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Fri, Dec 12, 2008

Report: Griffin Clashes With Transition Team

NASA Administrator Desperate To Save Constellation

Petulant, or passionate? The search for a new NASA administrator may have just kicked into high gear, as current agency chief Michael Griffin is reportedly making things quite difficult for members of the Obama transition team.

The Orlando Sentinel reports Griffin has repeatedly butted heads with Lori Garver, the former NASA associate administrator chosen to lead the space transition team, over the trouble-plagued Constellation program -- NASA's next-generation quest to return to the moon, and Griffin's pet project.

To that end, NASA employees and contractors report being told by Griffin what they should tell the transition team... and, not to criticize the Constellation program within earshot of anyone connected with the incoming Obama administration. Sources -- who asked for anonymity -- tell the paper NASA managers have been seen taking "copious" notes during meetings between transition staffers and NASA underlings.

The six-member transition team -- comprised of people well-versed in space policy, but lacking in the nuts-and-bolts knowledge prized by engineers like Griffin -- has been tasked to seek out areas where NASA's next-generation manned space program could pose problems for the Obama team... and, perhaps as a lesser priority, to find solutions.

Unfortunately for Griffin, Constellation -- and the Ares I rocket, in particular -- isn't lacking for such problems, as ANN has often reported.

Griffin initially appeared to support the team's efforts, even issuing a memo to NASA employees telling them "to answer questions promptly, openly and accurately." Things went downhill soon after, however, when transition members asked Griffin's team to put a pricetag on scrapping Ares outright.

They also asked what it would cost to ramp up efforts to send astronauts into space onboard Orion space capsules sooner than the current 2015 timeframe... but to Griffin, the writing was on the wall. The Sentinel reports the NASA chief called around to various Constellation contractors, telling them to support the Ares program and to not suggest alternatives. Many of those companies, perhaps fearful of retaliation, have followed those orders.

NASA has also upped the internal PR campaign in support of Constellation. In a teleconference last month entitled, "Staying the Course on Constellation," NASA managers stressed the technology and design behind Area are sound... and changing course now would only undermine what has already been accomplished.

"If NASA appears to be wavering by not staying the course... this would cause a loss of public and stakeholder confidence in NASA," an outline of the presentation read. That message contradicted an earlier strategy, however, in which Griffin suggested the Obama administration "could take ownership of the (Constellation) program and 're-brand' it as their own with minor tweaks."

Tensions reportedly came to a head at a recent gathering at the NASA library, to promote a new book co-written by space historian John Logsdon. The George Washington University professor told a group of people he had recently learned John F. Kennedy's transition team had ignored what NASA officials told them about the United States' prospects in space... a situation Griffin perhaps found too close to home.

"I wish the Obama team would come and talk to me," witnesses report Griffin said, in a voice loud enough to carry across the room. One of the people who heard the comment was transition team member Alan Ladwig... who shouted back "Well, we're here now, Mike."

Soon after that exchange, Garver reportedly confronted Griffin in a spirited discussion. "Mike, I don’t understand what the problem is. We are just trying to look under the hood," Garver reportedly said.

"If you are looking under the hood, then you are calling me a liar," Griffin replied. "Because it means you don't trust what I say is under the hood."

Griffin was also overheard at the party saying Garver is "not qualified" to lead the transition team; during an earlier hearing, Garver said a "change" was going to come to NASA, and all-but confirmed a new administrator would be part of that change.

Few expect Griffin -- who was hand-picked by President George W. Bush in 2005 to spearhead the Constellation moon initiative -- to remain on as administrator under President Obama. For his part, though, Griffin has said he wants to stay... but only "under the right circumstances," namely, with Constellation alive and progressing.

Caught between a rock and an administrator, Logsdon took a pragmatic approach in attempting to summarize the situation.

"There is a natural tension built into this situation... Mike is dead-on convinced that the current approach to the program is the right one. And Lori's job is to question that for Mr. Obama," he told the Sentinel. "The Obama team is not going to walk in and take Mike’s word for it."

Apparently, Griffin agrees -- as he has told Garver he wants a private meeting with Obama, to plead his case directly to the soon-to-be-President.



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