Spaceflight Now

A wide-ranging interview with the leader of NASA
Posted: August 7, 2007

Discussing a recent medical review, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said today he believes anecdotal allegations of alcohol abuse among some unnamed astronauts were "inflammatory" and not credible based on his own personal experience with the men and women who risk their lives on the high frontier. "I personally believe," he said, "that at the end of the day, their charges will be determined to be either ancient or unfounded or both." But in a wide-ranging interview with CBS News, Griffin said the allegations were serious enough to warrant a thorough review by NASA's director of Safety and Mission Assurance and that if any alcohol-related incidents are confirmed, "the consequences will be severe."

The administrator also looked ahead to the shuttle Endeavour's space station assembly flight, educator-astronaut Barbara Morgan's role on the mission and the progress of work to design the follow-on space capsule that will replace the shuttle midway through the next decade. He expressed concern about the public's seeming lack of awareness of the upcoming multi-year gap between the end of the shuttle program and first flight of the Orion crew exploration vehicle in 2015. Until then, U.S. astronauts will have to hitch rides to and from the space station aboard Russian Soyuz rockets. "I think that's a concern," Griffin said. "I think it's an unseemly position for the United States to be in, quite honestly, and I think we will come to regret it."

Griffin spoke with CBS News space analyst William Harwood. Here is a transcript of the interview:

Q: The shuttle Endeavour appears to be ready for launch on the first in a string of fast-paced, complex space station assembly missions. Given the start-and-stop nature of shuttle flights in the aftermath of Columbia that must be a good feeling.

Griffin: It's a great feeling. And we are starting, I think, to run some flights off with regularity. It was a long time back after losing Columbia and there were a lot of really, really difficult technical issues. Tank debris, and other things, we've had fuel cell problems, hurricane problems, hail storm damage. Hopefully we won't have some of those in the future. I also think we understand the tank way, way better than anyone has understood the tank before. We finally understand the ice-frost ramps and understand why they were a leading generator of debris after Columbia and removing the PAL (protuberance air-load) ramp and the bipod ramp foam. But we also understand now how to fix them and why they're performing better than they ought to perform. So we understand all that. And it's a good feeling.

Q: You are pressing ahead with work to redesign the ice-frost ramps, right?

Griffin: We are pressing ahead with a redesign, but it's not going to look any different from the outside. We found under the surface why the foam was cracking and creating vent paths to the atmosphere, we found out why and where liquified air was accumulating under the foam and why it was blowing off pieces of the ice-frost ramps as it liberated on ascent. And we're now poised to fix all that. But it will be under the surface, the ice-frost ramp won't look any different, or will look only minimally different, from the point of view of preserving the outer mold line. We are pressing ahead with that.

Q: Aside from that, is the shuttle design fairly well frozen now with just three years left in the program?

Griffin: We pretty much have the design the way we think it needs to be. If we find something that isn't working, something that surprise us, of course we'll fix that. But from now until the end of the shuttle program, which is the end of space station assembly, with that one exception that we are going put in a change to the ice-frost ramps, I think we've got the vehicle where we want it.

Q: I know your position is that it's time to replace the shuttle and move on. But the shuttle will be missed, won't it? It's an amazing engineering achievement and it still inspires awe.

Griffin: Every time. It is a magnificent vehicle, it is an extraordinary creation of human beings and it's an extraordinary creation by Americans and we should be proud of what we've done. The fact that we need to put it behind us and move on, get back out into the solar system, return to the moon, go to Mars, if we're going to have a viable human spaceflight program we need to do those things. And the shuttle can't take us there. But that fact shouldn't allow us to miss the fact that the shuttle was an extraordinary creation, it offers immense capability and I think when it comes time to fly that last flight, it will have built a lot of nostalgia and a lot of feeling of loss among all people who have been part of the space program for their whole lives, as you and I have been in different roles.

Q: To finish the station by 2010, you have to put together a fairly ambitious series of missions. The upcoming schedule is very fast paced with critical activities planned during and between shuttle visits. And then, of course, you hope to launch European and Japanese research modules late this year and early next. It's quite a schedule.

Griffin: It really is. It's an awesome schedule. We think we know what to do. We've had some pretty awesome flights in the recent past on space station assembly and we expect the upcoming ones to surpass them. So I would say stay tuned. I have frequently characterized space station assembly as the greatest construction project human beings have ever attempted. And I believe when you take it all in, that that's true. There is and there will continue to be much debate on the scientific merits of the space station and I think there should be that debate, that's fine. We will find a way to utilize the space station to help benefit human exploration of the solar system. But leaving all of that aside, it is the most amazing construction project ever attempted by human beings.

