By Robert Block
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.
"In a rational world, we would have been allowed to pick a shuttle retirement date to be consistent with Ares/Orion availability, we would have been asked to deploy Ares/Orion as early as possible (rather than 'not later than 2014') and we would have been provided the necessary budget to make it so," he wrote.
"The rational approach didn't happen, primarily because for OSTP and OMB, retiring the shuttle is a jihad rather than an engineering and program management decision."
The White House declined to comment when asked about the e-mail. But a few hours later, Griffin penned a retraction.
"The leaked internal e-mail fails to provide the contextual framework for my remarks, and my support for the administration's policies," he said in a statement to the Sentinel.
Griffin, 58, was put in charge of NASA in April 2005, intending to turn President Bush's vision of sending astronauts to the moon and Mars into reality.
The new administrator called for a three-year break between the shuttle's retirement and the advent of the Ares rocket. The money freed up from the shuttle program was to give Ares its final financial push to the launch pad.
But the moon initiative put severe pressure on NASA's budget, forcing Griffin into a difficult balancing act -- trying to create a next-generation spaceship without crippling other programs ranging from Earth observation satellites to Mars robots.
Over time, the White House failed to back NASA's budget requests, holding it at about $17 billion, and Congress rebuffed bids to increase it by $1 billion or more.
Meanwhile, technical issues slowed development of the Ares rocket. The gap grew to five years, amid grumbling by Congress and dissident scientists and engineers inside NASA.
Space historian Howard E. McCurdy of American University said Griffin's tensions with the White House are not without precedent: Even in the days of the Apollo program, NASA bosses battled administration bean counters.
"What you are looking at is the fog of public policymaking," McCurdy said. "If you looked down from a distance, [Apollo] was this beautiful straight line to the moon. But if you got up close, it was the fog of war with fights over money and strategy. It's the same now."
Griffin's top aides have urged him to extend the shuttle program because Russia's invasion of Georgia -- and the ensuing chill in U.S.-Russian relations -- looks likely to cut off NASA's access to Russian Soyuz spaceships.
Griffin has termed U.S. dependence on the Russians "unseemly" but said the Soyuz was a crucial part of a transition from the shuttle era.
But in his e-mail, Griffin wrote that his White House bosses were disinterested in the space station and didn't care one way or another about relying on the Russians.
"They were always 'okay' with buying Soyuz . . . and even if it didn't happen, well, that was okay too," he wrote.