The Ambassador will see you now…

A few weeks ago I received what could only be interpreted as a SPAM e-mail from someone called Shannon who was inviting me to have breakfast with Dan Goldin, the former NASA administrator, at the US Ambassador’s House in Regent’s Park. I’m familiar with the ambassador’s house: I can’t count how many times I’ve cycled passed the Georgian palace, which stands in prime position on the Outer Circle (opposite the crass mansions that new money can buy). Dan Goldin was the longest-tenured NASA Administrator, surviving both the Bush and Clinton administrations, and is still determined he’s going to see a manned mission to Mars. The US Ambassador’s house is beautiful (think 1700s France) with eclectic modern art covering the walls (Daniel Arsham, Michael Craig-Martin and Julie Mehretu). (Fun fact! he hates lamb and potatoes, which was served to him 180 times in his first year as ambassador to the UK).

Goldin grew up in a small, chaotic home in the South Bronx, where he realised he wasn’t quite like his neighbours. He was diagnosed with a myopia that could cause pressure build-up in his eye, which meant he wasn’t allowed to play contact sports like baseball or American football. His father was concerned about the uniformity of society and made a point of humiliating himself at every opportunity. To the sound of gunshots in 1940s New York, a young Goldin cruised the streets armed with mathematics text books and a slide rule. His dad didn’t ever actually make any money, but Goldin had a “uniformity of focus”- “I am going to succeed… that is what I’m doing”. His love of extra-terrestrial discovery started in the Rose Planetarium at the Natural History Museum of New York, where on seeing meteorites and asteroids he decided he was going to lead a Mission to Mars. In his mid twenties he developed the Snap-10 Nuclear Reactor at NASA which made 10 Mega Watt (that’s more power than 50,000 laptops) plasma propulsion possible. The space program didn’t only launch 62 successful missions to space, but it developed direct broadcast TV and accurate weather predictions.[1]

There’s a dark side to space science and engineering- national defence. These physicists and engineers don’t just send things into orbit, they design intercontinental ballistic missiles that wipe out cities. During his tenure Goldin controlled 9,000 people designing and building weapons for the cold war with Russia. After the war was over he made a video celebrating the people who had worked with him to “bring peace to the world”.

There were two lives mapped out for Goldin. In one he was a wireless communication pioneer, battling Motorola for bandwidth at the 1992 World Administrative Radio Conference in Torremolinos, Spain.[2] The NASA team was led by Goldin and Rodger Rush, who hired a Spanish tutor to perfectly translate their 10-minute pitch for power. Unlike a later experiment with Mandarin at a conference in China, this one worked, and he walked away $10 bn richer with 50 % of the bandwidth. Goldin was still “coming down from a champagne high” and “trying to deal with real life” after a flight back to New York when the Whitehouse rang. President Bush wanted him to be the next NASA administrator. Goldin wasn’t immediately willing to give up his fortune, “I saw the tech bubble coming,” and grilled the president on how much authority he’d get in the role. After the phone call, the Whitehouse asked if they’d answered all the questions correctly. “I’ll talk to my wife and call you back… but, it doesn’t look good for you”. Goldin says that the ‘90s at NASA had 70,000 employees too many and a crazy budget of $15 bn/ a year. The Hubble telescope was blind (needed new lenses), the Galileo probe was deafened in the turbulent winds approaching Jupiter and there was very nearly a hydrogen leak in the Shuttle. Congress were happy because people kept their jobs, but America couldn’t support an age of poorly coordinated scientific research. $10 billion? Or the media coverage that follows sacking 70,000 people? Goldin worked with NASA to redesign the ISS. The gravitational gitter on the previous design was 10,000 times too high. In 8-days Goldin got 8-men to design the same space station that is in orbit today (and will remain so for the next 10 years). “It sounds biblical” chips in the US ambassador, Matthew Barzun.

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Reflecting on taking the role at NASA, Goldin says it gave him a chance to see the world beyond America. His job was “not to do the job, my job is to provide the environment for creativity”.

In 2016, his business advisor is one of London’s most successful property moguls (Nick Candy) and he’s armed with pithy anecdotes and cryptic quotes.

  • “I call this one, seeing the angel…it’s Michelangelo, ‘I saw the angel in the model and I carved until I set it free,’ in life, you can’t hop between lily pads… you need to see the future.”
  • “I am going to succeed, that is what I’m doing”
  • “Sometimes you think you’re in a power position, but if you’re not humble… you’ll fail”
  • “Unless you know who you are, and you satisfy yourself first, you’re going to fail”
  • “Can you imagine a world where you could press a button to blow-up the world? I was part of that button”
  • “If you feel passionately, get off your derriere and speak”
  • “Where’s the Bronx in London?”… Nick Candy: “Out near the Olympic Park”

Goldin wants to get “obscenely rich” and send his own mission to Mars- and I think every ‘UK US Young Leader’ in this room (and Nick Candy) are going to help him. After the ambassador’s talk there was the opportunity to ask a question- and most of the male audience wanted to know how they could work for the Knu-Edge Enterprise. Interviews with Goldin assess your thought process over a massive 12-hours, where he looks to avoid incremental-ists and find those with a “bold vision”. He wants people with the “self-confidence to know failure is part of learning”. He wants people with integrity and he wants people who can work in teams without being destructive.

When probed on the climate, Goldin says he’s just happy he won’t be here in 30-40 years’ time. According to Goldin we’ve killed the oceans, which make up 50 % of the ‘biology’ oxygen we breathe. Goldin’s sure government’s aren’t going to do anything- Silicon Valley is now ‘social media valley’- and thinks instead we young scientists should be seeking private investments. When asked by the Science Museum about when and why he might visit Mars, there’s short lecture on creation of Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars- well, I guess it can count as revision for the undergrads in the audience. He’s sure there’s water inside Mars that can be accessed by a network of deep wells, and promises to have an astronaut up there by the end of the 21st century. When he told future president George Bush this at an Alfalfa Club dinner, George Bush replied “If I’m going to be elected president I’m going to do three things, and that’s not one of them…”. In the future who will lead Goldin’s mission to Mars? According to Goldin it’s Londoner Martin Sweeting of Surrey Satellite Technology.

On engaging the public and young people with science, he thinks that what we need is “vision, an execution plan, passion and leadership”. Whilst it may be very scary saying “this is what I’m going to do,” sometimes you just have to do it. Instead of creating a generation of scientists who will design a mission to Mars, we need to get young people to see the beauty and possibility of discovery. The next generation will use “science and technology as a vehicle” to “learn for the sake of improving the quality of life”. He’s adamant that young people need to read, that technical education is just creating a generation of technicians.  With regards to Brexit he’s diplomatic- but he thinks that Europe’s bureaucracy is stunning– consortium approaches to science and business can only produce an ‘average’ and ultimately hold you back.

[1] Martian Nanobacteria, Rock-eating Cave Bugs, and Other Extreme Organisms of Inner Earth and Outer Space

[2] http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB850690091667398500

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