Update: Story first posted 1:15 p.m.
WASHINGTON - The Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee said today that he would push for swift confirmation of NASA Administrator nominee Mike Griffin with the intent of clearing him to report for duty Monday April 18.
Griffin said during his confirmation hearing before the Commerce Committee this morning that his two top priorities would be safe return to flight of the space shuttle fleet and eliminating the lengthy gap between retiring the shuttle fleet in 2010 and fielding a replacement vehicle, the Crew Exploration Vehicle now scheduled for its initial piloted launch in 2014.
Griffin also said he would reconsider the decision by his predecessor, former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, to cancel a planned shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. "We should reassess the earlier decision in light of what we learn after we return to flight," Griffin said.
Griffin said that once the shuttle has flown successfully again for the first time since the February 2003 accident that destroyed the shuttle Columbia and killed its crew, he would review two options: sending a shuttle to refurbish the popular space telescope or mounting a simple robotic mission to de-orbit Hubble and plunge it into the ocean.
The option of sending a robotic spacecraft to refurbish Hubble with new instruments, batteries and gyroscopes is off the table, Griffin said.
"I believe the choice comes down between reinstating a shuttle servicing mission or possibly a very simple robotic deorbit mission." Griffin said. "The decision not to execute the planned shuttle service mission was made in the immediate aftermath of the loss of Columbia. When we return to flight it will be with essentially a new vehicle which will have a new risk analysis associated with . . . at that time I think we should reassess the earlier decision in light of what we learn after we return to flight."
With regard to the Crew Exploration Vehicle, Griffin noted that in the 1960s the Gemini program took only three years and the development of the Apollo capsule only about 6 years from contract award to flight He said NASA's current plan to fly astronauts aboard the Crew Exploration Vehicle for the first time in 2014 "unacceptable".
"The program that NASA has outlined so far features a new Crew Exploration Vehicle. - call it what you will --- that nominally comes on line in 2014. I think that is too far out," Griffin told members of the Commerce Committee. "President Bush said not later than 2014. He didn't say we couldn't be smart and do it early. And that would be my goal."
Teams led by Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are going after a pair of contracts worth around $1 billion each to spend the next three years preparing for a Crew Exploration Vehicle prototype flight demonstration meant to help NASA pick one team to build the actual vehicle.. Proposals are due May 2, but Griffin's statement at the hearing calls into question whether NASA will go forward with the competition as currently structured.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the chairman of the Commerce Committee, said he would try to get Griffin's nomination out of committee and send to the floor of the Senate for a vote as early today. Presidential appointments require senate approval.