NASA Administrator Mike Griffin Hits the Ground Running

By Keith Cowing
April 19, 2005
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NASA Administrator Mike Griffin Hits the Ground Running

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin met with the press at NASA Headquarters for the first time on Monday – after only 3 days on the job. [verbatim transcript] The rocket scientist/engineer in Griffin clearly stood out. When he knew something abut a topic – he was straightforward and to the point in his responses. When he did not know enough about a topic to comment, he admitted so, and said that he needed to study up before responding. Engineers like facts. Griffin clearly does not like to speculate – at least in public.

The obvious difference between Griffin and his two predecessors is that he had a deep understanding of the myriad of issues facing the agency the moment he was sworn in. Goldin, despite his technical background took some time to get up to speed on what NASA was – and did. O’Keefe, although a quick study, took additional time to get his arms around the issues. Griffin simply hit the ground running.

The topics discussed ranged from the upcoming STS-114 mission and the Stafford/Covey Return to Flight Task Force to Griffin’s impatience with the pace at which NASA was implementing the President’s Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) announced on the very same stage, within inches of where Griffin stood, some 16 months earlier.

Griffin will soon begin to visit all NASA field centers. His first trip is to KSC. Griffin said that he would be traveling to KSC on Tuesday for a design certification review. “They don’t need me, but I need them” he said with regard to his participation in the event.

Sudden Staff Changes

Last week the Assistant Administrator for Legislative Affairs, Lee Forsgren suddenly announced his departure. A few days later the Assistant Administrator for Pubic Affairs, Glenn Mahone, did the same. A short, hastily prepared press release – sans any comments by Griffin (usually standard practice) followed a day or so later . Other personnel shifts are also in progress at NASA Headquarters with many more rumored to be ahead. Of course, thousands of jobs are at risk across the agency.

When asked about personnel changes Griffin intended to make (a number have already been made at NASA HQ) Griffin said there would be some but would only provide specifics on one: that Scott Pace, “a non career SES”, would lead a new Program Analysis and Evaluation Office at NASA headquarters.

Agency wide Job Loss Fears

When asked by a Huntsville reporter to comment about employee concerns about changes at the agency with respect to jobs, Griffin said “I can’t imagine returning to the moon or going to Mars or developing the capability o explore and utilize the near earth asteroid without the capabilities that Marshall Space Flight Center brings to bear. Marshall is out launch vehicle center. We’re not going to be establishing another one – and we can’t get there with none of them. So we have one- and it isn’t going to go away. It is crucially important to me. Marshall has other skills as well but their prime directive is to be NASA’s launch vehicle center. I am not going to change that. I would not want to if I could. I cannot imagine that there is a center in NASA that is better positioned for the future given the President’s vision for space exploration than is Marshall.”

Griffin continued: “We are all living through some short-term dislocations. I cannot hide that from you. Again, I wouldn’t if I could. The loss of Columbia precipitated over the last couple of years a major reexamination as what should be the purpose of the United State’s civil space flight program – both human and robotic. Those conclusions have been summarized in the President’s speech on January 14th a year ago and in a written policy statement from the White House. As everyone here knows quite well, I fully support that. I think it is exactly the right thing for the United States to be doing. We can’t get from the program we were executing to the program we want to execute without having some dislocations. It simply cannot be done – or if it can be done I am not bright enough to figure out how to do it.”

“There are some things that will be judged less important in the future. There are some things we want to do that have not been judged important in the recent past. To get from one set of priorities and programs to another is going to require some careful rethinking – it is going to require some skillful surgery on the budget and on our center resources and facilities. You have my promise, all of you, that this will be done as well and as ably as we can manage it. But to say that it can be done without some transition pain would be disingenuous.”

He was asked a similar question by a reporter from Hampton: “There is a lot of anxiety here about future job cuts. The [LaRC Center] director here said that there may be as many as 1,000 people cut – one fourth of the work force.” Griffin was asked if he could say anything to reassure employees.

