In Interview, NASA’s “Spock” Comes off as Almost Human

The Guardian has a very well-written story based on an interview it conducted with Mike Griffin during his recent visit to London. The paper reports that the NASA administrator, famous for comparing himself to the greatest Vulcan who ever served in Star Fleet, was in a less than chipper mood on the eve of his agency’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

“For some reason, though – perhaps it’s the windowless room in the basement of the US embassy in London, or the entourage of identical suits looking on from the sidelines – Griffin, who was passing through London on the way to a heads of space agencies meeting in Paris, does not seem like a man about to crack open the party poppers.”

In the interview, Griffin comes off sympathetically – a man truly committed to making humanity a space-faring civilization – eve if he is periodically clueless. He urges the British to join America in sending humans to the moon, defends the expected five-year gap between space shuttle and Orion flights, and claims that NASA is well on its way toward accomplishing George W. Bush’s vision despite all the problems you’ve been reading about with the Constellation program.

“We’re on the right path and it is of course fragile, but I think it’s crucial we remain on it,” he told the paper.

The article spotlights the political tin ear of NASA’s Vulcan leader, recounting the uproars caused by his criticism of the space station and his questioning of the value of his agency’s own global warming research. Some of Griffin’s comments to the paper seem to reinforce the image that he often lacks political acumen.

In bemoaning the Nixon Administration’s abandonment of the Apollo program in favor of the space shuttle, Griffin’s rightly observes that this decision left NASA stuck in low Earth orbit. Resurrecting anything close to the Saturn hardware has eaten up massive resources and given NASA a galaxy-sized headache in the process. However, Griffin overreaches on what could have been.

“Working in low Earth orbit was not bad. Working exclusively in low Earth orbit was bad. 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,” Griffin told The Guardian.

This is a largely technical and budgetary analysis that completely ignores the political realities of the times. As Michael Neufeld demonstrates in his brilliant biography, Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War, Mars missions had virtually no public or political support even in the wake of the first Moon landing. Neufeld recounts a dinner hosted by Richard Nixon in Los Angeles for the three Apollo 11 astronauts scarcely three weeks after they returned to Earth.

“Outside left-wing demonstrators gave an indication of the realities NASA faced. According to Hans Mark, then director of the Ames Research Center in northern California: ‘A major feature of the demonstration was a huge sign with the legend “Fuck Mars” printed on it in large letters that the demonstrators had somehow been able to hang along the upper floors of one of the office buildings across the street from the Century Plaza.’ The opinion of a majority of the American public, although less crude, was scarcely more enthused for a human Mars expedition, a poll taken at the time showed. Nor was Congress signaling its acceptance. Liberal Democrats, under siege from both left and right, had largely abandoned big space programs in favor of urban and social issues, while most of the Republicans leaned toward fiscal austerity as the [Vietnam] war continued to grind up American soldiers and resources.”

That sentiment probably hasn’t really changed much in 40 years. There’s broad, general support for the space program, but when it comes down to sending people to Mars (and probably even the moon), the public’s enthusiasm is likely low. Especially in the current political climate. It all seems just so far from their daily lives.

One wonders whether NASA’s Vulcan administrator understands all this. The body politic has a logic all of its own that has little to do with budget numbers and engineering equations. It involves human emotions and deeply held values – things that seem logical to political scientists and psychologists but not always to engineers.

The real Spock (or, at least, the TV one) was often baffled by the seeming irrationality of his human crew mates. NASA’s version often seems equally perplexed – which may not bode well for the problem-plagued, budget-challenged programs that he is championing.