I wasn’t at the Goddard Memorial Dinner last Friday night (a black-tie affair well above my pay grade). However, by Monday I had received a few copies of the speech that former NASA administrator Mike Griffin gave in acceptance of the Goddard Trophy awarded to him at the event. Griffin, who had been keeping a relatively low public profile in the last three months (beyond the news last week that he had been hired as a professor and “eminent scholar” at the Univ. of Alabama in Huntsville) used the speech in part to criticize the role of the Office of Management and Budget in carrying out (or interfering with) national space policy.
Griffin noted that the OMB’s recent “passback” of the proposed budget to the agency took $3.5 billion out of the exploration systems line over the next four years. “When combined with earlier reductions of almost $12 billion during the Bush Administration, well over $15 billion has been extracted from the Exploration Systems budget in the five short years since the new space policy was announced,” Griffin said, according to the prepared text of his remarks. He added that meant only $500 million was available to work on Ares 5 and Altair prior to 2015.
A little later in the speech Griffin took sharper aim at OMB:
Let me be clear. In a democracy, the proper purpose of the OMB is not to find a way to create a Potemkin Village at NASA. It is not to create the appearance of having a real space program without having to pay for it. It is not to specify to NASA how much money shall be allocated for human lunar return by 2020. The proper purpose of the OMB is to work with NASA, as a partner in good government, to craft carefully vetted estimates of what is required to achieve national policy goals. The judgment as to whether the stated goals are too costly, or not, is one to be made by the nation’s elected leadership, not career civil service staff.
As for whether the US could afford NASA’s plans, he had this to say:
We’re “investing”, if that is the word, hundreds of billions of dollars in entities whose claim to the money rests on the premise that they have failed to manage their enterprises properly, but are too important to be allowed to founder. This nation’s space program, both civil and military, has been one of the most successful endeavors in human history. On the platform of that success we ended the Cold War and built two generations of world technical and political leadership. Maybe we should consider funding more such success.
And he also came to the defense of the current exploration architecture that is, to large degree, his legacy at NASA:
I’ve grown impatient with the argument that Orion and Ares 1 are not perfect, and should be supplanted with other designs. I don’t agree that there is a better approach for the money, but if there were, so what? Any proposed approach would need to be enormously better to justify wiping out four years worth of solid progress. Engineers do not deal with “perfect”. Your viewgraphs will always be better than my hardware. A fictional space program will always be faster, better, and cheaper than a real space program.
Griffin’s comments did generate a rather mild reaction from the White House. “The president is very committed to human space exploration and believes that NASA has a critical role to play in pushing the bounds of human understanding and achievement,” OMB spokesman Kenneth Baer told the Houston Chronicle.