Griffin not optimistic about staying on as head of NASA
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: November 13, 2008
NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, answering questions from Kennedy Space Center workers during an "all hands" meeting today, said he does not expect the Obama administration to keep him on as head of the nation's civilian space agency.
Widely respected for his technical expertise, Griffin, a private pilot who holds a doctorate in aerospace engineering and five master's degrees in engineering, business administration and applied physics, said he would gladly continue to serve if asked, but not if the new administration orders a radical change in direction.
Brought in by the Bush administration in the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster, Griffin has been responsible for overseeing a complex plan to finish the international space station and retire the shuttle in 2010 while developing a new family of safer, lower-cost rockets and manned spacecraft that will service the space station and eventually return American astronauts to the moon.
One major issue is the expected five-year gap between the end of shuttle operations and the debut of the Orion capsule that will replace it. In the interim, NASA will be forced to buy seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to ferry U.S. astronauts to and from the international space station. Whether the incoming Obama administration will act to narrow that gap - or add additional shuttle missions to reduce reliance on the Russians - remains to be seen.
Griffin clearly enjoys his role as NASA administrator, but he said today he doubts the new administration will keep him on as head of the agency.
"I serve at the pleasure of the president," Griffin said. "There are different kinds of political appointments, there are fixed terms, the FBI is six years, Federal Reserve is seven, you know, FAA is five. NASA is an 'at the pleasure of.' So if the next president wants to ask me to continue, I'd be happy to do it. I doubt that that will happen. It would need to be under the right circumstances.
"We're in a good policy direction right now. NASA, in my view, for the first time since (the) Nixon administration terminated Apollo, NASA is now doing the right things. We're also doing things right, but we're doing the right things. If somebody wanted me to stay on but said 'now, we need to go over here,' well, do it with somebody else. We're operating with about as little budget as we could effectively operate. Our budget declined in real dollars about 20 percent in the Clinton years, (but) no content was removed. The Bush administration halted the decline, but didn't fix it. We certainly can't get by on any less than we're doing and I don't want to be a figurehead for claiming we can do something we can't do.
"The Bush administration did not pick any members of my team for me," Griffin continued. "It's a mutual process, there's a veto on both sides, but I didn't have anybody crammed down my throat. I think we've done the experiment at NASA to see whether or not people who don't know anything about the space business can run NASA. It didn't work, and I don't want to be party to doing it again, I need to be able to keep around me the kind of team I've got. Otherwise, I'll fail, because I don't actually do anything, I just pick people. And if I can't pick the right people... I know how to fail, just pick the wrong people and you're doomed.
"So we'll see. I expect that the new administration will have plenty of talent to choose from in picking a NASA administrator and I just hope whoever they pick loves it as much as I do, loves the agency and loves what we do as much as I do."
During a town hall meeting near the Kennedy Space Center in August, Obama vowed strong support for NASA, saying he favored at least one shuttle flight beyond the 10 missions left on the agency's manifest. Obama also said he would work to close the gap between the end of shuttle operations in 2010 and the debut of the Orion spacecraft that will replace it and said earlier reports that he would divert money from NASA's next manned spacecraft to education were unfounded.
Asked today if NASA might receive additional funding to shorten the gap or extend shuttle oeprations, Griffin said he did not know, adding "I really don't think they've made a determination."
"I thought we got some very positive statements on more than one occasion from President-elect Obama on NASA and its roll in society in the future during the campaign," Griffin said. "I hope those statements come true. Now, how we would most appropriately use additional funding for NASA, I can't say right now. I would hope that we would do the intelligent combination of accelerating Constellation (the shuttle replacement program).
"It's possible it might make sense to fly shuttle a bit longer. The closer we look at that, the harder that is to do. I mean, the reason why I've asked study teams under John Shannon and separately, Jeff Hanley, the shuttle and Constellation program managers, is to get the facts on what it takes and what's possible with regard to narrowing the gap in both cases. I'd rather make decisions based on facts rather than something we studied three or four years ago or on my suppositions.
"So my first hope is that the comments made by President-elect Obama during the campaign were campaign promises that he and his administration hope to fulfill," Griffin said. "And then of course, our next task will be to present to the new administration and the new Congress - remember, presidents propose, but Congress DISposes - we need to propose to them how we would most effectively utilize the money. But man, give me that problem! That's a problem I'd like to have, wouldn't you? So let's hope that occurs."
Griffin, who has long argued the gap between the end of the shuttle and the debut of Oriaon is "unseemly," said today he believes the Russians will honor their space commitments even if relations between the two countries sour on other fronts.
"The current state of relations between Russia and the United States is not as bad as it has sometimes been, but not as good as it has been, either. And we all worry about that. When we were engaging on just this topic with our congressional leaders and policy makers in the White House, what I said was you know, we cooperated with Russia in space even at the height of the Cold War and they did what they said they would do, even at the height of the Cold War. They are hard negotiators on what they will and won't do as part of the space station partnership and you don't want to leave them any loopholes ... but when the negotiation is done and you've shaken hands, the Russians have never failed to do what they said they would do. They were a little late delivering the first pieces of the space station, but we've been a little late delivering pieces of space station.
"Both of us on both sides have had some schedule problems (but) the Russians have always done what they said they would do when the negotiating was done. And so I believe, absent evidence to the contrary, that they will continue to do, on space station as a partner, what they say they will do. I personally believe it's better for the United States and for the world for us to be partners on station than not. I wish the state of relationships between the U.S. and Russia were better. I really like our Russian colleagues, I really do."