Friday, November 14, 2008

330p 11/14 Update: Griffin discusses job prospects, shuttle replacement, space station in CBS interview

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CBS NEWS Coverage of Breaking Space News
Posted: 3:30 PM, 11/14/08

By William Harwood
CBS News Space Consultant

Changes and additions:

11/10/08 (06:30 PM): Phoenix lander in deep freeze on Mars; NASA ends mission operations
11/13/08 (03:20 PM): Griffin says he expects Obama administration to replace him as head of NASA
11/14/08 (03:30 PM): Griffin interview with CBS News

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3:30 PM, 11/14/08, Update: In CBS News interview, Griffin offers guarded response to questions about future at NASA

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin told CBS News today he has not yet been contacted by the incoming Obama administration about whether or not he will be replaced as head of the civilian space agency. In an "all hands" meeting at the Kennedy Space Center on Thursday, Griffin told NASA and contractor workers he was not optimistic about staying on. Expanding on those comments today, Griffin said simply that most new administrations bring in new managers but if he is asked to stay, he will.

Here is a transcript of Griffin's conversation with CBS News space analyst William Harwood:

CBS News: Yesterday, you said you didn't expect to be asked by the Obama administration to stay on as the administrator of NASA. Obviously, as you say, you serve at the discretion of the president. Have you gotten any indication from anyone on the transition team or anywhere else that you will or won't be asked? Have you gotten any guidance at all?

Griffin: No, the transition team hasn't yet shown up at NASA and in any case, I think we all need to remember that the transition team is not government, they're not making those kinds of decisions. So I have not had any indication from the president-elect or his folks as to what they would want to do with NASA. It's kind of funny, I've been asked that question - if I would stay on into a new administration - for almost the entire three-and-a-half years I've been at NASA. And the answer has never varied. I gave the same answer yesterday and it made headline news in some newspapers. So, I thought that had a certain humor value.

CBS News: You've always said if you were asked, you'd be happy to stay on and serve. But yesterday you also added a line I hadn't heard, which was that you didn't expect to be asked.

Griffin: Well, I have, in fact, always said it was not customary for presidential appointees in a given administration to be asked to stay on in a successive one. There are several thousand such political appointees, some more visible than others, and each administration asks a few to stay on, a very few. And I've never seen any reason why I would be singled out to be one of those few. I've certainly enjoyed serving. Under the right circumstances I would be pleased to be asked to stay on, but it really is, the first day you take the job, you understand that it is a position filled at the discretion of the president.

CBS News: But it has happened before. One could make the argument that if you're in a storm-tossed sea, that's not the time to change captains.

Griffin: You could (laughing).

CBS News: I guess I don't want to leave it quite at that. Do you really want the job? Saying you would do it if the president asks you to, well, of course. But do you want the job?

Griffin: That's a difficult question to answer. Because it implies that I make judgments like that based on personal desire and what's pleasurable to do. There's a subtlety there that's difficult to convey. It's a very difficult job to do. It is draining. It is not one that brings a lot of day-to-day satisfaction. But it's an extremely important job, if you believe, as I believe, in the importance of the space program and our activities in space to the nation.  So it's an important job.

My highest desire is that it be done well by whoever holds the job. That is number one and there's nothing even in number two position. If it is believed that I'm the best person to hold the job, then I'd be happy to do it. I don't want anyone, ever, to think that these kinds of positions do not involve a lot of personal sacrifice. They do. There's an enormous amount of personal sacrifice to hold this kind of a position in government. But people make much greater sacrifices, much, much greater sacrifices for the country. And if I were thought to be the right person to continue to head the agency then I would be happy to do it.

CBS News: You said yesterday that policy wise, NASA was in good shape based on supportive  comments made during the presidential campaign by both candidates.

Griffin: I was thrilled to see the comments made by both candidates during the campaign and their recognition that to do what we've been asked to do, NASA really needs a little bit more money.

CBS News: I don't know if you can answer this question, but are you happy with the way the election turned out? From the perspective of a NASA administrator?

