Does Obama Want to Ground NASA's Next Moon Mission?

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Charles Dharapak / AP; NASA; Matt Stroshane / Getty

Barack Obama and NASA administrator Michael Griffin,

Getting into a shouting match with the HR rep is not exactly the best way to land a job. But according to the Orlando Sentinel, that's just what happened last week between NASA administrator Mike Griffin and Lori Garver, a member of Barack Obama's transition team who will help decide if Griffin keeps his post once the President-elect takes office. If the contretemps did occur, it could help doom not only the NASA chief's chances, but the space agency's ambitious plans to get Americans back to the moon.

The mere fact that the story is making the rounds reflects the very real friction between NASA and the transition team — which has sparked a groundswell of support among space agency employees to keep the boss. Within NASA, there is a real concern that while the Obama campaign rode the call for change to a thumping victory in November, change is precisely what the space agency does not need. (See photos of different countries' space programs here.)

The stagnant NASA of the past 20 years has been poised to become a very new NASA — thanks, in many respects, to the outgoing Bush Administration. In 2004, the President announced a new push to return astronauts to the moon and eventually get them to Mars. Many skeptics saw the hand of political whiz Karl Rove in that, suspecting that the whole idea was just a bag of election year goodies for space-happy states like Florida and Texas, as well as for voters nostalgic for the glory days of Apollo. But Bush, NASA and Congress did mean business, and eventually came up with a plan under which the space station would be completed and the shuttle would be retired by 2010. That would free up about $4 billion per year, which would be used to pay for a new generation of expendable boosters as well as a 21st century version of the Apollo orbiter and lunar lander for those rockets to carry. (Read about the space moon race here.)

"At the time, the shuttle had flown 290 people, and out of those 14 were dead — nearly one in 20," says Scott Horowitz, a four-time shuttle veteran who designed the Ares 1, one of the new boosters. "We needed something that was an order of magnitude safer."

NASA has moved with uncharacteristic nimbleness in the last five years and is already cutting metal on the new machines in the hope of having crews in Earth orbit by 2015 and on the moon by 2020. Schedules have slipped some — the original plan was to launch the orbital missions in 2014 — and costs have swollen, though so far not dramatically. (See the Top 50 space moments since Sputnik.)

"We've been moving in the right direction since the Columbia accident [in 2003]," says Chris Shank, NASA's chief of strategic communications. "The concern is that we'll lose that." Lately, that concern appears well-placed.

The Obama team picked Garver to run the NASA transition, in part because of her deep pedigree and long history at the space agency, which saw her climb to the rank of associate administrator. But Garver started as a PAO — NASA-speak for a public affairs officer — and never got involved in the nuts and bolts of building rockets. She is best known by most people as the person who in 2002 competed with boy-band singer Lance Bass for the chance to fly to the International Space Station aboard a Russian rocket. Neither of them ever left the ground.

Garver's lack of engineering cred is especially surprising in light of the eggheads with whom Obama has been surrounding himself — most recently, Nobel prize winning physicist Steven Chu, who has reportedly been tapped to be Secretary of Energy. Garver is also not thought to be much of a fan of Griffin — who is an engineer — nor to be sold on the plans for the new moon program. What she and others are said to be considering is to scrap the plans for the Ares 1 — which is designed exclusively to carry humans — and replace it with Atlas V and Delta IV boosters, which are currently used to launch satellites but could be redesigned, or "requalified," for humans. Griffin hates that idea, and firmly believes the Atlas and Delta are unsafe for people. One well-placed NASA source who asked not to be named reports that as much as Griffin wants to keep his job, he'll walk away from it if he's made to put his astronauts on top of those rockets.

NASA is right to be uneasy about just what Obama has planned for the agency since his position on space travel shifted — a lot — during the campaign. A year before the election he touted an $18 billion education program and explicitly targeted the new moon program as one he'd cut to pay for it. In January of 2008, he lined up much closer to the Bush moon plan — perhaps because Republicans were already on board and earning swing-state support as a result. Three months before the election, Obama fully endorsed the 2020 target for putting people on the moon. But that was a candidate talking and now he's president-elect, and his choice of Garver as his transition adviser may say more than his past campaign rhetoric.

The dust-up between Griffin and Garver is said to have occurred last week at a book launch party in Washington when, according to the Sentinel, a red-faced Griffin told Garver she was "not qualified" to make engineering decisions. Horowitz, who was not at the party but knows the NASA boss well, says he doubts that Griffin raised his voice.

"I think that's bulls---," he says. "I believe that anything he was asked he was very honest in answering because he's a systems engineer. And Lori Garver is not equipped to make technical judgments on the architecture of a space exploration system." The unnamed NASA source concedes that Griffin can be brutally honest and occasionally tactless, but insists that his shouting is simply improbable. The Obama transition office did not return an e-mail seeking comment from Garver.

For now, says the NASA source, both present and former astronauts as well as some NASA contractors are quietly — and sometimes not so quietly — lobbying for Griffin to stay. But the incoming administration is not saying anything so far. It was President John F. Kennedy who famously committed Americans to reaching the moon. Now it is Obama — who so often invokes the themes and style of JFK — who may decide if we go back.

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