John M. Logsdon OpEd

Mike Griffin has come to NASA, not just on the run, but at a sprint. He has now visited most NASA centers, testified to the Congress on several occasions, listened to the concerns of individual members of Congress, met with most external stakeholders in the NASA program and given speeches to a variety of audiences.

Next week he will have his first interactions with NASA’s international partners when he visits the Paris Air Show. Griffin has been remarkably clear and consistent in his message, not sweetening it for local consumption. When asked a question, he has provided a responsive answer. When the information required to answer a question is not yet available, he has said so. There has been no obfuscation.

It is not surprising that the reaction to his performance to date has been strongly positive. But Griffin’s honeymoon from criticism and opposition may not last much longer, as he begins to announce the tough decisions that he believes should define the NASA program and organization of the future.

To deal with the most pressing issues facing NASA, Griffin has created a set of small “tiger teams” headed by individuals who share his views on NASA’s past problems. Most of their reports are due to him in July.

There is understandable uncertainty about the results of these studies and their implications for the NASA staff, the aerospace industry and NASA’s relationships with other spacefaring countries. But that uncertainty will be temporary. Once he has the foundation for these choices in place, Griffin can be even more forthcoming and specific about the future than he has been to date, and there is no way that all affected will easily agree with what he sets out.

As Griffin has repeated over and over in his first six weeks in office, there simply is not enough money in the NASA budget to do all meritorious things, and thus some worthwhile efforts will have to be deferred, given lower priority or not done at all. He fully accepts the criticism of the 2003 report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board that many of NASA’s problems over the past three decades were a result of the organization’s “straining to do too much with too little.”

Griffin is addressing the “trying to do too much” part of this criticism by setting clearly articulated priorities that he will use to make program and organizational decisions. Applying those priorities is bound to put him at odds with important space program supporters, and convincing them of the wisdom of accepting his decisions will certainly not be easy.

One might ask, why not also work on getting more resources for NASA?

The answer is simple: Fighting to increase the NASA budget beyond the additions already proposed by the president would fly in the face of current and long-running political reality. The civilian space program for 35 years has been operating in accordance with what might be called the “Nixon space doctrine.”

Faced in the aftermath of Apollo 11 with an ambitious proposal for large space stations, permanent outposts on the Moon and human missions to Mars beginning in the 1980s, Richard Nixon on March 7, 1970 issued this statement: “Space expenditures must take their proper place within a rigorous system of national priorities. What we do in space from here on in must become a normal and regular part of our national life and must therefore be planned in conjunction with all of the other undertakings which are important to us.”

NASA has competed for budget allocations with many “other undertakings” since that date, and the result has been remarkably consistent. Every year since 1974 except one (when a new shuttle orbiter was built), the NASA budget has been 1 percent or less of the federal budget. That allocation reflects a firm national decision on where NASA fits in the overall scheme of national priorities, and Griffin has wisely chosen to accept that reality and plan NASA’s future within it.

The overriding challenge for Griffin will thus be to gain enough acceptance of his decisions over the coming few months for NASA to be able to move forward and implement them without the need to fight continual political firestorms. Gaining such support will require those interested in NASA’s future in the Congress, industry and other elements of the aerospace community to sublimate their natural (and perfectly legitimate) tendency to fight to a showdown for their own specific interests and instead to support the “greater good” — a national space program that provides good science, innovative technology, U.S. leadership and inspiring future prospects.

The Bush administration has gone a long way to address fundamental problems in the nation’s space effort. It has proposed a challenging vision of a “sustainable and affordable program of human and robotic exploration of the solar system and beyond.” And it has selected as NASA administrator an energetic, intelligent, experienced and accessible individual who has been thinking about how best to make that vision become reality for at least 15 years. But White House proposals and an agency head committed to them are not all that is needed. Congress must also agree.

A classic political science description of the U.S. government points out that it is composed of “separate institutions sharing powers.” While the presidency is intended to reflect a national perspective on policy matters, Congress by its very design reflects narrower interests. The toughest challenge facing Mike Griffin will be to convince members of Congress that the NASA program he will lay out in coming weeks is one worth supporting in terms of both the national interest and their specific concerns and those of the constituencies they represent.

The stakes here are very high. With a firm decision to retire the space shuttle and to move beyond the international space station, bridges have been burned. If the Griffin plan for the Vision for Space Exploration does not gain broad support, the most likely outcome is a stakeholder-driven space effort and an eventual end to the government’s human spaceflight program. Few would welcome that result.

In 1990, a blue-ribbon panel chaired by Martin Marietta Chief Executive Officer Norm Augustine observed that “most Americans do support a viable space program for the nation – but no two individuals seem able to agree upon what the space program should be. Further, those immediately involved in the program often seem least inclined to compromise for the common good.”

Fifteen years later, and uniquely in the history of the U.S. space program, the parts are in place to finally change this situation. The next few months will see if the leaders of the space community will join Mike Griffin in rising to that challenge.

John M. Logsdon is director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.