Griffin not optimistic about new deal to buy Soyuz rides
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: September 4, 2008
Movement on a legislative exemption that would allow NASA to buy seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft past 2011 is at a virtual standstill, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin says. Because of the three-year lead time needed to build Soyuz vehicles, contracts must be in place by early 2009 to avoid an interruption in NASA's presence on board the international space station. But in an interview with CBS News on Thursday, Griffin said he is not optimistic any such legislation will be approved in the wake of Russia's invasion of Georgia and that it's now likely the U.S. segment of the station will have to be unmanned for at least some portion of 2012.
Griffin said the problem is "very serious. We have been literally working this issue all year long. I need a contract vehicle in place by early '09 if we are to fly American and international partners on Soyuz in early '12."
Under the terms of an exemption to the Iran-North Korea-Syria Non-Proliferation Act, which forbids U.S. purchase of high technology goods from Russia, NASA has been able to buy Soyuz seats for U.S. and international astronauts. NASA relies on the Russian spacecraft to occasionally carry astronauts to and from the space station and to provide emergency return capability.
NASA also is counting on using Soyuz seats to bridge the five-year gap between the end of shuttle operations in 2010 and the debut of the shuttle's replacement, the Orion/Ares vehicle, in 2014 or 2015. The current exemption expires at the end of 2011 and new legislation must be approved within the next few weeks - and contracts in place by early next year - to prevent an interruption in NASA's on-board presence.
"Where it stands is right now," Griffin said of the exemption, "it's dead stalled. Because there's no legislation which is going to come out of the Congress, other than the continuing resolution package, before they recess to go home for elections. And so right now, we're just on dead stop. And of course, the invasion of Georgia didn't help.
"So here's what will happen. The first and most obvious possibility is there won't be any American or international partners on the space station after Dec. 31 of 2011. That's a possibility. Another possibility is that we will be told to continue flying shuttle and we would be given extra money to do so, in which case our Ares and Orion could be kept on track and we would no longer have a dependence on Russia.
"A third possibility is we could be told to keep flying shuttle, not be given any extra money, in which case we don't get Ares and Orion anytime soon and we still have a gap, it's just further out in time. All right? And all of these things ignore the fact that flying shuttle does not ameliorate in truth our dependence upon the Russians because we still need them for crew rescue. So if we continue to fly shuttle, either we're flying without crew rescue capability, in other words putting crew on station and then leaving them there without a way to get home in an emergency, which we have never done, or our tenure on station is only during the two weeks you get when the shuttle visits a couple of times a year."
Asked if he has any optimism a waiver can be in place in time to avoid a gap in U.S. space station operations, Griffin said simply, "no."
"My own guess is at this point we're going to have some period in 2012 where there's no American or international partner crew on station, that there's only the Russians there," he said. "That period always ends three years from when we have a contract with the Russians. So if we can get through all this by June of next year and have a contract with the Russians, then in the latter part of 2012 we can fly a Soyuz flight and restore things to normal."
Along with clouding the prospects for the long-sought exemption, the Russia-Georgia conflict prompted Griffin to order a review of what would be required to keep space shuttles flying past 2010 if Congress or the next president ordered a change of course for American space policy.
Here is a transcript of Griffin's conversation with CBS Space Analyst William Harwood (questions have been edited for length):
Q: You are the man who reinstated the upcoming Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission. You must be excited to see the flight finally get here. The history of Hubble is almost like reading "The Perils of Pauline."
Griffin: Well, it is. I would say the team brought it back from the dead. It WAS dead, it was off the books. But in the end, I think the right thing was done and I'm real pleased about that.
Q: If the astronauts are successful, Hubble will be in better shape than it's ever been in, with five instruments, new gyros and new batteries. Really, it'll be a new telescope, more capable than it's ever been.
Griffin: Without a doubt, I mean, by far. The technology has evolved in the 25 years since the basic design was completed. Remember, this was originally supposed to fly in 1986 and so it was completed, essentially all done in the early '80s and upgraded several times. But compared to the original instruments, it shares the name (only).
Q: What is your sense of Hubble's legacy? is this the most scientifically productive spacecraft of all time?
Griffin: Well, it's certainly up there. When you start talking about 'the most scientifically valuable,' well you know, COBE and WMAP, measuring the cosmic background and establishing that the irregularities in the earlier universe were just the right size, neither too big nor too small, to produce the galaxy structure we see today, that's pretty important. When you talk about detecting gamma ray bursters and understanding high energy processes in the universe, that's pretty important. In certain ways, it gets hard to say what's THE most important. But if you want to measure long-term productivity, it's Hubble at the tape.
