, Florida]
to launch Magellan, my family came down, my three sons took the train
down with my wife to Florida. I gave the pep talk. This is going to
be the second golden age of space science. We had people there, and
of course we got to t minus 31 and it didn’t go anyplace. It
showed no signs of going for—it was almost a week I think before
whatever was the matter with the Shuttle got fixed—so my kids
were riding in the elevator, and somebody said, “Second golden
age of space science. Bah.” So there was a lesson for me. This
is always an important decision. How much do you hype what it is you’re
Of course it came to roost when we hyped Hubble so much and then there
was the big disaster of the mirror. Shortly after Hubble we launched
the Gamma Ray Observatory, and I was so burned by the Hubble experience
of overhyping, we took the attitude maybe it’ll work, maybe
it won’t, we didn’t hype it at all. But the consequence
is very few people remember the Gamma Ray Observatory. The scientists
know about it, but the public didn’t really notice that we had
this very major Gamma Ray Observatory in the sky. So the hype is necessary
to get people interested in the fact that you’re doing this.
At the same time you run the risk that you leave people disappointed
by some aspect of what it is you were telling them.
But launch campaigns were great fun. We would all fly down to the
Cape. NASA had planes at that point. I don’t know if it still
has planes, but NASA had its own little air force. So we would all
hop in the planes out of [Washington] DC and fly down, land at Patrick
[Air Force Base, Florida]. We had tents where people would come and
see—press tents, so we’d give interviews, all that good
stuff. Then they sat me down in the control room. I actually did have
to authorize that the payload could be launched. This is after Challenger.
So you have this huge big review that takes place just prior to flight
where all the different subsystems have to say they’re ready
to go, and I had to say that for the payload. We had our own internal
processes to make sure that was the case.
Then you go to the launch control room. They actually gave me a button.
But it wasn’t attached to anything when I looked under the table.
But we got to listen to all the traffic on the launch and the countdown
and all that good stuff. So it was a very enjoyable experience. Of
course we were seeing all this huge backlog go through the system
and start to do the science.
We’d then of course jump in the plane and go to usually JSC—or
[NASA] Marshall [Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama]. Because
the payloads had to be deployed by the Shuttle. Again I had to be
the one who authorized the release. I’m not sure what I would
have done if we couldn’t release it. Really it was never designed
to bring them back, so therefore that would have been kind of ugly.
Most of the time that was a really smooth process. It gets up, the
astronauts take it out on the arm, and push it away.
The Gamma Ray Observatory was the only one with an issue. The antenna
stuck, and we actually had the astronauts suiting up to go out and
push the antenna into position, when it said, “Oh, if you’re
that serious about it, the antenna will go out on its own.”
So it went. That was the only one that had any kind of adventure with
it. The rest of them were just good releases. People did really good
jobs for us. The relations between the Shuttle and the astronauts
and the science program was always excellent, because they got into
what they were launching. Charlie [Charles F.] Bolden [Jr.] launched
the Hubble for me. There was a really good relationship between the
astronauts and the science program, because they were launching our
payloads, and they were interested in what we were doing. It was all
a good show.
At your level, did you visit the manufacturer sites as well?
I did for my payloads of course. There were a number of visits. It
always intrigued me. Typically a science mission has 400 or 500 people
working on it. Whenever I visited the factory there were only three
guys standing around the payload working on it. I kept saying where
are the rest of these guys. Of course there is all that infrastructure,
design teams and things. There are only so many people that actually
touch something and build something.
But we wandered around and talked to lots of folks. Of course part
of the job was the flight reviews. We would conduct the flight readiness
reviews. There were monthly reviews of all major programs at NASA
Headquarters. There was a final major flight readiness review where
we said we were ready to go.
This was again post Challenger, and so one of the Challenger issues
was nobody said this isn’t ready to go, it shouldn’t be
launched. So we went to great lengths to make sure that there was
nobody in the system that knew something that would keep us from flying.
So the typical flight readiness review had 500 people in it. I would
stand up at the end of it, and I would say, “Is there anybody
in this room that knows something that would keep us from launching
this thing? If you don’t want to say it publicly, here’s
my phone number.” This was pre email days. “Here’s
the way you get in touch with us. But I don’t want to discover
after the fact that somebody knew something that we should have known
when we made this launch decision.”
We would go through that drill. To some extent the Shuttle was doing
the same thing. We just made sure we were following the same procedures,
that there’s not some technician who now remembers that he did
something wrong down at the bottom of the system that is afraid for
whatever reason to disclose it. Nobody ever said anything, and I’m
sure I did that also on Hubble, and I wish—if somebody had known
that mirror was bad that they had stood up and said that. But they
Before you left you worked with a third Administrator, and that was
Dan Goldin. Share with us what it was like when his administration
started and how NASA administration changed after he got there.
Dan is a very complicated person, as I’m sure your various history
interviews have probably disclosed. First of all, he was my contractor
on AXAF. He worked for TRW. TRW was responsible for building AXAF,
and he was the man in charge.
So he and I had a fair number of interactions. Nothing unusual, but
the same level of interactions that you would have expected for somebody
who was responsible for your $1 billion program. I thought he was
wonderful. I thought he was the most responsive contractor that I
When he showed up at Headquarters I was a reasonably happy person,
because I thought this is a competent guy. Dan has two sides to his
personality. For people he works for, like eventually Vice President
[Albert A.] Gore, they think he’s wonderful, because he answers
all their desires and is very helpful.
He is impossible to work for by anybody who is reasonable. I’ve
worked for lots of people in my life. He’s the least sane, all
sorts of signs of being a manic-depressive, very insecure, violates
almost every management law and rule that I’ve ever learned
in my life for effective leadership. So people don’t want to
work for him.
Enormous damage was done to NASA during his time as Administrator,
which was long, it was like nine years. I think the most damage that
was done was the talent drain that took place under his administration.
Some of it would have occurred naturally, just retirement ages, getting
old and stuff. But a lot of it was just good people saying I’m
not going to work for this idiot. I think if my numbers are correct
when he took over there were like 75 Senior Executive Service at NASA
Headquarters, and within three or four years only about five of them
were left. The rest had gone somewhere else, retired, got kicked out,
Enormous experience and capability disappeared from the agency at
that point. If you look at NASA Headquarters today, there are good
people there. There are dedicated people. But the bench strength,
the uniform quality that I enjoyed as Associate Administrator and
I’m sure other Associate Administrators enjoyed within their
organizations no longer exists. I attribute that to Dan.
