Griffin and Pace Criticize Obama’s Plan for NASA, Support House Bill

Space shuttle Atlantis lands on runway 33 at NASA Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility concluding the STS-129 mission. Photo credit: NASA Jack Pfaller

The Space Transportation Association conducted a panel discussion yesterday during which some quite divergent views were expressed over the future of NASA and the Obama Administration’s commercial focus.

The panelists were:

  • Mike Griffin, former NASA Administrator;
  • Scott Pace, director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and NASA Associate Administrator for Program Analysis and Evaluation under Griffin;
  • Bob Dickman, Executive Director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (speaking for himself)
  • Gary Payton, a consultant and ex-military astronaut who was most recently Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space Programs.

Jeff Foust of Space Politics reports that Griffin remains critical of the commercial approach favored by the White House. Griffin believes the House bill, which largely keeps intact the NASA-built Constellation architecture that he and Scott “Doc” Horowitz championed while at the space agency:

Griffin said that, given the chance, he would mix and match elements of the House and Senate bills. He said it was “crucial” to include the provisions in the House bill for the development of a government human space transportation system. “A crew launch capability which is not dependent on commercial interests or the state of international partner relationships is a strategic national asset and should not be sacrificed for lesser interests,” he said. He also called for retaining the safety standards for a crew launch system included in the House version.

Marcia Smith of Spacepolicyonline.com reports that Griffin said Congress should be very specific about the kind of heavy-lift vehicle it wants NASA to build:

Griffin told a Space Transportation Association audience yesterday that Congress must be specific in legislation about the capabilities of the new heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV) or NASA may design a rocket too small to support human missions beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).  Any lack of specificity in law would be viewed by the Administration as an opening to do something else, he argued:  “It’s regrettable when Congress has to be the design bureau of last resort, but sometimes it’s necessary.”  Ordinarily, NASA administrators and almost anyone else outside of Congress bristle when Congress sets technical design parameters in law.

Pace expressed skepticism about the commercial sector’s ability to meet NASA’s needs and standards. He favors the House bill, which he believes has sufficient money to properly development a government system for sending humans into orbit.

Dickman disagreed, expressing confidence in the commercial sector. Smith reports:

Reviewing the 14 families of launch vehicles developed in the United States over the past 50 years, Dickman concluded “there is nothing magic about getting to LEO.  We know how to do it.” He believes NASA needs to focus on investing in revolutionary in-space propulsion technologies to dramatically shorten the trip time to Mars from months to days.  “We have to make the transition from what we’ve done to where we want to be 30 years from now.”

Payton, who until recently oversaw THE launches of defense payloads for the Air Force, lamented the gap in flights after the space shuttle is retired that NASA has been unable to close. However, he was not in favor of extending the program beyond next year, Foust reports:

“The shuttle program has killed 14 people in flight. I don’t know why you would ever fly another one,” he said. Payton, who flew as a payload specialist on a military shuttle mission in 1985, said that mission was worth risking the lives of astronauts, “but I’m not sure microgravity research warrants that.”