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Griffin: Moon, Mars Missions May Be Killed For Lack Of Will, Money; ‘Incredible Turmoil’ Of New President Arriving

By | May 26, 2008

      NASA Nightmare: Commercial Space Transport Industry Could Die At Birth If Small Ideas Prevail

      Space Agency Faces Continuing Budget Resolution That May Mean NASA Buying Power Is Cut, Programs Damaged; Hard Choices Unavoidable

      NASA may not be in the crosshairs, but it is at a crossroads, an existential tipping point where the space agency faces the likelihood of an effective after-inflation budget cut in the near term, and a far worse loss of hopes for journeys to the moon, Mars and beyond, a faint-hearted failure based on nothing more than small visions and penny pinching.

      That was the chilling picture that NASA Administrator Michael Griffin laid out, warning that everything valuable in the American space program is at stake and on the line, as the nation moves inexorably toward elections that will choose a new president with different visions for the United States as a spacefaring power. (Please see full transcript of his remarks in this issue.)

      His comments mean that NASA ultimately faces effective funding losses, even as its supporters attempt to add money for the space program to pending legislation, because it may never become law, at least not soon. (Please see full story in this issue.)

      Griffin spoke casually and candidly before a luncheon of the Washington Space Business Roundtable at the University Club in Washington, D.C., attended by space industry leaders and others he has known well for years. Because he hadn’t expected to speak before the group, he delivered extemporaneous remarks from notes hastily written on a small piece of paper.

      He assessed the bleak near-term budget outlook for NASA, the likely upheaval that it will face along with other agencies as the first new president in eight years enters the White House, and the far more serious and defining issue of just what purpose, if any, the U.S. space program will achieve in coming years and decades.

      But NASA clearly isn’t botching its assignment, or deserving of cuts because it achieves unpopular goals. Rather, the space agency is widely admired around the globe, and its successes are legion. Just yesterday, there was the spectacular blazing entry of the Phoenix Mars Lander into the red planet atmosphere for a harrowing but successful landing in an icy polar region. (Please see full story and picture of the landing in this issue.)

      His comments came as some lawmakers are casting about for federal programs to slash, either to get money to finance some new domestic programs, or to make it more likely that Congress can be persuaded to pass a new round of tax cuts going mainly to the wealthy, tax cuts that might mean the government would lose up to $6 trillion and more in revenues over the next decade.

      An Immediate Budget Threat

      NASA may be forced to cut or drop some programs, because of budget maneuvers, Griffin warned. Congress likely won’t pass fiscal legislation to finance NASA for the budget year ending Sept. 30, 2009, he said, and instead may just push through a continuing budget resolution that would, effectively, freeze NASA funding at the old levels in the current fiscal 2008.

      A major financial loss would occur especially if the continuing resolution runs for a full year, to the end of fiscal 2009, instead of only half a year.

      Griffin said he expects some sort of continuing resolution will be adopted. If so, after inflation, that level of financing would amount to a budget cut, a reduction in NASA buying power, meaning that some programs in the agency would be harmed.

      "And so we will be cutting the budget at NASA," he said. "And the only question is, how much."

      What it means is that everything NASA leaders planned to do, they will have to forgo some of that. "We have to pick and choose what we want to do," Griffin said. "And that means that for everything that we want to do, something else can’t get done."

      Turning philosophical, Griffin said this is part and parcel of living in a democratic society.

      "Presidential transition years are tough years," he observed. "And this tough year falls in the middle of a tough period for NASA and the space community. Not because it’s a presidential transition, but accompanying that is the high likelihood that we won’t have a presidentially approved budget this year, either from a new president or from an old president.

      "We will likely have a continuing resolution going into the next year almost certainly, most people tell me, and I agree that that is the highly likely case. And the question is whether it will be for six months or a full year. So any time that you have a continuing resolution in an economy with inflation in it, it is essentially a budget cut."

      Unavoidably, all of this will mean significant upheaval for the U.S. space program, he indicated.

      "So it’s a time of incredible turmoil at NASA," he said. "But we know before we start that we’re arguing about the difference between bad and worse — not between good and better."

      There is no way to avoid the hard fact that some programs will be harmed, he explained.

      "A presidential transition is not a fun time. A continuing resolution is not a fun time. There will be damage. It will be unintended damage, but there will be damage. It’s part of the collateral damage of having a free and open democracy, of the kind we’re all glad we have because the alternatives are worse."

      For those in the space industry and the space community, there will be pain as well, he indicated. But he strongly counseled them against blindly grabbing for everything, in an every-man-for-himself panic. Rather, they should hang together lest they hang separately.

      Playing the unpopular role of delivering bad news, Griffin leveled with the luncheon crowd.

      "No one of you is going to get all of the goals that you want implemented in any civil space policy that the nation can afford to buy, and certainly not one which is going to fall out of the budgetary consequences as we cope with a presidential transition and a congressional continuing resolution over the next year or so," he warned.

      "So I think we have to decide — and we have to actually think about it and decide — that the benefits of, I’ll say, cohering together outweigh the benefits of trying to strike out in a unique direction, in a Lone Ranger mode, and hoping for the best."

