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Griffin: U.S. Space Program May Lose Leadership On The High Frontier

By | April 7, 2008

      His Warning Sounded As European Robotic Cargo Spaceship Automatically Docks At International Space Station; Griffin Hails Europe As ‘Full-Fledged Space Power’

      Mikulski Renews Efforts To Add $1 Billion NASA Recovery Fund, But Other Lawmakers Seek Funding Cuts In Agency Programs; Spaceship Exploration Program May Face Funding Reductions

      The top leader of America’s space program said it faces "a silent Sputnik" in which it stands to lose long-held leadership in space, even as other nations set forth into the void with ever-greater capabilities.

      That comment referred to the Oct. 4, 1957, Soviet Union launch of Sputnik, the first satellite, an event that demonstrated, shockingly, just how far behind the Soviets the United States had fallen.

      NASA Administrator Michael Griffin last week sounded the tocsin, telling Congress, "I am concerned that our nation is now facing a silent Sputnik, [at] a moment when many other countries are racing for a new high ground of innovation." (Please see transcript of Griffin’s remarks in this issue.)

      While he said he wishes always to believe that the greatest days of the United States lie ahead, "this optimism is misplaced, unless we recognize our problems, confront them, and strive with concerted energy to fix them." He indicated he doesn’t wish NASA, as it celebrates its half-century anniversary, to enter its sunset years and watch the rest of the world pass it by.

      Yes, space programs to explore the nether realm are expensive. Yes, it costs money.

      But Griffin painted this as a Shakespearean moment, a time to screw one’s courage to the sticking-place, the moment of truth, for all those in the space program, and those who decide whether or not to support it.

      His message to Congress: "We need your help. We face many challenges at NASA, but I believe the greatest of these is the need to maintain a determined and unified sense of purpose as we pursue the tasks before us." That parallels findings of some outside reviews, which find that one of the items most needed by NASA isn’t some piece of metal, some space hardware, but rather a constant and dependable funding for the agency, year after year, in every successive annual budget, rather than having programs face unpredictable and chaotic fiscal swings from plenty to poverty.

      "Space exploration is not for the faint of heart," Griffin said. "It is not for those who are easily distracted. It is not for those who require instant gratification."

      There is a palpable possibility that without solid, enduring financial support, NASA may be eclipsed, slipping into the shadows of rising space giants abroad.

      To underline his assessment that other nations are about to loft ever more ambitious forays into the vast, open realm, Griffin noted admiringly that just in this year alone, Europe has emerged as a spacefaring nation of the first rank. He pronounced the Europeans, and the European Space Agency, "a full-fledged space power."

      Not only is a European ground control station now commanding a European Columbus laboratory newly attached to the International Space Station, but even at the moment Griffin spoke on Capitol Hill, Europe scored its first automatic docking of the robotic Jules Verne Automated Transfer Vehicle cargo ship with the space station.

      Griffin said he just had been informed that "the European ATV just successfully docked with the space station," which was "a first for any nation other than Russia." Until now, the only robotic freighter spaceship has been the expendable Russian Progress.

      Separately, U.S. rival China has achieved manned space flight and sent a lunar satellite to orbit the moon. That is a prelude to an expected Chinese move to send a manned mission to the moon, with taikonauts walking on the dusty lunar surface, by the end of the next decade, perhaps before U.S. astronauts make their own lunar mission. And India and Japan have ambitious space programs as well.

      Meanwhile, NASA faces half a decade in which the only way it will be able to get astronauts off the surface of the Earth is in an airplane. NASA will be completely dependent upon hitching rides with others, even for something as modest as astronauts and supplies going to the space station, an artificial moon that was built in large part with U.S. money, using the big brawn of U.S. space shuttles. NASA will be grounded, from the retirement of the space shuttle fleet in October 2010 until the March 2015 first manned flight of the next-generation U.S. spaceship Orion, powered by an Ares rocket.

      Griffin made his frank, heartfelt comments in lieu of a prepared speech dealing with minute details of the NASA budget request for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2009, as the Senate Appropriations Committee commerce, justice, science and related agencies subcommittee considered how much money to provide space agency programs.

      $1 Billion Battle Begins Anew

      Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), chairing the subcommittee hearing, announced she will press once again to add $1 billion to the NASA budget to reimburse the agency for the enormous costs it funded out of pocket to return the space shuttle fleet to flight after the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy, in which the ship and crew of seven were lost during reentry.

      Last year, she and key bipartisan allies succeeded in adding the $1 billion to the fiscal 2008 NASA funding measure in the subcommittee, full committee and Senate floor action, only to see it dropped from the final bill crafted by a House-Senate conference committee. She is joined in her renewed attempt to gain passage of the $1 billion provision this year by the ranking Republican on her appropriations subcommittee, Sen. Richard Shelby of Arkansas, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), a longtime ally in the fight.

