Spaceflight Now Home

Spaceflight Now +

Premium video content for our Spaceflight Now Plus subscribers.

Griffin goes before press
Michael Griffin, NASA's new administrator, holds his first news conference from agency headquarters to discuss shuttle return to flight, exploration plans and Hubble servicing. (46min 44sec file)
 Play video

 Download audio:
   For iPod

NASA's new boss
During his first day on the job, Michael Griffin, NASA's new administrator, addresses agency employees and answers questions on a variety of topics on April 14. (28min 50sec file)
 Play video

Griffin in his own words
Nominated to become the new administrator of NASA, Michael Griffin gives an opening statement to a Senate committee about his thoughts on the agency. (6min 38sec file)
 Play video

Senators quiz Griffin
Senators ask a wide range of questions to NASA administrator nominee Michael Griffin concerning the future exploration, the space shuttle and space station programs, Hubble servicing options and aeronautics funding. (27min 06sec file)
 Play video

Soyuz docking
The Russian Soyuz TMA-6 capsule docks to the space station's Pirs module, delivering the Expedition 11 to the outpost for a half-year mission. (4min 15sec file)
 Play video

Launch of Expedition 11
The Russian Soyuz TMA-6 spacecraft is launched to put the International Space Station's Expedition 11 crew in Earth orbit.
 Short | Full Length

Post-fueling briefing
NASA managers hold a news conference following the shuttle fueling test to discuss details and results from the event. (27min 33sec file)
 Play video

 Download audio:
   For iPod

Shuttle inspectors
An 8-person inspection team completes examinations of space shuttle Discovery and its external tank after fueling. (4min 46sec file)
 Play video

Fueling test starts
The launch team begins loading space shuttle Discovery's external fuel tank as part of an engineering test and countdown rehearsal at pad 39B. (10min 28sec file)
 Play video

Shuttle external tank
Highlights of pre-flight work involving the redesigned external fuel tank for the space shuttle return to flight mission is packaged into this movie with narration. (6min 32sec file)
 Play video

Become a subscriber
More video

Griffin talks shuttle launch decision in first news briefing
Posted: April 18, 2005

New NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said today he would consider pressing ahead with launch of shuttle Discovery next month even if an outside review panel found fault with NASA's implementation of post-Columbia safety upgrades.

Michael Griffin conducts his first news conference as NASA administrator. Credit: NASA
Griffin said NASA's shuttle management team, not the review committee, has the ultimate responsibility for deciding whether or not to launch Discovery and if those managers recommend pressing ahead, he will consider it.

"In concept, yes I would, if (senior managers) recommend that we should consider launching despite not filling all the squares on Stafford-Covey, that is something I would consider," Griffin said.

A panel of outside experts led by former Apollo astronaut Tom Stafford and former shuttle commander Richard Covey was chartered by NASA to monitor the agency's implementation of recommendations by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

Fifteen of the CAIB's 29 recommendations were classified as "return to flight," meaning they were to be implemented before shuttle launches resumed. The Stafford-Covey panel had hoped to present its final report to the NASA administrator a full month before return to flight to give the agency time to respond.

But the panel's report has been held up to give NASA time to complete last-minute testing. With the May 15 opening of Discovery's launch window fast approaching, it now appears unlikely the Return to Flight Task Group can finish its report a full month in advance.

Complicating the picture, some members of the panel have raised questions about whether NASA has, in fact, met the intent of at least some return-to-flight recommendations, including the ability to repair damage to the shuttle's heat-shield tile and wing leading edge systems in orbit.

Columbia was destroyed during re-entry Feb. 1, 2003, by a hole in its left wing that was caused by the impact of external tank foam debris during launch 16 days earlier. NASA managers believe the redesigned insulation scheme will preclude major form shedding but so far, engineers have not been able to come up with reliable techniques for repairing significant heat-shield damage.

During Discovery's mission, the astronauts will test a few rudimentary repair techniques that might prove effective fixing minor impact damage. But no techniques are available yet that could handle major damage to a wing leading edge or critical heat-shield tiles.

