NASA chief: Criticism hurting agency morale

/ Source: The Associated Press

Unfounded criticism of America's next-generation moon rocket is hurting NASA morale but hasn't stopped progress on the craft, the space agency's administrator Michael Griffin said Tuesday.

Griffin said critics in the media and on anonymous Internet blogs can "chip away" at the agency by questioning the motives and ethics of engineers designing the new rockets.

Briefing charts used by NASA managers sometimes show up on Web sites without the proper context, he said, and opponents of the agency's plans to replace the space shuttle with two new rockets have wrongly accused NASA managers of incompetence and worse.

"Are we at a place where differences of engineering (opinion) are cited as evidence of lying or malfeasance? This is not how any of us were taught to conduct an engineering discussion," he said at a symposium of top NASA leaders and industry executives in Alabama.

Griffin said the criticism hasn't slowed development of the Ares rockets being designed for the Constellation program to lift astronauts and cargo to the space station, the Moon and eventually Mars, but it is still hurting.

"I think there is a certain amount of damage to people's morale that accrues when they know themselves that they are doing good work and telling the truth and the product of their work is besmirched anonymously by others who bring forward no data and can do so almost continuously," he said.

A NASA safety panel reported in August that the space agency and its moon program had problems related to employee morale, funding and leadership.

NASA plans to fly a test version of the Ares rocket in late spring or early summer and retire the space shuttle in 2010. The first missions aboard Ares are scheduled for 2015.

Griffin said NASA is studying the effects of both delaying the shuttle's retirement and speeding up work on Ares. Some lawmakers are worried that NASA might not be able to reach the space station if the shuttle is down and Ares isn't ready.

"I'm not blind to the fact that several legislators have called out the need to look at such questions in the next Congress, and I think if such questions are going to be asked, it's best for the answers to come from NASA," he said.

Frank A. Slazer, the president of the American Astronautical Society, which promotes space science and exploration, said he expects either Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain to continue the Constellation program after taking office in January.

NASA spending on the project is "infinitesimally small" compared to the $700 billion financial bailout approved by Congress, he said, and the government-funded program will provide a boost to the technology sector amid a crunch in commercial credit.

President Bush signed a bill that would provide $20.2 billion for NASA in the upcoming year, including an additional $1 billion to speed up work on Constellation. But the next administration and Congress must decide how much of that money to actually spend.