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Michael Griffin
Griffin’s comments to date suggest that he may want to speed up the pace of the Vision for Space Exploration, potentially at the expense of the shuttle and ISS. (credit: JHUAPL)

Getting to know Michael Griffin

One of the seemingly infinite number of corollaries to Murphy’s Law is something to the effect of “If you’re waiting for a major announcement, it will come while you’re on vacation.” And, indeed, come Friday afternoon I was on a vacation of sorts, or at least out of the office—at Cape Canaveral awaiting the launch of an Atlas 5—when word filtered out, later confirmed by a White House announcement, that Michael Griffin would be nominated to be NASA administrator.

For those who follow the space industry, Griffin is a familiar figure, having hopped from position to position in government and commercial circles for years, most recently as head of the space department at the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University. (For those not familiar with the space field, though, Griffin is a relative unknown: the top entry in Google for “Michael Griffin” as of Sunday night was an escape artist who promises “½ intensley [sic] original magic, ½ impossible escapes”.) With a half-dozen advanced degrees, including a PhD in aerospace engineering, as well as a resume that includes stints at NASA as associate administrator for exploration during the ill-fated Space Exploration Initiative, Griffin seems uniquely qualified to be administrator. Indeed, one wonders why it took the White House three months to make a decision.

The news of Griffin’s nomination has been met with an all-but-unanimous chorus of praise from industry groups, advocacy organizations, and, most importantly in the immediate term, members of Congress, particularly senators who must confirm Griffin. The confirmation process is widely believed to be brisk, given the noncontroversial nature of the nomination, and may be wrapped up within a month.

“Of the possible venues of human activity beyond LEO, only the moon, Mars, and the nearer asteroids are within reach of the next few generations,” Griffin said in March 2004. “And that is where the President’s vision has directed us. It is the right path.”

The confirmation hearings will provide an opportunity for Griffin to speak for the record on the various issues NASA is facing, including his approach to the Vision for Space Exploration. However, Griffin has already spoken on these issues on a number of occasions in the last couple of years, including as a witness for several House and Senate hearings on space policy topics, ranging from the implementation of the vision to the threat posed by near Earth objects (NEOs). Those statements—combined with some degree of speculation—offer the picture of a man who is a strong supporter of the exploration vision, and one who might take a slightly more intense approach to implementing it.

Unabashed supporter

In October 2003 Griffin appeared before the full House Science Committee to discuss “The Future of Human Space Flight”. Griffin, calling himself “an unabashed supporter of space exploration in general, and of human space flight in particular,” laid out his vision for the future of NASA. His top-level approach was strikingly similar to what was already under development behind closed doors at NASA and the White House. “So, to me,” he said in his prepared remarks, “the proper sequence for exploration is the moon, then Mars, and then the asteroids.”

Griffin reiterated that point when he appeared before the same committee less than five months later as a witness for a hearing on the Vision for Space Exploration, where Griffin backed the general scope of the vision. “Of the possible venues of human activity beyond LEO, only the moon, Mars, and the nearer asteroids are within reach of the next few generations,” he said in his opening statement. “And that is where the President’s vision has directed us. It is the right path.”

While Griffin has praised the general goals of the vision, he was critical at the March 2004 hearing about how much some aspects of the plan would cost. Griffin estimated, based on the NASA budget documents available at the time, that the agency expected to spend $50–55 billion through 2020 to send humans back to the Moon. (The actual number is actually about $65 billion, according to more recent NASA and Congressional Budget Office figures.) Griffin argued in his testimony that this seemed “somewhat high”, asking, “Why we are expecting so little for the money which has been allocated?”

For the shuttle his assessment was blunt: “we should move to replace this system with all deliberate speed.”

He compared that cost with the estimated cost for an earlier human lunar exploration program, First Lunar Outpost (FLO), that Griffin had been involved with during his earlier stint at NASA during the dying phases of SEI. (See “The last lunar outpost”, The Space Review, March 15, 2004) He estimated that FLO would cost $30–33 billion in 2004 dollars ($25 billion in 1992 dollars), or about three-fifths of the cost of the current proposal. “It is difficult to understand why there should exist such a discrepancy between today’s estimates and those of a decade ago,” he said in his prepared testimony. Noting that the entire Apollo program cost $130 billion in current-year dollars, “It does not seem reasonable that 40% or more of this figure should be required to execute a single mission of a similar class today.”

