A Big Sloppy Wet Kiss

That’s what Jeff Kluger gives to NASA and the Bush administration in this Time piece. The very first graf lays out the hero, and the villain:

Getting into a shouting match with the HR rep is not exactly the best way to land a job. But according to the Orlando Sentinel, that’s just what happened last week between NASA administrator Mike Griffin and Lori Garver, a member of Barack Obama’s transition team who will help decide if Griffin keeps his post once the President-elect takes office. If the contretemps did occur, it could help doom not only the NASA chief’s chances, but the space agency’s ambitious plans to get Americans back to the moon.

The fact that those last few words are a link almost make it seem like an emphasis. “Doom the space agency’s plans to get Americans back to the moon!” <sound=”dissonant organ chord, thunderclap, horses whinnying”></sound>

If you in fact follow the link, it’s to a piece that Kluger wrote about a month ago on those wonderful plans. The piece continues on, lauding the Bush administration’s foresight in coming up with a new plan, and putting the people into place to execute it. There is an implicit assumption that if Dr. Griffin is removed, and his inspiring architecture ended, that we will have to leave returning to the moon to another generation, because it’s the only way to do it.

It’s very clear that he has talked only to NASA officials who agree with the thesis, and to no one else. In fact, the only quotes he has are from Scott Horowitz and Chris Shank. With regard to Horowitz, he writes:

“At the time, the shuttle had flown 290 people, and out of those 14 were dead — nearly one in 20,” says Scott Horowitz, a four-time shuttle veteran who designed the Ares 1, one of the new boosters. “We needed something that was an order of magnitude safer.”

He doesn’t mention that Horowitz has left the agency to “spend more time with his family.” And he has a quote from Shank:

“We’ve been moving in the right direction since the Columbia accident [in 2003],” says Chris Shank, NASA’s chief of strategic communications. “The concern is that we’ll lose that.” Lately, that concern appears well-placed.

There is no argument about why it is “the right direction” — simply a statement as though it’s fact. And what would you expect Mike Griffin’s flack to say? That there are a lot of ways to get there, and they just happened to pick this one? That they now realized as they’ve gotten into it that it wasn’t as “safe, simple and soon” as ATK’s Horowitz sold it to be?

Most notably, is who he didn’t seem to have talked to — he didn’t bother to get the side of anyone on the transition team. Here’s what he has to say about Lori Garver:

The Obama team picked Garver to run the NASA transition, in part because of her deep pedigree and long history at the space agency, which saw her climb to the rank of associate administrator. But Garver started as a PAO — NASA-speak for a public affairs officer — and never got involved in the nuts and bolts of building rockets. She is best known by most people as the person who in 2002 competed with boy-band singer Lance Bass for the chance to fly to the International Space Station aboard a Russian rocket. Neither of them ever left the ground.

Garver’s lack of engineering cred is especially surprising in light of the eggheads with whom Obama has been surrounding himself — most recently, Nobel prize winning physicist Steven Chu, who has reportedly been tapped to be Secretary of Energy. Garver is also not thought to be much of a fan of Griffin — who is an engineer — nor to be sold on the plans for the new moon program. What she and others are said to be considering is to scrap the plans for the Ares 1 — which is designed exclusively to carry humans — and replace it with Atlas V and Delta IV boosters, which are currently used to launch satellites but could be redesigned, or “requalified,” for humans. Griffin hates that idea, and firmly believes the Atlas and Delta are unsafe for people. One well-placed NASA source who asked not to be named reports that as much as Griffin wants to keep his job, he’ll walk away from it if he’s made to put his astronauts on top of those rockets.

NASA is right to be uneasy about just what Obama has planned for the agency since his position on space travel shifted — a lot — during the campaign. A year before the election he touted an $18 billion education program and explicitly targeted the new moon program as one he’d cut to pay for it. In January of 2008, he lined up much closer to the Bush moon plan — perhaps because Republicans were already on board and earning swing-state support as a result. Three months before the election, Obama fully endorsed the 2020 target for putting people on the moon. But that was a candidate talking and now he’s president-elect, and his choice of Garver as his transition adviser may say more than his past campaign rhetoric.

There is an implication here that in addition to the fact that she’s not technical, she has no interest in manned space. Otherwise (since obviously the evil Obama wants to kill this program, despite the fact that his views evolved to support it during the campaign), why put her in place? But to anyone who knows her, like her or not, that is lunacy. Let’s let Al Fansome do the heavy lifting in her support, in comments over at Space Politics in response to one of our favorite clueless space commentators:

WHITTINGTON: Or, cancelling VSE entirely, which is what I suspect she has in mind


You like to talk like you know space policy, but you obviously don’t know anything about Lori Garver. You have been around for many years, but sometimes you are just a dunce.

