EXCLUSIVE: New NASA JSC Chief Michael Coats Talks About the Agency's Future

BOULDER, Colorado - Formershuttle astronaut, Michael Coats, is ready to wrap his hands around themanagement controls of NASA's key center for U.S. human spaceflight. But indoing so, he must tackle a trio of thorny, concurrent issues: Retiring thespace shuttle program safely and flesh out as much as possible theInternational Space Station, while gracefully shifting the space agency into anext 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.

Inan exclusive SPACE.com interview with Coats, the newly appointed JSCdirector detailed the challenges he faces in the new post.

Keeping shuttle safety high

"Ihope to be able to look back in 10 or 15 years and say I did something to helpfly out the shuttle program safely," Coats explained, labeling it as a firstpriority. "When that last shuttle flight rolls to a stop, I'll be a real happycamper."

Coatsnoted that his NASA astronaut career began before the space shuttle program sawits first flight in 1981, "so I have an idea how long it has been around."

Otherprimary objectives, Coats said, are to finish the space station "as much as wepossibly can," hopefully operating the huge facility for quite a while into thefuture.

Butanother goal--one likely to consume most of Coats' time--is strategizing how bestto evolve from the shuttle program to NASA's Moon, Mars and beyond vision, theConstellation program. Specifically, keeping shuttle safety high whilesmoothing out workforce issues during that transition is crucial, he said.

Regardingany future job cuts at the NASA center, Coats said that issue has not come upin talks with NASA Administrator, Michael Griffin. "It's not clear that we haveto cut at all," he added.

User-friendly space program

Askedabout the NASA astronaut corps, and what role they should play given lullsbetween shuttle and space station assignments, Coats has a recommendation.

"Ibelieve very strongly that the astronaut corps has a responsibility to be outthere selling the space program to the public," Coats suggested. Informing thepublic about NASA is outlined in the original Space Act charter hammered outnearly 50 years ago, he said.

"Wehaven't done that as well as we should," Coats said, advocating more efficientuse of the astronauts to advise the public about the space program. He plans todiscuss this with the appropriate NASA officials to outline a new plan ofaction in this regard.

Coatsalso will push for increased astronaut involvement in all the design aspects ofthe Constellation hardware, like the Crew Exploration Vehicle. "To beuser-friendly, you've got to be on the ground floor when you are designingthese things...and I intend to make sure that happens."

No shortcuts to space

Therole of entrepreneurial firms at NASA needs to be encouraged, Coats said, asthey can be incredibly creative. "At the same time, you've got to realize thatthere really are no shortcuts to space."

Someof the smaller private firms want to be a Boeing or a Lockheed Martin, but callupon NASA to give them billions of dollars to stimulate their growth, Coatsadvised. "NASA doesn't have that kind of money to invest in these outfits."

Ifthese companies bring to NASA a demonstrated, proven capability for sale,"that's the definition of commercial," Coats said, and the space agency canentertain the purchase if it's cost effective.

Thereis so much going on outside every organization, to learn new things and take advantageof new ideas, Coats remarked. "And I intend to do that as much as possible atNASA as well. Let's go learn what else is going on...whether it's in other partsof our government or other governments out there."

Reality of the situation

NASA'svision for future human space travel draws heavily on shuttle-derivedcomponents.

Forexample, the Crew Exploration Vehicle will fly atop a souped-up shuttle SolidRocket Motor. The CEV itself is topped by an escape tower to pull the pilotedship free in the event of launch problems.

Coatswas pilot of STS 41-D, a mission that in June 1984 experienced a pad abort whenthe space plane shut its engines down.

Thatin mind, Coats said he is attune to the objective of having as reliable alaunch vehicle as the nation can afford, together with a good crew escapesystem. "That's really all you can ask for. Give me a reliable vehicle with afighting chance if something does go wrong."

Thereality of the situation, Coats said, is flying the safest system that thegovernment can afford, "because the safest system never flies...so obviouslythere's always going to be risk in the program."

Make some history

Coatssaid 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 systemin the shuttle," he added.

"Wereally are at the beginning of our space exploration development phase," Coatssuggested. "I love history, but we've got to look forward now. I want to makesome history instead of reading about it. The exploration program is what it'sall about. And I'd like to live long enough to see some of it...so I'm anxious topush it along."

Asthe incoming head of NASA's Johnson Space Center, Coats said his motto isstraightforward for contractors and center employees.

"We'vegot to be a team here. We've got to work together which means that we've got tocommunicate," Coats said. "Communication is the secret to success...and we've gotto focus on that a lot."

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.