Griffin leaves door open for shuttle flight to Hubble
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: April 12, 2005
Michael Griffin, on a fast track for confirmation as NASA's next administrator, vowed today to complete the international space station, shorten the time needed to develop a replacement for the space shuttle and to revisit the possibility of a shuttle repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.
Having that safe haven, where a crew could await rescue by another shuttle, is a major part of NASA's rationale for resuming flights to the space station. But a shuttle cannot carry enough fuel to move from Hubble's orbit to the station's and a repair crew's only way home would be aboard the same shuttle that brought it to orbit.
O'Keefe's decision touched off a storm of protest by critics who argued the problem that doomed Columbia would be fixed and even with safe haven, 28 flights to the station did not seem inherently safer, overall, than one flight to Hubble.
O'Keefe later said he would consider mounting a robotic repair mission. But an independent panel of experts chaired, before his nomination, by Griffin, concluded a robotic mission would be too expensive and too difficult to implement before Hubble lost sufficient battery power or gyro stabilization to continue operations.
During his Senate confirmation hearing today, Griffin said he agreed with the committee's conclusions and had no plans to consider a robotic servicing mission to Hubble. At the same time, he left the door open for a possible shuttle servicing mission depending on how post-Columbia safety upgrades perform in flight.
"Actually, until I was nominated by the president to be his choice for administrator, I was the independent chair of the robotic servicing mission design review committee," he said. "As you know, and as was in the news very recently, that committee, now without me as its head, that committee has concluded that the robotic servicing mission is not feasible for a reasonable amount of money and within the time we have available before the Hubble wears out. So I would like to take the robotic mission off the plate.
"And so I believe that this comes down to reinstating a shuttle servicing mission or possibly a very simple robotic deorbiting mission. The decision not to execute the planned shuttle servicing mission was made in the immediate aftermath of the loss of Columbia. When we return to flight, it will be with essentially a new vehicle, which will have a new risk analysis associated with it and so on and so forth.
"At that time, I think we should reassess the earlier decision in light of what we learn after we return to flight," he said.
Griffin said his first priority as NASA administrator will be just that, safely returning the shuttle to flight. NASA plans to launch the shuttle Discovery on the first post-Columbia mission between May 15 and June 3.
Columbia was destroyed by a piece of foam insulation that fell off the ship's external tank during launch Jan. 16, 2003. The 1.67-pound chunk of foam blasted a hole in the left wing's leading edge. During re-entry Feb. 1, 2003, super-hot gas entered the breach, melted the wing from the inside out and triggered the structural breakup of the orbiter above Texas. All seven crew members were killed.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board made 29 recommendations to improve management practices and technical safety, including 15 that were to be implemented before shuttle flights resume. An independent panel led by former Apollo astronaut Thomas Stafford and former shuttle commander Richard Covey was formed later to monitor NASA's implementation of those recommendations.
The Stafford-Covey panel had hoped to complete its work this month, but a final meeting was postponed when NASA was unable to complete required testing in time. A major issue has been whether expected debris from the redesigned external fuel tank - or anywhere else - can still cause entry-critical damage.
Late last week, senior NASA managers and engineers held a three-day debris verification review to discuss 173 possible sources of debris and their potential impact on flight safety. All but two of those sources were deemed acceptable for flight, sources said. The two open items involve possible ice formation and potential foam loss from the tip of the external tank that could damage the shuttle's nose cap.
Engineers believe additional testing will show the two open items pose no serious threat. An already planned test to load 500,000 gallons of supercold liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen rocket fuel into the external tank Thursday should shed light on ice formation and additional tests are planned at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
In the end, however, many engineers and officials say privately it will not be possible to eliminate all debris impacts and that in worst-case scenarios, debris from the tank still could trigger catastrophic damage depending on where - and how - it struck.
Without getting specific, Griffin acknowledged the debate and gave at least a hint that exceptions to the CAIB recommendations may be unavoidable.
"The very first issue on the plate superceding all others is to look into return to flight, work which has gone on in the last more than two years since we lost Columbia, to understand it, to understand who has done it, what has been done and to understand what the areas of concern still are," Griffin said today.
"I've been in the unfortunate position of having chaired accident boards ... and I'm very aware that accident boards make recommendations that seem good to them at the time but which may not in all cases be capable of implementation.
"We will, of course, face that same thing with the return to flight and in fact, as those who pay attention to the space media know, there is a certain amount of contentiousness ongoing right now as to exactly what state of completion our shuttle return to flight exercise can reach before we decide to go and accept the risk remaining. So nothing will be more important to me than looking into all that."
He added that he also plans to make sure "we hear from all parties, that there is no information that needs to reach the top that fails to reach the top. And that will be a huge priority."
Looking further afield, Griffin said he fully supports President Bush's proposed moon-Mars initiative, which calls for the shuttle fleet to be retired around 2010 after completion of the space station; for the development of a new manned "crew exploration vehicle;" and for the establishment of a permanent base on the moon and eventual manned flights to Mars.
As it now stands, NASA hopes to launch manned CEV flights beginning around 2014, some four years after the end of the shuttle program. Griffin said he believes NASA should close that gap to minimize reliance on Russian or European launchers to put U.S. astronauts into space between the end of the shuttle era and the debut of the CEV.
"This is an area that means a lot to me," he said. "As a matter of what it takes to be a great nation in the 21st Century, I do not believe that we wish to see a situation where the United States is dependent on any partner, reliable or unreliable, at any time for human access to space or for that matter, any access to space. We need our own capabilities.
"The program that NASA has outlined so far features a new crew exploration vehicle and it nominally comes on line in 2014. I think that's too far out. President Bush said not later than 2014, he didn't say we couldn't be smart and do it early. And that would be my goal."
He pointed out that NASA needed just a bit more than three years to develop the Gemini spacecraft and six to build and launch the more complex Apollo command module.
"It seems unacceptable to me that it should take from 2005 to 2014 to do the same thing when we already know how," he said.
Griffin comes to NASA at a "watershed moment" for the nation's space program.
"The timing was brought to us in the saddest possible way by the loss of the Columbia in February of '03 and our efforts since then to regroup from that loss and to move on," he said. "The timing is forced upon us, but it does produce a watershed moment and that watershed has been crossed.
"In the wake of the failure investigation from Columbia, it has become clear that the United Sates needs to look in new directions and to look beyond where we have been with our program in the last several decades. In the words of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, the United States is not going to abandon human spaceflight. But in the foreseeable future, it will be expensive, difficult and dangerous and the goals that we seek out should be worthy of the cost and the risk.
"And I think it is now understood that a human spaceflight program focused only upon the completion of the space station and the servicing of that station with the shuttle does not qualify as a goal which is worthy of the expense, the risk and the difficulty of human spaceflight.
"President Bush has seen beyond that and has proposed a new program," Griffin said, speaking without notes. "It is the right strategic program and it's the right strategic direction for the United States civil space program and I support it whole heartedly. I have no doubt the members of this committee have had access to some of my written record on this point and that this topic is the one closest to my heart with regard to the direction of the program.
"There are many who say the program cannot be afforded, the proposals that president Bush has made cannot be afforded. I did a little homework and I would point out something which may not be generally realized. ... If you compare the funding received (by NASA during its first 16 years) it is within a couple of percent of the funding that's been made available to the agency in the last 16 years of its existence.
"If we continue to receive the president's budget allocations, we can do the program which the president has proposed," he said. "We know that we can do it, because we've done it."