The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

NASA administrator Mike Griffin spoke at EAA AirVenture last week and took time to meet with some of the younger show attendees. (credit: E. Hedman)

Michael Griffin at Oshkosh

Several years ago I first heard the saying in regards to sports, “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up.” The difference between cockiness and confidence is the chance to prove it. At the EAA AirVenture 2008 show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Michael Griffin exuded confidence that NASA will be successfully resolving the vibration problems with the Ares 1 launcher. Speaking on the fiftieth anniversary of President Eisenhower signing the legislation creating NASA, Michael Griffin answered many questions on NASA from an audience of very interested aviation and space enthusiasts, including my question on the vibration problems facing the Ares 1 design.

Griffin was emphatic that the thrust osciallation problems with the Ares 1 can be solved and would be happy if they were the worst problems that they run into during development.

For those of you who are unaware of the EAA AirVenture fly-in that happens every summer in Oshkosh, it is in my opinion the premier air show in the country. It has an estimated attendance over its week-long run of 700,000. For one week each year it has people arriving from all over the world to celebrate flight and the creativity involved in developing every kind of flying machine under the sun. The aircraft displayed and demoed range from experimental homebuilt kits to this year’s exhibition of the F-22 Raptor and aircraft from the Rocket Racing League. The pioneers of flight are drawn every year to this almost instinctive seasonal migration, along with flight enthusiasts of every kind. It is fitting that Michael Griffin would come to this venue to speak on such a major anniversary of NASA.

Michael Griffin’s presentation at AirVenture covered a wide range of topics about NASA and included many questions from the audience. He treated this as an event to present information in a way that would interest all members of the audience from experienced pilots to space enthusiasts to reporters and, especially, to the children in the audience in a manner I saw as typical throughout the EAA show.

My first question to him was how confident is he that the vibration and payload problems in the Constellation architecture can be solved. He was emphatic that they can be solved and would be happy if they were the worst problems that they run into during development. He explained that the vibration problem is expected to be only during the last five seconds of the burn of the first stage. He also said that the amplitude of the vibrations being talked about is the worst case that is probably five or six times what they will actually be. He said that “next month” (referring to August) that they will have a meeting to pursue the two best options to mitigate the vibration problem of the half-dozen ideas they are looking at. He never did address the payload issue in my question.

During his speech he talked quite a bit about how NASA has to live within a tight budget in the current environment of little or no growth in spending. He did point out that the current environment, while not one of spending growth, is better than the regular declines in spending under the previous administration. He kept coming back to the theme of budget restrictions every time he was asked about why there isn’t more spending in areas such as robotic exploration, aeronautics, and environmental research. He did point out that even with the restricted budget NASA does the vast bulk of the research done around the globe in climate change. He was also asked what he would do if NASA’s budget was doubled. He said that he would accelerate the return to the Moon and start moving on to Mars and fund some of the programs that have been cut back.

I asked if he would like to continue on into the next administration to oversee the programs he has started. He pointed out that for a position like his where he serves at the pleasure of the President it is traditional to offer a resignation when the new President takes office so he can bring in a replacement, if he so desires. He said that he would continue if the next president wants to continue the VSE and would continue to give him the free hand to run the agency that President Bush has within a budget limit. He did point out that, contrary to press reports, the Bush administration has not interfered with political appointments on staffing. He said that he wanted control of who was on his staff because he doesn’t want to work with “idiots” (and he did use the word “idiots”).

Griffin said that he would continue if the next president wants to continue the VSE and would continue to give him the free hand to run the agency that President Bush has within a budget limit.

After the presentation he was asked in a press conference about flying the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, an ISS experiment currently without a shuttle ride, an issue Congress is dealing with now. He pointed out that if Congress authorizes NASA to fly it, it means nothing if they don’t appropriate money to fly it. I personally would like to see the AMS fly because I do think it would provide very useful scientific information. He also made a comment when questioned about advanced technology for propulsion that he would like to see Franklin Chang-Diaz’s VASIMR engine test on the ISS to see how it works in space, something I have long been in favor of. We need to know if it’s a viable technology for speeding up flight on long duration missions including manned trips to Mars.

During his presentation he made a comment that in our current political environment that it is politically unacceptable to try to develop risky technology that has a high potential payback, but a lower chance of success. I have to wonder how this colors his judgment on the Constellation architecture and gambling on COTS to resupply the ISS. With the latest failure of the SpaceX’s Falcon 1, it may be at times a prudent thing to wait for proof of capabilities before fully committing to some concepts. At other times a high risk with a potential for high rewards is in order. I left the presentation with the impression that Michael Griffin is a bright individual with a passion for what he’s doing. I don’t always agree with his decisions, but that would be the case with anybody likely to hold his job. Somebody has to make the decisions he’s making and nobody will ever agree with all of them. Hopefully he will be lucky when he gambles and prudent when it is wise to be prudent. I left the presentation optimistic that NASA is moving forward and will be in better shape then when he started. It was apparent to me that Michael Griffin believes he’s charting the best path he knows for NASA. Only time will tell how successful it will be.