Episode 23: Michael Griffin discusses his tenure as NASA administrator and the challenges of space exploration

// Oct 25, 2016

On March 11, 2005, President George W. Bush announced his intention to nominate Griffin to serve as the 11th Administrator of NASA. He was confirmed by the Senate on April 13, 2005 and served until January 20, 2009. Griffin knew NASA well. He had been NASA’s associate administrator for exploration in the early 1990s, as well as its chief engineer.

Griffin holds seven academic degrees—a BA in physics from Johns Hopkins University, a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the University of Maryland, and a handful of Master’s degrees.

He previously served as deputy for technology at the strategic defense initiative organization (SDIO) in the Pentagon.  Griffin’s career has also included academic and corporate positions. He was an eminent scholar and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Alabama-Huntsville and space department head at the Applied Physics Laboratory at John Hopkins.

Griffin was also president and chief operating officer at In-Q-Tel, a private, nonprofit enterprise funded by the Central Intelligence Agency to identify and invest in companies developing cutting-edge technologies that serve national security interests.

Griffin held leadership positions in as well as the Orbital Sciences Corp and technical positions at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and at Computer Sciences Corporation.

Time magazine named Griffin one of its 100 most influential people in 2008.

In his spare time, Griffin enjoys flying and is a certified flight instructor. He’s also a voracious reader and an avid golfer.

On August 14, 2012, the Schafer Corporation announced that Griffin would assume the role of Chairman and Chief Executive Officer at the company.

Griffin has also been a guest lecturer at IHMC in Pensacola, where in 2009, he delivered a lecture entitled “What the Hubble Space Telescope Teaches Us About Ourselves:”

In this episode, STEM-Talk host Dawn Kernagis monitors an interview conducted by co-hosts Ken Ford and Tom Jones, both of whom have a long-standing professional relationship with Griffin.

1:09: Ford calls Mike Griffin “a remarkable fellow.” Griffin’s work has spanned academia, government and industry. He holds six graduate degrees and was working on his seventh when President George W. Bush selected him to serve as the eleventh NASA administrator.

2:35: Dawn reads a five-star iTunes review from “Meatballs Mom” entitled “Thumbs up.” “I downloaded this in order to feel intellectually superior to my peers. It’s totally working.”

3:00: Dawn describes Griffin’s career and educational accomplishments.

5:13: Dawn introduces Mike Griffin, along with hosts Ford and Jones.

6:03: Griffin’ interest in science was sparked by the first book, called “A Child’s Book of Stars,” that his mother gave him for Christmas in 1954, when he was five years old.

7:50: “I was already fully committed to a career in math and science and space long before I got to high school,” Griffin recalls, also noting an influential physics teacher in high school who encouraged him on that path.

8:25: “My career has gone back and forth between and among DOD space, civil space, robotic scientific space craft and missions and human space flight.”

8:50: Griffin notes that one of the highlights of his career was being chief engineer for the first space intercept mission accomplished against a booster in powered flight as part of early missile defense program under President Ronald Reagan.

12:08: “Possibly the coolest job that I’ve ever had,” Griffin says, was as President of In-Q-Tel, which he loosely categorizes as the CIA’s venture capital company. “The CIA didn’t have access to the hi-tech of Silicon Valley, so the non-profit was chartered by Congress to allow that access. It was an extraordinarily eye-opening and exciting adventure,” he says, adding that they helped create Google Earth.

14:22: Griffin had an early hunch that he would work for NASA, which he did four different times during his career. “NASA formed in 1958, and I was nine years old. I was already interested in space, and from that time forward, I believed that I would eventually work there.”

15:20: “When I was very young, I thought that being an engineer/scientist was the highest goal anyone could aspire to.”

16:10: Early in his career, Griffin was also spotted for managerial talent, becoming the youngest group supervisor at the jet propulsion laboratory.

17:04: Griffin says that he managed NASA, a 20-billion-dollar organization, just as he would a much smaller organization. “What you are doing is trying very carefully to select a great team of people who can complement your own skills, but who are not the same as you,” he says, adding that managing a large organization is not substantially different than a small one—only there are more layers.

19:50: “Dealing with official Washington” was also challenging during his tenure at NASA; in other words, the organizations that have a stake in what NASA does. And dealing with Congress.

20:20: Space exploration is one area that can elevate a nation’s profile in history. “I contend that a nation that does not explore frontiers of time is consigning itself to the backwaters of history.”

