An Interview with NASA Chief Mike Griffin
NASA administrator Michael Griffin, right, listens as Bryan O'Connor, a former astronaut and shuttle accident investigator, speaks during a news conference at NASA headquarters in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007 to announce that in a review released Wednesday, no evidence was found that astronauts were drunk or had been drinking heavily before any space launch.
Credit: AP Photo/Susan Walsh.

On Sept. 2, in the wake of news that he had ordered a study of what it would take to extend space shuttle operations from 2010 to 2015, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin discussed his reasoning in an interview with Space News. The following is a transcript of that interview.

When and why did you order an assessment of what it would take to extend shuttle operations beyond the current fleet retirement date?

Some time in the last week or so. I'm not being deliberately vague, but within the last week or so.

Clearly we're going to have to answer questions. We have been having to answer questions. Whether you connect it to INKSNA [the Iran-North Korea-Syria Nonproliferation Act] or whether you connect it to an upcoming election and transition, inevitably questions are going to be asked about what would it take to continue to supply ISS [international space station] logistics via the space shuttle. In order that we not start on answering the question when we do get asked in the future, depending on the outcome of the discussion on INSKNA or the preference of a new president, I thought it prudent to begin planning now because there are a lot of very difficult questions to answer if somebody does want to continue to fly shuttle and we need to think it through rather than be cavalier about it.

Hasn't NASA already thought this through?

As I think you know, presidential policy has been that shuttle will be retired at the end of 2010 and that certainly is a position I have agreed with and I've made no bones about it. We need to get the shuttle behind us so we can move forward with new systems that will take us back to the Moon and later on be the building blocks for going to Mars. I think you guys both know that nobody believes that more strongly than I do.

But what I think is important is not the question. The question that matters is if NASA gets directed to continue flying the shuttle, how do we do it in the most prudent and least damaging manner and what will the impacts be? We need to have those answers in some amount of detail because they might influence such a decision.

Are you saying NASA has not studied the question of extending shuttle operations to the level you intend to study it now?

Exactly, because we have been on a retirement path, an unambiguous retirement path. And yet the current issues in Georgia, the debate over whether there will or will not be continuation of our INKSNA exemption, the letter from the three senators — I'm sure this is not the last we will hear on the topic. It seemed to me to be prudent to start getting thoughtful answers, careful answers while we have the time to do so.

But didn't you say you asked for the study before Sens. John McCain, Kay Bailey Hutchison and David Vitter wrote Bush asking that he direct NASA to take no action that would preclude operating shuttle beyond 2010?

Yes, I did direct it before all of this because I could see it coming. I'm not as stupid as many people like to assume. I mean I could see it coming and we will give better answers if we have time to plan.

There's another factor. I've been asked in testimony — you guys have been sitting in the room — I've been asked in testimony eight or 10 times over the last three-and-a-half years what it would take to accelerate Constellation and I have given the answers as best we had them. Those are on the record and I'm not going to waste your time repeating all that. But the point is that time now has essentially run out. We really can no longer significantly accelerate Constellation. And so as I judge it there is not a possibility that the Congress is going to provide a sufficient increment of near-term funds, using its discretion, to accelerate Orion and Ares.

And while that was still possible I considered the probability of NASA being directed to extend shuttle's lifetime was lesser rather than greater. But with the substantial gap we have between shuttle retirement and the 2015 deployment of Orion and Ares I do think it likely that policy makers in the next administration or next Congress will want to know what it would cost and what the impacts would be to keep shuttle around, and I think we better answer the question.

Roughly what will it cost?

It's not an easy question to answer. When I've been asked before in congressional hearings I said around $3 billion. That's a quick estimate based on what we know today. But If one wants to think it through in detail and to provide the lowest cost estimate possible we'd have to consider various scenarios that would have to be thought out and that we just haven't done.

To clarify, $3 billion is an annual figure?

Yes, that's an annual cost of owning a shuttle program.

Bill Gerstenmaier said earlier this year that NASA was approaching the point of no return on shuttle retirement. Will this assessment find out if you have in fact reached that point?

If the answer is we have already reached the point of no return, then in all good conscience we need to be able to inform the nation's policy makers of that fact. Now I think that neither Gerst nor I think we actually are at that point. But we need to understand it... I want to be really clear we are not making any changes at this point in direction or policy and certainly I have no change in my own preferences, to the extent that anyone cares.