Beware shuttle and station

One of the hallmarks of the Vision for Space Exploration is that it sets out a timetable for completing the ISS and retiring the shuttle, as well as eventually phasing out NASA participation in the station around the middle of the next decade, freeing up money to spend on exploration programs. In previous testimony, though, Griffin has made it clear that, if anything, he would like to speed up the timetable for these two projects.

In his October 2003 testimony, made nearly three months before the Vision’s unveiling, Griffin warned that without a significant budget increase for NASA—he proposed an additional five billion dollars a year to bring the agency’s annual budget to about $20 billion, or roughly 20 cents per day per taxpayer—“we will spend the next several years—probably a decade—working our way out of the Space Shuttle and International Space Station dilemmas, even proceeding as expeditiously as possible.” While he stated that NASA should complete the station to some degree to meet agreements with international partners, he warned that the scientific value of the station, particularly for exploration programs, “is inevitably limited.” For the shuttle his assessment was blunt: “we should move to replace this system with all deliberate speed.”

He revisited the utility of the ISS in his March 2004 testimony, noting that the station could be used to study the effects of microgravity on humans and as a testbed for technologies for use on lunar and Martian missions. However, he estimated that the cost of completing and operating the station through 2016—including the cost of the shuttle flights needed to complete assembly of the station—was $60 billion. “It is beyond reason to believe,” he concluded, “that ISS can help to fulfill any objective, or set of objectives, for space exploration that would be worth the $60 B remaining to be invested in the program.”

A similar conclusion was reached in “Extending Human Presence into the Solar System”, a study commissioned in 2004 by The Planetary Society and performed by a team led by Griffin and former astronaut Owen Garriott. That report called for retiring the shuttle fleet after reaching “US Core Complete” status on the station, which would require as few as six shuttle flights, plus “the smallest number of additional flights necessary” to meet international partnership requirements—as sum far less than the 28 shuttle flights currently on NASA’s manifest. Other ISS modules, the report argues, could be launched on other launch vehicles, while the money saved from retiring the shuttle early could be used to accelerate the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) effort.

Heavy lift and other launch options

In his various Congressional appearances, Griffin has made it clear that he is a strong proponent of developing some kind of new heavy-lift launch vehicle. “It may not be impossible to consider returning to the moon, or going to Mars, without a robust heavy-lift launch capability, but it is certainly silly,” he said in October 2003. “Our last Saturn V was launched thirty years ago, and while I do not necessarily advocate resurrecting an outdated design, this is the class of capability which is needed for the human space flight enterprise.”

“It may not be impossible to consider returning to the moon, or going to Mars, without a robust heavy-lift launch capability, but it is certainly silly,” Griffin said.

Griffin reiterated this viewpoint the following March, calling a heavy-lift launcher “the single most important physical asset enabling human exploration of the solar system.” He also indicated that some kind of shuttle-derived vehicle would be the most cost-effective near-term approach. The Planetary Society report also backed a shuttle-derived vehicle, in particular designs that use the shuttle’s external tank and solid rocker boosters, but place a cargo pod atop the external tank and mount a series of RS-68 engines underneath.

While Griffin is a backer of heavy lift, he does not ignore the need for smaller launchers that could carry cargo and crew. “We desperately need much more cost effective Earth-to-LEO transportation for payloads in the size range from a few thousand to a few tens of thousands of pounds,” he said in October 2003. “In my judgment, this is our most pressing need, for it controls a major portion of the cost of everything else that we do in space.”

Griffin made an identical comment in his March 2004 testimony, but added that “Again, shuttle-derived systems, particularly emphasizing use of the RSRB [Reusable Solid Rocket Booster], may offer a useful approach.” The Planetary Society report makes mention of such a vehicle, proposed by ATK Thiokol, that could be used to launch the CEV into orbit. (See “CEV: a different approach”, The Space Review, September 13, 2004)

In other testimony, Griffin has made it clear that he is not opposed to using EELV vehicles effectively unmodified from their current versions to launch crewed vehicles. In a May 2003 hearing by the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee on NASA’s Orbital Space Plane (OSP) program—a short-lived effort to develop a manned spacecraft that was superseded by the CEV—Griffin noted that the term “man rating” dated back to efforts in the 1950s and 1960s to modify ICBMs to carry capsules. “This involved a number of factors such as pogo suppression, structural stiffening, and other details not particularly germane to today’s expendable vehicles. The concept of ‘man rating’ in this sense is, I believe, no longer very relevant.”

