NASA Administrator Griffin Visits Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Sees Stable Future

Status Report From: Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Posted: Wednesday, May 31, 2006


From JPL Universe

Given the prospect of a flat NASA budget for the years ahead, Griffin told the Tuesday gathering in von Karman Auditorium that his biggest challenge has been to find a way to fund missions under the Vision for Space Exploration while maintaining stable workforces at each of the agency's 10 field centers.

He said that the cut in JPL's workforce last fall from 5,400 employees and contractors to about 5,000 was driven by the fact that the previous level was based on expectations of growth in NASA's science programs that couldn't be maintained given the budget cap and his charter to remake NASA's human program. "I felt I had no choice but to nip that in the bud," he said. "I did feel that I could maintain a commitment to a 5,000-person laboratory. I'm committed to a stable, viable, healthy JPL at that level."

Griffin said his biggest immediate challenge has been to find work for NASA's traditional research/aeronautics centers. "I don't have that problem right now at JPL," he said, adding that the lab's current workload appears to be sufficient to keep the workforce stable.

In the future he expects JPL to continue to attract new business by competing for missions, but, "If I think JPL is in danger of falling below having the right amount of work to cover the JPL staff, then I will do as I have done at other places I will find you a mission. If you can win enough to keep up the level you're at, you don't need me to do anything."

However, he discouraged JPLers from going after major new work that would drive the lab's workforce beyond the current level. "If you kill more than you can eat, I'll probably ask you to send some of that somewhere else."

"A gain in people at one center is a loss in people at another center, or it is a removal of dollars from industry into the federal civil service," said Griffin. "That's not acceptable. And it's not acceptable to be moving people and moving significant numbers of jobs from one center to another."

In response to a question, Griffin also said he hopes Congress will not restore cuts he made in the proposed fiscal year 2007 budget for scientific research and analysis. "I hope Congress won't restore it, because it will come at the expense of a mission," he said. "The budget I put forward is the best budget I can do given all the constraints I have. If you push on the bean bag somewhere, it will pop out somewhere else. There will be other unhappy people, they will just be in other zip codes."

Griffin cited the importance of placing humans and cargo in low- Earth orbit "an essential first step" in the next stage of exploration. "It's got to be done right," he said.

He also said that he sees potential opportunities for JPL for robotic work under the Vision for Space Exploration after he gets over the immediate hump of retiring the shuttle, completing the space station and developing new crewed vehicles. "In part it'll depend on how clever and how innovative your proposals are in response to mission opportunities." "Humans are going to need a lot of robotic assistance," said the administrator. "I would anticipate there could be a lot of involvement in that at JPL, but I don't want to turn you into a manned spacecraft center."

Griffin thinks the shuttle will complete the 16 scheduled international space station assembly missions as well as a Hubble repair mission.

"If we can get back to our average rate of 4.5 shuttle flights a year, we can finish the station with no problem. But we've got to get over the hump of this next flight (July 1) and have it be successful. That is crucial."

He said the initial return-to-flight missions need to launch in daylight to guarantee good camera viewing of possible foam buildup and other issues. However, he said, in order to complete the international space station it will be essential for some of the upcoming missions to launch at night.

Looking to the next decade, Griffin foresees a human presence on the moon in 2018. "What we do after that depends in part on what people want to do." Possibilities, he said, include developing the capability to have a research station there that would initially permanently staffed, very much like Antarctica.

Griffin foresees a potential human presence on Mars as early as the early to mid 2020s. "To me, the key is getting back into space in a reliable, robust, dependable way with enough lift capacity," he said. "It doesn't matter what Mars mission strategy you use, we already know we're going to need a space-station equivalent mass and will need a million pounds of hardware to go through low-Earth orbit."

Among his other observations in response to questions from JPLers:

Asking about space collaborations with China, Griffin noted that he will be visiting that country next fall, but "can't predict the outcome. The space station partnership is well forged and long established, and so that's not on the table. Whether there ever could be a visiting vehicle at the space station from the Chinese, I couldn't say right now."

Griffin believes there are many opportunities for young people interested in joining NASA. He noted that when he and JPL Director Dr. Charles Elachi were at the beginning of their careers 35 years ago, the Vietnam war and NASA's Apollo lunar program were winding down, and "in aerospace you had to scramble hard for any opening at all." By contrast, 25 percent of NASA's current workforce is eligible to retire in the next five years, "which will create openings at the younger end of the pipeline."

The administrator said he shared concerns raised by a JPLer in the audience that the government's foreign export rules, called International Traffic in Arms Regulations or ITAR, aren't accomplishing their objectives. Intended to prevent the proliferation of technologies that could be used against the United States, the current implementation of ITAR is unintentionally "creating competitors" overseas. "It is preventing us from accessing the best and brightest in the world," said Griffin. "In my capacity as a government official, I am doing what I can do within the purview of my office to try to make" that case.

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