Griffin optimistic about Soyuz, toilet resolution
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: May 31, 2008
NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said today he's confident Russian space engineers will resolve technical problems with the Soyuz spacecraft that ferry Russian crews to and from the international space station. Griffin also said he was hopeful spare parts being launched to the station aboard the shuttle Discovery will help the crew repair the Russian toilet before it becomes a real problem.
CBS News Space Analyst William Harwood interviewed Griffin at the Kennedy Space Center where the shuttle Discovery's countdown was entering its final hours. Here is a transcript of the conversation:
CBS News: Mike, getting the Kibo laboratory module up to the station is a big deal for the Japanese and it's a big deal for NASA. What does this moment mean to you?
Griffin: This is almost the last of our laboratory modules going up because there is the Japanese Exposed Facility, which goes up next year, the third part of their overall Japanese laboratory. You said the Japanese have waited a long time. Well, we've waited a long time, I've waited a long time. I was a team lead during the space station redesign that produced the version of the space station we have today. And even then, the Japanese module was a big deal and it was just in the planning stages. So we've all waited a long time. I made some remarks the other night at the Japanese reception where I pointed out, you know, we're not flying the space station in order to fly a million pounds of engineering hardware. That's just the stuff necessary to support the laboratories. So we have a Russian lab, a U.S. lab, a European lab and a Japanese lab now coming up. That's the purpose of the space station. So now we have almost all of the engineering infrastructure in place to support it and now we're coming to the moment of truth, we're putting up the last of the laboratories to do what the station was designed to do. That's a big deal.
CBS News: How about the long-term outlook? You've had some setbacks recently from a scheduling standpoint. There are 11 shuttle missions left before the fleet is retired in 2010. Are you still confident about finishing the station before that deadline?
Griffin: I think so. ... Our historical average has been four-and-a-half flights a year. When I say our historical average, that's over a 27-year span and that includes two accidents when we were down for nearly three years each time and it includes the period when we were down for about a year over wiring concerns. So even with those downtimes, our historical average has been four-and-a-half flights a year. The shuttle program's up and running well, I think we can do flve flights a year.
CBS News: Discovery is equipped with the first in-line tank, built from the ground up with all the post Columbia upgrades. It's remarkable how long it's taken to get to this point.
Griffin: I'm really just an engineer who got a great promotion. I'm in the fortunate position of having been able to sit through, I think, darn near every one of the significant engineering top-level reviews we had over that tank. I remember now a few years ago when I was a fresh, new administrator, we were still uncertain as to what the damage mechanisms were. We were still cataloguing debris shedding off the tank in response to various kind of impacts. We didn't know exactly why foam was popping off the tank. It took a long while to understand things that certainly you could argue should have been understood back in 1981. But the fact is, they weren't. So after the Columbia accident, people had to do a research project to gain the knowledge necessary to redesign the tank. I've been lucky enough to follow that all the way through and it doesn't happen over night. it's tough. And the guys have, I think, got a solid new design for the external tank, this is the first time we've flown it ... and I think it's going to perform well. I can't wait to see it.
CBS News: The space station toilet has raised a bit of concern in the space station project. I know Discovery is taking up a replacement pump that the Russians believe will fix the problem. But what if it doesn't? The next Progress supply ship doesn't launch until September, the next Soyuz is not until October and the next shuttle visit is in November. If the pump doesn't fix the toilet, this is potentially a very big deal, isn't it?
Griffin: Well, we'll be thinking about that. I don't want to speculate.
CBS News: What prompts the question, anytime someone says the solution is a part from a different lot number, that just tells me they don't know what's wrong with the one that's up there.
Griffin: That could well be true, that we don't know. Usually when something's been working well for quite a number of years and then suddenly doesn't work well, you don't look at the basic design, you do look at manufacturing issues, which get down to lot numbers. But it's true, if it fails, we're not 100 percent sure why it fails until we can fix the problem. We think the new pump will fix the problem. If it doesn't, we're going to have to come up with something else. I mean, there are various approaches to dry chemical toiletry and we'll have to do something like that because it's obviously a health hazard not to have a hygienic way to deal with human excrement. We've got to find a way to do that.
CBS News: Is there any scenario with this toilet that could force you guys to de-man the station?
Griffin: We certainly hope not. We're many steps before we get to that place. But you're right, it is a big deal. We know it's a big deal. We are not minimizing it, we haven't minimized it, we know that hygiene is important. It's important on any closed, isolated vehicle. Ships and submarines have this problem, airplanes have this problem ... Any time you're in a closed environment like this, it's crucially important to maintain hygiene. And that's what we're going to figure out a way to do.
