Michael D. Griffin, President Bush's nominee to become the new NASA administrator, told senators at his confirmation hearing yesterday that he would reassess the agency's decision to cancel a space shuttle mission to service the aging Hubble Space Telescope.
Griffin also said he would do his best to hasten the development of a new spacecraft to replace the shuttle, noting that the scheduled retirement of the orbiter in 2010 could begin a five-year period in which the United States would have to use foreign-built spaceships for manned flights until a replacement is ready.
"I do not believe that we wish to see a situation where the United States is dependent on any partner," Griffin said. "It seems unacceptable to me that it should take from 2005 to 2014" to develop a new spacecraft.
Griffin, 55, a native of Aberdeen, Md., who heads the space department at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, enjoyed a quiet 90 minutes testifying before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation as members of both parties repeatedly praised his qualifications.
"Everywhere I went, people were telling me I should look you up and make sure you were interested in the job," said the committee chairman, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). The committee did not vote immediately on Griffin's nomination, but Stevens indicated that approval would be little more than a formality.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), who chairs the science and space subcommittee, urged the committee to endorse Griffin and send the nomination to the Senate floor as soon as possible in hopes of having him begin work on Monday.
Several lawmakers said they were anxious to have a NASA administrator in place during the run-up to the scheduled May flight of the space shuttle, which has been grounded for more than two years since the Columbia disaster.
Griffin, a physicist-engineer who holds six advanced degrees, is known as a devotee of human space travel and a firm advocate of Bush's "Vision for Space Exploration" aimed at the moon and Mars.
He has worked in almost every aspect of aerospace -- at NASA as chief engineer and associate administrator for exploration, as well as at the Defense Department, as a private-sector contractor and as chief operating officer of a nonprofit national security research firm run by the CIA. As NASA administrator, he would be paid $162,100 a year.
Griffin's appearance before the committee presented an early contrast to his predecessor, Sean O'Keefe, a budget specialist who left Washington in February and whose elliptical and occasionally combative speaking style sometimes frustrated lawmakers, especially Democrats.
"Much has been made of the fact that [Griffin] is a rocket scientist," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D), a frequent O'Keefe adversary who introduced fellow Marylander Griffin to the committee. "Thank God."
Mikulski is a leading advocate of NASA's sending a servicing mission to Hubble, built and maintained by the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt and operated by the Space Telescope Science Institute at Johns Hopkins.
O'Keefe canceled a scheduled servicing mission by the space shuttle last year in the aftermath of the Columbia tragedy, and NASA since then has abandoned plans for a robotic servicing mission, calling it too difficult and too expensive.
Griffin said he agrees with NASA-sponsored studies showing that the robotic mission is "not feasible."
"I would like to take that off the plate," he said. However, he added, "in light of what we learn" once the shuttle has flown, "I think we should revisit the earlier decision" to cancel a planned shuttle mission.
He bluntly expressed his intention to lead a resurgence in American "spacefaring," noting that Russia and China had both put humans into space since the space shuttle last flew. "I don't like that," he said.
But he chose discretion when Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) asked him whether the administration's budget cuts targeting NASA's aeronautics programs -- potentially damaging to the Langley Research Center in Virginia -- represent "a logical, rational way" of shoring up U.S. technology.
"Senator, I'm the president's nominee," Griffin replied.