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Beggs, Frosch, and Truly
Three former NASA administrators, (from left) James Beggs, Robert Frosch, and Richard Truly, discuss the past and future of NASA at the National Space Symposium on April 9. (credit: J. Foust)

The wisdom of NASA’s elders

It’s not uncommon in the aerospace industry to bring back retired employees to serve on review panels or otherwise share their expertise and experience with younger staff. These “graybeards”, who no longer have a vested interest in specific projects and programs, are free to share their candid opinions and insights on engineering decisions. If such an approach is effective at the project level, why not do something similar at the highest levels?

That is, in effect, what happened April 9 at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. The conference featured a panel titled “The NASA Administrators’ Forum” featuring three of the five living former NASA administrators: James Beggs, Robert Frosch, and Richard Truly. (A fourth panelist, Sean O’Keefe, was scheduled to attend but was waylaid by travel problems, while the other living former administrator, Dan Goldin, did not accept an invitation to participate.) The three, whose tenures spanned parts of the Carter, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush administrations, offered candid assessments of their own leadership of NASA as well as their opinions about the future of the space agency as it grapples with the end of the shuttle program and an uncertain fate for its exploration initiative.

Good and bad decisions

James Oberg, the space consultant and author who moderated the panel, asked the three to look back and identify the best and worst decisions that they made during their tenures. Frosch, who served as NASA administrator during the Carter administration, said his decision to press ahead with the shuttle program despite opposition from some quarters was his best decision. “Whatever I thought of the dimensions of the program itself, the politics was clearly such that, at that time, if there was not going to be a shuttle, there was not going to be a NASA,” he recalled. “That was a really terrible idea.”

Beggs, who was NASA administrator from 1981 through late 1985, said the decision to proceed with the space station was his best decision, as well as efforts to tailor the shuttle program to operate at a much lower flight rate than originally anticipated. “When I got here we were planning on 40 flights a year, which was clearly unrealistic,” he said.

“Whatever I thought of the dimensions of the program itself, the politics was clearly such that, at that time, if there was not going to be a shuttle, there was not going to be a NASA,” Frosch recalled. “That was a really terrible idea.”

Beggs added that both he and Frosch pushed for the development of the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), a spacecraft designed to study the cosmic microwave background radiation left behind by the Big Bang. There was opposition to COBE, Beggs recalled, because its relatively high cost for an Explorer-class mission. COBE was eventually launched in 1989 and found variations in the microwave background that provided essential evidence in support of the Big Bang model, resulting in a Nobel Prize for two scientists involved in the mission in 2006.

Interestingly, both Beggs and Frosch said their biggest mistakes involved the Hubble Space Telescope and its flawed mirror. Beggs said his worst mistake was “not requesting a test of that mirror.” Frosch said he objected to the fact that the work on Hubble was split into two contracts, making accountability difficult. He said he tried to change it, “but I was talked out of it” after he was advised that procurement staff would object to the change and argue that the whole process would have to start all over again.

Truly said his best decision came when he faced pressure from the White House to cancel both the Advanced Solid Rocket Motor and Cassini programs. “By that time we had several [post-Challenger] shuttle flights under our belt, and I made the decision on the spot to cancel the Advanced Solid Rocket Motor but to fight tooth-and-nail to keep Cassini,” he said.

His worst decision, Truly said, was to agree that NASA should do a first cut of the redesign of the Space Station Freedom program without the involvement of the international partners, much to their consternation. “That was a dreadful mistake,” he concluded. “We probably paid for it with a year and a half of grief.”

The role of the NASA administrator

Later, Oberg asked the three what they perceived the role of the NASA administrator to be, besides the obvious job of running the space agency. Beggs sees the administrator as the leading national advocate for the space program. “Someone has to be an advocate for the space program,” he said. “NASA is not a national need, so it has to be sold, and sold continuously.” That role means different duties for different audiences, he said. “You have to be an advocate to the White House, but you also have to represent the White House, or otherwise you won’t serve there for very long.”

“It’s my view that the administrator is the president’s agent for space,” Frosch said. He argued, though, that the advocacy role for the administrator is more complex than what Beggs described. “The complication for the administrator is that being the advocate for space doesn’t exactly describe the problem. There is exploration, there is science, there is applications, and please, everybody, remember there is aeronautics. So one is an advocate for a whole set of communities and issues, and there is a balancing act for whoever wants to do that.”