Q: October 4 will mark the 50th anniversary of the launch of Russia's Sputnik, the first Earth-orbiting satellite. Six days later, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson will take off on a Russian Soyuz rocket to become the first female commander of the international space station. Then two weeks after that, Pam Melroy will command the next shuttle assembly mission. I know it happened by chance, but that's an interesting milestone.

Griffin: It's chance and they happen to be up at the same time but it is kind of a neat thing. If you look around the room at any shuttle flight readiness review, or L-minus-two (review) or L-minus-one review, there's not just a sprinkling of engineers and pilots and operators, there's a plethora of them. And no one remarks upon the fact. They are working members of the team and in many cases, senior members of the team. And that's what people should expect to see. It doesn't arouse comment any more. I have a woman deputy, I have a woman associate administrator for aeronautics, I have another woman who's a deputy associate administrator for science, another woman who's running a center for us. No one comments on it. I'm glad you did, it gives me an opportunity to make the point, but on a day-by-day basis, that's just the NASA team today.

Q: Barbara Morgan's presence on the STS-118 crew has generated a fair amount of interest. I'm struck by the fact that in every news conference, every interview, the emphasis is always on her being an astronaut, not an educator. The educational activities planned for Endeavour's mission are relatively modest. Why? She's a living link to Challenger and the idea of a teacher in space and to put her on a shuttle and not have her teach is hard for some, at least, to understand.

Griffin: I think the point being made is that Barb's joining the astronaut corps as a full time member pre-dated by some years (former NASA Administrator) Sean O'Keefe's establishment of the educator-astronaut category and the hiring of a few astros in that category. I'm certainly not opposed to that and don't know anyone who is. Although Barbara Morgan's initial involvement with NASA and with spaceflight was as Christa's backup in the Teacher in Space program, those were not the auspices under which she came into the astronaut corps. Today, she's an arm operator and yes, she will do some teaching-in-space activities. Frankly they can't interfere with her space station assembly duties because that's what she's there to do. After the flight, I think she will be availing herself of some opportunities to do educational activities. But the reality is, Barb is a working astronaut helping to assemble the space station today and that is her primary goal. Now, I have not tried to particularly emphasize that but I know that people have. I guess maybe it's the pendulum swinging back and forth. She started as purely a teacher-in-space backup and today she's a working astronaut and maybe we should let her be both.

Q: Yes. In a sense, NASA has taken an elementary school teacher and made her an astronaut...

Griffin: With many years of training!

Q: I understand that. But the first question people ask me is why isn't she doing more teaching on the shuttle? It's difficult to separate her from her history.

Griffin: You can't separate her from her history any more than you can separate our medical astronauts or our engineer astronauts or others from their history. But the reason on this flight she's not doing more teaching in space kinds of things is she's busy. She's busy.

Q: Let's change gears a bit. Can you give me a snapshot of where things stand in the Constellation program and the work to design and built the next generation of manned spacecraft?

Griffin: I think it's going really well. As you know, this time last year we were poised to award the contract for Orion, the new crew vehicle. We've awarded the first stage of the Ares 1 launch vehicle, we're getting set to award the upper stage, following that we'll do the instrument unit. With those major contract pieces awarded, we'll have all the pieces for, I don't like the word 'shuttle replacement' because it's not the shuttle, but it does replace certain aspects of the capability of the shuttle, the ability to get half a dozen human beings in and out of low-Earth orbit and to do that, we hope, reliably and more safely and more cheaply than the shuttle. So with those contracts let, the major pieces of our next system will be in place. We'll be working over the next few years with our contractors, whoever wins, to get those things built, have them be what we want them to be and a few years after we retire the shuttle, these things will fly. We're looking to our future and it's very, very very satisfying to be able to say that.

Q: Do you think people realize how big the gap will be between the end of the shuttle program and first flight of Orion? Do you think it's sunk in that Americans will be relying on the Russians to get to and from space for five years or more?

