NASA Headquarters Oral
Edited Oral History Transcript
James M. Beggs
Interviewed by Kevin Rusnak
Bethesda, Maryland – 7 March 2002
is March 7, 2002. This interview with Jim Beggs is being conducted
in his home in Bethesda, Maryland, for the [NASA Headquarters History
Office]. Interviewer is Kevin Rusnak, assisted by Rebecca Wright.
I’d like to thank you for inviting us into your home today.
It will be a pleasure to talk with you about your experience as a
former NASA Administrator, and if we could, as I suggested, talk a
little bit about some of your experiences before you became involved
with the space program.
a graduate of the Naval Academy, and I went to sea for about seven
years after I graduated. I graduated in 1947 and ended up in the submarines,
which is kind of a funny background for a NASA type, although I am
also a pilot. I ended up, my last assignment in the Navy was in the
When I got married, I decided to leave the Navy, which I did in 1954.
Then I went to the Harvard Business School [Cambridge, Massachusetts].
After the Harvard Business School, I ended up with the Westinghouse
Company in Baltimore [Maryland]. They were involved at that time in
various kinds of electronics and aeronautical and space support kinds
I stayed in Baltimore from 1956 until 1968… I’ll have
to refresh my memory; my memory’s getting a little dim on dates
anymore. In [1956-1960], I had worked for a man by the name of Frank
Godsey, who had run the Baltimore operation for Westinghouse. Then
he retired, went down to Florida, and [NASA Administrator James E.]
Jim Webb used Frank as a consultant. Webb had a habit of picking up
people all over the place for various reasons. Frank worked off and
on for the Administrator for several years. Anyway, Webb was a great
recruiter, executive recruiter for NASA. He asked Frank [to recommend
someone for the position of] the Associate Administrator for Advanced
Research and Technology, what was then the Office of Advanced Research
and Technology. It has been called many names since that time. That
was his name at the time.
Mac [C.] Adams who had come in from AVCO [Corp.] to run that office—Mac
is dead now, I think—but Mac wanted to go back to business and
told Webb. So Webb was looking for candidates for that position, and
Godsey recommended me. I never asked Frank why he did recommend me,
but he did.
Anyway, Frank is long gone. I can—anyway, I went back down to
see Webb, which was a real experience. It was a great experience talking
to Webb, because someone described talking to Webb as you try to take
a drink from a fire hydrant. It really was. [Laughter] Webb talked
incessantly, but you eventually could get a word in edge-wise.
Anyway, Webb took a liking to me. About a month later, he called and
asked if I was interested in taking the job. Well, we talked it over,
my wife and I talked it over and decided that we would try it, but
I told Jim at the time I was not interested in staying more than two
or three years. It was right during the Apollo Program, and it was
an opportunity to really participate in a very important and, I think,
probably the most historic technical program this country’s
In any event, we said yes, and we moved to Washington, and I spent
only a little over a year on the job because there was a change of
administration. At the time I took the job, everyone anticipated that
Lyndon [B.] Johnson would remain in office, and it was quite a surprise
when Johnson withdrew his name and decided not. Of course, as events
unfolded, Richard [M.] Nixon won the election, and there was a change
from Democrat to Republican.
Webb had decided to retire along that way. Tom [Thomas O.] Paine,
who had been the deputy to Webb, was appointed Administrator by Johnson.
When the new administration came in, Jim Webb self-appointed himself
to be an executive recruiter for the Nixon administration and place
NASA people all over town. I was offered several jobs in the Nixon
administration because they were actively recruiting out of NASA.
NASA had a reputation—whether well earned or not, I can’t
judge, but anyway, they had a reputation for having an exceptionally
good and well-qualified management core in the agency.
The job I finally agreed to take was as Deputy Secretary [then called
Undersecretary] in the Department of Transportation [DOT], and I spent
Nixon’s first term, another four years, which I had not intended
to do. When John [A.] Volpe, who was the Secretary, talked to me,
he said that he wanted me very badly. [Laughs] As a matter of fact,
he said—he was a daily communicant in the Catholic church, and
he said, “I went to church this morning and prayed to my God
that you would not turn this down.” And he said, “And
therefore you can’t turn it down.” In any event, I didn’t.
But he said, “I do want you to commit to at least through the
term, because we have a lot of work to do.” We figured it’ll
take at least that time, and he was right. So I did, and we did ultimately
spend five years in Washington at that time.
I maintained my contacts with NASA at that time. Of course, we were
only right across the street in the old NASA Headquarters. We had
initiated a study of the aeronautics industry when I was Associate
Administrator. I and a guy by the name of [Roy] Jackson—he’s
still around, you might want to talk to him—completed this study.
That study is still very actively used on the Hill. It’s probably
the most [complete study of the civil aviation sector].
study is occasionally used. I occasionally get phone calls from staff
on the Hill asking me about it; why we said certain things.
were the key points to that study?
basically was a study of civil aeronautics, although it touched on
military aeronautics. It pointed out that aeronautics was a very risky
business, and still is. It was a reason for continuing a very strong
aeronautics program. Of course, at that time we did have a strong
aeronautics program, although it periodically came under attack as
being some kind of corporate welfare, and still does. It pointed out
that it was quite a risky business, and at that time—again,
you could get the study. It’s still around. We looked at all
of the civil transport programs that had been launched since World
War II. I think it was something like twelve or fifteen programs that
had been initiated. Only two of them had reached a cumulative break-even.
So it was, at that time, a very risky business. It’s still a
very risky business. As a consequence of that, none of the companies
had an adequate amount of money to put into advanced research. So
we recommended that the nation continue a strong program, a government-supported
program in aeronautics, and that it continue to occasionally build
experimental airplanes to demonstrate what we call proof of concept,
carrying the technology to the point where the advances, where the
advanced technology has been demonstrated to the point that the manufacturers
could feel confident enough that they could integrate it into a new
design, a new transport, or a new military airplane without fear that
they were in above the technological limits, if you will. And that’s
still true. As a matter of fact, we recommended that again just last
I stayed on in Transportation. We had ongoing at that point the supersonic
transport [SST], the American supersonic, which I had a hand in trying
to defend. Ultimately, we lost the program. It’s sometimes forgotten
that [John F.] Kennedy initiated two major programs when he came in,
because he was concerned that the country was falling behind in its
technological thrust and was going to lose a competitive edge, so
he initiated both the Apollo Program and the Supersonic Transport
Webb had been offered both programs. In fact, they wanted him to do
the Supersonic as well as the Apollo Program. Webb said he didn’t
think that NASA was well enough staffed to do both programs. So they
asked Najeeb Halaby, who was then the Administrator for the FAA [then
Federal Aviation Agency], whether he would take it, and Najeeb, who
loved airplanes, said, “Sure.” So it ended up in the Department
of Transportation. We carried that program to the point that we were
starting to cut metal, when for whatever reason, the environmentalists
came after the Supersonic, and the Congress was not convinced it was
an appropriate program to support.
Bill Allen, who was then the chairman and chief executive of Boeing,
decided, for whatever reason I’ve never been able to fathom,
even though I asked Bill why he did it, came out one day in a press
conference and said they had no intent of going to production on it.
So it died. I’ve regretted that ever since, because if we could
have just built the two airplanes we had been funded, been authorized
and funded by the Congress, we would have learned an awful lot, because
our transport was going to fly at Mach number 2.7 whereas the Concord
is just a Mach 2 design. Anyway, we lost the program.
I left Transportation in 1973. We had accomplished an awful lot and
done everything that we wanted to do, and it seemed to both [wife]
Mary and I that it was time to go back. We have five children and
they were growing up, and we had to think about how we were going
to educate them.
While we were there, the Airports Airways bill was passed. [We obtained
loan authorization to keep the Penn-Central Rail Road operating. Eventually]
we took over the Northeast railroads, the six bankrupt railroads,
which ended up as Conrail, a [corporate] board I served for a period
of time. We started the first major budgetary authority for mass transit.
We started with about a billion dollars for mass transit. What else
did we do? We did a number of other things. [Amtrak was initiated.
A railroad safety bill was passed.] Those four years were probably
the biggest legislative accomplishment in transportation in this country,
which has had a long history of government involvement in transportation.
But it was time to leave, and I left after Nixon’s second election,
shortly thereafter. I went with a company called Summa [Corp.] out
in California, which was Howard Hughes’ holding company. My
responsibilities were for the airline, which was Hughes Air West.
Hughes had a great ambition, after he lost TWA [Trans World Airlines],
to put together another transcontinental, really worldwide airline.
It didn’t succeed, but that was his ambition, and we were supposed
to look around and see whether we could find merger partners or build
a larger airline. He also had a fixed-base operation, which I was
responsible for, and a whole potpourri of different real-estate interests
that he had.
I found it very difficult to work for Howard Hughes. At that time
he was a recluse. He was holed up in London. He had two top floors
at the Inn on the Park. If you ever stayed at the Inn on the Park
in London, you know that two top floors is a big area. It overlooks
Hyde Park and it’s a beautiful place. He had taken two top floors,
which made the innkeepers very unhappy, because those were their two
prime—that’s where their prime rooms were, on the two
top floors, and they wanted to get him out of there.
This is kind of an aside, and you tell me if you don’t want
to hear it. We bought an airplane for him. He didn’t like using
the elevators, because, as I said, he had become a recluse at that
time. He would talk to you frequently, but he didn’t want anybody
to see him. He was deathly afraid of having his picture taken, so
he wouldn’t ride down the elevators. He would go down the back
stairs when he wanted to fly.
One day when he was going down the stairs, he fell and he broke his
hip. I think it was his hip. But he broke his leg, anyway. Apparently,
it was a very painful break. He had a personal physician who would
attend to him. He had numerous ailments, or he thought he did. He
was a bit of a hypochondriac. They put him on morphine, or one of
the painkillers, I forget, and he became addicted.
So we had to get him out of England, and so we bought him a hotel
in the Bahamas, the Princess Hotel on one of the southern islands,
which I was very active in negotiating for his hotel. Then we had
to get him into the Bahamas, because he had no passport. He didn’t
have a valid passport. The reason why he didn’t have a valid
passport is that he wouldn’t get his picture taken. He called
me one day and he said, “Can you go see the passport people?
You know your way around. Can you go see the passport people and see
if I can get a passport?”
Frances Knight was the chief of that bureau, and had been for many
years, and Frances was a little bit of a character. So I went to see
Frances, whom I had met, knew, because her husband was at that time
the owner and publisher of Aviation Week, and I used to get invited
to parties at their home, which is right down on Foxhall. I went to
see Frances and I explained the situation. I said, “Mr. Hughes
doesn’t have a valid passport and he really wants to get one.”
And she said, “Fine.” She said, “I’ll give
him a passport immediately. All he has to do is send me a picture.”
So I called him. I said, “Mr. Hughes, you can get a passport,
but you have to send your picture. Frances will not waive that rule.”
“Well,” he said, “the hell with it. I’m not
going to get my picture taken.” So we had to bribe our way into
the Bahamas. Literally that’s what he had been doing in all
the places he had stayed in—Nicaragua, several other places.
He would bribe his way through immigration because he didn’t
have a passport.
Anyway, he stayed there and then I left the company. It was kind of
fun working for him and for this company, because there was a lot
going on; we had a lot of interesting things. As a matter of fact,
we had a piece of property that we were seeking to develop down on
the ocean off Sepulveda [Boulevard], which was a beautiful piece of
property. He used to fly out of there. We were going to develop it
and we figured that we could put at that time—this was 1973—we
could put two million dollars’ worth of improvements on the
property and not sell a bit of the land. Whatever the ground rent
was, probably ninety-nine years, he would have owned the whole thing
free and clear. But he didn’t think that was a good idea. We
even made a model of it and flew it over to the Inn on the Park so
he could see it. He sat with the model.
One day he called back and he said, “Yeah, I’ve looked
at this damned thing, but I don’t think that’s the best
and highest use we can put on our property.” Well, I almost
I also had responsibility for all his old airplanes. He used to collect
airplanes. Some people collect coins. He collected airplanes. He had
the first Serial-1 Catalina Flying Boat. Of course, he had that great
big flying boat that he flew once, which was sitting down in Long
Beach [California] at that time. And he had the Hughes [H-1] Racer.
Hughes used to come back to NASA. That’s the only reason that
I was able to have a decent rapport with him while I was there, was
that he knew the old NACA [National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics]
very well. Because I had been with NASA, he assumed that I knew all
about NASA, and he would tell me about some of the adventures he had
He used to come back to NASA in the thirties, late twenties and early
thirties, to get all the latest technology from Langley. I think he
built the racer in 1932. You could look it up. And he used all the
best NASA technology. He had an engine cowling on it, which was the
latest. He had retractable landing gear. He had a fared-in-wing body
design on the thing. He had two sets of wings on it, both the best
airfoils that NACA had that time, one for long distance and one for
short closed-course racing. He flew that in the early thirties and
set a closed-course record and a transcontinental speed record, which
stood until World War II.
One day he called and said, “I’m getting old and I’d
like to donate all my historic airplanes to the Smithsonian.”
He said he had looked it up. He said, “Do you know Mike [Michael]
Collins?” Mike, the astronaut who flew on the Apollo flights,
a couple of Apollo flights, was then the curator of the Air and Space
Museum. So I went to see Mike, whom I knew quite well. I walked into
his office and I said, “Mike, I’ve got a deal for you.”
He said, “What’s that?”
I said, “Mr. Hughes wants to give away all his airplanes and
he wants to give them to the Smithsonian.”
Mikes eyes got as big as saucers and he said, “You mean the
I said, “Yep. You can have the racer.” And it’s
still in pretty good shape. It was down on his property, down off
Sepulveda, in a hangar down there. I had gone down to take a look
at it. He had hired a guy whose only job, if you believe this, was
to watch over that damn racer. [Laughs] This guy had sat down there
in his office looking out at the ocean, and I think he had been there
for, like, twenty or thirty years, just watching the racer.
Anyway, Mike said, “That’s great.” But then he thought
a minute. He said, “You don’t mean I have to take that
damn flying boat, do you?”
I said, “Yep.”
He laughed. He said, “What the hell would we do with that damn
thing?” It’s still the biggest, in cubic size and volume,
it’s still the biggest airplane ever built. He said, “Where
would I put it? How would I display it?”
