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Director of NASA is still reaching for the stars

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — When Dan Goldin was 7 years old, his fate was sealed. His father took him to New York's Hayden Planetarium, and from that moment on he knew he would be a scientist. He has been that and much more.

In the early 1960s, he joined NASA as a research engineer, designing electric propulsion for a manned mission to Mars. But in 1967, he quit. The country's vision was failing, and he sensed it: the Apollo program would be prematurely canceled, the moon abandoned, and the Mars landing, Goldin's dream, forgotten.

He had no intention of sitting around marking time. He went to work on other sorts of rockets, the kind that deter enemies and reassure friends, until (the first) President Bush called him back to duty in 1992. He has been running NASA ever since.

I cannot think of a better man-for-job fit than Goldin as director of NASA. He knows the physics, the engineering, the politics. Talk to him about any part of the space program, from orbiter design to congressional funding to the composition of Martian soil, and he will dazzle you.

Conversation with Goldin is like a graduate seminar in relativity: Every 5 minutes you learn six things you never knew. You don't often meet people this smart and this experienced who still dream. Ask Goldin how we can get to Mars and watch his eyes light up as he describes the orbital construction, the pre-positioned Martian water and fuel factories, and the revolutionary engine that gets you there in three months instead of nine.

If the American people decided to do it, how long would the project take? Eight years, he says with a smile. I get it: by the end of this decade. We had heard that once before, in more expansive times.

Goldin is no hands-off administrator. He flies down from Washington to every single shuttle launch. And flies down again for the landing. This is neither show nor bravado. It is care. His people are sitting on more than 1 million pounds of liquid oxygen and hydrogen, and he wants to be there.

His main mission is to meet with the astronauts' families shortly before the launch. But before that, at about T-minus three hours, he takes his viewing party to an empty stretch of secure road. We view the launch pad and wait. Then, a hush, a sighting of the surveillance helicopter, and a van speeds by carrying the seven astronauts to the pad. We wave.

We are there to see them off. The odd thing is, however, that with the van's tinted glass, you cannot really see anyone inside. Why then did Goldin have us out there in the blazing heat? I neglected to ask, but I later understood. While we cannot see in, the astronauts can see out — and know that despite the almost total lack of public interest in their venture, there are people out there from the wider world, led by the chief, watching and worrying.

At T-minus 20 minutes we are in the viewing stand, 3 miles away. Goldin is there with the families and the visitors, sporting his white wide-brimmed launch hat. He has already briefed us on the risk of catastrophe: for a commercial jet, it is 1 in 2,000,000; for a fighter jet, 1 in 20,000; for the space shuttle, 1 in 240.

The launch is a wonder, an incandescently bright flash in total silence, the sound and vibration not reaching us for 15 seconds. It starts to climb. We do not start breathing until it clears the tower. We do not start relaxing until T-plus 2 minutes and 5 seconds because until then the solid rocket boosters are firing and cannot be shut off. At 8 minutes and 30 seconds, the shuttle achieves orbit. Cheers, applause, smiles.

A minor but memorable Goldin innovation takes place each launch at T-minus 9 minutes. The national anthem is played and everybody stands. This may seem corny, but it could not be more right. You are about to experience the best of America: physical courage wedded to undeterrable ingenuity and the drive to challenge frontiers. There are people on that rocket. Something this noble deserves a formal, national salute.

There is an antidote to post-Cold War, reality-TV, bobos-in-paradise 21st-century America. If you want to see it, go down to Canaveral. If you want to hear it, talk to Dan Goldin. And if you want to feel it, witness a shuttle launch. You will be moved. It is impossible not to be.

Washington Post Writers Group