PHILADELPHIA — Mike Griffin’s appointment as NASA administrator is encouraging to many astronomers and scientists, some of whom are concerned that basic research will be sacrificed in the new Bush vision for manned missions to the Moon and Mars. Astronomers in particular are eager for a reversal of the decision by former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, Griffin’s predecessor, to cancel a planned space shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope.

In testimony during his Senate confirmation hearing, Griffin said he would reconsider the Hubble decision after the space shuttle fleet returns successfully to flight status.

“This is a guy who thinks like a scientist and an engineer and has had a lot of experience managing large, intractable organizations,” said Robert Kirshner, a Harvard University professor and president of the American Astronomical Society. “It’s really a good combination.”

In a telephone interview, Kirshner said the AAS is encouraged by Griffin’s appointment. “Instead of taking a dogmatic point of view,” Kirshner said in reference to Hubble, “he’s being very practical.”

Many scientists hold Griffin in high regard and say his diverse background will serve him well in Washington.

“A scientific background is likely to increase his credibility in political circles,” Howard McCurdy, a historian who has written several books about NASA, said in an e-mail interview. “He has plenty of experience with policymaking in Washington, which is a prime requirement for the job.”

Putting astronauts on Mars, for example, will not be easy politically because it will require a political effort spanning multiple presidencies.

“He has worked at NASA before, so the agency and its political linkages will not be foreign to him,” said Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium and a member of the president’s Moon-to-Mars commission. “But this is not to undervalue the need for political dexterity when you need it. My hope and expectation is that public sentiment for NASA’s programs will grow in a way that Griffin accrues the political capital he needs to sustain the vision.”

Bob Park, a University of Maryland physicist and outspoken critic of human spaceflight as a means to conduct science, is less enthusiastic.

Griffin, Park said, “has clearly been picked to follow the president’s ‘vision,’ and I have seen no indication that he is likely to go off on his own,” Park said.

“The only good sign is that he has signaled a willingness to think about Hubble. We’ll see,” Park said in an e-mail. “My hope, as distinct from my expectation, is that he’ll try to educate the president.”

Jonathan Lunine, Professor of Planetary Sciences and of Physics, and chair of the Theoretical Astrophysics Program at the University of Arizona in Tucson, noted that Bush’s vision was for “the Moon, Mars and beyond… three nouns there. That’s my advice to Mike, don’t forget the beyond.”

Within the last 10 years the solar system has become a much more exciting and much more complex place, Lunine said. “Whatever is done in this exploration initiative, we can’t forget the beyond part. We’ve seen the history of water on Mars…we see evidence that Venus had an Earth-like episode to it a long time ago. Titan, in terms of balance of physical processes, is most Earth-like in that regard but on very alien materials. How did it get that way? And Europa might harbor an ocean where there’s life.”

Wesley Huntress Jr., director of the Geophysical Laboratory at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, said Griffin needs little advice given his familiarity with the agency but added that he hopes Griffin can “reinvigorate NASA Headquarters and its centers with a renewed sense of leadership, competence, confidence and boldness more than anything else. Get rid of that debilitating fear-of-failure atmosphere that kind of suffuses the agency now.”

For humans-to-Mars fans, Griffin looks like the right choice. Tyson said Griffin’s professional pedigree resonates with the varied requirements of the White House directive. “The science, the engineering, the management, space industry, space entrepreneurs, the vision, the passion — he’s got it all,” Tyson said. “If he succeeds, it won’t be your daddy’s NASA, but it will be the NASA this nation needs to redefine our future in space.”


Leonard David has been reporting on space activities for nearly 50 years. He is the 2010 winner of the prestigious National Space Club Press Award and recently co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin the book “Mission to Mars — My Vision for Space...