Griffin said “We really need to face up to the fact that we are changing what we are doing with the United States civil space program. I am one of those who believes that it is for the better – but, without question, we are changing it. And, I dislike to put it this way, but there will be enterprises and individuals who are better off after the change and others who will be worse. The nation makes available to us within NASA a certain amount of money to execute a multitude of programs – I think they are all good. I am deeply impressed with what has been done in aeronautics by NASA over the decades and I want that to continue.”

“I am of those who believe that the nation now has a space policy and needs an aeronautics policy. I have been asked by Sen. Hutchison whether I would consider being part of a group that would consider aeronautics policy at a higher level and I have been asked the same questions by Mr. Calvert and Mr. Wolf in the House – all of who have expressed considerable concern at one time or another as has Sen. Allen over the future of aeronautics and of course I think we need a discussion within the technical and research communities about what we intend to do about aeronautics. That said, in the president’s program going forward, aeronautics is not as high a priority as returning NASA to a path on which space exploration is prominently featured – and that must be dealt with. Again, my pledge to you is to deal with that as humanely and as logically as I can manage.”

Shuttle Launch Decisions

When asked what he’d do if the Stafford/Covey Task Force could not reach consensus in time for the STS-114 mission if Griffin would sign off on flying the mission anyways upon the recommendation of his shuttle managers he replied “Well, in concept, yes, I would if Wayne Hale, whom I highly respect, and others recommend that we should consider launching despite not having filled all the squares on Stafford-Covey, that is something I would consider, because I don’t believe that engineers make blanket decisions in advance, and I don’t believe the technical decisions are a voting matter. Stafford-Covey will have their criteria; the line managers in charge of the program will have theirs.”

“Now, I cannot begin at this time – and I’ll say it again -I cannot begin at this time to say under what specific conditions that NASA might elect to go ahead with the launch, given a disparity of opinion between various interested parties are to whether we should or should not. That will depend on the technical details of the issue at hand, but that is precisely the point. We study those issues and we resolve them at they occur, and then we make our decision, and we hold ourselves responsible for it. Advisory groups advise.”

“The NASA line managers have the responsibility for executing the program. We need to take our advice very seriously and very carefully when it is given, and we need never to be defensive about receiving advice from outside. But at the end of the day, the people wearing government and contractor badges charged with launching the vehicle will be the ones who are responsible and accountable for their actions.”

Closing The CEV/Shuttle Gap

In his opening statement, Griffin repeated a concern he expressed in his confirmation hearing – namely that he was concerned about the long period of time currently envisioned for CEV (Crew Exploration Vehicle) development. Specifically, the gap between Shuttle retirement in 2010 and the first operational CEV flights in 2014 – a gap where the U.S. would have no indigenous human space transport capability.

Right now the CEV procurement process is underway with an RFP on the street and contractor teams at work on their proposals. Decisions critical to CEV development are to be made in Fall 2005. Griffin was asked if the CEV procurement activity was going to be modified, delayed, or somehow altered to accommodate his concerns – and those of congress – that it be accelerated.

Griffin replied “we are going to rethink our entire program in that area because, as is well known, publicly released, we’re talking about flying the CEV with crew in 2014. Members of Congress have indicated to me that they consider that unacceptable. People in the Executive branch have indicated that they think that it is not advisable. And it doesn’t work for me either. So, we’re going to be reviewing those plans. If that requires that we delay the responses to the RFP that is out on the street, then so be it. Better to take a little time up front and get what we really want.”

When asked if moving the CEV timeline up would help protect jobs at MSFC, Griffin replied “it may well.. We are reviewing our skill mix needs … the people we require, where they would be, what they would be doing in light of the importance that the Congress and the Administration place on not having a 5 year gap in the ability of the United States to access space with human crews.”

