Griffin Visits Dryden
June 17, 2005
NASA's new administrator, Michael Griffin, held a May 24 town hall meeting at Dryden in which he introduced himself to employees and fielded questions about his philosophy and vision for the Agency.
Image Right: New NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, at right, shares an observation with Director Kevin Petersen, left, and F-15B project manager Stephen Corda during Griffin's recent visit to Dryden. Griffin's March 11 presidential appointment to succeed Sean O'Keefe was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on April 14.
In keeping with goals laid out in 2004 by President George Bush, Griffin said NASA's chief focus will be on returning the Space Shuttles safely to flight and retiring the orbiters by 2010. Other priorities include completing the International Space Station, developing a replacement for the Space Shuttles and engaging in missions to return to the Moon and eventually begin human exploration of Mars.
In the short term, Griffin said restructuring of the aeronautics directorate will continue.
"There are some dislocations and there will be some pain associated with that. We will bear it together," he said.
But while streamlining of operations and personnel will continue into the next fiscal year, he said he also wants to see congressional and Agency leaders develop a vision for aeronautics that could lead to eventual rebuilding of the first 'A' in 'NASA.' Once the right skill mix is achieved and a cohesive vision for aeronautics is outlined, Griffin said he sees aeronautics research growing with renewed vigor.
In the national debate on a direction and focus for aeronautics, Griffin said one area to which he will pay particular interest is restarting hypersonics research. The new administrator, the 11th to hold the position, said he was not in favor of seeing work with hypersonics end after the two successful X-43A missions completed in 2004. That research, conducted by a team from Langley Research Center and Dryden with key contributions from industry partners, is important for future exploration systems and beneficial to the nation for applications in military and advanced civil systems, Griffin said.
Some research areas are inherently risky, another issue Dryden employees asked the administrator to address.
"I have a very strong belief that public dollars for agencies of our type should be expended so that the nation has an entity which will operate on the frontier," Griffin responded. "Our frontier is aeronautics and space. The frontier is where we don't know what's out there. There is an appropriate balance. If it takes six miracles in series to make something work, we're not going to do that. We will take measured risks."
That's not to say NASA won't push the limits of these new frontiers, he added.
"We need to think it through but we can't continue to be risk-averse, as we have been. It comes down to our culture problems, which in some areas we need to fix. We have confused risk aversion with not tolerating dissenting opinions.
"If you are engaged in risky activities that include large amounts of money or lives, then you have to move forward with all the information you can. You're not going to have all the information you want. It should be part of our culture to get every opinion we can find. Not to the extreme, when people start repeating the same themes - we have to hear all the rational arguments."
Several employee questions focused on full-cost accounting, a financial tool that takes into account people, facilities and materials in charging for services NASA provides to other government agencies and private industry.
Griffin, who assumed the administrator's job in April, pledged to take facility costs out of the full-cost equation to help NASA centers offer competitive prices for their services. However, he also cautioned against confusing the effects of bad strategic planning with those of using a financial tool, one designed to provide the bottom line on what it costs NASA to provide services and to show where money goes.
"My accountant has nothing to say on where I spend my money," he offered as an analogy. "My CFO (chief financial officer) is not in doubt about what I want to do.
"Full-cost accounting is just a way of knowing what you spend, and who can be opposed to that? But it's not a budget tool. Accounting is accounting and budgeting is budgeting. Budgeting is making decisions about what I want to spend money on. We kid ourselves if we allow ourselves to blame full-cost accounting, which is a tool, for strategic management decisions not to do appropriate technology development."
Griffin called Dryden "an outstanding center" and made it clear that aeronautics will continue despite the current budget squeeze. In addition, he emphasized that there will be a role for Dryden in the Agency's future.
"We're at a low point in aeronautics right now, so hang on. We'll be doing some different things, and we'll be leaving some things behind that we used to do. Stick with me as we move into the future because NASA needs to be a vibrant agency. We'll be exploring the intellectual frontier," he said.
Other questions focused on how Dryden might fit into the space vision in general and more specifically into the work on the Crew Exploration Vehicle, or CEV, that is intended to lead to a replacement for the current Space Shuttle fleet.
In addition to management of research on the CEV heat shield and Dryden engineer Dan Banks' investigation of aerodynamic principles that could be used in the vehicle's design, Griffin said there also is potential for other roles for Dryden.
"I'm sure that when we're ready to test approach and landing for whatever kind of CEV we have that it's almost a no-brainer that Dryden is the place to do it," he said. "I'm sure there will be other kinds of exploration work. I recall that they did the LLRV (Lunar Landing Research Vehicle) flights here during Apollo. There will be a role for Dryden."
Dryden engineers assisted in development of and led flight research with the LLRV trainers, which aided pilots in learning how to land the Lunar Excursion Module on the Moon's surface.
Responding to questions on competition among NASA centers for new business, Griffin said he is in favor of it when it can make a project better, but not in ways that could be detrimental.
As an example, he said several centers currently have concepts for a Mars aircraft. All are encouraged to develop the best aircraft possible, he said, the end result being a winning design while no center is penalized for a win or loss.
"There are places even in government where competition is good," he said.
Griffin said research centers should be exactly that - facilities where government work can be conducted that might not be profitable or have a long-term rate of return for the private sector, or where risky research that might benefit the nation can be carried out.
He also wants to see that NASA capabilities utilized by other government agencies are appropriate to the NASA charter. Work taken on at the Agency, he said, must pertain to NASA's mission and not be work that the Agency can do, but is not tasked with doing.
"There are times one should get out of a business. I don't want to see us pursue work for the sake of keeping enterprises alive that should not survive. If the balance of work we do is for outside interests and does not fit into current NASA themes, we have to recognize that reality. The intellectual frontier always changes. We have an obligation to let go of the old and do the new," he said.
One example of a new role Dryden has begun to fill is supplying technology to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A recent series of joint NASA-NOAA missions has reinforced that Dryden has the expertise to help end users customize UAVs for completing a variety of missions.
How NASA is stacking up against formidable aeronautics and space programs in China, Europe, Japan, Russia and other areas of the world was another assessment employees asked Griffin to give.
Some nations, he responded by saying, will be partners and allies on some endeavors and competitors on others. But the new administrator emphasized one point: "It is important to me personally - as I hope it is to you - that our aviation and space capability is second to none in the world. We should be the standard bearer for aviation and space in the world. I think it's strategically important to the world of tomorrow."
Griffin's remarks left no doubt as to where he wants to see NASA go.
"I want to see us become the predominant explorer. That's where I want us to be."