Chair Force Engineer

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Flight of the Griffin

Last week, Michael Griffin departed his post as NASA administrator to considerable controversy, surrounded by a legacy that will remain tenuous and uncertain for many years to come. Mike Griffin is ESAS, and ESAS is Mike Griffin. The two of them will never be separable, and the success or failure of ESAS will likely mold the verdict that historians deliver on the Griffin administration of the agency.

With that being said, the positive accomplishments of Mike Griffin and his team have often gone neglected. The agency was responsible and courageous in the way it conducted the shuttle program as it returned to flight following the Columbia disaster. Griffin also deserves credit for the way NASA handled the COTS program, or at least for its sponsorship of SpaceX. At this point in time, SpaceX remains America's best hope for closing the spaceflight gap within a reasonable period after the shuttle retires.

At the heart of Mike Griffin's relationship with ESAS and Project Constellation is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the person in the position of "NASA Administrator" is supposed to do. For any management figure, the keys to success are cost, schedule & performance. Specifically, Mike Griffin was tasked with performing the following responsibilities during his 2005-2009 tenure with NASA:
--Keep his agency on-budget in meeting its mission
--Keep his agency on schedule as it meets its goals
--Ensure the agency's performance meets the thresholds & goals that have been set by the national leadership

During his tenure, Mike Griffin's NASA largely abandoned the presidentially-directed 2014 date for getting Orion operational ("operational" being the key term here, although further slips in the Orion schedule are highly likely,) and coalesced around an architecture which requires unplanned budget increases. The result is that the agency's ability to meet its goals, performance, is much less likely.

I would be remiss today if I did not mention Paul Spudis's excellent piece about why Project Apollo was an exception to the rules that traditionally govern national space programs. Apollo's success was due to an unsustainably large development budget. Mike Griffin's challenge, back in 2005, was to figure out how to get back to the moon while operating on a shuttle-sized budget that would only grow to keep pace with inflation. Rather than making cost-control a top priority, he signed on to "Apollo on Steroids" with a shuttle budget. Development would be stretched as long as possible in order to stay within the yearly budgets, which puts the schedule at risk.

If America fails to land a man on the moon by 2020, an argument will be made that if cost was a more serious factor during the ESAS studies, the original program schedule could have been maintained. The counter-argument is that cost-control cannot be used to justify an architecture that does not meet minimum safety requirements. At this point, I believe that NASA can do far more to reduce costs without compromising safety. It begins with a detailed analysis of the baseline mission requirements of how many man-days are required on the lunar surface, and how much volume each crew member requires to make the journey. These requirements are given as Gospel truth in ESAS with little or no justification.

The buck ultimately stopped with him, but Griffin in many ways served as "chief engineer" while forgetting all that is entailed with being an administrator. I would contend that Mike Griffin spent far too much time dictating an architecture to his own employees and then defending it to the world, instead of focusing on letting the engineers develop an architecture which fit within the cost, schedule & performance constraints placed by the nation's leaders. Mike Griffin should have been steering his agency towards meeting its cost, schedule & performance goals. Instead, he took the helm of a stalled Vision for Space Exploration and steered it firmly off-course with his engineers being keel-hauled underneath.

In spite of all the Beltway rumors surrounding the possible choices of the next administrator, I would hope that NASA's next chief comes to the job with experience as a capable manager of successful big-budget programs. His or her success should not be measured by what the changes to the architecture look like, but rather by how much cost and schedule they save the taxpayers.