Dan Goldin Did It His Way

By Keith Cowing
December 5, 2001
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Dan Goldin received a grand send off last night at the Watergate in Washington DC while a crowd of 250 looked on. The settings were lavish – standard fare for the soirees that movers and shakers frequent here in Washington. The crowd was a curious mix of people from Washington’s political, industry, government, and media circles – all of whom paid $75 for either salmon or chicken as Dan Goldin was lauded for his accomplishments.

Among the luminaries in attendance: humorist and host Mark Russell, political talk show host John McLaughlin, the Ambassador from Israel, Congressmen Dana Rohrabacher and Jerry Lewis, Senators Ted Stevens and Conrad Burns, former congressmen Louis Stokes and Robert Walker; and former Senator John Glenn.

From NASA, Center Director Harry McDonald, most of Goldin’s Associate Administrators (past and present), ISS Task Force Chair Tom Young, and a number of NASA public affairs and legislative affairs personnel were in attendance. CSA sent its recently-retired president Mac Evans. Very few (if any) rank and file NASA personnel or contractors were in attendance.

Mark Russell served as emcee for the event. While no one else seemed to see the need to adjust the volume of the PA system, Russell felt the need to shout every word. His jokes (even though they were bellowed out in megaphone style) were funny including his initial (mis)introduction as being of “Dan Glickman, the greatest Secretary of Agriculture …” Throughout the evening, his ad libs were interspersed with glowing pre-written comments that were the obvious product of someone at NASA PAO.

Before anyone else spoke, there was the obligatory showing of the slick video produced by NASA PAO regarding Dan Goldin’s accomplishments. This is the same video shown at Dan Goldin’s farewell at NASA HQ a few weeks ago. Venerable space journalist Walter Chronkite’s narration lent an air of authenticity as Goldin’s accomplishments are flashed on the screen. At no time was any mention is made of any failures – and the glowing terms used to describe all of NASA’s accomplishments during Goldin’s tenure were couched as if Dan Goldin alone was responsible for all of them.

A parade of politicians then spoke from the podium. All lauded Goldin’s accomplishments – saying, in one way or another, that if it weren’t for Goldin’s determination and leadership, NASA would not be where it is today. They also added remembrances of special times together with Goldin. Sen. Conrad Burns spoke of Goldin visiting Montana and flying out a plane load of cherries. Sen. Ted Stevens spoke about multiple fishing trips in Alaska wherein Goldin was by far the most prolific fisherman and where he hogged the shower on a fishing boat while others huddled naked waiting for their turn. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher spoke of Goldin’s attempts at surfing in California noting that a special slow motion camera would be needed to present Goldin’s entire time on top of the board.

Unlike the one-sided platitudes offered by members of Congress, ARC Center Director Harry McDonald provided the a much more accurate and balanced portrayal of Goldin. He spoke also of Goldin’s accomplishments at NASA. He went on to recall Goldin’s characterization of the way NASA works saying “some days you’re the pigeon, some times you’re the statue”.

In describing Goldin’s approach to managing NASA, McDonald told a story about famed violinist Itzak Pearlman. At the beginning of a performance, one of his strings broke, but he went on to make an impassioned performance none the less. When asked later how he managed to do this, Pearlman said “sometimes the artist is required to make beautiful music with what he has at hand.”

McDonald then presented Goldin with an award made by one of Ames’ wind tunnel technicians “in his ‘spare’ time – something he has a lot of these days” McDonald said, noting Goldin’s insistence that Ames move away from wind tunnel operations.

Astronaut Steve Lindsey, commander of STS-104 was next. He spoke of the marvels he saw on his recent mission to the International Space Station, and noted that this would not have been possible with out the hard work of Dan Goldin. He went on to describe the telecons Goldin has with crews prior to their launch. Being a rookie the first time he experienced this, he thought Goldin would not ask him too much. Instead, Goldin zeroed in on his rookie status and asked him if he thought that the mission would be safe.

Lindsey also had some stories of fun times with Dan Goldin. On multiple occasions, Goldin actually suited up and “sat in” on shuttle launch simulations at JSC. In one instance Goldin ended up sweating profusely when the cooling system in his suit failed. Lindsey closed by noting that during Goldin’s tenure there had been remarkable and had included 61 Space Shuttle missions, 7 flights to Mir, and three complete expeditions aboard the ISS.

Mac Evans, the recently retired president of the Canadian Space Agency was next. He referred to Goldin as “an inspirational leader – a true internationalist – a man of mission, passion, and conviction”. He put Goldin’s tenure in perspective by noting that the ISS had begun as a counter-attempt by the West to show the USSR what it could do. Over time it was Goldin, according to Evans, who turned the tables and brought the now former Soviet Union into three ISS program as full partner. Evans closed by saying that Goldin had “changed what humans do in space – and how they do it – forever.”

Goldin’s Chief of staff and White House liaison, Courtney Stadd, looking like he had just jumped off of an airplane (which indeed he had having flown up to Washington after the STS-108 launch was scrubbed earlier in the evening) spoke in glowing terms of his time with Dan Goldin. He said that when he had shown up at NASA last December little did he know that his tuition was about to be paid in the “Dan Goldin School of Leadership”. He distinguished this from “management” noting that Goldin had shown him how a great leader works – often thinking outside of the box. Stadd noted that Goldin had served three presidents and that these three “saw the greatness in the man.” He then presented Goldin with a special plaque signed by President Bush.

Dan Goldin then took the podium. He flashed through the various areas of NASA’s expanding involvement in new areas – noting its contributions to climate change and technology. He also took some pride in having brought the new discipline of Astrobiology into existence.

Of all the events he had experienced at NASA, there was one specific event he chose to cap off the evening, and his tenure at NASA – and it had to do with astrobiology.

Goldin recalled a time in 1996 when three scientists sat in his office for several hours. He was grilling them about discoveries regarding possible evidence of ancient life that they claimed to have made in the ALH84001 Martian meteorite. When he was done listening, Goldin was convinced that this team had enough evidence to support their claim and to go ahead with formal publication. Goldin, clearly excited, called his father.

Goldin’s father was in a hospital dying of spinal cancer at the time. Goldin said that he hadn’t expected him to live more than a few days. He told his father, a biologist, of the discovery from Mars. When he was done he told his father that he’d have to keep this quiet for 8 weeks or so. His father joked with Goldin, one New Yorker to another, saying “I am dying of cancer you moron, who am I going to tell!?”

As it happened, Goldin’s father lived much longer and was wheeled in front of a television to watch the August 1996 announcement. He died shortly thereafter. Goldin, tears welling up in his eyes, said that his father had “lived to see what his son had done.”

And thus the evening concluded.

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