When NASA Administrator Mike Griffin looks to the future of space — to the Moon, Mars and Beyond, as the agency’s new slogan goes — he often begins by looking to the past.
But not necessarily NASA’s. Though the agency’s nearly 50 years offer ample subject matter for any space history buff, Griffin looks a bit further into the annals of history when he gets to talking about space exploration. He harkens back not to Sputnik or John Glenn, but rather to 11th-century Viking shipbuilders, a Genoese explorer who set sail in 1492, and a pair of American brothers who crafted the world’s first practical fixed-wing aircraft from sticks and cloth.
A man of history as well as science, Griffin knows well that, in the timeline of human innovation and exploration, five decades is but the blink of an eye.
“Fifty years into [their maritime explorations], the amount of progress that the Vikings had made would not have been that noticeable,” Griffin said in a recent interview. “And that’s where we are in space flight today.”
A mere wrinkle in time, perhaps, but NASA’s first 50 years have been more than a historical footnote. They’ve formed a turbulent timeline that has tested the bounds of human possibility, marked by triumph, tragedy and trillions of dollars. Indeed, since President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act in 1958, perhaps no other federal agency has experienced such shattering heights or gut-wrenching depths as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Griffin’s love affair with science and space has also spanned five decades, since he first thumbed through an astronomy book as a boy of 5, dreaming of stars, distant galaxies and secrets hidden in the great expanse overhead.
That love affair continued into high school and college, though he admits that his passion for space competed with his love of golf and girls. Griffin says it wasn’t until he began his first post-bachelor’s degree coursework in 1972 — as a master’s student in aerospace science at The Catholic University of America — that he focused on the academic and career track that would take him to NASA, the Department of Defense, private enterprise and academic positions, and back to NASA again — earning a Ph.D. and five master’s degrees along the way.
“When I was in my early 20s and working and going to school at Catholic, [that] was when I grew up a little bit,” Griffin says. He prefers plain “Mike” to “Administrator” or “Dr. Griffin.” His modesty is striking, given his stature. Concerning those six graduate degrees, Griffin shrugs off any sense of accomplishment. “I don’t feel like I’ve pursued enough,” he says. In fact, when he was tapped by President George W. Bush to lead the space agency in March 2005, Griffin, 56, was midway through a sixth master’s degree, in computer science. His completed master’s degrees are in aerospace science (from CUA), electrical engineering, applied physics, civil engineering and business administration. His Ph.D. is in aerospace engineering.
Griffin will probably need to draw from each of those specialties for the tasks ahead. NASA has seen many changes in the years following the U.S.-Soviet space race and Neil Armstrong’s iconic “giant leap for mankind,” and the importance of Griffin’s role as leader of the world’s premier space agency cannot be overstated: On his watch the agency must plot the short- and long-term road map to get to that “beyond” NASA’s slogan alludes to. This involves completing the International Space Station, an orbiting space lab 13 years and $30 billion in the making, by 2010; designing a new space vehicle to replace the space shuttle fleet, due to be retired that same year; upgrading (and, by 2013, replacing) the Hubble Space Telescope; launching what Griffin has termed “Apollo on Steroids” — a long-term manned exploration of the moon — by 2020; putting an astronaut on Mars by the 2030s; and developing more unmanned planetary probes such as the two rovers that have been trekking across Mars’ bleak terrain since January 2004.
Not to mention figuring out how to do all these things on $16.5 billion a year, which, in the world of rocket science, doesn’t stretch very far.
Given such a laundry list, it’s hardly surprising that Griffin seems to be an engineer in a hurry. When asked by a reporter about his feelings following the successful launch of Space Shuttle Discovery last July, he reportedly replied, “I’ll have time for feelings after I’m dead.” Such a comment might seem out of character, coming from “Mike,” the regular-guy scientist whose official NASA administrator photo is more reminiscent of a high school science teacher, boasting boyish features and a big, lopsided smile. But Griffin has spent the last 30 years preparing for the job of a lifetime, one where the end of his tenure could come at a president’s whim and where no day seems to hold enough hours to do all that is necessary. And so, like his rockets’ engines, Griffin is running full-blast.