21:15: “I believe the values of Westerners are superior to those which have evolved previously or elsewhere. Space is a human frontier, and some humans somewhere at sometime will open it up and settle it; and we will use the resources of the solar system to our benefit. Decisions will be made by nations that show up. I want my nation to be in the vanguard of those efforts.”

22:25: Griffin explains the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster that occurred in 2003, in which all seven crew members were lost. “It was brought about by the unintended release of a large piece of foam… which impacted a wing at high speed; and broke a hole in the thermal insulation tiles that protect the shuttle on entry, and because of that the vehicle and the crew were lost.”

22:54: “There was never supposed to be any foam release,” Griffins says, adding that there were continual foam release events that were not understood. “When I took over, I chartered a group of people to study that issue.”

24:00: The mentality changed from “always three months from flight” to “We’ll fly when we understand why this is happening and can fix it.” They realized they were never going to completely mitigate foam release, but they could have some control over the size of the pieces and when they came off, as well as the damage statistics to the orbiter. Jim Peters of NASA Johnson Space Center was influential in reading statistical properties of foam release and damage.

26:50: President George W. Bush and Congress supported finishing the space station, but there were “deep divisions of opinion within Washington bureaucracy on whether to do that…. I took it as my most important mission a plan by which we would finish the station.”

28:04: “We went to our European and Russian partners and outlined a plan by which we would finish the station (by minimizing the number of utilization flights—for scientific experiments—and maximizing assembly flights.) The goal was to get the project finished and utilize it later.”

29:49: Commercial break: STEM-Talk is an educational service of the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, a not-for-profit research lab pioneering ground-breaking technologies aimed at leveraging human cognition, perception, locomotion and resilience.

30:46: “In the immediate aftermath of Columbia, only shuttle flights would go to the space station. If there was another Columbia-like incident, you could park the crew at the station until a rescue shuttle could be used to get them off. Other missions were deemed too risky.”

31:32: Griffin disagreed with that pronouncement, arguing that there are only a small percentage of things that can go wrong with an orbiter on ascent for which space station is the answer to the problem. The other thing was that there were ways around having a rescue mission (without having an available space station).

32:40: After joining NASA, Griffin says he “got smart folks from the Johnson Space Center” looking at how we could arrange a safe Hubble repair mission.

34:00: When the Columbia shuttle was lost, any use of another orbiter for a Hubble-type mission put a delay in the space station completion schedule.

34:53: Ford recalls the “STS-125 as the highlight of the shuttle program. The afternoon of launch, looking at two shuttles gleaming in the sun, sitting at the ready on their pads…that was an awesome sight.”

36:10: Jones asks about the inability to launch astronauts to the space station since the shuttles retired in 2011.

36:50: “The plan was to return the shuttle to flight, finish the space station and construct a new system capable of going to the station and to the moon. It was a U.S.-led international effort to develop a lunar base.”

38:56: During the [George W.] Bush administration, we opened up a gap between the last shuttle flight and the first flight of a new system. That gap was supposed to have been two years, and it became four.

39:30: The space station was a 75-billion-dollar endeavor. “I thought we should be doing everything in our power to make sure that it was sustained and used properly. And to do that, you needed to be able to visit the station at least a couple times a year.”

40:45: Griffin talks about the U.S. government’s increased reliance on commercial space companies, which he says was misguided.

43:27: Companies developing these capabilities on government funding are saying 2018 is the earliest successful crew deployment from U.S. shores.

45:18: Griffin calls exploration and science “closely allied enterprises.” “Many explorations in history also yielded important scientific results. But the careful planning of scientific experiments, their conduct, is quite substantially different.” He adds that science is critical to good exploration.

47:37: “Human space flight is replete with opportunities for life science to advance itself. The two enterprises are synergistic.”

48:33: “When I took over NASA, the advisory council seemed to have no really useful end. We had a host of individual advisory committees on specific topics.”

51:40: Griffin organized a NASA advisory council first under Harrison Schmitt and then Ken Ford. All advisory committees reported up through the principals on the NASA Advisory Council who were selected for their expertise in different specialties. “That brought order to discussions/allowed the advisory council to come forward with actionable requests of the NASA career staff; and to shape the budget in ordered/intelligent ways to make better use of the science budget from Congress.”

53:38: “If we have our wits about us, we will be using robots to augment human exploration and humans to augment robotic exploration in every reasonable way that we can do.”

