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Thu, Jul 31, 2008

NASA's Griffin Tells Forum Crowd There Are No Guarantees In Space Travel

"This IS Rocket Science -- If We Knew How To Do It, It Wouldn't Be Exploration"

by ANN Correspondent Maxine Scheer

Attendees at AirVenture 2008 had the opportunity Tuesday afternoon to ask questions of NASA Administrator Dr. Michael Griffin. He acknowledged the agency's 2008 celebration of their 50th anniversary and indicated to the audience that he'd rather discuss their questions about the future than expound upon the past. Somewhat surprisingly, many of the audience questions focused on NASA's plans for space, versus issues associated with civil aviation.

Griffin spoke to potential scientific breakthroughs that could be achieved by moving forward with the establishment of a new space vehicle capable of extending the range beyond that of the Space Shuttle, which is limited to low earth orbit. "If NASA is able to maintain a consistent vision, in the next 15 years the US could have a base on the moon, rotating staff [ ] like they do now in the Antarctic."

He emphasized the importance of scientific study in areas such as molecular and cell biology in the solar radiation conditions of deep space as examples of what could be done over the next 20+ years. Other examples he used were research into the prospects of using water as a shield to overcome solar radiation problems on long voyages or using the resources of the moon to sustain life, such as heating the moon's surface to extract oxygen.

A common thread throughout the hour-plus discussion was the logic, or lack thereof, of discontinuing the Space Shuttle until a replacement vehicle was in operation. According to NASA's website, the current plan includes phasing out the Space Shuttle in 2010 and using Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft to shuttle astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) until a US replacement is developed. "The US and its partners have invested $100 billion in the [ISS]," said Griffin, "so it does seem short-sighted to not spend the $3 billion a year to maintain the Shuttle. " Directing his comments to the children in the audience, "Sometimes Washington does silly things."

Referring to past mistakes, "We made a terrible decision when the Apollo program was cancelled. We invested $25 billion in the Apollo program, $21 billion to build it, and only $4 billion to use it. We need to believe in our long-term policy."

There was a sizable contingent of elementary aged children patiently seated in the front row that came up to the podium to discuss their questions, face to face. Their very practical questions included: "Why is Pluto no longer a planet? "If we send things to Mars that are useful only for 90 days, aren't we littering?" "Why does higher gravity make things rounder?" "How does going to Mars [positively] affect the global community?

Dr. Griffin responded to each of the questions directly and referenced the work of Steven Hawking; he spoke on the theory of how the US controls the future of humanity because of the country's capabilities in space travel. "Ten major extinction events on earth have been recorded. Life on earth is precarious - this alone justifies space exploration. The US has an opportunity by undertaking a leadership role that would capture the world-wide excitement of space exploration."

One of the children asked the question,"Who in 15 years could be an astronaut?" He described roles beyond pilots such as Civil Engineers, Astronomers, and Life Scientists and commented that the boy who asked the question would be just the right age to be a candidate, after finishing his graduate education of course.

A few audience questions centered on the vibration issues associated with the Constellation launch. Dr. Griffin expressed the opinion that much of the concerns were "media induced" and that NASA was close to fixing the problem. "I hope this is the worst problem [we face]. The prevailing attitude is that [any] obstacle with a new initiative is a disaster.

"This is rocket science," added Griffin. "If we knew [exactly] how to do it, it wouldn't be exploration."

When asked what would he do if "wishes were free" and NASA's budget were doubled (the equivalent of the inflation-adjusted program for Apollo), the Administrator's response was as follows: 1) [We] wouldn't rely on another country and would develop a new system in parallel to continuing to use the Space Shuttle; 2) Begin working on vehicle systems sooner; and 3) Do more advanced research, the "blue sky stuff."

Griffin noted that the last wish was the most difficult. "The political environment has changed. If the [NASA] administration can't guarantee an outcome, then [blue sky research] is difficult to justify. This is where the advancements in science are made and where there needs to be acceptance that there will be some [disappointments]."

In celebration of NASA's 50th anniversary, there is a special NASA exhibit at EAA's AirVenture Museum. Because of all the Public Relations engagements this year, NASA was not able to fund the NASA exhibit at AirVenture, but he speculated it was likely to return in 2009.

FMI: www.nasa.org, www.airventure.org

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