The Triangle Tilts

The NASA-JPL-Caltech triangle had tilted toward Caltech in the 1980s, thanks to increasing campus ties and work for outside sponsors in the military. In the 1990s the triangle tilted back toward NASA, so that the old question of whether it was Caltech's JPL or NASA's was answered now for NASA. Caltech remained in the equation, and regulatory pressure reached it as well. Auditors threatened to make Caltech pay for certain unacceptable costs at JPL, and at one point these disallowances approached $10 million; hence the trustees' push for a chief financial officer and Caltech's own internal audits of JPL's business.54

The regulatory environment also affected campus-lab collaboration. The need for NASA approval limited the number of Caltech graduate students at JPL, and rules about reimbursement restricted faculty involvement. In the other direction, contract issues about subsidizing a university reduced the number of JPL staff teaching on campus from thirty to ten. Caltech's general counsel feared federal auditors probing the blurry boundary between campus and lab on such collaborative projects as the Infrared Processing and Analysis

Center (IPAC).55 Above all, Caltech administrators and trustees denounced the "uncooperative 'gotcha' attitude" of NASA business managers and resolved that if NASA did not retreat from the current adversarial approach, "Caltech will need to think very hard about any future contract renewal."56

The trustees expressed this frustration to Goldin in a private meeting in 1996, which helped spark the move to improve relations. Goldin appreciated not only Caltech's scientific and technical contributions to JPL and NASA, but also the political ones. After Bruce Murray's end-runs, the lab and campus had soft-pedaled any political activity, but in a breakfast meeting at Caltech, Goldin now asked the trustees to get involved.57 The trustees continued to offer a potent roster of political influence, and at their Washington meeting each year they pressed JPL's case with a number of congressional representatives. NASA managers welcomed the trustees' "heightened profile on Capitol Hill" — as long, of course, as they advocated NASA's program and not their own.58

From their end, Caltech administrators and trustees appreciated their affiliation with NASA. The campus continued to depend on the JPL fee and overhead for a substantial chunk of its operating budget—$28 million or 15 percent in 1995, an average of $100,000 per professor, an amount to give pause to even the most vocal campus critics of JPL.59 Additional funds flowed to campus in the form of research contracts: about $25 million in 1998, one-third of that to IPAC. A number of professors worked on JPL missions—not only planetary, but also astronomy, where the campus investment in IPAC paid off in a leading role in the larger follow-on infrared telescope.60

But the sheer size of JPL programs revived fears that the affiliation would change the character of Caltech. As Baltimore observed, "JPL has much more to offer than the Campus and its student body can absorb." The size of the infrared astronomy program—$40 million and 180 staff—surprised him. "We can carry one of these and be small, but if we do one more of these we will loose [mc] our smallness."61 People at JPL, meanwhile, still did not always appreciate the value added by its association with Caltech. In the employee survey of 1993, 60 percent of JPL staff felt a strong affiliation with NASA and only 26 percent with Caltech.62 When the trustees stepped up their political activity, some lab staff thought it was about time the lab benefited from its relation to Caltech.63 Baltimore recognized that "campus must care about the health of JPL, not just treat it as a cash cow."64

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