I will prove it.

Lori has been a big supporter of the VSE.

On the day that the VSE was announced Lori was on television promoting the VSE. Check out the Lehrer News Hour on January 14, 2004 where she debate Bob Parks.

Relevant excerpts below.


LORI GARVER: I’m very enthused about the initiative. This is what we should be doing with our space program. The reason Mars is exciting when spirit land on it is because we believe we’re going further. The space program is about so much more than science. I absolutely agree, we’ve been a great space science through the robotic program. But it is because we’re going as a species that I think the public really can relate to this, and ultimately what has caused us a tremendous benefit.


LORI GARVER: … But again, it’s that inspiration that calls us to space, and by that it’s not going to be just robots.


LORI GARVER: I want my kids to have somebody who is more interesting to them. The first woman who goes to the moon — we’ve never sent any women to the moon — it’s got to be more interesting than whether or not Britney Spears got married this weekend.


LORI GARVER: To me, it’s definitely more than magic. I believe as humanity, as a species, we are going into space. We have explored this planet, we will continue to explore this planet and, for our very survival, we must also leave this planet. Ultimately, a lunar base as the president announced today is going to help us build new things, like a solar-powered satellite using lunar materials. That will potentially end our dependence on fossil fuels on this planet.

You, and everybody else who is maligning her intentions, owe Lori an apology.

Now, in fairness to Mark, he may have confused VSE with ESAS/Constellation. He has never been able to understand the difference between the two. But the notion that Lori and Alan Ladwig, and George Whitesides, have an agenda to “cancel VSE” or end plans to return to the moon, is ludicrous.

Anyway, Kluger seems to be similarly unaware of her actual history, instead implying that she is just a soccer mom in space. And if he were really aware of the history, he wouldn’t have let the statement about Mike Griffin thinking EELVs are unsafe go unchallenged, and simply act as a stenographer for Shank (or whoever told him that). In fact, he would have challenged whichever NASA/Griffin defender told him that to explain what had happened in the past few years to change Dr. Griffin’s mind, because in 2003, he had a very different idea:

Griffin has made it clear that he is not opposed to using EELV vehicles effectively unmodified from their current versions to launch crewed vehicles. In a May 2003 hearing by the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee on NASA’s Orbital Space Plane (OSP) program—a short-lived effort to develop a manned spacecraft that was superseded by the CEV—Griffin noted that the term “man rating” dated back to efforts in the 1950s and 1960s to modify ICBMs to carry capsules. “This involved a number of factors such as pogo suppression, structural stiffening, and other details not particularly germane to today’s expendable vehicles. The concept of ‘man rating’ in this sense is, I believe, no longer very relevant.”

He argued that EELVs and other expendable vehicles are already called upon to launch high-value unmanned payloads. “What, precisely, are the precautions that we would take to safeguard a human crew that we would deliberately omit when launching, say, a billion-dollar Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission?” he asked. “The answer is, of course, ‘none’. While we appropriately value human life very highly, the investment we make in most unmanned missions is quite sufficient to capture our full attention.”

The Atlas 5 and Delta 4 EELVs, he noted, have a specified design reliability of 98 percent, in line with experience with the premier expendable vehicles to date. If such a vehicle was used to launch a crewed spacecraft equipped with an escape system of just 90 percent reliability, he noted, the combined system would have a 1-in-500 chance of a fatal accident, “substantially better than for the Shuttle.”

So what happened in the interim to turn them into death traps?

If Kluger really wanted to provide a service to Time/CNN’s readers, he’d get out and do some real reporting, and get some dissenting opinions, instead of simply providing Mike Griffin’s NASA with a widely read forum for its propaganda. He would also come up with a slightly more sophisticated space policy template than “With Constellation, the moon, without Constellation, nothing.”

[Update a few minutes later]

Paul Spudis (who was on the Aldridge Commission) has related thoughts:

Many people have conflated the Vision with NASA’s implementation of it, but they are two very different things. Project Constellation is the architecture that NASA has chosen to implement the VSE. In its essentials, Constellation is a launch system, a spacecraft, and a mission design. NASA chose to develop a new series of launch vehicles, the Ares I and V rockets, the Orion crew “capsule” (formerly called the CEV), and a craft designed to land on the Moon, the Altair lunar lander. The mission design is to launch the crew in the Orion capsule on an Ares I into low Earth orbit, launch the Altair lander and rocket departure stage separately on the Ares V, rendezvous and dock with the lander and depart for Earth orbit to the Moon. The crew would land and explore the Moon from the Altair spacecraft, return to the Orion in lunar orbit, and return to Earth in that vehicle.

