Lobbying, NASA

Armstrong: transition team should not make decisions on Constellation

Saturday’s Wall Street Journal features a letter to the editor from none other than Neil Armstrong, in response to an article from earlier this month about deliberations President-elect Obama’s transition team is making on the future of NASA’s exploration architecture. (Both links may require a WSJ.com subscription.) Armstrong seems particularly concerned that the transition team would make a decision about accelerating Constellation, revamping the program, and/or extending the life of the shuttle:

I certainly hope that isn’t accurate, in that the transition team should play no part in such decisions. While these men and women are experienced and enthusiastic space program veterans, they are neither aerospace engineers nor former program managers and cannot be sufficiently knowledgeable to make choices in the technical arena.

It’s not at all clear, though, that the team is making any decisions, as opposed to simply gathering information and making recommendations for the new administration. Armstrong has no problems with allowing the new president to make those decisions, and states that, contrary to a report earlier this month in the Orlando Sentinel, he should have no problem getting the technical information from NASA needed to make that decision:

He should have no difficulty receiving high-quality information from NASA. Engineers are painfully honest and insist on presenting any assumptions used in their decision process. Therefore a conclusion can only be challenged when an erroneous assumption can be identified. Because this approach is somewhat unfamiliar in business and politics, its importance is often overlooked.

Finally, while not explicitly calling for Mike Griffin to remain as administrator, he does endose, in general terms, agency management:

NASA’s management is very strong and its engineering and scientific talent extraordinary. I believe they can be counted on to deliver new knowledge, excitement and inspiration as they continue their expansion of the human boundary.

21 comments to Armstrong: transition team should not make decisions on Constellation

  • space.anonymous

    He should have no difficulty receiving high-quality information from NASA. Engineers are painfully honest and insist on presenting any assumptions used in their decision process. Therefore a conclusion can only be challenged when an erroneous assumption can be identified. Because this approach is somewhat unfamiliar in business and politics, its importance is often overlooked.

    NASA’s management is very strong and its engineering and scientific talent extraordinary. I believe they can be counted on to deliver new knowledge, excitement and inspiration as they continue their expansion of the human boundary.

    Neil Armstrong has not been around NASA for a long time and yet he makes statements like this? Where the hell has he been for the past 39 years and now comes out of the woodwork as if from his Olympian heights?

  • anonymous.space

    It would be nice if someone educated Griffin, Armstrong, Shank, et al., as well as the Wall Street Journal and other top news organizations, on what it is that Presidential transition teams actually can and cannot do. They are not political appointees and they are not civil servants — they have no federal decisionmaking authority whatsoever. They are only volunteers or employees of a non-profit organization charged with gathering information for the incoming Administration. The nation’s space leaders should be writing op-eds, and the Wall Street Journal and other top news organizations should be running articles, about real issues like what the next Administration’s civil space goals should be, whether Ares I and Orion are viable, and what the pros and cons are of various alternatives. Instead, NASA’s leadership and the news organizations are wasting heat on non-issues and the public is receiving little more than useless print.

    Ugh…

  • space.anonymous, you are very wrong in stating that Armstrong “has not been around NASA for a long time”. I worked with several “retired” astronauts during the Presidential campaign and those folks are never retired. Whether by email, working on commissions, tiger teams, etc, they remain engaged in NASA, and on many levels. While Armstrong may not be active, do you think any engineer will not return a phone call or email from Armstrong?

    anonymous.space, do you really think that Armstrong’s letter was written in the dark about what the Obama NASA transition team is up to? As someone who has worked with WSJ reporters, trust me on this, they know what’s going on with the NASA transition team.

    So, here’s where things stand. Nelson, Gorton and Armstrong like Mike and they cannot be ignored by President-elect Obama, who frankly doesn’t need this NASA and Griffin flack right now when he has so many other issues to deal with. The Obama NASA transition team has gotten their boss publicly boxed-in; kick-out Griffin and he pisses-off Nelson and Gorton. And it’s guaranteed that someday President Obama will need the support of Nelson or Gorton on something, so no need to piss them off. See where this is going?

