Congress, NASA

The Griffin-Shelby spat continues

The Huntsville Times reports that Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) and NASA administrator are still at odds over plans to close the robotic lunar exploration office at MSFC, a dispute that had Shelby saying earlier in the week that he was counting down the days until Griffin left office. Shelby told the newspaper Thursday, regarding Griffin:

He had some sharp words for me… I just responded to what he said. I can work with Mike Griffin. I’ve worked with people in the past, and will in the future. don’t think Mike Griffin wants to work with me, though. (Rep. Bud) Cramer and (Sen. Jeff) Sessions and I will be here long after Mike Griffin is gone, and we will work with the next person to support NASA and Marshall.

As for the office itself? It remains open, but NASA is proceeding with plans to close it, according to a spokesman.

21 comments to The Griffin-Shelby spat continues

  • anonymous

    NASA should close the MSFC lunar robotic program office, but because of incompetence, not budget shortfalls.

    The office was opened for purely political reasons. MSFC has little experience with robotic missions in general and no modern experience with robotic planetary missions in particular. And what robotic missions MSFC has undertaken are textbook studies in how to mismanage a space project — GP-B’s enormous budget overruns and schedule delays, DART’s technical failures, and more all testify to MSFC’s robotic mission incompetence. There’s no reason to assign MSFC such a role when JPL, GSFC, and ARC — and even APL and NRL — all exist.

    Moreover, the MSFC lunar robotic program office has repeatedly failed to develop an affordable lander mission plan — or any robotic lunar program plan at all — in well over a year of existence.

    Shelby can’t be expected to do the right thing. But if Congress is going to force NASA retain a robotic lunar program (a good thing, IMO), Mikulski should insist on competing the program office and individual missions, at least among federal labs. Ideally, commercial and/or fully and openly competed elements (commercial demos, data purchases, prizes) should be incorporated into any such rethinking of the robotic lunar plan.

    But I won’t hold my breath for any of that to happen. I’d bet that the MSFC office will limp along at study money levels until after the next election.

  • Tom

    Your comments pertain to practically everything that MSFC does, including technology development and human spaceflight. Recall the X-33 and SLI fiasco from the 1990’s. MSFC pulled the same stuff then, surprisingly with many of the same leaders that they are now throwing at Ares I.

    MSFC is successful at one thing, and that is maintaining a tight and supportive relationship with the Alabama and Tennessee Valley congressional delegations. If it wasn’t for this, MSFC would have been marginalized long ago.

  • Anonymous-Prime

    You also forgot the multitude of earmarks that MSFC has received over the years. I’m not sure if it leads the Agency in this regard, but it is probably pretty close.

    All the NASA Administrators over the last two decades have had to pay homage to Alabama (and of course, Maryland, Texas and Florida). Fortunately, GSFC, JSC and KSC do their jobs fairly effectively. MSFC, on the other hand, is a basket case.

  • Recall the X-33 and SLI fiasco from the 1990’s

    What fiasco? Both were extremely cost effective and credible programs that were botched by design. VSE and ESAS were neither cost effective nor credible programs from the start.

  • al Fansome

    THOMAS said: VSE and ESAS were neither cost effective nor credible programs from the start.

    I agree with you about ESAS program, but I need to correct the facts about the VSE. The “Vision for Space Exploration” is NOT a **program**. It was a statement of general direction by the White. There were (are still) many ways that the VSE can be implemented, some of them much more cost effective and credible than others.

    If Thomas Lee Elifritz were to wake up one morning, and find that he was suddenly NASA Administrator, I suspect that he would wrap himself in the actual factual words of the VSE (and the White House), klll off ESAS, and come up with his own “more cost effective and credible” plans to implement the VSE.

    He could even call the planning process the “Elifritz Space Architecture Study”.


    – Al

  • al Fansome

    More seriously, Mike Griffin likes to praise James Webb in his speeches.
    “Many of you know that I am an admirer of NASA’s greatest Administrator, James Webb”
    “A young man by the name of James Webb … who would later become NASA’s greatest Administrator”

    James Webb was the “greatest NASA administrator” because he was (first and foremost) politically astute. James Webb NEVER would have let a relationship with a **critical** U.S. Senator deteriorate to the point that this influential U.S. Senator was publicly counting the days to the end of Mike Griffin’s term.

    I don’t really blame Griffin. He has never cared much for politics, or at least he has a disdain for politicians, and therefore has not committed himself to understanding politicians and working with the political process. The one I blame is the WH, for putting an engineer (however well qualified he is), who has no track record or background of understanding politics, into the job as NASA Administrator.

