Bush Taps Griffin To Lead NASA, Implement Exploration Vision

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The White House reached back into NASA’s past to pick the man they want to fulfill U.S. President George Bush’s vision for renewed human exploration beyond Earth orbit, selecting Michael Griffin, the man who led the agency’s exploration effort during the first Bush administration. Griffin, who currently heads the space department at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), is a rocket scientist with an MBA and a veteran aerospace executive who has held a variety of senior-level positions at the Pentagon, NASA and in industry.

Griffin would replace Sean O’Keefe, who left NASA in February after three years in the top job to become chancellor of Louisiana State University.

Griffin’s nomination met with the approval of several lawmakers who would have to work closely with him if he is confirmed by the Senate.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), the chairwoman of the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee, issued a statement March 11 endorsing Griffin’s nomination, saying she looked forward to his confirmation and working with him on a NASA authorization bill this year.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), an influential member of the Senate Appropriations Committee who knows Griffin in his job at APL , said the president made “an outstanding choice.”

“He has the right combination of experience in industry, academia and government service. He has a proven record of leadership and a passion for science and exploration. I welcome his nomination,” Mikulski said in a Mar. 11 statement.

House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), whose committee has called on Griffin to testify as an expert witness on NASA issues, also endorsed the president’s choice. “Dr. Griffin has long been a resource to the Science Committee, both as a public witness and in providing private counsel. He has broad expertise, knows NASA inside and out, and is an imaginative and creative thinker and leader. He is also known for his candor and directness.”

When the first President Bush announced the Space Exploration Initiative in 1989 in an attempt to move NASA out of its low-Earth orbit rut and on to Mars, Griffin was picked to lead the ill-fated effort serving as NASA’s associate administrator for exploration. He also served as chief technologists before leaving the space agency in 1993. During much of the 1990s, Griffin worked at Orbital Sciences Corp., a Dulles, Va.-based company that builds satellites and rockets.

Before returning to APL in April 2004 to lead the lab’s space work, Griffin was the chief operating officer of In-Q-Tel, a private non profit enterprise funded by the Central Intelligence Agency to invest in companies developing leading edge technologies.

During the late 1980s, Griffin worked as technology deputy for the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, a predecessor to the Missile Defense Agency.

Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Simon “Pete” Worden, who has known Griffin for more than 20 years, said Griffin is an “absolutely superb choice” for NASA administrator. “This means the administration is serious about a new direction for the program,” Worden said. “He will make the president’s vision a reality.”

Courtney Stadd, an aerospace management consultant who headed up the NASA transition for Bush and served as NASA’s White House liaison and chief of staff until July 2003, said Griffin has the right mix of technical savvy and management experience to lead NASA. “He brings a really unique and really important set of skills that is exactly what the agency needs at this point in its history,” Stadd said.

Griffin has a doctorate in aerospace engineering and master’s degrees in aerospace science, electrical engineering, applied physics, civil engineering and business administration.

Worden said that he believes Griffin will “make maximum use of the true private sector” in implementing the space exploration vision, heeding one of the central recommendations of a blue-ribbon panel Bush chartered last year to advise him turning the exploration goals into reality.

Stadd said some of the smaller, entrepreneurial firms vying for a role in NASA’s new exploration plans ought to be very happy the White House picked Griffin. “From an entrepreneurial standpoint he has someone who has actually experienced what it is like to be on the other side of the table dealing with the government. We haven’t had that before.”

“This is good for NASA and good for the vision. Mike understands the entrepreneurial spirit,” said Bretton Alexander, vice president of government relations at Transformational Space Corp. and a former senior policy analyst at the White House Office of Science and Technology.

Griffin told Space News in 2003 that the first Space Exploration Initiative never took hold because back in the early 1990s the Congress did not see the value in investing heavily in space exploration.