Closing The Soyuz Gap

When asked about the Iran Non Proliferation Act and the restrictions that this imposes upon buying Soyuz spacecraft fro Russia, Griffin said “I think it is obvious what the restriction is – it would mean that under our present flight rules that we would only have U.S. astronauts on board the station at a time when the shuttle was visiting. Because when we are no longer being furnished Soyuz capsules by Russia we would not have a crew escape mechanism. That fact has eluded no one. There is an interagency group that is examining that issue and putting together alternatives to be considered at the policy level in the Executive Branch and to be considered on the Hill. The process isn’t done – its not finished – I will be joining [that group] at some point but have not yet [done so]. You can probably read in the Economist a few weeks ago as succinct an analysis of the issue as you can get anywhere.”

Roadmap Alterations

NASA currently has a complicated series of “Roadmapping” activities underway which Griffin has inherited – many of which will not be done until the Fall of 2005 – and the National Academy of Sciences is not going to come back with their pronouncement as to their fitness until later in the fall – well after Griffin has to make some important procurement decisions (CEV etc.). This process seems to be a bit backwards. Griffin was asked whether he would be modifying that roadmapping process – such that the output from this effort can be used as input for the changes Griffin is looking to make.

Griffin replied: “I don’t think that the roadmap activities are on a pace that is consistent with the decision making that we have to do. I will probably be establishing focused, small teams, representing a breadth of experience throughout NASA – throughout the centers – and targeted other institutions as necessary in order to be helping with some of these larger scale architectural issues.”

Mars Costs

When asked about the economics of going to Mars – what it would cost to actually mount a mission, Griffin said “I am on the record as saying that I don’t think that missions to Mars are unaffordable with the budgets that we have if they are utilized appropriately. Everything that I know to date about what it will cost us to do a [human] Mars mission was summarized in a Planetary Society report that Owen Garriott, and old and good friend, and I chaired in behalf of the Planetary Society with numerous co-authors. That report included a section on costing. The costing analysis was done at a very high level. It was basically weight-based costing which, at this point, since we don’t have mission architectures to point to, nor do we have specific designs, nor would it be appropriate in this time to have specific designs, because we’re not going to Mars next week – or next year.”

“The costing analysis was based on order of magnitude weight estimates that would be required as well as assuming certain productivity gains that have been characteristic of the U.S. economy as a whole. … what it adds up to is that I think we have a pretty good first order effort of what it takes to go to Mars – and that estimate is summarized in that report. And frankly, that is the best knowledge I have of what it ought to take – if we do it right. The answer came out to be that in present day dollars you could probably go to Mars for what we spent on Apollo. .. there is no need to go to Mars over an 8-year period .. it is, as President Bush said, a ‘journey not a race’. So, I view, at a few billion dollars a year, paced out over a number of years, voyages to Mars are eminently doable – and I would urge you to download that report.”

Hubble Rescue

When asked about how he will go about analyzing the issue of whether to send a shuttle mission to service Hubble, Griffin replied “immediately after the first flight is launched we are going to undertake an internal review to weigh the pros and cons of reinstituting SM4. I would not care to prejudice the outcome of that because I need to know more. As I mentioned in my confirmation hearing, by a certain lucky coincidence, (or unlucky as you will) I had the opportunity to study quite closely the robotic servicing mission and along with the unanimous view of the other engineers who were asked to be outside reviewers on that mission came to the conclusion that although the Goddard and contractor team that was working on it was extraordinarily able – was working very hard and was totally committed – was just as good as we could put into place – that demands of the robotic servicing mission were such that it was unlikely to be accomplished successfully in the timeframe necessary before the Hubble degraded to a point where it could not be recovered.”

“So in that hearing I said as far as I am concerned the robotic serving mission is off the table. NASA will, of course, obey any legislative direction that the Congress provides and, as many of you know, we have language this year directing us to spend money on a Hubble servicing mission. I hope to work with the Congress to get a certain amount of breathing room to get our first Return to Flight mission off, to have time to study carefully the pros and cons of doing SM4 and to bring them back the best answer that I and the NASA team can provide.”

I Know Culture When I Feel it

When asked how he would know when the cultural changes need at the agency were done, Griffin answered “I don’t know how to measure cultural change – culture is something that you feel – and I am now re-immersing myself in the NASA culture after a departure of 11 years in which I was in industry and other government laboratories and other government operations.”

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.