WASHINGTON — Mike Griffin’s tenure as NASA Administrator began at lightening speed. By the time he was sworn in April 14, the straight-talking 55-year-old aerospace veteran has already plunged deep into his new job.
He told Congress the shuttle fleet’s safe return to flight was his top priority and promised to accelerate the development of a replacement for the space shuttle. He also addressed serious concern among several influential members of Congress about proposed cuts in aeronautics spending, vowed to reconsider his predecessor’s unpopular decision to abandon the Hubble Space Telescope, pledged to fix the agency’s broken financial accounting system and spoke via television to the agency’s far flung work force.
Griffin, an aerospace engineer with a master’s degree in Business Administration and five other advanced degrees, was sworn in as NASA’s new chief April 14 by John Marburger, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
By then, he already had made it clear to Congress, the public and NASA employees that change is coming – and quickly. During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee just two days before his swearing in, Griffin assured lawmakers that his immediate priority is ensuring that NASA is ready to return the space shuttle safely to flight for the first time since the February 2003 Columbia disaster that killed seven astronauts.
“The very first issue on the plate superceding all others is to look into return to flight, work which has gone on in the last more than two years since we lost Columbia, to understand it, to understand who has done it, what has been done and to understand what the areas of concern still are,” Griffin said.
Griffin also announced during his confirmation hearing that he would reconsider the decision by his predecessor, former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, to cancel a planned shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. “We should reassess the earlier decision in light of what we learn after we return to flight,” Griffin said.
Griffin said once the shuttle has flown again, he would review two options: sending a shuttle to refurbish the popular space telescope or mounting a simple robotic mission to de orbit Hubble and plunge it into the ocean. The option of sending a robotic spacecraft to refurbish Hubble with new instruments, batteries and gyroscopes is off the table, Griffin said.
“I believe the choice comes down between reinstating a shuttle servicing mission or possibly a very simple robotic de orbit mission.” Griffin said. “The decision not to execute the planned shuttle service mission was made in the immediate aftermath of the loss of Columbia. When we return to flight it will be with essentially a new vehicle which will have a new risk analysis associated with . . . at that time I think we should reassess the earlier decision in light of what we learn after we return to flight.”
Griffin also made clear that he fully supports Bush’s Moon-Mars initiative, which calls for completing the international space station by 2010 and retiring the space shuttle before setting out by 2020 on human expeditions to the Moon and eventually to Mars.
NASA and the White House won a hard fought budget battle last year, but many influential lawmakers have yet to embrace the space agency’s exploration vision.
“If money is to be spent on space,” Griffin told the Commerce Committee during his April 12 confirmation hearing, “there is little doubt that the huge majority of Americans would prefer to spend it on an exciting, outward-focused, destination-oriented program. And that is what the president’s vision for space exploration is about.”
Griffin also announced during his confirmation hearing that he intends to speed up the timetable for fielding the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), which NASA intends to use to ferry astronauts to the Moon and back.
NASA’s current plan calls for flying astronauts on board the CEV for the first time in 2014, a schedule that is especially worrisome for lawmakers from Florida and Texas who do not want to see a lengthy gap between the retirement of the space shuttle fleet and the fielding a replacement spacecraft.
Griffin assured Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas ) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) that he shared their concerns about the United States relying on Russia or others between the end of the shuttle program and the CEV’s debut now s cheduled for some four years later.
“This is an area that means a lot to me,” he said. “As a matter of what it takes to be a great nation in the 21st century, I do not believe that we wish to see a situation where the United States is dependent on any partner, reliable or unreliable, at any time for human access to space or for that matter, any access to space. We need our own capabilities.”
Griffin noted that in the 1960s the Gemini program took only three years and the development of the Apollo capsule only about 6 years from contract award to flight despite a launch pad fire that killed three astronauts. He characterized NASA’s current plan to fly astronauts aboard the CEV for the first time in 2014 as “unacceptable.”
“The program that NASA has outlined so far features a new Crew Exploration Vehicle – call it what you will — that nominally comes on line in 2014. I think that is too far out,” Griffin said. “President Bush said not later than 2014. He didn’t say we couldn’t be smart and do it early. And that would be my goal.”
John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University here, praised Griffin’s priorities as “well conceived.”
“The idea of this gap in U.S. ability to send people to space is really unacceptable to the country, and so finding a way to avoid it is an appropriate priority,” Logsdon said after the hearing. “There is no technical reason that it should take that long to do the CEV. It’s just a matter of resources. The problem is there is not enough money for everything, so a re-look at how the resources are allocated, I think, will be one of Mike’s first items of business.”
Teams led by Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are going after a pair of contracts worth around $1 billion each to spend the next three years preparing for a 2008 CEV prototype flight demonstration meant to help NASA pick one team to build the actual vehicle. Proposals are due May 2, but Griffin’s statement at the hearing calls into question whether NASA will go forward with the competition as currently structured.
The two CEV teams, however, said they would keep working toward the May 2 deadline unless they receive new direction from NASA.
“The Northrop Grumman/Boeing CEV team remains on track to deliver its proposal to NASA on May 2,” Northrop Grumman Space Technology spokesman Brooks McKinney wrote in an April 14 e-mail. “We have no indication from NASA that it intends to change the scope of the [request for proposal] or the schedule for submitting proposals.”
Lockheed Martin also said it planned to stay the course until told otherwise by NASA.
“If NASA needs to accelerate its schedule for a CEV demonstration and operational capability, we can support them,” Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Joan Underwood said April 14. “But much depends on what NASA determines its requirements will be for CEV, be it crew size or other trade it will ask industry to consider.”
Griffin also assured members of the Commerce Committee that fixing NASA’s troubled finances would be a priority under his watch.
“It is unacceptable that we cannot pass an independent audit and account to you how we expend our funds,” Griffin said.
Griffin told the committee that he could not yet say why NASA has been unable to get a clean audit from outside accounting firms in recent years, but he did say he believes that NASA’s chief financial officer, Gwendolyn Brown, has not been given the resources she needs to get the agency’s financial house in order. He said meeting with Brown was near the top of his to-do list. “I plan to meet with her literally on my first day to understand what she needs to accomplish her tasks.”
Hutchison and Nelson urged Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to push for Griffin’s swift confirmation so that he would be ready report for duty by April 18 or sooner. After a brief delay while Griffin responded to written questions from Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) about aeronautics spending cuts threatening a few thousand NASA jobs in California, Ohio and Virginia, the Senate unanimously approved Griffin’s confirmation April 13.
The following day, Griffin stepped onto the stage in the NASA Headquarters auditorium to address the U.S. space agency’s 18,000 employees for the first time as NASA administrator.
During the 30-minute talk broadcast live on NASA television, Griffin spoke about the challenges NASA faces as it reshapes itself to carry out the vision and said he would soon begin a tour of the agency’s regional field centers to meet employees and seek their input.
“I have great confidence in the team that will carry out our nation’s exciting, outward-focused, destination-oriented program,” said Griffin. “I share with the agency a great sense of privilege that we have been given the wonderful opportunity to extend humanity’s reach throughout the solar system.”