He also had these management philosophies that there shouldn’t
be much Headquarters staff. When I left as Associate Administrator
I had 250 civil servants and 250 support service contractors running
the program. Dan took that down to a tiny fraction of that. It has
grown back. But sitting here today—and I know these numbers.
They have 140 civil servants and no support service contractors, and
the program is the same size, and probably increased complexity.
So I don’t think Headquarters can do its job at the moment in
many ways. So much of that is again this legacy of driving people
out of the organization. In my personal case, he and I were destined
not to get along. His insecurities could not deal with the fact that
I’d been there five years by that point, I had a very strong
political base across Washington, that was a threat to him. So he
and I were not going to get along.
Then there was Dan [James Danforth] Quayle’s Space Council,
which I had fought with for many years on various issues like Earth
science—they didn’t like a lot of the things that I was
doing in certain areas, and so I have every reason to think that when
Dan was hired by the Space Council to replace Truly, one of his instructions
was to get rid of me. So it went downhill pretty quick when he came.
I think he came in—I want to say April, May, June of ’92,
something like that. Truly was relieved of his duties in probably
about February. Then of course they had a terrible time finding anybody.
Here you are, the last year of an administration, and no certainty
that President Bush is going to continue—and in fact he didn’t,
[President William J.] Clinton won—and no sane person would
take the job under those circumstances, because the minute you take
the job, if you don’t continue into the next administration—and
you have every reason to think you won’t, because that’s
the tradition—you suddenly have all these postemployment restrictions
on you for having been the NASA Administrator. So you can’t
go back to what you were doing, and you may give up your livelihood
for what could have been a six-month stint as the NASA Administrator.
So I believe again these numbers are accurate, Dan was the sixth choice.
Because a lot of good people turned it down. But he took it, and came
in and started his we’re going to change everything because
everything you guys have done is wrong and bad and all that other
good stuff. We went through a very stormy time.
In I think about October of that year—may have been prior to
the election—Dan reorganized. I was hard to get rid of. I was
too well connected and powerful with congressional support and so
on. So he did what you always do in Washington. You reorganize. So
I was quote promoted end quote into the Chief Scientist position with
no portfolio. The Office of Space Science and Applications was split
into three parts. You had astronomy and the traditional space science,
and you had Earth science separate, and you had the microgravity and
life science split off.
We used codes at that point in NASA. I think they do that less today.
But there was Code S, which was space science, and there was Code
Y, which was Earth science, and Code U was microgravity and life science.
Wes [Wesley T.] Huntress was made the head of space science and Shelby
[G.] Tilford head of Earth science and I’ve forgotten who became
the Code U guy. So it took three people to replace me if you like.
I remember asking Shelby once why he chose Code Y as his code name
for Earth science. He said, “It’s because I can’t
figure out why we’re doing this.”
Obviously I didn’t like that situation. I thought Dan would
leave, he wouldn’t survive the election, and that therefore
I could somehow get my empire back. So I did two things. One, I did
my best to make sure he wasn’t going to get the job—and
he found my footsteps, which only helped our relationship as you might
imagine—and I started looking for other work, because I’m
not foolish enough to think that necessarily the outcome was going
to be either reversible or predictable or whatever.
I was interviewing and talking to the University of Colorado about
a faculty position, and then Michigan discovered that I was movable,
and they came recruiting, and they made a nice offer, and that’s
why I live here.
Dan of course ingratiated himself to the Clinton administration. He
promised them that he could get the Russians involved in the Space
Station, and that would be good for foreign policy. I think also the
Space Station was pretty screwed up at that point still, and wasn’t
going very far. I think the Clinton administration made a simple decision.
If he succeeds at saving this thing, we’ll take credit for it,
and if he fails at doing this we can say well he was just a holdover
from the Bush administration. So he got to stay. He got to stay on
the 16th of March. Some days are embedded in your memories. The reason
that that was significant is that’s when I got the offer from
the University of Michigan. So I could take it more cheerfully than
One of the things that I seriously regret is that I couldn’t
protect the people who worked for me. I had what in my judgment was
the best staff that NASA has ever had in second in commands. Deputies
and Assistant Associate Administrators and so on. They were literally
abused after I left.
[Alphonso V.] Diaz, who became [NASA] Goddard [Spaceflight Center]
Director and eventually Associate Administrator, was a really great
deputy for me. Al managed to make his peace with Dan. So he survived.
Katy [Kathryn S.] Schmoll, who was my comptroller, was parked on the
eighth floor of NASA and said we’re not even going to give you
a computer, just sit there. She went off, and eventually she landed
on her feet. Took her a while. Became the comptroller of the EPA [Environmental
Protection Agency], the whole EPA as opposed to just NASA science,
and then is now the vice president for finance at the University Corporation
for Atmospheric Research out in Colorado. So she landed on her feet.
Joe [Joseph K.] Alexander managed to find some place to go.
But one of the difficulties was Dan’s Carthage-like approach—space
science was a problem for Dan. In Dan’s reasoning the stones
are going to be scattered to the four winds, any vestige of what we
had built would be taken apart. I just was not in a position to protect
people. I was on my way out, and that’s what I had to do.
I was amazed Dan lasted as long as he did at NASA Headquarters. There
was such dissatisfaction in the agency for him as a person and his
leadership styles, but somehow the Clinton administration kept him
on, were satisfied I guess in some sense. Dan I think kept his job
in large part by saying I’ll do it for less. One of the big
tragedies that exists in NASA today is how the budget fared in the
Clinton administration, which had no deficits, instead surpluses.
Nondefense discretionary spending went up at a fairly good clip in
the Clinton administration, and NASA was held flat. If the agency
had simply kept up with what other agencies were doing in terms of
percentage growth of funding, if NASA had kept up with the same percentage
funding growth that other agencies in the government had in the Clinton
administration, we wouldn’t be having the discussions we’re
having today. NASA would have a $23 billion, $25 billion budget. We
would be able to do the things that we want to do and think the nation
needs to be doing.
It mainly is a result of Dan’s having said in all the years
of the Clinton administration in effect keep me in this position and
I won’t ask for any money. The result is an agency that has
been grossly underfunded ever since.
The programs that you put in place, the strategies that you had worked
on, how were those impacted after you left?
