The Orlando Sentinel reported this week on an alleged conflict between current NASA Director Michael Griffin and members of the Obama NASA transition team:
NASA administrator Mike Griffin is not cooperating with President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team, is obstructing its efforts to get information and has told its leader that she is "not qualified" to judge his rocket program. ... In a heated 40-minute conversation last week with Lori Garver, a former NASA associate administrator who heads the space transition team, a red-faced Griffin demanded to speak directly to Obama, according to witnesses.
In addition, Griffin is scripting NASA employees and civilian contractors on what they can tell the transition team and has warned aerospace executives not to criticize the agency’s moon program
It's no secret I have mixed feelings about Griffin. He is not an unqualified crony or industry lobbyist. Griffin was at the very least a passive observer and at worst an active instigator in the shameful censorship of climate change data that was finally brought to light by courageous action of the legendary Dr. James Hansen. Dr Alan Stern, coming from a completely different direction, noted in a pointed NYT editorial last week that another ongoing internecine battle pits the cancerous cost over run NASA culture against an up and coming progressive approach that could save taxpayers billions.
That debate between manned vs unmanned has always existed. But the heavy emphasis on unmanned projects like the Lunar and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiters, along with resistance to novel R & D changes, is stirring it up anew in an unlikely place: within the unmanned community. The LRO and MRO have become sacred cows, because, as some sources claim, they pull critical resources away from other robotic missions, when in fact they should be part of and funded under the planned manned programs to return to the moon and eventually put humans on Mars. In addition, these missions and several others are design and built using traditional methods that depend on a labyrinth of cumbersome and expensive procedures virtually guaranteed to go way over budget and line the pockets of contractors.
The progressive approach for future unmanned missions relies on a three pronged strategy: open source technology led by the NASA CoLab, a greatly improved streamlined procurement procedure, and a newer modular design methodology. The cost advantages of open source are readily apparent to patrons of Daily Kos. Streamlining the design to production procedure is a utilitarian solution familiar to anyone in manufacturing. And the interchangeable, modular approach promises to do for fleets of robotic spacecraft what Eli Whitney is credited for doing for small arms manufacturing in the US. Some of those methods were developed in prototype form in a 1994 mission to search for caches of ice on the lunar surface. Clementine was expedited from concept to finished spacecraft in a fraction of the time and for far less than a similar missions using the traditional methods.
This is the wave of the future and it holds promise to trim billions off costs across the board for unmanned missions. But it won’t come easily. NASA culture is surprisingly conservative, and there is staunch resistance among suppliers. Like the Big Three automakers that have become dependent on production lines that make SUVS, NASA contractors have grown complacent on the highly profitable, old style production processes.
But the traditional battle lines between manned and human spaceflight are, as usual, the crux of conflict. The Griffin era managers are concerned the Constellation program, consisting of the Ares heavy booster rocket[s] and the Orion crew module, will be delayed or scrapped altogether along with their life’s work. That conflict is most unfortunate, because these groups are not mutually exclusive, far from it.
The same Ares super rocket, or something like it, intended to put humans back on the moon and eventually on Mars has the power to loft 50,000 kilos of payload beyond the earth-moon system. A booster of that magnitude could put much of the ISS up in a single launch. It could put the ATLAS telescope, with its enormous 8 meter primary mirror that makes Hubble look like a pair of binoculars, in high earth orbit and have enough capacity left over to still put every major deep space unmanned mission launched in the last ten years beyond low earth orbit in one glorious shot. Regardless if the payload is deep space probes or crew capsules bound for the moon and beyond, we need Ares.
From time to time one reads of the Ares failing a ground test or an engineer reviewing a problem with one of the booster’s subsystems. Well, in defense of Ares proponents like Griffin, those problems are not unprecedented in the history of space exploration by a long shot. The engines on the mighty Saturn V that hurled Apollo 8 around the far side of the moon in 1968, are the same ones that were still blowing to smithereens during routine ground tests a couple of years before. Never forget, the first incarnation of the Apollo Command Module that allowed Neil Armstrong to transfix the world with his One Small Step in 1969, burst into flames on the launch pad a few scant months earlier killing all three astronauts inside.
These design challenge are resolvable, especially since, unlike the heady days of the space race, we have the luxury of time on our side to hone the Ares boosters, and perfect deep space designs using unmanned mission over the next decade or two. And as part of that bargain, our robotic guinea pigs will provide more dazzling discoveries, answer more questions about distant worlds, and shed light on the nature and origin of our comsos than has been gleaned in the last half century. Meanwhile, crew modules can be tested safely and far more cheaply in our own planetary neighborhood on the ISS to a degree that would exceed the wildest dreams of mission designers a generation ago.
If we so choose, armed with refinements for long duration human habitats built on a foundation developed on the ISS, using heavy lift boosters like the Ares V, augmented by new interplanetary propulsion systems, will be prepared in twenty years or less to decide if we’re ready and willing to embark on manned mission to the moon and beyond. All while our robotic explorers are placed on station around every major planet, moon, and asteroid out to the distant edge of the solar system. There, plying the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud on electric jets, our machine surrogates will stand poised on the very edge of the solar system, peering boldly across a vast ocean of interstellar space to the nearest stars by the end of this century.
Rather than artificially pitting manned and unmanned enthusiasts against one another, scrapping for funding in an ultimately unnatural, irrational, and counterproductive state, give them the tools and structure to do what comes far naturally to them than bickering in the pages of the Orlando Sentinel: standing shoulder to shoulder, united and raring to go tackle the greatest technical challenges our species will ever undertake. And if those factions can be pulled together as part of a single proud team, led by a new Director inspired by a science friendly Congress and White House, one day, the four letters N-A-S-A, will be a global household name, as well known to future children as Christopher Columbus.