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Thu, Sep 29, 2005

Griffin: Shuttle, ISS Were Mistakes

Let's Roll Back 30 Years And Build On Apollo

by Aero-News Senior Correspondent Kevin R.C. "Hognose" O'Brien

In a Page 1A Story in USA Today NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told us what he thinks of the Space Shuttle and International Space Station projects: they were mistakes.

"It is now commonly accepted," Griffin told the newspaper's Editorial Board, that developing the Space Shuttle and discarding the progress of the space program to that date, including the moon-landing Apollo Project, "was not the right path."

Now he tells us.

But Griffin is only saying what a growing chorus of critics have said: the Shuttle never fulfilled its promise of cheap, fast, rapid-turn-around flight to orbit, and it never aimed higher than orbit.

Griffin sounded equally sour on the ISS, although he did not go so far as to say that a space station in general was a bad idea. "Had the decision been mine, we would not have built the space station we're building in the orbit we're building it in," is what he told the editors.

He faulted the Shuttle for being an "extremely aggressive [design] and just barely possible."

"We are now trying to change the path while doing as little damage as we can," Griffin said. The new NASA vision heads on, to the moon, to the planets. The trick is doing that while retaining NASA's massive investment in hardware -- and in people.

President Bush's vision for NASA sees a Space Shuttle retirement by 2010 and a return to manned interplanetary exploration.

The ISS as it's been understood up to now is probably doomed; without scores of additional shuttle flights it can't be finished, and a look at the sort of science it produces so far, as given in the expedition reports and schedules of the ISS crews, is disappointing -- there are a lot of experiments devised by somebody's middle-school science class in there.

In order to maintain the ISS schedule, NASA committed to abandonment of the Hubble Space Telescope, which has produced paradigm-shifting science.

USA Today consulted an expert who estimated the cost of the Shuttle at $150 billion  from 1971 to date, and the ISS at $100 million so far (although some of the latter cost has been born by such partners as Russia, Japan and Canada). To put that in perspective, it's about what the Louisiana congressional delegation has demanded for Katrina relief, and rather more than the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.

The problem with money for NASA, especially for a NASA with an interplanetary focus, is that the moon and the planets are not in any Congressman's district. The recent highway bill with it's 6,300 earmarked projects, like the famous Don Young Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska, illustrates where their priorities are.

So the Shuttle takes its place as one of the bad ideas of the 1970s, along with WIN buttons, tie-dyed bell bottoms, the Pinto, Vega and Gremlin, seatbelt-ignition interlocks, the Continental Tiara engine, and KC and the Sunshine Band.

That is unlikely to be accepted by any of the thousands of people who worked in the program during these last thirty years. Joe Rothenburg, head of manned programs during the second Clinton administration, defended the programs to USA Today, while admitting that there could have been other ways of doing things.

Changing an organization's direction is very hard -- it's especially hard to do without damaging employee morale, and the prouder the organization, the harder it gets. Mike Griffin has a leadership challenge on his hands. Can you imagine how it feels to be a shuttle astronaut, up in the air about whether you will ever fly, and now hearing that your organization is about to deep-six the system you have spent six years, or ten, or a career on? Imagine how the engineers feel, the ones who created this textbook example of extreme engineering and set it to fly in the most hostile conditions man has every traveled through.

What has Mike got to offer these people, in place of the dreams they had?

Well, there is the moon....

FMI: www.nasa.gov

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