Well, some of the things continued, because Wes was able to keep things
going pretty much. The Earth science one was the big casualty. Shelby
didn’t last long either. Basically he couldn’t work for
Dan and Dan didn’t like what we had done on Mission to Planet
Earth because he came through Space Council and they didn’t
like what we had done.
But basically in the mid ’90s someplace, Ghassem [R.] Asrar
is the Associate Administrator for Earth Science. The whole concept
of Earth Observing System was long term observations of the Earth,
15, 20 years of observations. Because changes in the Earth are subtle.
You’re really trying to understand how the processes work. You’re
not going to see it from day to day. That’s weather. You’re
trying to figure out the climate variations in this, and it takes
long term observations to do that. So there were three sets of platforms
built into the Earth Observing System. The first three were put up—they’re
called Aqua and Terra and Aura I think at the moment. We didn’t
call them that. Then they were to be replaced by equivalent systems
to ensure continuity of observations for a long period of time.
NASA said we’re not in the monitoring business. Even though
that’s what’s required to do the science. Along comes
the NPOESS [National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite
System] program. This is one of Al Gore’s constructs; we don’t
need all these different observing systems. The military has its weather
system, NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] has
its weather satellites, and NASA has its climate monitoring systems.
Let’s just all put them together into one big system called
NPOESS. So NASA basically trades off its continuation of the Earth
Observing System to NOAA, and they lost money on it too. I don’t
know that they lost everything. They didn’t lose maybe as much
as they would have had to have spent. But nonetheless it all goes
over to NOAA.
Well, NPOESS, if you follow that story at all, is considered to be
the biggest debacle in the history of any satellite program that the
world has ever had. It didn’t work to put all these different
requirements together. NASA had a very minor role in it. NOAA and
DoD were doing this together. The DoD really had no interest in NASA’s
climate monitoring stuff. They were interested in weather for military
operations. If you were putting together a checklist of how to do
things the wrong way, they hit every one of the items. From management,
how it was managed, how the resources were allocated, how the requirements
were set and so forth.
So the program grew in budget by like a factor of four. It was eventually
Nunn-McCurdy’d, which is that federal law on the DoD side that
says if your budget grows by too much you have to rethink the whole
program, it has to be restructured [Nunn-McCurdy Provision].
The restructuring by the military threw all the climate monitoring
observations off. So at the moment the continuation of the Earth Observing
System is really not there. NASA has a new rebirth in Earth science.
The new [President Barack] Obama administration is putting in money.
But it is so far below what we thought was necessary for the world
to have for a climate monitoring system on which you could base policy
decisions. It’s something, but it isn’t what is required.
It dates back to this confluence of events in the mid ’90s where
NASA got out of the business and NPOESS didn’t work like it
was supposed to and has been descoped out of existence basically.
There is a final chapter in NPOESS—because even having thrown
off the climate monitoring instruments, they couldn’t build
the NPOESS that was supposed to be built. I believe this is correct.
The Air Force and NOAA parted company. There are two big platforms.
It’s called AM and PM. They’re Sun-sync, one is a morning
orbit and one is an afternoon orbit. But I’ve forgotten which
way this goes, but the military got one and NOAA got the other, and
then NOAA came to NASA and said please help us build this thing. So
NASA is now back in the business of doing this thing, but it still
doesn’t have on it the instruments that are necessary for the
continuation of EOS, which is how it started.
When you left the administration post in ’93, you left that
role with NASA, but during the years to follow you were still involved
in of course the science community that impacted some of the work
that was being done. Can you share with us some of the committees
that you were working on? The advisory boards?
Yes. There were a couple things. One is I had a decision to make when
I left NASA, which is did I want to continue in administrative positions,
did I want to go do some senior administration position someplace
doing something. I made a decision that I was going to return to my
research career. Part of that was I was just burned out. I’d
just gone through a year of hell trying to save what I could and get
But part of it was just I’d always wanted to retire as a professor
because no one can tell when you actually stop as a professor. So
you just keep going as long as you want. But it certainly was a risk
on my part when I did that, because I always joke, I was exactly 50
years old when I left NASA Headquarters. So I’m leaving a job
that I liked—at least for the first five years—and I’m
taking a risk that I can start my brain again to do research. Because
it’s so different to do research versus administration at that
level. It wasn’t at all certain—very few people do that.
Usually when you get into administration that’s a one-way trip,
you don’t go back and become a working scientist again. So it
was a big risk.
I used to joke that if I was going to have my midlife crisis it was
going to be right then and there. I’m 50 years old and not sure
what I’m doing in the world. But it had a happy ending. It took
me two years to get back in stride as a theoretical astrophysicist,
which is what I am. Since I’ve been in Michigan—I think
I counted it up—I’ve written more than 100 papers. Many
of them first author. So my little brain got back in stride and did
I had friends who helped fund my activities here. I have a very good
longstanding colleague at the University of Maryland [College Park]
at the time, George [M.] Gloeckler, and he and I had been proposing
together even before I went to NASA. George essentially underwrote
the activities here till I could get on my feet again and start winning
things in the competitive process.
So all that went quite well. I was not basically allowed into NASA
Headquarters all the years that Dan was there. There were bizarre
meetings where I would go. Someone would have me serve on some committee,
very minor committees. I’d walk down the halls of NASA Headquarters,
and my friends would say it’s really good to see you, Len. They’d
be looking to the right and looking to the left, afraid to be talking
to me. They’d say we have to talk sometime. They’d run
off. It was bizarre. Because Goldin was vindictive, there’s
no other way to say it. So I was persona non grata in any advisory
structure in NASA. Until the year he left, which I think is 2002,
something like that.
Within a year of that I was the chairman of the Space Studies Board
of the National Academy. I used to joke that I’d been rehabilitated,
there wasn’t going to be resistance from the Administrator for
playing the advisory role that I can do. So my real advisory role
starts back in 2003 as the chairman of the Space Studies Board for
five years. And on the NASA Advisory Council. Because the chairman
of the Space Studies Board sits on the NASA Advisory Council. But
none of that could have taken place so long as Goldin was in office.
If you like funny stories to add to your notes, I will tell you a
funny Dan Goldin story. Some idiot here at the University of Michigan
invited him to be the commencement speaker in the college of engineering.
Now I had nothing to do with the invitation obviously. But there were
legendary stories about Dan going to universities and not being treated
as he thought he deserved to be treated and those universities losing
their money from NASA. It was very easy to slight him. Things that
normal people would not consider to be slights at all he considered
to be slights. Columbia [University, New York, New York] had a very
bad experience with a Dan visit.