    To see what a different White House did, read

    “Ten days after his inauguration, Kennedy followed the recommendation of his Vice President and nominated James E. Webb to be Administrator of the space agency. At first hesitant to accept the position, which he felt would have been more satisfactorily filled by a scientist or engineer, Webb had agreed once he understood that Kennedy was seeking a policy maker who could manage scientists and engineers.

    In hindsight, it looks like Kennedy was very astute in appointing Webb to lead NASA, against conventional wisdom.

    If Webb (and Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden) is the model, as Griffin repeatedly asserts, then by Griffin’s own logic he should have been made the Deputy Administrator.

    – Al

  • anonymous

    “If Webb (and Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden) is the model, as Griffin repeatedly asserts, then by Griffin’s own logic he should have been made the Deputy Administrator.”

    Well put and good line of argument, Mr. Fansome. I agree that the NASA Administrator must first and foremost be a politically and budgetarily astute manager with sound technical judgement. High technical competence is also desirable but not a prerequisite. Strong technical types that can support the Administrator are a dime a dozen in NASA’s ranks.

  • I suspect that he would wrap himself in the actual factual words of the VSE (and the White House), klll off ESAS, and come up with his own “more cost effective and credible” plans to implement the VSE.

    I hardly think returning to the moon in Apollo era hardware is a suitable goal for the world’s premier space faring nation, if you can call us that. The Elifritz Space Architecture Study : Propulsion, propulsion, and more propulsion. Pretty much everything else not directed at the Earth, Life and Space Sciences is a waste of valuable, and increasingly harder to come by, space dollars, at least in the near term. When NASA goes irrational and unsustainable, they really do it in a big way.

  • al Fansome

    ELIFRITZ: I hardly think returning to the moon in Apollo era hardware is a suitable goal

    I don’t believe that the VSE states, anywhere, that using Apollo era hardware is a requirement, or even encourages the use of Apollo era hardware.

    Based on what you said, and considering that you would be a “politically astute” Administrator, I am guessing that the “Elifritz Space Architecture Study” would conclude that NASA needed to invest in “propulsion, propulsion, propulsion” as the first (and most critical) step in getting back to the Moon. You would give speeches talking about the importance of “Cheap Access to Space” (CATS), and that after CATS was achieved, our nation then could easily (and cheaply) go back to the Moon (all the while knowing that the only thing you would invest in during your tenure was propulsion, propulsion, propulsion).

    I don’t think anybody in WH would complain, as long as you promised to retire the Shuttle by 2010.

    – Al

  • Actually, those who know me, know my views on ‘cheap access to space’ are completely contrary to yours. CATS is a perversion of COTS, and is a fantasy in the minds of some space advocates, easily (trivially actually) refuted by fundamental physics. You read things into my statements that I haven’t said. I said propulsion was the only thing I would invest in right now outside of the fundamentally critical domains of the Space, Life and Earth Sciences. About the only thing you got right is that propulsion is a fundamental prerequisite of all space activities that follow.

    That being said, we have a wide array of propulsion and vehicle assets arrayed before us, and given proper funding and planning, there is almost nothing that we can’t do in the near tern (within reason). However, until we have both proper funding and the necessary preliminary results from the Space, Life and Earth sciences necessary to choose what we should actually do with our remarkable (astonishing actually) existing space infrastructure, and time to make the necessary rational plans for the trips, it make no sense at all to embark on an ill advised space exploration program. VSE does exactly that, and thus America makes itself look like the Donner party, and the result will inevitably be equally tragic, as we can plainly see already.

    We don’t have a clue what’s happening on the lunar poles, let’s go. We haven’t got any ideas what’s happening out in the asteroid belt, we’re going. We haven’t got any pristine samples of Martain soil, let’s spend trillions to send some astronuts so collect some. Wither rationality?

    It’s one stupid thing after another with this administration, sometimes I wonder if these people are just a reflection of the sad level of rationality that the American public has degenerated into. Wherever we go, whatever we do in space, we’re going to need ever better, more efficient and reliable and more powerful propulsion. With the assets we have now, that’s simply a matter of fast tracking some existing programs to completion, the RL-60, the Integrated Propulsion Demonstrator, preserving SSME production capability, reusing our existing SSMEs in second generation reusable (or recyclable) launch vehicle design, channel wall nozzle development, and NOT, I repeat NOT, discarding our boosters and upper stages. Mandate it by law for God’s sake. You won’t get your cheap access to space, because that’s a fantasy, but you’ll get your volume access to space, and you’ll have laid the groundwork for future space exploration beyond your wildest dreams, and by not gutting the Space, Life and Earth sciences, you’ll get the solutions for survival you’ll need right here on the good planet Earth.