I said, “Well, let’s think about it, Mike.” So we
sat there. I had been down to see the flying boat, too. I said, “You
know, it’s a very interesting airplane.” It had two decks.
In the forward end of the lower deck there was a spiral staircase
that went up into the flight deck, and the damn thing had had six
engines. In those days, engines were not as reliable as they are today.
So the wing chord, which you could access from the upper deck, the
wing chord, where it joined the fuselage, was six feet high, and he
had a catwalk built out through the wing. What he was going to do
was to carry mechanics on board, and he was going to go out and work
on the engines when they had trouble.
So I said to Mike, “You know, we could cut out that wing chord,”
which you could actually damn near walk through. Cut out that one
piece of the wing, and then we could cut off the flight deck, and
kids could run up the spiral staircase, and it would be a great exhibit.
Well, he said, “Yeah, if we could do that, I’ll take them
So I went back to California and called Hughes. By then he was in
the Bahamas. I said, “He’d be happy to have all your planes,
Mr. Hughes, but he wants to cut up the flying boat.”
Well, there was a long, pregnant pause. He said, “You tell him
that he can’t have my flying boat, goddamn it, but he can have
all the other airplanes.” So he kept the flying boat and Mike
got all the other airplanes, including his [Robert J.] Collier Trophy.
He’d won a Collier Trophy for the racer, the Catalina Flying
Boat, which you can still see. Most of them are stored out at Silver
Hill [Maryland], out here in the warehouse where they keep all the
airplanes. If they ever complete this thing out at Dulles [Airport],
a lot of those airplanes will be displayed out at Dulles. The racer
is displayed down in the Air and Space Museum on the Mall. You can
go down and take a look at that. It’s a very interesting airplane.
The most interesting part is, if you look at it, in the exhibit they’ve
got pictures of the Focke-Wulf 190 and the Japanese Zero, which bear
a striking family resemblance to the racer.
He offered the racer to Air Corps at that time, but they wouldn’t
take it, because at that time the Air Corps was dedicated to armored
airplanes, and they didn’t think that they could put armor in
the racer because it was too lightweight. But it was very maneuverable,
like the Zero and like the Focke-Wulf 190. Everybody remembers the
Messerschmitt, the ME-109, but, in truth, Focke-Wulf was a better
airplane. They just didn’t build as many of them.
So I left Hughes and went with General Dynamics [Corp.] in St. Louis
[Missouri], and stayed with General Dynamics, where I had responsibility
for the aerospace side; for all the airplanes and missile parts. The
program that took off shortly after I got there was the F-16, which
arguably is one of the most successful fighter aircraft produced since
the war, certainly. We’ve sold over 5,000 of them. It now belongs
to Lockheed [Lockheed-Martin Corp.].
By that program we had the missile programs, [in] which [was] included
the cruise missile, which has since become very famous. All presidents
liked the cruise missile, because we like to say the cruise missile
has infinite courage. And it does. They’re very easy to use
because you’re not putting anybody’s life in jeopardy,
and they are very accurate.
The Phalanx gun system, which is used extensively, is a close-in gunnery
system, which is still used by the Navy extensively. The standard
missile, which is still part of the Aegis system, will eventually,
I guess, will become, if we ever complete it, part of the antiballistic
missile program. The Red Eye and the Stinger programs, the Stinger,
of course, became famous because it was given to the Afghans and shot
down a lot of Soviet airplanes in Afghanistan, and a number of other
miscellaneous programs, including pieces and parts of the DC-10 on
various other transports.
I stayed with General Dynamics until I got a call after President
[Ronald W.] Reagan was elected, and I forget who called me. It may
have been Ed [Edwin] Meese, but I can’t remember. It could have
been Mike Deaver. But one of the several people who worked for Reagan
called me one day in February and asked me if I’d be interested
in the [NASA] Administrator’s job. I said, “Well, that
depends. What’s the president’s commitment? What does
he want to do with NASA?”
He said, “Well, you have to ask him. If you come to town, we’ll
let you talk to him.”
So I flew back to town. I came back here frequently anyways, and went
in and talked to them. I talked to the president, and he said, oh,
yes, he liked NASA. And he did; he was very supportive. He didn’t
know why he liked NASA, but he did like NASA. Well, he knew why. He
had very good instincts. But he didn’t know anything about technology.
He was very, very interested in what they were doing, but he didn’t
know a thing about it, and didn’t want to know. When we took
him around, which I did several times, to the NASA Center, he would
“ooh and ah” at all these marvelous things and he would
say, “I don’t know a damn thing about that, but that’s
We took him out to Edwards [Air Force Base, California] one time.
We had made one of the early landings of the Shuttle out there, and
we asked if he’d like to come out, bring his wife and speak
to the people out there about how he felt about the program. He said,
“Sure.” He came out, and we took him out on a tour and
showed him all the experimental airplanes we were flying. He was like
a little kid with them. I told him, “After you finish your speech—.”
We had mounted the Shuttle on top of the 747 to fly it back to Kennedy,
and I said, “After you finish your speech—.” It
was Enterprise that we had on top of it. I said, “Just say,
‘Enterprise, you’re free to roll.’”
He said, “Well, what will happen then?”
I said, “Well, that 747 will rev up and it’ll come roaring
by and take off.”
He said, “What do I say?”
I said, “You say, ‘Enterprise, you are free to roll.’”
He said, “I can do that?”
I said “Yes, sir.” [Laughs]
So he did, and when he left that day, he said, “That’s
the most fun I’ve had since I got this job.” He just had
Anyway, I talked to him, and went back to talk to Mary, and we decided
to take the job. So I called him late in February, and then I went
through the torture of filling out all those damn forms, which is
a terrible thing that they do to you. They announced me in—I
forget, late in March or April. Then I went through my hearings in
May, and was confirmed sometime in June, because I went to the Paris
Air Show that year, in 1981, and I wasn’t confirmed at that
point, but I had been through the hearings.
So I left General Dynamics, I think in June of ’81, and joined
NASA for the second time.
you tell us about the confirmation hearings themselves? What kinds
of questions were you being asked? What was the interest of the senators
Congress has always been very supportive of NASA, and, of course,
most of them on that committee, the Senate committee, are interested
in their own state’s interest in the program, which is natural.
They, of course, are interested in whether you will support the activities
in their state. They also were very interested in what we were going
to do next. They said, “You’re now flying the Shuttle.
George [M.] Low, who was an old friend, George, who had done many
things in NASA, God rest is soul, he had been instrumental. He was
the Houston manager for the Apollo Program. He had served as Deputy
Administrator under, first, Paine and then [James C.] Fletcher. He
had worked in high-level positions in both Gemini and Mercury. I think
at one point—no, I don’t think he ever ran a center, but
he was Deputy Center Director to [Robert R.] Gilruth at one time down
in Houston, at Johnson [Space Center].
Anyway, I was very fortunate in that George, who had by that time
become chancellor of Rensselaer Polytechnic [Institute, Troy, New
York], had agreed to serve as the transition manager of the Reagan
transition team. George and I had become fast friends over the years,
so I had the opportunity of chatting with George about what he had
found at NASA, what problems he’d found, and what he thought
the next move was and what we ought to do programmatically. So I was
pretty well prepared to take questions. I said, “Well, the next
logical thing we should do is the Space Station, because we’ve
learned how to fly back and forth in space, to space with the Shuttle,
and the next step is how to work and live in space long duration,”
which the Russians were doing at that time, but which we had done.
We had started with Spacelab, but we had never pursued it.
As a matter of fact, when Jim Fletcher, who was still active in those
days—and Jim and I were good friends and would chat from time
to time—when Paine and Fletcher—they were going through
transition—sold the Shuttle to President Nixon, they had proposed
both a space station and the Shuttle. The White House thought about
it a lot and figured it was too much money to put up at that time,
although they had agreed to do it within the budgets that they had
during the Apollo days. In the Apollo days, the peak was at a little
over six billion dollars, and it was fast declining to about three.
What Paine and Fletcher wanted to do was hold it at five or six and
they would be able to do both—five or six in current dollars,
I should add. Well, Nixon said no, but he said, “I’ll
give you one of them. You decide.” So they took the Shuttle.
So the Space Station went on the shelf, so to speak. And George Low,
when he had looked at it, thought, well, now we were through the major
expenditures on the Shuttle, maybe we could sell the Space Station
and get the other half of the program. So I told the committee that,
that I thought the next step—and Hans Mark, who went through
the same time, we had chatted, said the same thing, that we agreed
that Space Station was the next logical step. And the Congress was
very pleased with that answer, because it would be a big program and
a lot of money and they knew that would be spread around in appropriate
places, and everybody was happy as clams.
[Senator Edwin Jacob] Jake Garn, who was on the committee, bearded
me at that time, said, “When are you going to get around to
letting other people fly on the Shuttle?” [Laughs]
I said, “Well, we’ve been thinking about that and will
continue to think about it, but we’ve still got some safety
issues. But we will give that mature consideration down the line.”
He said, “Well, all right, but when you do, I’m the first.
I’m going to be number one.” [Laughs] And he later on
became the chairman of the committee in the Congress, and every time
I would see him, he would beard me and say, “I want to fly.
I’m the most qualified.” He was, too. He had something
like 7,000 hours’ flight time.
Anyway, those were two of the issues that came up. They were concerned
about the fact that now the NASA budget had been in a long-term down
trend, they were concerned about the Hubble [Space Telescope], which
had overrun its budget very significantly. Subsequently, they were
proven right. It had significant technical problems. You always worry
about the wrong thing. The technical problems they were worried about
were the control system and the various and sundry pieces and parts
that we had run in trouble on, and nobody worried about the mirror.
The reason they didn’t worry about the mirror is that Perkin
Elmer, which was the contractor, had built all the reconnaissance
mirrors for the Air Force, which had been proven enormously successful.
They were worried about the Hubble. They were modestly worried about
several of the other programs which were ongoing at that time, but
none were really in serious trouble. Once again, they were worried
about the aeronautics program, which had been come under attack. Mr.
[David] Stockman, who was then the budget director, was again raising
the argument that aeronautics was corporate welfare, and had cut the
budget. Before I got there, they did a mean thing to me, made Stockman
cut my budget. So I arrived and said, “Well, hey, wait a minute.
The president likes this program. Why are you cutting my budget?”
He said, “Well, it’s all we could find for the budget
this time, but come back next year and we’ll see what we can
do.” Anyway, that’s where the program stood, and those
were the primary congressional concerns.
were your short-term goals when you first came in?
of all, we wanted to get the Shuttle operational. We had flown the
Shuttle for the first time when I got there, and it showed that the
system would work. Hans and I made an extensive review of the Shuttle
Program. I had not followed the program in detail and neither had
Hans, even though Hans was probably a good deal closer to the NASA
Center people than I was.
We made an extensive review. The Shuttle is an ungainly stack. It’s
really a very complex system that we built, and there were a lot of
unknowns in it, just the question of whether we could control this
ungainly stack through liftoff and through Max Q [maximum aerodynamic
pressure] and then through the main engine burnout, whether the recovery
of the booster and booster cases, and whether we could separate the
big cryogenic tank, all of those were unanswered questions. Well,
as I said, we did it the first time and it looked pretty good, although
we did have some significant problems on that first flight, but it
did work pretty much as advertised.
It was obvious that we were going to have to spend quite a lot of
money to fix some things, which we went about doing. So that was priority
number one, was to get the Shuttle to the point where we could declare
it was operational as opposed to experimental.
The second objective was to get the various programs, including the
Hubble, which was the biggest science program we had going at that
time, back on track and make sure that we could assure the Congress
that we had it under control, financial control as well as technical
There were several programs, other science programs, which were in
various states of disrepair. For one, we wanted to get that whole
science program back in shape. I looked around and hired Burt [Burton
I.] Edelson, who had been with INTELSAT and COMSAT and ran their laboratory
for a period of years, and got Burt to take over the Associate Administrator’s
job there. I wanted a manager, which Burt had been, as opposed to
a technical guy.
The Science Office of NASA has always been a difficult office to staff
properly. You want people who are dedicated to doing the science,
because its major constituency are scientists, astronomers, scientists
of various stripes, planetary people, and what have you, and you want
somebody in whom they could have a good deal of trust, but at the
same time, the programs have gotten of substantial size, even with
Dan [Daniel S.] Goldin’s emphasis on smaller and cheaper, they’re
still several-hundred-million-dollar programs, and some of them are
several billion-dollar programs like the Hubble. So I wanted someone
that not only could have the faith and trust of the science community,
but also could manage the office, and that’s a difficult role
to fill. I think Burt did a good job at that. So that was either the
second or third priority.
Getting the aeronautics program reestablished was a high priority
with us. Hans of course, coming from being the Secretary of the Air
Force, wanted a closer association with the DOD [Department of Defense].
I was not sure that was good a idea, but we ultimately did make a
deal with the DOD. DOD was moving in the direction of these funny-looking
stealth airplanes, and NASA ultimately made a major contribution to
that. That was important. That’s not very well known, and we
can’t talk about it because it’s still behind the black
curtain, but we did make a major contribution.
Finally, the fourth objective was to sell a space station to the president.
I’ve always believed that four years is a short time, and I
assumed that four years was probably all the time I was going to have,
although I ultimately stayed a little longer than that and would have
stayed a lot longer than that had it not been for the Justice Department.
But even though four years is a short time, he ought to have a limited
set of objectives. And interestingly, in my chats with the president,
that was what the president believed in, too. He had a very, very
restricted set of objectives when he took that office, and one, of
course, was to bring the “evil empire” to heel, which
he succeeded in doing. But he had a very limited set of objectives
for his presidency and he stuck to them.
They always kidded about Reagan, that he would fall asleep in cabinet
meetings, and occasionally he did, or at least he pretended to fall
asleep. It wasn’t that he was falling asleep because he was
getting old; he fell asleep when he got into a subject that he wasn’t
interested in. He got bored. The cabinet soon found if you brought
things up that he wasn’t interested in, you were going to lose
him very quickly, and a lot of cabinet officers did and were not successful
because of that. But he had a very limited set of objectives and he
went after them and he did them. He accomplished them all. Peggy Noonan
has written a recent book in which she described—he had about
six objectives and he accomplished every one of them.
Anyway, my job was to sell him on a space station, which we finally
did. He was not a hard sell. His staff was a very hard sell, but he
was not a hard sell.
did you sell it to Reagan himself?
