Griffin Takes NASA Back to the Future in Exploration
NASA’s year started all over again in April when Mike Griffin was sworn in as the head of the U.S. space agency.
Griffin, a highly respected and qualified aerospace veteran, took over NASA determined to put President George W. Bush’s one-year-old Vision for Space Exploration on more stable footing before a new occupant moves into the White House. He knew all too well how quickly things can go wrong. As NASA’s exploration chief more than a decade ago, he had a front row seat to watch the disintegration of the first President Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative as it succumbed to budget pressure and partisan political opposition.
Griffin wasted no time shaking things up at his old agency. During his Senate confirmation hearing, he told lawmakers he was inclined to overturn his predecessor’s unpopular decision to cancel a long-planned space shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. At the same hearing, he declared unacceptable a planned four-year break in the United States’ ability to put astronauts into space and pledged to accelerate development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle to minimize the gap between the shuttle’s 2010 retirement and the availability of its replacement.
Since April, NASA has kicked its exploration planning into high gear, setting a 2018 goal for landing four astronauts on the surface of the Moon and deciding what new launch vehicles and spacecraft it intends to build to get the job done.
“Over the past year there has been significant yardage gained for the Vision for Space Exploration,” said Courtney Stadd, an aerospace consultant and former NASA chief of staff who spent part of 2005 as Griffin’s paid advisor. “The credibility of the agency has gone up tremendously. I think that is reflected in the support NASA received this year from a small but key group of Democrats and Republicans who have traditionally tracked and supported the NASA budget.”
After approving a 5.6-percent budget increase for NASA for 2005, Congress again approved NASA’s full budget request of $16.5 billion for 2006, a 2.4-percent increase. Lawmakers also passed the NASA Authorization Act of 2005, formally endorsing the agency’s exploration-driven agenda.
NASA also conducted in 2005 its first space shuttle launch since the February 2003 loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia. Discovery’s July 26 return-to-flight mission ended a two-and-a-half year hiatus in shuttle launches, but raised troubling questions about the future of the shuttle program.
NASA was quick to highlight all that went well during Discovery’s 14-day mission to test out new safety measures ordered in the wake of the Columbia accident, but a close call with a breakaway chunk of external tank insulation that fell off during liftoff was enough to ground the fleet once again. At year’s end, the next shuttle flight was still at least six months away from launch.
William Readdy, an aerospace consultant and former space shuttle commander who served as NASA’s associate administrator for space flight at the time of Discovery’s return-to-flight mission, predicts that the shuttle will resume normal flight operations in 2006 and get back to the task of assembling the international space station.
While he agrees with NASA’s decision to stand down shuttle launch operations while it addresses the foam problem, he said all the cameras and sensors added since the Columbia disaster have in some ways heightened the perception that the shuttle is not safe enough to keep flying.
“Had we had such exquisite instrumentation on STS-1 as we did on STS-114,” Readdy said, referring to NASA’s first space shuttle mission and its most recent, “it might have been years before we flew STS-2.”
With the shuttle still grounded, NASA found itself under renewed pressure to conclude a deal with the Russian space agency for continued use of Russian built Soyuz and Progress spacecraft and Soyuz launch vehicles to ferry astronauts and supplies to and from the space station.
Over the summer NASA and the U.S. State Department asked Congress to amend a 2000 law, the Iran Nonproliferation Act, to permit NASA to buy the Soyuz and Progress it needs. In November, Congress came through with the requested relief, enacting legislation giving NASA until 2011 to buy Russian hardware and services for the space station.
In September, NASA rolled out the results of the Exploration Systems Architecture Study, declaring its intention to send four astronauts to the Moon in 2018 in a 5.5-meter capsule launched atop a solid rocket booster brought over from the space shuttle program.
The lander and tons of other equipment needed to conduct the lunar expedition would be lofted separately into orbit by a new heavy-lift launcher built from other shuttle equipment, including the space shuttle main engines, more powerful five-segment solid rocket boosters and a highly-modified external tank refashioned as a main stage.
John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University here, said NASA did no less than define the major hardware programs for the next decade. And if the public response was less than enthusiastic about a space transportation architecture that Griffin himself termed “Apollo on steroids,” Logsdon said it fits the criteria established by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board for a shuttle replacement.
Lori Garver, a space consultant and former NASA associate administrator for policy and plans, agreed. “While it might not be everyone’s favorite architecture, most people think it is achievable.”
NASA also disclosed during the course of the year that the shuttle program would need $3 billion to $5 billion more over the next five years in order to accomplish the 18 remaining flights deemed necessary to complete the space station with Europe’s and Japan’s laboratory modules in place.
Dealing with that shortfall, the result of budget planning that severely underestimated what NASA would need to spend to keep all three orbiters in service through the end of the decade, became the central preoccupation of the second half of 2005.
How the Bush Administration deals with the shortfall will determine whether NASA is able to execute the president’s exploration agenda, Logsdon said.
“We’ve had a lot of theatrics this year with the outcome unresolved,” Logsdon said.
In the year ahead, NASA intends to award the prime contract for the Crew Exploration Vehicle, conduct its next shuttle launch and then resume space station assembly. Whether it will be able to afford to sustain these priorities without inflicting too much pain on its science and aeronautics programs is not yet clear.
“These are fault lines that have been in the NASA program for decades and it’s one of the big challenges for Griffin and his team to ensure we have appropriate robustness in the science and aeronautics programs while at same time meeting very significant program and budget challenges for shuttle, station and the CEV programs,” Stadd said.