NASA at 50 Oral History
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Washington, DC – 20 March 2007
Wright: Today is March 20th, 2007. We
are at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., to speak with Rex Geveden,
NASA’s Associate Administrator, for the NASA at 50 Oral History
Project. The interviewer is Rebecca Wright, with Sandra Johnson and
NASA Chief Historian, Dr. Steve Dick. In preparation for the space
agency’s fiftieth anniversary, the NASA Headquarters History
Office commissioned this oral history project to gather thoughts,
experiences, and reflections from NASA’s top managers. The information
recorded today will be transcribed and then placed in the History
Archives here at NASA Headquarters, where it can be accessed for future
Can I answer any questions before we begin?
Geveden: I think I’m ready.
Wright: Okay. Well, thank you again
for allowing us this time.
We know that you’re responsible for all the technical operations
of the space agency and work directly with NASA Administrator Michael
[D.] Griffin to help develop strategy and policy. Also you have direct
oversight of all the NASA programs and field Centers. We’d like
for you to begin the day by briefly describing your duties and telling
us how you came to your current position.
Geveden: Okay. Let’s see here.
Maybe it’s best to start with a discussion about this particular
position, the Associate Administrator [AA]. This is a position that
is actually kind of newly reconstituted in NASA. Griffin brought back
the idea of an AA for everything, if you will; AA for nothing, AA
for everything. This last existed, I believe, in about 1972 or ’73,
last occupied by, I believe Rocco [A.] Petrone. Steve might know.
But it was featured prominently in the [James E.] Webb administration
Griffin had a couple of things in mind when he created the position.
One was he wanted to have someone in the agency functioning more or
less as a Chief Operating Officer who was concentrating on the down-and-in
business of the agency. So to that end you see the Mission Directors,
the Field Center Directors, and the technical components of Headquarters,
Chief Engineer, Safety and Mission Assurance, PA&E [Program Analysis
and Evaluation], reporting through me to the Administrator.
So I’ve kind of got my eyes on the whole technical portfolio
of the agency. That’s really one motivation for having recreated
the AA position. Of course, when you do that, when you have a down-and-in
Chief Operating Officer concept, then the Administrator and the Deputy
can go and do a lot of the up-and-out functions, international partners,
Capitol Hill, the White House, and major industry components and all
that kind of thing.
Now, the second reason, the second motivation behind recreating the
position, was that those two positions, the Administrator and the
Deputy, are presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed positions,
and therefore political; and typical for those positions to change
out with new presidential administrations. The idea here was to have
organizational continuity from one administration to the next by having
this AA position. So I’m sitting in a position that’s
the top nonpolitical in NASA. I came into it about eighteen months
ago, actually, which is the longest I’ve held a job in the last
decade or so.
Now, how did I come into this job? I spent six years in industry before
coming to NASA in 1990, and I had sort of a typical career progression
for an executive. I started as an engineer, worked my way into project
and program management ultimately, and had a long association with
a relatively famous flight program called Gravity Probe B, which flew
in 2004 and tested aspects of [Albert] Einstein’s theory of
general relativity. It was a long, long, complicated program, and
it had a lot of interesting reputation to it, very challenging science
I eventually became the Deputy Director for the Science Mission Directorate
in Huntsville [Alabama] at the [NASA] Marshall Space Flight Center.
From there, about a year later I became the Deputy Director of the
Space Flight Center of Marshall, which is the fire and smoke Center
of the agency, among other things.
I was in that position for about a year when [Sean] O’Keefe,
the former Administrator, asked me to come to Headquarters and become
the NASA Chief Engineer, against my will. I was in that position for
about seven, eight months when Griffin asked me to come up and become
the Acting AA, and I was Acting for three, four months, and then was
made permanent in August 2005, I think. So that’s the sort of
tortuous path I followed on my way here.
Wright: You mentioned that you started
with NASA in 1990. Could you share with us how NASA has changed over
the time, from that time to where you are now?
