Profile: In the Hottest of Hot Seats

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  Space News Business

Profile: In the Hottest of Hot Seats

By WARREN FERSTER, BRIAN BERGER and
BECKY IANNOTTA
Space News Editor, Deputy Editor and Staff Writer
posted: 13 January 2009
01:28 pm ET






Mike Griffin

NASA Administrator

Since becoming NASA administrator in April 2005, two years after the second fatal space shuttle accident touched off a debate about
America
‘s future in human spaceflight, Mike Griffin has made it his top priority to get the agency moving on a path back to the Moon.

With a new
U.S.
president ready to take office Jan. 20,
‘s future and that of the Moon-bound Constellation program born on his watch are anything but assured. President-elect BarackObama has publicly committed to replacing the space shuttle with a next-generation successor and has endorsed the goal of human missions to the Moon by 2020. But Obama has avoided mentioning
Griffin
‘s chosen Ares 1 rocket and Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle by name and Obama’s NASA transition team, in place since November, has stirred up anti-Ares sentiments by asking questions about canceling that launcher and making due with existing U.S. Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELV) or European Ariane 5 rockets instead.

Griffin
, 59, says he would like to stay on at NASA recognizing that Obama could have different priorities for NASA than those laid out by outgoing U.S. President George W. Bush in 2004 and twice-since endorsed by Congress. But
Griffin
also has made clear he is not interested in running NASA if he does not have the trust of the White House and Congress to make the necessary technical choices to carry out established policy.

“People from the outside often make the mistake of believing that NASA determines space policy. We don’t,”
Griffin
said in a Dec. 15 interview. “But NASA is the federal agency chartered to implement those policies. Lately I think we’ve all seen an awful lot of discussion in the press about whether NASA has made the right implementation choices. Those questions can be asked and answered, but in the end [those choices] have to be left to the agency which exists to make them. You can’t have hardware design [and] architecture implementation choices coming from popular referendum, the blogosphere or really any other source.”

Griffin
steadfastly defends the design choices NASA has made during his nearly four years on the job. Ares 1 and Orion are the vehicles the
United States
needs to build if it wants to go to the Moon after fulfilling its obligations on the international space station, he says.

Keeping Ares and Orion on track despite smaller-than-promised budgets has been a top priority for
Griffin
, second only to ensuring NASA’s remaining space shuttle missions are flown safely and successfully. Those priorities have driven
Griffin
to make unpopular choices on some of NASA’s other bread and butter programs, a point he freely acknowledges.

“I too, would like to have $1 billion in technology funding for NASA. I would love it desperately. I too, would like to do more science missions. I think aeronautics is hugely underfunded,” he said. “But with tight budgets we faced a choice: We could do a few specific things as well as possible or we could do a very large number of things and never really get anywhere, and I did not advocate that goal.”

Griffin
discussed some of those choices and other topics during a wide ranging interview with Space News editors Warren Ferster and Brian Berger and staff writer Becky Iannotta at NASA headquarters in
Washington
.

Is it your desire to stay on as NASA administrator in the next administration?

I’d like to. It certainly would be an honor to be asked and to continue to serve. It’s a very busy time at NASA with a number of items on the table that will have a lot of effect on our future.

It’s been said you are not cooperating with President-elect Obama’s transition team. What’s your response?

I don’t know who’s saying it and who thinks it’s in their interest to say we’re not cooperating with the transition team. I’ve had several discussions with senior and even middle management to the effect that it cannot possibly be in NASA’s best interest to do anything more than lean as far forward as possible to fulfill requests from the transition team. I don’t know what more we could do and when we ask the transition team if they are getting everything that they need, the answer uniformly comes back yes.


We’ve all heard the second-hand accounts of your now infamous Dec. 11 conversation with Lori


Garver
, Obama’s NASA transition team leader. What’s your account?

