Former NASA administrator Dan Goldin doesn’t speak much publicly about his tenure as NASA administration from 1992 to 2001, nor about space policy issues today. So it was a bit of a surprise to see him speak last week at a symposium last week on the 50th anniversary of NASA’s astrobiology efforts in the Washington DC area. While he was careful to keep his comments focused on his work as NASA administrator to develop astrobiology research efforts, such as the agency’s Origins program and Astrobiology Institute, he did offer some subtle comments that reflect upon the agency’s current situation.
Goldin, at point in his talk, recalled the unpopular “zero-based review” of the agency that took place while he was administrator. “But the fact of the matter is, the President of the United States said, ‘This is what you gotta do,’” Goldin said. “So every time a NASA administrator gets skewered in the press, think about the fact that that person is being a loyal American and listening to the President of the United States.” He continued: “The administrator, if they’re good, does what the President asks him, what the Congress asks. You can argue, but when the argument is over, say yes and do yes, or say no and leave. There’s nothing in-between. And I say this because I see the frustration, as I read the newspapers, across NASA.”
Goldin also commented on how NASA traditionally has not done a good job communicating what it does to the public. Ask the general public what NASA does “and the first words out of their mouth will be shuttle or Apollo”, he said. “Then ask them about the search for life: you will watch their eyes will light up, because they aren’t really aware that NASA really cares about the search for life.” That, he said, was a reason why NASA’s small SETI program was cancelled by Congress the year Goldin became administrator. “SETI went down because NASA did not explain to the American people why they were doing it. They viewed it as an entitlement.”
“The American people pay for the space program; they love the space program,” he added, “but they want to know that NASA actually cares about them and is willing to take the time to explain to them, not to talk down to them, but to talk in two- and three-syllable words and explain, concisely, why they’re doing what they’re doing.” He picked up that theme a little later in his talk, recalling the town hall meetings he held as NASA administrator in the early 1990s. “The American people really passionately care about the space program, but they don’t think we communicate with them. We take for them for granted… They need to understand what NASA is doing.”