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Johnson Space Center
The tenure of the early leaders of NASA’s Johnson Space Center has been drastically different from their successors. (credit: NASA)

Leadership at Johnson Space Center

On November 7, 2005, NASA named Michael L. Coats as the new director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. He becomes the ninth director of this high-profile center. In 1962, several years after the formation of NASA, the Manned Spacecraft Center was established in Houston. It was known by that name for more than a decade, when it was renamed the Johnson Space Center in 1973 after former president Lyndon B. Johnson. During the first 20 years of its existence, there had only been two directors of the center: Dr. Robert R. Gilruth, who served from March 1961 to January 1972, and Dr. Christopher C. Kraft, who served from January 1972 to August 1982. Under the skilled leadership of Gilruth and Kraft, the MSC experienced some of the greatest challenges as well as achievements in manned space flight.

Many spaceflight veterans today would say unequivocally that selecting Dr. Gilruth to be the MSC’s first director was a deciding factor in America’s amazing success in the first decade in space, overseeing America’s manned space programs of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Gilruth’s achievements and qualifications are too numerous to list here, but there could have been no finer choice of an individual to lead this pivotal NASA center at such a crucial time. When Chris Kraft succeeded him in 1972, he had the highest praise for his mentor while serving as the deputy director of MSC. “Gilruth’s management style developed the best minds in the space program into the finest organization of its time,” Kraft stated in August 2000, when Gilruth passed away. “There were many heroes during the early days of the space program, but Bob Gilruth was the most respected of them all and, particularly, by those who knew what it took to reach the goals that were established. Personally, I had a higher regard for Gilruth than any other person in my lifetime.”

George M. Low, who was himself a key figure in the Apollo program, said, “There is no question that without Bob Gilruth there would not have been a Mercury, Gemini or Apollo program. He built in terms of what he felt was needed to run a manned space flight program… it is clear to all who have been associated with him that he was the leader of all that is manned space flight in this country.”

“There were many heroes during the early days of the space program, but Bob Gilruth was the most respected of them all and, particularly, by those who knew what it took to reach the goals that were established,” said Kraft.

Chris Kraft had almost as much impact on NASA as Gilruth himself. He was flight director during Mercury and Gemini and directed the design and implementation of Mission Control in Houston. He served under Gilruth as deputy director of the MSC, and became its director upon Gilruth’s retirement. With his many years of experience in aeronautics, astronautics, and manned spaceflight, Kraft was a superb successor to Gilruth at the MSC during Apollo, Skylab, and the start of the space shuttle era. His autobiography Flight: My Life in Mission Control records his eventful life and preserves the dawn of America’s manned spaceflight for current and future generations.

Since Kraft retired as director of the Johnson Space Center over 20 years ago, there have been six individuals running the center, apart from Coats. Few of them had the depth or breadth of experience displayed by Gilruth and Kraft, and the tenure of some of them was shockingly brief.

Gerald D. Griffin served as Lead Flight Director for Apollo 12, 15, and 17, and would have done so on Apollo 13 when fate intervened. He worked his way up through the NASA hierarchy until be became director of the Johnson Space Center in 1982, but served less than four years.

Jesse W. Moore became director of the center in January 1986; five days after taking the position the shuttle Challenger disintegrated during launch. He holds the dubious distinction of being center director for a mere ten months. I could find nothing about him in the search engines or even NASA’s own website, except for a brief mention on the Johnson Space Center website. He is a mystery man. Why was such a man appointed director of one of NASA’s most important centers?

In October 1986, Aaron Cohen became JSC’s fifth director. He was a NASA veteran, first working at the Manned Spacecraft Center in 1962 and was involved in Gemini and Apollo. He later directed the development and testing of the space shuttle orbiter. He served as center director until August 1993, later becoming a professor of engineering at Texas A&M.

Cohen was followed by Carolyn L. Huntoon. She joined the MSC in 1970 as a life sciences researcher. What she did in Houston for 23 years was something I could not find out, except for some references to the Shuttle-Mir program. She served less than two years as JSC director before moving on to serve other roles in the US government, most notably as Assistant Secretary of Environmental Management for the Department of Energy. I’m serious. Then it became clear. She was a bureaucrat.

Many wonder what Coats will do to guide and direct JSC as it enters the Vision for Space Exploration era, while simultaneously handling both the shuttle and ISS programs. It is a very tall order, and one can only hope that Coats can follow in the footsteps of Robert Gilruth and Christopher Kraft.

Huntoon was followed by George Abbey in January 1996. Abbey was also another NASA veteran going back to Apollo. In the shuttle program, he was Director of Flight Operations and Director of Flight Crew Operations. He held other positions within NASA before being appointed Director of JSC. The biggest piece of the pie Abbey was responsible for was JSC’s involvement with the International Space Station. He could not put a brake on the ISS’s cost overruns, for which NASA took the most heat. He was removed as director in February 2001 and was re-assigned as Senior Assistant for International Issues at NASA Headquarters.

Roy S. Estess, another NASA long-timer, became Acting Director of JSC. He had been Director of Stennis Space Center since 1989. Stennis has been at the center of America’s rocket engine development since the 1960s, and Estess was there. He was a good choice as Acting Director, which he remained until March 2002.

That was when NASA brought in retired Marine Gen. Jefferson D. Howell to try to get a grip on the agency’s costly human spaceflight programs and try to reform JSC’s management structure. Howell came from Science Application International Corporation (SAIC), an aerospace research and engineering company headquartered in California. At SAIC, Howell managed the company’s shuttle safety and space station contracts. Howell might have kept his job for quite a bit longer, but NASA’s new administrator, Dr. Michael Griffin has been aggressively restructuring NASA upper management to his liking.

Griffin’s choice as JSC’s ninth director is Michael Coats. Coats joined NASA in 1978 as part of the first class of shuttle pilots. He flew on the maiden flight of Discovery in 1984 and commanded two subsequent shuttle missions. He retired from NASA in 1991 and joined Lockheed Martin Astronautics in Denver, Colorado, eventually becoming vice president there. Coats has answered the call from Dr. Griffin, and many wonder what the former shuttle astronaut will do to guide and direct JSC as it enters the Vision for Space Exploration era, while simultaneously handling both the shuttle and ISS programs. It is a very tall order, and one can only hope that Coats can follow in the footsteps of Robert Gilruth and Christopher Kraft. The next five to ten years will be crucial ones for NASA’s human spaceflight program. The first person Coats should sit down with is Christopher C. Kraft himself and pick his brains. I think Kraft would have a few words of wisdom to impart to JSC’s latest director.


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