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A panel of NASA's past and present leadership on stage at the AIAA Space Forum September 17 (from left): Dick Truly, Dan Goldin, Sean O’Keefe, Mike Griffin, Charlie Bolden, Jim Bridenstine, and moderator Roger Launius. (credit: ULA)

Sixty years of NASA, thirty years of NASA leadership

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Sixty years ago today, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, NASA, became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, formally beginning the space agency’s operations. It’s an anniversary that NASA will be celebrating with a variety of largely virtual events, including a recorded statement from NASA’s current administrator, Jim Bridenstine (who will be in Germany for the International Astronautical Congress.)

“Other than that, there weren’t a whole lot of problems,” Truly quipped after discussing shuttle, space station, and exploration issues he encountered.

Two weeks earlier, Bridenstine was at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Space Forum in Orlando. Having a NASA administrator speak at the AIAA’s main space conference is not that unusual, but the format was. After a keynote where Bridenstine spent much of his time rehashing the agency’s history—something most in the audience were likely intimately familiar with—he joined a panel with several of his predecessors.

“This is the greatest collection of NASA leadership in one location that has ever been assembled,” said Roger Launius, the former NASA chief historian who chaired the panel, and few would disagree. The five administrators who preceded Bridenstine (excluding acting administrators) took the stage with Bridenstine: Dick Truly, Dan Goldin, Sean O’Keefe, Mike Griffin, and Charlie Bolden. Their tenures as NASA administrators cover nearly half of NASA’s 60-year history, back to 1989.

The panel offered an opportunity to reflect how NASA has changed or sometimes hasn't changed—during the last 30 years. Asked to recall the greatest challenge he faced, Truly offered a litany of them, including dealin with the backlog of payloads that had piled up during the post-Challenger shuttle hiatus and other launch problems, as well as issues with what was then known as Space Station Freedom. “It was in trouble: budget trouble, schedule trouble, congressional, political trouble,” he recalled of the station program.

There was also, just a few weeks after he took office, President George H.W. Bush’s speech on the 20th anniversary of Apollo 11 announcing the Space Exploration Initiative. While he mentioned the speech, he didn’t discuss his reaction to it, beyond noting the pans to return to the Moon and go to Mars were on top of NASA’s shuttle and station programs. He also didn’t discuss his clashes with the White House that led to his ouster.

“Other than that, there weren’t a whole lot of problems,” he quipped.

Goldin, who was administrator for nearly a decade, focused on the geopolitical shift with the end of the Cold War. “The world was changing. NASA was formed to show the world our superiority over the East, over Russia,” he said. “Russia crashed after the Cold War, and President Bush 41 had the wisdom to understand that if we didn't help Russia, they’d be selling missiles to Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.”

He also cited the technical changes of the era, including the Internet and other electronics advances. Goldin, of course, was a proponent of smaller, less expensive spacecraft missions, a philosophy that has its successes but also spectacular failures. The rise of smallsats in recent years, he suggested, validated his views. “It's taken a while to get there, but as I read what's happening in the commercial industry,” he said, “my heart feels good.”

Sean O’Keefe had a trio of key issues he faced in his three years at NASA’s helm, starting with dealing with ISS budget and schedule issues to the Columbia accident and then implanting President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration.

“So it became difficult to go back home to Houston because I was the guy who was going to retire the space shuttle and ruin and end human spaceflight,” recalled Bolden.

“The initial task that I was charged with to complete this program and get it moving and accomplish the task that was set a decade a decade before—the space station—turned into redesign the nature and the focus, within one year afterwards, of the very objectives of what NASA was about,” he recalled.

Much of the work attempting to implement the Vision fell on the lap of O’Keefe’s successor, Griffin. He said working on the Vision’s main transportation systems was a major challenge, along with technical and cultural issues associated with the shuttle’s return to flight after Columbia.