“Someone has to be an advocate for the space program,” Beggs said. “NASA is not a national need, so it has to be sold, and sold continuously.”

Truly said the worst thing that can happen to NASA “is to get the resources that it has disconnected from the expectations of the agency.” Preventing that requires multiple skills for its leader. “The administrator has to be a salesperson or evangelist on the one hand, has to be a manager on the other hand, and then, when it comes to the budgets, he has to be a nose guard from pro football, to stand up for what’s needed to execute what the president and national policy has given NASA to do.”

The Gap and the Vision

Towards the end of the panel, the perspective shifted from the past to the future: what did the former administrators think about NASA’s current direction, and the obstacles it faces to implementing the Vision for Space Exploration?

Truly was not as worried about the impending Shuttle-Constellation gap as some in the agency today, noting that NASA survived the nearly six-year gap between the final Apollo mission and STS-1. “We can live through it,” he said. He did note, though, that the Apollo-Shuttle gap was supposed to be shorter: only three or four years. “So a planned five-year gap, even with appropriate funding, could have technical problems that make it longer.”

“I’m sorry it’s there,” Truly said of the gap. “On the other hand, it’s the way it is. I think we ought to get over fretting about it and do the best we can to fight for the money to make it possible to close it somewhat… I don’t like it, but it is what it is.”

“What worries me is that the gap will grow over time,” Beggs said. “Not flying is a problem.” Beggs added that the gap, and the resulting reliance on Russian vehicles to send astronauts to and from the station until Orion or a commercial alternative enters service will not sit well with the public once they’re aware of it. “The American public hasn’t woken up yet to this fact, this cold fact. They may find it hard to live with.”

Frosch tied the gap to the uncertain future of the space station after the middle of the next decade, when some NASA long-term budget projections terminate spending on the ISS. “I’m worried about its coincidence with the lifetime of the station,” he said of the gap. “We’re barely going to get the station completed and start working before we decommission it, which doesn’t seem to be very reasonable to me.”

Frosch called for a greater use of the ISS as part of an exploration program that has a greater focus on Mars rather than the Moon. “I have never been personally that excited about going back to the Moon as our next objective,” he said. “I would be inclined to make it a Mars objective, and examine the question of how do you use the station and what the strategic plan would be for going to Mars.” One possibility, he said, would be for the ISS to serve as a “construction shack” for assembling future Martian expeditions.

“NASA is at really a very unusual place,” Truly said. “There is going to be change. Even if the program survives it’s not going to roll right through unchanged. It’s going to be tweaked.”

Beggs echoed some of those sentiments. The exploration program as currently structured, he said, “doesn’t quite hang together.” “If we’re going to go to Mars‒and I would like to do that‒there are a lot of technologies that we ought to be beginning to develop,” such as nuclear power and advanced life support systems, he said. “Going back to the Moon, we’re not addressing any of those problems. The question is… how does the space station fit into all this?” The station, he argued, could be used as a platform for testing those technologies.

NASA did get some sympathy from Truly, who was administrator during the abortive Space Exploration Initiative (and who lost his job because of the conflicts that stemmed from it.) “I think this time around it’s much better thought out,” he said of the Vision for Space Exploration. Announcing plans to phase out the shuttle, he said, provided a “theoretical” way for help paying for the program that didn’t exist during SEI. He also credited O’Keefe for his work putting the Vision together in the aftermath of the Columbia accident. “My hat’s off to him.”

All three former administrators, though, warned of the challenge of keeping the Vision or any long-term program alive through a series of administrations. Frosch said a lot of discussion he’s heard has tried to get the public and the government to endorse a long-range plan that would give the agency long-term stability to carry out the Vision. “I don’t think we have that kind of political arrangement,” he said, because of the varying, much shorter terms of members of Congress and the President. “The trick is to figure out how to get a 20-year program or a 30-year program out of a succession of four-year programs that kind of zigzag.”

“In fact, we’ve never run a 20-year program,” Beggs added. While the International Space Station program is now about 15 years old, a Mars program would be much longer: 25–30 years, by his estimate. That poses a major problem given the short attention spans the country has, he warned. “Whether we’re capable of doing that, I don’t know.”

“NASA is at really a very unusual place,” Truly said. “There is going to be change. Even if the program survives it’s not going to roll right through unchanged. It’s going to be tweaked.”