NASA

Griffin: “time of incredible turmoil” at NASA

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.”

20 comments to Griffin: “time of incredible turmoil” at NASA

  • Ray

    I could argue about various small items in Griffin’s statements presented here. For example, adopting lesser goals doesn’t necessarily mean being trapped in LEO. The L-point servicing mission is one non-LEO possibility. A less ambitious lunar plan, like a 2-person per trip version, is another. However, there’s certainly a big chance that a major change would result in LEO only for the manned program, so I suppose it’s fair enough to raise as a strong possibility. Personally I think there’s plenty to do in LEO, so that in itself wouldn’t distress me.

    I also don’t think staying in LEO necessarily implies abandoning capitalism. However, I do appreciate the danger of a government program stuck in LEO politically wiping out any commercial U.S. LEO launch competition, so I won’t raise any big objections to the way Dr. Griffin phrased this, either.

    The thing that bothers me about his talk, as presented above, is that this predictament was entirely foreseeable and, in its major dangers, avoidable. We’ve been discussing these very dangers, and ways to avoid them, in this forum practically since ESAS was announced. COTS could have been greatly strengthened to get COTS D started earlier, and a better start with the rest of COTS. One of the COTS options (perhaps a third competitor) could have used existing launchers or perhaps foreign spacecraft with U.S. launchers. Instead of alienating the science side with budget cuts, Constellation could have taken the budget hit. Any budget hit against non-lunar science could have been compensated for with more vigorous lunar science and engineering demo robot missions with science overtones. ESAS itself could have been scaled back (eg: that 2-person vs. 4-person mission thing again), or it could have been scaled up through the use of refueling to bring commercial and international launch interests into the program. Commercial and public interest could have been heightened through NASA involvement in the Google Lunar X PRIZE (eg: funding more bonus prizes like Shackleton Crater scouting). Some progress could have been made on the lunar mission itself, rather than ISS support duplicating what should be a multiply-redundant commercial effort with big NASA incentives.

    Instead, it almost seems as if the Constellation program has put up a huge billboard saying “Cancel me! Or at least stick me in LEO. Please!” Beyond the people actually working on the program, there is minimal interest for a program that should have little trouble generating interest in the science, commercial, and international communities, as well as the public.

    At this point, knowing all the things he obviously does from his talk, what should Dr. Griffin be doing? He should look at what the likely next Presidents want, and factor that into how he manages the program. All 3 major candidates have a much bigger environmental interest than President Bush, so get a demo lunar mission with environment monitoring overtones under way. It could monitor the Earth, space weather, the or the Sun itself. There are numerous such missions that could be done from the Moon – you can find them in NASA’s lunar science assessments. Also, (and I hate this idea so much, as it’s counter to using commercial space launch and encourages science cost overruns) start a line of big environment/solar/space weather monitoring satellites to be launched on Ares V (perhaps more than 1 per launch), with Ares 1/Orion satellite servicing built in. Reduce their inevitable big cost by strictly managing consistency across the line, even if performance is hit.

    If Obama is a likely next President with an inclination to replace NASA’s program with an educational program, try to make the NASA program at least a little tempting for him to keep by making education a major factor in the program. This could be done with the big iron lunar program part, and could also be done to support the commercial space side that Griffin also wants to keep (eg: student space prizes, bigger space prizes with students eligible, funding student access to commercial space trips, funding a line of scholarships for disiplines related to the space effort, etc).

    There are many other approaches, but the bottom line is putting as much funding as possible into ESAS isn’t the right way to make the program succeed. Other efforts are needed to get interests, including next Presidents, behind the NASA and commercial efforts.

