Griffin Throws Exploration Planning on the Fast Track

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NASA Administrator Mike Griffin is shifting the planning for future exploration missions into high gear with the intention of making fundamental decisions this summer about the United States’ path back to the Moon.

Griffin’s predecessor, Sean O’Keefe, established 13 so-called strategic roadmap committees late last year to help the agency shape its long-term exploration plans. Those federal advisory committees, a veritable who’s who of scientists and industry leaders, were chartered for a term of 15 months to provide periodic input meant to help guide NASA’s near-term and long-term budget decisions.

During his first week on the job, Griffin said that the roadmap committees were not “on a pace that is consistent with the decision-making that we have to do,” and that he would be establishing “focused, small teams” to help make decisions about the overall approach, or architecture, that NASA would pursue in its quest to put people on the Moon by 2020.

Griffin returned to that point in his first public address as NASA administrator delivered outside the agency’s headquarters. Speaking at a Capitol Hill breakfast May 3 organized by the group Women in Aerospace , Griffin said NASA needs to make decisions sooner than later about how it intends to return to the Moon.

“We need to establish and gain acceptance for a baseline architecture for human lunar return,” he told the more than 200 people in attendance. “We haven’t done that yet. There are a number of ways we could chose to go back to the Moon. We need to pick one and get on with it.”

What Griffin did not tell the audience was that he had already picked someone to head up an internal effort to develop that baseline lunar architecture, set the top-level requirements for the crew and cargo launch systems NASA will need, figure out what can be done to accelerate the development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle and identify the technology investments NASA needs to be making now to make the space exploration vision possible.

In an April 29 memorandum to senior NASA managers and field center directors, Griffin said that he was putting fellow Orbital Sciences Corp. alumnus Doug Stanley in charge of a small study team that has been directed to report back to Griffin by mid-July. The team, according to the memo, would begin work immediately and focus on four key areas:

  • Completing an assessment of the top-level requirements for the Crew Exploration Vehicle, including plans to enable the CEV to transport crews to the international space station and accelerating the development of the CEV to limit the amount of time the United States is without the means to put people into space once it retires the space shuttle in 2010.
  • Define the top-level requirements for crew and cargo launch systems needed for lunar and Mars exploration.
  • Develop the “reference lunar architecture concepts: for sustained human and robotic lunar exploration operations.”
  •  Identify the key technologies needed to accomplish NASA’s exploration goals and reprioritize the agency’s “near-term and far-term technology investments.”

NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate posted a notice May 2 that it was deferring indefinitely two previously planned so-called Broad Area Announcements that industry and academia expected to lead to hundreds of millions of dollars worth of small research and technology contracts.

“Before initiating any technology investments, [the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate] will reassess the technology requirements to ensure they remain properly aligned with the Vision for Space Exploration,” the cancellation announcement stated.

The cancellation of the exploration systems research and technology solicitation is the second procurement action taken since Griffin came onboard April 14. NASA pulled the plug the week of April 23 on an effort to outsource the systems engineering and integration work for the Crew Exploration Vehicle and all the other hardware necessary to transport astronauts to the Moon and return them home.

Meanwhile, the 13 strategic roadmap committees are now in the process of being folded up.

NASA spokeswoman Marta Metelko said May 4 that the roadmap committees “are still going to have an input. All Administrator Griffin is doing is accelerating the process so we will have that information in hand” as NASA drafts its 2007 budget request this summer and makes other strategic decisions.

Metelko said that most of the roadmap committees are not expected to meet again. Those that had already announced public meetings will, in accordance with the rules governing federal advisory committees, go ahead and meet. At least one roadmap committee, Education, has yet to meet and likely will not, Metelko said.