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NASA chief blasts US space policy in leaked email

White House advisers waged 'jihad' on Shuttle, ISS

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An internal email from NASA chief Mike Griffin has been leaked to the media. It expresses Griffin's frustration with recent US space policy, says that White House oversight offices have waged a "jihad" against the space shuttle, and offers a gloomy view of the future.

The email was obtained at the weekend by the Orlando Sentinel, and lays out Griffin's view of how America should have acted in recent years.

"In a rational world," writes Griffin to a senior US advisor, "we would have been allowed to pick a shuttle retirement date to be consistent with Ares/Orion availability, we would have been asked to deploy Ares/Orion as early as possible (rather than 'not later than 2014') and we would have been provided the necessary budget to make it so."

The Ares rockets and Orion capsule will be NASA's next manned spacecraft, but they will not be in service until 2014 or later. Meanwhile the shuttle is currently marked for retirement in 2010, leaving the US dependent on Russian Soyuz ships for access to the International Space Station (ISS).

Given the recent chill in US/Russian relations following events in Georgia, Griffin is far from alone in seeing this as a problem. He's quite clear where he thinks the blame lies: with the White House Offices of Management and Budget and of Science and Technology Policy (OMB and OSTP), which set funding and brief the president on tech matters.

"The rational approach didn't happen, primarily because for OSTP and OMB retiring the Shuttle is a jihad rather than an engineering and management decision. Further, they actively do not want the ISS to be sustained, and they have done everything possible to ensure that it would not be."

Griffin believes that Russia will refuse to withdraw its forces from Georgia, and as a result Washington politicians will not approve NASA purchase of any further seats on Soyuz launches beyond those already approved.

"My guess is that there is going to be a lengthy period with no US crew on ISS after 2011. No additional money is going to be provided to accelerate Orion/Ares, and even if it were, at this point we can't get there earlier than 2014... Commercial solutions will ultimately emerge, but not substantially before Orion/Ares are ready, if then.

"The alternatives are to continue flying shuttle, or abandon US presence on ISS."

Griffin believes that this will be unacceptable to the next US president, whether John McCain or Barack Obama. So, he believes, NASA will be ordered to keep flying the shuttle once George Bush has departed.

"They will tell us to extend Shuttle," he writes. "There is no other politically tenable course... Extending Shuttle creates no damage that they will care about, other than to delay the lunar program. They will not count that as a cost. They will not see what that does for US leadership in space in the long term."

Thus, says Griffin, NASA should now begin planning to extend the shuttle fleet's operations - "Plan B", as he calls it, "while doing the least damage possible to Ares/Orion".

As to the argument that the US could retain meaningful control of an entirely Russian-manned ISS - the station being remotely managed largely from NASA ground stations - he says this is unrealistic "short of war".

"There are actions we could take to to hold ISS hostage, or even to prevent them using it - power management stuff, for example. We will not take those actions... the Russians can sustain ISS without US crew as long as we don't actively sabotage them... we need them. They don't 'need' us. We're a 'nice to have'."

Griffin goes on to say that if sufficient funds were available, NASA would have no difficulty in keeping the Shuttle flying while at the same time building Ares/Orion. Some have suggested that there would be conflicts between the two programmes for use of NASA's mighty spaceship drydock, the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), for instance.

"if we're given extra money, then the VAB conflicts are solvable... It's only a matter of money."

The beleaguered NASA chief signs off on an unhappy note.

"My own view is about as pessimistic as it is possible to be," he writes. This, one may take it, means that he believes NASA will be ordered to keep flying the Shuttle to the ISS without extra cash. This will in turn delay Ares/Orion, holding up or even crippling America's bold new push to the Moon and Mars. Meanwhile, rivals like Russia and China will press ahead.

In a statement released yesterday, Griffin said:

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 [approval from Capitol Hill]. 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.

The Sentinel writeup can be read here, and an image of the email itself viewed here. ®

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