President Bush yesterday named Johns Hopkins University physicist and engineer Michael D. Griffin, a devotee of human space travel, to serve as administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Griffin will succeed Sean O'Keefe, who left Washington last month to become chancellor of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. O'Keefe's former chief deputy, Frederick Gregory, has served as interim administrator in the interim .
Michael Griffin was picked to succeed Sean O'Keefe as NASA administrator.
Capitol Hill lawmakers of both parties and aerospace experts warmly welcomed the nomination of the Aberdeen, Md., native, whose long résumé includes extended stints in academia, private industry and government, including turns as both NASA's chief engineer and associate administrator for exploration under President George H.W. Bush.
"He brings a remarkable amount of diverse experience, a lot of energy and enthusiasm and a high level of technical competence -- and he wants the job," said John M. Logsdon, head of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute and a longtime Griffin acquaintance. "He has always regarded space exploration as an important national activity."
The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation made no announcement about when it would hold confirmation hearings, but Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) , chairwoman of the science and space subcommittee, said in a statement that she spoke with Griffin yesterday and hopes for "a smooth nomination process."
If confirmed, Griffin would join NASA at a time of tension and turmoil as the agency prepares to return the space shuttle to flight more than two years after Columbia disintegrated during reentry. At the same time, Bush's "Vision for Space Exploration" to the moon and Mars has put into play personnel and policy shifts that could lead NASA to lose as much as 15 percent of its workforce in the next 18 months.
"He's an excellent choice because of his combination of management and technical skills," said Robert S. Dickman, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and an associate of Griffin's since both served in the Defense Department in the 1980s. "He's extremely bright -- he has had to manage major programs, and he can sit at the table with the scientists."
Griffin is currently president-elect of AIAA, the nation's largest organization for professionals working in aeronautics and space. There was no indication whether he could or would accept that position as well as the NASA appointment.
The White House issued no statement in announcing the nomination, but it probably took comfort in Griffin's unequivocal commitment to interplanetary space travel, a view he articulated during frequent appearances on Capitol Hill.
"The United States will not abandon manned spaceflight . . . [it] is simply unacceptable for a great nation," Griffin said before the House Science Committee in March 2004. "Our goals must reach beyond the space station . . . [and] only the moon, Mars and the nearer asteroids are within reach. . . . And that is where the president's vision has directed us. It is the right path."
At the same time, he has made no secret of his lack of enthusiasm for the space shuttle and the international space station. "Circling endlessly in lower Earth orbit does not qualify as a theme" for human spaceflight, he said in the same appearance.
Despite what he described as Griffin's "candor and bluntness," House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) praised the nomination of "a creative thinker and leader."
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (Md.), a leading NASA watchdog for the minority Democrats, also lauded Griffin for his "proven record of leadership and a passion for science and exploration. I welcome his nomination."
Griffin was born in Aberdeen on Nov. 1, 1949, and currently heads the Space Department at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The department is a 600-person research enterprise that makes space-mission-related hardware and software for military and civilian clients.
Before joining the Space Department in April 2004, he served as president and chief operating officer of In-Q-Tel, a private, nonprofit company funded by the CIA to invest in companies doing research in cutting-edge national security technologies.
During much of the 1990s, Griffin worked as chief technical officer for the Dulles-based aerospace firm Orbital Sciences Corp., acting as a "kind of ombudsman" who reviewed projects for engineering and technical soundness, said Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski.
Griffin holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Johns Hopkins and a doctorate in aerospace engineering from the University of Maryland. He also has five master's degrees in disciplines that include electrical engineering, civil engineering and business administration.
During the 1980s, he served in the Defense Department as head of technology for President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, the "Star Wars" project. But it was at NASA during the George H.W. Bush administration that he earned his reputation as a staunch advocate of space travel.
"His job, while it was still alive, was to implement the first moon-Mars initiative," which was proposed by the president's father, Logsden said. "Congress never gave him the resources, and the project died. His challenge this time around will be to convince Congress that the president's proposal is the right way to go."