  • spectator

    Nasa 2008 is attempting to do what Nasa already did in 1969 did.
    There are many who say the stick is wrong, the heavy is wrong, relying on Nasa is wrong. Those saying it have never done it.
    Do we question Nasa’s vision of getting out into the solar system? Stephen Hawkings doesn’t and he’s done more in less time than everyone of us. Do we question the hardware? Many who do, never did what those in 1969 did.
    To me this isn’t all that hard. You either push your elected representative to get out of LEO using the best plan available(ESAS) or you elect endless debate, endless argument and wait till your pet project comes along, which is never. If the model rocket builders heralding the next coming of Werner Von Braun would join with those that are agnostic on the means but passionate about the goals, we would move closer to the moon and beyond.

  • MarkWhittington

    The problem with trying to design a program and hardware in such a way to avoid political caprice is that it never works. If Obama wants to end human space exploration and/or commercial development initiatives, it won’t matter what rocket designs are used, how many people are contemplated to go back to the Moon (though downsizing the Moon program to two people strikes me as a parrticularly dumb idea), or what kind of engineering is involved.

    The only way to avoid a politically inspired shut down of the exploration program and the COTS program is to be better politicians. Sadly, so far, a lot of people posting their bright ideas on the Internet don’t seem to be inclined to learn that lesson.

  • Got a link to the audio and or transcript?

  • PhilHorzempa

    I think that the Space Community should start pushing for Congress to bump up all discretionary spending by 2% if all we get out of them is another CR for FY2009. In fact, seeing how disfunctional this Congress has been since being sworn in last year, my guess is that is the best that we can hope for. I thought that when the Democrats took over from the Republicans that we might start to see the yearly budgets acted on in a timely manner. Recall, how the last Republican Congress left town without even passing the FY2007 budget.
    However, the truth is that the Democrats are almost as bad as the Republicans when it comes to doing the work that we hire them to do. The budget for FY2008 was 3 months late.
    Since this is an election year, when much of Congress will be out campaigning, I would guess that a CR is all but guaranteed. It is sad to see how pathetic Congress has become. As I recall, it was about 30 years ago when Congress decided to delay the start of the fiscal year from July 1 to October 1. That would surely allow enough time for Congress to get its work done! Again, it’s sad to witness how pathetic Congress has become when it comes to keeping our government running smoothly.
    So, to repeat, I hope that Congress approves the FY2009 budget on time. However, it would be more realistic if Space Advocates pushed for Congress to give an overall 2% boost to all of Discretionary spending.

  • D. Messier

    Ummmm….where would the government find money to increase all discretionary spending by 2 percent given the fiscal hole we’re in? This makes no sense.

    Was there any indication that Mr. Griffin held himself accountable for any of the “incredible turmoil”? In earlier testimony on the Hill, he lamented “the gap” between shuttle and Orion flights without seeming to connect it to any of his decisions.

  • [...] to an account over at Jeff Foust’s Space Politics blog, Griffin said this is a “time of incredible turmoil” due to [...]

  • Ray

    Mark: “If Obama wants to end human space exploration and/or commercial development initiatives, it won’t matter what rocket designs are used, how many people are contemplated to go back to the Moon (though downsizing the Moon program to two people strikes me as a parrticularly dumb idea), or what kind of engineering is involved.”

    I’m sure Obama doesn’t care about rocket designs and engineering details. I’m sure the same is true for McCain and Clinton. However, they do care about the direct effects of rocket designs. How much does the development cost? How much will operations costs? What is the schedule – will I see results in my Administration? Will I at least see intermediate results in my Administration, even if the final thing isn’t done then? What are the risks of some huge problem – deadly accident, cost and schedule overruns, etc? What will I have to sacrifice from the programs like Earth Observation and similiar “navel gazing” that currently return huge, reliable, timely, and more closely cost-effective rewards in terms of “science, security, and economics”? These are their types of concerns, and they’re the concerns that Dr. Griffin should be addressing if he wants the lunar plan and LEO commercialization to happen.

    I won’t dwell too much on the 2-person per trip option that Dr. Griffin could have taken (and may still be forced to take, who knows)? It’s just 1 option that could ease the engineering difficulties the politicians don’t care about. Imagine the reduced mass and volume needed in terms of passengers, seats, spacesuits, external dimensions, life support systems, feeding back again and again into structure sizes, fuel tank sizes, etc. In turn this would allow various things that politicians care about to be improved – cost per launch, cost to develop, risk to develop, safety systems, schedule, opportunity to include commercial-sized components in the architecture, etc, depending on what engineering trades are taken. The thing is that it may or may not be worth it, but the reason Dr. Griffin advocates the 4 is something like “the politicians want something better than Apollo”. For the reasons I mentioned above I think he could be making a bad engineering requirements decision for misguided political reasons.

    Mark: “The only way to avoid a politically inspired shut down of the exploration program and the COTS program is to be better politicians.”

    What I’m wondering is, given that he knows about the problems and dangers that his choices have made (as is apparent from his talk), why did Dr. Griffin make them, and why isn’t he making changes to reduce these problems and dangers? I’m not looking at it from the point of view of space advocates, who collectively have not too huge of an influence on election results, but Dr. Griffin, who only gets 1 vote in the elections.

  • Vladislaw

    “What I’m wondering is, given that he knows about the problems and dangers that his choices have made (as is apparent from his talk), why did Dr. Griffin make them, and why isn’t he making changes to reduce these problems and dangers?”

    In my opinion Griffin made every decision based on how will it increase the gap, if an option lessened the gap, it was abandoned, if it increased the gap, it was promoted. The only reason that would make this policy seem sensible is if ultimately Griffin wanted the private sector to beat NASA into LEO. Once the private sector had a launch vehicle and capsule Nasa would be forced by congress to buy seats from a commerical launcher cheaper then a government operated launch system. NASA would then be free to pursue an IN SPACE vehicle and leave the earth to LEO to the private sector. Ad Astra teaming up with ATK seems like the new combo NASA would promote.

  • One of the biggest myths or pieces of propaganda that continues to get spread is this “trapped in LEO” expression.

    We will remain trapped in LEO UNTIL a cheap reliable and reusable infrastructure for space access is developed. Big dumb boosters have been the model for 40+ years, and as a result, we’ve been trapped in LEO.

    Actually focusing on the LEO problem will solve it, not just waving it away as “something for the private sector”.

  • Shubber: The problem is, we’ve “focused on the LEO problem” for thirty years and untold billions of dollars, and got essentially nowhere. Either the kinds of developments are far more difficult than space advocates hope, or NASA is not capable of the kind of developments that is required, or there is no reason (i.e., a large and secure market) to develop cheap access. Most likely all three reasons are true to a lessor or greater degree, but I have chosen to focus on the last reason. If you believe that free enterprise can work, create a large market and launch vehicles should take care of themselves. I think we are seeing the beginnings of that with the COTS and the ISS. If I am correct, or even partially correct, we should focus on creating larger markets with the technology we have — hense encouraging the growth of the ISS and follow-on and second-generation facilities (both government and Mr. Biglow), encouraging greater tourism to those destinations, perhaps starting a lunar base, and long-term launch vehicle technology development should be our priorities in the next decade or so.

    – Donald

  • The problem is, we’ve “focused on the LEO problem” for thirty years and untold billions of dollars, and got essentially nowhere. Either the kinds of developments are far more difficult than space advocates hope, or NASA is not capable of the kind of developments that is required, or there is no reason (i.e., a large and secure market) to develop cheap access.

    Donald,

    I respectfully disagree. I think it’s actually #4 – that we’ve never seriously attempted to address the LEO problem. NASA serves at the whim of the President, and at the largesse of Congress. They had a shot at building an RLV in the early 70s, but by the time the politicians finished with it (and they finished “fixing” the numbers to make the politicians believe it was worth it) we ended up with the monstrously over-budget and useless Shuttle.

