NASA's Star Is Fading, Its Chief Says
In Leaked E-Mail, He Rails About Budgetary Tensions and Feared Rise of China

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.

She declined to comment on Griffin's leaked e-mail.

The raw relations with the OMB come at a particularly difficult time for NASA and Griffin, who was brought in after the loss of the space shuttle Columbia to reinvigorate NASA and implement Bush's "Vision." Griffin, who is widely respected in the space community as a self-possessed and broadly knowledgeable administrator, has been passionate about the need to maintain U.S. space dominance and NASA's place as the preeminent space agency in the world.

Although the agency has generally had a stable budget in recent years, Griffin says that it receives about 20 percent less in current dollars than it did in the early 1990s but has been asked to do much more -- including designing and building a new generation of spacecraft. Citing budget limitations and safety concerns, NASA plans retire the shuttle fleet in 2010, even though its replacement will not be ready until at least 2015, forcing the agency to rely on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft to transport astronauts to the space station.

In his e-mail, Griffin said White House officials told him not to bring up the need for a congressional waiver to allow NASA to purchase launch services from Russia. "I disobeyed their wishes in doing so, because we knew that we needed to get this on the table in '08," he wrote to several top NASA officials.

Griffin also wrote that White House officials "actively do not want the [international space station] to be sustained, and have done everything possible to ensure that it would not be."

The OMB's heavy editing of his China testimony took on new significance after the Orlando Sentinel reported last weekend on the leaked e-mail, in which Griffin complained of interference by the OMB and the OSTP and voiced frustration and anger over how White House officials have been directing NASA affairs.

Griffin distanced himself from the e-mail, but Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said that it is widely thought in the NASA and space community that the "OMB tells NASA what it can and cannot do." Of the edits of Griffin's testimony, Nelson said, "This is very typical of how OMB sets policy, in terms of what they let [NASA officials] say and what they let them ask for."

The senior NASA official said the deleted comments about China's space ambitions would have increased pressure on the administration to speed up and better fund construction of the new spacecraft.

Like the OMB, Griffin has been an advocate of retiring the space shuttles. He says that NASA needs the billions spent annually to maintain and fly the fleet to build its new spaceships and that the shuttles are too risky. But he has called the five-year gap during which the United States will have no independent way to fly to the space station "unseemly," and he said in an interview last month that spending the extra money to continue flying the space shuttle during some of the gap would be the best solution.

In the leaked e-mail, Griffin wrote that this "rational approach didn't happen, primarily because for the OSTP and OMB, retiring the shuttle is a jihad rather than an engineering and program management decision."

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