Last Friday, Pres. Bush nominated Michael Griffin as his new NASA chief to replace Sean O'Keefe, who left NASA to become chancellor at Louisiana State University. Liked by many members of Congress, Griffin’s confirmation by the Senate may be quick to come.
Bush’s choice comes just weeks before the space shuttle is scheduled to resume flights following the Columbia disaster that killed all seven astronauts during reentry more than two years ago.
But the space shuttle fleet is scheduled for retirement by 2010, as Bush and NASA have made plans to return to the moon. A new generation of spacecraft will transport astronauts and equipment to the International Space Station, which will serve as a space dock for ships going to the moon and, eventually, to Mars.
Griffin seems right for the job. He is a scientist and engineer, holding a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering and five master's degrees, in aerospace science, electrical engineering, applied physics, civil engineering and business administration. His bachelor's degree is in physics.
He has the right mix of space science knowledge and administrative talent needed to put NASA on track for the future. And that’s just what the beleaguered agency needs after suffering a number of failures over the past decade.
Although NASA has had several success stories, such as the two Mars rovers that are still operating on the surface of the Red Planet, it has also been plagued by embarrassing failures.
Griffin would also be in a position to reverse O’Keefe’s decision not to send a shuttle mission to repair the aging Hubble Space Telescope. It was an unpopular decision based on safety issues. But many experts believe that the risks are well within acceptable limits, given the extraordinary discoveries that have been the fruit of the Hubble mission thus far.
Bush is no friend to science and technology in general. But his devotion to the space program and to sending humans outside of Earth’s orbit for the first time in a generation is laudable. The biggest problem with his plan is that it stretches decades, when it should only stretch years.
With Griffin on board, it’s possible the timetable could be shortened. Last year, he joined eight other experts in writing a report that pushed for an even quicker retirement of the shuttle in order to accelerate work on a spaceship that could carry astronauts to the international space station and ultimately to the moon.
In 1962, Pres. Kennedy set a goal to send men to the moon and bring them back safely before that decade was out. At the time he set the goal, America was having trouble even sending unmanned rockets into space.
Yet we beat that goal by five months, despite the setback of the Apollo I disaster that killed three astronauts, including Hoosier Gus Grissom. But the public was behind that effort. With the Soviet Union ahead of us in the space race in 1962, we had someone to race against.
Today, there is no evil empire to spur us along. And the public has not been completely sold on the idea. Perhaps Griffin can start the processes of selling it.
Sending explorers back to the moon and to neighboring planets is the next logical step, the only step left really, in human exploration. The rewards would be huge, well worth the investment.
Griffin’s experience and background may be just the prescription for NASA’s return to a golden age of space travel, which will one day lead to colonization, not simply exploration. It’s a good first step.