Griffin clarifies ‘mistake’ comment

by Chris Bergin

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has said his comments to the newspaper USA Today were taken out of context, when they quoted him as saying the Space Shuttle was a ‘mistake’.

With the omission of any praise for the STS (Space Transportation System) and its achievements, the article was received angrily by some United Space Alliance workers – who in their own words called his comments as ‘betrayal’.

However, Griffin’s open letter on the article will be sure to reassure such workers on the Space Shuttle program that their hard work has not been in vain.

The article in last week’s edition of USA Today highlighted Griffin as saying the last 30 years of NASA’s manned space flight program had been a mistake, with criticism for the Shuttle and the International Space Station – both on-going projects.

That was met by e-mails from workers, one of which was quoted in Florida Today as saying his comments were “an outright insult to those who have given their blood, sweat, tears, and yes, even their lives, for this national treasure. Griffin may hold five master’s degree and a Ph.D., but there are two things he lacks — common sense and compassion. I, for one space employee, am embarrassed to consider him a colleague.”

However, Griffin has reacted to an onslaught of unhappy e-mails by writing an open letter that was published on today.

“I’m sure you’ve seen the press coverage concerning my supposed comments on the space shuttle and International Space Station, beginning last Wednesday.

“I’ve been in Russia since the day the article came out, and have therefore missed most of the reaction to it, but I’ve received enough e-mail to realize that I didn’t handle the situation well and have left some hurt feelings behind. So, I thought I should make the effort to clarify the situation, and this message to all of you is the best way I know to do it.

“The attention-getting parts of the story were, of course, associated with the use of words such as “mistake” and “blunder” in connection with the shuttle and station programs. The press coverage has been such as to make it appear that I used those words to characterize the programs. In fact — and I would hope that this goes without saying — I did no such thing. I was asked by an interviewer if shuttle had been “a mistake,” and I provided my answer, which addressed the difficulty of the design challenge and the paucity of funds with which it was undertaken. This answer was given in the article, and was quoted correctly. But the use of words such as “mistake” and “blunder,” as well as the overall pejorative tone of the article, was not reflective of my remarks nor of the general context of the discussion.

“At the strategic level, I think all of you know that I believe we have been restricted to low Earth orbit for far too long and that the proper focus of our nation’s space program should be the exploration of our solar system. I do understand that others will disagree. In that context, it is useful to recall Norm Augustine’s observation that most people believe we should have a robust space program; it is just that no two people agree as to what that program should be! But it is my sense that this debate has been had and has been resolved for the time being. The Vision for Space Exploration is the right path, and it is the path that we are re-engaging our agency to follow. I am committed to it.

“With that said, I do hope you know that I would never speak of our efforts, past or present, in a way that would be intended to denigrate the efforts of the engineers, technicians, managers, scientists, and administrative personnel who “make it happen” at NASA and at our contractors.

“As I have often said publicly, the shuttle is the most amazing machine humans have ever built, and it has been the recipient of the most brilliant engineering that America can provide. The station is a more difficult engineering project, by far, than was Apollo. It is true that we have not met our original goals for these programs, for myriad reasons dating back 35 years or more, involving strategic and budgetary decisions made, properly or otherwise, above NASA. Although this is not the fault of the dedicated people, past and present, who have worked in these programs, I think we all know that we can do better, and that we will. But even if everything were in our favor — and it is not — it would be several years before we could have available a successor to the shuttle. In the interim, we must complete the station and the only tool with which we can accomplish that is the shuttle. At this point, an expeditious but orderly phase-out of the shuttle program, using it to complete the assembly of the station while we develop a new system, is the best thing we can do for our agency and for the nation.

“These are the messages I have tried to convey. It is not my intention that they should be used to criticize or diminish the efforts of those who have devoted their lives — and in some cases given their lives — to the space program. Space technology is still in its infancy. To criticize the shuttle and station because our best efforts have fallen short of the goals we have set would be like criticizing the early aviation pioneers because they did not understand, then, how to build transcontinental aircraft. In this business, our goal is to push the frontiers of technology, to learn what we can by doing so, and then move on. And that is what we will do.

“Thank you all for your time and attention.

Michael Griffin
NASA Administrator.”

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