    NASA should hand over the ownership and operation of any RLV to the DoD, who could actually manage to procure, fly, shake-out, and operate the many dozens of such craft that would be needed to start achieving the kinds of economics that you find in aircraft. NASA’s role should be in R&D, developing the TPS, powerplants, etc. They should NOT be flying a shuttle.

    Until the “debate” deals with the mistakes made over the past 40 years, we will be saddled with exactly the sort of “Groundhog Day” behavior we’ve seen – a deja-vu nightmare of aborted programs (X-33, X-34, X-37 anyone?) that constantly attempt to “address” the problem but wildly miss the mark because no one is willing to challenge flawed initial assumptions.

  • Vladislaw

    “Big dumb boosters have been the model for 40+ years, and as a result, we’ve been trapped in LEO”

    I would have to disagree, if the USA had 5-6 companies that were launching 120 ton BDB ( big dumb boosters) and we were staying in LEO THEN I would agree. The ONLY time the USA left LEO was WHEN we had a truely BDB. If america had multiple launch companies able to put 100+ tons up per launch we might see a different story. It is the chicken and the egg story though, no one will build them without customers and customers will not build space components that big without the launchers in place first.

    A big dumb booster is what got us OUT of LEO, they never trapped us.

  • Shubber: NASA should hand over the ownership and operation of any RLV to the DoD, who could actually manage to procure, fly, shake-out, and operate the many dozens of such craft that would be needed to start achieving the kinds of economics that you find in aircraft.

    But, this is exactly what has happened. AvWeek has story after story about the various DoD projects for ORS and hypersonics research. Admittedly, the latter is not directly aimed at launch vehicles, but success would be more-or-less directly applicable to, at least, spaceplanes. The complaint appears to be that NASA is not spending money in this realm. I’m not sure they should: greater expertese probably is available at the DoD while NASA has demonstrated the techniques to create large structures — the market end. Hopefully, these two trends — DoD hypesonics research and the creation and expansion of markets by NASA (and Mr. Biglow) — will come together someday to create both a market and the technology to supply it at something like the same time.

    They should NOT be flying a shuttle.

    Agreed, at least at this point in time. After 2010, hopefully, they won’t be. That said, I would drop the LEO requirement from Ares-1 and focus on the moon — which is where NASA’s skills lie.

    because no one is willing to challenge flawed initial assumptions

    In this, I agree, but I suspect we differ in the assumption no one will challenge. That assumption, in my view, is that a significant investment in cheaper transportation to orbit, either by the government or private investors without personal fortunes to waste, is likely in the absense of an existing market already earning tons of money for somebody — which is why my focus on markets, markets, markets.

    Vladislaw: BDBs have the same problem. Why will pay for cheaply placing 100t or more into orbit without somebody already making lots of money in orbit?

    – Donald

  • anonymouspace

    “Nasa 2008 is attempting to do what Nasa already did in 1969 did.
    There are many who say the stick is wrong, the heavy is wrong, relying on Nasa is wrong. Those saying it have never done it.”

    Neither has today’s NASA. It’s been some 47 years, nearly half a century, since NASA last undertook the development of a human space exploration architecture. The individuals are not the same, and NASA is not the same organization. The argument that an organization named NASA has done it once, so an organization named NASA can or should do it again, just doesn’t hold water over such long time periods and under so many changes.

    Moreover, even if NASA was the exact same organization, the goals, environment, and constraints that NASA is working under today are all very different from Apollo. The overarching goal of today’s VSE is not to beat the Soviets to the Moon, but to establish a sustainable human space exploration effort. The space industry is much more mature and capable than it was in the 1960s, and there are many more technologies and vehicles available today. And the total NASA budget, while comparable to some Apollo-era budgets, is not rising at the same rate. When creating an executable program, the devil is in the details. Appeals to long-gone, Apollo-era authority are not enough, not by long-shot. In fact, they may lead one to incorrect conclusions, and create programs that cannot be successful in the current environment.