Q: But it's probably safe to say nothing rivals Hubble in its public recognition.
Griffin: There's nothing like a picture for people to see. Now you know, the pictures also contain very crucial, detailed and important scientific information, but they're also stunning. I made the point in a recent speech in Florida, over in Pensacola, that Hubble is the only thing I can think of whose products hang on the walls of art museums and are also on the pages of scientific journals. I mean, I can't think of another one.
Q: You decided early on to have a second shuttle ready to take off on a rescue mission if something happened to the Hubble crew's orbiter. In hindsight, now that you have tested heat shield inspection and repair techniques in hand, was that overkill? Do you really need that capability?
Griffin: Statistically speaking, even then, we knew and I knew that it is not necessary. In fact, the odds that we have are higher than 1-in-400. So 1-in-400 and some that we would have a problem on the Hubble shuttle that another shuttle could save you from, whereas the overall odds on the loss of crew on the shuttle are something like 1-in-75 to 1-in-80 is our best estimate currently. If you were to launch 400 and some Hubble missions, once in every six failures would be a failure that the rescue shuttle could save you from. You with me on that? OK, so that's what the statistics mean.
Most of the failures that are going to get you are not something that the launch-on-need shuttle will save you from. So specifically, six out of seven of them it won't save you from. So on a purely technical basis, yes, it's overkill. But you know, I was raised in the south and as a boy I first heard the saying 'you know, son, sometimes you have to rise above principle.' And sometimes you have to rise above technical truth. And the deeper truth is if I elected to conduct a launch where we didn't have the launch on need, especially at the time I made the decision, I would have caused people to question the agency's processes, the agency's decision making, I would have caused a distraction that would have had, I think, a negative value much greater than the money and the time we're having to spend to get the launch on need shuttle ready.
I did make the final call on the launch-on-need shuttle and not everybody agreed, frankly, because we did have the numbers. But it is also of value to have our stakeholders believing that the decisions of the agency are being made in a responsible way, looking at all aspects of the situation.
Q: When the Hubble mission is over, NASA will have nine shuttle missions left on the books. I know nothing has changed in that regard and no additional flights are currently planned. But can you explain the shuttle program extension study you recently asked the program to go off and look at? What are you looking for?
Griffin: Well, despite what you hear and read everywhere, I'm not clueless! After the Russian invasion of Georgia it was clear here in Washington the general tone of acceptance for the earlier policy decision to rely upon Russia during the gap - and remember, the gap was not an accident, it is a feature not a bug of U.S. space policy; now I don't agree with the feature, but it was there when I walked in and I've not been able to muster arguments sufficiently convincing, frankly, either to the administration or to Congress that we shouldn't tolerate it. So it's a feature of U.S. space policy.
Well, that means it was planned. After the Russian invasion of Georgia, it occurred to me, immediately, that that feature might not continue to stand up under scrutiny and there might be, I think a wrong-headed political reaction, but a political reaction to what I've characterized as cutting off your nose to spite your face. We would decline to renew our INKSNA (Iran-North Korea-Syria Non-Proliferation Act) exemption and therefore decline as a nation to allow NASA to buy rides from Russia.
Now, again, I think on the facts that's a poor decision. If that were to come about, I think that's a poor decision. Because in declining to buy rides from Russia throughout the gap, what we do is we punish, you know, U.S. and international partner interests. So the Russians invade Georgia and we punish the U.S., Canada, Japan and Europe. Because the Russians will continue to have access to the station, but we won't unless we decide to fly the shuttle.
Q: And the international partners, obviously, go through NASA.
Griffin: Oh, they do. And in fact, we have a, basically, treaty level obligation to supply access to them in exchange for the hardware that they've built. We took that obligation on, as well as the obligation of crew rescue, for ourselves and our partners. We signed up to all that. Now, our means of meeting those obligations, our intended means after loss of Columbia, was to fly the shuttle until 2010 and then as a matter of deliberate policy to rely upon the Russians for five years.
OK, it occurred to me that policy might come in question in the next Congress or the next administration and I did not want people asking NASA questions about what it would take to continue to fly shuttle or what would the impact be, what happens if we do, what happens if we don't. I thought those questions should be thoroughly studied at NASA and the answers ready before someone asks, so that we're not having to scramble for a quick answer.