  • sc220

    …kick-out Griffin and he pisses-off Nelson and Gorton.

    The “support” from these guys is lukewarm at best. In fact, Gordon’s view that BHO should consider keeping Griffin through the transition and statements like, “if they kept him, I’d be comfortable,” are not the words you’d expect from an advocate.

  • anonymous.space

    “anonymous.space, do you really think that Armstrong’s letter was written in the dark about what the Obama NASA transition team is up to?”

    That’s not what I wrote. I wrote that Armstrong’s op-ed (and Griffin’s argument with Garver and Shank’s subsequent statements to Florida Today) demonstrate a complete lack of understanding about what transition teams can and cannot do. They’re non-profit employees and volunteers, not political appointees or civil servants — they can only gather information and develop options. They can’t, for example, turn off Ares I or Orion procurements.

    It doesn’t matter what the transition team is up to — they just can’t do the kinds of things that Griffin, Shank, and now Armstrong think they can do. It’s silly for the agency’s present and past leadership to repeatedly argue that the transition team shouldn’t make decisions about the Constellation architecture when the transition team doesn’t have the authority to make decisions in the first place. It’s like arguing over whether my son or daughter should be driving by themselves, when they don’t have a driver’s license to begin with. Goofy…

    “As someone who has worked with WSJ reporters, trust me on this, they know what’s going on with the NASA transition team.”

    I fail to see the relevance of your experience with WSJ reporters. They didn’t write the op-ed — Armstrong did.

    “Nelson, Gorton and Armstrong like Mike”

    Several points:

    1) NASAWatch is reporting that Nelson no longer cares whether Griffin stays or goes. See the last “Editor’s note” towards the end of the comments section here (add http://www.):

    nasawatch.com/archives/2008/12/vote_to_keep_mi.html

    2) It’s Gordon, not Gorton. And he’s a House representative, not a senator, so he doesn’t play much, if at all, in the Senate confirmation process for NASA Administrator (or any other political appointee).

    3) Armstrong is a retired astronaut, not a congressman. Although certainly respected, the incoming Administration doesn’t owe or have to work with him.

    “President-elect Obama, who frankly doesn’t need this NASA and Griffin flack right now when he has so many other issues to deal with”

    I agree, and I think that will be an argument in favor of Griffin’s removal. The incoming Administration doesn’t need heads of agencies that throw public temper tantrums with their transition teams, that accuse White House agencies of conducting jihads, and that make needlessly damaging statements on sensitive topics like aviation safety and climate change that the President’s science advisor has to retract.

    FWIW…

  • Al Fansome

    Mr. Hillhouse,

    Considering that you were a committed flack for Senator McCain, who often made factually incorrect assertions attacking President-elect Obama and his space policy, why do you think *anybody* in influence would care about your uninformed opinion on what an Obama administration should do on space?

    I don’t get it.

    - Al

    “Politics is not rocket science, which is why rocket scientists do not understand politics.”

  • Ben the Space Brit

    I agree with Dr. Armstrong in that the Transition Team shouldn’t make decisions about the future of Constellation. The problem is, of course, is that they aren’t making any decisions. What they are trying to do is gather information, summarise it in a way a Law School grad would understand so that said Law School grad can make the decision. Unfortunately, if the Orlando Sentinel is to be believed, Dr. Griffin is obstructing that goal, something not likely to endear him with the soon-to-be new boss.

    I personally think that Dr. Armstrong’s comments here are a reaction to his own erroneous conclusions about what he heard, possibly second- or third-hand, about what the Transition Team are doing. It is a shame that he then responded without first using his doubtless first-class access to find out the facts (would you say no if Neil Armstrong asked for a clarification on such a matter – I wouldn’t!).

