Thursday, December 11, 2008

Trouble at NASA with the transition

According to this story from the Orlando Sentinel, NASA chief administrator Michael Griffin is not cooperating with President-Elect Obama's transition team. I have no personal information to confirm this story, so it may not be true. But it would not surprise me if it is.

NASA's Constellation program, the proposed replacement for the Space Shuttle as the USA's primary means of getting humans into space, is Griffin's baby. And, understandably, he wants to see it go forward and succeed. He also wants it to progress quickly, because once the space shuttle is retired in 2010, the US will have no means to get humans into space, unless we hitch a ride with the Russians on their rockets. The earliest possible launch of the first manned rocket from the Constellation program won't be until at least 2016, if everything goes according to schedule.

Like most every government program, the Constellation program is running behind schedule and over budget. Some engineers (but not all) have raised serious-sounding concerns about the Constellation project, and have even proposed an alternative called Jupiter. I am not a rocket scientist, so I cannot speak to the validity of these concerns. The fact that they have been expressed publicly, though, means that they need to be addressed in a public and transparent manner, and I don't think this has been done. A major, independent review of the program is probably in order, so that we can keep our confidence in the Ares rocket and the constellation program.

The fact is, NASA is having an ugly internal fight right in the public's eyes. Former NASA science associate administrator Alan Stern recently wrote a scathing editorial about the state of NASA. Was this an honest opinion about the state of NASA? A thinly-veiled application to be Obama's NASA administrator? An airing of a private grievance? Or all three?

NASA is not served by such public bickering. Frankly, Michael Griffin should simply cooperate fully with the Obama team. If his rocket program is as good as he says it is, then it will go forward, and he will get credit for having started the program and seeing it through the always turbulent early design phases. If the program needs some tweaking or a major overhaul, it's best to do it now, and not three years down the road, when problems will cause a much longer and costlier delay. In that case, Griffin will be vilified for not having spotted these problems. In short, Griffin and NASA would be best served by eating some humble pie, being fully welcoming of the transition team, and letting the Obama administrator kick the tires of the Constellation program. If it's a good buy, they'll take it.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7:35 PM

    I must admit that the Jupiter concept has a much better chance of actually happening. It uses existing hardware when possible and takes "baby" steps instead of a giant leap.