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If you like Daniel Goldin's story, you might also like:
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Sally Ride,
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Daniel Goldin
Daniel Goldin
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Daniel Goldin Interview

Space Exploration

May 22, 1998
Jackson Hole, Wyoming

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  Daniel Goldin

You grew up in the South Bronx. What was your childhood like?

Daniel Goldin: It was a very happy childhood, but different.

I grew up in a row house in the very South Bronx and behind my house for about five years was a swamp, and it was a wonderful place. I used to go there and collect frogs and tadpoles. I always loved science. And later, I would fire off rockets there and start fires and one time the fire engine had to come to put out the fire because goofy Dan was making a rocket.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

What inspired you as a kid to be setting off rockets in the South Bronx?

Daniel Goldin: My father has had an incredible -- I said "had." He died recently. He was a major force in my life. He had an incredible drive for me because he didn't have the success in his life that he had dreamed of, and he exposed me to science. But, most of all he exposed me to the stars. He took me to the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History. I could see the tapes in my mind playing in color the day I went to the Hayden Planetarium, and they turned on that star machine and I looked up and they showed our own galaxy. It was breathtaking, and I remember this at seven years old. And I remember talking to my father and I was saying, "How can we go there? I want to go there."

[ Key to Success ] Vision

He told me we didn't know how to go there. I think that was the germ that was the issue that got me excited.

Did it surprise your parents or your friends that you were thinking about this at such a young age?

Daniel Goldin: No, because I had a special circumstance in my life. I had what was called progressive myopia. My eyeball kept getting distorted more and more, so I became more and more nearsighted. At that time, if you had a detached retina due to the buildup of pressure on the eye you could go blind. So, the eye doctor told my mother and father, "Don't ever let this child fall down. Don't ever let this child play contact sports." In the Bronx, you played stickball and baseball and basketball in the school yard. I wasn't allowed to do that and I became different than my friends. I was self conscious. I wanted to be like them but I was forced by health reasons to be different. So I would sit in the house and read books and do my science projects while they were off playing basketball and baseball, and I was jealous. I was envious. My father recognized this and he filled the void and helped me to be different, not to do what everybody else was doing. I was angry at him. I didn't talk at him. I yelled at him, but he held tight.

My father always was there to help me understand you have to have something in here that guides you. You can't look for guidance over there or over there or over there. And, up until the time I was 25, I never appreciated what my father did for me. We fought. It makes me a little weepy just thinking about this tremendous conflict we had. But he never yielded, and I think that really helped me become a human being -- forget about a scientist -- to understand that my reference clock is in here, and I could do anything I believed I could do. I should do anything that I believe is right to do, and I think he helped me be a better human being.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

Did you have siblings?

Daniel Goldin: I have two sisters. One is two years younger than me and the other is 13 years younger than me, and we had sibling rivalry. We used to punch each other. But my father always used to drag all of us. It would be inclusive. If we went to the museum, I went with my sisters. He always forced the family to do things together. My sisters are very artistic. They draw. They take pictures. I'm more focused on rational scientific thought.

We never had money, so if we went away on vacation we'd take a tent because we couldn't afford to pay for hotels, and we'd borrow a car from a member of our family because we didn't even have a car. And, we'd go camp and all it would cost was the food for the camp trip. And, I remember in the evenings my father would take us out and he'd point out all the constellations, point out all the stars, and that was the part of the day that I loved the best -- looking at the heavens with my father, who talked about it.

Is that when you decided what you wanted to do? Nobody was thinking about space travel.

Daniel Goldin: I wanted to understand why we couldn't go to those stars. I wanted to know. We certainly didn't have the rockets to do it, but that didn't mean it couldn't be done. There was no NASA, there was no space program, so I didn't know where I'd end up. When I graduated college and went to work for NASA I thought I'd achieved a state of nirvana. I said, "I'll be happy to stay here the rest of my life being a research scientist sitting in my laboratory working on space."

That's another beautiful part of life: you don't know where you're going to end up and you don't know how it's going to happen. One day, I got a call from a corporation who wanted me to come work for them, and I was getting itchy at the time. I was working on a Mars mission, and I said, "NASA's not going to do this. Apollo's going to end and they're going to shut down the space program." So I left NASA. I didn't plan to come back.

What I knew deep in my soul is the only thing I wanted to work on in my life was space. I would do it any way I could. If I could just translate astronomical tables, I would be happy doing that. If I could sweep the floor around the rocket I would be happy doing that. So it made no difference to me. That was my sustenance. That is my sustenance. And now I run NASA. It doesn't get any better than this.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Every day I have to pinch myself. I work for the President of the United States. I grew up in the South Bronx. I had to work from the time I was 11 years old to contribute to the family. We never had very much. My father sorted mail to make a living. He had various and sundry jobs. I'm the Administrator at NASA, and it's a privilege. It's an honor. I didn't plan it. It just happened.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

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This page last revised on Sep 23, 2010 13:15 EDT
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