  • Keith Cowing is reporting that his sources claim the Armstrong letter was ghost-written by NASA people. It sure reads like it, but I’m a little disappointed that Professor Armstrong would go along with such a thing if true.

  • MarkWhittington

    I think it is politically unwise (not to mention morally wrong) to react to Neil Armstrong’s letter by trying to trash the man personally. Jim is right about one thing. Armstrong coming down from the mountain, so to speak, is a big deal.

  • MrEarl

    Frankly, this is why a rocket scientist should not be at the head of NASA. That is also why when O’Keefe left I was hoping for an administrator like James Webb, someone politically savvy to guide the agency through the usual DC pitfalls.
    Griffin would be a fine technical administrator but as is highlighted here, he has zero political skills and could likely end up loosing what he is so awkwardly tring to save.

  • anonymous.space

    “I think it is politically unwise (not to mention morally wrong) to react to Neil Armstrong’s letter by trying to trash the man personally.”

    Huh? There’s no personal attack on Armstrong in this whole thread so far. Lots of folks are pointing out that Armstrong is misinformed (or has been misled) about the function of Presidential transition teams and their lack of decisionmaking authority. But no one has called Armstrong ill-intentioned, stupid, or anything similar. Pointing out that someone is mistaken about certain facts is not the same, not by a long shot, as “trying to trash the man personally”. Anyone, even Apollo astronauts, can be wrong, and their arguments should be held to the same standards as everyone else’s.

    Argue the op-ed, not its author.

    “Armstrong coming down from the mountain, so to speak, is a big deal.”

    Not when Armstrong’s argument (or whoever wrote that op-ed) is a useless red herring. It’s a waste of Armstrong’s fame and position in history to argue that transition teams shouldn’t make decisions when transitions teams have no authority to make decisions in the first place.

    FWIW…

  • MarkWhittington

    Anon, you basically suggested that Armstrong is an out of touch fuddy duddy with delusions of God hood. Olympian heights indeed!

  • anonymous.space

    “Anon, you basically suggested that Armstrong is an out of touch fuddy duddy with delusions of God hood.”

    Evidence?

    Here’s what I actually wrote:

    “It would be nice if someone educated Griffin, Armstrong, Shank… on what it is that Presidential transition teams actually can and cannot do.”

    Just because Armstrong doesn’t know the purpose of Presidential transition teams doesn’t mean that he’s an “out of touch fuddy duddy” and it certainly doesn’t mean that he has “delusions of God hood [sic]“. It just means that he’s lacking in knowledge about Presidential transition teams. I’m also lacking in knowledge about a lot of things, too, but that doesn’t mean that I’m “out of touch”, that I’m a “fuddy duddy”, or that I have delusions of God hood [sic]“.

    You may think that Armstrong is an “out of touch fuddy duddy with delusions of God hood [sic]” after reading his op-ed, but it’s certainly not what I wrote. “Out of touch fuddy duddy with delusions of God hood [sic]” are your words, not mine.

    “…Armstrong’s op-ed (and Griffin’s argument with Garver and Shank’s subsequent statements to Florida Today) demonstrate a complete lack of understanding about what transition teams can and cannot do.”

    Here, I referred to Armstrong’s op-ed, not Armstrong himself. Again, just because an op-ed doesn’t demonstrate an understanding of the purpose of Presidential transition teams doesn’t mean that its author is an “out of touch fuddy duddy”, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the author has “delusions of God hood [sic]“. Again, that may be what you think of Armstrong after reading his editorial, but it’s certainly not what I wrote. “Out of touch fuddy duddy with delusions of God hood [sic]” are your words, not mine.

    “Armstrong is a retired astronaut, not a congressman. Although certainly respected, the incoming Administration doesn’t owe or have to work with him.”

    Here, I’m just stating facts. Moreover, I even state that Armstrong is “respected”. I have no idea how one gets “out of touch fuddy duddy” or “delusions of God hood [sic]” out of that.