Geveden: Sure. Sure, and I assume I
can be frank here. [Laughs] The NASA that I came into was headed by
Dick [Richard H.] Truly, and Truly was—well, of course, he was
kind of a transitional figure at that time. It was right before [Daniel
S.] Goldin came in. I believe that Truly was the first insider to
ever run the agency, maybe with the exception of [T. Keith] Glennan,
who was sort of an insider with NACA [National Advisory Committee
for Aeronautics]; but Truly, of course, having been an astronaut and
having a military career. Truly wasn’t there for very long,
so I don’t have much of an impression of him.
My first really strong impressions are of Goldin as the Administrator,
and of course, he did that job for nearly ten years. My view of Goldin
was that when he came in he was viewed as a welcome reformer. He brought
a lot of energy and a lot of creativity to the agency, and I think
his view was the agency had become a sort of complacent bureaucracy,
and I think he was right. He brought the faster, better, cheaper reforms.
He downsized Headquarters. He created the Lead Center concept; did
a lot of stuff there that early on was, in my view as a newcomer to
the agency, were welcome initiatives.
On the other hand, over the course of ten years I think he came to
be seen as something of a terror. He was very sort of capricious in
his outlook. He changed his interests from day to day. I think we
never knew where we were, whether we were going to focus on aeronautics
or on astrobiology or on propulsion or whatever. So I think the agency
felt very adrift at that time and very insecure because of Goldin,
his personality, and how the agency was run.
I think morale was very poor for most of that administration, seven,
eight years, and I think for two reasons. One was the leadership was
seen as unstable and dangerous and also because the agency did not
have a clear mission, and people knew it and people talked about it
all during that period, but it was very unlike the Apollo period,
in which we had a focused mission. I’m telling you nothing new,
but we didn’t have a clear mission.
Contrast that to today. In today’s environment we have an Administrator
who I would say is easily the technically most competent Administrator
this agency’s ever had, somebody who’s got a clear idea
strategically where to go and articulated that direction very early
on, in fact, in his Senate confirmation hearings, articulated the
six strategic goals for the agency. Those made their way into our
strategic plan, and of course, they follow from the President’s
[George W. Bush] Vision for Space Exploration.
So where are we today? I think where we are is we have clear strategic
direction. I think most people believe that, even though there is
transitional pain, that we know where we wish to go. I think they
also believe that, in the case of the Administrator—I won’t
judge myself—but in the case of the Administrator, they believe
that we have competent leadership to get there. So I think that the
sort of the morale, the organizational health, the culture, is in
a better state than it’s been in for a long time from my knot
hole, and I think people see us as making progress toward a very clear
Wright: Would you share with us—you
mentioned about a very clear strategic vision. Tell us about how you
will be moving your vision through all of the area that you’re
in charge of. Tell us about that vision.
Geveden: Okay. Well, there were six
strategic goals spelled out in our 2006 Strategic Plan. If it’s
useful, I can go through some of those, or not, depending on what
you think is valuable. But sort of in a nutshell, those were around
completing the International Space Station; getting off the Shuttle
by 2010; developing a new Crew Exploration Vehicle [CEV], which would
be the follow-on to that one; having a balanced portfolio in aeronautics
and science; creating a lunar return program with applicability to
the Mars Program. Exploiting commercial capability was one of the
six, and I’m forgetting what the sixth was, but that’s
sort of a basic view of it. Very strongly oriented around our exploration
and our human space flight goals, with emphasis on balance in the
rest of the portfolio.
My role in this job is basically the implementation of that entire
strategy. I’ve talked a lot around the agency about what I call
the NASA game plan, which is our implementation strategy for the strategic
goals that I just articulated. In fact, I talked to a group about
this last night. If you think of the game plan as the set of implementing
strategies, and then the game that we’re playing are those six
strategic goals, return to the Moon, complete the Station, have a
balanced portfolio of science and aeronautics, and so on.
