Former space shuttle astronaut Michael Coats is ready to assume the management controls of NASA’s key center for human spaceflight. In doing so, he must tackle a trio of thorny issues: flying out the shuttle program safely; satisfactorily completing the international space station; and developing a new generation of human space exploration systems.

Coats was named director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston Nov. 7. He had been serving as vice president of exploration at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver .

A U.S. Navy aviator, Coats joined NASA in 1978 as a member of the first astronaut class specifically selected to fly the space shuttle. He flew three shuttle missions, the first as pilot for the maiden flight of Discovery in 1984.

Coats commanded two subsequent shuttle missions, logging a total of more than 463 hours in space. He retired from NASA and the Navy in August 1991.

In an interview, Coats detailed some of his challenges and ideas as Johnson’s new center director.

Shuttle, Station and Beyond

“I hope to be able to look back in 10 or 15 years and say I did something to help fly out the shuttle program safely,” Coats said. “When that last shuttle flight rolls to a stop, I’ll be a real happy camper.”

Coats noted that his astronaut career began before the first space shuttle flight in 1981, “so I have an idea how long it has been around.”

Other primary objectives, Coats said, are to finish the space station “as much as we possibly can,” hopefully operating the orbital outpost well into the future.

But the priority likely to consume most of Coats’ time is developing a strategy for moving from the shuttle to Project Constellation — the initial hardware elements of NASA’s lunar exploration effort. The challenge will be maximizing shuttle safety while ensuring a smooth transition to the new systems, he said.

Regarding the possibility of future job cuts at Johnson , Coats said the issue has not come up in talks with NASA Administrator Mike Griffin. “It’s not clear that we have to cut at all,” he added.

The NASA Astronaut Corps

Coats also has a vision for utilizing NASA’s astronauts when they are not flying or training for missions: “I believe very strongly that the astronaut corps has a responsibility to be out there selling the space program to the public. “

Public outreach is called for in the original law that created NASA nearly 50 years ago, Coats noted. “We haven’t done that as well as we should,” he said, adding that he intends to bring this matter up with the appropriate NASA officials in hopes of creating a new outreach plan.

Coats also will push for close astronaut involvement in the design of Constellation hardware including the Crew Exploration Vehicle. “To be user-friendly, you’ve got to be on the ground floor when you are designing these things … and I intend to make sure that happens.”

Seeking Fresh Ideas

Coats said NASA must find ways to tap the creativity of entrepreneurial firms, but he emphasized that ” there really are no shortcuts to space.”

Some of these firms call upon NASA to give them billions of dollars to stimulate their growth, Coats said . “NASA doesn’t have that kind of money to invest in these outfits.”

If these companies bring a proven, cost-effective capability to the table , NASA would be interested because “that’s the definition of commercial,” Coats said.

Coats also said he intends to take advantage to the extent possible of developments outside NASA. ” Let’s go learn what else is going on … whether it’s in other parts of our government or other governments out there.”

Exploration and Risk

As a former astronaut, Coats is especially attuned to safety, but he also recognizes that space travel will never be a risk-free business. He is adamant on the need for an emergency escape system on the Crew Exploration Vehicle, which will launch atop a modified version of the space shuttle solid rocket booster.

“That’s really all you can ask for, Coats said. “Give me a reliable vehicle with a fighting chance if something does go wrong.”

Coats said that history will show that the space shuttle has been a learning experience. “If there is a mistake, I think it was that we didn’t have a crew escape system in the shuttle,” he said .

Turning toward the future, Coats said, “We really are at the beginning of our space exploration development phase. I love history, but we’ve got to look forward now. I want to make some history instead of reading about it. The exploration program is what it’s all about. And I’d like to live long enough to see some of it … so I’m anxious to push it along.”

Leonard David has been reporting on space activities for nearly 50 years. He is the 2010 winner of the prestigious National Space Club Press Award and recently co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin the book “Mission to Mars — My Vision for Space...