  • Shelby, normally a strong supporter of NASA and, though not sharp, is not considered dull to the point of being a dullard. But the good Senator is acting like a jackass. He and his fellow Senators that didn’t pass NASA’s 2007 Budget while yet working on gay-marriage and flag-burning proposals, issues every bit as critical to America’s long-term health as a strong manned space exploration program, have only themselves to blame for their constituent programs getting cut.

    All this harsh language against Griffin is not going to do a bit of good. Yes, Shelby may outlast Griffin. But the Lunar Robotic office will still be shut down and the office’s associated jobs lost, and that is all the voters in the Huntville area will remember when Shelby, not Griffin, next stands before the voters of Alabama.

    What the Senator needs to do is stop flapping his jawls and start getting a supplementary appropriation for NASA moving, in which funding for the MSFC Lunar Robotic office will naturally be included.

  • All this harsh language against Griffin is not going to do a bit of good.

    Of course not, the Ares I will fall on its own lack of merit. The Lunar Robitic Mission is just another of a long string of casualties of Bush’s Vision and Michael Griffin’s incompetent execution of the pointless details. The fact that we might actually get a 10 meter tank out of this mess someday is the only thing that keeps me going.

    one of the things that bothers me the most about Space enthusiasts is that they will propose missions, spacecraft, equipment, and orbital transfers that demonstrate they have no idea what they are talking about.

    Michael Griffin is one of those people. A very competent space simulator is in the hands of the masses now, they can’t possibly fool anyone anymore.

    With heavy lift, it either has to be all or nothing. Having to share the pads with an Albatross won’t help at all, when there are numerous other pads and vehicles available out there. Besides, you always need a rescue pad.

    They should have just said up front they were going to do this thing the biggest way possible, with SSMEs carrying the first stage all the way to orbit, and the upper stage for going to the moon and beyond. It would have save a lot of heartache, and there would have been plenty of money left over for everybody.

    I hope the Stick goes down, and I hope it goes down hard. This is a fundamental physics lesson for a group of people that should be humbled by their gross errors, but for some reason are not. We desperately need to get these people out of there, and start over, the message is the same no matter how dim the messenger. And actually, it’s not starting over, it’s just starting.

  • al Fansome

    Dear Mr. Elifrits.

    My apologies for just assuming that you supported the objective of “Cheap Access to Space” (CATS). I admit I am surprised to discover that you are, what must be, one of the few people who is actually opposed to setting a national goal of “Cheap Access to Space”, and then working to make progress towards that goal. There are a huge number of opinions on “how” to achieve CATS, but the end goal is pretty non-offensive.

    I know there is no such thing as 100% consensus on any issue. But I do believe to think that >90% of the people in the space community agree that achieving CATS is important. Of the remaining people (

  • But I do believe to think that >90% of the people in the space community agree that achieving CATS is important.

    And what you end up with is the stick, something that doesn’t quite make it to orbit, a cheap solution that doesn’t work. I work in SI units. Things like time (for science and technology to advance) and volume (to reduce costs).

    Cheap is an oxymoron. We need ever more advanced propulsion (measured in Newtons and meters per second), and creative ways to return those advanced propulsion units to Earth (currently priceless). Rather than throwing around the very unbecoming term of ‘cheap’, and invoking new physics. I feel that creative ways are easily accessible for returning propulsion to Earth, particularly with the fantastic infrastructure we have in place right now, without necessarily TPSing up the tank, pressurization, attitude control and guidance systems and flying them back to Earth, particularly when just such system are required on orbit, and low and behold, there they are. Once we can deliver large structures and residual fuel to orbit, and return the engines safely to Earth, time and volume will steadily reduce costs. But there is no way I can promote an idea that entails leaving Earth orbit to orbits where currently no rescue infrastructure exists, in hardware that is classified as ‘cheap’.

    This scenario requires multiple redundant pads. We’re covered. The Stick doesn’t make it, and doesn’t fit into the model with multiple redundant pads of multiple vehicles servicing various aspects of our space infrastructure. Returning high performance reusable engines from low Earth orbit does. If the CEV were much lighter, as the astute Mr. Young suggests, and were only going to the ISS, then it ‘just might’ have a place in the scheme of things, since presumably we’ll need the five segment SRB for the Mars ship anyways. An SRB could sit on the pad for a long time as an ISS rescue ship. But other than that, it’s a non-starter, and it’s precisely the kind of thing we are trying to replace with high performance cryogenic turbomachinery. That wouldn’t be ‘cheap’ turbomachinery. Even a Williams International turbine isn’t ‘cheap’.