So I focus on implementing those. I don’t focus on developing
strategy. That’s the Administrator’s job, with the White
House. My goal is to make sure those are implemented, and I do that
in a lot of different ways, and I could bore into as much detail as
you like on those.
Wright: Well, could you share with us
some of those challenges that you’re going to be facing while
Geveden: Sure. Sure, I will. Okay, let’s
talk about challenges. One very clear challenge that we’re facing
right now is that entrenched parts of the portfolio, if you will,
if I could use that term, have very strong bases of political support,
so the human space flight program and its legacy, the Shuttle and
Station, enjoy enormous political support, and enjoy political support
for a lot of reasons. Some of it has to do with jobs and the history
of those programs. Some of it has to do with the White House and the
Department of State’s view of the importance of those programs
and how we relate to our international partners and all that.
I’ll just say a word about that. The top priority, as was articulated
by the White House in discussions a year and a half, two years ago,
is the completion of the International Space Station. That implies
we’re going to fly the Shuttle another fourteen times or so.
We’re going to satisfy those partner agreements. The thing most
people would say, that you can’t justify the existence of the
Space Station based on the scientific research value; there’s
not enough there.
But there are other reasons you’d want to do the Space Station.
Some of them have to do with logistics. Some of them have to do with
the development of capability, there’s no doubt this is the
most complex construction project ever undertaken by human beings.
But another reason you do it is to involve international partners,
to bind the ambitions of other nations with our space ambitions, and
I think that’s seen from a national strategic point of view
as an important thing to do, to satisfy those agreements.
So that is sort of the bedrock of the NASA program, because it enjoys
the most political and the most strategic support. So it’s sort
of immutable. We’re just not going to change that strategy unless
something very significant happens, like loss of a Shuttle or something.
That’s pretty much fixed in the portfolio.
The science base, which now is 32 percent of our budget, the scientific
activities, Earth science, heliophysics, the planetary science component,
and then also astrophysics, those enjoy very energetic support. Principal
investigators and others that are adherents to science in the science
portfolio have a strong base of political support and they’re
very active. So that part of the portfolio is pretty static, too,
in terms of how much support it gets. Science is going to be, I don’t
know, roughly a third of our portfolio for the foreseeable future.
Aeronautics is seen as something that has languished in recent years,
and the support for that is either static or improving.
So what that means is that this exploration campaign we’re undertaking,
this new component to our portfolio, this new Vision for Space Exploration,
is actually quite literally the bill-payer for any challenges that
we take to our budget. We can’t really change the International
Space Station-Shuttle part of it. We can’t really change science.
We can’t really change aero very much. So exploration becomes
the bill-payer, and you see that in the consequences of all the budgetary
decisions that have occurred. Whenever we have a rescission, whether
it’s uncovered capacity, whether it’s a year-long CR [continuing
resolution] that results in flat funding from year to year and takes
five, six hundred million out of our budget, exploration pays the
So trying to implement a program that’s a new program and doesn’t
yet have its political base of support, doesn’t yet have all
of its large contractors on board and advocating for it, is a very
hard thing to do. People will say, “Well, I want to do science.
I want to do aero. So we’ll just go to the Moon later, or we’ll
go to Mars in 2040 instead of in 2030; what difference does it make?”
I think it makes a huge difference whether we commit to going now
or going later, and so it worries me very much. It’s a hard
challenge, and it’s manifesting in schedule breakage every day.
That’s one of the biggest challenges.
Another big challenge for us is—it’s kind of interesting
to look at NASA’s portfolio. It’s almost all high risk,
high payoff. So we tend to fly stuff that’s two, three, five
hundred million dollars at the small end, two, three billion dollars
up on the big end of it. Sometimes it involves human life; sometimes
it doesn’t. But almost all of it is visible, and so failures
are extremely visible in the agency, and being able to execute this
risky portfolio successfully is a challenging thing to do. It really
is. You’re constantly at risk of mission failure, of working
in very harsh environments, working in very visible environments.