In a sense, NASA is faced with a catch-22. Repair techniques are needed before flights can resume, but any such repair techniques must be tested in the space environment to confirm they will work. Many agency managers believe it is safe to resume flights in the absence of certified repair procedures because:

  • Improved launch imagery, radar, on-orbit imagery and new wing leading edge sensors will show, without question, whether Discovery suffered any damage during launch;

  • If damage is seen, and if it's too extensive to be repaired, the crew can move into the international space station and await rescue by another shuttle crew. For at least the first two flights, NASA plans to process a second shuttle in parallel that could reach the station within a month or so if required.

Griffin did not discuss details of any such scenarios. But he expressed faith in the shuttle management team to make the right decision.

"I don't believe engineers make blanket decisions in advance and I don't believe the technical decisions are a voting matter," he said. "Stafford-Covey will have their criteria, the line managers in charge of the program will have theirs.

"Now, I cannot begin at this time to say under what specific conditions that NASA might elect to go ahead with the launch given a disparity of opinion between various interested parties as to whether we should or should not. That will depend on the technical details of the issue at hand. But that is precisely the point.

Michael Griffin conducts his first news conference as NASA administrator. Credit: NASA
"We study those issues and we resolve them as they occur and then we make our decision and we hold ourselves responsible for it," Griffin said. "Advisory groups advise. The NASA line managers have the responsibility for executing the program. We need to take our advice very seriously and very carefully when it is given and we need never to be defensive about receiving advice from outside.

"But at the end of the day, the people wearing government and contractor badges charged with launching the vehicle will be the ones who are responsible and accountable for their actions."

Griffin said he had no illusions "about the fact that I am the person in the chain of command least knowledgeable about the full details of shuttle operation and its readiness for return to flight."

"I have a lot to learn and I have a lot to learn very quickly and there's no possible way I can learn it all," he said. "Nonetheless, I have enormous confidence in the shuttle team, both NASA and contractors, and what my focus will be on will be learning everything about the process that has gone into fixing the problems that led to the loss of (Columbia) and moving forward."

He said he would do everything possible to ensure good communications from "bottom to top" and "from side to side."

"Again, in the end someone must decide yes or no," he said. "The thing to do is take into account all of the knowledge that we have. I will be one person in that chain. I will probably know less about it than anyone else, but I will make certain that everyone has given me the most convincing technical arguments on why it's OK to launch, if it is OK to launch, before we commit to going ahead."

Immediately after leaving his first press conference at NASA headquarters in Washington, Griffin planned to fly to the Kennedy Space Center to sit in on a long-awaited space shuttle design certification review Tuesday.

NASA hopes to launch Discovery sometime during a window that opens May 15 and closes June 3. It is widely believed NASA will announce a new target launch date later this week, after the design certification review. May 22 is one possible target, sources say, but no final decisions have been made.

In any case, Griffin said a go, no-go decision will not be based on the crew's ability to repair tile damage.

"It's not at all clear from a fundamental viewpoint of the hypersonic aerodynamics involved that tile repair is ever going to be a very easy thing," he said. "It would be very, very easy to make a fix, quote unquote, to a tile known to be damaged and make the problem worse by inserting material or other changes that would (affect the ship's aerodynamics). It would be very easy to make the problem worse rather than better.

"The whole idea of tile repair is a very good idea, but the implementation of it could well be beyond that which we know how to do. ... If it comes down to the fact that we simply don't know how to repair shuttle tile that suffers a certain amount of damage in orbit, then that will be the answer. I don't know that that will be the answer, but that's what the squabble is about."

If that is how the discussion plays out, he said, "then we now need to elevate it to a higher level of decision making."

"Do we think we have solved the problems with foam shedding on the external tank with a high enough degree of confidence, that we believe nothing will fall on the orbiter that will damage it? That's a different question.

"Are we willing to take the statistical risk to fly the orbiter again in the event that we don't have a tile repair capability? That's yet another question. I don't know what the answers to those are.

"But the clearance for return to flight cannot be simply a go or no-go decision based on can you repair a tile in orbit. Even if a tile repair mechanism is offered up as a good idea and even if the capability is on board the orbiter to implement that, there is not a certain way of knowing whether that repair will have worsened the situation or, in fact, improved it.

"We need to get these kinds of facts out on the table so that people at large understand that this is not a simple issue."

Spaceflight Now Plus
Video coverage for subscribers only: