Michael Griffin Redux

Posted By Pamela on Mar 10, 2008 | 13 comments

The last time I reported on Michael Griffin I was at AAS and he was addressing us (the astronomy community) on the future of astronomy missions (space missions focusing on stuff outside of our solar system). Today he will address the planetary science community (and a few stray astronomers like me) on the future of planetary science at NASA. For this group, the Moon Missions – the manned moon missions – are still a path to science (1 of the many Apollo astronauts was a geologist, and most of those who landed collected rocks). It will be interesting to see how this talk varies from the January talk. The room is packed. Literally – scientists are standing shoulder to shoulder three rows deep at the back and lining the room all the way down the sides of room.

The last time I was at LPSC, NASA announced how they had planned and put in place initial funding for every mission outlined in the planetary sciences decadal survey. The NASA representative was met with thunderous applause and bright shiny dreams for the future. We’ll see what today brings.

I have to say this is a different Griffin then I saw in Austin. He started by sincerely expressing his sorrow at the death of Gordan McKay and presented his widow and children a plaque in gratitude for McKay’s work at NASA.

Now, Griffin – acknowledging he is the only thing between us and dinner – is starting with a reference to Kennedy and his vision of going to the Moon. He is pointing out that today’s politicians aren’t known for their stirring oratories, but he is looking for other people to be our inspiration. It is a NASA one, US one, inspiration – In the eyes of the world “first in space means first, period; second in space is second in everything.” He is praising the Lunar and Planetary Institute (the host organization for this meeting) for its work to promote and carry out projects beyond Earth’s orbit.

Looking to the Johnson Space Flight Center, we have a center not named after a great orator, but after a politician who worked hard to pass legislation to move NASA forward. Today, under a new vision, we continue to advance space forward.

Griffin is using a lot of humor to talk about the change in the vision he put through a couple years ago. He is stating that in many ways Gene Roddenberry’s vision for the Enterprise, while containing a split-infinitive, contains an idealized vision. While we may not be the ones to find new civilizations, we may be the ones to build new civilizations on strange new worlds. This is a speech designed to inspire us to – as humans – see ourselves as the ones out exploring surfaces of other worlds. He is drawing on the memories of great moments of the past – Mariner, Pioneer, Voyager – and is looking forward to tomorrow’s successes – MESSENGER, New Horizons – while saying that exploration is our future.

The tone is changing as he explains that he has never seen a mission (context = planetary mission) he doesn’t like. But, with NASA receiving 6/10 of a percent (0.6%) of the federal budget, not every mission is possible. He is quoting Wired, keeping the audience laughing, as he points out that the public thinks NASA gets 26% of the Federal budget, and that one fellow, after hearing the small size of the actual budget, remarked “No wonder NASA hasn’t done anything interesting in a while.”

With limited means, the planetary science budget is getting rearranged to improve our scientific coverage of outer planets – a new mission is being planned to the outer solar system – while de-emphasizing Mars. Small missions to the moon (talked about Sunday) are also being added, and instruments are being build for India’s moon mission. These missions will help pave the way for manned missions. There are also landers planned, total of 7 US NASA missions planned by 2014.

He wants to see the US as a world leader, but he also wants partners. He sees NASA as a world space program, with over half of its programs having international members. He sees the International Space Station as part of this – with ISS allowing us to work on our biomedical understanding of people living in space. He is invoking the name of the Columbia crew as heroes whose dream we continue (I’m not sure I agree with any of this part – You can’t be a leader and have partners who are equals – I want partners who are equals. The Columbia crew did science, they did not go to ISS – I’m not sure how you invoke their name to invoke dreams of ISS).

He is outlining the tests of the new launch vehicles, launching from Kennedy and the New Mexico spaceport. He is challenging us to find uses for these new vehicles, and he is challenging us to find ways for NASA to stay first in space and first in the world.

Comments? I’m fascinated by the difference between Griffin here and Griffin at AAS. Rebecca and I are both sitting here with our mouths open. This guy I could like. Maybe. If only the whole world dominance thing wasn’t so strongly voiced so often.

Below I try to get as close to word for word as I could. Some paraphrasing did occur, but I think I captured the tones and many of the exact phrases.

One European said, “I have a few comments.” Griffin said, “I don’t want comments, I want questions.” She said, “No, No, I’m here to represent Europe and European voices. …” She went on to talk about her project (Mars sample return), and how NASA’s cuts to Mars are effecting Europe – there is a sense that NASA isn’t serious about actually doing the planned international Mars sample return. When NASA makes cuts on collaborations, its hurts everyone. Griffin: “Really – I don’t want comments. I’m the invited speaker. I’m the one invited to talk. Other people can make comments when they are invited to speak. I want questions – But I’ll try and address the question within your comments.” He went on to explain that Mars cannot always have the flagship mission. If we have an international obligation to maintain high levels, we can’t meet our own goals. We will however meet obligations we have – including Mars sample return. So, Griffin says, we are restoring Mars to a historic average and putting much of the money elsewhere. That said, he went on to explain that NASA is dedicated to the agreed upon Mars sample return mission, and he will talk to the ESA version of his position to confirm this and assuage ESA fears.

The next question is about the new badge and security check that is being done on NASA employees at JPL. He is saying this is identical to what civil servants have gone through for decades, and everything has been reviewed by lawyers before being implemented. For now, we’re living with it.

From depressing badges to Google Lunar X-Prize – How will NASA deal with a commercial winner? Will there be commercial contracts? asks someone from the commercial space race (he didn’t say which company). Griffin: Yes. And we’ll use a certain amount of government money to seed it and will hirer folks.

Grad student comment: I work on Mars. Mars is the only program getting an A today from the National Resource Council. Now we’re stripping money from Mars to the outer solar system to support those weaker programs. How can we maintane excellence if we keep moving money from program to program? What do you have to say to young scientists?
Griffin: Don’t specialize. Specializing is for bugs. You’ll have a better career if you can do more things. … Be prepared to have turmoil in your career. … NASA has a bold vision and we need to be able to move money around. Tell me, if we are going to hold Mars funding constant and have a mission to the outer solar system, where should we cut the funding from to have both these missions?
audience mutterings: from manned space (the grad student declined to repeat over the mic what the audience said)
Grad Student: How do we convince the Government to get us money?
Griffin: We’re not allowed to lobby congress
Grad Student: NASA Produces great educational materials
Griffin: Yes we do, but … Let me remind you that NASA is not the department of education. NASA spends $15 million each year on education – that’s enough money for one more discovery mission, and we can’t do that mission because of the education we do. I’m not saying that is money badly spent, but … NASA is the only thing in the domestic discretionary part of the Federal budget that hasn’t received cuts.
Grad Student: I’m not trying to make fun of NASA – I’m trying to say I want to live in a world in 30 years where people are better educated in Science, Math, and Technology
Griffin: That’s not NASA’s job
Grad Student: (pause) Do you have any insights from your work with politicians on how we can get more science education?
Griffin: I don’t generally get any insights from politicians

Smithsonian Center Women: What happens to everyone who in the past 25 years who have dedicated their careers to Mars? What happens to the wealth of data we have?
Griffin: Apply to the money in the R&A budget, and you can get money based on your scientific merit. … (paraphrase totally here) The argument that we have had money and we do have jobs with Mars is not a valid argument for continuing to study Mars. It is time to do new things.
Smithsonian Center Women: So we shouldn’t specialize?
Griffin: No … And the Mars program isn’t being zeroed out. Not even close.

Smithsonian Center Man: If my child came home with an A, a C and a D, my answer would not be to lower the A. I would say get an A in everything! (spontaneous applause from Audience) What do you/congress see as an acceptable grade for NASA?
Griffin: In a world of limited resources, I can’t get an A in everything. … When as a golfer my putting sucks (his word) I don’t spend all my time on the driving range.
Person: What can we do to help your resources?
Griffen: Talk to Congress.

Man from Pratt Whitney Rocket-dyn: When you leave NASA, what do you see as your greatest achievement and greatest disappointment?
Griffin: I can’t grade my own paper. I have a deep ethical aversion to self-assessment
(Pamela’s inner dialogue – Ummmm, self assessment is good)
Griffin: I hired people who knew space. There were no nervous virgins. Everyone knew their way around the space industry. I hired people with domain expertise and that matters. If anyone notices it, that would mean a lot to me. My greatest disappointment is the lack of ability to find a shuttle replacement. I yield to no one on the need to retire the shuttle in 2010. I regret that I haven’t – at a policy level – convinced anyone to buy into a shuttle replacement in the past 3 years.

EPO Mars Coordinator Carla: You put me in a fix. I assure you that we do not have a replacement population for the ladies and gentle me in this room in the next 15 to 20 years. I encourage people to follow these incredible specializations. I like the “No planet left behind”. I don’t see the answer coming from the department of education. What do I do? (she said more much more eloquently.
Griffin: If you aren’t getting what you need of the Department of Education, you need to fix that agency. If I take on the job another agency is chartered for, I’m going to get slapped.
… NASA’s job is to present the mission and vision of today’s space program. Fixing science education in America is not part of NASA’s job. It is not in our charter. Go look at our charter. I feel your pain. I was an adjunct professor for 15 years. I know we are doing a bad job at science education in America, but it is NOT NASA’s job to fix that. We are here to provide content.

Person I missed title of: (massive paraphrase) We’re a small part of the world. Other nations are rising – Europe, China, India – How can we continue to be dominate and be bold?
Griffin: (massive paraphrase) We’re 4% of world’s population, but 25% of world’s budget. Other nations don’t have the space budget we have. Our budget system is so bad as everyone seems to think. NASA’s budget was largest in the year’s pre-Clinton. … We get as much money every 10 or 15 year bin today as we got during Apollo. … (closer to quote again) If we’re getting the same amount of money as before and we’re not happy with what we’re doing as we were before, we need change what we’re doing. We can’t responsibly ask for more money until we know how to use what we have. … We need to be good enough, clever enough, and bold enough at what we do that other people (referring to Europe) to join us as volunteers. We can’t leverage other people’s resources. … We need to be in a position to say, here is what we are absolutely going to do, you tell us what you are going/want to do. … Over 50% of our missions have international collaborators.

JPL Scientist: I think it is a mistake to tell people not to specialize. I think it is better to have the funding to maintain specializations. … This is what happened when Apollo went away. All the lunar specialist went to other fields and that expertise was lost.
Griffin: Apollo’s budget was set to zero. Mars budget was not put to zero. We are not getting rid of that expertise, we are just returning things to lower levels.

Women: Thank you for restoring outer solar system missions and the servicing mission to Hubble. What is being down to increase access to launch vehicles and power systems?
Griffin: Paraphrasing – We’re developing new technologies. As for launch vehicles … government is not very efficient. I’m hoping that the commercial space agencies will drive innovation and lower costs. Government can be efficient under stress (when things get streamlined), but it can’t be successful when trying to meet the needs of everyone in all of government. For instance, the system of procurement is designed to be fair but not to be efficient. … We need to empower a group to efficiently run the space race. I hope that it will be NASA, but it may be the commercial agencies…

Griffin had to go to dinner (and so do I) so the meeting ended.


  1. I was near Star Stryder at Griffin’ talk. She’s a pretty good note-taker on the BlackBerry.
    The Google X-Prize speaker is from the Lunar and Planetary Lab at the University of Arizona.
    Griffin is a lousy speech reader but is much better answering questions on his feet.
    Glad that Mars dominated the QA.

  2. >I’m fascinated by the difference between Griffin here
    >and Griffin at AAS.

    And up to that point in the posting, so was I. I was actually starting to check back and thinking, “Is this the same guy who was at AAS?”

    How did your assessment go toward the end of the talk? Past that point in the posting I would well believe this was the same person that made you mad last month.

  3. >The next question is about the new badge and security check
    >that is being done on NASA employees at JPL. He is saying
    >this is identical to what civil servants have gone through
    >for decades, and everything has been reviewed by lawyers
    >before being implemented.

    Do we have any idea how this suit is going?

    This is bull, honestly. I’ve been a civil servant. I never went through any checks like what has been described.

    I’m thrilled to see, finally, more and more people wake up to the Orwellian aspects of the current administration and the entities they’ve created. Perhaps when enough of us wake up and move the current administration and party out of office we can begin dismantling things like “Homeland Security.”

    But, I digress…heavily. It’s been that sort of a day. 🙂

  4. This man is an asshole. And, we should suffer no assholes in leadership positions. We need someone to bankrole a few high-powered lawsuits against him after his tenure at NASA – enough to financially ruin him in the ensuing tangle. Their content doesn’t matter,just that he’s in court for a few years.

  5. Very interesting report. Thanks for your effort to keep us in the know.

    The emphasis on despecialization almost sounds a little foreboding. Almost every golf tournament today is a 4-person scramble, so you better have someone who is great with driving, great with irons, great from sand, and great with putting. Being the best requires all 4, especially if your putting sucks.