Have you received any direction from the White House since McCain, Hutchison and Vitter asked Bush to halt any actions that would keep NASA from flying shuttle past 2010?

No.

Do you anticipate NASA taking any such action?

I don't know. It's too soon to answer that because I would have to know what the actions are. Part of the reason for doing the study is to understand what those actions might be. You mentioned having talked to Gerst and he said, 'well, we are either at or close to the point of no return.' Well sure. And I have consistently said it would be around the end of this year or early next year. But clearly we are still able to fly shuttles. We have 10 more of them scheduled. I don't think it's even possible to take an action right now which would preclude continuing to fly shuttle. One can only make it more expensive or less expensive. One of the things I want to understand is if NASA is directed by a future administration or future Congress to continue to fly shuttles I want to do it in the least damaging way possible.

What are the upcoming closeout activities that would prevent NASA from flying the orbiter until 2015?

I don't know yet. That's why I asked the question. Now obviously [external] tanks would be the first thing to come to anyone's minds. It's not that you can't continue to produce them. We haven't changed the tooling yet. Contracts can always be reinitiated. The tooling is there, the design is there, but what would it take? We don't know that right now.

The other thing is when you talk about extending the shuttle do you talk about adding new flights or  just spacing out the ones we have to get through the gap?

That has to be considered, those two options, or some mixture of them. I don't have any answers for you. The purpose of asking the questions was to get a range of possible answers.

As I consistently try to remind people NASA doesn't make policy we execute it. But policy directives from the new White House or the next Congress I am certain will be conditioned on what the cost of those policy choices are. We need to provide that information and it needs to be solid and defensible and thoughtful. So starting early to get those answers seemed to me to be prudent.

With or without shuttle, can NASA keep its astronauts on the ISS without having access to Soyuz vehicles for crew rescue?

No, unless you agree to take the risk of no crew rescue. If that's what you want to do.

What about NASA staffing station only while shuttle is there?

So you can get a couple of weeks for every shuttle mission, maybe a little bit more, maybe 17-18 days at the most, three times a year, so you get what? Fifty days a year for a very high price. If I am going to follow my usual policy of trying to tell the truth, we lose station for the first several years without a crew rescue capability. That's not something we would want to do. And if one insists on having crew rescue capability then until we have Orion or until a commercial vehicle emerges and is qualified to do the job, then the Russians are the only game in town for crew rescue.

Is it fair to say that unless the United States is willing to accept the risk of putting astronauts on station with no means of coming home in an emergency, or paying $3 billion or more a year for 50 days on orbit, then regardless of whether the shuttle keeps flying or not, NASA is going to need INKSNA relief?

I wouldn't phrase it that way because I don't like buying into someone else's words, although you are substantially correct. Let me say how I would phrase it. The nation's policymakers need to understand one of four options will occur.

Those four options are we will get INKSNA relief again and buy transportation for ourselves, and our international partners, from Russia. That's option 1. That's my preferred option.

The second option is we would fly Americans and our international partners to the station on the shuttle with no crew rescue capability for as long as we are directed to do it. That's the option we are studying here. That would be highly damaging to exploration and other agency initiatives.

Third, we could fly U.S. and international crew for limited stays on the space station, which would of course give us crew rescue capability because the shuttle would be that vehicle.

Finally we could have a scenario where there is just no U.S. or international partner crew. So one of those four things will occur.

How soon do you expect to get results of this study and make them public?

I don't know that we will make the results public until and unless our congressional oversight committees or the White House, or later on a transition team, asks for the information. This is internal work which has come to your attention by means of a leaked memo. It's classic pre-decisional stuff. When will it be done? I can't imagine that a thoughtful study would be done in anything less than a few months.

You guys know me after all these years. I just don't sit around and make it up. To get an answer that peels the onion a few layers below...if you look at the Space Ops budget in round numbers and say, 'okay if we want to own a shuttle program and not fly' there is a fixed program of around $3 billion. That's the cursory answer. But the real answer — in terms of contracts that have to be novated or reinitiated, in terms of conflicts between Constellation's need for the hardware and shuttle's need for the hardware, the existence of appropriate tooling — all the stuff that contributes to the real answer requires some care if we are going to get it right. It's going to take a few months.

Might this assessment serve up answers policymakers won't like?

It is almost impossible that we would produce an answer that would be likeable. This is not a pretty picture.