Griffin: Yeah, I am, strictly from the perspective of the NASA administrator. Frankly, I think I would have been happy either way it turned out because both candidates have made such positive statements on behalf of the agency. I couldn't be more pleased with that.

CBS News: Our time is limited, so I'm going to shift gears and touch on a variety of topics. We were in the Vehicle Assembly Building this week looking at the Ares 1X upper stage components. How confident are you they can get that test off in time to provide the data you need to validate computer modeling before the critical design review next year?

Griffin: It's a flight whose purpose is to validate the computer models, it doesn't have to be exactly like Ares 1. It has to be close, but what it has to do is show that the analysis we're doing, the predictions we make, match what's going on in the real world. And it will do that. We want to get the flight off as soon as possible to inform the design codes as soon as possible, clearly, but there's no specific date. Now, what, of course, it does hinge on is the shuttle flow, and in particular the launch-on-need (rescue mission) for the Hubble Space Telescope mission. So what we're looking at is how best to prepare for that launch-on-need option for the Hubble while still allowing, if you will, a clear path through the VAB and through the pad flow for Ares 1X and we're grappling with that. Right now, we're looking at July or August of next year as the date when Ares 1X could go. And we're still working that.

CBS News: What is your philosophical bent when it comes to requiring two pads for the Hubble mission? If you could do Hubble and the rescue mission with one pad, obviously that would ease the pressure on Ares 1X. They could start converting pad 39B for Ares and save some time.

Griffin: We are looking at an option to have the launch-on-need vehicle fully fueled, well, with PRSD, not with liquid hydrogen and oxygen in the tank. But we're looking at the option of keeping a ready vehicle in the VAB and then rolling it out if launch on need is necessary. And we want to scrub that very carefully. The goal for launch on need is not to have some symbolic vehicle on the pad as a figurehead. The goal is, if we need the launch-on-need vehicle, to get it to the crew who needs it in time. And if we can accomplish that goal just as readily by storing it in the VAB and thus freeing up the pad flow on the other pad for Ares 1X, then we would do that. We're not to the point of being able to make that determination yet. That's honestly just work in progress. When we have an answer, meaning we've vetted it through the crew office, the safety office and everybody else, we'll tell you. It's not something we're keeping secret, it's just an option we're looking at.

CBS News: Yesterday, you restated your obvious support for the Constellation program architecture and the Ares rockets that will replace the shuttle. You also mentioned the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program in the context of those rockets - Atlas and Deltas - don't fit into that architecture. Some readers interpreted that as criticism of those rockets.

Griffin: I'm not knocking the EELVs. I've flown payloads that I personally was close to on both vehicles. I'm not knocking EELVs at all, they're great vehicles. What I have tried to say is that if we're designing an architecture capable of taking people back to the moon, and that's what our enabling legislation requires us to do, then the EELVs don't serve well in that role. Either we would have to downgrade our requirements enormously, and I don't know how to do that, or we would have to upgrade the EELVs, In which case, they would no longer be existing EELVs, we've got a new vehicle family. So that path doesn't work for us in terms of meeting the requirements for a human lunar return. That's all I've said and all I've ever said.

We expect to continue just as we have been doing, we expect to continue to launch our robotic spacecraft on EELV. The time may come when  a commercial entity offers us the option to launch uncrewed, unmanned cargo resupply to the station using EELV. We'd be happy to do it. I'm not knocking the EELV in any way. I'm simply saying the capabilities of that fleet, as it exists today, don't meet what we need to return to the moon. So then the choice that confronted NASA was, what's the cheapest, most architecturally robust path to get back to owning a system that CAN take us to the moon? And that turned out to be the use of shuttle-derived systems by and large, some Apollo-derived systems, to form the Ares 1 vehicle and the Ares 5.

CBS News: The Ares program and really the Constellation architecture seems to generate a fair amount of antagonism in the space community. Coverage of technical issues seems to blow them out of proportion as soon as they come to light. All new rocket systems have problems at this stage, obviously. What is it about this rocket that seems to get everyone spun up?

