An Interview with NASA Chief Mike Griffin

NASA Investigation Finds No Evidence Astronauts Were Drunk Before Flights
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. (Image credit: AP Photo/Susan Walsh.)
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On Sept. 2, in the wake of newsthat he had ordered a study of what it would take to extend space shuttleoperations from 2010 to 2015, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin discussed hisreasoning in an interview with Space News. The following is a transcriptof that interview.

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

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

Clearly we're going to have to answer questions. We have beenhaving to answer questions. Whether you connect it to INKSNA [the Iran-NorthKorea-Syria Nonproliferation Act] or whether you connect it to an upcomingelection and transition, inevitably questions are going to be asked about whatwould it take to continue to supply ISS [international space station] logisticsvia the space shuttle. In order that we not start on answering the questionwhen we do get asked in the future, depending on the outcome of the discussionon INSKNA or the preference of a new president, I thought it prudent to beginplanning now because there are a lot of very difficult questions to answer ifsomebody does want to continue tofly shuttle and we need to think it through rather than be cavalier aboutit.

Hasn't NASA already thought this through?

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

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

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

Exactly, because we have been on a retirement path, anunambiguous retirement path. And yet the current issues in Georgia, the debateover 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 hearon the topic. It seemed to me to be prudent to start getting thoughtfulanswers, careful answers while we have the time to do so.

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

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

There's another factor. I've been asked in testimony — you guyshave been sitting in the room — I've been asked in testimony eight or 10 timesover the last three-and-a-half years what it would take to accelerateConstellation and I have given the answers as best we had them. Those are onthe record and I'm not going to waste your time repeating all that. But thepoint is that time now has essentially run out. We really can no longersignificantly accelerateConstellation. And so as I judge it there is not a possibility that theCongress is going to provide a sufficient increment of near-term funds, usingits discretion, to accelerate Orion andAres.

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

Roughly what will it cost?

It's not an easy question to answer. When I've been asked beforein congressional hearings I said around $3 billion. That's a quick estimatebased on what we know today. But If one wants to think it through in detail andto provide the lowest cost estimate possible we'd have to consider variousscenarios 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 wasapproaching the point of no return on shuttle retirement. Will this assessmentfind 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 policymakers of that fact. Now I think that neither Gerst nor I think we actually areat that point. But we need to understand it... I want to be really clear we arenot making any changes at this point in direction or policy and certainly Ihave no change in my own preferences, to the extent that anyone cares.

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


Do you anticipate NASA taking any such action?

I don't know. It's too soon to answer that because I would haveto know what the actions are. Part of the reason for doing the study is to understandwhat 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 Ihave consistently said it would be around the end of this year or early nextyear. But clearly we are still able to fly shuttles. We have 10 more of themscheduled. I don't think it's even possible to take an action right now whichwould preclude continuing to fly shuttle. One can only make it more expensiveor less expensive. One of the things I want to understand is if NASA isdirected by a future administration or future Congress to continue to flyshuttles I want to do it in the least damaging way possible.

What are the upcoming closeout activities that would preventNASA 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 notthat 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 doyou talk about adding new flights or  just spacing out the ones we have toget through the gap?

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

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

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

No, unless you agree to take the risk of no crew rescue. Ifthat'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, soyou get what? Fifty days a year for a very high price. If I am going to followmy usual policy of trying to tell the truth, we lose station for the firstseveral years without a crew rescue capability. That's not something we wouldwant to do. And if one insists on having crew rescue capability then until wehave Orion or until a commercial vehicle emerges and is qualified to do thejob, then the Russians are the only game in town for crew rescue.

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

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

Those four options are we will get INKSNA relief again and buytransportation 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 ourinternational partners to the station on the shuttle with no crew rescuecapability for as long as we are directed to do it. That's the option we arestudying here. That would be highly damaging to exploration and other agencyinitiatives.

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

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

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

I don't know that we will make the results public until andunless our congressional oversight committees or the White House, or later on atransition team, asks for the information. This is internal work which has cometo 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 inanything less than a few months.

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

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

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

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

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

Recent events have caused a lot of consternation about that inthe space community and we are trying to deal with it. I get all that. One ofthe concerns that I had in asking for this study was that people both insideand outside the agency who would prefer that the decision to retire shuttle hadnot been made will, as you say, see that as a hope.

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

You requested the study from NASA's Space Operations MissionDirectorate (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 oneswho can. I would expect the results that come back will be vetted by in partthe Office of Chief Engineer, Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, PA&E,the Office of the Chief Financial Officer — everybody in the management staffof the agency is going to be taking a look at what comes back from theirindividual knothole.


Constellation's internal milestones have been slipping to theright. SpaceX continues to struggle with Falcon 1. NASA's facing thepossibility of another continuing budget resolution. NASA's exploration planscalled for a pretty delicately balanced transition that's been thrown for anumber 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 intoright now because I don't know. And attempting to predict it is pretty silly.

I do want to comment when you say Constellation internalmilestones have been slipping to the right. I do want to put that in contextbecause I don't think that's been done yet. So I'd like you guys to listen upon this.

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

So NASA set more aggressive internal milestones in order topreserve the option of accelerating the program if more money were madeavailable?

