NASA Administrator Goldin to leave space agency
Posted: October 17, 2001

NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin. Photo: NASA
NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin, who forced the agency to adopt a "faster, better, cheaper" approach to deep space exploration and oversaw initial assembly of the international space station, is stepping down amid space station cost overruns that threaten the future of the agency's showcase space program.

Goldin announced his resignation, effective Nov. 17, at 2 p.m. EDT today in an agency wide address on NASA television. It is not yet known who will replace him, but insiders say Courtney A. Stadd, NASA's chief of staff and a Bush administration appointee, likely will take over day-to-day operations.

Goldin's resignation comes one day after NASA's associate administrator for space flight, Joseph Rothenberg, announced his retirement, effective Dec. 15. Again, no replacement has been named. But the "AA for spaceflight" is responsible for all space shuttle and space station operations at NASA headquarters.

The departures come amid a mounting crisis at NASA over space station funding and accountability that threaten the project's very survival.

Earlier this summer, NASA managers said the station program was expected to suffer a $5 billion overrun over the next four to five years. With little support from the Bush administration or Congress to provide additional funding, NASA managers decided to forego building a crew habitation module and an emergency return vehicle capable of seating six to seven astronauts.

As a result, the station can support just three full-time crew members - that's all the current Russian-built Soyuz lifeboats can accommodate. But three crew members cannot carry out the kind of world class research the lab is being built for. Instead, current three-man crews spend most of their time simply operating, outfitting and maintaining the station.

In the wake of the cost overrun revelations, Goldin appointed a committee of outside experts to review NASA's management and accounting. The Cost Evaluation Task Force is expected to release its findings in about a month. NASA managers who have been grilled by the task force in recent weeks expect the worst, saying the panel's final report will be devastating.

Asked if America's manned space program might be in real jeopardy, one senior manager said "absolutely. I don't think there's anybody who will defend us."

While NASA managers defend the agency's actions and point out that many of the station changes that drove up costs were mandated by Congress or the White House Office of Management and Budget, outsiders are quick to lay the blame squarely at NASA's feet.

"Many folks are still clinging to the hope they will get bailed out," a government official told the Florida Today newspaper. "The station, but also human spaceflight's future hangs in the balance - and the future of 'beyond Earth orbit' - unless this business is done differently. They won't have the credibility to be trusted with something like that from the administration or the Congress."

Against this backdrop, shuttle program manager Ronald Dittemore is quietly overseeing a wide-ranging effort to refine a plan to possibly turn over operation of NASA's fleet of four space shuttles to a private contractor.

The goal, sources say, is to develop a government-owned, contractor-operated system that could safely - and more efficiently - operate the shuttle for the next 15 to 20 years. The program's current government management and prime contractor structure is resulting in a steady erosion of NASA skill and experience in key positions. And that, supporters of privatization claim, is eroding flight safety.

Among the options being explored as part of the privatization effort are corporate astronauts, flight directors and even overall mission management. If implemented, such a shuttle privatization plan would mark a major shift in the way the nation's space program is carried out.

While shuttle privatization may or may not move forward, the station crisis is real and the departures of both the NASA administrator and the agency's associate administrator for space flight are clear signs that rough weather is ahead.

About the author
William Harwood has covered the U.S. space program for more than a decade. He is a consultant for CBS News and writes The Washington Post and Space News. He maintains a space website for CBS News.

Flight of Atlantis
AtlantisA 59-minute VHS video cassette from Spaceflight Now captures the highlights of the July mission of shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station. Available from the Astronomy Now Store in NTSC format (North America and Japan) and PAL (UK, most of Europe, Australia and other countries).