NASA Chief's E-Mail Defies Public Comments on Lunar Program

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin:
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin: "My own view is about as pessimistic as it is possible to be." (Craig Bailey - Associated Press)
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By Robert Block
Orlando Sentinel
Sunday, September 7, 2008

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- In congressional testimony and speeches around the country, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has steadfastly presented the Bush administration's space policy as under pressure but on track to return humans to the moon by 2020.

Privately, the agency chief is far less certain.

In an internal e-mail to top advisers, Griffin lashed out last month at administration agencies for what he called their insistence on keeping the space shuttle flying, expressed frustration at the lack of funding for a new moon rocket, and despaired about the future of America's human spaceflight program.

Despite his years-long push for a revitalized, space-faring NASA, Griffin wrote Aug. 18, "My own view is about as pessimistic as it is possible to be."

The e-mail, obtained by the Orlando Sentinel, was written in response to messages from advisers encouraging him to call off the retirement of the shuttle. NASA on Friday confirmed the authenticity of the e-mail.

In it, Griffin wrote that he fully expects the next president to order NASA to continue flying the shuttle, even though he considers the aging program unsafe and consuming of money needed to design and build the Ares moon rocket and Orion crew capsule. He acknowledges that the shuttle will remain -- for the foreseeable future -- the only means to transport U.S. astronauts to the international space station.

Griffin has called for retiring the shuttle in 2010 and distancing the agency from the space station, saying that both kept Americans circling Earth rather than exploring the stars.

In the past week, he acknowledged in an interview that he recently ordered NASA to look into the possibility of more shuttle flights after 2010, but his e-mail makes clear that the order came grudgingly.

"They will tell us to extend shuttle," he wrote of a new administration. "There is no other politically tenable course. It will appear irrational -- heck, it will be irrational -- to say we've built a space station we cannot use, that we're throwing away a $100 billion investment, when the cost of saving it is merely to continue flying shuttle."

And the long-term cost of such a move, he wrote, will likely matter little to the country's next political leadership.

"Extending the shuttle creates no damage that they will care about other than to delay the lunar program. They will not count that as a cost," he wrote. "They will not see what that does for U.S. leadership in space in the long term. And even if they do, they have a problem in the short term that must be solved."

Griffin's harshest words were reserved for his bosses in the White House -- the Office of Management and Budget, which sets spending goals, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which advises the president.

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