CBS News: Let me ask you about a longer-term problem, the starboard-side solar alpha rotary joint on the space station. We were told this week engineers believe the most likely source of metallic contamination on the main bearing race ring is a breakdown of the hardened, 'nitrited' surface layer of that ring. Do you buy that?
Griffin: I have to be careful. I get those engineering updates along with everybody else because I ask them to send them to me and I read 'em. So yeah, that's the latest theory, that's the most credible theory we have at this point. But whether I want to say people think that's the final story, I don't want to go that far.
CBS News: But they're talking about the breakdown of that nitrited layer.
Griffin: Yes. A piece of nitride layer coming off. THe nitride layer, of course, is very hard and very smooth, it's polished, it's designed to do exactly what it apparently didn't do, which is to provide a hard coating as a roller bearing surface. If it breaks down, it's capable of chewing itself up and that may be what happened here. As you say, that's the leading theory right now. Whether it's the final one, who knows?
CBS News: Does anybody have any concerns that the same thing could happen to the drive gear on the port side?
Griffin: Well, sure, except the other side has been operating just fine and we haven't seen an issue. We hope the coatings people will eventually say well this is a one of a kind thing. We have a way to replace it, but obviously we don't want to start down a new path with a new bearing if it's going to do the same thing.
CBS News: The station guys seem to think that eventually you're going ot have to go to outboard ops, switch to the redundant race ring, no matter what. Do you agree? Or do you think there's any chance the astronauts can clean the ring enough to permit normal, or near-normal, operations?
Griffin: I don't know. I would defer to them. My own view is, right from the first, that we were probably going to have to go to outboard ops. But that's a view not conditioned by enough facts yet. So I guess my bias would be, we're probably going to have to go to the outboard ops but who knows?
CBS News: Let me turn to Soyuz briefly. Are you confident the Soyuz TMA-12 vehicle that's docked to station now is a reliable vehicle if the crew needs it in an emergency?
Griffin: The decision to continue to fly crew, both international partner crew and our own crew, is conditioned on the belief that as a rescue vehicle, it's fine. Everybody, the Russians, ourselves, everyone is concerned that we've had two seemingly identical anomalies in a row. And I won't call them failures because, of course, the primary purpose of the vehicle is to allow the crew to reach the ground and they reached the ground both times, no problem. The vehicle in that sense worked, despite having an anomaly. Now, we don't want to continue having that and the Russians really don't, they're digging into it, they're being completely open with us about it, we have an observer on the board. They are perplexed, they are saying they are perplexed. They don't think, and we don't think, it could be a fundamental design error, it's been operating for 40 years and operating well. So, manufacturing, assembly, integration, yeah, and that's where folks are looking. But we think if we had to get in it and come to the ground, the guys would make it. And that's the important thing.
CBS News: The problems with the toilet and the Soyuz highlight how critical Russian hardware is now and how important it will be in the future when the station crew expands to six and shuttles stop flying in 2010. How confident are you about the reliability of Russian hardware and procedures?
CBS News: Well, I'm confident because I think we're going to solve the problems. But it is a partnership and the Russians are supplying, as are the other partners, things that are critically needed on board the space station to have it work. I do see a distinction between fundamental access capability and, you know, the toilet. We have to keep the crew clean and healthy and we can find ways to do that, but before we worry about that, we have to get them there and back.
CBS News: I shouldn't have put it that way. I meant it in the sense that all of these issues make it very clear to even a casual observer that the Russians are really going to play a more critical role than they ever have before going into the gap between the end of shuttle operations and the debut of the shuttle's replacement in 2015.
Griffin: They are. And I find it, as I've said on a number of occasions, I find it very disturbing that we're dependent on any other nation for a strategic capability.
CBS News: But that's where we are.
Griffin: That's where we are.
CBS News: Is NASA looking at any way to expand station resupply to help avoid getting into time-critical situations down the road?
Griffin: We are. We have almost completed an orbital base in space. It's a place where people can learn how to live and work in space and crucial to that is an understanding that the logistics train has to be maintained or it won't function. We have, as you mentioned, ATV, we have HTV coming along on line on the Japanese side, we do have the Russian Soyuz and Progress. On the U.S. side, we have a commercial procurement out on the street now for, on a purely commercial basis, for cargo resupply to the station. I have no doubt that will be successful, but we are down to one string for crew. We are down to the Soyuz for crew and the sooner we can get a new American capability for crew transport, the happier I will be.