We do a lot of internal work and it is internal and pre-decisional for a reason. I don't like the fact that it (the shuttle program extension review) leaked, but I'm not going to apologize for having done prudent advance planning.
Q: What sort of scale are you talking about? Is this open ended...
Griffin: We're talking a few months to figure out what it would take.
Q: I didn't meant that. I meant are you talking about a couple of flights a year, what sort of options are on the table?
Griffin: I'm not asking for them to tell me what it would take to do five flights a year. I'm asking them what it would take to do a couple of flights a year, primarily crew rotation and ISS resupply. So that's what I'm asking. But we need enough variation in what they look at to get a sense of how it trends, where the knees in the curve are. I mean, if I ask a point question, I'll get a point answer but it won't be that informative.
Q: Any assumptions in this? Retiring an orbiter, for example, anything else?
Griffin: I want them to tell me. I asked them to tell me what would happen in terms of the impacts if NASA receives additional money from the Congress or a new administration in order to, you know, fly shuttle while keeping the Constellation elements on track and also to assess it if it had to be done within a constant top line like we have today.
Q: What does that mean?
Griffin: Well, OK, there's two possibilities and a range in between. Suppose someone says I want you to keep flying the shuttle, but I want you to keep Ares and Orion on track so tell me how much money you need to keep flying shuttle extra?
Q: And have Orion ready in 2015.
Griffin: Exactly. That's one question. Another question, the other end of the spectrum is, I want you to keep flying shuttle and I'm not giving you any extra money so tell me what happens to Ares and Orion, how badly are they delayed? And then there's a spectrum of options in between. Suppose I give you some money, but not enough? So we're trying to get a handle on what the range of options and impacts are.
Q: Is there some point, based on manufacturing capability or whatever, where you can't keep flying shuttle without significant new money?
Griffin: Well, yeah, that point would be reached if we ripped up the tooling at Michoud (Assembly Facility where external tanks are built) and put down tooling for the Ares tanks.
Q: I thought you were pretty much there.
Griffin: We're coming up on it, but it hasn't happened yet.
Q: So you've got a few months in here to consider all this before you would really have to make it happen?
Q: So when a new administration comes in, you'd have to have some pretty quick action here one way or the other.
Griffin: You either have to have a reasonably quick decision or you have to just stand down, don't do anything. I mean that's always a recipe for delay and obfuscation and wasting money.
Q: What's the feedback from Congress been like?
Griffin: The hill is not in session so no, I've not gotten any feedback. But again, we're not changing policy. We're trying to answer the 'what if' questions if a new administration or a new Congress wants a change of policy. Part of their desire to change or not change policy will depend upon what the costs and impacts are, right? And I want to be able to provide those. The other scenario is, suppose nobody asks me, they just tell me? Well, that's fine. A point I've made many times is NASA doesn't create policy, we execute it. If I'm lucky, they ask me what I think. But if they don't even bother to ask and they just tell me what they want, whoever the 'they' is, then I need to be able to move out on those directions with the least damage to NASA rather than being in a hurry up mode and creating unnecessary collateral damage. So I get to that place by studying the thing first.
Q: And you expect to have this wrapped up by the end of September or October?
Griffin: I don't know. I mean, I certainly hope by the end of October we have a pretty good first-order cut at it. I don't think there are any better people at NASA than the folks running space ops and running the shuttle program. I think we've got the best there is, they'll get the answer to me as soon as they can. It'll be a couple of months, it won't be six months.
Q: In your perfect world, what would you see happen?
Griffin: In my perfect world? I've been pretty clear about this from the start. In my perfect world, the nation's space policy makers would allocate enough money that we could fly Ares and Orion at the earliest possible date and we'd fly shuttles as a matter of engineering and programmatic practicality until Ares and Orion were available. Now that would take several extra billion dollars a year. That's the way a program manager would think and that's fundamentally what I am. That's not the policy path the nation went down. I've done my very best to provide an approach that was going to get us through the gap. But if you asked me in my perfect world what would we do, we wouldn't have a gap.
Q: I understand. In the near term, there seems to be political support to add at least one extra mission to launch the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. Where does that stand? What's the likelihood of that mission?
