Cocktails with the NASA Administrator
Twenty two years ago I met the NASA Administrator Dan Goldin for a cocktail at the Hotel Encanto. He was here for one of the Delta Clipper tests. The Delta Clipper or DC-X program was funded by Department of Defense the contractor was MacDonald Douglas. The DC-X, short for Delta Clipper or Delta Clipper Experimental, was a development program for a a reusable single-stage to orbit vehicle built by McDonnell Douglas. Starting 1994 until 1995, testing continued through funding of NASA, in 1996, the technology was completely transferred to NASA. Mr. Goldin and I met in an elevator at NASA headquarters six months earlier. You’ve heard about the elevator pitch? If you have a great idea for a product and if by chance you run into Warren Buffet on the elevator for example, you’d better be ready to go. I was. Shark Tank is the TV version of taking a giant step to promote your product.
I knew Mr. Goldin was a runner. I knew he’d been to Las Cruces on the Delta Clipper program. He was a stickler for NASA employees to be familiar with the Strategic Plan. He was not known as Mr. Charm, if you didn’t know The Plan, he might tell you to get off the elevator. I worked at NMSU in the Space Grant office. I still work here, and my job is to support New Mexicans to become aware of NASA’s strategic objectives, their mission, and when possible, help bridge the gap in knowledge about how our state can benefit from the space industry, including partnering with NASA. Sounds simple but it’s not.
Mr. Goldin was not a fan of the Space Grant program. The boss likes to think all the money in the NASA budget is under his control as much as is reasonable. The Space Grant budget is a separate line item in the President of the United States’ budget for NASA. Like every Administrator, he felt he could use the money differently and possibly more effectively if he had it all. The NASA budget is very limited, and most of the Space Grant Directors understand the responsibility to make the funds count. NASA receives about a dime for every American. They do a lot on your dime and it’s my job to make sure your dime is spent well in New Mexico.
New Mexico has a wide variety of space assets. NASA has been investing in astronomical observatories like the Very Large Array and also investing in scholarships, fellowships and internships for students. We support faculty research at the 3 research universities in New Mexico. NASA invests approximately a half million dollars a year to fly experiments from the spaceport. NASA has also invested in White Sands Test Facility (WSTF) since it was established. WSTF employs over 600 people who live in our community. Their largest contractor, Jacobs just got their contract renewed for another five years. Jacobs is one of the best community partners I have encountered.
In 1994 when the elevator conversation was about to commence between Mr. Goldin and myself, I knew I had only 9 floors. Hi Mr. Goldin, my name is Pat Hynes. I am the Associate Director of Space Grant Director in the State of New Mexico. I would like to invite you on a run when you come back for the next Delta Clipper test. New Mexico’s strategic interests align with NASA’s interest in supporting the development of lower cost, faster and if possible, better vehicles to get us to space. His turned and faced me directly and said ok, what’s your name again. I showed him my badge and said, if you will allow me I will give you my card. It worked. His office called when he came to town and that’s how I met him for cocktails, kind of.
Almost 6 months later he was back for another test. The test was successful. That evening, everyone was in a good mood when Mr. Goldin and his posse came through the lobby on their way to the reception in the ballroom. I figured this is what he meant by having a cocktail with him and 500 of his closest friends. I went over quickly and introduced my self again. He stopped and said, meet us for dinner at the Double Eagle 7pm. He walked off to talk with the rest of the people in the room. On the drive over there my courage started to flag. But, I had a purpose. New Mexico had decided to build a commercial launch and reentry site for reusable launch vehicles, and if NASA was going to keep moving forward we wanted to be there with them. I worked with faculty and students across the state. They are interested in NASA’s vision because it aligns with their vision for a future that includes space programs. When there is common vision, people can more easily work together on common programs to make the vision a reality.
When I went to the Double Eagle there were 4 people, Congressman Brown from California and two others and Mr. Goldin. Mr. Goldin spoke most of the time with the Congressman, powerful supporter of NASA. I listened and realized Mr. Goldin wanted me to learn. Again, he asked me back to the hotel for cocktails. I still had not drunk even one but I agreed. When we finally sat down, away from the press he asked me about failure. What do you do when you fail?
Holy mackerel, the head of NASA is asking me about failure. I was working on my Ph.D. at the time and failure was a constant companion. Maybe he could tell. He wanted to talk about failure well, I’m experienced. When I fail, I said, I keep going. In fact I redefine the experience eventually. He wasn’t going for that one. But, that was his world. Failure was not an option with him or NASA.
Failure where humans are involved cannot be avoided, even for NASA it happened with Challenger and it changed everything. Now, NASA has accepted human spaceflight vehicles will fail. They want to change the odds of failure in this Commercial Crew program where Boeing and SpaceX will be sending astronauts to space. When I think back about inspiring moments with leaders I have met, this one will always be in my memory. And these days I’d probably drink at least part of my cocktail.