NASA Chief: Science and Exploration Both Crucial to Agency's Future

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado- The redirection of NASA's human spaceflight program focused on explorationbeyond Earth orbit brings about great synergies with science, aeronautics,commerce, as well as national security.

However,one ingredient of that synergy--space scientists--are feeling the budgetary pinchas NASA fortifies its human space exploration portfolio of projects.

"Ipersonally have been frustrated for a very long time by the way we in thelarger space community have treated two of our major disciplines ... science andspaceflight. We act as if they were two circles ... that don't intersect,"observed NASA chief, Mike Griffin.

Humanspaceflight and space science at NASA, Griffin said, should be thought of asintersecting circles.

Griffin spoke here at the 22ndNational Space Symposium (NSS), bringing to a close this week's annual meetingstaged by The Space Foundation in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The NASA officialwas en route to Russia to greet a soon-to-land crew from the InternationalSpace Station.

Suitcase science

Griffin said that herealizes that many in the space science community consider a renewal of mannedexploration beyond Earth orbit to be threat ... and primarily a budgetary threatto science. "I view it as a huge opportunity for science."

Inthis regard, Griffin envisioned the need to develop new generation rovers forhuman explorers on the Moon and later on Mars. "But such rovers could beadapted by the science community for missions to places well beyond anywhere wecould send people anytime soon or maybe even never," he said.

Roboticrovers that can think their way out of tight spots are needed, Griffin said, as is, what he termed "no assembly required, suitcase science."

Creativeideas for using ultra-tiny equipment to undertake powerful suitcase scienceresearch tasks are to be sought by NASA through a request for study expected atyear's end, Griffin said.

Outer planets booster

Griffin said thatbudgetary constraints forced NASA to call a halt to planning for a Europamission. "But sometimes when you close one door, another opens," he added,making note of the much lower radiation environment of Saturn's moon,Enceladus. That moon was recently found to have possible liquid waterreservoirs erupting in Yellowstone-like geyser fashion.

Enceladusmay be an easier target to explore, Griffin said. "We'll see."

Missionsto Jupiter's Europa, Saturn's Titan and Enceladus can be planned in 2016 andbeyond given NASA's new 100 metric ton cargo launch vehicle, or perhaps thecrew launch vehicle able to boost 25 metric tons will suffice, Griffin noted.

"Solet's think creativity about what we can do with these launch vehicles" he said,which would never be built to support science missions alone.

Thereis also synergy between science, aeronautics and exploration, Griffin said. ButNASA missed a great opportunity in not using the high-speed atmospheric entriesof the Genesis and Stardust capsules to acquire data. Similarly, space shuttlescould have carried experiments to gather invaluable aerodynamic informationduring reentry over the past 25 years of service, he said.

National security

Griffin projected into thefuture, seeing mankind's economic sphere expanding outward into the solarsystem. In-space fuel delivery, lunar resource prospecting, taking care oflunar surface systems and habitats--these and other jobs are ripe forcommercialization, he said.

Asexample, Griffin said that fuel on orbit--valued at $10,000 per pound withcurrent launch technology--could be offered via a commercially operated fueldepot in low Earth orbit. That facility could service a multi-billion dollarmarket, "one that would grow as long as we fly," he said.

Aleast considered benefit of NASA's civil space exploration program is its contributionto national security, Griffin said. Human and robotic exploration by the United States sets the country above and apart from all others in terms of leadership.

"Humanswill go to the Moon and Mars," Griffin said. The only questions, he added, arewhich humans? What values they will hold? What languages they will speak?

Budgetary decisions

Recentbudgetary decisions at NASA have upset the space science community.

"Iexpect the science community to be mad," Griffin told "Inprevious and in prior times they expected and were told to expect five, six,seven percent growth," he said.

NASAitself is growing at 2.4 percent, Griffin pointed out. "The best the sciencecommunity can ever hope for is a pro rata share of the NASA growth. But for thenext few years we cannot even offer that because the human spaceflightcommunity is also in difficulty."

Griffinsaid he's faced with recovering from the loss of shuttle Columbia; trying toretire the shuttle; finish up space agency obligations on the InternationalSpace Station; and trying to provide a new system for manned spaceflight beyondlow Earth orbit.

"Thosethings are also important to do and so we have to have some sort of balance...inand among all the things that are important to do," Griffin advised. "Thescience community is still getting an increase...they are not getting the kind ofincrease that they were promised and I regret that. But I can do no better."

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.