By January of 2004, Washington had done a good bit of soul-searching following the February 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. NASA was at a crossroads: There were valid concerns about the aging shuttle fleet and astronaut safety, and some felt that future space projects were being constrained by expensive International Space Station obligations. The president responded to naysayers by vowing to go bigger into space, asking for another $1 billion for the agency’s annual budget and daring the nation to get excited about space again. Not just back to the moon, he said, but also to Mars and beyond.
It was in this political climate that Griffin found himself a year later, appearing before the Senate Commerce Committee in confirmation hearings to become NASA’s 11th administrator. He had served NASA in two previous positions: as chief engineer and as assistant administrator of exploration. He had also worked on the Strategic Defense Initiative — better known as the Star Wars of the Reagan era. At the time of his nomination, Griffin was heading up the space department at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and was just three weeks away from becoming president of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Seated before a row of senators, Griffin made his case for NASA’s future by likening it to America’s past or, rather, its beginnings. In 1492, Griffin told the committee members, the Spanish treasury was depleted and, he said, “Many — including King Ferdinand — believed that it was not the time for the nation to be embarking on what was, in that era, an effort right on the edge of what was technologically possible.”
It is this ability to put things into 500-year perspective that makes Griffin well suited to guide NASA through the beginning stages of Moon, Mars and Beyond. And though he breezed through his confirmation in part because he is so well educated in the sciences, Griffin’s most remarkable attribute may be his ability to shoot straight with the fiscal-year thinkers on the Hill while still maintaining a vision that — grounded in his deep appreciation of history — extends into the future well beyond the lives of those who run NASA or control its coffers.
“He knows what he can do and he’s not reluctant to tell the people who hold the purse strings,” says CUA alumnus Steve Paddack, B.A.E. 1959, M.S. 1964, Ph.D. 1973, NASA’s former chief of advanced mission analysis, who worked with Griffin on a subcommittee of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “He’s not only a realist, he’s a believable realist. … He’ll look [congressmen] in the eye and say ‘I can’t do that.’ ”
Of course, Griffin would rather talk about what NASA can do — now and in the distant future. And while, for many Americans, the space race ended when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched the moon’s surface, Griffin sees the United States entering a crucial new leg of an ever-continuing marathon, one in which the prize is not simply the moon, but perhaps a sizeable sector of our galaxy.
“Human societies are going to be dependent upon the resources of space materials and energy in the same way we are dependent on the products of aviation today,” Griffin predicts, though he says it won’t be in this decade, or the one after that, or even the ones soon thereafter. “That day will come. The question is: Who will enable it? What languages will they speak? Where will they come from? Who will reap the benefits? I want it to be our society. That is a longer view,” Griffin admits. “I do wish that more people had it.”
If Griffin is part visionary, he is also part problem solver, a combination which many would argue is just what NASA needs right now. “He was able to develop ideas and systems to solve particular problems that other people felt were intractable,” says Glen Fountain, a NASA project manager who worked with Griffin during the administrator’s two stints at Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory.
One such problem that others might find intractable: figuring out how to pay for the aforementioned slate of missions — all amidst ever-changing political winds and budget priorities.
“My biggest concern is: Will the government sustain [Griffin’s] plan over the period of time necessary to execute it?” Fountain says. “I believe the road map he’s laid out is a good one, an achievable one — if the political reality allows it to happen. That’s the greatest single risk.”
In light of these challenges, the problem solver is hoping to find some traction for his road map outside of the government’s fiscal reality — he’s asking private enterprise to get involved. Under Griffin’s leadership, NASA has decided to let private firms participate in supplying the Inter-national Space Station with personnel and materials via privately launched rockets. He is also open to allowing commercial use of the station for “not just space tourism, but anything that private enterprise can do in space.”
