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Rocket scientist tapped as next NASA chief President Bush is nominating Mike Griffin of Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory to be the next NASA administrator.
Mike Griffin, head of the space department at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, is President Bush's pick to head NASA.
Mike Griffin, head of the space department at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, is President Bush's pick to head NASA.James J. Lee
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The White House confirmed Friday that President Bush has nominated Mike Griffin, head of the space department at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, to be the next NASA administrator.

Griffin, a rocket scientist with an M.B.A., is a veteran aerospace executive who has held a variety of senior-level positions at the Pentagon, at NASA and in industry. Word of Griffin’s nomination was first reported earlier in the day by's sister publication, Space News.

He is replacing former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe. who announced his resignation last December, citing personal and financial reasons. O'Keefe took a job as chancellor of Louisiana State University's Baton Rouge campus. He served three years as NASA's chief. At present, veteran shuttle astronaut Frederick Gregory has been acting as interim administrator.

Approval from lawmakers
Griffin’s nomination met with the immediate approval of several lawmakers who would have to work closely with him if he is confirmed by the Senate.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., an influential member of the Senate Appropriations Committee who knows Griffin because of his work at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, said the president made “an outstanding choice.”

In a statement issued Friday afternoon, Mikulski said Griffin “has the right combination of experience in industry, academia and government service. He has a proven record of leadership and a passion for science and exploration. I welcome his nomination.”

House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert, whose committee has called on Griffin to testify as an expert witness on NASA issues, also endorsed the president’s choice.

"We are extremely pleased that the president has nominated Mike Griffin to be NASA Administrator,” Boehlert said in a statement. “Dr. Griffin has long been a resource to the Science Committee, both as a public witness and in providing private counsel. He has broad expertise, knows NASA inside and out, and is an imaginative and creative thinker and leader. He is also known for his candor and directness. We look very forward to working with Dr. Griffin at this critical time for NASA."

Varied background
When the first President Bush announced the Space Exploration Initiative in 1989 in an attempt to move NASA out of its low-Earth-orbit rut and on to Mars, Griffin was picked to lead the ill-fated effort, serving as NASA’s chief technologist and associate administrator for exploration. He left the agency in 1993.

During much of the 1990s, Griffin worked in several leadership positions at Orbital Sciences Corp., a Dulles, Va.-based company that builds satellites and rockets.

Before returning to APL in April 2004 to lead the lab’s space work, Griffin was the chief operating officer of In-Q-Tel, a private nonprofit enterprise funded by the Central Intelligence Agency to invest in companies developing leading-edge technologies.

During the late 1980s, Griffin worked as the technology deputy for the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, an early predecessor to the Missile Defense Agency.

Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Simon “Pete” Worden, who has known Griffin for more than 20 years, said Griffin is an “absolutely superb choice” for NASA administrator.

“This means the administration is serious about a new direction for the program,” Worden said. “He will make the president’s vision a reality.”

Courtney Stadd, an aerospace management consultant who headed up the NASA transition for Bush and served as NASA’s White House liaison and chief of staff until July 2003, said Griffin has the right mix of technical savvy and management experience to lead NASA. “He brings a really unique and really important set of skills that is exactly what the agency needs at this point in its history,” Stadd said.

Griffin has a doctorate in aerospace engineering and master’s degrees in aerospace science, electrical engineering, applied physics, civil engineering and business administration.

Entrepreneurial experience
Worden said that he believes Griffin will “make maximum use of the true private sector” in implementing the space exploration vision, heading one of the central recommendations of a blue-ribbon panel Bush chartered last year to advise him on turning the exploration goals into reality.

Stadd said some of the smaller, entrepreneurial firms vying for a role in NASA’s new exploration plans ought to be very happy the White House picked Griffin.

“From an entrepreneurial standpoint, he has someone who has actually experienced what it is like to be on the other side of the table dealing with the government,” he said. “We haven’t had that before.”

Griffin told Space News in 2003 that the first Space Exploration Initiative never took hold because back in the early 1990s the Congress did not see the value in investing heavily in space exploration.

In an interview last November, Griffin said he felt today’s political atmosphere was different from what it was the last time the White House set big exploration goals for the space agency. But he said he was under no illusions that maintaining political support for the new effort would be in any way easy.

“Circumstances have changed in the years since I worked for NASA on the exploration initiative. We have a Republican White House and a Republican Congress,” he said in the interview. “I don’t know if the United States’ fiscal position is better or worse, but it is certainly different. We are also at war.”

Crucial time
Griffin is poised to take over a NASA that is preparing to fly the space shuttle for the first time since the February 2003 loss of the space shuttle Columbia.

He would also be taking over leadership of an agency that has been given a presidential directive to return to the moon by 2020 as a first step to human missions to Mars.

Bush, in laying out his vision for space exploration early last year, called for NASA to finish assembly of the international space station by 2010 and then retire the space shuttle fleet.

Writing in Space News last March, Griffin made clear that he supports that goal.

“What is needed is to retire the shuttle orbiter and its expensive support infrastructure,” Griffin wrote. “It simply does not serve the needs of exploration and it is too expensive, too logistically fragile, and insufficiently safe for continued use as a low Earth orbit transport vehicle.”

NASA’s latest space shuttle launch manifest calls for conducting 28 missions by 2010 to complete the space station. Space agency officials are currently reviewing that manifest with an eye to cutting some of those flights.

Griffin has said in interviews that he thinks NASA ought to look at ways to retire the space shuttle sooner than 2010, such as using expendable rockets to launch some of the space station hardware still on the ground.

“If you truly believe that the shuttle can fly all 28 planned station assembly flights between now and 2010, then it’s unlikely that the switch would pay off,” he said last November. “But if you believe that it will take until 2014 or later, then it is quite logical to ask if we could save time and money by integrating some space station assembly payloads onto larger expendables.”

Heavy-lift debate
Griffin has said that returning to the moon will require the United States to build a new heavy-lift launch vehicle. He told the House Science Committee in October 2003 during a hearing on the future of human spaceflight that “it may not be impossible to consider returning to the moon or going to Mars without a robust heavy-lift launch capability, but it is certainly silly.”

Griffin has also stated his preference that United States use existing space shuttle hardware, such as the main engines, solid rocket booster and external tank, as the foundation for building the new heavy-lift launcher NASA may need to return to the moon.

Worden, who replaced Griffin as the technology deputy at the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization in the late 1980s, said he does not think Griffin would let his stated preferences for a shuttle-derived heavy-lifter interfere with NASA’s effort to reach an honest conclusion about the best way to go.

“I think he is going to be very open to whatever the best solution is,” Worden said. “He is a superb engineer and he listens to people.”

But even as NASA administrator, the decision would not be Griffin’s to make. The National Space Transportation Policy, updated by the White House late last year, decreed that any heavy-lift launcher decision would be made by the president after hearing the joint recommendation of the NASA administrator and the defense secretary.

That policy also says the preference should be given to heavy-lift launch designs based on the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 evolved expendable launch vehicles.