He argued that EELVs and other expendable vehicles are already called upon to launch high-value unmanned payloads. “What, precisely, are the precautions that we would take to safeguard a human crew that we would deliberately omit when launching, say, a billion-dollar Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission?” he asked. “The answer is, of course, ‘none’. While we appropriately value human life very highly, the investment we make in most unmanned missions is quite sufficient to capture our full attention.”

The Atlas 5 and Delta 4 EELVs, he noted, have a specified design reliability of 98 percent, in line with experience with the premier expendable vehicles to date. If such a vehicle was used to launch a crewed spacecraft equipped with an escape system of just 90 percent reliability, he noted, the combined system would have a 1-in-500 chance of a fatal accident, “substantially better than for the Shuttle.”

Entrepreneurial expertise

One of the biggest questions NASA and industry has been wrestling with in recent years is how to best incorporate entrepreneurial space ventures—who often have innovative ideas but limited experience and capital—into the Vision for Space Exploration and other agency programs. While Griffin has not addressed this publicly, his experience bodes well for those who would like to see such ventures play a bigger role in NASA’s programs. After his earlier tour at NASA in the 1990s, he held several positions, including chief technical officer, at Orbital Sciences Corporation, arguably the most successful entrepreneurial space venture to date. He also served for a time on the board of directors of Ecliptic Enterprises, the California company best known for its RocketCam product.

Griffin believes that current ELVs are safe enough for crewed spacecraft. “While we appropriately value human life very highly, the investment we make in most unmanned missions is quite sufficient to capture our full attention.”

More importantly, though, was his role as president and chief operating officer of In-Q-Tel a few years ago. In-Q-Tel is a private company that effectively serves as the venture capital arm of the CIA, funding startups that are developing technologies that may prove useful for the intelligence community. This experience undoubtedly gives him a better appreciation of the capabilities and needs of entrepreneurial ventures. Interestingly, worked leaked out last fall that NASA was planning its own version of In-Q-Tel, called The Mercury Fund, but there has been no formal announcement to date of the fund’s existence.

Drawing conclusions and other risky habits

This incomplete portrait of the man set to be NASA’s next leader suggests that he is a strong proponent of the broad outlines, at the very least, of the Vision for Space Exploration. If anything, he seems interested in pushing the program forward at a faster pace that currently envisioned, perhaps by winding down the shuttle and station programs even faster to free up funding for exploration-related programs. Indeed, in his May 2003 testimony on OSP he seemed frustrated that the OSP might not enter operation until 2012: “If the OSP program requires more than five years—at the outside—from authorization to proceed until first flight, it is being done wrong.” In October 2003 he argued that with an extra $5 billion a year for NASA, the first manned lunar landings since Apollo could be accomplished within a decade.

However, what Griffin has said in the past from outside NASA may end up being different from what he says once ensconced within the administrator’s office at NASA Headquarters. Moreover, he will have to deal with competing forces, both within the agency and its field centers as well as from Congress and the White House, who may be less eager to implement any changes suggested from his past testimony. Griffin has also been silent in public on a number of key topics, such as servicing the Hubble Space Telescope; he will no doubt be asked about this during his confirmation hearing.

In his October 2003 hearing, Griffin addressed the question of why the US should fund human space exploration. He dismissed the “politically correct” answers of things like spinoffs and educational benefits in favor of a broader rationale. “What the U.S. gains from a robust, focused program of human space exploration is the opportunity to carry the principles and values of western philosophy and culture along with the inevitable outward migration of humanity into the solar system,” he said. Such an effort, he noted, would be similar to the influence the British Empire had because of its mastery of the seas. “Can America, through its mastery of human space flight, have a similar influence on the cultures and societies of the future, those yet to evolve in the solar system as well as those here on Earth? I think so, and I think our descendants will consider it to have been worth twenty cents per day.”