So I know this, and I said to them, “You guys are nuts. You’re
going to have to go out of your way to treat him in a way you have
never treated another commencement speaker before.” So I end
up advising the University of Michigan on the care and feeding of
Dan Goldin. He comes here, and he gives the speech, and he goes away
extremely happy because they treated him so well.
Of course the university then turns around and says, “I don’t
know what you’re talking about, he was the nicest person we’ve
ever had.” I thought Michigan dodged a bullet of first order.
That was about the only time we even ran into each other again. But
the word was clearly out in Headquarters that I was not to play. So
from my point of view I just developed my research career and my science
and there’s a nice little empire here of people doing research.
We hired new faculty. We’re a nice successful group.
I started my own company. I have a company on the other side of town
called Michigan Aerospace. So there are all these activities that
I was doing on the working level, but there was no senior advice.
That situation changes in 2003 when I get to be the Space Studies
Board chair, and the access is back again, and I can exert whatever
influence I can on the crazy world we live in now.
Share with us about those boards. Even your experiences being an Associate
Administrator, how those boards impacted the decisions or some of
the policies that were made. Then of course when you were back in
the circle again after 2003 and how you were able to influence.
Well, the most important boards are the National Academies boards.
The National Research Council [NRC]. There’s a board called
the Space Studies Board. It was formed in 1958. It actually predates
NASA. It is the nation’s number one advisory board for space
science. All of space in fact. There’s a sister board—or
brother board depending on how you do that—called the Aeronautics
and Space Engineering Board which deals with everything else in NASA
besides the science.
They issue reports. For many years if your science mission was not
endorsed by the board, then it was never going to happen. It’s
that kind of influence. The main product of the board is what’s
called the decadal study. It started with the astronomers, and now
it’s used by all the other communities as well. Basically it’s
a decade long plan of what that science discipline should do which
is a community consensus. It’s a huge effort involving hundreds
of scientists to write each one of these decadals.
It’s not just NASA that listens. Congress listens. Congress
will not deal with a NASA program in science that does not have the
backing of the Space Studies Board or these decadal studies. In fact
in the authorization bill just going through one of the houses there’s
actually language in it that says NASA should endeavor to follow the
recommendations of the decadal surveys.
So that committee is very influential. For most of NASA’s history
it dealt mainly with strategy. NASA had a wonderful internal advisory
structure of its own which dealt with the implementation and the tactics.
So there was a very clear demarcation between what the board was doing,
which was long term strategy, and what the NASA internal advisory
committees were doing, which were to manage the program.
In fact we used to joke that there was a career path in NASA. A young
scientist starts on what’s called the MOWG, a Management Operations
Working Group. It’s an unofficial committee, but it advises
at the branch level within NASA Headquarters. Then there was an advisory
committee which included the chairs of all the MOWGs which advised
the division director. Then there was a committee that advised the
Associate Administrator which had the chairs of all the divisions,
in addition to other people, on it. Then there’s the NASA Advisory
Council, where the chairs of the Associate Administrators’ advisory
committees, all Associate Administrators if they have such committees,
serve. So there was this tremendous opportunity for flow of information
through these advisory committees.
It was one of the best well oiled systems in the government because
not only was there a flow of information with the advisory committees,
but it was possible for the lower levels to make sure that what they
wanted was going to be heard by the next level up of management, because
basically they would be dealing with their advisory committee, their
advisory committee plugs into the next level above it. So there was
a real opportunity for flow of information laterally, vertically,
This system existed up until Mike [Michael D.] Griffin. Mike Griffin
becomes the Administrator and he unplugs the entire NASA internal
advisory structure. He leaves basically only the NASA Advisory Council
and some subcommittees which sort of are supposed to help, but they’re
unplugged. That whole process of the flow of information Mike makes
It’s a tremendous loss. One of the things that the Space Studies
Board had to do when I was chair was to try and compensate for that.
So we got ourselves more into tactical issues than historically had
been the case because of the vacuum on the NASA side of the advisory
structure. So we had a very busy five years because it was not just
a matter of doing our usual strategy sessions. It was actually trying
to influence how the program was being run almost at a day-to-day
There’s some restoration going on under Bolden, but it’s
going to be really hard to reproduce that. It’s again a loss,
because it worked for 40 years very effectively. The Space Studies
Board starts in 1958 and NASA has got advisory structures on its own
side and if you read the interesting history of the Space Studies
Board, at their first meeting they decided that they the Space Studies
Board would choose the payloads for the first NASA science mission.
So they send out an RFP [request for proposal] and people propose.
NASA says excuse me. You’re advisory. We’re the government.
If government money is going to be spent we are going to decide—so
there’s this waltzing around that takes place in the beginning.
But within a few years it settles down to this well oiled system of
internal advisory committees and external advisory committees, which
are independent. The Space Studies Board and academy is completely
independent of NASA. NASA funds it but they’re not allowed to
choose the members. They’re not allowed to see the reports until
they’re out. That independence makes it possible for Congress
to look at that as really valuable advice. Then NASA had its own advisory
structure. Everybody knew what they were doing until Mike comes along
and pulls the plug.
I think again this is damage that has been done now. You ask why does
NASA not work as well as it should work, well, you got a Headquarters
staff which is too small, you had a big talent drain in the ’90s
and so forth, people that really would have been very helpful to have
around, or at least to have a smooth transition to new people. You
have no internal advisory structures, or at least a limited one. It’s
better than it was when Mike left, but still it hasn’t been
really restructured in any way. You say gee, now you know why it doesn’t
You’ve been in the position numerous times; I think we roughly
counted about 30 plus times that you’ve been in front of Congress
providing testimony. Share those experiences and what were some of
the points that you tried to make. Are there points that you’ve
tried to make throughout the years that tend to be continual?
I think there’s so many variations on that. Testimony is always
in some ways the current event at the time. Obviously when I was in
NASA I was selling my program. Showing what we wanted to do. Afterwards
when I was on the Space Studies Board we were often invited in to
comment on the President’s budget or issues like that. Especially
if it was appropriations. We’re talking about the money and
making recommendations. Of course some of those were also the Hubble
hearings when I was being beaten up.
Again if you like amusing stories, one of my favorite Hubble hearings
was with Al Gore. My staff used to claim that I—or I used to
claim I had a strain at the back of my throat that kept bad comments
from bubbling up. One day it slipped. Because we were having this
dialogue. How much did Hubble cost. I think I told them it was $1.4
billion or whatever the number was. He said, “No, it’s
$1.5 billion.” So we went around about that for a while.
