Griffin Comes Clean on Shuttle and ISS

NASA administrator says space shuttle was a mistake, USA Today

"Asked Tuesday whether the shuttle had been a mistake, Griffin said, "My opinion is that it was. ... It was a design which was extremely aggressive and just barely possible." Asked whether the space station had been a mistake, he said, "Had the decision been mine, we would not have built the space station we're building in the orbit we're building it in."

Editor's note: After a day of phone calls and email, I have to say that everyone seems to be shaking their head at this statement. Mike Griffin speaks for the President. The reactions take one (or more) of three directions: Griffin is unable to articulate his ideas clearly; there is a serious disconnect between stated White House policy and its implementation; or the White House no longer (and perhaps never did) care about space.

Editor's earlier note: Mike Griffin led the Option B team at LaRC during Space Station Freedom redesign in 1993. He stood on principle and made his opinions known at the time - and got 'promoted' - eventually out of the agency - as a result. Flash forward: the same thing is now happening to other people - for the same reason.

Meanwhile, one has to wonder - if Mike Griffin thinks that the ISS and Shuttle were (are) mistakes, then is the White House making a mistake by flying the Shuttle fleet until 2010 and wanting to complete the ISS? And what about the people who have worked on these projects for decades - were they making a mistake too?

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Your comments thus far:

Dr. Griffin has only repeated what space historians have already concluded about the Shuttle. It was too much too soon. In the 70's NASA should have developed a smaller, reusable, escapable, winged spacecraft to ride atop the reliable (and paid for) Saturn rockets. Once that was operational, they could then have developed the Saturn into a reusable launch vehicle. Instead, they tried to make the whole thing reusable and cheap and big enough for DOD's Keyhole (even though DOD already had Titans for that), and they threw away the Saturns. Yes, that was a mistake - a big one.

As for the ISS, America's second space station was available in the 70's. It now sits in Washington D.C. (the backup Skylab at NASM) and its launch vehicle has been rotting away on the front lawn of JSC near Houston. Yes, that was another mistake.

I'm seeing a scary theme developing here: Dr. Griffin has a very bad habit of alienating people, whether it be through getting rid of devoted employees after he's done with them or labeling the hard work of thousands on the shuttle and ISS programs as a "mistake."

Being blunt is not an attribute. Like it or not, he's got human beings working for him and he'll need every one of them to help NASA get to the moon, Mars, and beyond.

Once it's out of your mouth, you can't take it back. They don't call him "Goldin Lite" for nothing.

Keith -I was at the 1999 Shuttle Conference at NASA Ames, where all the current Shuttle contractors put on their presentations about how to improve the system's performance - liquid flyback boosters (Boeing called it "Resuable First Stage"), 5 segment SRBs, putting deployable wings onSRBs and havingthem fly themselves backto KSC instead of having to fish them out of the ocean, replacingthe APUs with safer electric versions and replacing thehypergolics in theRCS systems with less toxicfuels. All this went away after we lost Columbia,and probably wouldn't have come to pass anywaygiven the amount of money that it would have cost (5 segment SRBs, maybe),but it does show that the Shuttle system could haveevolved.

Sure the Shuttle Orbiter isn't and will never bethe Space DC-3,but it isthe design of American Spacecraftthat has been flown the most.Early versions of airliners got stretched and upratedinto more efficient and capable aircraft- the Shuttle should have gone through the same maturation process to be a more efficient and capable spacecraft.We should have been flying Orbiter Series 300 by now, and we could have been with themoney that was spent on X-33/Venture Star.

The Shuttle wasn't a mistake,it is only now being properly used - to build and service a space station, something that should have been done 20 years ago. We are trading a more sophisticated spacecraft for a lesser one - having the capability to return large cargo from orbit shouldn't be discarded - sooner or later we are going to have to bring back something that won't fit through the docking tunnel ofan Apollo type blunt ended re-entry capsule.Dr. Griffin's comments have been presented by the media without thehistorical contextof how and why thestation was redesigned and the program delayed - andthatis doing everyone involved with the Shuttle and ISS a disservice.Dr. Griffin should have been media savvy enough to anticipate the inevitableresponse (ABC World News Tonight -"NASA Administrator says Shuttle and Space Station a Mistake - after this message!").

Dr. Griffin may have a point aboutthe ISS Design and Orbital Inclination, though- the Station should be at 28.5 degrees,where the Shuttle could have made the most of its launch capacity to bringthe components ofmanned vehicles to be assembled and then sent on Lunar and Martian missions.

I foundDr. Griffin's other comments during theVSE rollout intriguing - especially his statements about how the new program shows how the Apollo guys "got it right."

