Two ex-NASA administrators of wildly diverging views addressed the National Research Council’s Committee on NASA’s Strategic Direction this week, much to my amusement. It was the sort of political theater that delights us hard-core policy wonks….
The NRC’s Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences assembled this committee at NASA’s request (see my July 18 blog post) “to assess whether [the agency’s] strategic direction…as defined by the 2011 NASA strategic plan, remains viable and whether the agency’s activities and organization efficiently and effectively support that direction in light of the potential for constrained budgets for the foreseeable future.” (A detailed description of the committee’s task is available here.)
Mike Griffin, President George W. Bush’s second appointed head of NASA (2005-2009), and Bob Frosch, President Jimmy Carter’s appointee to the position (1977-1981), had an hour apiece with the committee at its July 26 meeting in Washington, D.C. I was there to observe. Frosch was there to listen to Griffin. Griffin left the meeting before Frosch spoke – a pity, as I would love to have seen a dialogue between the two…
In today’s post, I’ll recap Griffin’s remarks. Next week, I’ll report on what Frosch said. Then you, dear readers, can decide who makes more sense.
Griffin told the committee that he’s grown “tired” of pronouncements that the United States is “the world’s leader in space.”* “We barely rank number 3…. Our vision today is mostly talk,” he said, insisting that the Constellation program put in place in response to President Bush’s so-called “Vision for Space Exploration” was, and still is, a good plan and affordable to execute. He asserted that Bush’s strategy was “the right strategy, was endorsed by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, and did not a massive increase in the NASA budget.”
(My recollection is that after President Bush called for returning people to the Moon and sending them on to Mars, neither the White House nor Congress adequately funded the effort required to enable this “vision” to materialize. The Constellation program appeared to be over budget and behind schedule from Day One until it was cancelled by the Obama administration, which apparently came to the realization that it was unaffordable. As Griffin himself pointed out, the Review of Human Space Flight Plans Committee commissioned by President Obama concluded that NASA would need a budget boost of at least $3 billion a year to execute Bush’s “vision.” Griffin might not call that massive, but apparently others do.)
NASA’s “science program is out of bounds” in terms of how much of the agency’s budget it takes up, Griffin said. The core purpose of NASA is human space flight, and “if you want to have a prepossessing human space flight program,” NASA needs to spend less on science and more on human exploration.
As a committee member noted, the 1958 NASA Act dictates an array of purposes, objectives, and functions for the space agency, including but by no means limited to human exploration. But no matter to Mike…
When asked what he thought of the Obama administration’s call for a human mission to an asteroid rather than a return to the Moon, Griffin said, “I think it’s stupid.” When asked how NASA might be able to come up with a do-able long-term plan for exploration within current funding constraints (that is, flat funding for the foreseeable future), Griffin said assuming NASA’s budget will continue to be constrained “is a poor way to think.” He criticized NASA’s current capabilities-driven approach to human exploration, insisting that it has to be mission-driven (i.e. Moon-Mars). He hinted that human exploration might be conducted more efficiently and thus affordably if not for bureaucracy. “Efficiency in government is highly undemocratic…it is authoritarian,” and the U.S. government procurement system is designed for fairness, not efficiency.
Committee chair Al Carnesale asked Griffin how the space program might be able to transcend the problem of politics driving NASA strategy. Begging the question, Griffin said NASA should not develop policy but implement it (which is what, as far as I can tell, NASA does.)
Griffin declared that the primary value of the U.S. civil space program “is its contribution to our national security.” The space program is “a strategic national asset.” The United States contains “5 percent of the world’s people and controls 25 percent of its wealth…and we like it that way” he said. Arguing for a more aggressive human exploration program, he said the United States is following in the footsteps of the ancient Roman empire and the British empire by carrying on with “expanding and exploiting” into space.
The committee thanked him for his “candor.”
*Earlier this month the President’s Science Advisor John Holdren publicly declared that the U.S. is and will remain “the” world leader in space. I will note that the NASA Act calls for the agency to establish the United States as “a” leader in space exploration. Griffin reportedly is advising the Romney campaign.