      Mikulski, an indomitable and tireless champion of the space agency, said President Bush’s budget proposals for NASA have consistently omitted critical funding that would be required to realize his vision of returning to space, and then continuing on to the moon, Mars and beyond.

      His $17.6 billion proposed fiscal 2009 NASA budget short-changes many programs, failing to keep pace with inflation, Mikulski said.

      Yet even as she and Griffin warned of financial problems facing NASA, lawmakers were meeting on the other side of Capitol Hill.

      The House Science and Technology Committee space and aeronautics subcommittee weighed NASA exploration programs, and lawmakers told Richard Gilbrech, associate NASA administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, that NASA must list its programs in order of priority, to help indicate to the legislators where the NASA budget can be cut.

      The exploration program includes the Constellation Program to develop the Orion-Ares U.S. spaceship. Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] leads companies developing Orion, while various sections of the Ares rocket are being developed by The Boeing Co. [BA], ATK, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne (a United Technologies Corp. [UTX] unit), and others.

      To be sure, NASA drew support and some views on the House side similar to those voiced by Mikulski.

      Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), the House subcommittee chairman, said NASA isn’t given nearly enough money to complete all of the myriad assignments heaped upon it, including exploration programs such as Orion-Ares.

      "From the beginning, NASA’s exploration initiative has suffered from chronic underfunding, with a once-in-a-generation project to develop a new space transportation system shoehorned into a NASA budget that in some years hasn’t even kept pace with inflation," Udall said.

      That lack of money has harmed many NASA initiatives, including hoped-for research and technology development that will be required if the Orion-Ares program is to produce anything more than an old Apollo program on steroids, Udall indicated.

      So, he said, "a good number of my [House] colleagues agree with me that we should be investing more in NASA." But, he added, "there isn’t necessarily a consensus on what those funds should be used to accomplish."

      Udall endorsed providing solid funding for the Orion-Ares and other exploration programs, saying, "I think exploration is a worthwhile endeavor, and I support it."

      He added that other NASA programs in aeronautics and science also "must be better supported than they have been."

      That would tend to indicate that the total NASA budget should be increased, and Udall said he hopes that the next U.S. president, who will be elected in November, will do just that.

      Orion-Ares May Face Cuts

      But if the next president doesn’t do any better in supporting exploration programs such as Orion-Ares than Bush has, then those programs will face the budget ax, perhaps in the form of a program slowdown or stretch-out. If NASA funding isn’t increased, "then the pace of exploration is going to have to be adjusted to ensure that NASA’s other important activities do not wind up being cannibalized," Udall said.

      He also stressed that NASA must control costs and prioritize its programs, promising that lawmakers will "take a hard look at what it’s going to take to make the exploration initiative both sustainable and worth the money."

      At the hearing, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) official testified that the Orion-Ares program has substantial problems that pose risks to its being able to meet cost and schedule criteria. (Please see separate story in this issue.)

      At first, Orion will go to low Earth orbit, and will visit the space station. Later, by the end of the next decade, the spaceship will orbit the moon, deploying an Altair lander vehicle that will descend to the lunar surface, where astronauts will visit briefly.

      Later, perhaps, the United States might establish a permanent encampment on the moon, possibly in the mid- or late-2020s.

      Whether future American leaders then will summon the will to make a further immense investment that would be required for a manned mission to Mars is a point that experts have debated ever since Bush in 2004 proposed such a voyage in his State of the Union address, where he unveiled his vision of solar system exploration, going to the moon, Mars and beyond.

      One skeptic here is Mikulski. The powerful senator blasted Bush for proposing his vision, and assigning NASA to follow through on it, without providing the space agency with the funding required for that daunting project.

      "We [members of Congress] are cranky," Mikulski said. "We feel like we’re being set up. A promise was made to go to Mars, but no money was given to us" in the annual NASA budget proposals that Bush has sent to Congress for approval. "Show me the money," she challenged the president.

      Griffin said he would welcome international participation with the United States in lunar or Martian expeditions.

      While he didn’t say so, that would mean that other nations could help defray the expense of the huge mission, meaning Congress wouldn’t have to provide as many dollars to fund NASA.

      Udall said he wants to ensure that any lunar mission doesn’t require such huge funding that it would harm other NASA program goals. He also isn’t galvanized by the thought that other nations might overshadow the United States, arguing that the United States won the space race 40 years ago, for all time, by placing men on the moon.

      "Instead, I think we need to be reaching out to fashion a new, internationally cooperative approach to exploration," Udall said.

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