The Congress pays attention. The public tends to pay attention. So
having success with that challenging portfolio is hard, I think.
I don’t know; maybe enough on that point.
Wright: As you begin meeting these goals
and objectives of the vision, what are the lessons learned that you’ll
be applying that you’ve learned through your NASA experiences?
Geveden: Well, maybe I’ll sort
of talk about that at the corporate level, and then maybe down to
the personal level. But, there are several very obvious lessons out
of our last epoch in human space flight.
The Shuttle is a vulnerable design. It’s as much as anything
a compromise of technical and political and financial forces, and
it resulted in this vehicle that we have, which is an elegant and
beautiful and capable vehicle. It’s also a vulnerable vehicle.
It doesn’t degrade gracefully, and in some ways it’s not
robust to safety problems I guess is the way to put it. If you start
having a significant problem on the Space Shuttle, it is likely to
end up in catastrophic failure.
There’s no serious escape system on that, on the Space Shuttle.
There’s no abort kind of system. You look at a system in which
there’s external cryogenic tankage with exposed thermal protection
systems all the way through the launch phase, and you have a system
that can be damaged by a hailstorm, for God’s sake.
Now we’re pushing back and fixing 2,600 divots or whatever the
number is, manually, because we’ve got exposed thermal protection
and exposed foam for this external cryogenic tankage, and the crew
sits down there in the middle of the propulsion stack, in the middle
of where the explosion occurs. We’ll never design a vehicle
like that again.
So in returning to this Apollo system, in which the crew sits atop
the launch stack, in which there is an escape rocket, in which the
thermal protection system is not exposed during launch, at least the
return part of the thermal protection system, the base of the reentry
vehicle. All of those are lessons that we’re learning and applying
We also know that we built a system, in the case of the Space Shuttle,
that was enormously operationally expensive. It takes 18,000 people
to run the Shuttle Program. We cannot have a system with that kind
of operational complexity going forward, because we need to be able
to wedge up the budget for Orion, for Ares, and then in the out years
wedge up budget for landers and for habitat on the surface and for
other kinds of systems.
The only way we can do that is to have an operationally lean system,
which means that you can’t have 10,000 people, literally, 10,000
people, down at the Cape [Canaveral, Florida] processing the Shuttle
from mission to mission. You can’t do it. It needs to be a factor
of five or a factor of ten smaller than that. It needs to be a crew
of a few hundred people or a maybe a thousand people that are processing
the next vehicle, or we won’t able to do this.
So one of the real lessons learned that we’re applying every
day is to try to design to ops [operations]. Design to ops; that means
that you think about the operational scenarios as you go through the
development, and you design around that. Sometimes that means it’s
more expensive in the development phase, but the recurring costs are
more limited when you design to ops. So that’s a very important
thing that we’re doing.
I’ll speculate here a little bit and say that I think we’re
going to have to learn how to design toward reliability, and I’ll
try to explain that a little bit. In Shuttle and in other kinds of
modern systems that involve humans we have spent a lot of energy on
creating redundancy, in creating voting schemes and logic that sort
of protect you against failure. It can get to the point, and there’s
a book on this, on complex systems, by a guy named Perot [phonetic].
It can get to the point where the system reaches sufficient complexity
that it’s almost operationally impossible, and this happens
when you build up layers of redundancy and fail-safe and all that
kind of thing.
We have to take, I think, a reliability-based approach, a probabilistic
approach to reliability of systems, and I think those lessons will
be integrated into the systems that we build going into the future.
Let’s see here. Maybe that’s about all I have on that
for right now.
Wright: Okay. That sounds good. Especially
after [Space Shuttle] Columbia [STS-107, accident] there was a lot
of discussion about NASA’s culture. Would you share with us
what your perception of the culture is in the NASA Agency today?