Beggs: I told
him what it would do. I gave him a number of presentations on the
potential of the space stations, what we could learn, the potential
of commercial activities, the potential for long-term research in
space, microgravity research.
You’ve got two thing in space that basically are different than
what you have here on mother Earth. One is microgravity, which you
can’t get—you can simulate for a short time on Earth,
but you can’t get at it long term except by going into space,
and an extremely good vacuum. And, of course, the vantage point of
being up. You can see an awful lot of both the universe and Mother
Earth up there, which is a big advantage.
Many industrial processes require or like to have a vacuum, and the
vacuum in space, which is there for free once you get there, is 10-12
torr. As you know, 1 torr is the pressure here on Earth of 1 millimeter
of Mercury. So, 10-12 torr is a very good vacuum, and you’ve
got it for free once you’re up in Earth’s orbit.
So I pointed out to him that we could do long-term research, and research
is a thing that one does where you set up goals and objectives for
an experiment, but often you find in doing the experiment that other
results show up which you have to pursue if you want to take advantage
of them, and that’s what we will have. I’m distressed
right now that with the current overruns in the program and the problems
they’ve encountered, that we’re not going to have a sufficient
crew, really, to take on manned experimentation, or man-tended experimentation,
or woman-tended experimentation. With a three- or four- or even a
six-man crew, you really don’t have enough people. You need
about eight, six to eight, to start doing some significant man-tended,
person-tended, whatever the PC [politically correct] word is. And
this is something we’re going to have to worry that one through.
I pointed out, which is an argument that he liked, is that you’ll
be able to see it with the naked eye, which you are. It’s an
evening and morning star. He liked that. He named it—or agreed
to a name, which they apparently for some reason are not using anymore,
but they should, the Freedom Station.
Finally, I said, “This is the time to do it.” And I said,
“With a modest increase in my budget, if you give me just a
2 percent increase in real terms, I think we can do the program without
any additional increase in budget.” Well, the OMB [Office of
Management and Budget] didn’t adhere to that agreement, but
that’s neither here nor there. He agreed.
Anyway, knowing he was an actor, I quoted from Julius Caesar, which
is not an apt quote, because both of the men who participated in the
conversation were dead the next morning, but in the conversation between
Brutus and Cassius the night before, they quoted those famous lines,
“There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood,
leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of our life are spent
in shallows and in miseries. On such a broad course we are now engaged
and we must take the current when it serves or lose our ventures.”
He liked that.
Anyway, he agreed to the program. As I said, we took him around to
various places to sell him, and he liked the NASA folk. Everybody
likes the NASA people, and he did. He liked what we were doing and
he liked the program that was going on.
He used to talk to the astronauts when they were in orbit almost every
time. I never could get him down for a launch, though. He wouldn’t
come. I think part of it was, somebody told him we might have an accident.
And, of course, we did. But he would never come down to the launch.
The vice-president did. The vice-president, I might add, was a very
great supporter. George H. W. Bush was a great supporter of the program.
I don’t know where his son stands. I haven’t got a feel
for that, but his father was a big supporter.
much influence did he have?
used to say, “I don’t have any influence with this president.
I’m the vice-president, and the vice-president is the least
influential man in the White House.” And that’s true.
Historically, that’s true. But I think he had some influence,
but it was behind the scenes; it wasn’t overt. In fact, when
I made my presentation to the president in the cabinet room with the
assembled cabinet, he didn’t say a word. He was present, but
he didn’t say a word. The rest of the cabinet voted no. [Laughs]
Fortunately, I had the only—as [Abraham] Lincoln said, the rest
of the cabinet votes no, but I vote “aye” and the “ayes”
have it. So I had the only important vote.
The vice-president was very helpful. After we had sold the Space Station,
the president said, “Well, I want you to go sell this idea to
our allies, because we should have all of them in bed with us on this
I said, “How about the Russians?”
“No, not the Russians.” We were still in the cold war.
But I would have brought the Russians in at that point, had I had
the permission to do so, but I didn’t.
Anyway, the president said, “I will give you a letter of introduction
to all of the presidents and prime ministers around the world.”
Let me tell you, if you get an introduction by the President of the
United States, you get in.
The vice-president was instrumental and gave me an airplane to fly
around in. He got me an Air Force airplane to go around the world.
We took a trip around the world. I met with [British Prime Minister]
Mrs. [Margaret] Thatcher and I met with the French president, who
was—that old curmudgeon. He’s dead now.
Yes, Mitterand. And the Italian prime minister, the German prime minister.
Who else in Europe? Then we met with the Japanese prime minister and
the Canadian prime minister, who I think then was [Pierre] Trudeau.
I can’t remember whether it was Trudeau or not. My memory’s
getting very hazy on these people. Somewhere I’ve got all this
written down, but I don’t know where it is anymore. No, I don’t.
All my files were burned up in this fire I had, so I haven’t
got much of that left.
Except for the English, they all agreed to join. I met with the ESA
[European Space Agency] people. They were very interested in joining.
They, of course, have to get a budget for it, for their various members,
but they all wanted to participate. That was not a hard sell at all.
Mitterand was his usual mean, hateful self, but he ultimately came
around. The Italians were very interested in joining, and the Japanese
were very interested in joining, and the Canadians as well, although
the Canadians wanted to attach conditions that we would not use the
Space Station in any way, shape, or form for military activities.
I said, “I can’t give you that. I can’t promise
that, because the law says that if the military wants to participate,
they can.” The military didn’t want to participate at
that point, but they do have the right to if they want to. But anyway,
the Canadians eventually came in without condition.
type of participation were they looking at at that time?
Canadians, of course, were interested, having designed the arm of
the Shuttle, they were interested in designing the arm for the Space
Station, which is a much more complex task. That was a very easy thing
to give them, because they had had the experience before and they
had the people who had been trained in that.
The Europeans were all interested in the laboratory, because they
very much had decided that this was an opportunity to make some money
and maybe get some technological leapfrogs over the United States.
And the Japanese were interested in the laboratory for the same reason,
which was fine. I had no problem with that.
The biggest hurdle we had to overcome was that the Europeans and the
Japanese always feel that they’ve been short-changed by the
United States when they collaborate. In some respects, that’s
true. So they wanted something that had a force of a treaty, and we
ultimately agreed to give them that.
I noticed in this current brouhaha over the overrun and the possibility
of dragging it out, the Europeans have brought that out, and they
are right. Those agreements do have force of treaty. I think ultimately
the State Department and the OMB have agreed it does have the force
Anyway, the Congress was happy as a clam in high tide with the whole
thing. They were very pleased with the initiation of the program.
They wanted to know what it would cost, and I said, “Well, I
don’t know, but we will run this program in two phases. The
first phase will be a complete base-line study of the configuration,
and we will give you a cost estimate, which is the best estimate we
can give you at that time.”
I had estimated the program at 8 billion in current dollars at that
time. That would be roughly, today, probably close to 18 or 20 billion.
I don’t know what it’s going to cost, and I didn’t
know then, and I don’t know now and neither does NASA. Somehow
we expect that people in technology can figure out what something
is going to cost down to gnat’s eyebrows for things that are
completely unknown from a technical point of view, but at the same
time they take on jobs on highways and tunnels and subway systems
and don’t seem to mind when those overrun 2 or 300 percent.
When I was in the Department of Transportation, we launched the Washington
subway system, and I’m at least partially responsible for that
awful thing we did to the taxpayer. I went up and told the Congress
we could do it for 2 billion. Well, it’s cost 10, and probably
before it’s completely finished, it’ll cost 15, but that’s
neither here nor there. Nobody objects to that, or nobody did object
to it. I mean, they groused about it occasionally, but the Congress
never raises any serious problems about it. When it overruns, they
shell out the money and things go on as normal. Even the OMB has trouble.
People in the press who constantly harp on the overruns that the Defense
Department and NASA run, never said a word about the subway. [Laughs]
why that is.
they like the subway, and they’re not necessarily sure they
like—they’re sure they don’t like what Defense does,
and they’re not sure they like completely what NASA does. It’s
an easy way to attack. Besides which, they say, “We went to
the Moon.” Everybody forgets now how much trouble we had in
the Apollo Program. I forget—I was there at the time, but I
only have my memory to go on. I think the first six or eight probes
we sent to the moon, exploratory probes, were failures.
Jim Webb did a smart thing. When Kennedy decided he wanted to go to
the Moon, Webb figured, “Well, this is my first and last chance.”
He doubled the budget they gave him. I didn’t have that luxury.
But he doubled the budget, and as it turned out, it cost every bit
as much as his doubled budget.
Another project we ran [at Transportation], we built the Strait Creek
tunnel out in Colorado. It goes through underneath the Continental
Divide. At that time, it was one of the longest hard-rock tunnels
that we had built. We bankrupted three contractors on that job because
the state of Colorado insisted on letting fixed-priced contracts.
I went out with Frank Turner, who was then the Highway Administrator,
and I said, “You shouldn’t do this. You shouldn’t
let a fixed-price contract. In the first place, that damn mountain
is flawed. It’s faulted,” which we knew by the test shafts
that it was faulted, badly faulted. It turns out you can lose a tunnel.
I didn’t know that until I got into the Highway program. But
if you drill into a mountain or even trying to drill through hard
rock in a subway system, and the rock starts to collapse on you, the
rock above you starts to collapse, you can lose the tunnel. By that
I mean you cannot shore up enough to keep the rock from continuing
to come down.
We damned near lost that Strait Creek tunnel a couple of times, because
they did run into a fault line in the middle and it started to collapse.
I forget how much concrete to shore that thing up. What they do is
go in and shore it up and then pump straw and concrete into the cavity
until they feel they’ve got it sealed.
But anyway, that tunnel probably overran our initial budget estimates
by about 600 percent, but it is one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
If you’ve ever driven up through that part of Colorado, it goes
right under the Continental Divide for, I forget, a couple of miles.
The people who go skiing should bless us every time they go through
that tunnel, because if we hadn’t been able to build that, it
would be a lot harder to get out to the ski areas in the western part
of the state.
But for some reason, people don’t worry about civil works, but
they do worry about NASA and they do worry about the Department of
Defense to a degree I find extraordinary, or at least irrational.
But those are the kinds of things you have to worry about. Then Hubble
was another example of that. We kept running the budget of the Hubble
up and up and up.
Finally, [Representative Edward P.] Eddie Boland, God rest his soul,
was a great supporter of the program, but he was a real tough Irishman,
and he used to grill me every time I came up here, and he said, “How
do you know this is enough to finish the job?”
And I said, “To be honest, Mr. Chairman, I don’t know
whether this is enough. I really don’t know. But I think it
is. We’ve scrubbed this program as hard as we could scrub it.”
Well, a year later we were back asking for more money, and he was
getting awful upset with that program. Of course, he was retired when
it was launched. After we fixed the problem we had, and he saw some
of the results, he was happy as a kid with a new toy. He, more than
any other man in the Congress, in fact, more than any other man anywhere,
he was responsible for keeping that program alive. He would really
do his homework and when he went on the floor with the budget, he
had all the answers.
There were a lot in the Congress that wanted to kill the program many
times, but he kept it alive. But it was one of those programs we had
a very hard time trying to figure out how to repair all of the problems
that we had. Then even after we launched it, we had a lot more problems.
We had problems with the mirror, we had problems with the solar cells,
with the foldable arrays. We had problems with the control system.
We had problems with the camera.
The camera was very interesting. Here I was up there getting beat
up about the head and shoulders every year, twice a year, from Eddie
Boland, and Burt Edelson would come over and he would want to spend
more money on backups. One day he came over and he said, “I
want to start a backup camera.” I almost had a fit, because
the program had overrun badly and I had just come back from getting
beat up again up on the [Capitol] Hill, and he wanted to spend another
10 or 20 million dollars on a backup camera. This was not something
you bought in a camera store; this was a $20 million camera. But as
it turned out, when we had the problem with the mirror, that backup
camera was absolutely a lifesaver. That was the camera we took up
for the initial repairs. So we did do some smart things.
The other smart thing that we did, we sat around in one of the very
many design reviews, and I forget who it was that was saying, “Well,
you know, eventually we’re going to have to repair this thing.
Even if it goes tickety boo from this first day, we’re probably
going to want to update and repair.” And all the astronomers
who were in the meeting shook their heads up and down and said, “Oh
yeah, we’ll want to make improvements, as improvements become
So I said, and I think several of us said, but I said, “We ought
to modularize each one of these things so that we can replace them
as modules. We can just slide the thing in as opposed to going over
in and having to do the wiring.”
When an astronaut goes out there with those big gloves on his hands
and tries to make a wiring connection, it ain’t no easy task.
So we did, except for the one they had to repair this time.
The power supply was the one thing we didn’t modularize. It
was too far gone at that point. But apparently I read by the morning
papers that they have succeeded in rewiring it, which is great. But
that was one thing we didn’t modularize so you could just take
the old module out and slide a new module in. But we did modularize
everything else, and that’s been a life saver, because we’re
able to go up there with the improved equipment and just take the
old one out and slide the new one in and it’s done. I make that
sound easier than it is, but it is a lot easier than what it would
have been. As a matter of fact, there’s still a directive from
the Administrator saying that in the future, anything we intend to
refurbish or repair on orbit should be modularized. It was one of
the old lessons we learned.
certainly makes good sense.
Well, that’s what most of management is, applying good common
sense ahead of time, not after the fact. We should have applied some
good common sense on the mirror, but I’m still mad at the Air
Force on that one, because Perkin Elmer was doing all the work on
the Air Force mirrors and they wouldn’t let us back in the highly
secure areas. Well, I got back to NASA and went up to Perkin Elmer
and I found out we had only one man up there. We had only one NASA
guy up there, and he wasn’t allowed to go into the highly secure
areas. I blew my stack and I called Pete Aldrich, who was then the
Secretary of the Air Force, and I said, “This is nonsense. We’re
building a several-hundred-million-dollar mirror up there and he won’t
even let us in to take a look at it.” So he agreed. We put three
more people, but it was too late. The grinding had already been done
and they had presumably tested it, only they tested it faultily. But
I blamed that on the Air Force, and I still do to this day, not on
NASA has a policy of working with its contractors, which is a good
policy. As a result, we do most of our work on cost-reimbursable contracts,
whereas the Air Force has gotten into the habit of letting fixed-price
incentive contracts, and they have a philosophy of “Well, we’ve
contracted with contractors, and a contractor should do what’s
right, and if he doesn’t, well, they’re responsible.”
