Griffin Begins in Whirlwind

MikeGriffin's tenure as NASA Administrator began at lightening speed. By the timehe was sworn in April 14, the straight-talking 55-year-old aerospace veteranhad already plunged deep into his new job.

Hetold Congress the shuttle fleet's safe return to flight was his top priorityand promised to accelerate the development of a replacement for the spaceshuttle. He also addressed serious concerns among several influential membersof Congress about proposed cuts in aeronautics spending, vowed to reconsiderhis predecessor's unpopular decision to abandon the Hubble Space Telescope,pledged to fix the agency's broken financial accounting system and spoke viatelevision to the agency's far flung work force.

Griffin, an aerospaceengineer with a master's degree in Business Administration and five otheradvanced degrees, was sworn in as NASA's new chief by John Marburger,director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Bythen, he already had made it clear to Congress, the public and NASA employeesthat there is much to be done.

Duringhis confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee just two daysbefore his swearing-in, Griffin assuredlawmakers his immediate focus will be making sure that NASA is ready to startlaunching and landing space shuttles for the first time since the February 2003disaster that destroyed Columbiaand killed seven astronauts.

"Thevery first issue on the plate superceding all othersis to look into return to flight, work which has gone on in the last more thantwo years since we lost Columbia, to understand it, to understand who has doneit, what has been done and to understand what the areas of concern still are,"Griffin said.

Griffin also announcedduring his confirmation hearing that he would reconsider the decision by hispredecessor, former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, to cancel a plannedshuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. "We should reassess theearlier decision in light of what we learn after we return to flight," Griffin said.

Griffin said once theshuttle has flown again, he would review two options: sending a shuttle torefurbish the popular space telescope or mounting a simple robotic mission to deorbit Hubble and plunge it into the ocean. The option ofsending a robotic spacecraft to refurbish Hubble with new instruments,batteries and gyroscopes is off the table, Griffin said.

"Ibelieve the choice comes down between reinstating a shuttle servicing missionor possibly a very simple robotic deorbit mission," Griffin said. "Thedecision not to execute the planned shuttle service mission was made in theimmediate aftermath of the loss of Columbia.When we return to flight it will be with essentially a new vehicle which willhave a new risk analysis associated with it."

Griffin also madeclear that he fully supports Bush's Moon-Mars initiative, which calls forcompleting the international space station by 2010 and retiring the spaceshuttle before setting out by 2020 on human expeditions to the Moon andeventually to Mars.

NASAand the White House won a hard-fought budget battle last year, but manyinfluential lawmakers have yet to embrace the space agency's explorationvision.

"Ifmoney is to be spent on space," Griffintold the Commerce Committee during his April 12 confirmation hearing, "there islittle doubt that the huge majority of Americans would prefer to spend it on anexciting, outward-focused, destination-oriented program. And that is what thepresident's vision for space exploration is about."

Griffin alsoannounced during his confirmation hearing that he intends to speed up thetimetable for fielding the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), which NASA intendsto use to ferry astronauts to the Moon and back.

NASA'scurrent plan calls for flying astronauts on board the CEV for the first time in2014, a schedule that is especially worrisome for lawmakers from Florida andTexas who do not want to see a lengthy gap between the retirement of the spaceshuttle fleet and the fielding of a replacement spacecraft.

Griffin assured Sen.Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.)that he shared their concerns about the United States relying on Russia or others between the end ofthe shuttle program and the CEV's debut, nowscheduled for some four years later.

"Thisis an area that means a lot to me," he said. "As a matter of what it takes tobe a great nation in the 21st century, I do not believe that we wish to see asituation where the United States is dependent on any partner, reliableor unreliable, at any time for human access to space or for that matter, anyaccess to space. We need our own capabilities."

Griffin noted that inthe 1960s the Gemini program took only three years and the development of theApollo capsule only about six years from contract award to flight despite alaunch pad fire that killed three astronauts. He characterized NASA's currentplan to fly astronauts aboard the CEV for the first time in 2014 as"unacceptable."

"Theprogram 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 istoo far out," Griffinsaid. "President Bush said not later than 2014. He didn't say we couldn't besmart and do it early. And that would be my goal."

JohnLogsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at GeorgeWashington Universityhere, praised Griffin'spriorities as "well conceived."

"Theidea of this gap in U.S.ability to send people to space is really unacceptable to the country, and sofinding a way to avoid it is an appropriate priority," Logsdon said after thehearing. "There is no technical reason that it should take that long to do theCEV. It's just a matter of resources. The problem is there is not enough moneyfor everything, so a re-look at how the resources are allocated, I think, willbe one of Mike's first items of business."

Teamsled by Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are going after a pair of contractsworth about $1 billion each to spend the next three years preparing for a 2008CEV prototype flight demonstration meant to help NASA pick one team to buildthe actual vehicle. Proposals are due May 2, but Griffin's statement at the hearing calls intoquestion whether NASA will go forward with the competition as currentlystructured.

Thetwo CEV teams, however, said they would keep working toward the May 2 deadlineunless they receive new direction from NASA.

"TheNorthrop Grumman/Boeing CEV team remains on track to deliver its proposal toNASA on May 2," Northrop Grumman Space Technology spokesman Brooks McKinney wrote in anApril 14 e-mail. "We have no indication from NASA that it intends to change thescope of the [request for proposal] or the schedule for submitting proposals."

LockheedMartin also said it planned to stay the course until told otherwise by NASA.

"IfNASA needs to accelerate its schedule for a CEV demonstration and operationalcapability, we can support them," Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Joan Underwoodsaid April 14. "But much depends on what NASA determines its requirements willbe for CEV, be it crew size or other trade it will ask industry to consider."

Griffin also assuredmembers of the Commerce Committee that fixing NASA's troubled finances would bea priority under his watch.

"Itis unacceptable that we cannot pass an independent audit and account to you howwe expend our funds," Griffinsaid.

Griffin told thecommittee he could not yet say why NASA has been unable to get a clean auditfrom outside accounting firms in recent years, but he did say he believes thatNASA's chief financial officer, Gwendolyn Brown, has not been given theresources she needs to get the agency's financial house in order. He saidmeeting with Brown was near the top of his to-do list. "I plan to meet with herliterally on my first day to understand what she needs to accomplish hertasks."

Hutchisonand Nelson urged Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to push forGriffin's swiftconfirmation so that he would be ready report for duty by April 18 or sooner.After a brief delay while Griffin responded to written questions from Sen.George Allen (R-Va.) about aeronautics spending cutsthreatening a few thousand NASA jobs in California, Ohio and Virginia, theSenate unanimously approved Griffin's confirmation April 13.

Thefollowing day, Griffin stepped onto the stage inthe NASA Headquarters auditorium to address the U.S. space agency's 18,000employees for the first time as NASA administrator.

Duringthe 30-minute talk broadcast live on NASA television, Griffin spoke about thechallenges NASA faces as it reshapes itself to carry out the space explorationvision and said he would soon begin a tour of the agency's regional fieldcenters to meet employees and seek their input.

"Ihave great confidence in the team that will carry out our nation's exciting,outward-focused, destination-oriented program," Griffin said. "I share with the agency agreat sense of privilege that we have been given the wonderful opportunity toextend humanity's reach throughout the solar system."

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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.