WASHINGTON – NASA Administrator Mike Griffin used his first press conference to outline some of the tough choices the U.S. space agency faces as its begins turning a presidential space exploration vision into bona fide programs.
During his first press conference since being sworn in April 14 as NASA administrator, Griffin made clear that the changes NASA needs to make in the months and years ahead could entail pain for some parts of the agency and the companies that support it.
“We can’t get from the program we were executing to the program we want to execute without having some dislocations,” Griffin said. “There are some things we were doing that will be judged less important in the future; there are some things we want to do that have not been judged important in the recent past.”
Griffin’s first trip as NASA administrator was to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, where he spent a full day immersed in NASA’s space shuttle return-to-flight preparations, something he has said repeatedly is his first priority in the job. Before hopping a flight for Kennedy April 18, Griffin took questions for about an hour from a couple dozen reporters at NASA headquarters here and those participating via a conference line from the agency’s regional field centers throughout the United States.
Griffin repeated the priorities he outlined during his Senate confirmation hearing the week before — ensuring a safe return to flight, reviewing the decision to scrap a Hubble Space Telescope shuttle servicing mission and eliminating a lengthy gap between retiring the shuttle and fielding a replacement. He also announced that he had tapped Scott Pace, a non-career NASA employee, to head a new “program analysis and evaluation shop” that will take a long view of the agency’s planned activities. Griffin also expressed dissatisfaction with the slow pace of a strategic roadmapping process started under his predecessor, Sean O’Keefe, to map out a viable path to the Moon and Mars.
“I don’t think the roadmaps are on a pace that is consistent with the decision making that we have to do,” Griffin said. “I will probably be establishing focused, small teams representing the breadth of experience throughout NASA, throughout the centers and targeted other institutions as necessary, in order to be helping with some of these larger scale architectural issues.” NASA sources said that speeding up the strategic planning process will be one of Pace’s prime responsibilities.
Griffin also vowed to make reassessing O’Keefe’s cancellation of a shuttle-based Hubble servicing mission a top priority once NASA completes its first space shuttle mission since the February 2003 loss of Columbia. NASA is currently shooting for May 22 for return to flight. Griffin made no promises, however, that a shuttle mission to Hubble would go forward.
“Immediately after the first flight is launched we are going to undertake an internal review to weigh the pros and cons of reinstituting SM-4,” he said, referring to the designation NASA gave to the fourth planned shuttle mission to service Hubble. “I would not care to prejudice the outcome of that because I need to know more.”
Griffin also said that robotic servicing of Hubble is “off the table.” Robotic servicing was an option pursued by Griffin’s predecessor in the job, Sean O’Keefe. However, that option was effectively canceled with the release of a White House budget proposal in February that included no funds to continue the effort.
Congress included $291 million in NASA’s 2005 budget to spend preparing for a Hubble rescue, either robotic or shuttle-based, and many lawmakers including Sen. Barbara Mikulksi (D-Md.) reacted angrily to O’Keefe’s announcement just before stepping down that NASA would use some of those funds to prepare a mission to de orbit the popular telescope.
Griffin said NASA would “obey any legislative direction that the Congress provides” but said he planned to ask Congress for “a certain amount of breathing room to get our first return-to-flight mission off, to have time to study carefully again the pros and cons of doing SM-4 and to bring them back the best answer that I and the NASA community can provide.”
Among other topics Griffin covered during the wide-ranging press conference:
On making the shuttle launch decision:
“It’s a team effort. Last week I got installed as the captain of the team. That means if we’ve got a close call or a tie vote, I decide. But I’m hoping that it’s not a close call, it’s not a tie, it’s an obvious decision.”
On the future of aeronautics:
“I am one of those who believe that the nation now has a space policy and now needs an aeronautics policy . . . That said, the fact is the president’s program going forward, aeronautics is not as high a priority as returning NASA to a path on which space exploration is prominently featured.”
The importance of Marshall Space Flight Center:
“I can’t imagine returning to the Moon or going to Mars or developing the capability to explore and utilize the near-Earth asteroids without the capabilities that Marshall Space Center brings to bear. Marshall is our launch vehicle center. We’re not going to be establishing another one, and we can’t get there with none of them. So we have one and it isn’t going away. It is crucially important to me.”
On the Iran Non-Proliferation Act and the international space station:
“I think it is obvious what the restriction is. It would mean that under our present flight rules we would only have U.S. astronauts on board the station at a time when the shuttle was visiting because when we are no longer being furnished Soyuz capsules by Russia, we would not have a clear escape mechanism. That fact has eluded no one.
“There is an interagency group that is examining that issue and putting together alternatives to be considered on the Hill. The process isn’t done, it’s not finished. I, by virtue of my recently acquired position, will be joining in at some point, but obviously have not yet.”