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NASA’s new administrator reaffirms role of SSC

Stennis Space Center — The importance of NASA’s Stennis Space Center and its positive future for the country’s space program were confirmed by NASA’s new administrator in his first official visit to the Hancock County facility. Michael Griffin was sworn in as the space agency’s 11th administrator in April after being nominated by President Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

“Stennis Space Center is very important long term and is not going away,” he said. “What they do is crucial. It’s the last facility in the country where we can test large rockets and we need to test propulsion systems to return to the moon. Without Stennis Space Center, NASA has no way to do that.”

The new administrator made the visit to get reacquainted with the test facility where he said his impression remains that a small group of very talented people are a key resource for the nation.

Griffin’s assumption of the leadership position is a return to NASA. He previously served as chief engineer and associate administrator for exploration at NASA headquarters. He also worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. He most recently headed the space department at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. He is a registered professional engineer in Maryland and California and has received numerous medals and awards. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics, master’s degrees in aerospace science, electrical engineering, applied physics, business administration and civil engineering and a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering.

Stennis director Rear Admiral Thomas Q. Donaldson V, said he was pleased to see Griffin’s leadership style in action during the administrator’s visit. “He has the rare ability to engage everyone. I saw him with a group of bright engineers and he engaged them with ease and humor,” he said. “He can talk on a myriad of subjects in a no-nonsense, direct way with the appropriate amount of humor.”

Taking questions

Griffin, dressed in a golf shirt and sport jacket, answered questions from reporters from Mississippi and Louisiana in a casual, relaxed manner with no prepared remarks. He asked that he be called Mike.

Regarding the space program’s anticipated July date to put astronauts back in space, he said, “When we see the rocket lift off the pad, we will know the July 13th date is viable. We still have slack to meet the date and work to be done over the next five weeks. It’s way too early to say what the conclusion will be.”

Asked about problems that forced the cancellation of a flight in May, Griffin responded, “I don’t characterize the cancellation as problems. There was work we wanted to do that we didn’t do. There were some tanking test anomalies and work to resolve that is going on at Stennis Space Center.”

The administrator said he is not concerned with how the public views the flight delays, but is concerned foremost with having a safe launch.

Following the Challenger Space Shuttle tragedy, there are concerns about debris being shed, ice forming and foam falling off shuttles. Griffin thinks NASA is in good shape with those matters for July but stressed that there is still time to correct them or cancel the July flight.

He said the first two flights will be test flights and that the astronauts who make them will be as brave as the first astronauts who went into space. “Schedule, cost, technical performance and risk matter,” he added. “Coming back into NASA, I see an agency that’s bending over backwards to find the mistakes that were made and fix them.”

Griffin says the people who made management decisions that led to the Columbia accident are not in NASA management anymore. “There were not enough independent judgements and comments,” he said, “and they didn’t listen enough. I have served on failure boards and I know what they do.”

The new administrator said he hopes the U.S. will continue to lead in space exploration. “Our competitors are good and hopefully will become our partners,” he said. “Great nations need allies, partners and competitors. No nation is more committed than Russia and my hat is off to them.”

No matter what launch options are used in the future, any extra work to accelerate flight can be done at Stennis, Griffin said. “It will be tested here,” he added.

He also said the goal of making it back to the moon by 2020 is easily doable. “The NASA team is looking at the architecture. It won’t look like Apollo,” he said. “We want to go to the moon to stay. It’s a long-term journey, not a race and the time frame is ample. Congress has been generous with NASA.”

Griffin and Donaldson pointed out Stennis Space Center’s additional capacity as NASA’s shared services center, scheduled to open in October. “There are economies to be had in crosscutting functions,” Griffin said. “It’s a good idea.”
Donaldson added, “We are thrilled at bringing it here. It will increase our role of supporting NASA’s needs.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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