That is probably the most overblown, over-reported hallway conversation in the history of mankind. Lori came up to me at the book signing and picking up on a comment I had made earlier, somewhat in jest, when John Logsdon pointed out that back in 1960 and 1961 the transition team didn’t even come to NASA, and Alan Ladwig said words to the effect of “well, we’re here now,” and I said “yeah, I just wish they’d come and talk to me.” It drew a laugh and that was all it was intended to do. John moved on with his remarks and everyone was chitchatting, and a little bit later Lori came in and said, “hey, I heard you want to talk more to us,” and I said, “well, I’d like to.” We went on from there. We had a very good hallway conversation. Voices weren’t raised. I thought it was a very productive discussion. I mean Lori and I have known one another for 20 years. We had some things we disagreed on, some things where we cleared the air and some things we agreed on. It was not in any sense acrimonious; it was a good discussion. I was happy with it. The last thing that I think Lori said before we walked away to do other things was, “I’ll call you and get on your calendar.” A very amicable response. Lou Friedman, the executive director of the Planetary Society, pointed out in an e-mail that got forwarded around that he was standing a yard away, and there was nothing going on. So those are just facts. Now if somebody wants to report that out as some huge tiff between Lori and I, they can say that but it doesn’t make it true.

Did you tell Garver she and her team weren’t qualified to make technical judgments about Constellation?

I’m not going to pick apart the conversation. In fact, I’m not going to go into it at all. There’s an ethical principle involved in reporting a conversation at best from memory when the other party isn’t present and can’t comment. Lori can’t comment because the transition team is not going to do that. We had a nice chat and I’m glad we had it. I only regret it now that I find it reported erroneously in the media.

Has Garver ever told you she favors dropping Ares 1 for EELV?

If you want to know what the transition team thinks you need to talk to them. I don’t want to be difficult but I wouldn’t like it if somebody else was being asked to talk about what Mike thinks and I don’t want to talk about what the transition team thinks.

Do you believe Ares 1 is under threat?

Ares 1 has been under threat since the day we rolled it out, so yes. And it’s under threat because the casual observer wants to know why NASA can’t just fly on an existing vehicle.

We absolutely considered EELV; I started out thinking we could use it. I changed my mind based on the data. In 2005 we had the Aerospace Corp.’s costing folks help us assess what would be required to adapt EELV for the task. We have asked Aerospace to assess the issue again. They’re in the middle of that now.

Is the threat to Ares more pronounced today given the presidential transition under way?

If our goal is to stick with the civil space policy rolled out under President Bush and twice authorized by the Congress with enhancements, then NASA’s job is to finish the station, retire the shuttle and replace the capability that the shuttle offers for delivering crew and cargo to the station with a new system also capable of returning you to the Moon. In three and a half years of studying it, we’ve not found a technical argument that makes us question our design choices. If you set different goals, different machinery might work. But I think we have the right goals for the first time in decades and I would hope that we would not retreat.

There have been suggestions made that you have been telling aerospace executives to refrain from criticizing Constellation.

That’s not happening. And there weren’t “suggestions made” along those lines. There were straightforward accusations made in print media that I have tried to manipulate or restrict the expression of contractor opinions. I haven’t done that. Nobody that I know has done that. If I find that somebody has done that, they won’t be in the positions that they hold.

So, are contractors free to publicly criticize Ares and advocate human-rating EELV to launch Orion?

I have talked individually with all of our major contractors and I believe each of them feels perfectly free to express their opinion if they think there’s a better design solution out there. I don’t know why people think otherwise.

When the Bush administration took over in 2001, it quickly uncovered a $4 billion to $5 billion cost overrun on space station. Any such surprises awaiting Obama on Ares?

If there is such a cost surprise it has not reached my attention. We’re tight for money. We had a continuing resolution in 2007, another continuing resolution for 2009, and we have a top-line budget which was reduced substantially over what accompanied the rollout of the new civil space policy in early 2004. We have absolutely less money than we were told just a few years ago we would have but to the best of my knowledge we have not had any significant [cost increases] on Ares.

If NASA were directed to pursue a human-rated EELV and a scaled-back Orion, what would be the cost implications?

A large cost increase.
More significant to me is that you would have to downscale Orion for EELV. That scaled-down version of Orion is not suited for the lunar mission planned today. There may be some minimal lunar mission, perhaps a recreation of Apollo, that could be accomplished if we were constrained to today’s EELV. But the basic requirements laid out in the president’s civil space policy and in the NASA authorization acts of 2005 and 2008 clearly called for something more than Apollo.

Why is a smaller Orion unsuitable for the lunar mission?

The lunar mission we’re working toward is to be able to return to the Moon in such a way as to preserve the option for a permanent presence, meaning a lunar base. That consideration drove us toward an Orion able to operate in lunar orbit untended for six months at a time. That in turn imposes more difficult and more stringent requirements, all of which add up to produce an Orion designed more for the Moon than for space station. If we could figure out how to do this with an Orion small enough to fit on an existing EELV, we would because there would be cost savings. But we can’t do that.

