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ALERT! Paradigm Shift Ahead – Has Dan Goldin sent Human Space Flight off in a new direction?

By Keith Cowing
January 8, 1998
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Every now and then Dan Goldin does something very right. Appointing Joe Rothenberg to be Associate Administrator of the Office of Space Flight (OSF) is one of those things.
Rothenberg’s appointment OSF AA marks the beginning of a break with the Shuttle Era and the true beginning of the Space Station era. ISS design is all but finished. What little design remains is in the category of optimization, utilization, and maintenance. Although the arduous process of assembling this immense spacecraft is still to come, the task ahead is to how to make it work and how to deal with unexpected setbacks. Rothenberg’s experience with the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) and his interactions with JSC during the repair mission should be a key asset to this next phase of human space flight.
The Shuttle-Mir experience has given NASA a wake-up call with regard to the looming transition from a sortie mode of operations (go there and then come right back) to one more akin to an expedition (go there – and stay there). As is the case with any expedition, getting there is only part of the task. Keeping the expedition team safe and productive and deriving knowledge from the experience are the other key aspects.

For the past decade we have all been obsessed with simply building the damn thing. Now it is time to start looking – really looking – and what it will take to keep the Space Station going. When was the last time NASA brought a wholly new human-rated spacecraft system into operation? Almost 20 years ago. Rothenberg’s forte is running – and fixing space systems -just what the doctor ordered.
It is also time to begin focusing on the oft-neglected issue of ISS science and utilization – the reason NASA tells people that it is building the Space Station in the first place. Over the past 5 years, science and utilization funds have been raided in order to keep ISS development of track. Rothenberg’s long tenure with space science programs, and interaction between mission design, operations, and science makes him a natural choice for this new phase of human space flight as ISS utilization starts to become real.
Rothenberg is likely to have a greater experiential overlap with the goals and missions of the Office of Space Science, Earth Science, and Life/Microgravity Science than his predecessors – and the important interactions which need to be facilitated between the operators of a spacecraft and the users of that spacecraft. Hopefully Rothenberg will place renewed attention on this all but ignored aspect of ISS and renew NASA’s commitment to creating Dan Goldin’s oft-heralded “world class microgravity research facility”.
One of the core aspects of ISS is learning how to keep humans productive and safe in space for prolonged periods of time – a prime task for HEDS (Human Exploration and Development of Space). Unlike senior OSF management for the past decade, Rothenberg is not a member of George Abbey’s club nor an adherent to the Shuttle operations mindset. As such, I will predict that an increased atmosphere of cooperation between the people who build space systems, those who safeguard the humans who live inside them, and the science that drives the missions will soon debut.
If NASA ever gets to send humans to the Moon and Mars, we all agree it will be far different than another sortie mode of operations in NASA’s past: Apollo. The integration between humans and machines, operations and science must be better than NASA has ever done before. ISS can be a testbed. Rothenberg is the perfect choice to help breathe new life into HEDS.
There are political benefits to this decision as well. Rothenberg managed GSFC, a space center located in Maryland, home state of Democratic power house and frequent Goldin critic Sen. Barbara Mikulski. Having Rothenberg at the helm of a program which has been the subject of constant Congressional scrutiny allows NASA to put a new face on the program. While Congress won’t be fooled by a new face, they will certainly give Rothenberg time (not a lot) to grow into his role. With a rocky road still ahead for ISS cost overruns and schedule delays, NASA could use every milligram of good will it can get. GSFC is also the home of Mission to Planet Earth and a number of space science programs including the Hubble Space Telescope – all Gore favorites.
Expecting that all of NASA’s problems will be solved by just one appointment is, of course, ridiculous. However, in picking Joe Rothenberg, Dan Goldin has chosen not just a new person, but an entirely new cultural approach to managing human space flight. Only time will tell if it will work. I hope that it does.

NASA Watch founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.