NASA administrator Mike Griffin, who spoke at the Washington Space Business Roundtable luncheon last week before the delayed Sen. Bill Nelson arrived, did not provide the most uplifting assessment of the space agency. “It’s a time of incredible turmoil at NASA,” he said, citing the confluence of several factors, ranging from the impending retirement of the space shuttle to political events in Washington, including the transition of presidential administrations. “Presidential transition years aren’t ever smooth,” he said. “They are accompanied by quite a lot of turmoil as a new team gets elected and begins to pursue their agenda.”
Further complicating matters is the likelihood, Griffin said, that NASA will start FY 2009 on a continuing resolution (CR). “The question is whether it will be for six months or a full year,” he said. A CR is effectively a budget cut for NASA, since spending isn’t adjusted for inflation, although it may give NASA the flexibility to shift spending between programs. “Will the continuing resolution be broadly applied and left to the discretion of agency heads to implement, or will special programs be targeted to be either favored or disfavored? Those are questions that only the Congress can settle.”
Despite these near-term difficulties, Griffin asked the audience to remained focused on NASA’s long-term goals. “We have the choice confronting us in tough times of what do we do when the going gets tough,” Griffin said. There is a temptation, he said, to change NASA’s direction to deal with those fiscal issues as well as the Shuttle-Constellation gap. “We can adopt lesser goals to try to close the gap or to try to deal without funding constraints, but realistically what does that mean? If we adopt lesser goals, that means, drop the Moon, again, as was done in the early 1970s.” That would keep NASA trapped in low Earth orbit, he argued, putting us right back where we were prior to the development of the Vision for Space Exploration.
“When the going gets tough, let’s not reoptimize for low Earth orbit,” he said. Such an approach gives up the current outward-focused space policy “where we go to new places, do new things, and one day, eventually, create new places and create new societies.” That also means that “we give up on the engine of capitalism” by having a government system provide services that could be done by the commercial sector, as in COTS, more efficiently than the government. “I don’t want to lose either one of those two things. So in the face of difficulties that we certainly will incur… if we allow temporary extingency to cause us to make shortsighted decisions, we will lose a lot.”