Foust Forward | NASA’s elders offer advice for the new guy

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“Foust Forward” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Sept. 24, 2018 issue.

It was billed as the biggest gathering of NASA administrators in the agency’s 60-year history, and it’s hard to dispute that. At the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Space Forum Sept. 17 in Orlando, current NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine shared the stage with five of his predecessors: Dick Truly, Dan Goldin, Sean O’Keefe, Mike Griffin and Charlie Bolden. Nearly three decades’ worth of NASA leaders, accounting for half the agency’s history, were together.

Such an event might be a good opportunity to give Bridenstine, on the job for less than five months, some advice for running the agency. Bridenstine made clear in a speech preceding the panel discussion that he comes from a different era. “In 1972, the last Apollo mission leaves the moon,” he said. “And then three years later — and this is the most important thing you’re going to hear today — your current NASA administrator was born.”

But while some of the former administrators on the stage were in office while Bridenstine was still in high school, they focused less on advising him and more on recalling the challenges they faced when they were in office, issues they suggested were often far greater than those that face NASA today.

Truly, for example, described grappling with topics from continuing the recovery from the Challenger accident to problems with then-Space Station Freedom to the Space Exploration Initiative. (He skipped over clashes with the White House that ultimately led to his ouster.) “Other than that, there weren’t a whole lot of problems,” he said.

More recently, Bolden discussed the retirement of the shuttle, which took place on his watch although the decision dated back to President George W. Bush in 2004. President Obama “got credit for the decision to retire the shuttle,” Bolden recalled. “It became difficult to go back home to Houston, because I was the guy who was going to retire the space shuttle and end human spaceflight.”

Some focused on other political battles. O’Keefe talked about coming over to NASA from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to get the space station back on track, an effort that after the Columbia accident “turned into redesigning the nature and the focus, within one year afterward, of the very objectives of what NASA was about.” Griffin then followed by complaining about OMB efforts to hasten the retirement of the shuttle.

Goldin, the champion of the “Faster, Better, Cheaper” philosophy while leading the agency, seemed pleased with how things turned out in the long run in the space industry, given the rise of smallsats. “It’s taken a while to get there, but as I read what’s happening in the commercial industry, my heart feels good.”

In terms of actionable advice, though, Bridenstine’s predecessors didn’t offer much. Truly said bipartisan support is key to the agency’s future as it works on “really tough” programs. “This is not an easy business,” he said.


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Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine.