BOULDER, Colorado - Former shuttle astronaut, Michael Coats, is ready to wrap his hands around the management controls of NASA's key center for U.S. human spaceflight. But in doing so, he must tackle a trio of thorny, concurrent issues: Retiring the space shuttle program safely and flesh out as much as possible the International Space Station, while gracefully shifting the space agency into a next generation array of human space exploration systems.
Earlier this month, Coats was named director of NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. He was plucked from his current job as vice president of Lockheed Martin Astronautics in Denver, Colorado and will become the ninth person to serve as director of JSC in its 44-year history.
A distinguished U.S. Navy aviator, Coats joined NASA in 1978 as a member of the first astronaut class specifically selected to fly the space shuttle. He flew three shuttle missions, the first as pilot for the maiden flight of Discovery in 1984.
Coats commanded two subsequent shuttle missions, logging a total of more than 463 hours in space and retired from NASA and the Navy in August 1991.
In an exclusive SPACE.com interview with Coats, the newly appointed JSC director detailed the challenges he faces in the new post.
Keeping shuttle safety high
"I hope to be able to look back in 10 or 15 years and say I did something to help fly out the shuttle program safely," Coats explained, labeling it as a first priority. "When that last shuttle flight rolls to a stop, I'll be a real happy camper."
Coats noted that his NASA astronaut career began before the space shuttle program saw its first flight in 1981, "so I have an idea how long it has been around."
Other primary objectives, Coats said, are to finish the space station "as much as we possibly can," hopefully operating the huge facility for quite a while into the future.
But another goal--one likely to consume most of Coats' time--is strategizing how best to evolve from the shuttle program to NASA's Moon, Mars and beyond vision, the Constellation program. Specifically, keeping shuttle safety high while smoothing out workforce issues during that transition is crucial, he said.
Regarding any future job cuts at the NASA center, Coats said that issue has not come up in talks with NASA Administrator, Michael Griffin. "It's not clear that we have to cut at all," he added.
User-friendly space program
Asked about the NASA astronaut corps, and what role they should play given lulls between shuttle and space station assignments, Coats has a recommendation.
"I believe very strongly that the astronaut corps has a responsibility to be out there selling the space program to the public," Coats suggested. Informing the public about NASA is outlined in the original Space Act charter hammered out nearly 50 years ago, he said.
"We haven't done that as well as we should," Coats said, advocating more efficient use of the astronauts to advise the public about the space program. He plans to discuss this with the appropriate NASA officials to outline a new plan of action in this regard.
Coats also will push for increased astronaut involvement in all the design aspects of the Constellation hardware, like the Crew Exploration Vehicle. "To be user-friendly, you've got to be on the ground floor when you are designing these things...and I intend to make sure that happens."
No shortcuts to space
The role of entrepreneurial firms at NASA needs to be encouraged, Coats said, as they can be incredibly creative. "At the same time, you've got to realize that there really are no shortcuts to space."
Some of the smaller private firms want to be a Boeing or a Lockheed Martin, but call upon NASA to give them billions of dollars to stimulate their growth, Coats advised. "NASA doesn't have that kind of money to invest in these outfits."
If these companies bring to NASA a demonstrated, proven capability for sale, "that's the definition of commercial," Coats said, and the space agency can entertain the purchase if it's cost effective.
There is so much going on outside every organization, to learn new things and take advantage of new ideas, Coats remarked. "And I intend to do that as much as possible at NASA as well. Let's go learn what else is going on...whether it's in other parts of our government or other governments out there."
Reality of the situation
NASA's vision for future human space travel draws heavily on shuttle-derived components.
For example, the Crew Exploration Vehicle will fly atop a souped-up shuttle Solid Rocket Motor. The CEV itself is topped by an escape tower to pull the piloted ship free in the event of launch problems.
Coats was pilot of STS 41-D, a mission that in June 1984 experienced a pad abort when the space plane shut its engines down.
That in mind, Coats said he is attune to the objective of having as reliable a launch vehicle as the nation can afford, together with a good crew escape system. "That's really all you can ask for. Give me a reliable vehicle with a fighting chance if something does go wrong."
The reality of the situation, Coats said, is flying the safest system that the government can afford, "because the safest system never flies...so obviously there's always going to be risk in the program."
Make some history
Coats said that history will show that the shuttle has been a learning experience. "If there is a mistake, I think it was that we didn't have a crew escape system in the shuttle," he added.
"We really are at the beginning of our space exploration development phase," Coats suggested. "I love history, but we've got to look forward now. I want to make some history instead of reading about it. The exploration program is what it's all about. And I'd like to live long enough to see some of it...so I'm anxious to push it along."
As the incoming head of NASA's Johnson Space Center, Coats said his motto is straightforward for contractors and center employees.
"We've got to be a team here. We've got to work together which means that we've got to communicate," Coats said. "Communication is the secret to success...and we've got to focus on that a lot."