NASA's Star Is Fading, Its Chief Says

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 14, 2008

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has clashed repeatedly with the White House in recent months -- a rift that escalated when budget officials heavily edited a statement he was submitting to Congress about China's space ambitions and spilled into the open last week in a leaked e-mail that accused the budget office of doing "everything possible" to walk away from the $100 billion international space station.

Despite growing dismay that the United States will have no way to fly its astronauts to the space station after the space shuttles are retired in 2010, Griffin said the White House Office of Management and Budget was content to pay Russia for the service. But if that deal fell through, he wrote in the e-mail, "well, that was okay, too," with White House officials.

In his draft comments to Congress, Griffin laid out in strong terms his often-expressed concerns about America's fading dominance in space, and he warned that China is emerging quickly as a rival.

"A Chinese landing on the moon prior to our own return will create a stark perception that the U.S. lags behind not only Russia, but also China, in space," he wrote. The OMB deleted that passage and several others before it went to Congress.

Griffin publicly retracted the sharp-elbowed comments in his e-mail after it leaked last weekend, saying that they were taken out of context and that he values advice from OMB and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), but two senior NASA officials said this week that the e-mail accurately reflects the growing strains.

One official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his job, said that despite support for NASA's mission from top White House officials, others have muzzled NASA's leaders and cut or redirected funding for essential agency programs.

"Whether this is cost-cutting across the board or if some people in OMB just don't like NASA, we don't know," the official said. "But the result is that our budget always seems to be less than it's supposed to be."

The heavy OMB edits of Griffin's comments on China were made in March after Griffin appeared before the House Science and Technology Committee and was asked to supply additional information. A copy of Griffin's comments with the OMB's changes and deletions, obtained by The Washington Post, shows that the version ultimately sent to Congress lost much of Griffin's sense of urgency, including his assessment of what a Chinese moon landing would mean to perceptions about the United States.

"The bare fact of this accomplishment will have an enormous, and not fully predictable, effect on global perceptions of U.S. leadership in the world," Griffin wrote at one point. OMB deleted it.

China plans to launch its third manned orbital mission this month and has declared that it wants to land astronauts on the moon. Griffin and many other space experts say the Chinese will probably be able to make that landing before the United States is ready to return to the moon.

Asked for comment, OMB spokeswoman Jane Lee said that the editing involved "internal deliberative and pre-decisional" documents that she could not discuss. She also said it was unclear whether the editing was done by the OMB or another agency. In general, she said, "OMB coordinates the executive branch review process so that other offices and departments have the opportunity to comment and offer their views."

Regarding competition with China, Lee said President Bush has described his Vision for Space Exploration as "a journey, not a race," to the moon and beyond. "The race to the moon was already won by the U.S. decades ago," she said.

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