Losing the dream, watching the collapse of NASA

Watching the bolts pop out from the creaky NASA administration.  This is important, as the dream of exploration — of frontiers, of leadership in a great endeavor — has an important role in the American mind.  Losing or abandoning this dream may have intangible but far-reaching effects.


  1. Frustrated NASA chief vents in internal e-mail over fate of agency“, Orlando Sentinel, 7 September 2008 — Leak of a secret internal email.
  2. Offical Statement of NASA Administrator Michael Griffin about his August 18 Email, NASA press release, 7 September 2008
  3. Big Questions on NASA Infighting for Shuttle Astronaut Tom Jones“, Popular Mechanics, 11 September 2008 — The EU is not the only one dependent on Russia.


Frustrated NASA chief vents in internal e-mail over fate of agency“, Orlando Sentinel, 7 September 2008 — Leak of a secret internal email.

In congressional testimony and speeches across the country, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has presented the Bush administration’s space policy as under pressure but on track to returning humans to the moon by 2020. His public face has been steadfast.

But privately, the agency chief is far less certain.

In a remarkably candid internal e-mail to top advisers obtained by the Orlando Sentinel, Griffin lashed out last month at the White House for what he called a “jihad” to shut down the space shuttle, expressed frustration at the lack of funding for a new moon rocket — and despaired about the future of America’s human-spaceflight program.

The tone of the note depicts a man watching as his finely crafted plans for a revitalized space-faring NASA appear to be melting before his eyes.

Offical Statement of NASA Administrator Michael Griffin about his August 18 Email, NASA press release, 7 September 2008

The following is the complete statement of NASA Administrator Michael Griffin regarding the Aug. 18 email published by the Orlando Sentinel:

The leaked internal email fails to provide the contextual framework for my remarks, and my support for the administration’s policies. Administration policy is to retire the shuttle in 2010 and purchase crew transport from Russia until Ares and Orion are available. The administration continues to support our request for an INKSNA exemption. Administration policy continues to be that we will take no action to preclude continued operation of the International Space Station past 2016. I strongly support these administration policies, as do OSTP and OMB.

Big Questions on NASA Infighting for Shuttle Astronaut Tom Jones“, Popular Mechanics, 11 September 2008 — The EU are not the only ones dependent on Russia.  Excerpt:

Remember, Griffin was ordered to stop flying the shuttle in 2010. You know, get it off the stage as soon as possible. Then he was told, “Bring on Orion as quickly as you can after that.” The original plan, about four years ago, was for Orion to be ready by 2012. But Congress has been given budgets every year by the president that have not included the funds to do these things at the pace they need. So the two-year gap turned into a five-year gap. Congress figured there was no downside: Just let it slip and, big deal, we have a long gap. That was all fine when it was five or six years in the future, but now the Russians have turned unfriendly, and we don’t know where that’s going to go. And suddenly a bunch of people are saying, “There’s this big, long gap, and it’s unacceptable, and, NASA, why didn’t you take care of this?”

How dependent are we on Russia for the next five to eight years?

Very dependent, and there’s not a lot of ways out of it. At the end of 2011, we were going to have to start paying them for a new round of services. One, to launch our people up there-and that would include not only Americans, but Europeans, Japanese and Canadians, who had been promised rides on a shuttle up to the space station. The second service was to have an emergency lifeboat at the space station, so if there’s a puncture in the hull or somebody gets sick, we can get everybody back on the ground. Long ago and far away, in 2000, there was an American lifeboat being designed to be flown up to the space station on a shuttle. It was canceled because of funding shortfalls, so we said, “We’ll just rent Soyuz from the Russians for that time period.” Well, now these two key services, access to orbit and emergency return, have been monopolized by the Russians. We’re going to have a very expensive and difficult time getting out of this box that we’re in.

How optimistic are people that a new administration and its space policies could bring more funding to these programs?

Griffin is very pessimistic. I think the consensus is that there’s nothing about the space program as it’s currently structured that makes anybody optimistic that either new administration would be a saviour.