Well, that’s fine if the contractor does everything tickety
boo and everything turns out well. If everything doesn’t turn
out well, then you have to fix it after the fact. It’s going
to cost a whole lot more money and it’s going to take a lot
more time, and that’s dumb. So I think the NASA policy is right
and the Air Force policy is wrong.
I noticed that the Air Force in their black programs doesn’t
do that, but they continue to do it and they continue to get in trouble.
I don’t think they’re doing it now, now that we’re
at war. I noticed when they wanted to replace their precision ordnance,
they went out and gave them whatever contract they had to do in order
to get the job done quickly. Same thing as on all the cruise missiles
are gone, too, and they’re replenishing them in the same way.
we can continue this conversation in just a moment and take a short
pause so Rebecca can change out our tape.
We were comparing the way NASA and the Air Force ran their contracts.
Well, I think I’ve said all I need to say on that. NASA and
the Air Force, more so than NASA and the Navy, although both of them
have benefited from NASA aeronautical technology and space technology,
but NASA and the Air Force have had a rather close relationship over
the year. Of course, both Bob [Robert C.] Seamans [Jr.] and Hans Mark,
who both were Deputy Administrators, served as Secretary of the Air
Force, and generally speaking, that relationship has been, I think,
satisfactory on both sides and very profitable and successful on both
sides. It’s not as strong today as it was ten, fifteen years
ago, but it still exists.
One f the recommendations I’ve made to—we made, we have
a group called the NASA Alumni League, which tries to help Administrators
and administration, one of the recommendations we have made is that
they try to restore that collaboration between the Air Force and NASA
to a more serious—I guess would be the proper word—serious
relationship as it was fifteen, twenty years ago. We’ll see
whether that happens or not, but it should. I think [current NASA
Administrator] Sean O’Keefe, who also had experience in DOD,
will want to do that. I hope so.
you can point out some of the areas during your tenure as Administrator
where this relationship was beginning to develop or the points where
it became more serious.
I can’t, because most of that work was and is behind the black
curtain. That was the direction where the Air Force was going, and
it’s still the direction they are going, although as I grow
older, I’m very skeptical of the whole black aircraft program
that both the Air Force and the Navy have ongoing. The Navy got themselves
in a terrible situation on the A-12 and lost the program, which is
We all have noted that in both the Gulf War and in this Afghanistan
incursion, or whatever it is—I guess it’s war—all
the airplanes fly above the antiaircraft defensive. So they’re
really not using the black capabilities or stealth capability of the
aircraft. And I doubt, in the way the world looks like it’s
going now, I doubt that they ever will. So this money was not very
Now, we did use it a little in the Gulf War and they did use it in
Yugoslavia. In fact, the Air Force is awful upset about that, and
probably should be, because they lost one in Yugoslavia. And there’s
no doubt that Yugoslavs passed that airplane right back to the Russians,
or what was left of the airplane. When they lost that airplane, they
should have immediately gone in with a strike force and destroyed
it, but they didn’t. Anyway, but that’s the area that
we have helped.
NASA has done some very significant work. Of course, you know, from
the beginning of the space program, a lot of the things that we developed
in NASA have moved right over into the military. For example, everyone
realized that space would be a very important area for communications.
The military, DOD, with the Air Force, launched a program called ADVENT.
I think it was called ADVENT, which was a lower-altitude satellite
communications system on which they spent a substantial sum of money,
probably over a billion dollars before they cancelled the program.
In fact, Burt Edelson was involved in that program, interestingly.
About the same time, the Hughes aircraft people came to NASA—that
was the first time I was in NASA—came to NASA, and they said,
“We have an idea of putting a spin-stabilized communications
satellite up at geosynchronous, geostationary orbit.” A couple
of the NASA scientists and engineers thought that was a great idea…
Hughes said, “We think we can talk our corporate fathers into
giving us enough money to build a satellite. In fact, we don’t
have access to—but we sure don’t have a lot of money to
pay you for a launch. We need a launch, not just into LEO, into lower
Earth orbit; we need to transfer it and go into [geostationary orbit
(22,300 miles up)].” They advanced some good ideas, and so did
NASA, on how to get to geostationary orbit.
So we agreed that if they’d build the satellite, we would launch
it for them. And we did. They built a satellite, which I think it
had five transponders on it, modern communication have up to thirty-six,
but I think it had five transponders, but it may have been a few more
or less, but it wasn’t much different than that, and we launched
it and put it into geostationary orbit and it worked like a charm.
It was great.
After we had demonstrated that, the Air Force and the folks in the
military said, “Well, that’s a better way of doing it.”
That’s what killed the ADVENT program. They started to design
geosynchronous satellites for their communication.
We came up with the first ideas on navigation. NASA came up with the
first ideas on mapping and Earth observation, all of which were adopted
by the—not necessarily our ideas, but the concepts were adopted
by the military, subsequently. So the military benefited significantly
from the NASA research, and rightfully so. The money that we spent
and the work that we did, if it has military application, should be
moved quickly into the military area, and it has been.
The first photographs of what you could see up there were taken by
John [H.] Glenn [Jr.]. John is an old friend, and when he flew this
last time he was reminiscing about his first flight, and he said,
“I wanted a camera. I asked NASA to give me a camera and NASA
said, ‘We don’t have one.’ You may not believe this,
but two nights before, I went down to the drugstore and I bought myself
a little Kodak and tucked it into my flight suit.” Of course,
that’s what he used to take the first photographs. Everyone
that saw those were very delighted with them. After that, of course,
cameras became a piece and part of every flight. Of course, the Air
Force saw what you could see from orbit, and the rest is history.
The air force did a lot of things—or NRO [National Reconnaissance
Office] does a lot of things from Earth orbit that really probably
were instrumental in ending the Cold War. I believe—and I am
firm in this belief—that the communications revolution that
came about through worldwide satellite communications and the miniaturized
electronics which came out, to a large extent, came out of the space
program, which made it virtually impossible for the people of the
Soviet Union to be shut off from the rest of the world, really succeeded
in changing the world and is probably the greatest reason why the
Soviet Union fell apart.
There’s an interesting story. A couple of my friends, a couple
who have been our friends for twenty, thirty years, got interested
in Russia. Rather, the wife got more interested than the husband.
But they took a trip to Russia—this was thirty years ago—and
went around Russia and they went the town that was [Vladimir I.] Lenin’s
birthplace. I forget the name of it. Anyway, Betty, the wife, got
to talking to a woman, a young Russian woman who spoke fluent English.
She was an English professor, as a matter of fact, and they started
corresponding. Her husband was an aeronautics engineer. His name is
Alexander. On the side—this was back in the sixties and seventies
when the Soviet Union was still going strong—he had an electronics
business. He would repair VCRs and televisions.
When the perestroika came in, they were allowed to travel, and they
made a visit over here. They came over on the Aeroflot airplane and
went to visit them. They live up in Boston. They went to visit them
in Boston. He also went out to the West Coast.
When he got back to Boston, he had big boxes full of VCRs and various
kinds of electronic equipment. My friend Charlie said, “What
are you going to do with that, Alex?”
He said, “I’m going to refurbish my electronics firm.”
He said, “Who has all this stuff?”
He said, “Everybody has a VCR. Sometimes they’re pretty
old and decrepit. So I made a good business out of this. I keep them
Charlie said, “Where do you get the tapes?”
He said, “Oh, hell, there’s a whole library of tapes in
Russia.” Like a lending library; they float around. You can
get modem and you can get the latest movies and broadcasts and everything
So, obviously it was a lot more open than we believed. They were getting
a lot of stuff through satellite communications and through the various
and sundry things that were available off the airways. I think really
that’s what changed the world, and I think NASA and the Air
Force and the DOD, once they got into using space, had a major impact
of the Soviet Union, how much attention did you pay to what the Soviet
space program was doing?
we paid a lot of attention. We knew them all. It’s kind of interesting,
when Jim [James] Harford, the retired president of the AIAA [American
Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics], wrote this book on [Sergei]
Korolev, he made a number of trips to Russia. Of course, it was opening
up then and he could talk to all the people. Korolev was dead by that
time. But you could talk to all of the people who were in the space
program, and they were pretty open as to what they were doing. We
used to talk to them.
We had a considerable number of collaborative programs with them.
We would fly on some of their science satellites and they would fly
on ours. We’d put instruments on. There was kind of an amusing
anecdote on that. After the animal rights people stopped us from flying
animals, they were still flying monkeys, and we had an interest in
that program. We were flying on one of their monkey flights. We had
an instrument. In fact, they liked our instruments because we would
share the data returns on all of this. They liked ours because ours
were more advanced than theirs and we got better data.
So we were flying some monitoring equipment on this thing, and we
routinely monitored their telemetry, and we knew that the monkey had
died. Just before reentry, I think, the monkey had died. So we called
the laboratory and didn’t say what we knew, but we said, “When
could we get the data?”
They said, “Something’s happened. We can’t get the
data.” Or, “The data was destroyed. Something happened
to the data.” This went on for several weeks. They wouldn’t
release the data to us.
Finally, I said, “Why don’t we tell them we know the goddamn
monkey died, and we understand that they don’t want to give
the data because we would know that the monkey had died. And we won’t
say anything about it. We won’t make any kind of a publicity
stunt out of this.” So they did, and they released the data.
But they were very, very reluctant to let us know that the monkey
had died. I don’t know what they thought would happen. They
probably thought we would make a big brouhaha propaganda event out
But we collaborated with them extensively throughout. As a matter
of fact, I [knew] Roald [Z.] Sagdeev, who was the civil head of their
space program, he’s an academician, a plasma physicist, and
he would visit the United States from time to time. He wanted to collaborate
more than our cold warriors were willing to let us collaborate, and
he would constantly have proposals to present to us.
Anyway, sometime in the early eighties, I forget, ’82 or ’83,
the space treaty we had signed with them way back during the Apollo
days was due for expiration and renewal. He came in and he said, “The
Soviet Union badly wants to renew this treaty.”
So I recommended to the White House that we renew it. If we had any
objections, it was a fairly innocuous treaty. It just governed the
terms and conditions under how we’d exchange data. Of course,
they routinely withheld stuff they didn’t want us to know, but
we’d knew it anyway, so it didn’t make any difference.
But the White House didn’t want to renew it. We were right in
the midst of the serious arms-control negotiations, and for some reason,
the wheels, the then-wheels, didn’t want to do it, and we didn’t.
I went over and talked to—I think [Robert] McFarlane was then
the National Security Council director. I said, “We really ought
to do this. I’d a lot rather have an agreement where we can
have some window into what they’re doing and I would have no
agreement where we don’t have a window.”
Well, he agreed with me, but he said “I can’t persuade
anybody to do it,” so we didn’t do it.
So this went on until the Soviets’ collapse. It waited until
the collaboration on the Space Station in the [William J.] Clinton-[Albert
A.] Gore days. Gore was very anxious to do that, and they did put
together another treaty, but we should not have let the first one
lapse. But we now apparently have a satisfactory working relationship.
But we knew all of the players over there. We even knew Korolev, although
not well. The Russians had a paranoia about Korolev. As a matter of
fact, they had a theory that we were going to try and kill him, so
they kept him under wraps.
We knew Sagdeev well. As a matter of fact, Roald is a professor out
at the University of Maryland and is married to one of our good friends,
Susan Eisenhower, who’s President Eisenhower’s granddaughter.
Susan got interested in Russia and studied Russia in the university
and started an Institute on Russian Affairs, which still exists. Susan
would make trips to Russia to exchange data. She met Roald in one
of those trips in Moscow, and they fell in love. It was after the
break in the Soviet Union, he came to the United States and they got
married, which was kind of nice. I get to see Roald from time to time.
I enjoy him.
We knew the Soviets, the scientists. We knew the people who were playing
in their game. We knew roughly what they were doing. We watched them
build their Shuttle. The intelligence people always thought that the
Russians had some kind of spy system set up in our contractors, and
they may have, but I’ve never seen that confirmed anywhere,
but they may have. In any event, their Shuttle looks just like ours.
Then they came and said, “See, it looks just like yours.”
I said, “Yes, but what you don’t understand is that our
Shuttle is statically unstable. That’s an unstable airplane.”
And the thing that makes it possible for us is that we’ve got
good electronics and they don’t.
I ran into [Alexi] Leonov, the cosmonaut, at one of the international
meetings. I walked over to him. He speaks pretty good English. I said,
“When are you going to fly your Shuttle?”
“Oh,” he said, “very soon.”
I said, “We haven’t observed you making any test flights
on it as we did.”
“Well,” he said, “we’re not going to do that.
We’re going to fly it the first time and that will be it.”
I laughed, and I said, “You must have very brave cosmonauts.”
[Laughter] He laughed.
Well, it turned out they never did fly it. They flew it once in an
automated mode, but that was all, and it was not a successful program,
which I felt at the time it was not going to be.
the events of the Soviet space program have any bearing on decisions
made in the American program, either from a policy—
the Soviets followed us. They didn’t lead. They did go ahead
and build a space station. They knew that we were proposing a station.
I mean, von Braun made no bones about it while he was alive. He used
to say, “We’ve got to build a space station.”
As you know, Wernher [von Braun] ran the—for a while he ran
the planning arm of NASA here at Headquarters. That was one of his
programs, the only program. He wanted to go to Mars, of course, but
in order to go to Mars, you’ve got to start by getting experience
in Earth orbit for long duration. That’s where he wanted to
go first. The Soviets knew that, so they did. When we laid down the
Shuttle Program, they went off and built themselves a space station.
But it was really because we were going to build a space station.
They were relatively successful with that program. They killed a few
people. We don’t really know how many. Probably more than we
do know, but they did kill some people. But unlike our program, when
we had the Shuttle accident, we shut the program down for several
years, they never shut their program down, never, in spite of the
fact they had several accidents. They tried to go to the Moon, but
it was primarily the challenge that President Kennedy had laid down
that drove them into that program.
They copied our Shuttle, but it was not a successful program. The
one area where they are probably better than we are is in their launchers,
and the reason they are better than we are is they build them in very
large numbers, so they get a lot of experience from them. I forget
how many launchers they have gotten off, but it’s probably in
the order of 1,000 to 1,500. You can look that up; I think it’s
a matter of record. But it’s a lot of launches.