If constraining Orion to fit on today’s EELV becomes the goal, you can build something that will work for the space station mission, no problem. But then you lose the future, and our whole civil space policy has been oriented to providing a future transportation capability to get back out of low Earth orbit and go to the Moon and then go to Mars. If we want to go to near Earth asteroids, service large space telescopes at L1, Orion can do that too and it’s not overdesigned for those jobs. In fact, it’s minimalist for those jobs. But it still weighs more than what it would weigh for the space station mission alone.

NASA considered an EELV-derived architecture before settling on shuttle-derived. And contrary to what some people believe, I had zero preference for which path we followed. But when we went through it, we came up with the answer that the EELV-derived solution didn’t save you any schedule, didn’t save you any money, wasn’t that safe and when you took a look at going beyond the station mission to the heavy-lift architecture required for the Moon, was quite a bit more expensive. So it didn’t win on any count. We beat this subject flat in our studies because we knew it would be controversial. At this point I’m kind of wondering what has to happen to have people say, “OK, I guess they got it right.”

Where do you think the Ares 1 opposition is coming from?

I don’t know. I can tell you the criticism is not coming from today’s senior Air Force staff, because when I talk to those guys they say, “yeah, it’s ridiculous because EELV can’t satisfy your mission requirements.”

What if NASA canceled Ares 1 but extended shuttle operations and accelerated development of Ares 5 for the lunar missions?

If we extend shuttle operations it’s going to be at a price tag of about $3 billion a year. If I extend shuttle operations and accelerate Ares 5, what are we going to put on the Ares 5? Orion and Altair? I don’t have the money to develop them. We don’t start significant development on Orion or Ares 1 until the shuttle retires. Yes, we have development work going on, but it is underfunded compared to what is needed for a normal development program.

So it would be an interesting exercise to say let’s keep flying the shuttle to mitigate, not eliminate, dependence upon the Russians and then we’ll just go direct to Ares 5 and accelerate its development, but I don’t know where the money comes from.

Could NASA build an Orion Light for space station and later pursue block upgrades for lunar missions?

It would be a block upgrade in the same sense as the old joke about jacking up the license plate and sliding a new car underneath. We would end up with separate vehicles for low Earth orbit and the lunar mission. As an engineer I’d love to have a transportation system optimized for low Earth orbit and one optimized for lunar missions, but it’s more expensive and would exceed our top line. Switching gears now would not close the gap, either. It would take longer. We would have to do substantial redesign from this point to get an Orion Light and it would not be quicker.

Your appointment nearly four years ago was widely praised, but even some of your friends started talking like enemies once you started making cuts. Why is that?

What kind of reaction would you expect when people who had hoped to do things to which they had devoted their careers see those activities brought to a halt in the wake of top-line budget cuts? Who would expect them to be happy?

When you look back, is there anything you might have done to avoid sowing all these pockets of dissent throughout the space community?

The only thing I could imagine that I could have done is to stand up and say the lunar goal is not achievable for the amount of money we have. But I don’t believe that’s true. The lunar goal is achievable with the money we have but other things needed to be set aside, things that I would very much like to do.

Couldn’t you have spoken up more loudly about NASA’s budget predicament?

No, I was always very clear that the budget provided by the president was sufficient to accomplish the goals set out by the president. It was not sufficient to accomplish these other goals that others wish we would fund. I’ve been equally clear from my confirmation hearing onward that I considered the gap between shuttle retirement and whatever replaced the shuttle to be unfortunate in the extreme. That’s not a technical issue; it’s a budgetary issue. I don’t know what I could have done to be more clear that if one wanted to avoid some of the disconnects, whether in manned spaceflight, science, technology or aeronautics, that the issue was budget.

Fair or not, now that you have been publicly branded as a transition obstacle, doesn’t that harm your chances of staying at NASA?

If I were to be asked to serve in the next administration, the decision obviously would get made at a very high level. You have to believe that everybody who has served in government at high levels understands that press accounts, especially those derived from anonymous sources and bystander conversations, often have a far deviation from reality.

Any advice for your successor?

It’s important to understand that we live in a world of limited resources and there have to be priorities. The NASA administrator gets a voice on those priorities but is by no means the decision maker. Priorities have to be selected and they have to be guarded zealously. Other things which are of lower priority in the grand scheme of things have to be set aside. They have to be treated as distractions. The controversy that I’ve generated is the price you pay for trying to execute a few priorities well.