Please share your comments by posting below.  Please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

9 thoughts on “Losing the dream, watching the collapse of NASA”

  1. It is a pity, but all NASA’s manned space operations have become IS a dream.

    Post 1980, the automation got to the point that man and man-rated flight just does not make sense. Look at the columbia disaster, a “pure science” mission: 7 people died for a science mission where all the science could have either been done completely remotely or is predicated on their being a near-term use for people in space. Likewise, all science done in the ISS is again, something that could be done remotely or is predicated on people in space.

    Look at the cost of Hubble telescope “repair” missions, and wonder whether it would have been cheaper just to launch a second, third, and fourth telecope, with the same optics but improved instrumentation, instead of trying to repair what’s there.

    Yet man-rated flight is orders of magnitude more expensive.

    It is a pitty to think of space as a frontier, but these days, and probably for the rest of my lifetime, its not an appropriate place to send men on the people’s dime. And I’m speaking as a kid who grew up loving the space shuttle, and a professional technologist.

  2. We have to get the basics going first: a strong economy, a working political system, good roads, schools, manufacturing sector and all the rest of it. Space is a luxury the US can no longer afford. Admitting this involves eating humble pie, whilst we learn how to make them ourselves again instead of buying mass produced imitations!

  3. Erasmus : wise words, especially the part ’bout SCHOOLS. No good schools = no talents. That simple. Unfortunately, it’ not only the US that’s sufferin’ in this aspect.

  4. So 47 years after Gagarin became the first in space the Russians will soon become the only nation on Earth capable of sending men into space. The Chinese have sent two manned flights into space but they’re a long way from sending up anyone but their own astronauts. And just think, some critics said Russia should have been excluded from the ISS project!

    It goes to show you how good leadership is way more important than funding. NASA with a budget of $17 billion in 2007 will be completely dependent on the Russian space agency with a budget of $1.32 billion for manned space flight.

  5. There’s much much more to NASA than manned space flights.

    In particular, the observational satellite programs run by NASA provide essential scientific information on the atmospheric, oceanic and terrestial environment of the earth. This information is necessary to understand and predict climate trends and variability; the most recent IPCC report depends significantly on such satellite observations. For example, the rate of sea level rise over the last 15 years is known based on data collected from NASA satellites.

    Sadly, these programs are now being squeezed as funds are diverted to vastly more expensive manned space flights and the Mars mission. The purpose of the latter is largely political, not scientific, and mainly meant boost US prestige. It is essentially a very expensive publicity stunt.

  6. NASA, like I think a large number of organisations, once they reach a certain size tend to become inward looking and become more concerned with bureaucratic survival rather than innovation. Such an environment also gives rise to groupthink.

    I think the United States is in danger of passing the torch of space exploration to other nations in the future. China comes to mind with its huge stash of money – It could simply outspend the US in any future space race.

    I don’t know how many people are aware of the DIRECT proposal for a replacement of the Shuttle. Using existing hardware where possible and derived largely from the Shuttle Launch Stack, rather than the chosen pork barrel option of Project Constellation.

    If you wanted to shake up NASA, you would appoint an iconoclast like Robert Zubrin.

  7. The question arises, what sort of dream will replace the quest for the frontier.

    In this context, both Harry Potter and the Da Vinci Code matter. Basically, with quantum mechanics, black holes, and such, we nowadays live in an era of “weird science” that in flavor and impact upon the popular imagination resembles Renaissance alchemy, astrology, and the cabala. ( Even though there are obvious differences in detail. )

    (BTW: Jules Verne may not be entirely dead. I was reading John Robb’s post about floating Google offshore and couldn’t help but think of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. )

  8. NASA might be a decayed hulk of her old self, but between the X-Prize and the people at Bigelow Aerospace (http://www.bigelowaerospace.com/), there are private efforts underway to bootstrap humans into space. They may not work as quickly as an Apollo Project, but they could wind up being far more sustainable in the long run versus the bureaucratic model that NASA operates.

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