In a room where the term genius could be applied to many in attendance, all eyes and ears were on Dr. Michael Griffin, NASA Administrator, as he explained NASA's ongoing roles in air and space exploration to a gathering of members of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots (SETP). Several hundred SETP members gathered in Anaheim, Calif., for their annual symposium as Griffin addressed the group September 29.
Griffin explained portions of NASA's aeronautics plan to the pilots, explaining that budget changes he has instituted will level the playing field for NASA's aeronautical centers by sharing the cost of overhead within the entire agency. Citing a need for a comprehensive strategic plan for aeronautics, Griffin said NASA is working with other organizations to devise such a roadmap to be delivered to the nation this December.
Griffin, a private pilot, acknowledged his admiration for the test pilots gathered in the room. "I'm honored to be able to address you," he said. "I love aeronautics. I was trained in aeronautics," he told the group. Griffin said he hopes to use the talents of the test pilots gathered in Anaheim for future NASA aeronautics programs.
The excitement as well as the acknowledged perils of space travel animated much of the NASA Administrator's remarks. With the danger of spaceflight understood, Griffin said the goals in space need to be worth that risk. While acknowledging the benefits derived from a quarter-century of space shuttle orbital operations, Griffin articulated a need for greater accomplishments in space - goals expressed in the ongoing vision for space exploration that NASA received as a presidentially mandated task. To that end, he is committed to developing the capability to return to the Moon and eventually send astronauts to Mars.
He's philosophical about the years between the last Apollo lunar mission in the early 1970s and the return of humans to the Moon forecast for the second decade of this century. Another inhospitable environment, Antarctica, went largely unvisited between the early 20th Century and the mid-1950s when long-duration research stations were established, he reminded his audience. When humans return to the Moon, it won't be Apollo revisited, Griffin said. NASA's planned Orion space capsule and its lunar exploration module, still under development, are being designed to permit four astronauts to stay on the lunar surface for a week, amounting to a four-fold increase in capability over Apollo's pioneering efforts.
And that's but a work-up to the main event: Mars. The same family of rockets being developed for lunar trips will be capable of delivering a million pounds of hardware, fuel, and astronauts to earth orbit in five or six launches over a period of three or four months, Griffin said. The aggregate will then leave earth orbit for Mars in a scenario NASA long-range planners are developing.
Griffin says NASA is currently in "a period of change unlike any we've seen since the end of Apollo." While acknowledging the difficulties that attend times of momentous change, Griffin embraces the change, and the vision for space exploration, with the logic of an engineer that sometimes hides the passion of an explorer.
Frederick A. Johnsen
NASA Dryden Flight Research Center