Hypersonics Research Could Get Resurrected at NASA

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It won’t happen immediately, but NASA’s new boss intends to make hypersonics research a priority again as part of the agency’s aeronautics program.

The space agency essentially pulled the plug on air-breathing propulsion research in 2004 after concluding the successful X-43A hypersonic vehicle flight test program. Members of Congress upset with the decision added $25 million to NASA’s 2005 budget to fund through the end of the year a follow-on effort with the U.S. Air Force.

NASA’s 2006 budget request contains no funding for hypersonics research. Griffin told about 175 people gathered for a May 3 breakfast speech sponsored by Women in Aerospace that he would try to change that, but warned that his hands may be tied in the near term.

“I think its important to the future of the United States as much for military purposes as for civil purposes, and if we believe that NASA is a core element of the nation’s aeronautics research program then we need to be doing more in hypersonics, and I am going to be trying to adjust that as we go forward,” Griffin said.

Griffin also endorsed the Centennial Challenges program, NASA’s effort to fund prize contests meant to stimulate innovation in fundamental space technologies. NASA currently has the authority to put up fairly modest purses — $250,000 or less — but is asking Congress for authorization to award prizes worth millions of dollars. Griffin said he planned to be personally involved in that effort.

“I like the prize concept,” Griffin said. “I regretted from outside that we were as limited dollar wise as we were. Going forward, I am going to try to put some human capital behind it — my own — and get that elevated. I think it is a good idea. I think it is one of the best ways to encourage entrepreneurship.”

During his speech Griffin also addressed the delicate and controversial topic of NASA’s much maligned management culture. What needs to be done to ensure openness and sound decision-making, he said, boils to down to common courtesy.

“What I see that we need to focus on in NASA in terms of mending the culture — to the extent that it needs to be mended — are traits that we were taught at kindergarten: listen to what other people have to say; pay attention to their opinions; give them the respect of hearing them out and hearing them through and encouraging them to speak and making sure that all the viewpoints are heard,” Griffin said.

Griffin’s remarks are likely to have special resonance so close to the recently rescheduled return to flight of the space shuttle, the first launch since the 2003 destruction of Columbia. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board cited NASA’s management culture as a major contributing factor in the accident.

“In a bit of tongue-in-cheek sort of way I’ve often defined management as the art of making decisions with less information than any fool would like to have. That is what we get paid to do. But in order to make decisions with less information than you would really like to have, it is at the very least important to hear all the information you can get,” Griffin said.

He said NASA must make sure that employees “know that there is encouragement and not retribution for having something to say which is different from what might have been the thought of the common herd. We need to be encouraging about that.”

Griffin said he has been “incredibly impressed by the robust quality of the technical discussions and the airings of all views” in four days of meetings he took part in about return-to-flight issues.

“If we can just keep going like that we are not going to have any problems with our management culture,” he said.

By COLIN CLARK & BRIAN BERGER