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NASA goes boldly into the 21st Century

NASA goes boldly into the 21st Century

Design News interviewed Dan Goldin on a visit he made to the Photonics Center at Boston University. His remarks highlighted his commitment "to keeping the U.S. the world leader in technological development."

Noting that electro-optics-based and laser-based photonics is the use of light to replace electrons and structures, Goldin said, "At NASA, we want to replace structural beams with light beams to connect dozens of spacecraft, creating a virtual spacecraft that spans the globe. Each spacecraft will be able to communicate with the others, share information, and coordinate the data taken by the entire spacecraft constellation. We also want to link multiple telescopes across hundreds of kilometers to create an effective aperture large enough to image continents, oceans, and icecaps on an Earth-like planet orbiting a distant star.

"To do all this we will need storage capacity measured in terabytes per cubic centimeter and bandwidth within the spacecraft, among the spacecraft, and with ground facilities to support this level of operation. Optical processing can reduce massive data 'cubes' -- three dimensions of space and one of spectrum to a single image. We need high data rate communications and sensors that detect and count every photon and particle we 'see.' We need to extract 'knowledge' from this data quickly and efficiently."

Design News: At the turn of the century, are aeronautics and astronautics where you thought they'd be when you first came to NASA?

Goldin: No. I thought we would have a separate space launch and aeronautics [research] program. Instead, aeronautics and space launch are going to become almost indistinguishable from each other in 20 years.

I think we are at a low point. We have to do more in aeronautics. I didn't think it would get this small and the budget pressures would be this deep.

Q: Are you specifically referring to the recently discontinued High Speed Civil Transport program?

A: We've been having stresses on the program for years. The other thing that happened that we didn't anticipate is that we now have one airframe manufacturer for long-haul jet transports, which changed the landscape. And Boeing feels that over the next few decades, they are going to evolve existing product lines [rather than have new developments]. NASA doesn't build planes, so we can't go off and build way-out things if we don't have an industrial partner.

Also, I don't think we have resolved some of the fundamental technical issues with supersonic flight. One is suppressing the [sonic-boom generating] shock wave as you fly over land. It makes the system inefficient [if you're restricted to flying only over water]. Another key is that an [engine nozzle] diffuser for quiet takeoffs is still too heavy.

In five to ten years, we may not have a supersonic transport that is all aeronautics-[based]. When you start thinking about technologies such as 3D bodies, air-breathing rocket engines, and ultra high-temperature materials, a supersonic transport might just be a hypersonic [Mach 5] transport -- a different approach. We have a fortunate circumstance here; we are going to regroup and come back even stronger.

Q: Is that program cut your greatest disappointment?

A: It's not a disappointment, it's a surprise. The market changed. You could say, 'Let's keep the High Speed Civil Transport going,' but we would be wasting money and we had a point design (limited flexibility) system. Restructuring the program, adapting to the new environment and the leapfrog technologies now coming out, is an opportunity, not a disappointment.

Q: In your term, what has been the greatest achievement at NASA?

A: Enabling the NASA people to dream again. The NASA people do the job I don't do.

Q: With the recent budget maneuvering and cuts in Congress, how do you think NASA is regarded by Congress?

A: Congress has tremendous respect for us. This isn't an issue aimed at hurting NASA. Congress is trying to deal with unbelievably difficult budget caps. They have to solve Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, defense, and education. They are in such a tight box, they just don't know how to fit it in. However, we've come back from the edge of disaster. The Senators saw the problem and the members of the House recognize it. We're getting some good dialog, and I appreciate the support we are getting.

Q: Say a miracle happens and they double your budget -- where do you spend it, what would you emphasize?

A: The first dollar would go into safety. We've got to have safer air transportation systems. The number of flights in the world is going to triple, and if we do nothing, we'll see a [major] crash once a week about 15 years from now. So aviation safety, and launch safety, would be the first place to put the money -- it is absolutely crucial.

We also need to deal with noise and emissions. Other countries are legislating planes out of [using] their airports because of noise and emissions.

The next place we'd put money is into unbelievable, cutting-edge, breakthrough science and technology. We [in NASA] are getting out of operations and into more R&D. We are going to make aircraft and spacecraft much safer, and by doing that, make them much less expensive, open the space frontier, and integrate the technologies.

Q: Will we ever have a general aviation airplane you can climb in, just like a car, for the average person?

A: That is our goal, that is my vision.

Q: What about the air traffic control and airport infrastructure to realize this?

A: We are working closely with the FAA. It's a new partnership and a new relationship.

Q: Regarding the International Space Station, what lessons has NASA and industry learned from such a large, international partnership?

A: We don't know everything in America. We're good, but in specific areas, other people have tremendous capacity and we shouldn't try and duplicate it. Examples are the Canadians with their robotic arm manipulator and the Russians with spacecraft docking systems. We should just try and be the team leader and take the best technology and the best knowledge.

Q: After space station, what's next for humans in space?

A: I hope to go beyond Earth orbit, to Mars, comets, and asteroids for research stations.

Q: What about a return to the Moon?

A: Well, why should we go back to the moon? Been there, done that. But if there is a good scientific reason, if there is a real commercial need, we are ready, willing, and able. Now we will go back to the Moon to get ready to go to other planets, because it is close enough so we can really understand [problems in making such journeys].

Q: So when might we see humans on Mars?

A: In ten to 25 years.

Q: Will you still be NASA Administrator then? In other words, how much longer will you serve as agency head?

A: I take it day by day.

'We've come back from the edge of disaster.' In November, Dan Goldin became the longest continuously serving NASA Administrator, having been appointed by President Bush in early 1992. Since then, Goldin's "faster, better, cheaper" philosophy has transformed the agency. According to the Agency: it and Congress have reduced its budgets, for a cumulative savings of $40 billion, and cut the civil service workforce about a third, without forced layoffs; quadrupled the number of missions launched per year; the agency and contractors have reduced spacecraft costs by two thirds (along with a 40% cut in development time); and chopped a third off Space Shuttle costs while improving safety and mission capabilities. Prior to coming to the agency, Goldin was Vice President and General Manager of TRW's Space and Technology Group.

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