Griffin speaks to the Mars Society


NASA Administrator Mike Griffin was the keynote speaker Thursday morning at the annual Mars Society conference, held this year in Washington. His speech is available online, although he devoted most of his hour-long speaking slot to taking questions from the audience of about a couple hundred people. Some highlights:

  • One of the first questions posed to Griffin was when he thought the first human missions to Mars could be undertaken under the Vision. “My own personal best guess would be the late 2020s,” he said. That’s based on a return to the Moon by 2020, he said, and the existence of a heavy-lifter (the Ares 5) that could be used for Mars missions. “I think we would be poised by that point, the late teens or 2020, for a rational national decision to aim resources at going to Mars.”
  • Realizing that such a schedule would not necessarily be desirable to Mars Society members (a t-shirt at the conference had the slogan “Are we there yet?” next to an illustration of a Martian landscape) Griffin then added, “People are frustrated with the timetable. I am frustrated with the timetable.” He then lamented the loss of space infrastructure, namely heavy-lift launch vehicles, from the Apollo era.
  • He later said that the decision to develop the two different launch vehicles for the Vision, the Ares 1 and 5, were motivated in part by long-terms to go to Mars. Noting that a single-vehicle architecture for a lunar mission couldn’t be made to work, he said the logical step was to go to a two-vehicle architecture using identical vehicles to benefit from economies of scale. “Why did we not do that? We didn’t do that because if I want to go to Mars, and I believe I need something like a million pounds in low Earth orbit to do that, then I want to do that in five or six launches, not 10 or 12.”
  • Griffin said that he plans to start studies on a notional Mars mission architecture next year. “I don’t want to leave my term of office without having done at least a preliminary Mars architecture.”
  • Griffin said there was no consideration when developing the Vision to spend money on (re)developing Russian vehicles like the Energia. “I am probably a leading proponent of international cooperation, but international cooperation is not defined as asking other nations for help on how to spent US tax dollars. US tax dollars go to the US, by and large.” (The “by and large” qualifier is important, of course, since NASA is paying for seats on Soyuz taxi flights to the ISS.)
  • Griffin didn’t think much of ideas that have been tossed around about moving science programs out of NASA to the NSF or other agencies. “Moving the money from one agency to another, I don’t see how that affects anything of significance.”
  • Griffin also addressed scientists’ concerns about the “reduced level of growth” of science programs in NASA. (“No one has received an actual cut; it’s a fine distinction in Washington,” he noted.) “Lost in all the tumult” about those science cutbacks, he said, was that other NASA programs, including space station, aeronautics, and exploration, also didn’t get as much as they wanted. “The space station guys didn’t get all they wanted, either: their flights were cut by a third over the runout of the space station program,” he said. “Some would have us just abolish those legacy commitments [to shuttle and station]. That is not going to happen. A national policy level decision has been made by the chief executive and ratified by the Congress that the United States will not abrogate its legacy commitments and others who wish to do new things will have to wait in line.”
  • As for those who want more funding for science programs like astrobiology, and to encourage students to work in those fields? “Then they will have to be trained to work on what it is we are being asked to do by the Congress, and not what it is they think we ought to be asked to do. And we are not being asked, at the present, to do astrobiology or a huge amount of biology work of any type.”
  • Griffin said that a decision on flying a Hubble servicing mission would come no earlier than early this fall, once all the technical issues have been resolved. “When I do it, I want to do it right.”

7 comments to Griffin speaks to the Mars Society

  • I’ve read the entire speech, and for the most part it seemed pretty reasonable — and very well presented. Jeff, were you there? How did it go over with it’s audience?

    — Donald

  • Chance

    “I think we would be poised by that point, the late teens or 2020, for a rational national decision to aim resources at going to Mars.”

    So any decision before then is by implication irrational?

  • So any decision before then is by implication irrational?

    No, not necessarily. At least not according to any rules of logic that I know.

  • Jeff Foust

    Donald: yes, I was in attendance (I thought that would be obvious from the photo and the fact that the highlights focus on the Q&A portion of his appearance not included in the written transcipt of the speech itself.) He got a warm reception from the audience; more than just polite applause, but also no standing ovation. I think many were happy that a NASA administrator was there talking about the concept of sending humans to Mars, even though the timelines and specifics (or lack thereof) might not be what many desire.

  • Jeff: I thought that would be obvious from the photo and the fact that the highlights focus on the Q&A portion of his appearance not included in the written transcipt of the speech itself.

    Sorry, sometimes I can be dense. Thanks for the report though. I think the reception is important news, because Mars Society-types are an important part of the political coalition that will (or won’t) let this happen. As Dr. Griffin implied in his main speech, keeping all these groups pointed in more-or-less the same direction is vital to achieving the goals of the VSE. If the Mars Society listened with respectful, if not enthusiastic, support, that strikes me as a net positive.

    — Donald

  • Gene

    Overall, Griffin’s remarks and attitude seem encouraging, even if he does not envision a Mars mission for another 15 years or so.

    I was slightly disappointed Griffin did not express more entusiasm for astrobiology. I’ve gone to a couple of SETI seminars up here in Northern California, and this seems to be an exciting and promising field. It was a pity NASA gave up on it in the early 90s, though SETI appears to be doing very good work in private hands.

    Don’t you think astrobiology should be at least a small part of whatever scientific package accompanies the first manned Mars mission (and, perhaps, earlier robotic recognissance missions)?

  • Gene: I think NASA is trying to do too many things. I think most Mars funding should be subsumed to getting scientists on site. Once we have biologists on Mars — and astrobiologists have some actual physical evidence to work with — there will be plenty of time to fund astrobiology at a higher level.

    That said, I do think there should be some seed funding for astrobiological science on the Space Station and a small (supportable) number of biologists and graduate students to keep alive a few essential skills and theoretical work. But, until there is something to study, that should be seed funding, not an expensive scientific endeavor with large numbers of government supported scientists and students needing jobs, et cetera.

    — Donald

    — Donald