I said, “Well, what’s $100 million among friends?”
It ended up on CBS News that night as the NASA Administrator that
doesn’t even think $100 million is a significant number. So
you get those kinds of events.
There were also a lot of private hearings that you don’t see.
Alan [B.] Mollohan, who was the chairman of the Appropriations Committee—he
lost his primary I see recently—from West Virginia. He and I
knew each other for a long time. So when I became chair of the Space
Studies Board we would have a couple-hour just private one-on-one
meetings discussing what the board thought were the important issues
that NASA should be dealing with in the budget. So there was a lot
of opportunity to do congressional interactions.
The board is a wonderful position. You have a platform on which to
stand. If I were to try to do that today—I have testified since
I stepped down as being chair, because people deal with me, they know
who I am and they ask for my opinion. But I don’t have the same
platform on which to do this.
There was a Mollohan hearing a couple years ago. I think it was when
Chris [Christopher J.] Scolese was Acting Administrator before Charlie
came on board. Nobody was testifying before Congress from NASA at
that point. Mollohan had this hearing in which I was there to talk
about things in general. But I don’t represent NASA, I didn’t
even represent the board at that point.
But I was the first person they had seen who had anything to do with
NASA. So they started asking me questions as if I was the NASA Administrator
practically. What did I think about funding for aeronautics? Something
like that. I said, “I’m not here to talk about that. It’s
not my thing.” At which point I got some lecture from a congressman
about how aeronautics was underfunded.
I thought well if I’m going to get yelled at for not answering
the questions, I’ll just answer the questions. So we went through
this hearing. I answered questions on—I called Chris afterwards
and I said, “Sorry if I’ve done this to you. But I answered
questions on what should be the overhead rates at Centers, how the
public affairs should be. I just was having a merry old time answering
whatever they were asking. They were happy with my answers. I thought
if you guys aren’t bright enough to realize that I don’t
represent anybody’s official position I’m going to tell
you what I think.” I just found it just amusing to effectively
play Administrator without portfolio I guess is the way to say it.
I think actually Chris on that day was testifying before a House authorization
committee on something really minor. I’m on the other side on
the appropriations side, testifying on all the issues of importance
to NASA, as if I was in charge of something.
I like congressional hearings. They’re usually fun. There’s
nothing intimidating about them at this point. You can get into an
interesting discussion with them, you don’t read the statements,
you summarize your statement. Then they ask questions. You try to
answer the questions and in some ways that get them in a dialogue.
That makes it more interesting.
The worst kind are the ones where there’s a panel. You’re
just part of a panel. Sometimes you’re embarrassed to be seen
on the panel with some of the people that they put on the panel with
you. The ones I much prefer is if somebody just lets me be there by
myself. But that of course happens rarer and rarer these days because
I don’t have a platform from which to testify.
You did mention that you just recently talked to Congress about the
reauthorization for the funding for NASA.
I signed on to a letter that went out.
Maybe that’s what I’m thinking of.
That was a big debate on my part because there were parts of the letter
that I was very strongly in support of and parts of the letter that
I was not strongly in support of. It’s always a difficulty.
Somebody presents you with a letter that you didn’t write yourself.
There’s no chance to change it, you’re just being asked
to sign on to it. There was more in it that I liked than I didn’t
like. After going a few rounds with the authors, I decided to sign
on. The good news of that was they had something like seven Nobel
laureates as the first signature. So no one has noticed that I’ve
actually signed on to that letter. At least nobody that I think matters
has noticed that I signed on to that. But I still do that sort of
I don’t like to do it that way because as I say you always end
up with these letters where you’re saying well I really think
this is wrong, this is not right. But 75 percent of the letter I agree
with. You’re not allowed to file a minority position. They’re
looking for signatures on these things.
Can’t initial it.
That’s right. Can’t initial these things. So I turned
it down twice. There was a certain pleading. I joined the crowd. I
did, but as I said, there were parts of it that I just wish I hadn’t—I
don’t want to be necessarily associated with it. But there’s
more that I was happy to be associated with.
You were able to spend time as an administrator. You’ve also
spent time as a PI [principal investigator] as part of the Space Studies
Board. Where do you feel that you’ve been able to contribute
the most to the field of space science?
That’s a toughie because I guess I’m blessed in some regards.
I obviously can be an administrator. Aside from what Dan Goldin thought,
I think I was a successful Associate Administrator and did a lot of
good things for the science program. As a scientist, I’m a member
of the National Academy of Sciences. I’m elected not because
I had an administrative position. In fact it was interesting. I was
probably eligible for membership in the academy long before I was
actually elected. But when you go to NASA Headquarters as an Associate
Administrator your science colleagues think your IQ drops by 20 to
30 points. You have to do a lot of proving that you are back to being
a scientist again, because you get only negative credit in the National
Academy for having been an administrator of any kind.
It’s all based on your scientific credentials. So that’s
validation of the science portion of my life. I’m not in a very
large field of science. So the impact that I have is I think fairly
major, but it’s contained. If you ask what have I contributed
to space science as a whole. Well, then you have to go to the administrative
positions or the advisory positions, because that affects science
as a whole.
I’m satisfied with my career, as you might hear from this, just
because I’ve been able to play on a bunch of different fronts
in a way that not everybody has been able to do. A lot of people are
very good administrators but their science careers are long behind
them and now forgotten. So this idea of being able to play on both
sides of that issue with practicing science and administrative and
advisory roles has been a satisfying event for me.
Describe your management style and your strategy in being able to
achieve your goals when you were administrator.
I have a few simple things. One is I like to have a strategy. I like
to know what we’re doing, and communicate that to people.
One is I like to have visibility into what people are doing but not
control it. I think my job is to make it possible for the people who
work for me to do their job. I used to say that one of the requirements
of being Associate Administrator is you have to be the calmest person
in the room. So if there’s any problems you are supposed to
be the calmest person.
You insist upon hearing about problems in your organizations from
the inside rather than from the outside. Never shoot the messenger.
You want people to come and tell you what’s going on. Problems
will always happen. Technical organizations are always having problems.
You do not want to be surprised by something or to hear about it from
outside the organization. I used to tell my staff the only time you’ll
ever see me mad is if I hear something from outside the organization
that you guys knew and you didn’t tell me.
Then you try and surround yourself with the best possible people.