In ordering this study, do you take a risk that you might be sending space shuttle workers, who are worried about their futures, a message of false hope that the shuttle will keep flying?

Sure there's a risk. I thought about that very carefully before issuing the direction. Let me take it from the top. The problem we have of dealing with the gap is not new and it was not an accident. It was a policy decision, okay? Proposed by the White House and ratified by the Congress. It is a policy decision with which NASA must cope and with which I've been trying to cope.

Recent events have caused a lot of consternation about that in the space community and we are trying to deal with it. I get all that. One of the concerns that I had in asking for this study was that people both inside and outside the agency who would prefer that the decision to retire shuttle had not been made will, as you say, see that as a hope.

But I have to trade that risk against the risks of being uninformed about the impacts should we be asked the question for real. And in my judgment the risks of being uninformed about the real impacts is far greater than anything else.

You requested the study from NASA's Space Operations Mission Directorate (SOMD). When will the Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation (PA&E) get involved?

I asked SOMD to do the analysis because they are the only ones who can. I would expect the results that come back will be vetted by in part the Office of Chief Engineer, Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, PA&E, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer — everybody in the management staff of the agency is going to be taking a look at what comes back from their individual knothole.

 

Constellation's internal milestones have been slipping to the right. SpaceX continues to struggle with Falcon 1. NASA's facing the possibility of another continuing budget resolution. NASA's exploration plans called for a pretty delicately balanced transition that's been thrown for a number of loops these last few years. How do you see this all unfolding?

That calls for speculation that I'm just not ready to get into right now because I don't know. And attempting to predict it is pretty silly.

I do want to comment when you say Constellation internal milestones have been slipping to the right. I do want to put that in context because I don't think that's been done yet. So I'd like you guys to listen up on this.

We maintained for several years — on purpose and at my direction — internal milestones for Constellation that were as early as could be credibly done. Some would have even questioned whether they even were credible. I maintained the earliest milestones that we could precisely because — and you guys were in these hearings — there was much consternation about the length of the gap between shuttle retirement and Ares and Orion deployment and many questions about how much money would be required to accelerate development of the new systems by so many months. We had questions like that at virtually every hearing and so in order to have the program appropriately positioned should the congress have decided to provide extra money to Constellation, I didn't want the issue to be moot.

So NASA set more aggressive internal milestones in order to preserve the option of accelerating the program if more money were made available?

Exactly. Now as I said earlier, we reached the point after three years of effort where we were having to make decisions on specific hardware. We're approaching PDR, right? So we are making decisions on specific designs and specific hardware that are time and money dependent. Well, if the money is not there then making decisions earlier than one needs to do it in order to preserve an artificially earlier date that doesn't have fiscal credibility to it would be dumb and I wasn't going to do that. Our commitment date to the White House and the Congress has always been based on the president's budget to the dollar, nothing more and nothing less. And that's March 2015. Our internal milestones were the earliest credible ones we could propose. But time has gone by, water has gone over the dam and some of the earlier milestones are just no longer credible and we've slipped those out. But I still anticipate, absent changes in presidential requests or congressional appropriations, if we continue to get the budgets we are anticipating, our commitment date for Ares and Orion has not changed. It's still March of 2015."

Will this study you've requested also take into account what it would cost to defer Constellation?

It's a reaction to the study we will be assessing. We will be assessing impacts to Constellation. But at this point I'm not ready to say which of these options we would pursue or not.

If Congress, as expected, adjourns this year without finishing work on the 2009 spending bills, how will that impact NASA?

I don't know because I don't know the terms of the [continuing resolution]. Traditionally when you get a CR the manner of coping with it ? a lot of latitude is left to the discretion of agency heads because after all the CR is evidence that the Congress failed to do its fundamental job of appropriating a budget for the United States government. In the last instance that we had a CR we got very specific direction from Congress on how to use the money.

NASA two years ago took a $575 million cut with regard to the president's budget, ?except that to pay for that cut, $675 million came out of human space flight, meaning science and aeronautics where plussed up and human space flight lost more money than was lost in the CR. That obviously would not have been the choice I would have made. So until I know something about the kind of choices Congress is going to make with any assumed CR, I just can't answer your question.

Amid all the uncertainty about NASA's future direction, how do you expect NASA employees and contractors to stay focused on some of the work at hand?

