If Michael D. Griffin has his way, going to the moon won't be outsourced.
Space travel and exploration are too important to be defined by the Bush administration's pro-private-sector dogma, the still-new NASA administrator said. Only government has the gravitas and permanence to lead the way.
"NASA has relied more than I would like to see on contractors for technical decision-making at the strategic level," Griffin said in a recent interview at his headquarters office. "The issues of what we are doing and how we go about it are inherently governmental, because the space program is multi-generational. Contractors come and go."
In only nine weeks on the job, Griffin has turned NASA inside out, ordering wholesale changes in virtually every one of the nation's major space programs even as he replaces a small army of senior managers. He has radically altered new initiatives, reaffirmed his faith in venerable hardware and, less than a month before the first shuttle launch in 21/2 years, shaken up the human spaceflight program.
Griffin's aim is to restore NASA's Apollo-era luster by hiring the world's best space scientists, rekindling public support for space travel -- especially human space travel -- and doing whatever is necessary to ensure U.S. leadership in space far into the future.
"That will not be a debatable goal," Griffin said. "The issue will be ways and means -- what do we need to buy today, what do we need to defer for next year? I want [human spaceflight and exploration] to be a core part of our culture."
By upgrading NASA's in-house technical competence, Griffin expects to keep project planning and other key strategic and policy functions inside the agency instead of farming them out to civilian contractors. He is bucking a core Republican principle by strengthening government instead of outsourcing it.
At this stage, it is difficult to find anyone who has anything bad to say about Griffin. "We expected him to be a forceful leader from the first day. That's what was needed, and that's what he's doing," said David Goldston, chief of staff for the House Science Committee, which has asked Griffin to testify tomorrow on "the future of NASA."
"As far as I can tell, he's got very strong support" from both parties, Goldston added. "There's a feeling that he's someone who's really engaged, has the expertise to know what he wants and the candor to say so."
Many sources, especially within NASA, also note that for now, at least, Griffin, a scientist, is benefiting from the contrast with his predecessor. Sean O'Keefe was a former White House budget specialist and Navy secretary who arrived with a mandate to straighten out NASA's troubled finances and move the agency forward during a time of tightening budgets.
Despite Congress's willingness to give Griffin some extra funding in the short term, the budget strictures have not disappeared, nor have NASA's accounting troubles. As hard choices are made about which programs to close and how many of NASA's 9,700 jobs will be cut, Griffin's comfort zone could shrink dramatically.
"We're in a 'wait-and-see' mode," said J.P. Stevens, vice president of the Aerospace Industries Association, a leading aerospace trade organization. "He knows he's going to need more money."
Griffin, 56, is a physicist and engineer with more than 30 years of aerospace experience both in and out of government, and he had long been mentioned as a possible NASA administrator.
When President Bush picked him to take over, he was running the space department at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. His career also included NASA stints as chief engineer and as associate administrator for exploration under President George H.W. Bush.
During frequent appearances at congressional hearings and in other public speeches, Griffin long ago acquired a reputation as a very bright, blunt and unwavering advocate of aggressive human space exploration, but with limited enthusiasm for space shuttle missions in low Earth orbit.
"I'm constantly told that one of my characteristics is decisiveness, and it is," he said.
Arriving at NASA on April 13, Griffin lost no time displaying "a pretty clear understanding of what he wants to do," said George Washington University space expert John Logsdon. In public speeches and private conversation, Logsdon added, Griffin outlined his desire "to restore technical excellence within NASA and retain for NASA core strategic technical functions and the ability to make clear, sharp and well-based technical decisions."
Just 12 days after Griffin's confirmation, NASA issued a formal "policy statement" canceling plans to solicit industry bids to design the "Vision for Space Exploration," Bush's initiative to return humans to the moon by 2020 and eventually send them to Mars.
The statement said NASA "greatly appreciated" industry's planning efforts but "after studying many options" had chosen to do the work in-house. It noted "the importance of reinforcing the Government's internal systems engineering competency."
A week later, reports began to surface that Griffin was at odds with retired Navy Rear Adm. Craig E. Steidle, who had been in charge of implementing the Bush initiative. Steidle, an O'Keefe favorite, resigned June 8.
"What Mike was saying was that NASA has given away too much of its core technical competence because of outsourcing," Logsdon said. "That may be all right for routine work, but nothing NASA does is routine."
Griffin declined to discuss personnel changes at NASA but noted that "taxpayers expect the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to plan, design and execute a program on their behalf." To do it right, "I have to have the best technical capability possible in the agency," he added.
The Bush initiative has provided the perfect lure. "The government doesn't pay salaries comparable to the private sector, so the only way we can get the best talent available is if . . . people are willing to give up material considerations to be part of a great enterprise," Griffin said. "President Bush's vision . . . makes people want to come to NASA."
After reasserting NASA's preeminence in formulating space policy, Griffin has moved quickly to put his imprint on every major initiative in the agency.
The associate administrators for human space flight, space science and aeronautics have all, like Steidle, announced they will be leaving. Knowledgeable sources inside and outside NASA say Griffin plans to replace approximately 50 high-level executives in all.
He also ordered a two-month postponement of the shuttle's return to flight while engineers test the effects of ice damage on the orbiter's heat-shielding during launch. The shuttle, grounded since the Columbia tragedy on Feb. 1, 2003, is scheduled to fly next month.
He has revamped development plans for a next-generation spaceship in an effort to close what was to be a four-year gap between the last projected shuttle flight in 2010 and the first flight of the proposed new "crew exploration vehicle." He also said he will reinstate a previously canceled shuttle flight to service the Hubble Space Telescope.
Both initiatives have won plaudits from Congress, currently debating NASA's 2006 budget. The Senate Appropriations subcommittee on commerce, justice and science last week increased NASA's budget by $250 million to pay for servicing the Hubble, at the behest of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.).
Despite the goodwill radiating from Capitol Hill, however, Griffin has downsized several pending missions in the interest of saving money and has shown a tendency to choose a tried-and-true -- and inexpensive -- solution over a fancier leap into the unknown.
For the moon-Mars initiative, NASA needs two rockets: one to launch the new spaceship and another "heavy lift" vehicle to get large cargo payloads into Earth's orbit. For the spaceship, Griffin is looking at modifying either an Air Force rocket or a solid rocket booster from the space shuttle.
"Now with regard to heavy lift, I'm absolutely certain I don't have the money" for something new, he said, but the current shuttle combination of two solid rocket boosters and a liquid fuel external tank "lifts 100 metric tons [nearly 250,000 pounds] every time it takes off -- why would I spend money to develop something new?"