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Griffin Sees No Huge NASA Funding Rise; Program Cutbacks Seen

By | January 15, 2007

      NASA can’t expect any huge funding increases, and instead will have to find areas to cut and ways to perform the space mission with more intelligence and efficiency, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said.

      He also said NASA may make greater use of commercial space services as that nascent industry develops.

      “We’re looking for money for the agency,” Griffin told a breakfast meeting of the Space Transportation Association at a congressional office building on Capitol Hill.

      But he said the reality is that there won’t be any cash cornucopia for the space agency, and that means that finding funds for missions such as the vision of creating a base on the moon or expeditions to Mars and beyond will mean trimming other areas of NASA spending.

      “Large sums of additional money are unlikely for NASA,” Griffin said.

      President Bush will unveil the administration plan for all government agencies in the federal budget covering the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2008, which the White House Office of Management and Budget will release on Monday, Feb. 5.

      Space officials will see that they have to make do with available funds, and stretch them ever further, creating efficiencies, he said.

      “We simply need to do less,” Griffin said, meaning that areas of lesser importance must be jettisoned in favor of financing critical programs.

      And more generally, he said, NASA must “reduce labor cost, unless we all want to work for lower salaries.” Griffin didn’t say how many jobs might be eliminated or personnel reassigned, or where.

      But reassignment may well be in the cards, with the NASA chief criticizing past moves that “allocate people into tasks” that are of lesser import, rather than into critical efforts.

      Another way to trim costs is in the way NASA deals with the industry, he said.

      The space agency must reduce the tendency to make requests of contractors that mean NASA winds up having to pay them more money, Griffin indicated.

      NASA shouldn’t micromanage designs of systems, a tendency that can drive up costs, he said. “We need to overcome this habit,” he said.

      Another expensive habit is wanting new and unproven technology in each program, rather than using tried-and-proven technology from earlier programs, he said. “When a delay is incurred because of immature technology” that must first be developed before a program can proceed, that inflates the bottom-line cost, he indicated.

      “We should temper our optimism” about new technologies, he said, borrowing a term from former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan by calling such unwarranted optimism “irrational exuberance.” New technologies should be developed for a program only where existing technologies are inadequate, he said.

      It would be better, he suggested, to offer more flexibility to contractors, with a parallel increase in responsibility of contractors to produce results. “Why can’t NASA simply hand requirements over” and expect the resultant systems to work as specified? he asked.

      As well, he criticized programs that fall behind schedule and create costly slowdowns.

      A program without schedule discipline has no discipline, he added.

      And he said some cash outlays such as expenses for glossy brochures may not move NASA toward realizing its critical goals.

      Griffin also sees current NASA procurement processes as not working well. In viewing “traditional government procurement mechanisms” set forth in the Federal Acquisition Regulations, or FAR, Griffin asked, “How did we get into this mess, and how do we” get out of it?

      Generally, he added, he opposes sole-source procurements, though sometimes it may be unavoidable. Griffin termed sole-source pacts “a tool to be used judiciously.”

      On the topic of commercial space services, Griffin expressed admiration for pioneer Burt Rutan and his SpaceShipOne craft.

      On October 4, 2004, SpaceShipOne became the first private manned spacecraft to exceed an altitude of 328,000 feet twice within two weeks, thus claiming the ten million dollar Ansari X-Prize.

      Pilot Brian Binnie flew the craft to 367,442 feet, or 69.6 miles above the Earth’s surface.

      Griffin noted that such a craft can perform but so much. For example, it couldn’t fly interplanetary missions, or lift huge loads such as the space shuttle fleet.

      But he expressed great admiration for Rutan and SpaceShipOne, and said NASA might contract with such private enterprises for some work, such as providing suborbital experiments, or astronaut training, or weightlessness training for pilots. This may not occur imminently, however, he cautioned.

      He aims “to create a viable commercial space industry,” he said. “I do believe the time has come” for NASA to invest in that industry, even though that investment may carry some risk.

      On a larger level, though, “our number-one priority is to complete” the International Space Station “and fly the [space] shuttle fleet safely.”

      As well, he is focused on pressing forward with development of the Ares next-generation space transportation hardware for NASA. The Ares and Orion programs will permit astronauts to venture far beyond the bonds of Earth.

      Griffin, who took office in 2005, said he wishes to leave behind a “sensible architecture … of how we would get to Mars.”

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