The man nominated by President Bush to be the next NASA administrator says U.S. preeminence in space exploration is being challenged and must be reasserted.
The U.S. space shuttle program remains grounded more than two years after the Columbia tragedy in which seven astronauts died. Progress on the International Space Station has been hampered. The future of the Hubble Space Telescope is in doubt. At Tuesday's hearing, one senator described NASA as being stuck "in the wilderness."
NASA administrator-nominee Michael Griffin acknowledged problems but said the United States must not retreat from its historic commitment to space exploration. In prepared remarks, he advocated flying shuttles until their planned retirement from service in 2010, completing the International Space Station, and launching a manned trip to the moon as a first step toward human exploration of Mars and beyond.
Mr. Griffin, who currently heads the space department of Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, ridiculed the 2014 target date for completing development of the next-generation U.S. space vessel, known as the Crew Exploration Vehicle. He noted the target leaves a four-year gap between the end of the space shuttle program and the launch of the new vehicle, a gap during which the United States would have to rely on Russian vessels for human access to space.
"As a matter of what it takes to be a great nation in the 21st century, I do not believe that we would wish to see a situation where the United States is dependent on any partner for human access to space. We need our own capabilities. Two nations [Russia and China] have now put people into space since the United States has last done so. I do not like that," he said.
Proclaiming himself an enthusiastic backer of President Bush's goal of a return trip to the moon and an eventual voyage to Mars, Mr. Griffin said NASA's focus must extend beyond the completion of the International Space Station.
"A human space flight program focused only upon the completion of the space station and the servicing of that station with the shuttle does not qualify as a goal worthy of the expense, the risk and the difficulty of human space flight," added Mr. Griffin.
That comment drew an expression of concern from Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison.
"I agree with you, of course, that going to Mars should be the next vision," she said. "But I want to make sure that we also have the commitment to our international partners to finish the space station, and that we look for ways to enhance the science so that it is worthy of the efforts that we are making."
Mr. Griffin assured Senator Hutchison that there would be no U.S. pullback from the space station during his watch.
Among the many expressions of support Mr. Griffin received was an impassioned endorsement from Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, who praised the prospective NASA chief's scientific credentials.
"Much has been made over the fact that he is a rocket scientist. Thank God that we are really going to have someone who understands what this is all about," said Senator Mikulski.
If confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Griffin would become NASA's 11th administrator since the agency's founding in 1958.