  6. Again, our appreciation for the dogged reporting. True Journalism. Here near Middletown / Englehard (the crew prefers Darkwood, actually) we often feel as though we were already on Malapert, and have, between nuts and bolts, actually been reading these postings aloud to one another.

    Despise not the time of small beginnings.

  7. Thank you for the report. I’m hoping that with a change in president we’ll get a change in the importance of science and maybe an increase in the overall funding of science programs. More for all science, not just NASA.

    I agree with Griffin that science education isn’t a major NASA responsibility. But since they have the flashy projects that draw in students, education and pointing students toward other resources has to be part of their mission. Maybe the science education community can work on having *obvious* good resources.

    I emphasize obvious. There’s a lot of wonderful information out there. I learn so much from Astronomy Cast and Scientific Americans’ 60-Second Science. There are loads of great web sites. But where does a 9-year-old fascinated with the stars go to explore and learn today as well as see a path to follow to become an astrophysicist? It has to involve math. And she needs to hear that very, very early.

    You may want to study the composition of long-period comets, but you start off broadly and don’t super-specialize until you’re in grad school. And I think Griffin’s mention on not specializing is a reminder that you don’t forget the basics of planetary geology while you’re chasing comets. It’s a good idea to keep an eye on related fields. That’s good advice for anyone.

    Sorry this got so long. Thank you for the reporting and commentary.

  8. It’s amazing how jaded he has become. I really believe that what we are witnessing is a man frustrated and undone by his inability to overcome the massive bureaucracy of the government. The cynicism of his tones are becoming common place amongst many popular (amongst the aerospace community) pundits that also champion spaceflight.

    His change in attitude is proof that attempting to convince the people of the importance of your endeavor is the wrong thing to do. It is a free country, people can believe whatever they want to believe, and when your space program is publicly funded, its the people’s money, and therefore you are duty bound to listen and abide by the people’s criticisms. There should be no great crusade for space support or demands that “if people would just realize how important space is,” etc… Such demands are are not within the principles of freedom that this country was founded on.

    The most powerful vote is with your wallet. So you love space? Quit tring to convince everyone that you’re right and do something that will make a tangible difference. Invest in private space.

  9. Re: Do we have any idea how this suit is going?

    There is an injunction in place, halting the new background checks.

    More at http://hspd12jpl.org

  10. I find it somewhat interesting that the “grad student” paraphrased above (and some of the audience) seemed to be touting the Obama plan to cut manned spaceflight in order to fund his education goals. Because we all know that throwing money at a problem that’s always been well funded is what you need to fix it.

  11. I like Mike, always have. I agree that he sounds jaded and can completely understand that it is probably from exhaustion and battling uphill. But I think he is fighting the right battles, especially in a strategic sense:
    Education, per se, is not his mission. Tell Dept of Ed. to call Mike and ask for cool stuff to teach, but don’t tell Mike to go round up all the nations students and read them a story. Make DoEd a content puller, not NASA a content pusher.
    I think its jaded on our part to think Mike was suggesting that scientist forget their skill set specialties. I think the focus is on where these skills are applied, and this should be flexible. The nation will not tolerate a ‘large’ (meaning out of balance) Mars program or any other single planet, for decades on end. Wont people get bored? Wouldn’t they be right to ask, ‘you’ve been studying this one question for how long?’.
    I think it is just mean of us, knowing that the man is trying to promote a space exploration vision and is tired from the uphill climb, to interpret his comments so bleakly. For example, he clearly is not suggesting to zero the Mars budget, so lets not feign quite such alarm.

  12. Griffin’s inane ‘questions vs. comments’ rant at the unfortunate questioner shows how intolerant this administration is toward any dissent. Incapable of listening to it, much less responding professionally. What is all this talk about bugs? Is that what he really thinks?

    Just over 300 days left in this administration. It can’t come soon enough. I hope they take Griffin with him. He sounds like he could use a break. And some counseling.

  13. –ú–æ–∂–Ω–æ –∏ –ø–æ —ç—Ç–æ–º—É –≤–æ–ø—Ä–æ—Å—É, –≤–µ–¥—å —Ç–æ–ª—å–∫–æ –≤ —Å–ø–æ—Ä–µ –º–æ–∂–µ—Ç –±—ã—Ç—å –¥–æ—Å—Ç–∏–≥–Ω—É—Ç–∞ –∏—Å—Ç–∏–Ω–∞. 🙂


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