Griffin: I don't know. That has been surprising, amusing and irritating at different times to me. I don't get it. The development project is going very well. Anyone who has been part of any aerospace development project can cite comparable examples at the same stage where things were in much more difficulty than we are with Ares 1. There's actually no significant difficulty with the program at all. The little nits that come up, we've got work arounds for. It's very solid from a technical point of view. I have taken pains to examine those issues myself, I think that's where I do add value as an administrator, I am knowledgeable of these issues. Politics may be difficult for me, but rocketry's not. And the vehicle and the plan and the program are in solid shape. So I don't get it.

I think it may be due to the fact that everybody likes to play space architect. We get an enormous amount of input from people who think that NASA would be better if we would use this technical approach rather than that technical approach. And the truth is, some of them would work. But just because they would work, doesn't mean the approach we've chosen won't. At some point, you have to make a selection and go. And our selection was based first and foremost on crew safety and second on economics. And that's what drove us in the direction we are in and we're still happy with it.

CBS News: The 10th anniversary of the start of station construction is coming up Nov. 20. You're finally on the verge of expanding to six crew members. What's the significance of the anniversary?

Griffin: We lost several years, of course, with the loss of Columbia and there have been other delays in the station program from the first and those are not good things. We need to do a better job of keeping our programs on schedule. But it is a a milestone. The station is a step toward permanent human occupancy in space. It's an outpost on the frontier as I've characterized it, that's what it really is. We'll do some good science, we'll learn a lot. But what it is, it's a step outward on the frontier.

We are aiming for a crew of six starting next year and I think we have a plan in place using the Russian Soyuz transportation system to get us through the gap between shuttle and Ares and Orion. And then, of course, there's also the possibility - and I would characterize it as a probability - that at some point, U.S. commercial human space transportation capability will show up and be available for purchase. And when it does, we will. So we've got some tough times coming up, we do, and I never want to minimize that. But we also have some amazing opportunities.

We're building a system that gives us the opportunity to get out again beyond low-Earth orbit, to go back to the moon, to put an Antarctic-style lunar base there that humans can staff permanently, to go to the more interesting near-Earth asteroids, to go to Mars. We have this opportunity now. Everybody talks about the retirement of the shuttle and the gap as problems. They are. But they are problems we can solve, we have a path to solving them and when we get through them, we have this enormous opportunity starting, you know, out around a decade from now, that I think everybody who loves the space program and the space business should just be thrilled about.

We have to show a little bit more than the average American capacity for deferred gratification. We Americans are not good at deferred gratification, about doing hard things today in order to get benefits tomorrow. When our back is against the wall, over and over again we've seen that there's no nation and no people like Americans to rally and win. But when we have to just slog along, yard by yard, through a difficult swamp to get where we want to go, that's harder for us. And that's what we need to do now. We don't have a crisis. We just have a lot of hard work in front of us to get the space program  back where it needs to be. We just need to keep that in mind.

CBS News: Are you satisfied with where the station is after 10 years?

Griffin: Satisfaction is something that has to take into account the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The space station has been the subject of a lot of political turmoil. We certainly had the greatest trauma you can have in the program when we lost Columbia. And still we managed to hang on to continued occupancy of the space station with the help of our Russian partners. And now we're going gangbusters building it, outfitting it, resupplying it and adding crew, all within the next few months. It's finally taking shape. We have a 500-ton facility that's in the last stages of taking shape on orbit, the most complex thing human beings have ever built. Yeah, I'm satisfied.

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Quick-Launch Web Links:

CBS News STS-126 Status Reports:
http://www.cbsnews.com/network/news/space/current.html

CBS News STS-126 Quick-Look Page:
http://www.cbsnews.com/network/news/space/currentglance.html

NASA ISS Expeditions Page:
http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/expeditions/index.html

NASA Shuttle Web: http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/shuttle/index.html
NASA Station Web: http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/station/index.html
Spaceflight Now: http://spaceflightnow.com/index.html
GoogleSatTrack: http://www.lizard-tail.com/isana/tracking/

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