      Moon, Mars Missions Imperiled

      Turning to the much longer-term view, NASA may become irrelevant if U.S. leaders lack the will to support — with real money — the current vision of venturing to the moon for visits, then establishing a manned outpost on the moon, and then journeying to Mars.

      While a pending reauthorization bill is well as far as it goes, it doesn’t go far enough, and that raises a question as to whether NASA will be able to go far enough, beyond the confines of low Earth orbit, Griffin indicated.

      The question now is, will the United States find the funds, the force of will and the leadership to make lunar and Mars missions a reality?

      This must be a time, Griffin indicated, for those with policymaking powers to screw their courage to the sticking place, if the United States is to remain a leader in exploring the heavens.

      His comments come as NASA faces critical years, including the loss of its manned space transport program for half a decade. The space shuttles are mandated to retire by October 2010, and the next-generation U.S. spaceship won’t see its first manned flight until 2015, if all goes well on schedule. That is a yawning gap, years of idleness and drift.

      "Would I like that to be a lot less? I would," Griffin said. "I think everybody in this room would." But that isn’t how reality stacks up. "So we’re at 2015. Could get worse, in the face of funding challenges."

      Just how much later than 2015 the first Orion-Ares manned mission might fly, he didn’t speculate. His comments came as some lawmakers are attempting to scrape up $2 billion to make that liftoff happen two years sooner, in 2013, efforts that so far haven’t met with success.

      Much more disturbing to Griffin than the gap in space travel capabilities would be for the United States to lose its grit and determination, and abandon any hope of venturing to the moon and Mars, with the nation slumping into a second-rank status as a former space leader.

      "If we adopt lesser goals, that means drop the moon, again, as was done in the early 1970s," Griffin said. "Actually, in the late 1960s, when President Nixon decided that he’d had enough of Apollo. If we drop the moon, we get the kinds of space transportation architecture solutions to replace the shuttle that some have espoused: put simple capsules on top of EELV, and just fly with what you’ve got, and fly back and forth to the station."

      Such a come-down, Griffin indicated, is utterly uninspiring and inadequate.

      "If we decide to abandon our goals of an outward-focused program going once again beyond low Earth orbit, and for temporary financial exigency optimizing again for low Earth orbit, even if we’re successful, what will we have done?" he asked. "We will have designed another system for low Earth orbit. Well, the shuttle’s better than that, and you don’t have to invest any nonrecurring engineering [funds] to do it."

      He implored U.S. leaders not to condemn the space program to such a dismal fate.

      "Let’s not … in face of temporary exigency, when the going gets tough, let’s not re-optimize for low Earth orbit," he argued. "What is the point? Because when we do that, we give up two things, both of which are very important to me: Thing One, which I just spoke of, is we give up for the United States an outward-focused program where we go new places, do new things, and one day eventually create new places and create new societies in our future. That’s what we do, as a people. We give that up [if we surrender the vision of going to the moon and Mars]. I don’t want to give that up."

      At the same time, such a short-sighted, wanting decision also would spell an end to the newly nascent U.S. commercial space industry.

      "The Other Thing that we give up if we, the government, optimize another transportation system for low Earth orbit, is, we give up on the engine of capitalism," Griffin explained. "Because, in the NASA architecture that’s out there today, and we’re busily trying to implement with contracts that are running hard — contractors that are running hard, sorry — that [Orion-Ares] architecture optimizes for the moon. It’s really pretty good for the moon. [It can] be used in low Earth orbit, just like Apollo could be used for Skylab, but it’s by no means optimized for low Earth orbit. Now, from where I sit, that’s a good thing.

      "Why is that a good thing? If we have to use it to service the space station, because we’re sure as hell not going to abandon a $100 billion space station and have no means of U.S. government access to it. But we’ve deliberately — and it was deliberate — left open the first run of space transportation, which is crew transportation to low Earth orbit and cargo transportation to low Earth orbit, we’ve left that run open for commercial entities.

      "We’ve left it open to the engine of capitalism, in which I completely and firmly believe.

      "Nothing that the government can do will be done as efficiently as industry can do it, if it lies within the state of the art, and by that I mean the business picture has to close as well as the technical picture. If it lies within the state of the art, industry will do it better, and more efficiently. We do not make efficient decisions in government, we make fair decisions, or we try very hard to do that. Government is optimized for fairness.

      "So, if we give up on the moon, and we restrict ourselves to low Earth orbit, we lose two things: we lose the ability to engage the engine of capitalism in letting industry fill in the niche that the government will again have filled by creating an Earth-orbit-only specific transportation system, and we lose our future. And I don’t want to lose either one of those two things."

      Griffin closed by telling the audience that NASA is caught in a gamble of the highest stakes, where all could be lost in a wrong, and wrong-headed, decision.

      "So in the face of difficulties that we certainly will incur in a transition year … if we allow temporary exigency to cause us to make short-sighted decisions, we will lose a lot. And I would urge all of us to keep that in mind."

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