In an interview last November, Griffin said he felt today’s political atmosphere is different than it was the last time the White House set big exploration goals for he U.S. Space agency. But he said he was under no illusions that maintaining political support for the new effort will be in anyway easy.

“Circumstances have changed in the years since I worked for NASA on the exploration initiative. We have a Republican White House and a Republican Congress,” he said in the interview. “I don’t know if the United States’ fiscal position is better or worse, but it is certainly different. We are also at war.”

Griffin is poised to take over a NASA that is preparing to fly the space shuttle for the first time since the February 2003 loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia. He would also be taking over leadership of an agency that has been given a presidential directive to return to the Moon by 2020 as a first step to human missions to Mars. Bush, in laying out his vision for space exploration early last year, called for NASA to finish assembly of the international space station by 2010 and then retire the space shuttle fleet. Writing in Space News last March, Griffin said: “What is needed is to retire the Shuttle Orbiter, and its expensive support infrastructure. It simply does not serve the needs of exploration and it is too expensive, too logistically fragile and insufficiently safe for continued use as a low-Earth orbit transport vehicle.”

NASA’s space shuttle launch manifest calls for conducting 28 missions by 2010 to complete the space station. NASA is reviewing that manifest with an eye to cutting some of those flights. Griffin has said in interviews that NASA should look for ways to retire the shuttle sooner than 2010, such as using expendable rockets to launch some of the space station hardware still on the ground.

“If you truly believe that the shuttle can fly all 28 planned station assembly flights between now and 2010, then it’s unlikely that the switch would pay off,” he said last November. “But if you believe that it will take until 2014 or later, then it is quite logical to ask if we could save time and money by integrating some space station assembly payloads onto larger expendables.”

Griffin has said returning to the Moon requires a new heavy-lift launch vehicle. He told the House Science Committee in October 2003 during a hearing on the future of human space flight that “it may not be impossible to consider returning to the Moon or going to Mars without a robust heavy-lift launch capability, but it is certainly silly.” Griffin has also stated his preference that the United States use existing space shuttle hardware, such as the main engines, solid rocket booster and external tank, as the foundation for building the new heavy-lift launcher.

Jim Muncy, an Alexandria, Va.-based space consultant to several companies vying to sell space transportation services to NASA, said Griffin understands the role entrepreneurial firms can play in realizing the NASA’s vision for space exploration. Muncy also said that Griffin is someone who thinks that achieving NASA’s exploration goals will require “a competitive suite of launch capabilities.”

“He thinks the shuttle-derived heavy lifter is a credible and affordable path for the unique missions, such as Mars, that can be done only by heavy lift, but that everything else can and should be done cheaply and commercially,” Muncy said.

Worden, who replaced Griffin at the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization in the late 1980s, said he does not think Griffin would let his preferences for a shuttle-derived heavy-lifter interfere with NASA’s effort to make an honest assessment of the best way to go. “I think he is going to be very open to whatever the best solution is. He is a superb engineer and he listens to people.”

Even as NASA administrator, the decision would not be Griffin’s to make. The National Space Transportation Policy, updated by the White House late last year, decreed that any heavy-lift launcher decision would be made by the president after hearing the joint recommendation of NASA and the Pentagon.

That policy also says the preference should be given to heavy-lift launch designs based on the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets.

Space advocacy organizations as diverse as the pro-industry Space Foundation and the alternative space activists at the Space Frontier Foundation both hailed Griffin as the right pick. But not everyone is sure to be thrilled with Griffin as administrator. Some aerospace industry sources privately expressed disappointment with Bush’s choice, pointing to Griffin’s reputation as a manager not afraid to butt heads. Others said his broad technical expertise can make Griffin rather overbearing at times.

Long-time associates of Griffin, however, said that his characteristic bluntness, while vexing to some, is also one of his chief virtues.

“Griffin is a little arrogant but he has 100 times more reason to be arrogant than Sean O’Keefe or Dan Goldin,” one Griffin associate said.