Geveden: Yes, I will. I’ve got
a few things to say about that. I think the CAIB [Columbia Accident
Investigation Board] was right, in the sense that we didn’t
have a safety-oriented culture, and we didn’t have, I don’t
know, sort of the right kind of organization and the right kind of
culture that would support bringing forth dissenting opinions, disagreements.
We didn’t have a healthy tension in the system that manifested
itself in a positive way. I think that’s right.
Now, I believe that our initial take on how to solve that problem
was misguided. We went out and hired a contractor to do surveys and
give us executive coaches and all that, and if you pursue that logic,
what you have to believe is that we lost the Shuttle; we did a survey;
and now we’re going to work on the pieces of the survey that
we found to be weak. And, oh, by the way, NASA scored higher on the
pre-survey than any organization they’d ever surveyed before.
So we started working on these two slight weaknesses, which were perceived
organizational support and communicating across organizational lines
I think were the two. [NASA] Johnson [Space Center, Houston, Texas],
in particular, took a pretty good beating on their culture. So we
worked on those things a little bit, and the idea was now we can take
the test again, and we improved our score, and therefore we’re
not going to lose any more Shuttles. I think that’s a really
oversimplified way to look at the problem, to put it gently, to put
it kindly, generously.
So I don’t think that’s the way you attack culture at
all. I think the way you attack culture is you set the tone, and you
lead by example; but even more than that, you design the organization
and you design the principles and the operating principles and the
values around the kind of culture you want to have. I think that’s
what we’re trying to do right now.
One of the first things the Administrator did was to promote the Center
Directors to the same status as Mission Directors so that they’re
all direct reports now. One of the reasons behind that was is that—and
it sounds subtle, but it’s very important—he wanted to
create a very clear distinction between the programmatic chain of
command and the institutional chain of command. So promoted Center
Directors up; took them out of the programmatic chain of command so
that now the programmatic chain of command flows from the Administrator
through me to Mission Directors, who have programs and projects, science,
aeronautics, space operations, and exploration. The chain of command
flows through those Mission Directors to Program Managers in the field
to Project Managers in the field. That’s where that goes.
Now, the institutional chain of command is separate and distinct from
that, clearly distinct now. It flows from the Administrator through
me to Center Directors, who are not in the programmatic chain of command
now but are in charge of technical excellence, safety and mission
assurance, procurement, down through the institutional components
of all the field Centers, Directors of Procurement, Directors of Engineering,
and their workforce.
So when you set up a system like that where you’ve got a clear
delineation between program and institution, then the institution
can take care of its requirements, its regulations, its policies,
and make sure that those are enforced in programmatic implementation.
The Program Managers are out there trying to get missions flown. The
institutional Managers are out there trying to make sure the processes,
the people that we apply to it, are following the right principles
If there’s a disagreement between those two chains of command,
agreement is sought at the lowest possible level. If it is not achieved,
then there are ways to protest those decisions all the way up the
chain of command so that the final point of adjudication is in the
Administrator’s office, and it starts through me. And we’ve
done that. We’ve had six or seven really tough issues between
Engineering and the program, say, reach this level.
When you put in a system like that and you tell people it’s
your responsibility to protest a decision that doesn’t sit well
with you, if something doesn’t feel right in your gut, if something
doesn’t work well in your analysis, it’s your responsibility
to raise the decision. And you organize your agency that way to create
that healthy tension that you want between the institutional and programmatic
elements, then I think you’ve got a chance of getting people
to talk about the danger of foam or the danger of an ice frost ramp
or the danger of a RP-1 tank on the Atlas mission that we flew for
Pluto, New Horizons. And it has happened. People are talking about
So I think you create the culture by example of leadership. You also
design to the culture that you want by putting together the organizational
mechanisms and the processes to make it work. So my sense is that
we—and there’s more to it. There are many more dimensions
to the culture, and one of the things that the Administrator has said
is that we will not cede our authority to external advisors.
We got into a consent loop with the CAIB and the Stafford-Covey Task
Group. We got into a consent loop in the sense that we said, “Your
recommendations are requirements, and we will follow your requirements,
and, oh, by the way, we’ll submit our data to you to make sure
you approve of our response to your recommendations.”