When we talk about Goldin—I mentioned he violated all those
rules. He violated all those rules. Dan could not stand bad news.
The worst thing that you could do to him to drive him around the bend
was in a staff meeting report a problem. You’d get yelled at
in a way that was unpleasant. It was very funny. First few staff meetings—the
NASA Administrator has staff meetings. All the Associate Administrators,
Assistant Administrators sit around, about 25 people in the room.
You go around the table. Within a week, all of us except one guy learned
that we had no bad news. Whatever it was, we had no bad news. One
poor guy ran the small business thing, every week would report something
that was bad and get yelled at. We’d say you’re just not
very bright. The rest of us are learning this is not the what you
do. But that’s so wrong. Because how do you know what’s
going on in your organization to help your people solve problems if
you don’t hear about them. That’s the kind of management
style that drove us crazy with Dan.
I have a suspicion—although there’s no way this ever would
be proven—that that kind of attitude goes down through the whole
organization sooner or later. It’s not just the top of the organization
that feels that kind of management style. Don’t tell me any
bad news management style. You wonder sometimes. Things like the Columbia
accident where the management structure was once again not recognizing
some technical event that somebody realized was going to be a problem
with the hitting of the foam, and not being willing to deal with that
bad news. How much of that is the residual of the attitude at the
top permeating down through the organization? No way to tell. But
it’s bad management.
I think people liked to work for me because I never yelled. I was
really receptive to trying to help. If they had a problem, I want
to hear about the problem, how can I help. That’s an organization
that runs well and is cheerful. Most of us came to work cheerful in
the morning. We really were looking forward to seeing each other and
working together on problems. Problems all over the place. We were
under siege at times. But somehow there was an important camaraderie
in the organization. I don’t think people like to go to work
at NASA Headquarters today. What I hear from the staff, there just
isn’t that same sense of cohesion and purpose and leadership.
There are some good people that are trying to do good things, but
so much of that has been lost by people that maybe don’t know
how to manage things.
Back for a moment for the advisory committee that you were working
on during the time that the vision for space exploration was announced.
How did you feel that science was going to be handled as part of that
major program that was being proposed?
Well, it’s an interesting story. After the Columbia accident
it was obvious that NASA needed a mission, especially in human spaceflight.
It wasn’t worth dying for to go up and down to the Space Station.
I think it was the CAIB said that as well. So as the chairman of the
Space Studies Board I thought well why don’t we get involved
in this act, why don’t we find out, make recommendations on
what the nation’s space policy should be. So we held a workshop
in November of 2003 which brought together about 50 or 70 of the nation’s
leading people in space, not just space science. These were generals
and industrial people and scientists and so forth. We held this workshop
to write our own vision statement.
It’s really interesting. The Academy moves at a glacial pace
to put anything out. But we brought that document out on the morning
of President Bush’s speech in 2004 announcing the vision. There’s
a great deal of similarity. So the initial reaction was great, this
is good, we like the Vision.
What we did not realize at that time in 2004, January 14th or whatever
the date of the famous speech is, is how literal NASA was going to
take that document. I joke that I think the Bush administration had
some real religious conservatives in it. They were used to interpreting
the Gospels according to rigorous literal interpretations. So NASA
looked at that document and said well, the President told us to do
this, that and the other thing. But in the science area there’s
no mention of the Earth. So Earth science is obviously not a priority.
The Sun isn’t there either for that matter in the document,
so we’re going to leave the Sun out. Most of the universe isn’t
in that document. There’s search for earthlike planets around
other stars as a priority. But the structure of the universe, which
is eventually the big thing today, dark energy, dark matter, that
wasn’t mentioned at all.
So NASA within about two weeks after the Bush speech the 2005 budget
comes out. They create this sand chart showing how the programs are
supposed to be funded. They have exploration science in the chart,
which is all the science which is literally mentioned in the President’s
speech—or in the policy itself, the NSPD [National Space Policy
Directive] that came out. Down at the bottom of this chart is other
science and aeronautics. It is clearly NASA’s now lowest priority.
So they bifurcate the science program into the haves and the have-nots.
You guys are exploration science, the President has blessed you. Mars,
all that stuff. The rest of science is just to be put on a starvation
diet for the rest of time.
One of the things the science program has always done in the history
of the agency is to have some sort of balance among the disciplines,
the idea being that every discipline should in fact be able to be
funded well enough to make reasonable progress. We don’t try
and distinguish between astrophysics, planetary, space plasma physics,
and Earth science. Earth science got an extra kick to save the Earth,
but nonetheless there is this nominal balance. Balance was an unacceptable
word in NASA, because the President had said do this, and he didn’t
say do that, and therefore no balance is possible.
So our enthusiasm for the vision went south within two weeks of its—and
unnecessarily so. You could put emphasis on things that were directly
in support of the vision. But to relegate half of the space science
program to other science of no importance basically was just politically
stupid. You could have faked us out. But to make it so clear that
these things were not going to be supported was a dumb idea.
So then through the spring of that year you had the Aldridge Commission,
and the Space Studies Board went to the ramparts and said this has
got to change. We’ve got to fix this program and get balance
back in, treat the science disciplines all as being important to the
space program. Some of the exclusions were a really stupid decision
when you think about it. If you want to do human spaceflight outside
the Earth’s magnetosphere, radiation is your biggest concern.
Well, where does the radiation come from that you’re really
concerned about? The Sun. So there were science disciplines which
were essential for human spaceflight in the vision but they are relegated
down to the bottom of the heap there. So the [Edward C.] Aldridge
[Jr.] Commission [President's Commission on Implementation of United
States Space Exploration Policy] did a better job by it, showing that
there was to be balance in the program. When Griffin came in he made
a point of restoring the balance. He took the money out for other
things, but he did it in an—what’s the term?
Equitable way, at least everybody suffered. But one of the downsides
of the vision as it was initially constructed was eliminated. The
main problem has just been there was never enough money to do the
vision in the Bush administration or at any time. So Mike in particular
took this engineering approach to life and said, “President
told me to go to the Moon, what do I need? I need a rocket. That’s
my number one priority. Can’t go to the Moon if we don’t
have a rocket. It’s on the critical path. So therefore I will
sacrifice the rest of the agency to build my rocket.” There
is a tremendous amount of damage that has occurred.