Much of the criticism of NASA in recent years is actually criticism of this architectural plan, not necessarily of the goals of the Vision (although some have questioned it). But this architecture is an implementation of the VSE; it is not the VSE itself. The Vision specified long-range goals and objectives, not the means to attain them. To briefly review, we are going to the Moon to learn the skills and develop the technologies needed to live and work productively on other worlds. And there are many ways to skin that cat.

Yes. That’s apparently too complicated a concept for many (including many journalists) to understand.

17 thoughts on “A Big Sloppy Wet Kiss”

  1. Of course, to be fair some of the stuff Bush said in the VSE gave an opening to NASA to create a debacle like this. Particularly the talk about “a Crew Exploration Vehicle” that NASA was to develop. It still had better themes than any national space policy in my lifetime, but it did have some flaws that allowed NASA an in for crap like ESAS and Constellation


  2. In a May 2003 hearing by the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee on NASA’s Orbital Space Plane (OSP) program—a short-lived effort to develop a manned spacecraft that was superseded by the CEV—Griffin noted that the term “man rating” dated back to efforts in the 1950s and 1960s to modify ICBMs to carry capsules. “The concept of ‘man rating’ in this sense is, I believe, no longer very relevant.”

    That’s not surprising. Before moving to In_Q-Tel, Mike Griffin worked for Orbital Sciences where he was Chief Technology Officer of Orbital Science and principle investigator for their NASA Space Transportation Architecture Study that recommended NASA pay Orbital to build the Orbital Space Plane. See http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewsr.html?pid=15754

    Also note his statement in the 1999 hearing about suborbital vehicles and RLVs: “The operational experience that we will gain from regular flights of the X-34 will help pave the way to develop low-cost Reusable Launch Vehicles….”

    Of course, that was before OSC failed to build the suborbital X-34, with over $100 million in NASA funding. So now, RLVs are impossible and we must go back to spam in a can. After all, if Mike Griffin couldn’t develop a suborbital vehicle, no one can, right?

  3. Of course, to be fair some of the stuff Bush said in the VSE gave an opening to NASA to create a debacle like this. Particularly the talk about “a Crew Exploration Vehicle” that NASA was to develop.

    Jon, don’t forget that the CEV predated VSE. The acronym originally stood for “Crew Escape Vehicle” (also known as “Crew Escape and Return Vehicle).”

    NASA had already decided that it wanted replace the Shuttle with a capsule launched on an ELV. That was an outome of the Space Transportation Architecure Studies. The only thing VSE added was some new destinations as additional selling points for CEV.

  4. I just hate the thought of reversing thrust again and starting on a new course. We’ve been dithering on this topic for decades. If we are going to continue to make it a matter of policy to change course every 8 years, we might as well pack it in now.

    Maybe the current plan has flaws. There isn’t one that doesn’t. They can be overcome. For the love of Mike, do it, do it. Just do it! Go take a nap, go to Thelma Lou’s for TV. Build a rocket to the moon. Just do it!

  5. If Mike Griffin cannot persuade Lori Garver that his plan is the best one, how does he think he will ever persuade Barack Obama? Although Rahm Emmanuel may be the most senior member of the Obama Administration he ever gets to talk to.

    = = =

    As an aside, this fictional Blago-Rahmbo (yes, my middle name really is Israel) Emmanuel conversation is very funny, IMHO. See link below

    Rand, can I request a Mike Griffin meets Rahm Emmanuel parody post? I believe you could do good work with that concept.


  6. Seems to me that that the supporters of ESAS/Constellation/Ares are making a full court press to extol the virtues of their system to an ignorant American populace. They’re offering confusing arguments to people that don’t know enough to realize they’re being snookered.

    Jon: The VSE also said that NASA wasn’t going to build a new launch system except for exceptional needs like ultra-heavy-lift. I think the implicit understanding (that obviously wasn’t stated explicitly enough) was that NASA would turn to the private sector to provide crewed launch. (which is what was happening under O’Keefe. No wonder he was decided to ‘spend more time with his family’) And once the private sector was providing launch services, then space would open up to more folks than just NASAnauts. Someone apparently convinced the President that crewed access to space for NASA was an exceptional need.

