Former NASA Exploration Chief Gets Nod as Next NASA Administrator

Former NASA Exploration Chief Gets Nod as Next NASA Administrator
Mike Griffin, Space Department Head at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, is expected to be announced as the next NASA Administrator, sources say. Image (Image credit: James J. Lee)

Story updated at 4:38 p.m. EST

TheWhite House confirmed Friday that President Bush intends to nominate MikeGriffin, head of the space department at Johns Hopkins University's AppliedPhysics Laboratory (APL) to be the next NASA Administrator.

Griffin, a rocketscientist with an MBA, is a veteran aerospace executive who has held a varietyof senior-level positions at the Pentagon, NASA and in industry. Word ofGriffin's nomination had first been reported earlier in the day by's sister publication SpaceNews.

Heis replacing former NASA chief administrator Sean O'Keefe who resigned lastDecember citing personal and financial reasons for his decision. O'Keefe took ajob as chancellor of Louisiana State University'sBaton Rougecampus. He served three years as NASA's chief. At present, veteran shuttleastronaut Frederick Gregory has been acting as interim administrator.

Griffin's nominationmet with the immediate approval of several lawmakers who would have to workclosely with him if he is confirmed by the Senate.

Sen.Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), an influential member ofthe Senate Appropriations Committee who knows Griffin as the head of the space departmentat Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, said the president made "anoutstanding choice."

"[Griffin] has the rightcombination of experience in industry, academia and government service. He hasa proven record of leadership and a passion for science and exploration. Iwelcome his nomination," Mikulski said in a statement issued this afternoon.

HouseScience Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert, whose committee has called on Griffin to testify as anexpert witness on NASA issues, also endorsed the president's choice.

"Weare extremely pleased that the President has nominated Mike Griffin to be NASAAdministrator," Boehlert said in a statement. "Dr. Griffin has long been aresource to the Science Committee, both as a public witness and in providingprivate counsel. He has broad expertise, knows NASA inside and out, and is animaginative and creative thinker and leader. He is also known for his candorand directness. We look very forward to working with Dr. Griffin at thiscritical time for NASA."

Whenthe first President Bush announced the Space Exploration Initiative in 1989 inan attempt to move NASA out of its low-Earth orbit rut and onto Mars, Griffin was picked tolead the ill-fated effort serving as NASA's chief technologist and associateadministrator for exploration before leaving the agency in 1993.

Duringmuch of the 1990s, Griffinworked in several leadership positions at Orbital Sciences Corp., a Dulles,Va.-based company that builds satellites and rockets.

Beforereturning to APL in April 2004 to lead the lab's space work, Griffin was the chief operating officer ofIn-Q-Tel, a private non-profit enterprise funded by the Central IntelligenceAgency to invest in companies developing leading edge technologies.

Duringthe late 1980s, Griffinworked as the technology deputy for the Strategic Defense InitiativeOrganization, an early predecessor to the Missile Defense Agency.

RetiredAir Force Brig. Gen. Simon "Pete" Worden, who has known Griffinfor more than 20 years, said Griffinis an "absolutely superb choice" for NASA administrator.

"Thismeans the administration is serious about a new direction for the program,"Worden said. "He will make the president's vision a reality."

CourtneyStadd, an aerospace management consultant who headed upthe NASA transition for Bush and served as NASA's White House liaison and chiefof staff until July 2003, said Griffin has the right mix of technical savvy andmanagement experience to lead NASA. "He brings a really unique and reallyimportant set of skills that is exactly what the agency needs at this point inits history," Stadd said.

Griffin has adoctorate degree in aerospace engineering and master's degrees in aerospacescience, electrical engineering, applied physics, civil engineering and businessadministration.

Wordensaid that he believes Griffinwill "make maximum use of the true private sector" in implementing the spaceexploration vision, heading one of the central recommendations of a blue ribbonpanel Bush chartered last year to advise him turning the exploration goals intoreality.

Stadd said some ofthe smaller, entrepreneurial firms vying for a role in NASA's new explorationplans ought to be very happy the White House picked Griffin.

"Froman entrepreneurial standpoint he has someone who has actually experienced whatit is like to be on the other side of the table dealing with the government,"he said. "We haven't had that before."

Griffin told Space News in 2003 that the first SpaceExploration Initiative never took hold because back in the early 1990s theCongress did not see the value in investing heavily in space exploration.

Inan interview last November, Griffin said he felt today's political atmosphereis different than it was the last time the White House set big exploration goalsfor he U.S. Space agency. But he said he was under no illusions thatmaintaining political support for the new effort will be in anyway easy.

"Circumstanceshave changed in the years since I worked for NASA on the explorationinitiative. We have a Republican White House and a Republication Congress," hesaid in the interview. "I don't know if the United States' fiscal position isbetter or worse, but it is certainly different. We are also at war."

Griffin is poised totake over a NASA that is preparing to fly the space shuttle for the first timesince the February 2003 loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia.

Hewould also be taking over leadership of an agency that has been given apresidential directive to return to the Moon by 2020 as a first step to humanmissions to Mars.

Bush,in laying out his vision for space exploration early last year, called for NASAto finish assembly of the international space station by 2010 and then retirethe space shuttle fleet.

Writingin Space News last March, Griffin made clear that hesupports that goal.

"Whatis needed is to retire the Shuttle Orbiter, and its expensive supportinfrastructure," Griffinwrote. "It simply does not serve the needs of exploration and it is tooexpensive, to logistically fragile, and insufficiently safe for continued useas a low Earth orbit transport vehicle."

NASA'slatest space shuttle launch manifest calls for conducting 28 missions by 2010to complete the space station. Space agency officials are currently reviewingthat manifest with an eye to cutting some of those flights.

Griffin has said ininterviews that he thinks NASA ought to look at ways to retire the spaceshuttle sooner than 2010, such as using expendable rockets to launch some ofthe space station hardware still on the ground.

"Ifyou truly believe that the shuttle can fly all 28 planned station assemblyflights between now and 2010, then it's unlikely that the switch would payoff," he said last November. "But if you believe that it will take until 2014or later, then it is quite logical to ask if we could save time and money byintegrating some space station assembly payloads onto larger expendables."

Griffin has said thatreturning to the Moon will require the United States to build a new heavy-liftlaunch vehicle. He told the House Science Committee in October 2003 during ahearing on the future of human space flight that "it may not be impossible toconsider returning to the Moon or going to Mars without a robust heavy-liftlaunch capability, but it is certainly silly."

Griffin has alsostated his preference that United States use existing space shuttle hardware,such as the main engines, solid rocket booster, and external tank, as thefoundation for building the new heavy lift launcher NASA may need to return tothe Moon.

Worden,who replaced Griffin as the technology deputy atthe Strategic Defense Initiative Organization in the late 1980s, said he doesnot think Griffinwould let his stated preferences for a shuttle-derived heavy-lifter interferewith NASA's effort to reach an honest conclusion about the best way to go.

"Ithink he is going to be very open to whatever the best solution is," Wordensaid. "He is a superb engineer and he listens to people."

Buteven as NASA administrator, the decision would not be Griffin's to make. The National SpaceTransportation Policy, updated by the White House late last year, decreed thatany heavy-lift launcher decision would be made by the president after hearingthe joint recommendation of the NASA administrator and the Defense secretary.

Thatpolicy also says the preference should be given to heavy-lift launch designsbased on the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 evolved expendable launch vehicles.

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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.