By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
But the Orlando Sentinel, in an article stating that Griffin had been uncooperative with the transition team, reported that Griffin became "red-faced." The story quoted an exchange as heard by anonymous eyewitnesses:
"Mike, I don't understand what the problem is. We are just trying to look under the hood," Garver reportedly said.
"If you are looking under the hood, then you are calling me a liar," Griffin reportedly replied. "Because it means you don't trust what I say is under the hood."
Griffin denounced the article in an e-mail to NASA employees and insisted that the agency has been totally cooperative. But Shank confirmed one element: Griffin told Garver, a former NASA associate administrator for policy and plans, that no one on her transition team had the engineering qualifications to assess the rocket strategy.
Griffin's pugnaciousness may not have been the most politically savvy way to lobby to keep his job, but no one could say it was out of character. With multiple degrees, including a doctorate in aerospace engineering, Griffin is not reluctant to reveal the confidence he has in his judgments. And he may be lobbying for the ambitious Constellation program as much as for himself. He has always been a true believer in what he calls "the majesty of spaceflight," and he fervently hopes to see human civilization expand across the solar system.
"He has worked very hard on the current approach to going back to the moon and believes that it is the best of all possible approaches," John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said of Griffin. "Any threat to that is a threat to him and his technical judgment. And so a transition team that is even doing just due diligence, asking the questions that they should ask, he seems to have interpreted it as a challenge."
Ed Weiler, a NASA associate administrator (occasionally mentioned in the space community as a potential successor to Griffin), would like to see his boss stick around for a while, particularly with the tricky space shuttle mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope coming up next spring.
"I'd certainly like to have a leader who was an experienced engineer or whatever," Weiler said.
A major unknown is Obama. What he really thinks about the civilian space program is a matter of speculation. His attitude toward NASA evolved during the campaign. In November 2007, he raised the possibility of delaying Constellation for five years as a way of scrounging up billions of dollars for an education initiative. But with Florida playing a key role in the election, Obama came out in favor of an extra $2 billion in funding for NASA. In August he issued a paper explicitly endorsing a lunar mission by 2010.
Whoever runs NASA will have to cope with a major problem in U.S. human spaceflight capacity in the near future. Under current policy, there will be a gap of four years or so between the retirement of the shuttle in 2010 and the launch of the Ares booster and the accompanying Orion capsule that will carry the astronauts. The only way to send astronauts to the international space station would be on a Russian Soyuz rocket. And U.S.-Russian relations are strained at best.
One possible solution, an extension of the shuttle's lifetime beyond 2010, is an expensive option. NASA's $17 billion budget has been relatively flat for years. The only way to build new moon rockets on a flat budget, Griffin and others have calculated, would be to retire the shuttle and channel that money to the new program. The shuttle program is being dismantled, and any decision to extend it needs to be made sooner rather than later.
But no one seems to know for sure who will run the agency. Or at least they are not saying. As Scott Pace, the new director of the Space Policy Institute, puts it, "Those who talk don't know, and those who know don't talk."