55:04: “No one wants people on Mars more than I do, and I believe the best path to do that is through the Moon, which will in and of itself be fascinating.”

55:45: The vast majority (70 percent) of the U.S. pop supports NASA and its goals. What is missing, Griffin says, is the translation of public approval into coherent policy that can go from one administration to another.

57:15: Griffin calls space exploration “hobby entertainment for newly elected political leaders.” Their stance towards the Marines, or Air Force, for example, is vastly different.

1:00:22: Deep space exploration beyond Mars is very difficult without nuclear propulsion systems.

1:08: Maintaining crew health in closed environments is going to be very difficult. “When we can put a crew on an international space station for 6-7 months and let them de-condition and send them to the moon for a year, back to the space station and then bring them home—then we’ll know we’re ready to go to Mars, and not before.”

1:02:47: Commercial break: STEM-Talk is an educational service of the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, a not-for-profit research lab pioneering ground-breaking technologies aimed at leveraging human cognition, perception, locomotion and resilience.

1:03:30: “We must have a long-term, carefully structured, coherent policy on what the U.S. will do in space, why we will do it, who we will do it with; and how that will be consistent with the funding that we supply.”

1:06:00:  Griffin looks back at Apollo, which “barely succeeded in the political sense.” The White House was cutting the NASA budget during Apollo 11. “’While success was being had, cancellation was occurring,” he says, adding this was “a huge lost opportunity.”

1:07:27: The success of Apollo was partly due to President John F. Kennedy’s succinct declaration of what was to be done: “Land a man on the moon, return him safely to the earth, do it before decade is up.”

1:08:00: The U.S. at that time was also in a battle with the USSR for the hearts and minds of the non-aligning nations of the world, he adds. “We felt it was important to be ahead in space.”

1:08:35: “Apollo probably benefitted from Kennedy’s assassination. It is unlikely we would have been able to go forward had not a martyred president stood behind it.”

1:12:50: One of the problems across the aerospace industry is that people are not entering the profession. The average age of the NASA work force is in fifties. During Apollo the average age was the twenties. “We need a combination.”

1:15:12: Griffin wrote a lengthy paper for the 50th anniversary of Sputnik saying that it would have been better to use the hardware infrastructure they had developed during Apollo and repurpose it for other things.

1:18:12: Griffin paraphrases Wayne Hale, a former shuttle program manager, and space shuttle flight director, in a speech last October in which Hale said that he was tired of the controversy about whether or not we should build a heavy lifter (versus an orbital assembly of smaller pay loads.) “You cannot prove that you would not have been able to do the Berlin airlift with a large number of piper cups, but the logistics would be forbidding… The laws of physics don’t prevent an in-orbit assembly of very large machines to go to Mars by using many smaller launch vehicles. But it is logistically forbidding. It is likely to be much more expensive and time-consuming.”

1:19:28: “To believe otherwise—that we would not want the largest transportation capability that we could put together—is to single space flight out from all other modes of transportation that humans have ever used.”

1:21:10: “If we are serious about space exploration, we need a heavy lifter.”

1:22:22: Griffin says that during the next trip to the moon, we should mine the lunar crust for oxygen. “The lunar surface is a good source of oxygen, and extractable for solar energy. As an industrial process, I believe that’s one of the first things we’ll do.”

1:23:45: Griffin elaborates on his views regarding the possibility of a commercially-developed space transportation system capable of Mars missions.

1:29:56: The U.S. partnership in space with Russia and other European nations has been a really good thing. We’ve learned a lot from Russians in space, and they’ve learned a lot from us.

1:33:38: Ford asks Griffin about his passion for flying. “I’ve been flying for decades, as a general aviation pilot. Flying is consuming. When you’re departing/arriving other concerns don’t weigh on you in that moment. I enjoy that feeling of commitment.”

1:37:06: Griffin is also a voracious reader. During the period in which the interview was conducted, he was reading “The Innovators” (about the development of the computer industry), as well as “Into the Black,” about the development of the space shuttle. He also likes “junk fiction,” science fiction, The Economist and Science News.

1:38:30: Another hobby: “I do love golf. It appeals to people with an analytical mind set.”

1:39:00:  Ken and Tom thank Mike for the terrific interview on STEM-Talk.

1:39:50 Dawn and Ken talk about the interview, direct the listener to the episode’s show-notes, and sign off.