The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Michael Griffin
NASA administrator Michael Griffin is facing some difficult choices in the months ahead. (credit: JHUAPL)

Mike Griffin’s choice

The surprise appointment of Mike Griffin to be the NASA Administrator has produced the equivalent of an earthquake inside NASA, the space industry, and the larger space community. His desire to speed up the design and development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) and the fact that he raised the possibility of flying the Hubble servicing mission and of reengaging NASA in hypersonic flight research by continuing to fund work on the X-43C program has delighted any number of space advocates, inside and outside the government. The choice of the CEV design and mission architecture that will take Americans back to the Moon is the most important one the new administrator will face.

Unlike his two predecessors, he joined NASA at a moment in time when the space program has been given a clear direction. The Vision for Space Exploration gives him a clear strategic direction: it will be up to him to make the decisions that will either turn the vision into a successful series of missions leading to a permanent human presence in the solar system or will lead to yet another failed NASA program. By getting rid of the complex, expensive, and unreliable “roadmap” process he has made a good start at really changing the culture at the agency.

It looks like Griffin is getting ready to make the critical decisions himself, with only the support of a few senior staff members. This is in contrast to the careful system of committees and study groups used by his predecessor. Sean O’Keefe was not a “space guy”; Mike Griffin most emphatically is one. In fact, he is one of the few NASA administrators in the history of the agency who is anywhere near technically qualified to make choices about hardware. This is going to be risky, for him and for the Vision, but it will save a lot of time and money.

Sean O’Keefe was not a “space guy”; Mike Griffin most emphatically is one.

A good example of this new style was reported by Frank Morring Jr. in the May 2nd edition of Aviation Week. According to the magazine, the systems engineering and integration work on the Constellation Exploration Systems program will be handled by NASA itself. This is a big vote of confidence in the agency’s workforce. It insures that critical skills and information will be entirely controlled by NASA. Properly handled it will also allow NASA to keep a close eye on system cost growth. There are dangers to this approach. Does NASA have enough employees with enough experience and knowledge to accomplish the job? Is the agency ready to take 100% of the blame for accidents and cost overruns?

Speeding up the process will require shaking things up. NASA’s complex interlocking sets of directorate objectives and its legally-binding budget imperatives have in the past forced the agency to make some pretty counterproductive decisions. For example, according to an August 2000 ISS assembly plan, the Crew Rescue Vehicle (CRV), based on the X-38, would have docked to the International Space Station in December of 2005. The resemblance between the CRV and some designs for the CEV is not an accident.

If the CRV had not been canceled due to budget considerations in 2001, the US would be looking a different and much more comfortable set of options for both ISS servicing and for exploration. CRV was canceled over the objections of then Congressman from Houston Nick Lampson because the ISS as a whole was going wildly over budget. Instead of going to Congress and making the case for more money or for reprogramming funds from other NASA programs, O’Keefe felt he had no choice but to cancel the CRV and the X-38 demonstrator. If he had been able to keep the program going on minimal life support, it might have been ready to be revived in a big way after the Columbia disaster.

If it works Griffin will be a hero and Bush will be remembered for picking a gutsy visionary to be administrator. If he fails then NASA will have lost its last chance to survive in its present form.

Mike Griffin may be in a position to avoid such painful and wasteful decisions due to the efforts of Sean O’Keefe to get NASA unprecedented “Freedom to Manage” authority. This allows the Administrator to move small relatively sums from one program or account to another. The rigid budget rules which plague many of NASA’s technology development efforts may have just enough “give” in them to avoid the problems which have doomed so many promising projects. If this authority is overused, Congress will quickly take it away, but if Mike Griffin uses it wisely he will set a precedent for DoD or other government agencies where a small bit of flexibility could pay off big time.

The next two big dates for the exploration program are going to be in July and probably January. In July Griffin will have the “Exploration Systems Architecture Study” in hand and will use it to set the basic requirements for the CEV. Sometime next winter the CEV’s design will be chosen. If this plan is carried out there will be no 2008 flyoff between competing designs: instead the winner will immediately begin work on the operational CEV. If all goes will NASA could fly one to the ISS in 2010 or 2011.

For the moment Mike Griffin’s courage and his ambition are driving NASA towards a return to the Moon sooner rather than later. He is taking risks and stepping on some toes. If it works he’ll be a hero and Bush will be remembered for picking a gutsy visionary to be administrator. If he fails then NASA will have lost its last chance to survive in its present form. A lot is riding on the decisions Mike Griffin is going to be making in the next few months. He is going to need all the brains and luck he can muster.