    So please, spare me the ‘cheap’ euphemisms. Launch has a physical basis, but we are far from the technological point where ‘dollars’ is an unbiased metric for performance. I prefer flight success rate for the time being.

  • Al Fansome


    I never said achieving “Cheap Access to Space” is easy, so I don’t use it as a euphemism. I use it as national goal that is really hard to achieve, but is critical to many other things we want to do in space.

    You make a good point here that I to highlight — if an objective becomes popular (and broadly supported) people can steal the objective if it is not well defined, and try to define their own pet project as meeting that objective. That is happening right now with the new hot term “Operationally Responsive Space”.

    By “Cheap Access to Space”, I mean at least an order of magnitude lower costs per pound. In no scenario do I think of the Ares 1 as being “cheap”, nor do people I talk to at NASA believe it will really be cheap. Of course, the primary advocates of the Ares 1 would certainly be tempted to argue this by saying the are “cheaper”. An EELV is “cheaper” than a Titan IV, but that does not mean it provides “Cheap Access to Space”.

    – Al

    PS — BTW, propulsion is an input to the real objective. What is the “output” that you want?

  • By “Cheap Access to Space”, I mean at least an order of magnitude lower costs per pound

    Lower than what? Your metric is senseless. And even if you choose some particular launch system it’s still senseless because of hidden costs. I think I’ll stick with metrics like “less expensive than my competitor” or, did the mission fail or succeed. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a fan of ‘cheaper access to space’, I will never be a fan of ‘cheaper access to space’ and I believe that mantra ‘cheaper access to space’ has done more damage to the launch industry than the Ares I. How’s that for an insult. If that makes me a maverick and an outcast, so be it. It doesn’t matter one bit to me because I am a physicist, and I am well aware of the magnitudes of the forces involved. Space is a hard radiation, hard vacuum environment exposed to severe thermal stresses and high momenta projectiles, far removed from home. ‘Cheap’ isn’t anywhere close to reality. Feel free to join the real world at your convenience.

    What is the “output”

    A stable orbit close to the desired orbit.

  • Adrasteia

    Thomas, how about we pick an arbitrary pricepoint. How does Cheaper Than A Ferrari (CTAF) sound? We’ll call an operator CATS if they can provide a two week stay in orbit including return transport for CTAF.

  • Adrasteia

    There are a huge number of opinions on “how” to achieve CATS

    There are many opinions, Al Fansome. The common thread is that all of them which include an element of state socialism are wrong.

  • The common thread is that all of them which include an element of state socialism are wrong

    And the ones that don’t include fundamental elements of physics are right?

  • CATS is a delusion. Elon Musk is going to find that out the hard way.

    I must admit, though, I am excited about a commercial launch entity that produces their own propulsion, in house. That has possibilities. However, that being said, clearly SpaceX is going to end up with yet another EELV. That isn’t necessarily bad, though. Unified propulsion in a 9 by 1 configuration is yet another launch architecture niche, that hopefully will serve his customers well.

    All up cryogenic launch with existing engines happens to be the niche I am pursuing. There is plenty of space out there at the cape, and I can fit my tanks in any number of large volume transport aircraft. You can’t believe the number of hits my Beluga/Dreamlifter page is getting. The problem with the Delta IV is that the very large and heavy RS-68 engine is integrated onto the CBC at the factory, and that requires a barge to move.

    My your continuous waving around the mantra of ‘cheap’, all you are doing is alienating the scientific and engineering community. There are numerous ways of reducing infrastructure, component and operational costs without invoking the less than savory adjective of ‘cheap’. If I want cheap, I go to Walmart. If I want quality, I go to Pratt and Whitney. If I want to reduce costs, I increase volume. If I can’t supply demand, I raise prices. If I’m losing money, I stop production. These are really simple concepts.

  • Kevin Parkin

    (1) I would like to define cheap is $600 per kg of payload, a price point where significant elasticity of demand is thought to exist

    (2) I am profoundly disappointed in Shelby and the earmarks fiasco. He may even understand the extent to which his politics have set back space exploration. I recognize that his place in Alabama regional politics may call for that and that anyone in his position may do the same.

    Nevertheless, as a 30 year old rocket scientist, I will have to live with the consequences long after Shelby is gone, and so will many like me. PLEASE will the congressional committees concerned find a less damaging means of control for NASA. Now that Apollo is gone, NASA is still regressing as an institution regardless of VSE and budgets. Episodes like Shelby’s are directly responsible for preventing the necessary change. From where I am sitting, the present system tools of congressional control are not working, and do not allow NASA to move on.

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