Remembrance | Dick Malow, the staffer at the center of the fight to kill ISS

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Richard Malow, the former House Appropriations staffer who died June 2 at 77 after a lengthy illness, is remembered here by his longtime colleague and friend William Smith. In 1991, Malow and Smith found themselves on opposites side of the battle over space station, which came within one vote of cancelation.

On Oct. 3, friends of Dick Malow gathered at the Library of Congress to pay tribute and to celebrate his life and career.  Dick was well known to many people in space community and was without a doubt one of the strongest influences on the space program during a critical time that included the beginning of Space Shuttle operations, the initiation of the Space Station program, major new initiatives in space science such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and the first serious planning for human missions to Mars. Dick left his mark on each of these.

Originally from Detroit, Dick moved to the Washington, D.C. area in 1964 to begin work as a research assistant at the Library of Congress. He later served in management positions at the Department of Agriculture and the Overseas Development Council.  In 1972 when he was appointed clerk of the House Appropriations VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies subcommittee he was already accustomed to hard work, a commitment to detail, and the value of personal relationships.  A front page Wall Street Journal profile called him the most powerful congressional staff person at that time.

As would be expected, with this comes a wide variety of viewpoints from those who knew him, ranging from deep admiration to outright fear (unjustified but understandable).  What was never in question was Dick’s capability.  He set the standard for rigorous oversight, a sense of fairness, and deep insight in to complex engineering and scientific issues.  He was smart and a master of detail.  As one can imagine during the 1980s and 90s as new NASA managers came on board, Dick already had decades of experience and knowledge.  To some this was intimidating.  For others, they used this as a learning experience and they were better for it.

I had a very special relationship with Dick Malow.  I came to Capitol Hill in 1985 determined to play my own part in the space program as staff director for the House Science space subcommittee.  It was immediately clear that this would involve Dick Malow, as well as the Senate counterparts who were equally forceful at the time.  My very first phone call to Dick on the first day of my job lasted well over an hour and a half.  This ended up to be a lasting lesson in professionalism for me.  Counter to what I expected, he was accessible and eager to debate the details.  I resolved to learn a whole lot more before I had a second conversation with him.

In the course of our long relationship, which began on the Hill and lasted through our roles in the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), we found much to agree on.  His logic and insights were unique attributes and added great value to any discussion.  My interactions with him were without exception an influence on my thinking.  But we also disagreed on issues, sometimes strongly.  The most prominent one, which inspired whole books dedicated to the topic, was the space station.

The House Science Committee was naturally inclined to promote the space station as an important next goal for NASA.  It also provided jobs for many members of my committee with NASA centers and aerospace industry in their districts.  Dick struggled for many years to hold down the cost of the space station, certainly an admiral goal. In the end, he and the House Appropriations Committee moved to end the program, setting up major battles on the floor of the House.

Prior to that time there had been no science issue that rose to that level of prominence, and there have been none since.  It was not only a battle between our committees, it was an intellectual battle between Dick and myself.  We found ourselves battling for the hearts and minds of different segments of the science and engineering communities, various professional groups and other members of Congress, often appearing together at the same meetings.  But through it all there was an overriding respect for each other’s viewpoints.  In the end the space station survived in the House by a single vote.  It was an epic legislative battle.  I recall we went out and had a beer afterward.  But I often wonder, what if he was right and had prevailed?

Dick preceded me in leaving the Hill.  In 1994, he began serving as special assistant to the president for international relations for AURA.  Since the 1950s, AURA had been building and operating ground based telescopes in Arizona, Hawaii, and Chile.  It was quite a coup for AURA to have brought on such a prominent figure.

Although to my knowledge, he had no experience in international relations, he attacked the job with the same dedication he showed on the Hill.  At that time, AURA and the National Science Foundation were trying to form an international partnership for the Gemini Observatory, which had twin telescopes in Hawaii and in Chile.  The partners would include Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Great Britain, and later Australia.

Dick found a way to engage not only the scientists in those countries, but also the government representatives and legislators. He used the knowledge gained from his Hill experience and mastered the complex governing structures in each partner country.  Indeed by the time I came to AURA in 2000, Dick had cut a wide swath and was well known as “the” persona for the U.S.

Dick recruited me to move from the Hill to AURA.  I was dubious at first and it took a while for me to understand how it could be a fulfilling job. Dick had an infectious fascination with science and in particular with astronomy.  He basically had fun doing his job.

My coming to AURA was intended to be a transition at which time Dick was to retire.  I was to be in charge of the retirement party, which I managed to put off for 15 years.  As president of AURA, Dick was my single most valuable partner and adviser, with an official title of consultant.  Though we did not always agree, I knew enough to listen and learn from him.  For a period of several years, at my pleading, he acted as head of our mission in Chile and resided in La Serena.  He endeared himself to the Chilean workers and our international staff.  All of this, of course, was a long way from Capitol Hill, but it made sense given Dick’s unique personality.

Dick’s passing is a great loss for many.  He was the epitome of what a Hill staffer should be.  He was a strong influence on what we see today as the space program.  He was a leading force in AURA and the astronomy community and it is not an understatement to say he was legendary on the international scene.


William S. Smith is vice president of ScienceWorks Inc., a consulting firm helping people and organizations succeed in science and engineering research. He is a former congressional staffer and past president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy.