Goldin challenges NASA, aerospace industry

Posted: October 31, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Outgoing NASA administrator Dan Goldin called on the aerospace industry and NASA Tuesday to embrace privatization and advanced technology or else risk obsolescence at the hands of rapidly advancing terrestrial industries.

Goldin speaks at the International Space Symposium. Photo: Jeff Foust
Goldin, scheduled to end his record-setting tenure as NASA administrator in two and a half weeks, delivered a set of often pointed remarks during a session of the International Space Symposium in Washington, DC, taking aim at both aspects of the aerospace industry as well as some programs within NASA itself.

Speaking to an audience composed primarily of high-ranking aerospace executives, Goldin took them to task for not incorporating advanced technologies at the same rate as other industries. "A technological tsunami is overtaking all businesses," he said, "and I think space business is the least prepared to deal with these new technologies."

In one example, Goldin said that aerospace companies were failing to investigate new technologies that allow software application to adapt and write new code as the situation warrants. While such technologies have been embraced from cell phones to Internet search engines, aerospace continues to deal with conventional coding techniques, and the problems inherent with them. "Software is ripping apart this industry," he said.

Goldin warned that if aerospace companies are unable to incorporate new technologies at a faster rate, they will lose out to other, terrestrial, industries able to innovate faster and steal communications and other business away from the space sector. "The competition is not another satellite company," he said, "it is terrestrial communications companies."

The outgoing NASA administrator also said he believes that the space shuttle can and must be fully privatized in the near future. Such privatization, he said, would free up NASA resources and personnel for other programs, such as the Space Launch Initiative (SLI), a five-year effort to develop the technologies needed for a next-generation reusable launch vehicle.

Such privatization, though, must be competitive. He pointed to the initial stage of shuttle privatization, where Lockheed Martin and Rockwell (later Boeing) developed a joint venture, United Space Alliance, to handle space shuttle ground operations, rather than compete with each other. Goldin warned he did not want to see a repeat of such a joint venture during later privatization. "There must be competition for full shuttle privatization," he said.

Goldin also said SLI is one of the most important programs in NASA today, because it addresses critical space access problems. "Launch costs and launch reliability are destroying us," he said, saying that SLI must address these issues, lowering launch costs and improving reliability to "six sigmas", or 3.4 failures per one million flights.

In an unusually sharp rebuke of NASA's own shuttle and station programs, he cautioned them and Congress not to use SLI as a pot of money to solve the station's problems. "It will be a sin if the forces involved with the non-competition of the shuttle force Congress to take money away from SLI for the shuttle," he said. "Don't attack SLI to feed your faces."

Goldin also reflected back on his tenure at NASA, which started in April of 1992 under the administration of President George H. W. Bush, father of the current president. While noting the accomplishments during his time that reshaped an agency from doing big programs to smaller projects, he did admit that he did take the "faster, better, cheaper" paradigm too far at times, such as the two failed Mars missions in 1999.

Goldin also suggested that the aerospace industry, currently in a period of consolidation, is going to far. Citing the arguments that larger companies have "economies of scale" that permit them to do more for less, he wondered if "those economies of scale are hurting, rather than helping."

Calling his time as administrator interesting and fun, Goldin said that once he leaves office next month to take a position as a senior fellow at the Council for Competitiveness, he will be an interested -- but silent, at least initially -- observer of how his successor deals with the challenges NASA faces. "I'm going to be on the watch," he said, "peering over the fence."