And they did something very smart, which was probably due to Korolev:
they standardized on the engines. That’s a good news-bad news
story, because they never went for a big engine like the ones we developed
for Apollo. They were trying to fly to the Moon with something like
thirty engines in tandem, a very large number, and it didn’t
work. But because they standardized, they got a lot of experience,
and they were able to improve them as they went along, and the engines
they’re flying today are probably a good deal more reliable
than our engines, and they’re certainly a hell of a lot cheaper
than ours. They build them in quantity and put them in storage. Of
course, they have that luxury in a socialist system where they can
get a budget and build a batch of them and they didn’t have
to worry about the cost of their inventory. We don’t do that.
But as a result of all of that, their engine technology and the reliability
of their launch vehicles is probably better than ours, and we could
What we ought
to do is just buy them from them now, since they’re willing
to sell them, buy the better ones, as the Boeing people are on their
Sea Launch. That’s a good idea. If we want to design some new
vehicles, like the X-33 and X-34 programs, we should have bought Russian
engines or tried to adapt Russian engines. That’s what George
[E.] Mueller is trying to do up there in Seattle with his little program,
which I’m afraid is not going to go, although he says it will,
George says he’s going to fly it out of Woomera in Australia.
But other than that, they’re still very much behind in flight
control and electronics. They’re still very far behind in a
lot of the aeronautical sciences. They don’t understand near
as well how to do computational fluid dynamics [CFD] as we are starting
to do, or have been starting, which was another program that happened
on my watch. We got CFD work started out at Ames [Research Center,
Moffett Field, California].
technology is a key component of that.
There’s a funny aside. Roald Sagdeev came to see me one day
and he said, “Will you do me a favor?”
And I said, “If I can, Roald.”
He said, “I want to by some DEC [Digital Computer Corp.] computers
for my laboratory. Would you go down to the White House and see whether
you can get those cold warriors down there to permit me to buy them.”
I said, “I’ll do it. I’ll ask, Roald, but I doubt
whether they’re going to do it.”
He says, “Well, tell them I’m getting the damn DEC computers
anyway. I’m buying them on the black market. I can get as many
as I want, but they cost me three times what I can buy them in this
country. I’ve got a limited budget in my poor little laboratory,
and I really need to buy them off the shelf here in the United States.”
So I went down and asked them. Sure enough, they said no. So he had
to continue to buy them off the black market. But, yes, they had to
use our technology, because we were so far in advance with anything
they were doing. They’re pretty good at software; pretty good
at writing software. So if they could get the computer, they could
write the programs for it. Of course, they could also pirate our programs,
which were available commercially, to a large extent.
mention of the Soviets, now Russians, their advances in the boosters,
brings to mind another point about, under your watch, the Shuttle
was supposed to replace expendable launch vehicles, but there were
some issues there with the Department of Defense still wanting to
have some availability.
they wanted backup. Of course, at that point the agreement was that
they would build a launch site for the Shuttle on the West Coast,
and they were in the process of doing that. But they continued to
express a concern that reliance on a single system was not advisable,
that there ought to be a backup. Of course, they wanted Titan. They
kept saying Titan was cheaper, until we finally got the numbers out
of them and Titan isn’t cheaper. As a matter of fact, if anything,
its more expensive.
But I did negotiate with Pete Aldrich an agreement whereby NASA agreed
that they could continue a backup Titan program. We signed an agreement
to that effect.
Of course, they’re not using the Shuttle anymore. We did a dumb
thing after the Challenger accident when we decided we weren’t
going to use Shuttle to take up commercial payloads. What we did with
that decision—I was gone by then; I would have argued vigorously
against that, and Jim Fletcher, to his credit, did argue against it,
but to no avail—that we would not fly commercial payloads on
the Shuttle. The argument was you shouldn’t risk lives. Well,
you’re risking the lives anyway when you fly the Shuttle. I
mean, I don’t follow the logic of that.
The net result of what we did was we turned the market over to the
French. Ariane now has half the market, probably a little more than
half. And that doesn’t make any sense to me. I don’t know
whether it makes sense to anybody else. But our capability at that
time was as good or better than the French, and our ability to launch
was as good or better than the French.
If we wanted to back it up with expendables, I had no problem with
that. Expendables are arguably more expensive. The Air Force and some
of the people who build expendables would argue with that. But if
you take into account all of the costs of launching an expendable,
it’s more expensive than launching them on a Shuttle-like vehicle.
As it’s turned out, because of the various events, we don’t
fly the Shuttle enough to take on the commercial market anyway. So
I guess it doesn’t make any difference. The arguments that you
need a backup to make the system more robust, that it’s more
secure, is a silly argument. It’s a silly argument because they
can all go down at the same time, as they did.
When the Challenger accident took place, the Titan had an accident.
It went down for several years. The Atlas went down for several years
and the Delta went down for a year or two. They all went down at the
same time. Nobody has taken much note of that, but it’s true.
So they all can go down, and they’re all equally vulnerable.
A launch vehicle sitting on a pad getting ready to launch is the most
vulnerable machine in the world. All you have to have really is a
high-powered rifle with somebody that’s willing to land on the
beach in the dark of night and take a couple of shots at it. So the
security argument for a launch vehicle is silly. Of course, that doesn’t
say you shouldn’t take every precaution and put a secure force
around to detect anybody coming in, but they are highly vulnerable.
effect do you think the maintenance of some expendable launch vehicle
capability had on the Shuttle during the years that you were there?
I think it was a wise course to keep the assets for them around during
that time, because we really didn’t know whether the system
was going to work to the satisfaction of the commercial interests.
The commercial interests, at the time of the Challenger accident,
were pretty well coming to commit themselves to the Shuttle launches.
As a matter of fact, Hughes sued the government later on because they
had signed a long-term contract to launch all of their communications
satellites on the Shuttle, and NASA reneged, and they sued.
As I say, I had no problem in the argument with Pete Aldrich. If he
wanted a backup, it’s fine with me. The rest of the assets we
were prepared to either give to the contractors, or if the contractors
didn’t want to sell them—it turned out they didn’t
want them at that time, and we did sell one, and that got into litigation.
The contractors were pretty much convinced that it was going to go
Shuttle, except for the Air Force, who would have an occasional launch
on whatever. So they’re going to have to decide sometime in
the near future what they’re going to do with the Shuttle Program
in the future. [And what the next generation launch system will look
We’ve built the system to fly 400 flights and we’re now
just a little over a hundred, so we’ve got a long way to go
yet. But at some point you’re going to have to replace the Shuttle.
That’s another job that Sean O’Keefe is going to have
to wrestle with, as to what the system is going to look like.
I would be inclined at the present time not to build another truck
like the Shuttle, but to build a smaller vehicle. We had talked about
that, still a manned vehicle, but something that would carry human
beings around back and forth to lower Earth orbit. The Russians have
done it so many times that it’s very well proven you can now
put the big payloads up with expendables or a redesigned recoverable
expendable, the kind of thing the Air Force is trying to think about
for an advanced launch vehicle. That’s what George Mueller’s
fooling around with out there in Seattle, making something that you
could get most of it back, refurbish and fly again.
If I understand the Air Force program, they’d like to be able
to fly twenty times a month. Well, if they can design a system to
fly twenty times a month, it is recoverable and refurbishable, then
NASA could tag along on that and use that same vehicle to fly a smaller
manned vehicle of some sort. You have to man-rate the system, but
that ought to be fairly easy to do these days. And if they set up
the infrastructure to launch a maximum of twenty times a month, they’re
never going to use that except in dire emergencies, so we could tag
along for free or maybe for minimum cost. But they’re going
to have address that problem, and we were starting to wrestle with
it while I was there.
the Shuttle Program, you were looking at the beginning of having a
flight rate, not quite twenty times a month, but something more significant
than what they manage now.
When I got back, they had in the plan a forty-times-a-year program,
three and a half a month. With the problems we were having, everything
from the tiles to the main engines, the turbo pumps in those engines
had a very, very short mean-time to repair. Replacing tiles when they
needed replacement, they needed replacing almost every flight, the
turbo pump problem, the problems on the other engine components, the
ability to ramp up to get the number of boosters, that quantity of
boosters and the quantity of tanks, were just far beyond the production
capability we were putting into place. So Hans and I sat there very
early and we cut that back down in stages from forty back down to
eighteen, or one and a half a month.
My feeling at that time, as was Hans Marks’ feeling, was that
probably we would never launch more than twelve, one a month. We thought
that was well within what we had in place. We had four Shuttles; four
vehicles. We had sufficient production capability to get the boosters.
We had sufficient production capability to get the tanks. And we started
a backup program on turbopumps, which Marshall fought tooth and nail;
they didn’t want to do it. Of course, neither did Rockwell,
the main prime contractor on them. It turned out that was the most
lucrative piece of business in the whole Shuttle. They were buying
turbopumps like cracker boxes. But we started a backup program and
it’s taken them—let’s see, it must have been 1982.
This is now 2002. So, that’s twenty years.
They finally are producing backup, a new designed turbo, which was
designed by United Technologies, Pratt & Whitney, and they’re
flying them now. But with that we thought we would have sufficient
capability to fly one a month and maybe if we had a reason to, one
a half a month. We had succeeded in turning the vehicle around in
less than two months, and we had plans to build a bigger refurbishment
facility down there, which, it turns out, never was necessary. So
we could have ramped up to eighteen if we had wanted to. As it turned
out, we never wanted to. But if the Air Force goes ahead, then we’ve
got a program to piggyback on. That would make a lot of sense. Maybe
they can do that.
said a couple of times that you never had the need to ramp up to eighteen
or possibly more, I guess, flights a year. What sort of market was
there for even twelve flights a year?
market comes in three parts. One is the military market. At that time
we were planning that the military would fly perhaps three or four
times a year with their big payloads. The Shuttle was sized to handle
the Air Force’s big payloads. That’s how we set the size
of it. So we figured they might fly three or four times a year. The
market for the NASA science and other payloads was another five or
six flights year. So, there’s eight or nine.
And then the commercial market at that time was anywhere from twelve
to eighteen satellites, and we didn’t see much growth in that.
Of course, we were not looking at some of the newer ideas around where
they were going to fly a lot of them, although a lot of those ideas
have come a-cropper now, things like Iridium and Global Star and what
have you, where they were wanting to fly lots of satellites into orbit.
But the market, you could see, was twelve or fifteen large geostationary,
geosynchronous-type satellites, and we could carry two of those on
each flight. We could carry two of those and even do some science
at the same time. So there’s another six or seven flights a
year. So you add all that up and it adds up to about fifteen, eighteen
flights, and that’s what we were looking at.
Subsequently, of course, the military is now flying a little more
than they used to fly, but not much more, but the commercial market
expanded really significantly. Until the market collapsed a couple
of years ago, they were looking at forty flights a year. Now it’s
back down in the twenties, I guess. But that’s the market we
were looking at, and we figured we had ample capacity to handle that
market, particularly since Ariane was determined to bite into it.
They were starting to buy in. They would offer extremely favorable
terms to win some launch contracts. Of course, the Europeans, in their
own way, would keep the ones that they launched on Ariane. If we hadn’t
had the accident and if we had continued, which was dumb on our part
to have the accident, but if we hadn’t had the accident and
we had continued to fly normally, we could probably have handled the
market adequately. Ariane would have taken a piece of it and we would
have continued to get our share.
at those numbers that you’ve just suggested, it doesn’t
seem to leave a whole lot of room for putting up a space station.
we wouldn’t have. We would have had to either take something
off or ramp it up even further.
The Shuttle is a very interesting program. The Shuttle is a lot like
any other kind of airplane program. In order for an airplane to fly
from here to there, you’ve got to have several things: you’ve
got to have an airplane; you’ve got to have airports; you’ve
got to have an air control system, flight control system or ground
flight control system; and you’ve got to have maintenance people
who make sure that all the stuff works when you need to fly. Once
you have bought and paid for that, once you have paid for the vehicles,
the airports, put in place the flight control system and everything
else, providing you don’t reach capacity for that system, all
it costs you to fly another flight is what you pay in fuel and what
you pay the crew, which is de minimus if the machine is very productive,
as modern flying machines are.
The Shuttle Program was that way. Once you had built the launch capability,
once you had put in place the infrastructure to control this machine
while it was in orbit and while it was flying, once you had the standing
army, you could maintain it and keep it flying, you could fly until
you reached the capacity of that system, you could fly as many as
you wanted, and all it cost you was what it cost you for the expendables,
the fuel and the various other consumables that we take into orbit.
So, the more you fly it, the cheaper they get.
The cost of one additional flight for the Shuttle is probably in the
order of forty to sixty million dollars, as opposed to the number
that they quote when they say the Shuttle costs a billion or a billion
and a half or a billion-two or whatever number they bring around.
Yes, that’s true because they’re only flying it, what,
eight, ten times a year, eight, nine times a year, sometimes even
less. You’ve got to keep your people around, no matter what,
if you’re going to fly at all.
Furthermore, I argued, and I continue to believe, that below a minimum
number you ought not to fly at all, because unless you exercise a
system, you’re not going to be competent enough to make sure
that you can guarantee flight safety. But with all that, my assumption
was that when we sold the Space Station, that we would be able to
add a sufficient number of flights to the system that we could adequately
At that time we didn’t even count on the Russians as being part
of it. Now that the Russians are part of it, they can launch pieces
and parts up there using their expendables, which are cheap, and we’d
use Shuttle only for those things that require manned attention. Right
now the system is not—quite the contrary, the system is not
overstrained; it’s under-strained. Again, that’s something
Sean O’Keefe’s going to have to come to grips with. In
my period, we thought we were adequately covered for any foreseeable
contingency. What we weren’t prepared for was an accident, and
nobody ever seems to be prepared for an accident.
sort of reaction did you get from the standing army in terms of the
accelerated flight rate, the people actually at the centers and the
directors of those?
generally speaking, they wanted to fly more than I wanted to fly.
[William R.] Lucas down at Marshall [Space Flight Center, Huntsville,
Alabama], he was prime driver in the forty-per-year number. Chris
[Christopher C.] Kraft [Jr.] was still down at Houston when I got
down there, and Chris was dedicated to flying forty times. I don’t
know what Chris would say now, but as I recall, he thought we ought
to fly more rather than less. The Kennedy [Space Center, Florida]
people, we were bringing on the second launch site down there, the
second launch pad, and they didn’t see any particular problem
with launching two or three or four a month with two pads in operation,
of course. But I did. I didn’t think it was a realistic number.