I hope and insist that our industrial partners, our contractors, continue to work according to the contract terms in front of them. If they do anything else, that's just not responsible and they know it and I have every confidence they will keep their heads down and keep working. The same thing goes for our government managers. We have to ask 'what if' kinds of questions. I again would rather take the risk of a certain amount of uncertainty and turmoil then to take the risk of being unprepared to give answers when later asked. I think we need to focus on giving substantive answers to substantive questions and we intend to do that. Most folks at NASA are not involved in asking these questions. Most folks at NASA are involved in getting ready for the next launch or getting ready for the next design review. And that's what they will continue to do.

The most recent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel report made note of what it called the unusually low morale among Constellation team members for a program still relatively early in its development. Is there any concern that looking at shuttle extension will cause Constellation designers to further question the purpose of their efforts?

Any time you are working on a new system you have to have a certain amount of faith in the policy stability that envelops that new system. I've said many times, quoting from the CAIB report, where Admiral Gehman and his board wrote down that this new approach ? by which they meant replacing the shuttle ? will be successful only if the United States commits the substantial funds necessary for its accomplishment and ensures the requisite policy stability. It is a necessary condition if you are going to develop a new system in a timely and efficient manner that it exists in a context of policy stability. This has been one of the great debilitating things about the construction of the space station. For a lot of years every single year was a question as to whether the space station would continue to exist. Whether you want it or don't want it, having to deal with that question every year almost guarantees that it's going to take longer and cost more than it ought to. So our folks working on Constellation just need to keep faith and keep working until they are asked to stop. And I don't think that will happen because I don't think the nation is going abandon human spaceflight. And the shuttle is not the future of space flight.

The CAIB also said NASA should recertify the shuttle if it intends to fly it past 2010 but did not spell out what recertification would entail. Some argue that the post-Columbia shuttle is the safest ever. What do you think a recertification would entail?

I don't particularly like saying this because I'm not one who wants to keep the shuttle flying. But I think at this point making a big issue out of recertification would be specious. In going through return to flight, most of what you would want to do to certify the shuttle to continue to fly has been done. I'm sure there would be small, individual things that would be needed to be taken up. But in my judgment that would not be some huge technical or programmatic burden.

The reasons not to continue to fly the shuttle involve things other than recertification. Reasons not to continue to fly the shuttle are things like if you fly 10 more shuttle flights you have an almost 1 in 8 chance of losing another crew. Another reason not to fly is that as capable as shuttle is ? and it is incredibly capable ? it cannot take us out of low earth orbit and if the U.S. space program has a future in my judgment it lies in the Moon, near Earth asteroids and Mars. It lies in exploration. It doesn't lie in being confined to low Earth orbit. So even if the shuttle were a perfect vehicle, if we could afford only one system then I believe it needs to be a system to take us farther. So those are the reasons for retiring the shuttle. The issue of recertification in my judgment should be not a political issue; it should be an engineering and technical program management issue and I don't think that's a major factor.

If NASA is directed to fly shuttle to 2015, what does that mean for Constellation?

 Under the scenario you outline, unless new money is made available to continue to fly the shuttle while Constellation systems are being developed it would mean a deferral of Constellation deployment and a gross deferral of exploration goals.

The gap won't narrow if shuttle is flown past 2010; it will just be displaced in time. You don't reduce the gap by continuing to fly shuttle unless new money is provided. You just move the gap out to some other period of time. Unless money is provided to build news systems in parallel to flying existing systems there will always be a gap. This part's not rocket science, guys.

What can you do as NASA administrator to keep the community from losing faith and freelancing on new policy directions?

I don't think I have any ability to keep the broader community from, as you say, freelancing. We live in a democracy. That's an artifact of life in a democracy and if you consider the broader context I don't think I'd want it to be any different.

Since I took the job I have relied on the strength of our technical arguments to reinforce the path we've chosen.

So far what you've referred to as freelancing has amounted to nothing more than noise because no one has produced an alternative which is safer, cheaper or available in a more timely way than the architecture we've recommended. And for that reason our oversight committees in Congress and our oversight branch in the White House have not chosen to redirect us. In brief we have the most sensible path given the available money. And I am always confident that more dialogue really doesn't serve to do anything except validate that conclusion. My responsibility is to keep our programs moving forward as they've been outlined. I'm sure that the proponents of alternative paths are acting in what they believe to be good faith. I am absolutely certain of that. I never suspect evil intent. I do, however, realize that not all of those people are as informed as they ought to be. So far the conclusions that have been brought to us just have not held up to engineering scrutiny.