Mike Griffin, who served as NASA administrator from 2005-2009, testified Feb. 25 before the House Science Committee. Credit: House Science Committee webcast

WASHINGTON — President Trump tapped former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin for a top Pentagon job, giving him a key role in shaping investments in defense and aerospace technologies at a time when other nations are gaining ground on the United States.

Griffin’s nomination to be principal deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics had been anticipated for weeks, and the White House made it official Friday.

Recent public comments by Griffin suggest that, if confirmed by the Senate, he would become a key voice in advancing U.S. technology in areas where the United States has long dominated — such as aviation and space — and is now being challenged.

During an appearance Oct. 25 and 26 at the American Astronautical Society’s Von Braun Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama, Griffin declined to comment about his Pentagon nomination but offered some clues about his priorities.

“We need to think again, as we have really not since the 1980s, about our approach to acquisition,” Griffin said Oct. 25 during a panel discussion on space policy. “Government acquisition across the board — not restricted to space — is a mess,” he said. “We take far longer to buy things that we need on behalf of the taxpayers, and we spend more money trying to prevent a mistake than the cost of the mistake. We’re far out of balance on checks and balances in terms of government acquisition.”

Griffin would report to Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Ellen Lord, but only for a short time. Congress directed a major reorganization of the undersecretary’s office in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. In February 2018, the office will be split into an undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment — a position likely to be kept by Lord — and Griffin would become the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering.

As one of the nation’s foremost experts on space policy and technology, Griffin has been outspoken about the United States potentially being overmatched by emerging space powers. As head of NASA during the George W. Bush administration, he led the Constellation spaceflight program, which was later canceled by the Obama White House.

Griffin would be joining the Defense Department as space increasingly is viewed as a national security priority, especially as the military has become hugely dependent on space systems for most of its activities.

During an Army conference Oct. 11, Lord said the Pentagon is “looking at the gaps we have in our space architecture, how we fill the capability and what is the best way to do that.” Across the Defense Department, she said, “We’re all in the process of rationalizing what we have in space, looking across the services and making sure we are looking at space as a domain.”

At the first meeting of the National Space Council Oct. 5, Griffin warned that U.S. adversaries have “figured out that space is critical to the United States’ method of fighting and winning wars, and they are taking, with all deliberate speed, steps to nullify that advantage.”

Griffin told the Huntsville conference that he believes the Trump administration will take a “whole-of-government approach to space,” whereas today activities are segregated in agency silos. The reality is that civil and military space “largely do not share common operational problems or infrastructures, but they largely share a common industrial base and we need to think, as we frankly have not since really the 1980s, we need to think again about how we support and sustain that industrial base.”

Griffin credited the decisions of past administrations that decades ago used industrial policy to advance U.S. technology. The United States “in air and space awed the rest of the world,” he said in a speech Oct. 26. “These things were the result of a de facto industrial policy that was in some cases planned, and in some cases fortuitous.”

The United States still leads in many areas, “but we have challenges, and we are not the clear leader in all things aviation and space the way we once were,” said Griffin. “Our ability to project power where we wish and need it to be projected is not what it once was. Our ability to prevent others from projecting power to our detriment is not what it once was.”

Back in the 1960s, he said, “We understood that aircraft carriers, advanced fighters, bombers, tankers, submarines, missiles — in that era, even satellites — were not commercial market items. We understood they would not exist without the support of enlightened government policy and without the support of the taxpayers.”

What is needed is an “overarching commitment of the United States in all things aerospace,” Griffin said. That would require a concerted effort to ensure “We will never again fail to have a human presence in space. We will never again have a slower airplane than we used to have. We will never have, again, an airplane that can’t fly as high as we used to have. We will never retreat from the frontiers of aviation and space.” This is a concept that the Chinese and Russians understand well, Griffin added.

The Chinese are building and have tested hypersonic systems that can “overfly our air defense and underfly our missile defense,” he said. If the secretary of defense ordered an aircraft carrier into the South China Sea and China didn’t want it there, “that carrier would be at risk,” he said. “If this is a position that the United States cares to accept going forward, then I would submit that we are on our way to being the American version of losing the British Empire.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...