Besides, we weren’t willing to back it up with enough money,
we weren’t able to back it up with enough resources to sustain
that flight rate. We didn’t have the spares. We didn’t
have the maintenance capability. We were missing a lot of things.
We could have flown—with what we were putting in place, we could
have flown eighteen, and I still think we probably could fly eighteen
if they set their mind to it. You ought to ask the U.S. Alliance [United
Space Alliance, USA] people what they think they could fly if they
turn them loose.
brings up another point. Speaking of USA, one of the things that happened
near the end of your administration was the STSOC [Space Transportation
System Operations Contract] contract.
mean starting to turn parts of it over to—
that’s an argument. I don’t know. The NASA folk don’t
like to be shut out of operations, and I understand that. I think
it’s important. I always thought it was important that the internal
NASA folk were capable of doing anything they asked contractors to
do, because the reason for that is that you ought to have your people
well enough trained so that they can oversee a contractor and be able
to quickly respond if they see something going wrong.
The first time with NASA, Jim Webb and Bob Seamans, and, before him,
Hugh [L.] Dryden, wanted to be sure that the young engineers they
were bringing in got thorough training in how programs were run, what
problems you ran into, how to handle a technical crisis, how to handle
a financial crisis, how to handle any of the various and multitude
of problems that you ran into. So people who were very young got some
very, very high-altitude kind of experience in those days. We had
guys running big programs who were in their late twenties, early thirties,
something that would be unheard of in the modern day.
As a result of that, NASA, of course, we inherited a lot of capability
from NACA and also from the Naval Research Laboratory and other places
around the circuit—Bureau of Standards. That’s where we
got Hugh Dryden, who had had a lot of experience. From 1960 to about
the mid- to late seventies, we were developing a lot of very competent
people. We started to lose them in the late seventies because they
were cutting back. NASA’s employment peaked at something over
30,000, at the time of Apollo. When I got there [back in 1981], I
think it was 22 or 23,000. They tried to cut on a selective basis,
but when you’re cutting a third of your employment, it’s
pretty hard to keep all of the skills that you’d like to keep.
Furthermore, starting about the mid-seventies, we didn’t hire
any new engineers; we didn’t hire any fresh-outs. When I came,
I said we’re going to hire 100 to 200 fresh-outs a year and
we’re going to find a way to do it. It took a while, but we
So what I’m saying is that I think it’s important, and
the NASA people resist, when you want to turn the whole operation
over to an outside contractor. At the same time, I felt that unless
we succeeded in getting some pressure on the system to reduce the
cost of it, we were never going to get the cost down. That drove you
into the direction of turning over segments of what we were doing
to contractors and putting incentives in their contract to try to
work the cost down. And that’s what we were really trying to
do, and they’re still trying to do that till this day, although
they haven’t had a great deal of success lately. But U.S. Alliance,
I guess, is working [at it]. The trouble is, the people I’ve
talked to at U.S. Alliance will tell you that they don’t have
the freedom to do what they’d like to do. Whether they do or
not, I don’t know. I’m not that close to it.
were some of the other areas they were looking at for commercialization
at that time, some of the things that might be turned over to the—
were various proposals, everything from turning the whole fleet over
to a private contractor and letting them take over the primary operational
responsibility with a minimum of NASA oversight. Hans and I felt we
had too many people on the payroll in the operational functions. We
didn’t know the half of it, because they doubled it after the
Challenger accident. They doubled that manpower. But we thought we
had too many, and we thought it could be cut by a third if somebody
really worked at it, without endangering flight safety.
I don’t know. We looked at various options. We looked at various
options, but as everything of that type, you cannot do it overnight.
You’ve got to plan your way into that. We were starting down
that road. The accident caused a hiatus in that for a period of time,
but they’re back on that same road now. I’m too far away
from it to judge what they ought to do. But at that time I felt that
we could cut it back by a third or so. I thought we could get the
total costs of the system that we were spending down perhaps by a
quarter. At least that was good target to aim at, and we could use
that money to— hopefully, the OMB would let us keep it to do
other good things.
And we didn’t think we’d jeopardize flight safety. Well,
you say, “You had an accident.” Yeah, we did. The accident
was not due to the—in my understanding, and I’ve read
all the reports of it—I was out of NASA at the time of the accident,
but of course I was vitally interested, and I felt some degree of
responsibility and frustration on it. But as I read the reports, we
launched into a very bad environmental situation. It was probably
a twenty-five-year cold spell that morning. If we hadn’t launched
in that—furthermore, we’d had had some experience in launching
in the cold before. We launched one of the unmanned Apollo flights
on a very cold morning, and we lost the vehicle.
The problem, when it gets below freezing, is you don’t know
how much internal ice accumulates, and internal ice tends to change
the vibration characteristics of the piping and the machinery, and
it can literally be catastrophic. I remember that morning I was worried
about that, as a matter of fact, to the point that I actually asked
Milt [Milton] Silveira, who was then the chief engineer, to go call
them and tell them to call a meeting and worry about internal ice.
But that was the wrong thing to worry about. What happened was that
the seals froze up and then burned through.
But if we hadn’t launched in that cold—it’s another
case of fate playing tricks on you. That launch was scheduled to go
off on Super Bowl Sunday. They decided that they’d had a problem
the night before—or two nights, I guess, or three nights, and
they decided not to launch on Super Bowl Sunday. Super Bowl Sunday
was a fine day. If they’d have launched then, they wouldn’t
have had any trouble. So they held it over and caught the cold spell
and lost the vehicle and the crew. Anyway. And it changed the nature
of the program significantly.
you said, you were out of NASA at that time, but you hadn’t
officially left. What kinds of things were you doing involved with
Beggs: I was
totally involved with the lawsuit at that point. In fact, from November,
when I was indicted, until May of two years later, I was in a state
of lawyerly discussions.
Whether I would have done anything different at the time, I’ve
thought about that. I think I would have, but that’s pure conjecture.
People have asked me about it, and say, “Well, I really don’t
want to ruminate about that, because I don’t know.” No
one knows. No one knows. Although I did tell Milt Silveira of my concern,
and he tried to call and couldn’t get a hold of anybody. Of
course, they were all sequestered by that time.
They shouldn’t have launched. I don’t know why they did
launch, and I’ve asked several of them since, “Why did
you launch?” They don’t know. It’s one of those
things that just happens, and no one understands why it happens after
it happened, which is the nature of an accident.
Teacher in Space Program was something that you had developed. Maybe
if you could give us a little bit of background on how that came about.
Beggs: I forget
the exact genesis of that. We had talked a number of times about sending
people in space. Jake Garn was the first one to put the idea out that
we ought to be flying folks. We now had the capability. Up until this
time we didn’t have the capability of flying them, but the Shuttle
was capable of carrying—I think at one time we carried seven,
but we certainly could carry six. He wanted to fly, and I saw no reason
why he shouldn’t fly. As a matter of fact, I saw a lot of reasons
he should, because he was chairman of the committee and he could help
us a lot if he was more significantly familiar with what was going
on in the program. So we did; we decided to fly Jake.
I was up in his office one day, one of my usual visits. I tried to
maintain a steady contact with my chairman and ranking minority. Anyway,
I was up in his office, and every time I went up to his office, he
would say, “When can I fly? When are you going to let me fly?”
And we had discussed it, and finally we had agreed that we could invite
him to fly. So I was up in his office and we were talking about some
other matter, so I was about to leave and he said, “Well, have
you decided when I can fly?”
And I said, “How about—,” whatever month, “the
[Laughs] His jaw dropped open, his jaw slackened and his mouth dropped
open, and he said, “You’re kidding.”’
And I said, “No, I’m not.” So we let him fly.
Well, we had been thinking about the idea of taking a journalist up
for a long time, because we thought if we could get a journalist up
there, at least somebody would be able to write about it and give
us, if not good publicity, at least a lot of publicity. And I forget
who came up with the idea of a teacher. I think it was [S.] Neil Hosenball,
who was the general counsel. Neil said, “Why not a teacher.”
And I thought about that for a little bit, and I said, “Well,
why not.” Because the biggest receptive audience we have in
this country are the kids. Kids love space. A teacher could give you
an introduction to those kids that no one else could. They could translate
the thing into lesson plans and books and all kinds of things.
So we talked it over and finally we decided to do it. Then came the
question of how do you select which teacher, and we went through a
procedure, and did. Then fate caught us again, because she was flying
I think they should get back to that. I think they ought to go back
and do it again [and Sean O’Keefe is]. NASA is very careful
in explaining to people that there are risks in flying. Actually,
the Shuttle Program has been the most reliable and safest space vehicle
we’ve ever flown. We’ve got one accident in a hundred
and umpteen flights, so that’s less than 1 percent. That’s
better than anything that’s ever flown. But that doesn’t
make it good enough.
there any way to make it good enough, do you think?
No flying machine is 100 percent safe. We have flying machines that
fly in the air and aren’t 100 percent safe. We still have accidents.
It doesn’t mean you can’t keep trying, and we do keep
trying. That’s why the aeronautics program in NASA is doubly
important, because the more we understand about flying machines, the
safer they’re going to be, but they’re not 100 percent
safe and they never will be. In my estimation, they never will be.
The unsafest vehicle you can ride around in is an automobile, but
none of us think twice about jumping in the car and going 1,000 miles
But could we make it better? Yes, we can make it better. But the one
we’ve got is pretty safe. Even the expendable launch vehicles
are getting better as we go along. They’re learning how to fly
them better, but they’re still not 100 percent either.
did NASA approach this inherent risk while you were the Administrator?
we talked about it. I mean, almost every year in the hearings, we
would be asked about flight safety. As I say, anyone who went into
the astronaut corps or who was sent up to fly was taken aside and
it was explained very carefully that there were risks involved in
flying. We emphasized, or we pointed out the risks of flying in space
from the fact that more than half of them are going to get sick when
they go up there. We have to explain that to them. We have to explain
to them that there are risks in exposing yourself to the space environment
itself. There are risks in the vehicle. There are risks of strikes
from debris, space debris. There are all kinds of risks involved in
flying in space, and there are risks in launch and landing.
Certainly we put a whole lot more emphasis on explaining and trying
to get them to understand the risks of flying than you do when you
fly on an airplane. You know when you get on a commercial transport
that you’re taking a small risk, because you’ve read the
papers and you know that occasionally they crash, but nobody takes
you aside when you get on the airplane and says, “Hey, you realize
that you got a one in 17 million or 18 million chance,” or whatever
the number is these days, “of having an accident?” It’s
just assumed that you know that. And I suppose most of us do.
I don’t know what else NASA can do other than explain very carefully
what people are involved in, and they do try to make it clear to them,
but, you know, 50 percent or more of them still get sick when they
go up, and we haven’t figured out an answer to that.
risks like astronauts getting sick in space aren’t ones that
you really can have any control over. You can just do as you said,
we’ve tried various things. We’ve tried various drugs
and we try to condition them. We fly them on that airplane down in
Houston and give them various kinds of training and expose them to
the kinds of environments they’re going to see, but I concluded,
after looking at that problem very carefully, that there wasn’t
very much more that we could do. We hired the best people on vertigo
and all the other things you run into in flight, and tried to figure
it out, but we couldn’t figure out anything that would help
significantly, so they just have to live through it, and they do.
Most of them live through it fine.
I heard Jake Garn was one of those that had an unpleasant experience
in that regard.
Beggs: I don’t
know. To be truthful, I never asked, and I never wanted to know. The
reason I never wanted to know is I never want to be in a position
of meeting him someday and looking at him and accidentally saying,
“Jeez, I heard you had a bad experience.” Nobody likes
to talk about that.
A couple of the more experienced astronauts, though, did have a bad
experience. As a matter of fact, the astronauts had people that they
would sometimes not want to fly with an individual.
is a decentralized organization in that the centers are semi-autonomous
in the administrative sense. You give them a job to do and then you
expect them to accomplish their tasks within the budgetary authority,
or budgetary controls that you have. Within a decentralized organization,
however, it is extremely important that you have a control system
in place that allows you to monitor and assure yourself that the programs
are being carried out to the plan, and a strong control system, both
financial and technical control system, are very important.
When I was first in NASA, we set up a system of initiating and controlling
the programs that we authorized, and the Centers didn’t like
it. To my surprise, they didn’t have that before I arrived,
but we put it in, which required that when they wanted a program,
or when a program was initiated, they had to write up a several-page
request which told what their objectives were, what they planned to
do, how they planned to do it, how much time it would take, and how
much money it would take. That system that we installed when I was
the Associate Administrator is still used in NASA.
The same kind of philosophy we applied to everything out of the Administrator’s
office. I wanted to know periodically how it was going, and for that
purpose we had periodic reviews, technical reviews of the programs.
If the program was developing trouble, as the Hubble was at the time,
we scheduled more frequent reviews. But if the program was going well,
sometimes once a year, sometimes twice a year was adequate.
I asked Tommy Newman, who was my controller—comptroller, he
liked to be—he was a comptroller controller. I’m more
familiar with the term “controller,” but he was a comptroller—which
is all right—to set up a very strong financial reporting system,
and he did.
So those two things, fairly frequent technical reviews of the program
and monthly reports from the Centers in the financial control system.
Now, that doesn’t stop overruns. Everybody thinks that somehow
overruns are caused by financial controls being out of whack or out
of control. That’s not true. The best financial control system
in the world is not going to stop overruns. It may permit you to discover
the magnitude of them earlier, and it may permit you to do some things
to mitigate them, but it’s not going to eliminate them. And
on my tenure we had a lot of them. NASA’s always had them until
I think one of the problems that Dan Goldin ran into with the Space
Station is that he relaxed the centralized control a little bit and
so they didn’t—whether he knew it or not is another question,
but the control system, at least, it can be argued, didn’t highlight
the development of the overrun on the Space Station early enough.
But that’s neither here nor there, and I’m not being critical
of that, but it’s just an observation. But that’s what
you try to design the system to do; to give you an early warning when
I asked Hans Mark, my deputy, to make fairly frequent visits to the
Centers and give me an assessment of how he thought they were doing.
We changed a lot of the Center directors. In fact, we changed all
but one during my tenure. We were fortunate in that we had good men
to replace them, but we felt that in many cases a change was necessary.