Griffin: I have no idea. I've said repeatedly that, you know, that's again basically a political decision. Technically, NASA can fly AMS. It might not fly in fiscal 2010, but it could surely fly in calendar 2010 unless we get another hurricane or something like that. This is a case where to a certain extent NASA is caught between the desires of the Congress and the desires of the administration. The administration has not budgeted that mission and does not wish to fly it and the Congress feels, in general it seems to me, the Congress feels oppositely and I don't honestly detect any differences across party lines. It's not a Republican-Democrat matter. So what I have been very clear on is we absolutely do not have the money to fly that flight. So if someone wants it flown, the money has to be requested and appropriated. Or else, someone then has to identify what the $300 million offset is, what $300 million of other work that has already been approved at NASA doesn't get done?
Q: You don't have to make that decision immediately, I guess.
Griffin: Well, February, March next year we kind of need to know because there's an 18-month template to integrate any flight. You know, so it's a $300 million problem. The marginal cost of any given shuttle flight is not that high, I mean, it's really no more than what it would be to fly (a large unmanned rocket). So the marginal cost of the shuttle flight is not terrible, but it isn't free and in the end we need direction. I mean our current direction is don't fly it and unless that changes, we don't fly. And I need to know by February or March next year.
Q: Let's go back to the Iran-North Korea-Syria Non-Proliferation Act. Can you give me an update on where the exemption stands? It expires in 2011 and there's a three-year lead time required to build new Soyuz spacecraft, right? How serious is this?
Griffin: It's very serious and it hasn't snuck up on me. We have been literally working this issue all year long. I need a contract vehicle in place by early '09 if we are to fly American and international partners on Soyuz in early '12. Because you're right, the current exemption expires on Dec. 31, 2011 and the Russians have about a three-year lead time on producing Soyuz. That's not a negotiating tactic on their part, there's a historical record that it takes them about that long to produce one and I don't really think I want to pay them to try to accelerate it. And the other thing is, I don't actually want them to accelerate it, I don't want them to do anything different building Soyuzes than they've been doing. Right? We just want to have a contract in place in the normal amount of time that will produce a Soyuz on the normal schedule. That means, if we want to fly Americans and our partners in '12 we need a contract in place by early '09. And I've said that starting with my congressional hearings last winter.
Q: I understand that. I'm just trying to understand where it stands.
Griffin: Well, where it stands is right now, it's dead stalled. Because there's no legislation which is going to come out of the Congress, other than the continuing resolution package, before they recess to go home for elections, right? And so right now, we're just on dead stop. And of course the invasion of Georgia didn't help. So here's what will happen. If we don't get a renewal of our INKSNA exemption, one of four things will come to pass. The first and most obvious possibility is there won't be any American or international partners on the space station after Dec. 31 of 2011. That's a possibility.
Another possibility is that we will be told to continue flying shuttle and we would be given extra money to do so, in which case our Ares and Orion could be kept on track and we would no longer have a dependence on Russia. A third possibility is we could be told to keep flying shuttle, not be given any extra money in which case we don't get Ares and Orion anytime soon and we still have a gap, it's just further out in time. All right? And all of these things ignore the fact that flying shuttle does not ameliorate in truth our dependence upon the Russians because we still need them for crew rescue. So if we continue to fly shuttle, either we're flying without crew rescue capability, in other words putting crew on station and then leaving them there without a way to get home in an emergency, which we have never done, or our tenure on station is only during the two weeks you get when the shuttle visits a couple of times a year.
Griffin: Yeah, an interesting set of circumstances, huh?
Q: I guess the sky really is falling?
Griffin: Yep. I said in my testimony last winter, my first round of testimony, we had to have INKSNA this year or we were at risk of not having crew on station.
Q: If the U.S. doesn't have crew there, can the station safely operate?
Griffin: Sure. We had plans for going unmanned on station if we had to. And the Russians can operate station just fine. There's no question, there are troubleshooting scenarios where if equipment had problems and you didn't have a person on board to help fix it that it would be easier to lose station without people on board than with it on board. But in the nominal case, the station can fly unmanned. But it's not going to be unmanned. You're going to have three Russians up there.
Q: Was there progress on the waiver before the Russian action in Georgia? It's not clear to me that you wouldn't be telling me the same thing even if that hadn't happened.
Griffin: Well, I might, but I think the probability changed, to be honest. I think because the administration had requested the exemption through State (Department) and because I had been articulating our case on the hill, I think I had most of our critical folks, you know, ready to hold their nose and support, if you will. Now, there still was some possibility it wasn't going to happen but we were looking at different legislative vehicles for that and no one was really objecting, they were in fact helping us. So the climate did change with the invasion of Georgia and at this point, people who were already suspicious, like Sen. (Bill) Nelson, changed from being suspicious to being downright against. And I, in the larger perspective, I understand. I'm not being critical. I am trying to outline and elucidate that this is a consequence of a policy decision we made several years ago as a country that it was OK for us to depend upon the Russians for access to our space station. We made that decision. This is one of the consequences of it, the position we find ourselves in today.
