Steady Progress at NASA

August 12, 1994

The U.S. Senate gave the National Aeronautics and Space Administration a much-needed vote of confidence last week when it turned back an attempt to kill the multibillon-dollar space station.

This vote represented a victory for NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, who has been struggling to reshape the agency's mission and goals as well as retool the way it does business in an era of budget austerity. The agency has shifted its emphasis from costly, complex missions, like the failed $1 billion Mars Observer spacecraft, to smaller projects that produce new knowledge at relatively modest cost. While maintaining a human space flight capability in the downsized space station, Mr. Goldin has pumped funds into satellites and robotic spacecraft while shutting under-used facilities.

These changes are essential to efficient management of the nation's resources in space. But turning a huge bureaucracy like NASA around is no easy task. The chiefs of the various space flight centers around the country traditionally have wielded enormous power over their fiefdoms.

Mr. Goldin is a no-nonsense manager who refuses to let his agency's parts pull in different directions. Like any bureaucratic infighter, he occasionally has had to take one step back for every two steps forward. Still, he has come out on top.

In refurbishing NASA's public image, Mr. Goldin has been less successful. Despite the success of the Hubble Space Telescope repair mission last year and the superb results produced by small-is-better spacecraft like the defense department's Clementine lunar mapper, NASA still doesn't really know how to toot its own horn. The agency tends to treat its successes like news items rather than as opportunities to educate the public about the stupendous potential of mankind's last frontier.

Still, the Clinton administration kept Mr. Goldin on -- he was appointed by the Bush-Quayle team -- principally because he has shown he is the sort of manager who can get the job done. Last week's Senate vote reflected the Congress' continued confidence in his stewardship of the space agency. He must be doing something right.

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