We probably should have changed the one we didn’t. But that’s
neither here nor there.
you make a comment on one of those specific ones just to give us an
I’d just as soon not. The record is clear on the ones that we
changed. Suffice it to say that we were dissatisfied in one way or
another with the way they were running the Center, or in some cases
we didn’t feel they were being completely honest with us, not
being totally frank about what was going on.
But other than that, I wouldn’t want to highlight a particular
individual. I still consider all of them to be friendly with me. I
don’t think I made any—well, that’s not true. I
probably did make a few enemies, but by and large, they all took it
in good grace.
But we did change a number of them, and we got good men to replace
them. As a matter of fact, I was fortunate in being able to—when
Bruce [C.] Murray decided to retire out of JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
Pasadena, California], we were fortunate in getting Lew Allen [Jr.]
to go out there, and Lew did an excellent job at JPL. That’s
one. But it was Bruce’s decision to retire.
Other than that, I think all of the Center directors, save one, were
members of the National Academies, and I don’t put great credence
in being a member of any honorary organization, but if a man is elected
to the National Academy, it means that his peers think he’s
very capable. And we were fortunate, as I say, in having all but one
of those directors, either when we appointed them or subsequent to
that, become members of the academies.
the change in the Centers’ leadership have the effect that you
always. Not completely. But then again, in my long career in managing
both on the industrial side and on the government side, you never
find the ideal manager, including me. No one man or woman is totally
without fault. The important thing, the science or the art of management—it’s
probably an art more than a science—the art of management is
in getting the most out of your people and knowing both their strengths
and their weaknesses. If you do that and try to take cognizance of
what their strengths are, build on their strengths and minimize their
weaknesses. That’s the art of management, and that’s what
you try to do. Whether you do it well or poorly really is the measure
of the success of the organization.
Jim Webb used to say—and I thoroughly agree with him—that
there is no perfect organization and there is no perfect management,
and he’s right; there isn’t any. There just are better
and poorer, and sometimes things happen that are really beyond the
control of the management. You try to anticipate as much as you can,
but sometimes you don’t succeed.
Anyway, that’s long been my philosophy of management, no matter
where I was. Generally speaking, I tried to develop my people and
let them help me develop, and to take advantage of what strengths
they had, but if I had I felt that at a certain point we’d done
all we can and we still weren’t getting the results we needed,
then you had to change. And we did.
the upper management of a highly technical organization like NASA,
what is the relative value of technical expertise versus managerial
at the program level, if you are—well, let’s go below
the program level. At the engineering level, the guy on the line who’s
on the boards or at the bench trying to develop something, technical
expertise is by far the most important. He has to develop a sense
of how to work on a problem within a limited set of resources. Nobody
gets everything that he wants or thinks he needs to solve a problem,
but at the lower level, at the engineering and science level where
they’re working at a computer, on a bench, or drawing up a design
on a board, technical expertise is by far the most important.
As you move up the line to group management and program management,
and then into the area management or management of a broad set of
resources, the technical expertise gets less important and the managerial
expertise gets more important. But I went to the Harvard Business
School, and there was a popular theory at the Harvard Business School
in those days—this was back in the fifties, early fifties—that
a good manager could manage anything. When they would expound this
theory back then, I thought, “That’s bull,” and
I still think it’s bull. If you don’t know anything about
the thing you’re trying to manage, you’re not going to
be a good manager, no matter how good a manager you are. You’ve
got to know something about it. It’s important. First of all,
it’s important to speak the language, and NASA has a certain
patois that if you don’t have it, you don’t understand
what they’re talking about.
In the second place, you’ve got to have some understanding of
what they’re doing. When we had a problem, I wanted to see the
drawings. I wanted to see the design. I wanted to see what it was
they were building. And they soon found that when they came up to
Headquarters they brought the details with them so that we could understand
what we were trying to cope with.
At the same time, I didn’t—I hope I didn’t—I
tried not to, I never got into the business of suggesting how they
ought to change their design or how they ought to fix their technical
problem. That was their job. But I did want to understand it [and
to understand the solution or change]. And I think that’s important
that a manager do understand the technical details, but he doesn’t
have to get so immersed in them that he becomes a part of the problem.
So the ability to direct the individuals, the ability to pull them
together and point them in the right direction and make sure that
they feel that they’re being supported adequate to get the job
done is the job of the manager. And I hope that’s what I did.
As I said before, you can’t always give them everything they
think they need. There isn’t that much money in the whole world.
How did you organize your staff at Headquarters and how did the Center
directors, for instance, report through that system?
I went back to the system I had grown up with in NASA. NASA goes through
cycles. Periodically they have all the Centers report to the Administrator,
and periodically they have them report to the Associate Administrators.
I went back to have them report to the Associates, because I was comfortable
with that system. At the same time, Center directors at NASA always
realize they can call up the Administrator any time if they have a
problem they think should be brought to his attention. But that was
basically the way we operated. As I said before, we had a strong financial
control system, and I think we had a pretty strong technical control
system. It didn’t always work perfectly, but the system was
The Headquarters staff has to be competent enough to know how to dig
through the details to get to the truth. Centers, being decentralized,
won’t always tell you what you need to know, so you’ve
got to be able to dig through what they are saying, to read between
the lines, and figure out whether there’s a problem developing.
We put in a strong chief engineer in Milt Silveira. Milt had the authority
and the privilege of going anywhere he wanted to and looking at any
problem. As a staff officer, he wasn’t supposed to go down there
and tell them what to do, but if they had a problem, he was supposed
to go down and make sure that the problem was being highlighted and
worked on in a proper way.
We had a strong chief scientist. I think that’s important. It’s
important to have strong staff. If you don’t have strong staff
and someone’s able to pull the wool over their eyes on any problem,
then you’re in deep trouble. I think we had that, or at least
we tried to have it.
It’s important to have Associate Administrators or people who
are managing substantial program areas to have enough insight and
management ability to focus in on problems early, and I think we generally
tried to do that.
I went to the Air Force and asked for Jim [James A.] Abrahamson, Major
General Abrahamson, to come over and run the manned program, because
I had worked with Jim on the F-16 program, and I thought highly of
his capabilities. John [F.] Yardley had departed, and we really didn’t
have a successor, so I borrowed Abe from the air force, and he did
a good job on the manned side.
I asked Burt Edelson in on the science side, science and applications
side. We had a good guy working the various aspects of the infrastructure,
in Ed [Robert E.] Smylie. Generally speaking, I was very satisfied
with the competence. I only went outside NASA when I felt we really
didn’t have an adequate replacement. Otherwise, we tried to
promote the NASA people when they were qualified, when an opening
did you handle intercenter relationships at this time? Because obviously
one of the things NASA’s famous for is a sort of rivalry, if
you want to put it that way, between Centers.
there’s always rivalry between the Centers, and I think there’s
always a certain amount of jockeying to get a bigger part of the budget.
We tried to define the roles of each one of the Centers very clearly.
We didn’t always succeed, but we did get them to focus on one
specific role. I had periodic meetings with the Center directors.
We had long been in a down-trending budget, and I said, “I’ll
work as hard as I can to get more money, but we’ve got to spend
the money wisely. That means we can’t duplicate. We can only
cover the areas that we have to cover, and each Center has to focus
on the things they do best, and that’s it.” And we defined
what roles we thought were appropriate. That’s about all you
As I say, if you’re dissatisfied with the way a Center is operating,
you have only two choices, or maybe three, but you really have basically
two choices. One is to try to work with the Center director, whoever
is managing the Center, to bring him back to doing the right thing,
or to replace him. I mean, that’s all you can do.
What you can’t do is to manage the Center yourself out of Headquarters.
That’s impossible. Some people have tried that, but that won’t
work. They’ve got too many ways of running your end. There’s
too many ways they can frustrate you.
did you see as the advantage to NASA’s decentralization, the
way this works?
the advantage is that you can establish centers of excellence where
you have a better chance of solving problems. Centralized organizations,
if you try to overcontrol from a central organization, it’s
very easy to kill initiative and to leave the outlying organizations
with a feeling of frustration and inability to operate. If you have
a good, well-oiled decentralized organization, they can respond more
quickly to problems, they can do things in a more effective way than
you can by trying to direct it from a central headquarters.
The disadvantage, of course, is that it can get out of control, and
you can’t really stand an out-of-control organization working
out in the field for very long. So, as I said earlier, the trick is
to have a good enough control system so that you can prevent a maverick
organization running out of control, at the same time giving them
enough freedom to exercise their responsibilities and do the things
you’d like them to do, meet the goals and objectives you set
The best-run companies in the country, best-run industrial organizations
and the best-run government organizations, generally speaking, operate
under a decentralized philosophy. I’ve spent my life studying
organizations. When I was in the Department of Transportation, I worried
a lot about the FAA , and I still worry about the FAA, even though
I can’t do anything about it.
The FAA is basically a decentralized organization in that the centers,
the flight-control centers that are manned around the country, basically
operate under their own management and with their own responsibility
to control a discrete part of the air traffic network. At the same
time, it is a network and they have to tie into the overall net of
the country—in fact, of the world.
We’ve all had the experience of trying to fly from here to there
and being grounded someplace not because that area is under any severe
problem, but because [New York] LaGuardia [Airport] is down or because
[Chicago] O’Hare [Airport] is down. If you’ve got an air
traffic control center in one of those areas that’s not doing
as good a job as they should be, the network quickly comes to a halt.
And that’s where the management control comes in.
The problem with the FAA is that they’ve never really had a
very good centralized control system. Their controllers are superb,
which is what makes the system work as well as it works, but the management
in many cases has been weak. Furthermore, they have no technical capability
at the—in fact, there’s very little technical capability
around in the whole system other than the ability to train controllers
and route traffic. But when you look at FAA and look at its operational
responsibility and say, “How are we going to take what we’re
doing now and move it up a whole notch, move it up a whole generation,”
they don’t know how to do that.
NASA does know how to do that. It knows how to take what they’ve
got now and make a much better system in the next generation. NASA’s
problem is that it does not run the system as well as it might. It’s
incapable, or maybe not manned, maybe not staffed to operate the system
as well as it should. And that’s what drove me in the direction
of wanting to figure out ways of moving it more in the direction of
turning over operational responsibility into a more business-oriented
But NASA is able to define what is necessary, what the objectives
of getting from here to there are, how you should go about doing it.
In short, how to plan a program. And they do it pretty well. They
you recognize that shortcoming in NASA when you were trying to get
the Shuttle to operational speed, or was that something that developed
over the several years?
had no choice. One of the problems of government organizations is
that the top management turns over rather too often. Five years is
a short time. Even ten years is a short time. If you look at the best-run
industrial organizations, generally speaking, the chief executive
has been on the job for fifteen years, ten to fifteen years. Where
you see big turnover in the executive suite, you sell the stock. But
NASA has to operate under a political system, and the top management
changes every five to ten years. Dan is the longest serving. I think
most of the rest of us served well less than seven or eight. I served
less than five, and Jim Webb was there for, I guess, almost six. I
forget. Well, you can figure it out, because we’ve had, what,
six, seven, eight, nine Administrators?
Anyway, you’re there for a short time, and NASA compensates
for that by appointing senior people who have had a lot of experience
to the Centers, and that’s another advantage of the decentralized
organization. They get their chance to spread their wings and you
get a lot of experience, and they generally stay there a long time.
So when a new Administrator comes in, if he’s got any smarts,
he calls them all together and he says, “I’m going to
have to rely on you guys to keep me up to speed. Otherwise we’re
all in deep trouble.”
But anyway, he’s there a short time, so, as I said earlier,
you’ve got to decide what you’re going to do because you’ve
got a short time to do it. Hopefully, you get the organization to
back you on your objectives, and that was one of the other things
we did. Hans and I, very early, we made sure they all understood what
it was we were trying to do, and they all agreed. Then again, it was
in their interest to agree, but that’s what makes the thing
go, if it’s in their interest. But they all helped. I think,
with a few exceptions, we had a good relationship.
been talking generally about management. Maybe you can tell us how
that was applied practically to the Space Station Program, where you
actually had a chance to get this program going from the ground up.
there again, we drew on the strengths of the organization. We pulled
in Phil [Philip E.] Culbertson. Phil had been with the agency since
Apollo, or shortly thereafter. John [D.] Hodge, who had worked on
all of the manned programs. And we pulled in people from the Centers,
from Johnson and Marshall, who had had experience, and we organized
a task force and set out to define the program.
Phil and John, first thing they did was to set up a control system
for the program that would enable them to be able to follow what was
going on. It was going to be a big program. It would have contributions
from a number of different Centers, so they wanted an adequate information
control system that allowed them to follow the thing in as much detail
as they decided they needed. Spent a lot of money on that, but I think
it was worth it. Somewhere along the line it broke down, but anyway—but
we pulled in senior people. We pulled in people from all the Centers
that were going to be primarily involved in the thing. We set up a
task group, five altogether, in a single place so that they talked
to each other every day. That’s important. And defined the program.
Interestingly, as I look at what’s finally being built up there,
what we defined in the first iteration is about what they’re
going to build. Unfortunately, this is one of the problems that the
agency has in changing management. Each new manager that came in after
Jim Fletcher, Jim was well acquainted with what was going on, but
after Jim Fletcher, everybody, when the program had troubles, everybody
decided to redesign it. I think we’ve redesigned it three times,
but it still looks like it did back the first time we did it. But
that’s one of the problems of having new people come in, and,
of course, having people who don’t know anything about the program
in OMB and elsewhere, tell you, “Well, you know, we’ve
got to figure out a way to do this for less money.”
involvement did you have with defining and assigning the work packages
to split up amongst the Centers?
Beggs: I didn’t
have much input on that. Phil and John, they’re better witnesses
to this than I am. I left it to them to decide where the competencies
were in the Centers and where the various tasks should go, and I think
they did a pretty good job of that initially.
If you’re interested in this, Phil is getting as old as I am.
As a matter of fact, Phil might be a little older that I am. You should
get him to contribute, if you haven’t. He’s down in Cocoa
Beach [Florida]. He lives down in Cocoa Beach. But he could give you
more insight on how that was done.
did you think of the lead Center concept?
got to remember I left the agency relatively shortly after we had
put all this together.
Space Station, at the point when you left, had it been going along
how you had anticipated at that point?
I was generally satisfied. We had not really gotten very far along,
but what we had done, I was very satisfied with the design concept.