    Rand: As far as what changed? My wager is on a Faustian bargain that Dr. Griffin made in the White House. I won’t publicly speculate as to the nature of the bargain, but from a behavior standpoint I think a strong case can be made that -something- happened.

    Ed: There’s a reason I bought some shares of Orbital when Griffin was made Administrator. I should have grabbed a handful of ATK as well, but that just felt too dirty.

    Re: Mark: All I can say is that it isn’t as if we all haven’t tried time and again to clarify for Mark the difference between the VSE strategy and the ESAS/Constellation/Ares tactic. His capacity for seemingly willful miscomprehensionation is well-known. Others have obviously been studying his style…

  7. It’s rather touching that Rand Simberg has found an Obama person to like. My opinion of Lori Garver is that while she talks a good game about space, her record of supporting it while in positions of power is somewhat dubious.

  8. My opinion of Lori Garver is that while she talks a good game about space, her record of supporting it while in positions of power is somewhat dubious.

    All I can say, Mark, is that Lori’s record of supporting space development from positions of power far surpasses your record of supporting it from positions of powerlessness — not to mention willful ignorance.

    So, who are those anonymous “experts” you claim you “talk” to? Why are you afraid to reveal their names — assuming they really exist?

  9. Has anyone considered that Mark is a blog troll? It would be an extraordinary amount of effort to actually run a blog just to … do whatever it is that trolls do, for whatever their reasons, … but not many people hang out on Usenet or BBSs any more, you know? Perhaps it was getting lonely there?

  10. As far as I’m concerned the Obama transition team is –so far, an enormous amount of work remains– doing to NASA exactly what I was hoping a McCain presidency would do: not buying the bs.

    How does Mike Griffin explain all his reversals and contradictions? What was the motivation for his change? Bad as it is “It’s my pet project” wouldn’t/doesn’t sufficiently explain it. Not that it is all about Griffin, not in the least.

    If for example NASA HQ & Griffin can’t release the missing papers that they say prove their initial ESAS case then why shouldn’t they go straight to jail?

    To Reid:
    Yours is an understandable sentiment but NASA’s current direction of thrust is –literally according to engineering reports of problems– a very expensive sideways fireball with casualties and defecates all over the intent of the VSE and the ACR (i.e. the main parts of political policy and instruction given them by both the White House and Congress).

    There’s no problem going off the cliff if one can fly but if one can’t then a change of direction is a good idea.

  11. I wonder if the whole government system beyond NASA is built so that meaningful space development is hard.

    Someone said that the control mechanism, GAO, doesn’t have enough technical competence to really question NASA’s decisions. Hence the system is completely powerless, the NASA administrator can do what he wants.

    Of course, one problem is the whole existence of a massive entity like NASA in the first place, a historical relic.

    They have lots of very talented people and they do great stuff, but could it be different?

    I don’t know if shutting down NASA and just offering prize money would be a good answer.
    There is a tremendous value in many NASA research and operations organizations that could be partially wasted too.

    I’m just trying to think of better alternatives. It’s a hard problem.

  12. Mark,

    I do not think Ms. Garver is a Judas.

    The record does not support that and I do not think she would lower herself to participate in a sham.

    We could have done far, far worse than her.

  13. It’s ironic that Mark would accuse Lori of an “abrupt flip flop on VSE,” given the 180-degree turn he’s done on space policy.

    Just a few years ago, Mark publicly *opposed* the idea of NASA building a lunar base, thought a human lunar return should cost no more than a Shuttle flight, and even favored — gasp! — “private business development” on the Moon.

    Gosh, if anyone wrote that this article today, Mark would call them unamerican.


    Mark R. Whittington, senior space policy analyst for the Clear Lake Group (Houston TX), writes in Space Policy Digest, “That abandonment [of the Moon] is especially egregious having been committed by a nation created by exploration. It’s a blot that can only be wiped away by the simple act of returning to the Moon and finishing the task begun by Apollo.” If the decision were made to mount an economical human return, perhaps at the cost of a Space Shuttle mission, an ad-hoc ‘Lewis and Clark’ group could organize and perform the mission, report the results, and then disband. The primary target would be the vicinity of the lunar South Pole, in the region of Shackleton Crater. Whittington does not believe NASA should build the first lunar base because it would turn out like the ISS. The best model for how a lunar base would work, except for a few differences, is the facilities in the Antarctic. One difference is that on the Moon private business development should be encouraged.

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