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April 3, 2008 Vol. 1, Issue 3


ASK the Academy posed five questions to former NASA Administrator Dr. Robert A. Frosch.

Dr. Robert A. Frosch served as the fifth NASA Administrator from 1977-1981. Before coming to NASA, he held a number of executive positions in scientific and technical organizations: Director for Nuclear Test Detection and Deputy Director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency in the Department of Defense; Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research and Development; Assistant Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme; and Associate Director for Applied Oceanography of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. After leaving NASA, he became Vice President of General Motors Corporation (GM) in charge of Research Laboratories, a position he held until retiring from GM in 1993. He is currently a Senior Associate at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

ASK the Academy: Your tenure as NASA Administrator coincided with the most active period of development for the Space Shuttle. What are your thoughts as the Shuttle nears its retirement in 2010?

Robert Frosch: During development, we (I, at any rate) saw it as an R&D project, with important operational capabilities, for the next stage of learning to use and explore space. I did not think of it as ever becoming “operational” in the sense, for example, of a commercial airliner. In actual use, it did not fulfill our expectations, or our hopes, for cost, flight rate, or increasing ease of operation. In part, at least, this was because of too much pressure to be “operational,” which did not allow for the developmental experimentation needed to evolve the system to be really more operational. I fear this error will continue to be made.

While the “continuing development” mode is expensive, it’s not as expensive as claiming development is over before it is, and moving too soon into supposedly routine operations.

Academy: The Shuttle was the last large-scale manned space flight development effort at NASA before the Vision for Space Exploration was announced. How would you describe the design and development culture at NASA during your years as Administrator?

RF: The phrase that comes to mind is “intense and optimistic.” NASA people tended to see it as the next logical phase of development in manned flight and exploration. At the same time, there was disappointment that the whole system was not being developed — only the shuttle part — and there was some impatience about the possibility of a space station of some kind. There was also a feeling of “neglect,” of not enough public interest in getting on with manned exploration. I characterized it as: ‘nostalgie de sputnik’: when will some event get the public charged up about NASA?

There was, however, real excitement about earth observation, and deep space science, both of which were making great strides, and generating a lot of excitement, with many new ideas floating around, and some being put into practice.

It is also worth noting that there were important, if not flashy, developments in aeronautics being made, such as quieter turbofan engines, the introduction of engineered composites into the secondary and primary structure, etc. These gave a serious sense of accomplishment to the development community.

Academy: As the Shuttle program winds down before the next manned space flight system comes on line, there is concern within the broad aerospace community about a loss of knowledge during the gap. Given your experience guiding NASA between Apollo and the Shuttle, do you have any thoughts about how this can or should be handled?

RF: New, younger scientists and engineers should continue to be brought into the agency, some by rotation, as the older people retire. It is also useful to use a cadre of the retired as active advisors, sometimes functioning as “advisory mentors” to the younger recruits. It is also important to keep sponsored contact with science and engineering schools and faculties.

Academy: Your career has taken in you into many areas of science and technology, including some far afield from aerospace. Do you feel that there’s always been a common thread among the various positions you’ve held?

RF: All competent R&D organizations look alike to me. When they are good they have a sense of excitement, a natural team interdisciplinarity, and an interest in careful innovation, not just in engineering and science matters, but in organizational matters and ways of working. Especially in retrospect, but also to a large degree as it happened, I felt I was moving from place to place in a large, connected R&D community. People from any place I have been, especially the best people, would adapt rapidly, feel at home in any of them, and be rapidly ready to contribute.

The above is true even though, in any large organization, there are people and parts that appear to be dedicated to making sure nothing happens. That is a fact of the nature of necessary bureaucracy; there is always a battle of the creators versus the controlling. In good places the battle for the balance invigorates all the participants.

Academy: As someone who has managed a number of diverse technical organizations, what conclusions have you reached about developing the people who have worked for you?

RF: Developing the people is part of the inherent job of an innovative R&D organization. There should be continual internal recruiting, by all levels of management, for people who would benefit from more educational experiences, whether that is formal course and degree-taking, or temporary exchanges with other organizations, or internal exchanges, assignments to teams, etc. This is not a “tax,” it’s a system of invigoration: it “pays off,” usually soon (in R&D time terms), and frequently in unanticipated but very important ways.

Read Dr. Frosch’s March 2008 presentation “Application Oriented R&D: Aphorisms and Anecdotes.”

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