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The Goldin Days of Space Exploration

Status Report From: Space Foundation
Posted: Thursday, June 1, 2006

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Elliot G. Pulham
President & Chief Executive Officer

Yes, the Goldin days . . . as in Dan Goldin, the oft-controversial former NASA administrator.

No NASA Administrator can be expected to run an agency as public as NASA for nearly a decade and not generate controversy – especially one who was given a mandate to be a change agent. And, certainly, former Administrator Dan Goldin was no stranger to controversy as he strove to remake the agency as a leaner and more innovative organization. Love him or hate him, it will be up to future space historians to put Goldin's overall legacy into proper context.

With that said, I think it's important to give overdue credit to someone who bears chief responsibility for rebuilding NASA's Mars exploration strategy from calamity in the 1990s to the truly breathtaking successes it has enjoyed in recent years and months. This is to take nothing away from Goldin's successors, who ensured that the momentum continued behind the missions whose origins date to Goldin's lengthy tenure as administrator.

As the space community is collectively lurching to find a road to sustainability for America's vision for space exploration, the big success stories most frequently trumpeted today have to do with Mars exploration. Without Dan Goldin, we very well might not have any of those success stories to which we so often point.

By the late 1990s, Goldin had inherited a flawed and discredited Mars exploration architecture that had produced a string of embarrassing disasters. Most notable among these were the catastrophic uncontrolled landings of the Mars Climate Orbiter (which, of course, wasn't supposed to land at all, much less go full lawn dart), and the Mars Polar Lander that landed with considerably more gusto than it had been engineered to support. A key blunder, you may recall, was basic confusion among the spacecraft teams as to whether they were supposed to be working in U.S. Customary System of units or metric measurements. The "was that inches or centimeters?" fiasco became long-running fodder for late-night comedians like Jay Leno and David Letterman. 

Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, Goldin seized the moment to call for a clean sheet approach to Mars exploration. In 1999, a new Mars program office was established and a new strategy developed. "Follow the water" became the Mars exploration mantra, and it has had breathtaking success. The new effort got underway with the successful Mars Odyssey – a legacy program that was rigorously re-scrutinized by the new program office leadership.

When the space science community approached Goldin with plans to send a new rover to Mars, he did what he so often did. He pushed back. Goldin instead proposed two rovers to land on separate locations of the planet – both to minimize risk and maximize the exploration potential. After successfully pushing the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to rethink its single-rover concept, Goldin blessed the two-rover plan and then went to Capitol Hill and found the funds for what is arguably the most successful planetary surface robotic mission in NASA's 50-year history.

Goldin also endorsed the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) that very recently achieved successful and stable Mars orbit, another key element of his new Mars architecture. And he supported the Mars Nuclear Rover (since renamed Mars Science Lab) that is slated for launch in 2009.

While viewed as a tough taskmaster, there are those who note that Goldin was actually a classic leader in implementing the new Mars architecture. Once he had obtained the buy-in of all the key stakeholders, he did not micromanage the programs. Instead, he fought for the necessary resources and engaged heavily in the political "blocking and tackling" of building inside-the-beltway support and, ultimately, funding. ("No bucks, no Buck Rogers.") This ability to work with Congress, through both Republican and Democratic administrations, was a hallmark of Goldin's nine-and-a-half year tenure that seldom gets the recognition it deserves.

As noted earlier, over the course of almost a decade in office, no "change agent" will escape generating his or her share of allies and critics. But in my own dealings with Goldin, we were never confused about NASA's priorities, and we never failed to work together in support of them.

When humans finally step foot on Mars, I hope we all remember how we got there. 

Thanks, Dan.

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