As I say, that hasn’t really changed a whole lot since that
time. They were still arguing about details, but the core concept
had been put together, and I thought it was a good one, and still
original Station seemed to have quite a diverse constituency in terms
of supporting the missions for the Station, and some of those have
dropped off or come back or been added or changed over the years.
Maybe you can share with us some of that process in terms of recruiting
these different organizations.
Beggs: I emphasized—and
I think Phil was in accord, full accord—that we ought to develop
as big a constituency for it as we could, because one of the reasons
for encouraging international participation is that you get a good
deal of support and backing for continuing the program, and for doing
what you started out to do. We wanted to court the scientific community,
although they were understandably skeptical on what they could do.
They warmed up somewhat in the last few years, particularly since
they agreed to put a centrifuge on it, which was one of the early
arguments on the thing, whether we ought to have a centrifuge or not,
but once they settled that argument, late, you got some of the scientific
people to come in support.
We wanted to develop some commercial support, and hopefully get them
to sign on to use it. That has been handicapped by reason of the fact
that NASA and various administrations have had an on-again-off-again
attitude on how much money they’re willing to spend to gain
commercial support. You can’t expect a commercial entity to
agree to spend a significant amount of money on developing, let’s
say, an experiment or a product-development effort in space if the
government is not willing to accommodate that particular experiment
or that product-development effort with a little money of their own
by either accommodating the Station or making sure that the facilities
they need are made available to them and so forth and so on.
Not to mention the fact that these periodic reexaminations of the
Station don’t leave a commercial manager with a very warm feeling
in the pit of his stomach, because if the program’s going to
go away and he’s convinced his management, “We’ve
got to spend several million dollars,” in developing something
that will go on it, and all of a sudden he gets a call from the boss,
“What the hell is this I read in the morning paper, they’re
going to cancel the Space Station? What happened to all our money?”
“Well, I don’t know.”
There are no guarantees in this business. But it’s a problem.
If you want support from the commercial sector, you’ve got to
accommodate the commercial sector. And since this entails long-term
commitment of money and resources on their part, you’ve got
to assure them that if they spend that money, you’ll be there
for them, and NASA had a hard time doing that.
What I’m saying is, to hold a constituency like that together,
to get the scientists, the industrial sector, the foreign sector,
the various and sundry people like the military, if they were ever
interested, and get them all together, you’ve got to give them
some assurance that you can take care of them. And they haven’t
always been able to do that.
of the things you mentioned earlier was having to operate within the
political system, and that’s something we haven’t really
talked about very much today. I was wondering if you could tell us
about having to work with the Congress and then the president’s
the Congress is probably, with some exceptions, probably the easiest
of the various and sundry influence groups that you’ve got to
work with. Most of the congressmen like the space program and they
generally support it.
You’ve got two problems with the Congress. The first problem
is that the Congress is constantly turning over. Everybody reads in
the paper about the fact that you’ve got all of these very senior
people who serve as chairmen of the committees, and that’s generally
true, although that’s changing a little bit in the modern day.
But the average tenure of a congressman is about five years. So it’s
constantly changing, and the committee membership is constantly changing.
If you want the support of your committees—and you have to have
the support of your committees if you’re going to get the support
of the Congress, because the committees are the people who sell your
program to the whole Congress—you’ve got to constantly
be available to keep them up to speed, to brief the program, tell
them why this is important, tell them what’s going in their
district, what it is that we plan to do in both the near term and
the long term, and you’ve got to be able to talk to their interests.
One of the members of my Senate committee was Jack [John C.] Danforth
from Missouri. Jack is a ordained Episcopal priest, and I would go
up and talk to him about the Hubble program. I kept trying to figure
out how I could relate to Jack, and suddenly it dawned on me. I said,
“Senator, do you realize that when you look far out into space,
you’re looking back in time?”
“Oh,” he said, “that’s interesting. How far
you going to look back in time?”
I said, “We’re going to look back in time close to the
beginning, with the Hubble.” That got him.
“You mean we’re going to see back to creation?”
“Well, not quite, but almost.” See, you’ve got to
figure out what it is they’re—some of them have various
interests, and tweak them in various ways. There’s nothing wrong
in that. Everyone has his own feelings and his own intellectual pursuits
and what have you.
But that’s one of the big problems with the Congress, is they
turn over rather frequently. You’ve got to keep working at it,
and it’s hard work. It’s time-consuming, and, as I say,
you’ve got to be able to size up and figure out what it is that
each one of them is interested in. Of course, all of them are interested
in what you can do for them in their district, but then they have
other interests, which are important. But that’s how you work
the Congress, and we spent a lot of time working the Congress. It’s
sometimes frustrating, but you do the best you can.
The White House and the OMB are a horse of an entirely different color.
If you’ve got a good advocate over in the White House, it goes
very well, and, fortunately, we had some people on the NSC [National
Security Council] who were very helpful. Gil [Gilbert D.] Rye, who
was a colonel in the Air Force, was working in the NSC, and he gave
us very significant support. That helped. He was able to talk McFarlane
and the senior staff into doing things that were very helpful.
Having a president who is supportive is absolutely essential. Having
a vice-president is important, too. You take the support where you
find it. I was fortunate in having a president who liked the program.
I had a vice-president who was very supportive. And, as I say, we
had several on the staff.
On the other hand, the OSTP, the Office of Science and Technology
Policy, was totally unsupportive, in fact, to the point where they
were almost belligerent. But that’s another story.
So you work that; you figure out who’s with you and who’s
against you, and you work around the ones that are against you and
work with the ones that are with you. If you can get the number-one
man to go with you, well, you’ve got a shoo-in. That’s
a lock, because you only need that one vote. But once he approves
it, you’ve got to go sell it to the Congress, and, as I say,
that requires a lot of time and due diligence.
does the OMB fit in that process?
oppose anything that costs money, and they keep making you want to
do dumb things, like doing cost-benefit analysis, which doesn’t
apply. I kept telling them, “This doesn’t apply to research.”
If you do cost-benefit analysis on research, you’d never do
any research. Any good financial analyst can tell you that if it takes
longer than seven years to bring a research project to fruition, you
can’t justify it. So you shouldn’t do it, because the
costs greatly exceed the benefits. Even if you use a low discount
rate, [and] they tend to use a high discount rate, and a high discount
rate—if you use a discount rate of, let’s say, 8 percent,
which at that time was what the government was paying for money, 8
percent is a double every nine years, so if your program is going
to cost a billion dollars over the next seven years, you’ve
got to be able to show benefits of two billion dollars at the end
of that time, or close to that. Very hard to do. And we wouldn’t
do very much research.
But you can turn that argument around and say, “If we don’t
do advanced research and technology development, if you stop it, you
won’t see results very quickly, but if we have competitors out
in the world who are doing it, in seven to ten years you’re
going to lose your competitive advantage.” And what’s
that competitive advantage worth? Well, you can’t quantify that.
But this country generally does what it needs to do to stay competitive.
When we were getting in trouble in the solid-state electronics field
and the chip business, and the Japanese were stealing our market so
fast that we couldn’t even develop the statistics to watch it,
we initiated two big programs at several hundred million dollars a
year to win back our lead, and we did. So, the United States tends
to do the things it needs to do, and we do the same thing in the space
program. Fortunately, we have people who are far-sighted enough to
know that if you let yourself fall behind in this field, you will
very quickly be overtaken. That’s the reason presidents and
vice-presidents and sometimes people in the NSC, who are paid to think
about maintaining a technological lead in the world, generally support
see that as a big motivating factor for support for the Space Station?
but it’s a factor. I think President Reagan saw it as a national
leadership issue. It was something that was important that the country
do. I think he believed it was something that would enhance the national
reputation, the national posture, the way in which the world viewed
the United States.
When I travel around the world—I did it several times both when
I was in the business world and I also did it when I was in the government,
both in transportation and NASA—when you talk to people around
the world, they literally are like a very unsophisticated—when
you talk about technology, which was my field—they look at it
at a very unsophisticated way. They believe—and it’s sort
of like an article of faith—that if the United States decides
to do something technological, we will do it and we will succeed.
That’s the reason Reagan was so successful with [Mikhail] Gorbachev
in the Strategic Defense Initiative. He really believed that if we
set our minds to it, we would do it. The value of that is incalculable.
The fact that they believe that when we set our minds to do something
that we will do it, is worth six armies. It’s worth anything.
You can’t put a price on that. And they really believe that.
When I would talk to the French or the Italians or the English or
the Germans or the Japanese and say, “We’re going to do
this,” “Oh, yes. Oh, well,” they believe it. They
believe it. You don’t have to make a big argument. It’s
an article of faith. “If you’re going to do it, you’ll
do it.” And then in the next breath, they say, “We want
to be a part of it.”
“Okay, that’s what I’m here for.”
But, again, if you go back and try to do that on a financial analysis,
you can’t do it. You can’t plug that benefit into the
cost-benefit analysis, but it’s very important. And fortunately,
we’ve got leaders in this country who believe it.
don’t want to keep you all afternoon, but I did have a—
about done. I’m running out of steam.
right. I don’t know if you wanted to make any final comments
before we wrap up, either about leaving NASA or what you’ve
done since then.
what I’ve done since then is, unfortunately, they broke my life
in two parts when they took me to court. I was fortunate in that I
was completely exonerated, but after I got through, all of the opportunities
that would have been there had gone a-glimmering. So what I have been
doing is working with small companies mostly in technology, startups
and companies that need help in various ways. I helped found three
or four different companies, about half of them successful and half
of them unsuccessful. Sat on a bunch of boards here and there.
No, all I can say to anyone else that would perhaps read this in the
future is that it’s a great privilege to serve your country
in a position as the Administrator of NASA, or in any other position
of similar responsibility. The Congress and the various things that
have happened in the last thirty years have made it much more difficult
for people who come in out of the private sector. It’s much
more difficult for a private-sector individual. Fortunately, people
still come, and the young President Bush has managed to attract a
very superior group of people, but they’ve done it at significant
sacrifice in many cases.
I don’t think the American people realize how much sacrifice
a man, a successful man, which is—or woman, who are the ones
you want to attract, do. When I came with the government, I played
by the rules. Some people don’t play by the rules, but I played
by the rules. I sold all my stock in any company, and I paid income
tax that year. The interest on the income tax I paid that year would
more than have paid my salary forever, but I recognized that it was
what I had to do, and so I did it. But it is a sacrifice. I think
that that’s the least of the sacrifice.
The major sacrifice that they require is that you have to publicize
everything and you have to fill out all these damn forms. Some of
the people that I had to put through that, their wives grew apoplectic.
They say, “If this all gets public, our kids will get kidnapped.”
Anyway, well, it’s an imposition, and they don’t need
all that data. They really don’t. The argument that they present
is that full financial disclosure and full disclosure of everything
in your past life—I mean, they ask you silly questions like
some of the things that are in that questionnaire, “Have you
ever been in a subversive organization?” without defining what
a subversive organization is.
“I don’t know. Yeah, I’m a member of the Catholic
church.” Silly things that they want to know.
“Tell me where you’ve lived for the last thirty years.”
Well, I really had to work on that, because we’ve lived in a
lot of different places in the thirty years prior to my coming.
But anyway, they’re finally coming to realize that that’s
a large imposition on people. It used to be that you had to fill all
these things in by hand. Now at least they’ve put it on a computer,
and you can bring it up on your computer and have that advantage.
The forms are duplicative, and again, the computer program will help
on that because it can fill in all the blanks that are similar. They
want to know of any past criminal record. Does that include traffic
tickets? Well, you don’t know. Anyway, it’s an imposition,
and they ought to do something about that.
But other than that, it’s a great privilege to serve in these
positions. If you get something done and accomplish something in a
period, it’s a great feeling of satisfaction. You make a lot
of friends, some enemies, but you make a lot more friends than enemies,
and you carry them with you the rest of your life. I still hear from
a lot of people in NASA. I get telephone calls, and when I travel,
I see a lot of them. I see them here in Washington at least once a
year at the AIAA Fellows dinner, where a lot of my colleagues are
So it’s a satisfying experience, and it’s something that
I would recommend to anyone who feels so inclined.
think that’s a great way to wrap up.
Beggs, I have one question for you. How long would you have liked
to have stayed at NASA if you would have had the choice to remain
Beggs: I would
have stayed—Jim Webb gave me a good benchmark on that. He said,
“The trouble with these jobs, you enjoy these jobs a lot, and
they’re a lot of fun,” and it’s good argument for
term limits because, he said, “There comes a time, if you stay
too long, when you think you own it.” And I guess that if I’d
have stayed another two or three years, I probably would have stayed
through the second Reagan term, which means I would have stayed about
seven years or so. But even if I were to have been asked, which I
wouldn’t have been, I would not have stayed longer than that.
But Webb’s advice is good. When you start to think that this
job belongs to you and this agency is really your agency, then you
ought to leave. That’s the time to leave. Webb’s advice
is probably the best advice that I could give anybody who asked me.
Webb is a very unusual and bright man. Webb was not very technically
deep. He understood technology, he understood what they were talking
about. He was a pilot and had flown in the Marine Corps, and he was
probably one of the best-prepared individuals who ever came into any
job in Washington. He had been a Deputy Secretary of State under [Dean]
Acheson. He had been a staffer up on the Hill, and worked with a number
of the old giants of the Hill, people like Sam [Samuel T.] Rayburn
and [John C.] Stennis and people like that. He had been a director
of the Bureau of the Budget, and he had worked under Harry [S.] Truman
not only in the Bureau of the Budget, but in the White House. So he
knew where everything was and how everything was done in Washington,
and I learned an awful lot from Jim over the years.
He was also blessed that he had Hugh Dryden. Hugh Dryden was his first
deputy until he died, and Hugh had been the director of the Bureau
of Standards and had run NRL, and had done a number of other things
around town. It was said of Hugh—I knew Dryden, but not well—but
it was said of Dryden that if you wanted to get anything done in the
technical establishment of the United States, and Hugh Dryden agreed
it should be done, you could go to Hugh, and with three phone calls,
it was done. And I believe that.
The Webb-Dryden axis was a very strong and very good one, and you
could learn a lot about how things get done in Washington and the
United States by studying what they did and how they did it. The sum
of what I’ve told you this afternoon is what I learned from
them. Some of the rest of it is what I learned by going through the
school of hard knocks, but I learned a lot from them.
thank you for your time. We certainly have learned a lot and will
be able to pass it on to others.
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