To explain the approach, he returns to a history lesson.
“The reason that the United States grew to pre-eminence in aviation so rapidly — in the course of a century we went from sticks and cloth to [Boeing] ‘Triple Sevens’ — was because we always had private commercial development going on and we always had government development going on and they pursued different goals by different means and were highly synergistic.” By contrast, he says, “We’ve had extensive government involvement in space — the United States has put hundreds of trillions of dollars into defense and civil space over the years since World War II — but we’ve lacked the private commercial development. I think the United States in space will be better off if we can help bring along some of the commercial players, and I’m trying to do that.”
For Griffin — himself a pilot and flight instructor — the pathway to space travel seems as inevitable as the evolution of aviation.
“When I was a kid I remember my grandmother saying she had always wanted to take an airplane ride,” Griffin says. “She was a girl when airplanes were invented and, through the 1950s and ’60s while she was alive, tickets were still rather expensive. Yet, if she had been one generation younger, she would have flown frequently.”
Griffin — who flew himself to Cape Canaveral for the most recent shuttle launch — sees the cycle repeating someday with his own grandchildren, only this time with space flight. “Maybe two generations from now a ride into space will be a tourist trip that the middle class can afford,” he ventures.
But not, he says, in time for him to get there. After all, Griffin may be a visionary, but he is also a realist.
Providing Stellar Leadership
Michael Griffin is not the only CUA graduate who has found his way into the upper echelons of NASA. Dan Mulville, a 1974 recipient of a Ph.D. in structural engineering from the School of Engineering, served as NASA’s chief engineer and later as the agency’s second-in-command before retiring in 2002 after 16 years at NASA headquarters. Colleen Hartman, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, holds a 1993 master of science and a 1997 Ph.D. in physics from CUA. The directorate collaborates with partners in the scientific community, sponsors research and develops spacecraft. And along with Griffin at the top of the agency is CUA graduate Gwendolyn Sykes, B.S. 1987, NASA’s chief financial officer.
CUA Researchers Help NASA Reach the Stars
When CUA alumni think of astrophysics, one four-letter acronym should come to mind.
Well, besides NASA.
The university’s IACS, or Institute for Astrophysics and Computational Sciences, has partnered with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center since 1996. It began as a one-man CUA research team on a shoestring budget. Now, just a decade later, it boasts more than 50 CUA research professors at Goddard and brings in $3.6 million in research awards annually. The program’s director, CUA Professor of Physics Frederick Bruhweiler, is also the IACS founding researcher. His connection to NASA actually predates his tenure at CUA — he started at Goddard in 1978 as a satellite astronomer before joining Catholic University’s faculty in 1983.
IACS research professors study everything from black holes to meteorites and their expertise is just as varied: Tom Moran developed the first 3-D imaging system to study the solar eruptions that cause the Northern Lights, and he is working on a mission to capture 3-D solar images from two spacecraft simultaneously. Gunther Kletetschka and his team are helping to develop the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to replace the Hubble Telescope by 2013. Rosina Iping and her team made international news in 2005 by confirming via satellite-based X-ray and ultraviolet sensors that the often-changing star Eta Carinae is, in fact, two stars — Eta Carinae A and B.
Another IACS research professor, Pamela Clark, is helping design the 12-Tet Rover, which will replace the wheeled rovers currently on Mars. Moving by extending thin metal rods that push it forward, this new rover will be autonomous, not requiring instruction from a team of earthbound scientists for every task.
The research relationship between universities and NASA is a symbiotic one: The agency reaps the benefit of top academic researchers, while academic institutions get access to the government’s state-of-the-art resources, allowing them to make remarkable discoveries and technological advances. NASA pays some expenses of CUA’s Goddard-based researchers, who rely on other non-CUA research-funding sources to pay much of their salaries and the costs associated with their work.
“Looking outside the box often requires a fresh mind and a fresh perspective,” says Goddard scientist Ted Gull, who worked with IACS researchers on the recent Eta Carinae discovery. “Bringing students and researchers in from CUA enables new insights and often new discoveries.”