We’re not doing that. Our external advisors are wise, seasoned,
intelligent people that we should listen to. We are the people, we,
NASA, are the people who are responsible for executing the nation’s
civil space program, and we will take responsibility for which recommendations
we accept and which we do not. We need to apply that discernment and
make recommendations about that. So sort of liberating ourselves to
do what we think is right is a positive cultural step.
The Administrator and I have put great emphasis on making sure that
we have the core capabilities, the technical talent—and technical,
I mean broadly; not just engineering, but procurement, legal talent,
institutional talent—to execute the mission. So you’re
seeing a lot more in-house work. You’re seeing a lot more autonomy
in decision making, and you’re seeing a healthy tension.
It is my belief that the consequence of constructive disagreement
is a healthy culture. To me the signs of poor health in an organization
are the inability to deal with conflict. So when you hear this kind
of language in a meeting, when an argument sort of breaks out in a
meeting, and people start saying, “Oh, let’s take that
offline,” or, “We’ll take an action on that.”
Or, you know, “We don’t need to talk about that in here.
Why don’t you two get together?” That’s poor health.
To me, we’ve got to have an organization, a culture in which
you can fight a little bit, in which you can say, “You know
what? I think it’s dangerous to fly with those ice frost ramps
the way they are,” or, “No, I don’t like the way
you’re doing the thermal protection system,” or, “I
don’t like the way you’re executing that contract, because
I think it puts us at risk.” Let’s fight about that stuff,
in a civil, constructive, respectful way, but let’s fight about
it. That’s how you get to organizational health, cultural health,
and that’s what we’re trying to do.
I think it’s contrary to conventional wisdom, by the way, which
says, “Let’s not disagree in public.” I don’t
want that kind of an organization. I want to fight a little bit.
Wright: As you move toward the future,
what do you believe NASA’s role is as far as for the nation?
How do you want the nation to view NASA in the future as it’s
moving toward its next fifty years?
Geveden: I want NASA to be perceived
as the agency in our government that does the most innovative and
the most excellent things that we do as a society. I think we enjoyed
that reputation there in the Apollo era. We still, I think, residually
enjoy that reputation, but I want to make sure that we protect and
promote and improve that legacy. It’s my strong belief, very
strong belief, and you’ll hear the Administrator talk in similar
terms, that the ability to do space, the ability to do human space
flight in particular, but also the other parts of what we do, aeronautics
and science and space operations, those things are a precious strategic
capability for this nation.
I have said that for those nations that can afford to do it and have
the desire to do it, the ability to explore space remunerates positively
towards greater security and survivability on one’s own terms.
This is the reason why the Russians do it. It’s the reason why
the Chinese are trying to do it. It’s the reason why the Indians
want to do it, and the Iranians and everybody else. They know the
strategic value of being able to put people in space, to be able to
put instruments in space, and to be able to do those things.
That value manifests in many different ways, but among those are you
build your technology base. You build your technical base with it.
You build your human capital base. This is a business in which the
barriers to entry are very high, and so if you can demonstrate that
capability, then you build your technical base, and in my view in
this modern world there’s no difference between technological
superiority and economic superiority. So you therefore build your
economic base. All this has important implications to national security,
to global leadership and those kinds of things.
Now, even if you don’t buy that part of it—and some people
don’t—even if you don’t buy that part of it, I think
that if you choose as a nation to do these very, very hard things—put
people on Mars; it’s going to be very darn hard—then you
have to trust that choosing to do those things is going to give you
benefits that are unforeseen at this point and that it’s worth
making the investment.
I talk often about how, and sorry to live in the past here, but it’s
just a fact that if you look at the nation’s investment in our
civil space program, and the ballistic missile program, to some extent,
it led to miniaturization of electronics. It led to embedded software,
advanced materials. It led to, for God’s sakes, the cable television
industry. The guy that’s running around digging in your yard
with a Verizon label on his jumpsuit owes his job to this nation’s
investment in space. The technology that we created made its way into
heart monitors, into improved screening for breast cancer.
