NASA Chief: Civil Space of Strategic Importance
NASA administrator Michael Griffin.
Credit: NASA/Renee Bouchard.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - The U.S. civil space exploration program is a matter of national strategy. But the country's space policy -- of returning to the Moon, trekking onward to Mars and beyond -- needs to fly high above partisan bickering.

NASA Administrator, Michael Griffin, spoke here today at the 23rd National Space Symposium staged by the Space Foundation.

Griffin said that NASA is a nearly unique government agency in the sense that it enjoys enormous name recognition and immensely positive public approval...a level of popularity that manifests itself in terms of "brand loyalty."

Nevertheless, Griffin continued, the same people who resoundingly approve of NASA are not sure why, or at least cannot express it clearly.

"But when those being questioned are informed of even some of the more prosaic contributions of the space program to their daily lives --  things like the development of integrated circuits, medical monitoring equipment for hospital patients, navigation and weather satellites, materials used in joint replacement surgery -- their approval shoots up into the 90 percent range," Griffin said.

Touchy-feely feelings

Griffin suggested that a number of touchy-feely feelings resonate with the public. For one, NASA involves the deep satisfaction of overcoming extremely demanding technical challenges. "And, yes, feeling for NASA invokes the concrete benefits we obtain for our entire society when we tackle, and learn to overcome, those challenges," he said.

Harkening back to the Apollo era, the public rebound of thinking "if we can do this, we can do anything" was a spinoff sentiment that speaks volumes.

"I believe this thought provides more of a justification for our space program than any rational, dollars-and-cents explanation I can ever hope to provide as to what NASA represents to the American public and those of us in the space business," Griffin said.

However, Griffin posed the questions: "Are America's best days behind us? Will our future be dimmer than our past?" Human spaceflight is a strategic capability for a nation, he emphasized.

Strategic choice

Griffin spotlighted the fact that today is the 46th anniversary of humankind's first foray into Earth orbit - the pioneering sojourn of Russian, Yuri Gagarin, in his Vostok 1 spacecraft on April 12, 1961.

Human spaceflight has been accomplished only by the United States, Russia, and most recently China, Griffin said.

"India has announced its intention to develop such capabilities. Having visited several space facilities in China and India this past year, and meeting their aerospace engineers, I must say that I am very impressed by the methodical, disciplined approach both countries have taken in developing their space industrial base and capabilities. The national economies of these countries exceed in scale the economy of the United States as it existed in the early 1960s," Griffin said.

The NASA chief added that both Europe and Japan also have the economic and technical wherewithal to carry out their own human spaceflight program. "It is again simply a matter of making the strategic choice to do it."

Tasks ahead

Be it human spaceflight, output from the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as human telepresence via the Spirit and Opportunity rovers working away on Mars - these activities demonstrate the strategic impact of the civil space program

Restating the slogan, "If we can do this, we can do anything," Griffin also added: "We could also do nothing.  It is a fairly simple choice, really.  We could choose to do great things, we could simply sit back and watch, or we could choose to mock those who dare even to try." 

"What we really need is to focus on the tasks ahead of us and the pace of the work to be done, rather than fomenting discord and putting space policy in partisan, political terms," Griffin said.