    “Do we question Nasa’s [sic] vision of getting out into the solar system? Stephen Hawkings [sic] doesn’t and he’s done more in less time than everyone of us.”

    Two points:

    1) Hawking actually opposed human space flight in general, and the VSE specifically, as recently as 2005. See (add http://):

    news.cnet.com/2100-11395-5946857.html?tag=tb

    2) Even with his recent conversion, Hawking’s “vision” is substantively different from, and more aggressive than, the VSE. Hawking’s goal is survival of the human species/society, not science-driven exploration. Hawking emphasizes permanent colonization and development, not missions or temporary bases, and on an accelerated timeline. (Mars by 2025, not 2030-40.) And Hawking’s timeline and reach extend into the next few centuries and to the settlement of exoplanets. If NASA was actually pursuing Hawking’s goals, it would be a very different set of programs than what NASA is pursuing today. (In fact, it probably wouldn’t be NASA pursuing these goals.)

    “Do we question the hardware? Many who do, never did what those in 1969 did.”

    Again, the individuals working on Ares I/Orion (or any alternative to it) are not the same individuals who worked on Apollo. The argument has no basis in fact.

    “You either push your elected representative to get out of LEO using the best plan available(ESAS)”

    What’s the evidence that ESAS is the “best plan available”? The 5-year gap? The fact that NASA’s confidence in meeting the 2015 Ares I/Orion IOC has dropped from 66% to 33%? The almost year-long slip in Constellation PDRs? The pending multi-month slip in the Ares I-X schedule? The 10,000+ lbs. that Ares I is overweight? The 1,000+ lbs. that Orion is overweight? The loss of two-fault tolerance in Orion and Ares I’s upper stage? The fact that we still don’t know what system(s) will be used to mitigate Ares I lower-stage thrust oscillation issue? The fact that we still don’t know Orion’s nominal and off-nominal landing modes? The fact that Ares V isn’t powerful enough to close the lunar architecture without eliminating commonality with Ares I?

    “If the model rocket builders heralding the next coming of Werner Von Braun”

    Huh?

    “or you elect endless debate, endless argument and wait till your pet project comes along, which is never… would join with those that are agnostic on the means”

    One can be agnostic on the alternatives to ESAS/Constellation/Ares I/Orion while still acknowledging how much trouble the current program is in.

    “but passionate about the goals, we would move closer to the moon and beyond.”

    A few space cadets (myself included) expressing passion about human space exploration goals in the comments section of a blog isn’t going to create a critical mass of support for any approach, and it’s certainly not going to fix the myriad safety, technical, schedule, and budget problems with ESAS/Constellation/Ares I/Orion. That takes cold, hard analysis and tough management and political decisions.

    FWIW…

  • anonymouspace

    “Obama wants to end human space exploration and/or commercial development initiatives”

    Where has Obama stated that he “wants to end” human space exploration or commercial initiatives in human space flight?

    “it won’t matter what rocket designs are used… or what kind of engineering is involved”

    It matters immensely, in terms of program performance and in terms of locking in program budgets.

    No White House (Obama’s or otherwise) likes to put more taxpayer dollars into programs that are plagued by multiple, potentially insurmountable, technical problems, that can’t deliver in a timely fashion, that threaten large budget overruns, and that pose unnecessary threats to human life. Politicians may not care about technical details like mass margins, vibration environments, fault tolerance, and landing modes, but they do care whether a vehicle can fly safely, on schedule, and within budget. There’s little indication that Ares I/Orion can do so anymore.

    There’s also no incentive for a White House (Obama’s or otherwise) to start spending new development projects (like Ares V, EDS, and Altair) to meet the promises of the previous White House. It’s one thing if those projects are already started, a lot of money has already been sunk, and jobs and votes are tied up in their budgets. But when a project hasn’t gotten started, no money is sunk, and no jobs and votes are on the line, it’s much, much easier to just defer or never start the new development.

