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The Senate hearing on and subsequent vote to approve Michael Griffin as the new NASA administrator took just two days but that was time enough for Griffin to make clear how he stands on three of the agency’s most controversial issues: the Hubble Space Telescope, the space shuttle’s return to flight, and plans to replace the shuttle fleet.
Questions by members of the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation relating to a fourth topic — bad management at NASA by both its upper-level employees and Congress — helped reveal the daunting political and bureaucratic difficulties Griffin will face trying to remake NASA into an effective government organization.
The Senate hearing Tuesday was quickly followed by a unanimous vote on Wednesday night to approve Griffin.
On all issues, Griffin presented positions that were thoughtful and precise. For example, several senators asked about the gap between the retirement of the shuttle in 2010 and the planned first flight of the new crew exploration vehicle, or CEV, in 2014.
“It is of great concern to me that we would have a five-year hiatus on the books, in which we would (not) be able to put our own people in space,” said Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas. “I think it is a security issue for our country.”
Griffin’s response was equally pointed: “This is an area that means a lot to me. I do not believe we wish to see a situation where the United States is dependent upon any partner, reliable or unreliable, at any time for human access to space.”
Griffin also found it unsatisfactory that NASA is giving itself almost a decade to build the CEV, given that in the 1960s the Gemini program went from contractor award to first flight in little more than three years, and the Apollo capsule was built in six years.
“It seems unacceptable to me that it should take from 2005 and 2014 to do the same thing when we already know how,” he told committee members. “President Bush said ‘not later than 2014’ (to fly the CEV). He didn’t say we couldn’t be smart and do it early.”
Servicing the Hubble — which reaches 15 years in orbit April 24 — remained another area of concern. Here, Griffin spoke directly, a refreshing approach considering the confusion and controversy surrounding this issue during the past year.
Noting how even a NASA panel has now described using a robot mission to service the Hubble “infeasible,” Griffin attempted to clarify what can and cannot be done.
“I would like to take the robotic mission off the plate,” he said. “I believe that the choice comes down to reinstating a shuttle servicing mission or possibly a very simple robotic de-orbiting mission.”
Regarding a possible shuttle mission, Griffin noted the decision made by his predecessor, Sean O’Keefe, not to send a manned spacecraft to service the telescope “was made in the immediate aftermath of the loss of Columbia. When we return to flight it will be with essentially a new vehicle, which will have a new risk analysis associated with it.
“At that time I think we should reassess the earlier decision in light of what we learn after we return to flight,” he said.
The third issue discussed actually involved the top priority for both Griffin and the committee: the imminent return to flight of the shuttle.
Griffin’s comments here were revealing. Referring to the many recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, he said, “I’m very aware that accident boards make recommendations that seem good to them at the time, but which may not in all cases be capable of implementation.”
In other words, Griffin suggested that, from his perspective, some of the CAIB’s recommendations were unrealistic.
“There is a certain amount of contentiousness on going right now as to exactly what state of completion our shuttle return-to-flight exercise can reach before we decide to go, and accept the risk remaining.”
These comments could be viewed either as an engineer’s reassessment of the CAIB report, or a manager’s unwillingness to face problems honestly and solve them.
That Griffin is both an engineer and a pilot suggests he is being honest and realistic, rather than trying to sweep the shuttle’s problems under the rug.
The final issue had to do with NASA’s lingering and widely acknowledged bad management culture.
First, Griffin admitted it was unacceptable that NASA’s management has not been able to complete an audit of the agency’s budget for the past five years.
He noted how when he worked as a NASA contractor he was “held to demanding accounting standards for how we spent our money, as should be the case.”
He then added bluntly, “It is not acceptable for NASA to do less well in accounting for its (own) expenditures.”
Sen. George Allen, R-Va., challenged Griffin about the agency’s plans to cut its aeronautics research budget. The senator worried the cuts would damage the American aeronautics industry.
Unstated but underlying Allen’s complaint was the issue of constituent services, because the cuts would require NASA to lay off many workers at a number of NASA research centers, several of which are located in Allen’s state, such as the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., which could lose as many as 1,000 jobs because of the proposed cuts.
Allen initially was unsatisfied with Griffin’s verbal testimony Tuesday, and delayed until Wednesday the committee’s vote on the nomination until he received written comments from Griffin that were more to his liking.
Both NASA’s failed audits and Allen’s pork-barrel maneuvering illustrate how difficult it will be for Griffin to straighten out his agency’s management.
Griffin’s task is made even more challenging based on his background. He has spent his entire career working at various jobs either in NASA or with the major aerospace companies that work for NASA. Practically everyone in the aerospace industry is either familiar with his name or has worked with him in the past.
In other words, Griffin is the ultimate insider, not the kind of leader you normally choose to shake up an organization. Whether he will have the toughness to face down both Congress and NASA’s large resistant bureaucracy remains the biggest unknown about the man.
Nonetheless, numerous conversations with people inside the industry suggest Griffin is independent-minded enough to do it. For example, United Press International recently discussed his appointment with the chief engineer of one of the big aerospace companies that deals with NASA on a daily basis.
For good or ill, this engineer described the new administrator very bluntly. “He’s the great perturber. Whatever happens, he is going to force a lot of change.”
Whether these opinions about Griffin prove true remains an question only time will answer. Based on his clear-cut and intelligent remarks before the Senate, however, the situation appears hopeful.
Robert Zimmerman is an independent space historian. His most recent book, “Leaving Earth: Space Stations, Rival Superpowers, and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel,” was awarded the Eugene M. Emme Award by the American Astronautical Society for the best popular space history in 2003.