A Nice Space History Find

After I mentioned the story about Bob Frosch wanting to run NOAA instead of NASA (something that I’d heard at the time, but had never really verified, even after meeting and spending quite a bit of time with Frosch in the early nineties), I decided to dig into it to see if it was true or apocryphal. Which resulted in finding this transcript of a very long but interesting interview with him, that contains a lot of interesting Carter-era NASA history.

It confirms that NOAA was his first pick, and he expected to get it, but was edged out by someone more politically connected (I didn’t bother to find out who it was — the NOAA history site didn’t make it very easy to figure it out). The first question on the table for the incoming Carter administration was whether or not to cancel Shuttle, which they didn’t seem to understand, and Frosch’s first task was to figure it out, because they were looking for places to cut for the president’s own programs. In the end (obviously) it wasn’t cancelled, but the planned fleet was cut from seven to five (and really four, because Enterprise never flew). Had they built the full seven, it would have cost a couple billion more at the time, and we’d have five (or possibly four, because we might not have replaced Challenger) now instead of three, and eking another few years out of it might look a lot more attractive.

But this part struck me as kind of funny, given the rumors that have been flying about Obama’s plans:

Frosch:…there was another question that came, not so much from the President, but began to come from OMB and Frank Press, which is important to reorganization. It is: why does NASA have so many centers? Why don’t you close a few centers? You know, it’s a perpetual question. It tended always to focus on Huntsville, largely because they were the engine place, and the mentality of a lot of OMB and political types is a very short-term mentality; and so, they were saying, “Gee, we’re almost through with the development of the Shuttle engines. Obviously, you don’t need Huntsville. After you finish the engines, you dispose of Huntsville.” You can decrease the number of people. And remember, the President came in saying there were too many bureaucrats; you’ve got to decrease the number of bureaucrats. There was a lot of pressure — “What are you going to close?” In fact, there was a rumor around NASA that the reason I had been selected was because, as I told you, in the Navy job I actually closed something. Okay, so that was mixed up in this whole organizational guestion.
That rumor wasn’t well founded, was it?
No, no: as far as I know, it had nothing to do with it. Nobody was thinking about that at all. Oh, there were funny rumors, that since Lovelace and Frosch had both had experience in the Pentagon, the whole place was going to be swallowed up by the Pentagon. In fact, there were people running around at one stage, saying we were brought in to militarize NASA. It was very peculiar, but the only thing you do about these things is you ignore them (laughs), very straightforward. So, we launched, among other things, into “what are we going to do about reorganization?”

The more things change…

One thought on “A Nice Space History Find”

  1. The story I heard about Frosch was that he wanted to be Secretary of Transportation. (Perhaps both are true.)

    The DoT story certainly fits with his tenure at NASA, during which he argued that the agency’s charter should be to work on all forms of transportation and put significant NASA funding into automotive research. Of course, there was no statutory authority in the NASA charter for that, but the White House and Congress went along as they usually do. Just another example of an Administrator being allowed to treat NASA as a personal fiefdom.

    As for NASA Administrators who didn’t get the job they really wanted, I’m surprised you missed a much more recent case. Sean O’Keefe reportedly got the NASA job as a training assignment with the promise that if he did well, he would be in line to replace Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense. Of course, losing an orbiter and then losing his nerve to return to flight was an embarassment from which he couldn’t recover.

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