Profile: Ed Weiler

Director, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

E dward J. Weiler knew he wanted to be a NASA astronomer by the time he was 13 and already building his own telescopes. and voraciously consuming science fiction novels. Goddard Space Flight Center Director Ed Weiler knew he wanted to be an astronomer for NASA. He fulfilled that dream in 1976 at the age of 27 while still a member of the Princeton University R esearch staff. Seeing big promise in a young astrophysicist, the legendary Princeton scientist Lyman Spitzer Jr. sent Weiler to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., where he would serve as chief scientist for the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory 3, at that time the largest telescope ever flown in space. Having served in an administrative capacity there since he was 27 years old,

NASA soon hired him as a staff scientist, and then quickly made him chief of the Ultraviolet/Visible and Gravitational Astrophysics Division. By 1979 he was the chief scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope, a job he held nearly 20 years.

Weiler has seen a lot of ups and downs in those 29 years.

Hubble was delayed years by the Challenger disaster. Then when it finally was launched, NASA discovered its optics were faulty, making it a frequent punch line for American comedians. After being repaired by a shuttle crew in 1993, Hubble now is considered so valuable by scientists and the public alike that members of Congress have insisted NASA send a shuttle to extend its life.

During his tenure as NASA’s associate administrator for space science from 1998 to 2004, he guided the development of a long list of successful missions including the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, Mars Odyssey, the Mars Exploration rovers and the Spitzer Space Telescope — named after his first boss.

But the candid, charismatic Weiler was transferred abruptly to Goddard last year by then-NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, during an overhaul designed to give more control to NASA Headquarters rather than the individual field centers. Despite his initial frustration with the move, Weiler says he likes the job and has felt a surge of optimism since Mike Griffin became NASA administrator in April. Weiler sat down with Space News staff writer Brian Berger to discuss his new role, his new boss, his colorful career and the future of Goddard.

As someone who obviously is closer to the project than most, what was your reaction to Sean O’Keefe’s decision to cancel the shuttle mission to service Hubble?

I worked for the administrator of the agency. If the administrator — the sole person who has to make the decision to push the button — thinks it’s unsafe, I’ve got to support his position. If you asked me the question: ‘Would I have made the same decision Sean made?’ I don’t know, because I don’t want to have to make a decision like that.

But we’ve got a new shuttle now. It’s not the same shuttle we thought we had. If we can pull off a mission that does the deorbit module and gets full science for another five or six or seven years for a cost of $200 million or $300 million over three years, compared to where we were just three months ago, I think that’s a great bargain for science.

Looking back at your Hubble experience, your team was faced with a tight budget and a skeptical Congress. What was your secret for success for the 1993 Hubble repair?

I remember saying that we had a way to fix it … with corrective optics, and we were going to do it by December 1993 and we would do it without more money. There wasn’t a person in the room who believed it. And by God, we did every single thing we promised — on cost and on schedule — and we fixed it.

No matter how long I live, or how many projects I work on, I will never work with as good a team as that Hubble repair team. And the reason was, ironically, they just got tired of being called a national disgrace by the press and a joke by the late-night comics.

You were appointed to associate administrator of space science in 1998, and were saddled with the responsibility of two Mars missions. What do you think were the biggest reasons Mars ’98 ended up failing?

On Mars ’98, the navigation people were afraid to speak up. There were three problems on Mars ’98: communication, communication, communication. Does this sound familiar? The navigators kept noticing a problem with the MCO (Mars Climate Orbiter). Their predictions were always off a little bit.

Because of the lack of communication, nobody ever asked the dumb question. We tried to clear all that up, and Mars Odyssey and the Mars rovers were tremendous successes.

After serving in such a high capacity at headquarters for so long, and given O’Keefe’s attitude toward the individual centers, did you see the move to Goddard as a sort of exile for you?

I didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things with Sean O’Keefe. I don’t think I’m giving you any scoop there. I certainly did not agree with his decision to do what he did to Hubble, the second time.

But the job of a center director under the previous regime and the job of a center director under Mike [Griffin] are going to be very different. Center directors under O’Keefe reported to AAs [associate administrators], didn’t have any pull in the budget process and weren’t represented on the major advisory program committees at headquarters. On Mike Griffin’s first day, almost the first thing out of his mouth was, ‘As of this day, center directors will report directly to me.’

Do you think you’ll stay on?

We’ll see. Mike expects the centers to play a much stronger role then they have in the past. Being a center director in that environment is a lot better job than being a center director in the previous environment.

How is morale at the moment?

I wasn’t the happiest camper out here back in the winter. But I’ll tell you, when I heard Mike Griffin was going to get the job, I went from down in the dumps to Cloud 9.

Somebody who speaks his mind, who has a goal, who says ‘Let’s not wait until 2014 for a CEV [Crew Exploration Vehicle]; let’s do it now.’ His view on human spaceflight is just like mine. I love the shuttle, I love the station, but why did I get in this game? I got in this game to go places. That’s exploration. Getting to the Moon faster, getting to Mars faster; who can be against that?

What role does Goddard Space Flight Center have in the manned vision?

We expect to play a continuing lead role, to continue our 45-year history of managing the space network out to 2 million kilometers. We intend to manage that and expand it as we need more capability for the Moon. I’m an extremely strong believer in laser communication and I want to see that become the core competency of Goddard.

You’ve made a lot of effort to sell the Living With A Star program. Why do you think this is so important?

You can’t send humans into deep space without worrying about the Sun and the space environment. Anyone who says you can is a cowboy. There is a very dangerous radiation environment up there, and understanding the Sun and storms and space environment is critical to protecting our astronauts. We need to get to the point where we can predict these things and understand them. Living With A Star, I think, will do very well under this administration.

What spacecraft should bear Ed Weiler’s name?

The spacecraft that lands on Mars and finds the first fossil.

One of the reasons I got into science is because by the age of 14 or so, I had read every science fiction book in the Sherman Park Library in Chicago. I was really into extraterrestrial life. When I looked up at the sky at night, I thought, ‘How could we be alone?’