It was the enabling technology. We created the enabling technology
for modern, small, lightweight, cheap smoke detectors that are in
your home right now. The GPS [Global Positioning] System that exists
wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for our investment in
the space business.
So you do these things. You choose to do these very hard things, which
seem abstract and which seem to some people to be useless, going to
places like Mars, but in the end the economic benefit, the strategic
benefits, are enormous. I want to see the nation committed to that
course and I want to see them seeing us, us NASA, as enabling that.
Wright: Based on your strategy, based
on this vision, why would you encourage someone to begin a NASA career
at this point?
Geveden: Well, hell, a NASA career,
it’s just the best thing you can do with your life. [Laughs]
There are other laudable and worthy things to do with a life, no doubt,
and I certainly could improve my own. Just for all the reasons that
I articulated, the importance of NASA cannot be overstated, in my
But apart from that, ideologically speaking, I believe in the advancement
of knowledge. I believe in the advancement of scientific understanding.
I do. I believe that’s something that cultures do that advance
and grow and that bring along their people with them.
I believe, from an idealistic point of view, that it’s mankind’s
destiny to migrate into the cosmos ultimately, and I think our survival
depends upon it. I think there will come a day when we corrupt the
environment or an asteroid hits us or some other kind of thing happens,
and we’re going to wish we had planted the seeds for survival
of the species into other parts of the solar system, or beyond, if
that ever becomes feasible.
So, having this little toehold on the Moon, having the ability to
maybe get on Mars and exploit the in situ resources and live there,
I think is an important step in the migration of humanity and to the
salvation of humanity, if you will, not to be too philosophical about
it. But idealistically, it’s what I want to do with my life.
But practically speaking, it’s what I want to do, too, because
I think it’s too important to the nation not to do it.
On top of all that, we just have a very, very damn sexy mission here.
We’ve got robots running around on Mars. We’ve got people
in space continuously, twenty-four hours a day.
We created the technology that led to the weather satellites that
helped us evacuate the Gulf Coast during [Hurricane] Katrina. Katrina
turned out to be something of a policy disaster for this country and
our reaction time was too slow, but there would be 100,000 dead people
if it wasn’t for weather satellite technology.
There are just so many good things that we do in the space program,
and I could commend all those to any person who’s interested
in pursuing a career in it.
Wright: Well, before we close today,
is there anything else that you can think about that you’d like
Dick: I think you’ve already covered
the role of exploration as an important motivator for NASA. I guess
you could argue that NASA is the premier exploration agency for the
country. Would you say that?
Geveden: No doubt. I think NASA is the
premier exploration agency for the country, well, for the world. I
give these center guest briefings down at [NASA] Kennedy [Space Center,
Florida] periodically, and I will say down there that, “This
spaceport that we’re sitting at today, and this theater in this
spaceport, is the only place on the planet from which humans have
departed for another heavenly body.”
This is a rare capability that exists here, and this is the only nation
that’s put anybody beyond low-Earth orbit. We’ve put people
on the Moon, for God’s sake, and we’ll put people on Mars
eventually, so I think we represent mankind here with this meatball.
You know, this is not just a national thing.
I receive correspondence from people all over the globe. There’s
a guy in South America that writes to me every month or two. “I’m
really excited about what’s going on with the Space Station.
Oh, by the way, did you think about this sequence? Let’s put
on Node 2 before you do the Japanese experiment module or whatever.”
He’s out there thinking about how we construct the Space Station,
and he writes me and gives me pointers on it. But he’s in love
with our space program, and I meet people from all over the world
who love this program, who see it as a ray of hope, who see it as
representing mankind’s aspirations in some way.
Dick: Do you also get the question,
though, “Shouldn’t we solve our problems on Earth first?”
Geveden: You do get that question, but
I’ll tell you—should we solve our problems on Earth first?
Let me speak to that. This is a question that seemed especially relevant
in light of Katrina, in light of the war in Iraq. People will say,
“Well, you know, we’ve got a war. We have Katrina. Why
are we spending money in space?”
I have a couple of reactions to that. First off, spending money in
space is a convenient and specious argument. We spend money on the
ground, and most of it goes into the pockets of people who have chosen
to study hard subjects and commit to the space program.
The other thing I would say to that is, look, Hurricane Camille occurred
the summer Neil [A.] Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were on the Moon for
the first time, when this nation first went to the Moon. We had a
Vietnam War going on at that time. Does anybody regret the commitment
that we made at that point in time?
Yes, you can say if you try and stack up Mars exploration against
AIDS [Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome] research or against childcare
or something like that, or education, it doesn’t stack up that
well if you just sort of abstractly put it together in that list.
But I will say this about it. The benefits to this economy, to this
nation, to everything that’s come out of the space program,
the benefits are enormous. You have to think of NASA’s part
in America’s portfolio, our federal portfolio, as not a cost,
like a lot of things are, but as an investment. I’ve seen an
economic analysis that suggests that something like eight dollars
come back to the economy for every dollar we invested in space in
this country. So this is a dividend-paying thing. This is a stock.
This is Home Depot, this is Walmart in our portfolio, and it pays
dividends instead of taking cost away.
So I don’t think you want to compare it to those things to the
detriment of NASA. I think you want to say we’re committed to
education, we’re committed to healthcare, we’re committed
to childcare, we’re committed to breast cancer research. But
we’re also committed to, on the margins of our very robust economy,
we’re committed to space, too. I think it’s a false alternative
to suggest that you have to choose among the two, because this nation
can afford to do all of it and do it well.
Dick: You’re preaching to the
choir here. [Laughter]
Geveden: Yes, I probably am, sorry.
I’m waxing emphatic.
Wright: Is there anything else that
you’d like to ask or you would like to provide at this time
for your part?
Geveden: Yes, I might make one other
comment. It’s my belief that we’re on the cusp of something
very significant here in space, and you can feel it all over the globe
if you are plugged into the space community. You can see the Russians
activating their space program. You can see, as I said, the Chinese
obviously have a very ambitious program. The Indians, the Brazilians,
the Iranians, others, everybody wants to be in space right now. So
you feel a very significant global commitment to it.
Obviously, there are commercial dividends to be had in space, and
we’ve had a robust commercial satellite industry for a long
time. But now you’re starting to see the emergence of new kinds
of things. You’re seeing the emergence of the commercial human
space flight market. Who saw that coming? Who saw Richard Branson
being able to sell 200 seats at $200,000 apiece to fly people in the
low-Earth orbit for five minutes? I think there are cheaper ways to
get lightheaded for five minutes [laughter], but doesn’t it
say something about how interested people are in space?
Who thought space tourists like Dennis Tito and Anyusha Ansari and
what’s his name, Greg Olsen, would pay $20 million to go into
space for ten days? Who would think that Internet entrepreneurs like
Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and others would be spending their billions
on developing space capability? There’s a commercial emergence
of human space flight. There’s a global emergence, and so a
huge amount of interest in space exploration, I think partially stimulated
by this nation’s commitment to it.
I just feel like we’re on the verge of something great here,
and it feels wonderful to be a part of it. There is momentum out there
that hasn’t existed for a long time. I think it’s comparable
to the Sputnik [satellite] and Mercury-Gemini-Apollo days. That’s
how exciting it is.
Dick: It’s appropriate for the
fiftieth anniversary. [Laughs]
Geveden: Right. So, it’s a great
time for there to be a revitalization of interest in space.
Wright: Well, we thank you. Appreciate
your time and all your words.
Geveden: My pleasure. It was probably
a lot of them in that forty-five minutes. [Laughter]
Wright: Well, we appreciate that even
more. Thank you.