    “Not when Armstrong’s argument (or whoever wrote that op-ed) is a useless red herring. It’s a waste of Armstrong’s fame and position in history to argue that transition teams shouldn’t make decisions when transitions teams have no authority to make decisions in the first place.”

    Again, here I referred to Armstrong’s op-ed, not Armstrong himself. And just because an op-ed makes a useless, red-herring argument doesn’t mean that its author is an “out of touch fuddy duddy”, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the author has “delusions of God hood [sic]“. Again, that may be what you think of Armstrong after reading his editorial, but it’s certainly not what I wrote. “Out of touch fuddy duddy with delusions of God hood [sic]” are your words, not mine.

    In summary, I repeatedly referred to the argument in Armstrong’s op-ed, not Armstrong himself, and even referred to Armstrong as “respected”. Moreover, I never used the words “out of touch fuddy duddy with delusions of God hood [sic]” or anything like them. You’re the one characterizing the first man on the Moon with those names and adjectives, not me.

    Finally, if you can’t participate in a debate without putting words in other posters’ mouths, then please keep your comments to yourself. It’s a waste of other posters’ time to have to correct false statements originating from you that they never made.

    Thank you…

  • Finally, if you can’t participate in a debate without putting words in other posters’ mouths, then please keep your comments to yourself.

    If he did that, he’d have to shut down his web site, because he really is capable of little else.

  • Brad

    This thread related a claim that NASA ghostwrote Armstrong’s letter. That sure reads to me like a a personal attack against Armstrong’s integrity. And seeing as the original sources for the claim are unnamed, a pretty dishonorable attack too.

  • There is nothing wrong with signing a letter written by someone else, as long as you approve it and agree with it. It happens all the time at high levels, where staff prepares a letter, and it is then put out with the executive’s signature. Would you say that it is an “attack on Barack Obama’s (or any politicians’) integrity” to point out that he has speech writers?

  • MrEarl

    This is incredible! The importance of this posting by Jeff is to point out the efforts to save the Constellation initiative, and Griffin in particular, that are being taken by NASA and it’s close supporters. This blog has reduced it to a pi$$ing match on who dissed an American hero.
    Lets stay focused people! This transition is a crucial time for manned space flight in this nation. There are so many issues to be decided like extending the life of the shuttle, speeding up, or not, the development of the Aries launch vehicles or replacing them with EELV’s. Should Griffin stay or go? Is he the best choice to move NASA forward? How can NASA get some of the funding being discussed as part of the stimulus package?
    All of that is far more important than whether Armstrong had a ghost writer or not!

  • Anti Man

    This is incredible!

    How about this :

    Neil Armstrong certainly is entitled to his opinions and beliefs. Apparently Neil Armstrong believes that Constellation is a viable launch vehicle architecture.

    I am entitled to my opinions and beliefs as well. I believe Neil Armstrong’s opinions and beliefs are idiot. The fact that Neil Armstrong was the first person to land an spacecraft on the moon and walk on its surface in no way enters into my empirical analysis of his idiotic opinions and beliefs.

  • Anon, you basically suggested that Armstrong is an out of touch fuddy duddy with delusions of God hood. Olympian heights indeed!

    Gee, Mark, was it some other Mark Whittington who wrote this?

    In something akin to God coming down from the mountain, Neil Armstrong, who ordinarily does not speak in public, has weighed in on the transition controversy at NASA.

    Physician, heal thyself.

  • Apparently Neil Armstrong believes that Constellation is a viable launch vehicle architecture.

    Well, technically, it probably is. If we pour enough time and money into it, we can probably get something vaguely resembling it to fly. The issue is whether it’s viable economically and politically.

  • Chance

    Sorry to get off somewhat subject, but in the news today I saw the following headline: “NASA chief’s wife to Obama: Don’t fire my husband”
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20081231/ap_on_re_us/nasa_chief

    The actual story isn’t quite that bad, but jeez, this is getting kind of embarassing. I can’t see Obama keeping this guy.

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