The mission profile they proposeusing is theRussian version of a lunar mission from 1968 - a combination of EOR and LOR where the manned spacecraft is launched separately and makes a rendezvous with the lunar decent vehicle and propulsion stage in Earth Orbit. The CEV looks likean Apollo CSM and aSoyuz were morphed together.If a CEV or Lunar Lander malfunctions once it's in orbit, isn't it better to have therepair/return capability of a shuttleorbiter payload bayasopposed tohaving towrite the vehicle and the launch costs off as a total loss?

Please keep my name confidential.

It seems to me that it will be difficult for Griffin to defend the Shuttle Program after making this public statement. No wonder OMB and the White House are discussing terminating the Shuttle even earlier than originally stated.

Was the Space Shuttle a Mistake?

I worked on the Shuttle program in the 70s. The mistake, if any, was not finishing up the initial design that intended the Orbiter flew to near orbit on a fly-back liquid booster. The external tank and SRBs were an interim low cost solution until a fly-back booster was developed serial to the orbiter. Manned and unmanned fly-back boosters were considered.

To whom it may concern,

Griffin is very direct, clear, and even eloquent in his fashion. I believe he said just what he meant. Perhaps since his statements of fact can't readily be refuted, you insinuate muddled thinking, political incorrectness, or even insubordination on his part. It's hard to understand your disgust with White House apathy re space. One glance at the front page of any recent newspaper should be sufficient to explain why the space program is not a high national priority just now.

I find nothing in Griffin's comments that are inconsistent with the Vision or the architecture for achieving that Vision (we're retiring the Shuttle in 2010 after we've achieved the essence of the international agreements to build a Space Station). Your statements to the contrary are pure hyperbole that remind me of the cliche that in Washington, D.C. a gaffe is when someone accidentally tells the truth. I do worry that Griffin's bluntness will lead to his downfall, as many with power and influence will not long suffer the goring of their sacred cows.

Naturally, those who've worked on the Shuttle and Station are to be commended, the nation is proud of their dedication and public service. And none of that personal achievement is diminished a wit by the fact that, in hindsight, NASA would approach both programs in quite a different way.

Mustn't we acknowledge the lessons of the past, if we are to return to the Moon and ultimately send humans to Mars?

God bless you Dr. Griffin for telling the blunt and unvarnished truth.

I have waited for someone in authority at NASA to say "The shuttle, as built, was a mistake", since 1971. This was when I first saw how they intended to put the crew below the External Tank, and right next to the solid booster and ET itself.

I have waited for them to say "The space station - as orbited, was a mistake", since 1988. This is about when NASA turned down the opportunity to build the Shuttle-C, with which the whole station would have been completed years ago.

Now it has been said.

Is there anyone who still wants to dispute this issue. We need to move on. We need to learn from the lessons of the last, partly wasted 34 years. We should continue to listen to Griffin, who has very good judgement about most issues.

This is absolutely no dishonor to all of the thousands who have worked so hard over the years to make these imperfect systems as safe as possible.

Somewhere a band should be playing "the world turned upside down".

I was angered by the comments made to USA Today by NASA Administrator Michael Griffin stating that the Space Shuttle Program has been a "mistake," "misguided" and "not the right path." I have invested my career in the shuttle program for 10 years and I have many coworkers who have given their life to it for 20 years and more. His statements have brushed aside the careers of thousands of dedicated men and women as though we were also "misguided." I worked with the Columbia crew for 3 years and do not believe those fine men and women gave their lives for a program that was "misguided" or a "mistake."

Much productive science, in particular, human life science, has been accomplished on the Space Shuttle platform. The shuttle provided an excellent laboratory we were able to fill with equipment and experiments that allowed the crew to learn an enormous amount about the ways their bodies responded to 0-gravity bone, muscle, nervous system, circulatory system and many of these data have sparked advances in treatments for illnesses and conditions, improving our lives on earth.

Michael Griffin's comments may indeed be his opinions and he is entitled to them but, out of respect to the thousands who have worked diligently and often sacrificially for the Shuttle Program over the past 30 years, and out of respect for the men and women who have given their lives, I believe he should have kept these opinions to himself. He cannot expect to have my respect as the NASA Administrator when he is openly critical of what has been my career and what touches so close to the grief I still carry over the loss of seven dear friends.


Contractor, Johnson Space Center

Although I am a fan of your web site, I must strongly disagree with your critique of Mike Griffin's remarks regarding the Space Station and the Shuttle. I think Griffin was, as he said, only saying what we all know to be true.

Clearly the Shuttle was an optimistic but flawed choice. Those flaws have only become clearer as the program matured. The complexity of the launch vehicle, of the shuttle itself, the multitude of problems that could result in the total loss of the booster and the shuttle with its crew and the absence of an effective escape system all pointed to a launch system that was doomed to failure. The lack of a follow-on vehicle only made those shortcomings more dangerous.

The flaws in the space station were well know, even at the time. Wrong orbit -- much too difficult for launches from the Cape. Needless complexity of an overly ambitious international collaboration -- too expensive, too many delays. Finally, the continual changes in the station's design. All these contributed to a fatally flawed space station program.