The IACS-NASA relationship offers an additional perk: CUA doctoral candidates in astrophysics get to pursue their research and dissertation off-campus at Goddard, the world’s premier space flight center. This year, 10 CUA Ph.D. candidates are working under IACS researchers, assisting those principal investigators as research assistants and pursuing independent research for their own dissertations.
“At a larger research campus it’s [strictly] academic,” says Bryan Armentrout, a doctoral candidate. “Here, however, it’s a mixture: NASA scientists, university-based researchers and private contractors,” Armentrout says, adding that at Goddard, he interacts with some of the brightest scientists in the world. “A scientist a few buildings over won the Nobel Prize in Physics this past year.”
Fellow doctoral candidate Javier Garcia agrees: “I work with the guys who wrote the books that I’m reading.”
Ultimately, CUA’s doctoral candidates will finish the program and head to a variety of pursuits in academia, government and private industry. Not surprisingly, several of them would like to end up right where they started: with CUA at Goddard. — M.M.
Top Budget Cruncher Sold on NASA’s Human Benefits
When Gwendolyn Sykes arrived on CUA’s campus in the fall of 1983, it was her first time in Washington. A self-proclaimed “military brat” raised in Alaska, Sykes quickly fell in love with the international feel of the nation’s capital and has lived much of her life since college inside the Beltway. An accounting major at CUA, where she graduated in 1987, Sykes dedicated herself to a career in public service, first with the Defense Contract Audit Agency and subsequently as a legislative correspondent for Alaska’s Sen. Ted Stevens. She joined NASA in 2002 and one year later was appointed chief financial officer, a position in which she oversees the budget for the 18,750-employee agency. In 2006, Newsweek named Sykes one of its “Top 20 Women on Leadership.” We interviewed her recently.
You told Newsweek that you came to D.C. “to find out what the rest of the world was like.” Did you get some of those answers at CUA?
Definitely. I got to learn a lot about politics, about living in the city, and just the access that you have here in Washington. Back then, most people in Alaska never really traveled outside the borders of the state.
Did you know upon arriving at CUA that you wanted to study accounting?
I knew accounting was something that I liked and was focused on at quite a young age, probably when I started working for my dad and his business as a teenager. I remember thinking, “Who is Uncle Sam and why is he getting my money? I don’t recall him being on my personal payroll!”
What is the biggest challenge of being the CFO of NASA?
The stressful part of being CFO at NASA is not the rudiments of accounting or budgeting, but knowing that, within NASA, we have infinite scientific opportunity but, unfortunately, a finite budget. As much as we would like to, we know NASA can’t afford to do everything we want to do.
NASA’s annual budget is currently $16.5 billion per year. Is that enough money for NASA to do everything it has been commissioned to do, given that it is now looking to return to the moon and also put an astronaut on Mars sometime in the 2030s?
Yes, we believe the budget provided by the president and approved by Congress gives us adequate resources to retire the space shuttle and develop a new manned spacecraft that will eventually take us back to the moon and on to Mars and beyond.
$16 billion — NASA’s annual budget — is a lot of money. Could you speak, from a financial officer’s point of view, about why this is a good investment?
I’m going to get very personal on this one. A lot of this technology, science and research that we generate during our missions also has a human component associated with it. For instance, we do cancer research and we look at new and innovative ways to treat certain diseases. My brother is currently dying of acute lymphoid leukemia, but prior to getting to that stage he was able to participate in a test trial that used innovative technology associated with space research. This was an offshoot of NASA research that was able to provide my brother with five more years of life. So I would personally say that the investment America makes in space science is invaluable to me.
But for a larger answer to your question, we look at the holistic approach. We can’t be myopic because we have other challenges that we must encounter as an American people. So, recognizing everything that is on the plate, it is a real challenge to continue to support NASA and its budget as we move forward. But we need to take on that challenge because there are really human benefits that can be brought about.
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