Exactly. Now as I said earlier, we reached the point after threeyears of effort where we were having to make decisions on specific hardware.We're approaching PDR, right? So we are making decisions on specific designsand specific hardware that are time and money dependent. Well, if the money isnot there then making decisions earlier than one needs to do it in order to preservean artificially earlier date that doesn't have fiscal credibility to it wouldbe dumb and I wasn't going to do that. Our commitment date to the White Houseand 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 milestoneswere the earliest credible ones we could propose. But time has gone by, waterhas gone over the dam and some of the earlier milestones are just no longercredible and we've slipped those out. But I still anticipate, absent changes inpresidential requests or congressional appropriations, if we continue to getthe budgets we are anticipating, our commitment date for Ares and Orion has notchanged. It's still March of 2015."

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

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

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

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

NASA two years ago took a $575 million cut with regard to thepresident's budget, ?except that to pay for that cut, $675 million came out ofhuman space flight, meaning science and aeronautics where plussed up and humanspace flight lost more money than was lost in the CR. That obviously would nothave been the choice I would have made. So until I know something about thekind of choices Congress is going to make with any assumed CR, I just can'tanswer your question.

Amid all the uncertainty about NASA's future direction, how doyou expect NASA employees and contractors to stay focused on some of the workat 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 doanything else, that's just not responsible and they know it and I have everyconfidence they will keep their heads down and keep working. The same thinggoes 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 andturmoil then to take the risk of being unprepared to give answers when laterasked. I think we need to focus on giving substantive answers to substantivequestions and we intend to do that. Most folks at NASA are not involved inasking these questions. Most folks at NASA are involved in getting ready forthe next launch or getting ready for the next design review. And that's whatthey will continue to do.

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

Any time you are working on a new system you have to have acertain 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 andhis board wrote down that this new approach ? by which they meant replacing theshuttle ? will be successful only if the United States commits the substantialfunds necessary for its accomplishment and ensures the requisite policystability. It is a necessary condition if you are going to develop a new systemin a timely and efficient manner that it exists in a context of policystability. This has been one of the great debilitating things about theconstruction of the space station. For a lot of years every single year was aquestion as to whether the space station would continue to exist. Whether youwant it or don't want it, having to deal with that question every year almostguarantees that it's going to take longer and cost more than it ought to. Soour folks working on Constellation just need to keep faith and keep workinguntil they are asked to stop. And I don't think that will happen because Idon't think the nation is going abandon human spaceflight. And the shuttle isnot the future of space flight.

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

I don't particularly like saying this because I'm not one whowants to keep the shuttle flying. But I think at this point making a big issueout 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 hasbeen done. I'm sure there would be small, individual things that would beneeded to be taken up. But in my judgment that would not be some huge technicalor programmatic burden.

The reasons not to continue to fly the shuttle involve thingsother than recertification. Reasons not to continue to fly the shuttle arethings like if you fly 10 more shuttle flights you have an almost 1 in 8 chanceof losing another crew. Another reason not to fly is that as capable as shuttleis ? and it is incredibly capable ? it cannot take us out of low earth orbitand 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 beingconfined to low Earth orbit. So even if the shuttle were a perfect vehicle, ifwe could afford only one system then I believe it needs to be a system to takeus farther. So those are the reasons for retiring the shuttle. The issue ofrecertification in my judgment should be not a political issue; it should be anengineering and technical program management issue and I don't think that's amajor factor.

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

 Under the scenario you outline, unless new money is madeavailable to continue to fly the shuttle while Constellation systems are beingdeveloped it would mean a deferral of Constellation deployment and a grossdeferral of exploration goals.

The gap won't narrow if shuttle is flown past 2010; it will justbe displaced in time. You don't reduce the gap by continuing to fly shuttleunless new money is provided. You just move the gap out to some other period oftime. Unless money is provided to build news systems in parallel to flyingexisting 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 fromlosing faith and freelancing on new policy directions?

I don't think I have any ability to keep the broader communityfrom, as you say, freelancing. We live in a democracy. That's an artifact oflife in a democracy and if you consider the broader context I don't think I'dwant it to be any different.

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

So far what you've referred to as freelancing has amounted tonothing more than noise because no one has produced an alternative which issafer, cheaper or available in a more timely way than the architecture we'verecommended. And for that reason our oversight committees in Congress and ouroversight branch in the White House have not chosen to redirect us. In brief wehave the most sensible path given the available money. And I am alwaysconfident that more dialogue really doesn't serve to do anything exceptvalidate that conclusion. My responsibility is to keep our programs movingforward as they've been outlined. I'm sure that the proponents of alternativepaths are acting in what they believe to be good faith. I am absolutely certainof that. I never suspect evil intent. I do, however, realize that not all ofthose people are as informed as they ought to be. So far the conclusions thathave been brought to us just have not held up to engineering scrutiny.


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Editor-in-Chief, SpaceNews

Brian Berger is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews, a bi-weekly space industry news magazine, and He joined SpaceNews covering NASA in 1998 and was named Senior Staff Writer in 2004 before becoming Deputy Editor in 2008. Brian's reporting on NASA's 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident and received the Communications Award from the National Space Club Huntsville Chapter in 2019. Brian received a bachelor's degree in magazine production and editing from Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.