Q: When I tell non space people about the gap, the response is almost universally "you're kidding." Why is that?
Griffin: The 'you're kidding' part and the lack of notice, for several years it was something fairly far off in the future. The actual circumstance doesn't even occur in the next president's administration unless that president gets two terms. It certainly wasn't occurring in this president's administration and it doesn't occur in any of the next couple of Congresses, right? Nobody around today was certain to be on scene when the actual consequence occurs. Moreover, I don't think anybody reading about it in the papers ... thought really that it was going to be allowed to come to pass.
I was first asked the question by Sen. Nelson, it must have been 18 or 20 months ago, I was first asked what would it take to deploy Constellation earlier and how early could you do it? At that time, and this was a couple of years ago, I said we could deploy in 2013 but it would cost you an extra $2 billion. And he said per year? And I said no, an extra $2 billion total. And people did not want to advance that money. Therefore, 2013 melted away. Well now, the water's gone over the dam or under the bridge or whatever your favorite metaphor is, and at this point, if everything went just right, the earliest we could deliver Constellation would be in the fall of 2014. Now our commitment date has remained unchanged, March of 2015 based on the president's budget. But at this point, even if you dump a bunch of money on it you're not going to get it earlier than sometime in late 2014.
Q: Who was it that said 'may you live in interesting times?' You've got your interesting times.
Griffin: It's a Chinese curse. So that's how we got where we got. It's always been something in the future. Well, you know, if you don't die, sooner or later the future arrives.
Q: Do you have any reason at all for optimism about getting a waiver in time to avoid a gap in 2012?
Q: So one of the options you laid out is probably going to happen.
Griffin: Well, certainly one of them will come to pass. My own guess is at this point we're going to have some period in 2012 where there's no American or international partner crew on station, that there's only the Russians there. That period always ends three years from when we have a contract with the Russians. So if we can get through all this by June of next year and have a contract with the Russians, then in the latter part of 2012 we can fly a Soyuz flight and restore things to normal.
Q: So it's one to one with how long it takes to get a contract.
Griffin: That's right. So my own personal guess, and this is nothing more than a guess, is that we will wind up in 2012 with some period where there's no U.S. crew and no Canadian, Japanese or European crew on the station.
Q: That is something. You've been warning people about this for quite a while.
Griffin: I brought it up in my confirmation hearing. On April 12 of '05.
Q: Is there anything we haven't touched on that you would like to point out or elaborate on?
Griffin: I guess one point I would make, and I know you know it, we've been getting a lot of flack lately for our fairly open discussion about slipping our internal dates for Constellation. People are accusing us of, you know, slipping the program. We are slipping our internal dates. The program is not in trouble. What we're doing is recognizing the fact that we are not going to, or not likely to receive extra money for the Constellation program.
Now earlier on, the direction I had given to the team was to preserve the best possible date, right? Under the assumption that at some point, somebody would decide that they wanted the gap to be lesser rather than greater and would provide some extra money for Constellation. If that happened, I didn't want us to have made it moot by not being able to take advantage of it, right? OK. So we were preserving an end-of-2013 internal date and making decisions based on that and working toward the end of 2013 under the assumption that at some point the bow wave of money would arrive. All right.
Well, that's not going to happen. So I don't want the team making decisions in an earlier timeframe, decisions in haste, if you will, that don't need to be made. In fact, the major cost of the program is governed by production and our production can't start until we pass critical design review, which is at the end of 2010 when the shuttle retires. So that milepost, that stake in the ground, hasn't changed because we still expect to get money for Constellation when shuttle retires at the end of 2010.
So my goal now is not to, any longer, is not to preserve the possibility of pulling that production in. My goal is to be ready for it when the shuttle retires. So therefore, the decisions leading up to CDR ... that we can afford to move out to give ourselves some extra thinking time before the serious money spending starts, those we are moving. Our anchor is the CDR at the end of fiscal 2010. Does that all make sense? Some of the less informed media have raised the flag - Constellation's in trouble - well no, it's not. I'm giving up the option of pulling the schedule in and am now just sort of putting in place what we have to do to maintain what we said we could do with the president's budget.
Q: Thank you.