He also, though, singled out political challenges. “As a result of the Columbia accident, Sean’s former agency, the OMB, had managed to get itself in charge of how many flights NASA was allowed to do,” he said. (O’Keefe, prior to becoming NASA administrator, was deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.) The first Monday after he was confirmed by the Senate to be NASA administrator in 2005, he said, OMB informed him that it planned to retire the shuttle in 2008 after 15 more flights. “It took me the rest of the year to get some give on that, and to get us enough flights to at least finish the space station.”

Under the Obama Administration, though, the White House effectively ended the Vision for Space Exploration, redirecting the program towards Mars while keeping the Bush Administration’s plan to retire the shuttle.

“In the hostile environment to that particular president, he got credit for the decision to retire the shuttle, a decision that had been made some many years before that,” Bolden, a former astronaut, recalled. “So it became difficult to go back home to Houston because I was the guy who was going to retire the space shuttle and ruin and end human spaceflight.”

He also, though, recalled battling the administration to preserve some of the existing leadership as the White House sought to put more of an emphasis on commercial activities. “I also had to figure out a way to work with my fellow members of the executive branch to not decimate the leadership of the agency,” he said, claiming they “wanted to get rid of everybody who was there that was the ‘OldSpace’ and, to do what we wanted to do, we needed to bring in all new people,”

Bridenstine has been in charge of NASA for only five months, although he said his biggest challenge actually predated his swearing in April 23. “My biggest challenge was confirmation,” he said, and the audience laughed, then applauded. “I take it you noticed.”

“It was a challenge. We’re living in a very partisan environment that most people in this room are aware of,” he continued. “Here’s the thing, and I think this is important: NASA never has been and never should be partisan. We’ve got to be very careful that it’s not. Since I’ve been the administrator now for four months, I’ve found great support on both sides of the aisle for large visions that ultimately are good for everybody.”

Bridenstine, during that confirmation process, was criticized by Democrats for being too partisan to run the space agency. At Bridenstine’s confirmation hearing last November, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, brought up some of Bridenstine’s comments during his career as a Republican member of the House. “So how do you move past all of that and keep NASA from being dragged down into a divisive political background?” Nelson asked.

Last week, Bridenstine returned the same hearing room, now as NASA administrator, to discuss the agency’s programs. This time the atmosphere was more collegial, with Bridenstine chatting with Nelson before the hearing started (Nelson wanted, among other things, to make sure Bridenstine knew about the need for NASA to take the lead in replacing a bridge that was a critical link to the Kennedy Space Center.)

“Thank you for your continuing commitment to keep NASA apolitical,” Nelson said in his opening remarks, “and thank you for listening to the very smart and dedicated professionals. This agency is just an amazing agency.”

ometimes in the political battles, you get so focused—I had that problem, they had that problem, we all had that problem—you forget that NASA is more than human spaceflight,” said Goldin.

That challenge might be solved, but others likely loom for Bridenstine: upcoming flights of commercial crew vehicles that will finally restore the ability of the United States to launch its own astronauts; developing of the Space Launch System and Orion, also beset with delays; and NASA’s “Exploration Campaign” to develop the Gateway in cislunar space and return humans to the surface of the Moon by the end of the 2020s, ahead of later missions to Mars.

There will also be the challenge of balancing NASA’s human spaceflight efforts with science, aeronautics, and technology development, an issue Goldin brought up later in the panel discussion. “Our universe is much bigger than Mars,” he said. “NASA leads the world in understanding the laws of nature, to understand the origin, evolution, and destiny of everything. And sometimes in the political battles, you get so focused—I had that problem, they had that problem, we all had that problem—you forget that NASA is more than human spaceflight.”

“In the final analysis, NASA is a very unusual agency in that America doesn’t have to do this,” Truly said. “Therefore, the public—way beyond the people in this room—have to believe in it.”

“NASA is not going to succeed in this environment if the environment isn’t allowed to drive really tough programs,” he added. “This is not an easy business.”

While Bridenstine comes from a different generation than his predecessors—he noted he was born after the final Apollo lunar landing, whereas Goldin got his first job at NASA in 1962—he will likely find that the business is no easier today than it as in Truly’s time, and the underlying challenges, despite the changes in programs, also will look familiar.

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