    “though downsizing the Moon program to two people strikes me as a parrticularly dumb idea”

    Right now, the lunar architecture doesn’t close without resorting to six-segment SRB with composite casings on the Ares V, destroying much of the commonality with Ares I, which will drive up costs immensely while driving down reliability greatly. Why would a smaller crew size be dumb if it allows the architecture to close reliably and efficiently?

    And even if the architecture did close, why would a smaller crew size be dumb if it allows a smaller, more affordable lunar architecture to fly sooner and more often, with a greater number of astronauts on the lunar surface per year and/or over the life of the program?

    “The only way to avoid a politically inspired shut down of the exploration program… is to be better politicians.”

    So instead of pursuing exploration elements whose development can be cemented within a political cycle and whose operational costs can withstand changes in budgets and priorities, we should just keep hoping for “better politicians”? When in the history of humanity have politicians ever gotten “better”?

    “Sadly, so far, a lot of people posting their bright ideas on the Internet don’t seem to be inclined to learn that lesson.”

    If the lesson is that program formulation and execution choices don’t matter and that the only thing we can do is hope that better politicians run for and win office in the next election cycle, well, that’s a very unrealistic policy and program management lesson.

    FWIW…

  • Vladislaw

    “Right now, the lunar architecture doesn’t close without resorting to six-segment SRB with composite casings on the Ares V, destroying much of the commonality with Ares I, which will drive up costs immensely while driving down reliability greatly. ”

    Not to mention the costs in pollution with larger SRB’s, I am sure the democrats who are promising green policies, are going to love them.

  • Chuck2200

    PhilHorzempa said “I though when the Democrats took over from the Republicans …

    It’s important to note that far too many people think that the simple majority the Democrats gained in the last election would actually do anything to fix the gridlock in Congress. The Democrats have a simple majority in the Senate of 51, but it takes a vote of *60* (not 51) to override a Presidential veto, and President Bush has vetoed almost every piece of legislation the Congress has sent him sinse “the Democrats took over”. The Democrats do NOT have enough votes in Congress to override – period. Their hands are still tied.

    The country put the Democrats into Congress with a simple majority, but NOT ENOUGH OF THEM TO FIX ANYTHING! Simple majority buys nothing. It must be a 2/3 majority or nothing changes. Without the number of votes needed to override the Presidents consistant veto, there can be no difference from before. Do you want to see the change? Put enough Democrats in there to override a Presidential veto. That’s 60 Senators and 290 Representatives. Neither number was achieved in the new Congress. The Republicans still rule.

  • MRing

    They may not be able to reliably override a veto, but they did recently. There are enough moderate and even left-leaning Republican’s in the Senate that when the Democrats even attempt bipartisan cooperation, they get it done.

    No, the real problem with Congress has been that it seems the party leadership decided to start campaigning for 2008 immediately upon winning in 2006. Cooperation has been almost nonexistant ever since, except in a few cases where both sides wanted enormous amounts of pork — such as the Farm Bill.

    It’s convenient to blame the Republican’s for everything even when they’re in a minority, but not always accurate. ;) Besides, just look at them, they’re in total disarray. They know they’re going to get whacked in the Fall, and yet can’t come up with anything to save themselves.

    At any rate, if you think the Democrat Trifecta, with veto-proof majorities all around and a Dem in the White House, will be a good thing then you’re forgetting history. Power corrupts. Republicans in 94 made Clinton a moderate, and in conjunction gave us a nice end to that decade. Then, they got absolute power. They don’t resemble themselves from 94 *at all*. Give Democrats 2-4 years of absolute power and they won’t resemble their former selves either. Ultimately, the seesaw will come back to the Republicans — before again moving back to the Dems. If you think any group of politicians are somehow different, somehow better humans, you’d be wrong.

  • Will Doohan

    Either Obama or Hillary is probably going to win the election, cancel the VSE, and it will probably be another 4 to 8 years before anyone even suggests going back to the moon. — Just my opinion……

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