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New NASA Chief Makes Some Departures from Predecessor

Michael D. Griffin (Undated file photo)
The new U.S. space agency chief, Michael Griffin, is taking a new look at several projects doomed by his predecessor, including the Hubble Space Telescope. But in his first press conference as NASA administrator, Mr. Griffin strongly supported President Bush's mandate to get beyond the low Earth orbit of the space shuttle and space station and move outward with human exploration of the solar system.

Mr. Griffin, a rocket scientist, has embraced the U.S. space future declared by President Bush last year, saying he would not have taken the top U.S. space job if NASA were to do the same thing it had been since the start of the shuttle era.

That future calls for returning the shuttle to flight to complete construction of the International Space Station, then retire the shuttle fleet by 2010 and launch humans in a new vehicle back to the moon by the middle of the next decade. That effort would eventually send humans to Mars.

The new NASA chief told reporters that reaching for Mars in this way is not too expensive and can be done for the modern dollar equivalent for what it cost to send men to the moon in the Apollo program of the 1960s. "There is no need to try to go to Mars in an eight year period the way that Apollo was done. It is, as President Bush said, a journey, not a race. So I view that at a few billion dollars a year spaced out over a number of years, voyages to Mars are eminently doable," he said.

Mr. Griffin's top priority, like that of his predecessor Sean O'Keefe, is to return U.S. space shuttles to flight following a two year effort to make them safer in the wake of the orbiter Columbia disaster.

He also says that he would rely on the judgment of the shuttle's managers about whether the fleet is ready to fly again, even if independent outside experts assessing the repairs have not given their final approval.

But Michael Griffin is departing from his predecessor's judgment by considering saving the Hubble Space Telescope. After Columbia disintegrated in space, former NASA administrator O'Keefe rejected sending shuttle teams or a robotic mission to repair and upgrade Hubble, letting it decay over the next few years. But Mr. Griffin favors saving the observatory, aligning himself with national lawmakers, and believes astronauts can do it better than machines.

"We are going to undertake an internal review to weigh the pros and cons of reinstituting Hubble shuttle servicing mission four. NASA will, of course, obey any legislative direction that the Congress provides and we have language this year directing us to spend money on a Hubble servicing mission," he said.

Mr. Griffin says he will also take a renewed look at several other science programs his predecessor terminated to the dismay of many space scientists. This includes the analysis of data from twin Voyager spacecraft, which are well beyond the solar system now, but still returning valuable data 28 years after their launch.