Griffin: I don't. Since coming to NASA, in fact since the time of my confirmation hearing, I have emphasized a concern that I've had, which was that we will now have about a four-and-a-half year gap between flying the last shuttle and flying the first new vehicle. And that's, of course, financially driven. We could have narrowed that to a couple of years but it would have taken additional money that neither the administration nor the Congress has been able to allocate. And of course I understand the reasons for all of that. But we have then chosen to take care of the space station and to put crew on and off the space station using Russian vehicles and other international vehicles for cargo because we will not have our own systems. I think that's a concern. I think it's an unseemly position for the United States to be in, quite honestly, and I think we will come to regret it. We are at a point now where that IS what will happen, it's not now a recoverable position. So it WILL happen. I think there will be after-the-fact lessons to be drawn from it. But we will just have to endure it.

Q: When I tell friends there will be five years between end of shuttle and first launch of Orion, they always seem surprised.

Griffin: It has not attracted the attention and level of concern that I personally thought it ought to have. That is just the way of it.

Q: Let's talk about the recent study NASA commissioned that alleged alcohol abuse among at least some members of the astronaut corps. I was surprised that NASA accepted a report based purely on anecdotal allegations. As a group, astronauts work very hard to get where they are and they risk their lives in the normal course of that work. The Russians instantly denied any such pre-launch behavior. NASA didn't. Why?

Q: Well, that's on me, so let me explain why we just accepted it. First of all, we en-paneled a medical review group initially to go over our flight crew, surgeon, medical procedures to determine whether or not there might have been anything about the LIsa Nowak incident that was foreseeable. And that was the primary focus and we asked them to do that. And we asked them to comment on anything else that might be useful to NASA. It was certainly a highly credentialed group of people. They produced a report which was by and large, I mean 95 percent of the report was medic-to-medic kinds of stuff that was, you know, well thought out. We'll examine the recommendations and if there's anything we can use, we'll use it and if not, we won't. But a few paragraphs of it were dealing with alcohol abuse were highly inflammatory.

So I had a choice. They had produced a report, by their own admission, containing anecdotal allegations. They did not do fact checking, they said that they did not do fact checking and they said that they did not wish to. So I had anecdotes. I had not heard such things before because all of my experience with our flight crews, which goes back more than 25 years in my personal history, all of my experience with our flight crews has been that no astronaut I've ever worked with, no flight controller I've ever worked with has ever allowed alcohol or partying or anything else to interfere with the performance of his or her duties. That's just a flat statement. I've never seen an astronaut or a flight controller have an issue with alcohol to the point where it was interfering with their duties. Just have not.

So the allegations to me, on the surface of it, those allegations seemed un-credible. But if true, they're extremely serious, as I think goes without saying. If true, the allegations are extremely serious. So I felt it was my responsibility to accept the report in good faith, not to answer allegation with allegation. They alleged that these things were true. I could say and allege that they're not true. What's the point of that? That becomes, you know, a yes-I-did, no-you-didn't kind of an argument. There's no profit from that. So I chose to accept the report in the spirit in which it was offered and to conduct an internal investigation, which we are now doing. It's been headed by (former astronaut) Bryan O'Connor, head of the office of Safety and Mission Assurance. The panel did not, in fact, wish me to investigate, they said specifically they wanted us to take the report as ground truth and just go from that. But I couldn't accept that, either.

I mean, these charges, if true, are serious and it would be irresponsible of me not to pursue them to ground truth. So we will do that. I personally believe that at the end of the day, their charges will be determined to be either ancient or unfounded or both. Because I have now spoken to dozens of current astronauts who've been in the office for 10, 15 or more years and no one, not one, can think of any circumstance in which a hung-over astronaut got on board a space shuttle or an astronaut violated the T-38 flight rules by flying inside the hourly limits that are imposed. Since no one can think of such an instance, it seems to me more likely that it didn't happen. But we're going to pursue it. We're doing everything we can to pursue it and when I have the data, then I'll deal with that. But I chose not to try to answer the report defensively, but rather to accept the report and then go after the data.

Q: The thing that really struck me was the way that 5 percent was worded. The implication was that intoxicated astronauts were flying on the shuttle.

Griffin: It's not even conceivable in my mind that anybody in recent memory has gotten on a shuttle in a hung-over state. Ever since Challenger, the crews have been flying with (70-pound) launch escape suits, OK? It takes a long time to suit up. On all of our space station flights, guys launch at the end of the day, not the beginning of the day. So they've been up for a whole day by the time they launch, they've been followed around by medical personnel the whole day as well as other suit technicians and support personnel. So there's not even an opportunity in the normal flow getting ready for a spaceflight for somebody to have a drink and the last possible moment they could have had a drink was before they went to sleep the night before. If you look at the timeline, it's just not credible that an inebriated astronaut ever got on a space shuttle.

