Interview with NASA's leader
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: February 7, 2008
NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, in an interview with CBS News today, said he remains optimistic the agency can complete the international space station and retire the shuttle as planned by the end of fiscal 2010 despite recent delays to recover from hail damage and problems with critical fuel sensors.
Griffin also said recent questions about high vibration levels in the Ares 1 rocket NASA is building to carry astronauts into low-Earth orbit for eventual flights to the moon will be successfully resolved, saying claims to the contrary are unfounded.
Griffin discussed these and other issues with CBS News space analyst William Harwood before today's attempt to launch Atlantis on a delayed station assembly mission. Here is an edited transcript of the conversation:
Q: It appears the engine cutoff sensors are working properly today. That must be a relief, although I know you were confident going into fueling.
A: I followed every step in the debugging and fixing ... the problem, so I had real good confidence it was going to work and it did today. So yeah, I think we fixed it and one more source of launch delays off the books now.
Q: But the problem and the difficulty you had resolving it illustrates the overall complexity of the shuttle.
A: Boy, no kidding.
Q: NASA lost several months last year recovering from hail damage to an external tank, and Atlantis is two months late because of problems with the engine cutoff (ECO) sensors. How confident are you about meeting the 2010 deadline for station assembly? It strikes me you can't have too many more stand downs and still make that target.
A: Well, you're right, I don't think we can have too many more stand-down problems. But where we are today, our schedule shows finishing up in April of 2010. We've still got five months margin until the end of the fiscal year (2010) and it's pretty darn rare to get a new budget, which is our real guideline, it's pretty darn rare to get a new budget on Sept. 30th anyway. So I think we're in good shape. If we fly four-and-a-half flights a year from now until the next, you know, two and a half years, we're done and we're done on time.
Q: So you're optimistic you can pull this off?
A: I am. I really am. I think we now understand foam (shedding), that's behind us, the new ice-frost ramp design is coming on line, we understand why the old one works as well as it did. I think we've got foam behind us. I was the guy who took to calling these ECO sensors the 'launch prevention devices,' which gained a certain amount of currency among the team. But that's behind us. We're not working any other hardware problems that we know of today. It's down to weather.
Q: Launching the Columbus research module is a huge step for the European Space Agency...
Q: How important is it to NASA to get Columbus and Japan's Kibo modules up and running?
A: The laboratory modules are why we're doing it. On the space station, it's really two things. It's a place to learn how to live and work in space, which we need to do, and for a long period of time before we go to Mars. It's also a place to do the research we would like to do in a better way than we've been able to do it in the more confined places we've flown in before. So now, we're getting more than a fourth of our laboratory capacity on the station as a whole is going up on this flight. It puts the Europeans into human spaceflight in a visible and permanent way. As you say, it makes the station a truly international collaboration, just every thing about it is good.
Q: That obviously holds for Kibo as well, in your view.
A: That's just the easiest question in the world to answer. Yeah, Kibo two flights from now puts the Japanese into human spaceflight in a big way and adds another, more than a fourth of our laboratory capacity. The station is really coming together over this next year or so.
Q: Of course, it takes electrical power to support those new modules and the station has been having problems with the right side of the main solar power truss. How confident are you engineers will figure out a solution to either fix the solar alpha rotary joint (SARJ) or move the drive mechanism over to a different race ring?
A: They can resolve it. We don't need all the power right away anyway. I mean, if they have to, they can replace the whole thing. The more interesting question is why it happened. We're still trying to pin that down. ... I wouldn't say yet that we really understand it. That said, we probably are going to go to the inner race ring and solve it that way.
Q: It's an unsual problem.
A: It strikes us as very odd as well. Again, you are so right, we don't have anybody on the team that thinks they're ready to raise their hand and say 'I understand this.'
Q: After you launch the international lab modules, it's time to fly the only non-station flight left on the schedule: a mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. What's your confidence level going into that very complex flight?
A: All of the Hubble servicing missions have been challenging from the very first. But we have got a great crew, a great ground team at Goddard and Johnson on this and I'm really confident on that flight. I'm very confident those guys are going to do great.
Q: On a different topic, the Ares rocket and the Constellation program continue to generate questions among outside observers as to viability of the rocket system, due to vibration and other issues, and the overall architecture of the moon program. Why is that?
A: Let me get down to the bottom of it. There were winners and losers in the contractor community as to who was going to get to do what on the next system post shuttle. And we didn't pick (Lockheed Martin's) Atlas 5, in consultation with the Air Force for that matter, because it wasn't the right vehicle for the lunar job. Obviously, we did pick others. So people who didn't get picked see an opportunity to throw the issue into controversy and maybe have it come out their way.
In point of fact, the thrust oscillation, as it's called, on Ares 1 is not a significant problem and to the extent that it needs solutions, we've got three or four ways to go after it. We can put damping mechanisms between the first and second stage, beteween the second stage and Orion or within Orion itself to locally isolate things. This is something that's done on almost all of our unmanned vehicles, they have solid strap-ons and this thrust oscillation issue is one of the vibration drivers on most satellite vehicles and the satellites designed to fly on them have damping and isolation devices at the frequencies of interest, and that's what we'll do here.
I think you have been around long enough to know technically this is just not a big deal. It's about winners and losers. In the larger context, it's about winners and losers and people seeing an opportunity to reclaim a share of the pie that was lost. And I hate it when it comes to that. But that's it. The fact of the matter is, Ares, the rocket, and Constellation, the program, are designed to go to the moon and to provide a capability, if necessary, to service the space station in Earth orbit.
The Atlas 5 needs substantial upgrades in order to be a useful part of the lunar architecture and those upgrades, when we added them all up, cost more than the Ares 1. It's that simple. Now if you just want to go to low-Earth orbit and nowhere else, then the Atlas 5 will do just fine. And I encourage its use for that. What I don't encourage is for people to say that going to low-Earth orbit and stopping there again is a good goal. That's not what we're tyring to do. We're trying to get back to the moon and we want to go on to Mars. And that needs something bigger.