What is Mike Griffin saying? In spite of these flaws and failings, we are compelled to finish the space station because we are so far along in the process. We are compelled to continue to use the shuttle because it is the only launch vehicle we have that can do the job. Until we can field the CEV or some other manned vehicle, we have no choice except to continue launching crews in the Russian vehicle. A bad choice, at best.

I don't think we need another NASA administrator to continue to lie to himself and to the general public on these and other space related issues. We need someone with the intelligence and the intellectual honesty to face the facts and devise a way to bring us through this troubled time to a better set of systems. I believe we have such a man in Mike Griffin. Lets give him a chance.

That was not very nice of Dr. Griffin; telling me and so many others that the last 30 years of my career have been a mistake.

That implies the Shuttle and ISS have done nothing worthwhile at all.

It is fascinating reading this article. Dr. Mike is almost quoting from the "Book of Kranz" when he says that the Shuttleand station shouldn't have been built as they were. This is a continuing legacy of the Nixon administration, and the decision of our parents' generation to abandon space after Apollo 11.

Why is NASA trying to play catch-up? Because whomever occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue controls the agency's agenda. John Kerry certainly would not have continued Bush's "Moon, Mars, and Beyond" program. The science of space exploration is too time-intensive to be left to politics. NASA's goals should have been science-driven, and funded to the best of our ability. As a result, we're trying to do things which should have been done 30 years ago, and in the case of Project Prometheus, almost 40 years ago.

To my jaded eyes, Dr. Mike is only stating the obvious, not a great epiphany at all.

Editor's note: After a day of phone calls and email, I have to say that everyone seems to be shaking their head at this statement. Mike Griffin speaks for the President. The reactions take one (or more) of three directions: Griffin is unable to articulate his ideas clearly; there is a serious disconnect between stated White House policy and its implementation; or the White House no longer (and perhaps never did) care about space.

I dont see that from his statements.

Shuttle did not deliver as advertised. Cheap access to space. A Space Truck.
Did not happen. Imagine if Saturn V's were allowed to continue to evolve? That is what he means I am sure.

As for the station, cooperating and relying on the Russians so much was a mistake.
I dont know much about the selected orbit, but that I believe was decided with Russian needs in mind? I dont recall now.

It is cold hearted truth no doubt.

How do these things make the President anti-space?
I think that is a great leap to assume such a thing.
Bush has set course for the moon with humans again.
I see storys and headlines in Aviation Week now I only dreamed of a few years ago. Seeing the term TLI again gives me chills.

I know what Griffin means with those statements.
It doesnt mean Shuttle stops flying tomorrow or the station will be abandoned by any means.

Dear Sir, I haven't discovered where or who to post comments on your website, so I'll revert to this ancient art of email(weird isn't it).

About the Administrators candor in the USA Today, I would like to point out that the American people have an Administrator that had a long, productive and influential career long before joining NASA and his opinions on the station and shuttle are nothing new. Why should he dissemble now?

A honest debate about the value of the shuttle will bring out pros and cons that have merit and are reasonable. Even Shuttle supporters acknowledge its deeply flawed system design, ie the death of 14 astronauts as exhibit A. The Shuttles' danger wasn't a secret before Challenger and Columbia since its a mind boggling complex machine trying to get into orbit. Thoughtful people who can do basic statistics and probabilities would say if you have such a machine, sooner or later it will break. As the Administrator said, the Shuttle just barely gets to orbit, like almost all rockets. So should it break, a catastrophe is inevitable. Yes the Shuttle is a debatable wonder and Mike Griffin deserves praise for sticking to his guns and calling it the way he sees it.

About the Space Station. How many votes did it just barely pass in the Congress? Quite a few! Obviously man elected representatives had doubts. Mike Griffin said "we would not have built the space station we're building in the orbit we're building it in.". Well I remember the debate about Space Station Freedom, Space Station Alpha and the ISS. Many people didn't agree with the current design but a certain President of the US did agree with the ISS. Many people argued the merits of its orbital inclination as well. It didn't start out at a Russian friendly orbit of 52 degrees, that was changed at the behest of a certain President to enable him to ensnare the Russians in peaceful science. So, all in all, people carping at Mr. Griffin need to remember this, he is only one of many who have. The fact that he is a NASA Administrator doesn't give him a free pass to disavow his principals or past, does it?

Finally your observation "there is a serious disconnect between stated White House policy and its implementation; or the White House no longer (and perhaps never did) care about space." is just plain hard to understand. Here is the first White House since JFK/Johnson that put together a creditable space plan that puts a vision before the American people that is concrete, specific and focused on the Moon and Mars. Bush did this when Clinton, GHWB, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon gave us the Shuttle and low Earth orbit for the last 33 years. Do you pine for the good ol days?

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on September 28, 2005 6:19 PM.

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