Now, separately we're looking at the T-38 flights and of course, the timelines there are not so severe. But all pilots - and I will remind you that I am, in fact, a professional pilot - all pilots know the FAA eight-hour bottle-to-throttle rule and the NASA and military 12-hour rule and if someone was to have been found violating that, the consequences are quite severe. And the greatest fear any pilot has is of being grounded. It's just not credible to me that anyone could have behaved so. If we find that someone has behaved so, believe me, the consequences will be severe. But it's going to necessitate gathering a lot of facts before I get to that point.

Q: Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham wrote a fairly strong defense of the astronaut office in The Houston Chronicle. Have you read that?

Griffin: I did, Walt's upset with me that I haven't taken a stronger defense for the astronauts. But I would prefer to defend our people on the basis of facts rather than my allegations versus other people's allegations.

Q: Is there anything else going on that I should ask you about?

Griffin: I got a question from one of your media brethren the other day that I thought was a great question. The question was along the lines of gee, the year started out with a great recent flight on the space station, then we had the Lisa Nowak incident, we've had the inspector general incident, we had this recent thing with the astronauts, he mentioned a couple of other media flaps that we've had, how do you feel about all that, isn't that awful? And I said well, it hasn't been fun. The last six months have (had) an unusual proportion of, I would say, distracting things, distracting in the sense that they distract from our attention to and other people's attention to the business of what we're doing in space, which is actually going very well in case anyone hadn't noticed.

But I think there is a tone there, whether you talk about scientists who ... didn't feel free to talk about global warming research or whatever. But every single one of these controversies has been met head on, on the basis of facts with no spin from NASA, just taking on the controversy and digging for the data and trying to defuse it in a very open and honest fashion. That's what you've seen the last couple of years at NASA, no matter what the controversy. So there's a central theme there and I want to call your attention to it. When we get into the news in a good way, well that's great. When we get into the news in an unfortunate way that's not great but it's going to happen in an organization with 24,000 people in it. Every time we've gotten into the news in an unfortunate way, we've dealt with it straight up.

Q: NASA gets a lot of attention.

Griffin: I'll put it this way - DOD has 25 times our budget and it's probably not in the news as much as we are (laughter).

Q: Changing gears again, the Mars Phoenix lander is on its way, the first spacecraft designed to soft-land on Mars since the loss of the Mars Polar Lander in 1999. The two Mars Exploration Rovers are hanging in there and the Mars Science Laboratory is waiting in the wings. How would you assess the health of the unmanned exploration program?

Griffin: The rovers are way, way over their design life and they're still mushing along. Fantastic robotic science mission. They're way over their design life and the thing that has got the Opportunity rover hanging on by its fingernails has been a martian dust storm. We need solar power to run these things and when we have a dust storm that is obscuring all but a few percent of the available sunlight it gets a little tough. But we're hanging on, we're coming out of it and I think the rovers will live to rove again. Now for the Phoenix lander, we had a great launch, we're in cruise, we've got seven or eight months to go to Mars. I think we land on May 25, which is the anniversary of President Kennedy's declaration that we should go to the moon ... within this decade. So May 25 of '08 we'll land, we hope, on Mars. It's going to be a soft landing using powered thrust, rockets instead of airbags and balloons. Nobody has successfully landed on Mars with rocket power since the Viking landers in '76. So it'll be, what, 32 years? It's going to be pretty exciting.

Q: What's your confidence level?

Griffin: Well, I'm always confident and I'm an optimistic person by nature. I believe we wouldn't have launched if we had had anything we felt was untended to, which is not a very grammatical way of putting it. Sorry! But I have confidence in the team. At the same time, what we do is very, very hard. We've had a good string of successes lately but as you pointed out, around the turn of the century we had a string of failures and those things happen. We've tried to fix all the causes of the failures, we think the successes are well earned, we hope this next one will be another success. But there are always things out there when you're doing something like this. It's really a one-of-a-kind mission. We did land the Viking missions on Mars back in the mid 70s but they were very different. Certainly the people who participated are mostly gone, so this is a new generation, they're doing something really for the first tim. And on a fraction of Viking's budget. So it's hard. And I think they deserve and they certainly have my respect for trying. My fingers are crossed, we have great confidence we didn't launch with anything undone. But you know, the final exam comes on May 25.

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