NASA chief Griffin blasts White House in leaked email

Michael Griffin, Administrator of NASA since 2005, blasts the Bush administration’s approach to manned space policy in a recently leaked email. (Orlando Sentinel).

In testimony before Congress in 2004, Griffin stated his vision for the future of the manned space program as “the human settlement of the solar system, and eventually beyond. I can think of no lesser purpose sufficient to justify the difficulty of the enterprise, and no greater purpose is possible.”  Just a year ago he said he regretted the 1970s post-Apollo decision to move from planetary exploration to low earth flight, and said NASA planned to put a man on Mars by 2037.  “I spent some time analysing what we could have done had we used the budgets we received to explore the capabilities inherent in the Apollo hardware after it was built. The short answer is we would have been on Mars 15 or 20 years ago, instead of circling endlessly in low Earth orbit.”

The guy speaking there is from an agency that failed to manage a single robot landing on Mars between 1976 and 1997, and in 1999 crashed an orbiter into the planet because NASA worked in SI units and its contractor, Lockheed-Martin, worked in Imperial units.

But never mind, nobody was on board.

What hads got Michael’s dander up, in an email obtained by the Orlando Sentinel at the weekend, is that the White House has botched the plan to replace the aging Space Shuttle with the more versatile Ares/Orion system.

Writing to a senior space policy advisor, Griffin says: “In a rational world we would have been allowed to pick a shuttle retirement date to be consistent with Ares/Orion availability, we would have been asked to deploy Ares/Orion as early as possible (rather than ‘not later than 2014’) and we would have been provided the necessary budget to make it so.”

The Shuttle is due to retire in 2010, leaving a long window during which NASA will have no launch vehicles.  Current icy relations between the US and Russia over the Russian invasion of Georgia and South Ossetia make it unlikely that Soyuz systems will be able to take up the slack.  This leaves US commitments to the International Space Station in jeopardy.

“They will tell us to extend Shuttle. There is no other politically tenable course… Extending Shuttle creates no damage that they will care about, other than to delay the lunar program. They will not count that as a cost. They will not see what that does for US leadership in space in the long term.”

Meanwhile Japan, ESA and Russia have or are developing automated supply robots for use on the low earth orbit environment.

Griffin’s letter seems to be mainly political in thrust. He is concerned that without US presence the space station will effectively become a Russian project.

“There are actions we could take to to hold ISS hostage, or even to prevent them using it – power management stuff, for example. We will not take those actions… the Russians can sustain ISS without US crew as long as we don’t actively sabotage them… we need them. They don’t ‘need’ us. We’re a ‘nice to have’.”

I wonder whether they’re going in the right direction with this.  The costs of manned space flight are obscenely high, even for low earth orbit.  Real science can be done without human presence.  Unmanned space flight has produced spectacular results at minimal costs and without these political shenanigans.

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