Life science and microgravity is the biggest single casualty. They
ended up in the exploration division after all these various reorganizations,
and then they ended up being the bank to support the rocket. So there
really is today no use of the Space Station, despite the fact that
we’re continuing it—or no meaningful use. It’s not
that we don’t use it. But the kinds of experiments that we envisioned
way back when when the Station was being built, microgravity and life
science are just not there. The racks are empty. The community was
There was an event about I think in 2007 if I remember correctly where
NASA summarily canceled all the extramural grants in microgravity
and many of them in life science. They in one fell swoop laid off
500 postdocs [postdoctoral students], graduate students and undergraduates
who were participating in that program. It goes back to that point
I made earlier, which is that community doesn’t naturally want
to work with NASA. They have to be lured out of the other things that
they can do. They’re not coming back. They were hurt by this.
We were hurt here in Michigan. It’s not my program, it’s
not my department, but there was a grant here, a cooperative agreement
that they won with NASA, which was supposed to be to essentially engage
the full medical school of the University of Michigan—which
is world-famous—in helping NASA with long duration spaceflight
issues. They were supposed to get 3 million bucks a year to do that.
They never got more than $1 million, and the faculty did all the right
things. They put the money all in the students. They didn’t
take any of it for themselves. NASA fired them all. Those guys are
not going to play again.
That sort of shortsighted decisions about how to interact with science
communities is really sad to watch, because I don’t think the
leadership of the agency at the time understood what they were doing.
Mike Griffin, whom I’ve known for many years, he was an Associate
Administrator when I was there, basically in his judgment scientists
were just contractors, you turn them on, you turn them off. That’s
what you do with aerospace guys. They can go to work doing something
else. Their company will bid NASA programs, and they’ll come
back if you need them I guess. Science doesn’t work like that.
Particularly in life science and microgravity.
If you’re an X-ray astronomer, you don’t have any choice
but to play with NASA, because you can’t do X-ray astronomy
except from space. If you’re a life scientist, you’re
a microgravity scientist, you have so many other opportunities in
this nation to do your research. Space interests you, but not if you’re
going to be abused. So I think that is going to be the biggest single
problem in any effective use of the Space Station or if anybody’s
really serious about long duration spaceflight, how it is that we’re
going to have the scientific knowledge to be able to do that, because
we just kicked the good guys out one more time.
What types of involvement do you have with the agency now?
I have an active research program. So I have my little grants, write
my equations on the blackboard. Good theory by the way. I founded
a group here. I’m not running it at the moment. I hired a young
professor here named Thomas [H.] Zurbuchen who has been just a whiz,
and he is now a full professor, and he runs the show. He’s a
hardware guy, and so we have hardware that we try to do with NASA.
In terms of the advisory roles, now it’s pretty informal. I’m
on one of these decadals. I serve on NRC committees. I was the vice
chair of Les [Lester L.] Lyles’s America’s Future in Space
committee, which I think was very important. It may have been coincidence
but there’s a lot of President Obama’s new plans for NASA
which overlap in significant ways with the advice that the academy,
the NRC gave in that America’s Future in Space report. There’s
some things in there we didn’t think about too. But nonetheless
there’s synergism there.
I occasionally do other studies with the Academy. But a lot of it
is just informal. My Rolodex is still there if I want to use it. I’m
entering into a phase I think now where I’m trying to give advice
if asked, not trying to steer the boat. I think that’s probably
better. I think that’s appropriate for where I am in the world
and what involvement I’m going to have going forward. I’m
67 now. Brain still works, I’m still happy doing this, but at
some point—all the things that are happening in the space program
now that are not happening immediately, new things that are happening,
I will not personally participate in. They don’t affect me in
that sense. So I really think it’s important that a lot of the
advice on what to do comes from the people that are most likely to
be affected by it, because they’re charting their own future.
I can give advice on what not to do and what to do based on all my
experience. But in terms of structuring a new program and going forward
with things, in large measure it really should be the people that
will be able to execute that, will have to execute the program.
One way that you’re lending your experience is that you mentioned
you’re teaching a class here on space policy. What are some
of the lessons learned or some of the insights that you share with
Oh, I tell all the war stories. It’s a fascinating class actually.
We have a program here called master of engineering in space systems.
It’s basically a terminal degree. People take this degree and
then they go work in the aerospace industry. They’re very popular.
The students are getting good jobs, even in this economy. So the program
is very successful. About seven years ago—I used to be chair
here of the department. When I stepped down from chair, I was looking
for things to put my talent into. We decided that one of the things
that would be very useful in that program was to tell people how the
space policy of the United States developed and where it is likely
to go. Because they’re going to have careers and they should
be able to plan their careers about the way things are likely to develop.
Given the experience base that I have in Washington, I know how the
government manages big flight programs and how it procures them, how
RFPs are written, what are the tricks that you look for in an RFP
and so on. I’m probably unique among professors in the world
for being able to teach that sort of stuff to this kind of students,
because otherwise they’d just go to a company, and the company
would have to teach them—they’d learn by osmosis in the
company. So we put this class together, which is 60 percent space
policy and 40 percent management. It started with a handful of students,
and my class is now up to 60 graduate students, which is an enormous
load. Fortunately this year I decided to have a grader so I don’t
have to do it all myself. But I really try and tell them what I think
is going to happen—to some extent occasionally I think I discourage
them. They have this positive image of things, which is not founded
in fact. But I try and introduce reality to them. The policy part
is just general fun. Tell stories—we go through the history
of the space program, where it is today, where it is going.
The class always has a project, in fact two projects. It’s hard.
You can’t give tests in this kind of class. What would you test?
So there’s a project. There’s a policy project and a management
project. The policy project this year is you imagine that you are
a senior government official with influence in the current administration.
You look over and you see how badly NASA did—or the administration
did—rolling out the new changes in the human spaceflight at
NASA. You tell them what they did wrong and what they should have
done. What’s the plan, what’s the policy. Given where
they are now with how badly this has been accepted and is going forward,
what should they do? So it should be an interesting project. It gives
them experience in thinking about how the government really works.
Because certainly the rollout of NASA’s new human spaceflight
plan has been very poor. A lot of congressional backlash, a lot of
changes being made to it. Some of which I suspect are not workable.
So there’s a great deal of uncertainty about this thing.
