Uncertainty Clouds Transition at NASA
Monday, December 15, 2008
These are awkward times at NASA, which may or may not have a new leader soon and may or may not be on the verge of building a brand-new moon rocket.
There has been a kerfuffle about a tense discussion in the headquarters library between NASA Administrator Michael Griffin and the leader of President-elect Barack Obama's transition team for the agency. There have been reports of cost overruns and delays in major NASA missions. Someone leaked an e-mail in which Griffin referred to a Bush administration "jihad" against the space shuttle. A former NASA official blasted the agency in an op-ed column. The comments posted on space blogs are full of rancor, accusations and anxiety.
Hovering over everything are cosmic quantities of uncertainty, a real problem in an agency in which missions are planned many years in advance, broad strategies take decades to implement and the engineering is customized down to the last bolt.
Griffin, a rocket engineer known to be brilliant, blunt and combative, has said he does not expect to be retained. The bigger unknown is the fate of the Constellation program, which includes a return of astronauts to the moon and possibly a manned mission someday to Mars.
The plan, based on President Bush's 2004 "Vision for Space Exploration" and authorized by Congress, has been vigorously promoted by Griffin. The key elements include the completion of the international space station, the retirement of the shuttle, and the construction of a spaceflight system featuring two new rockets and a new crew vehicle that would be capable of journeys to the space station, the moon and beyond.
Griffin has made it clear that he has no interest in staying if it means a significant shift in strategy. But the transition team has asked about cost savings that might come from scrapping the booster, called the Ares I, that is under development as part of Constellation. The less costly alternative would be to upgrade existing rockets, such as the Delta IV or Atlas V, that currently are not rated as safe for human spaceflight.
The Washington Post e-mailed Griffin and asked whether scrapping the Ares for a different rocket would be the kind of strategic change that would ensure his departure. His answer conveyed his passion for the current Constellation architecture:
"I don't know where the threshold is, but dictating design solutions to NASA on any technical subject, launch vehicles or otherwise, is above it," he wrote. "NASA's purpose is to produce technical solutions to achieve space policy goals enunciated from above. If agency management cannot be trusted to do that, they should be replaced. Specifying solutions from outside the agency cannot possibly work."
Ares is in the pipeline, with shuttle parts and personnel migrating to the new system. Some commentators on space blogs fear that a change in rocket strategy would doom Constellation and the planned moon mission.
The rocket strategy was the primary topic of the much-talked-about encounter recently between Griffin and Lori Garver, leader of Obama's NASA transition team. The event was a book-signing in the NASA headquarters library. Garver has been working at headquarters with four other transition officials, holding meetings, requesting documents and compiling information for the incoming administration. She showed up at the party, as did Griffin, and eventually they began talking in the middle of the room.
NASA spokesman Chris Shank said the two were discussing the merits of Ares I, which is based on the solid rocket boosters used for the shuttle. How tense it got is a matter of dispute. "It was a normal, everyday chat, not an argument. Voices were never raised," Griffin wrote in response to The Post's questions.
Garver would not comment -- she said she is prohibited by the Obama transition office from doing so.