Former NASA head critical of Obama move

June 12, 2009 10:58:34 AM PDT
Michael Griffin has moved from the administrator's suite atop NASA headquarters in Washington to the small, bare office of a new engineering professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Griffin, 59, wanted to remain as head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the job he held for almost four years under President Bush. But that was never a possibility when President Obama's administration took over.

"There wasn't any discussion," Griffin said flatly during an interview Wednesday.

So wearing a salmon-colored golf shirt and slacks rather than a Washington power suit, the former head of the nation's space agency is figuring out what comes next in the world of academia while keeping an eye on his previous employer.

Griffin was pleased with Obama's selection of former astronaut Charles Bolden as his successor. Griffin -- who was sometimes faulted for what some described as a prickly personality -- said Bolden has the experience, smarts and people skills for the job.

"It would be very hard to think more highly of him," he said. "He's way better with people than I am."

But Griffin doesn't have the same warm feelings about the administration's decision to study NASA's plan for the manned spaceflight program. Critics both outside and inside the agency have questioned NASA's plans for returning to the moon and, eventually, traveling to Mars.

"This review is not, in my judgment, necessary from a technical point of view," he said. "But it does seem to be necessary if we are going to quiet some of the criticism of what NASA is doing, and if we are going to get the new administration on board."

NASA had skeptics aplenty during Griffin's tenure.

Coming in as administrator more than two years after the Columbia disaster, Griffin became the leading voice of NASA's plan to retire the space shuttle next year and send astronauts back to the moon by 2020 using a pair of giant rockets called Ares.

NASA says the program, dubbed Constellation, is the best and only realistic way to resume space exploration after decades of orbiting Earth in the shuttle. Yet some say the plan is too expensive and lacks the needed power and reliability.

Griffin, a design engineer by trade, acknowledges challenges within the current program. But the questions dogging Ares are tiny compared to the ones that swirled around the Saturn V design that first shot astronauts to the moon in 1969, he said.

Griffin said he doesn't think the administration's review will mean any major changes for Constellation, "unless someone moves the goalpost" away from completing the space station, returning to the moon and then sending people to Mars.

But such studies can lead to funding uncertainties and a loss of momentum, he said, and NASA underwent a "seminal change" after the Columbia disaster in 2003, one that led to the current plan to astronauts back to the moon and on to Mars.

"The space agency had its change you can believe in," said Griffin, referring to Obama's campaign theme. "What it needs now is to be left alone to execute well."

Griffin will make $350,000 annually in an endowed teaching position at UAH, a division of the University of Alabama which hopes to increase its national profile by hiring him. He also started a consulting business with his wife and is making speaking appearances.

Griffin said he was well suited to the job of NASA administrator, but he's hardly a stranger in the world of academics.

A certified pilot, he previously taught for 13 years in various adjunct professorships, has five master's degrees and holds a doctorate in aerospace engineering from the University of Maryland. He was head of the space department in the applied physics laboratory at Johns Hopkins University before taking over at NASA.

But now, Griffin's got people to meet in his new home in the Tennessee Valley and a course schedule to plan. There's no receptionist outside his door or private bathroom like on the top floor at NASA, but Griffin isn't complaining.

"This is where I would prefer to be if I'm not running NASA," Griffin said. "After all, I picked it."

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