It was introduced in my judgment by how they did it. I think they
could have done it—some grown-ups in the pile here someplace
could have rolled out that plan out in such a way that people accepted
it more than it got in its initial reaction and they dug a big hole
which they can’t seem to get out of now. Let the kids think
about this and see what happens. But that’s the nature of the
The project for management is we run a full selection. I take a DARPA
[Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] Broad Area Announcement,
which requires a 15-page proposal for some technical system. They
form proposing teams. They propose. Then I reconfigure them in selecting
teams, and they select their fellow student proposals. It always amuses
me because at the end of it there’s always someone who complains
well you didn’t read my proposal or you didn’t understand
what I was talking about, and you should do something about that,
because that’s not fair.
I said, “That’s what this exercise was about. The world
is not fair out there. You’re getting real life experience in
how it is that you’re going to be treated when you’re
submitting your proposals from the industrial side.”
That sounds a very neat challenge for them. As our time is starting
to close, what do you consider to be probably the biggest challenge
that you’ve had to encounter in your years of working in the
space science field?
Oh, I suspect—in the science portion or the administrative side?
Well, on the administrative side, certainly the Hubble was the one
that required whatever skill I had to bail out the agency. That was
the biggest management—it wasn’t a management challenge,
it was just a challenge. Because we were in such a deep hole. Of course
it had a happy ending, and everybody thinks Hubble is a wonderful
success and America’s telescope and all that stuff. Only a few
people remember the beginning. So that’s the ultimate success
On the science side, the good news is I’m a theorist that creates
explanations for—what I really prefer is for new phenomena.
Fortunately about every five years somebody measures something that’s
new and I jump in and offer an explanation, many of which seem to
have been right. So that’s why the science has been good. There
is a challenge that all theoreticians face at this point in their
life, which is when do you realize that you’re not as good as
you used to be, and do you retire with dignity before you embarrass
yourself, and do you count on your colleagues to tell you that you’re
not what you used to be. It happens. Theoretical physics is not something
you get to do for your whole life usually. So you have to be careful
to know when to retire from the stage. Can’t bring myself to
do that yet, but I’m not sure I’m not skating near the
edge here of when it’s going to start, when it’s not going
to be as good as it was.
Well, I guess a good thing for you is there always will be unknowns
to theorize on.
Whether I guess right the next time, that’s a good challenge.
I was going to ask Jennifer. Did you have any questions or any thoughts
for Dr. Fisk?
I have one question. But I don’t know. It may be a simple question
or it may be a very long answer. Were you involved at all in the decision
to get rid of the Centaur for planetary missions?
No, that predated me. It of course was a major problem, because both
Galileo and Ulysses were scheduled to launch on the Shuttle, with
the Centaur in the Shuttle bay. But I only know the stories. The astronauts
referred to it as Death Star 1 and Death Star 2 or something like
that, because you have this big liquid thing in the Shuttle bay. I
guess its demise was inevitable after Challenger which just reminded
you of how dangerous the Shuttle is. But the main event was just what
do we do. It had no impact on Ulysses because it was a light spacecraft.
So it was replaced by the IUS [inertial upper stage] I think, a solid
rocket motor, to launch. Galileo of course was a heavy spacecraft,
and it had to go to Venus twice and once around the Earth to build
up speed before it went to Jupiter. Of course the problem with Galileo
was the antenna didn’t come out. They couldn’t unfurl
the antenna immediately after launch because they were going to Venus.
The antenna was a mesh that was going to get too hot. So they left
it furled until it was on its way to Jupiter, or I guess coming back
to the Earth to be able to go on to Jupiter, and swing by, and they
tried to open it up, and it didn’t open up. So Galileo was communication-limited
for its entire life. A lot of that was the result of all these extra
maneuvers that had to take place because of the Centaur’s not
Every now and then you wonder about technical decisions somebody made.
In the case of that antenna, the screw mechanism that opened it up
only went one direction, because they assumed it was a simple open.
If they had just put a reverse on it so you could have jiggled the
thing, it would have not been a problem. Somebody made a decision
that that wasn’t going to be necessary, we’re going to
just open that antenna up. So that’s the only real involvement
I had with Centaur.
As the Shuttle program is closing down, we’re actually gathering
a lot of Space Shuttle history. I’m wondering what impact did
Shuttle have on space science?
Oh, it’s like any mixed story. Certainly the decision that the
agency made early in the ’80s that everything had to fly on
the Shuttle, all payloads, in fact the nation’s payloads, that
was the decision that was really bad for space science. There were
a lot of missions that were put on it that really didn’t belong
on Shuttle. They belonged on an expendable launch vehicle of course.
Ulysses being the obvious case, that’s a normal interplanetary
mission. Fire the thing off the top of a rocket.
Then the delays in the development of the Shuttle in the early ’80s
followed by the Challenger accident essentially produced this huge
backlog of missions that were just sitting around. I think I mentioned
to you yesterday it cost $2 billion approximately for space science
to have its missions sitting on the ground waiting for the Shuttle.
That was my estimate at the time. We couldn’t do new things
because we had to babysit all these other missions on the ground.
So that’s the downside of the Shuttle. The upside is Hubble
Space Telescope. That would have been a national debacle never to
be forgotten if there was no way to fix it. The astronauts used the
Shuttle to go fix it. Of course all the microgravity and life science
experiments, the Skylab experiments, that whole field was completely
dependent upon their being a Shuttle-like vehicle available too.
I think personally the Shuttle is an amazing vehicle. You think about
what it did, what its capabilities were. In some ways it was always
a victim of the way it was sold. It was sold as it’s going to
be cheap, it’s going to be frequent, it’s going to be
a shirtsleeve environment. It’s going to just be this wonderful
truck. In effect to launch all the payloads of the United States.
That was just a bad bad choice. Now maybe that’s the only way
it could ever have been developed. You make those kinds of decisions.
You overpromise things. You overpromise things in the Space Station.
NASA has a history of overpromising things to get them sold and then
not being able to deliver for the money involved. But if you just
stand back and say wow, that was really a technological achievement,
it really really is and was. If it could only have been possible to
be a research vehicle that eventually evolved into something that
might have been operational, that would have been a better deal, rather
than saying it is going to be operational. Considering that it was
always going to be dangerous, it was always going to be a labor-intensive
thing to launch. It’s like 5,000 people involved in every launch.
What’s the story? If you launched the Shuttle with an empty
bay and discovered gold in space and you filled it up with gold and
brought it back would you make money? I believe the answer is no.
The cost of launching it is so high. But that doesn’t detract
in my mind from its technological achievement.
Are there any other subjects or topics that you had wanted us to talk
Drained my tap.
Thank you for giving us up your morning, and all the great information
that you offered today too.