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The official daily newspaper of EAA AirVenture Oshkosh

Volume 9, Number 4 July 30, 2008     

Future astronauts query NASA chief
By Randy Dufault

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin was more than prepared when he answered a question from a young lady who asked him, "Why does higher gravity make things round?"

Griffin, who described himself as "just an engineer that got a nice promotion," gave a lengthy, technical answer to the question as he appeared in front of a forum crowd Tuesday morning. Quite a number of children were part of the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2008 crowd of 300 or so at the forum, and he made a point of giving the kids priority as he took questions from the audience.

Griffin made few remarks before opening the floor up for questions.

"I just want to say that it is a real thrill for me to be here," Griffin said. "Iíve been a pilot for some decades and, like many of you here, was fascinated with flight in all its forms. When I could afford to do so I took flying lessons. And when I could afford to do so, I took more flying lessons to get my instructor rating so I could get other people to pay me to teach them to fly."

Griffin, who has spent his entire 37-year career in aerospace, said he loves everything NASA does and that it is an honor for him to be the administrator of the organization, especially this year as NASA celebrates its 50th anniversary.

The first question for Griffin dealt with what the next 50 years hold for NASA.

"Itís amazing to think of what we can accomplish in the next 50 years if we continue to get the kinds of budgets, in real dollar terms, that we have been getting," Griffin said.

He went on to say he expects to have a permanent base on the moon in 15 years, and expects a base on Mars in the early 2020s. He believes that if current policies continue through future Congresses and presidential administrations, NASA will have the necessary funding to get it done.

When asked about the danger of radiation exposure during extended space travel, Griffin admitted he didnít know what the solution to the danger would be.

"We need to understand the radiation environment in deep space," Griffin said. "In the short run we plan to store the water we need to bring along around the outside of the spacecraft since water is a good radiation shield.

"In the long term we need to understand why the cockroach can take [radiation] and humans canít. What is it in cockroach DNA that makes it that way? We are not going to learn that on earth. We need to go to space in order to study it."

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin surrounded by the Harmony Kids group from Monona, WI, who helped name the Harmony node that served as the central hub for the International Space Station. From left are Mary Brackey, Elizabeth Strauss, Miriam Syvertsen, Joy Farkas, Griffin, Margaret Brackey, and David Dexheimer. David and his wife, Mary, and their daughter Margaret attended the launch at the Kennedy Space Center in October 2007. Photo by Hilary Lawrence

Many of the questions centered on the impending shutdown of the shuttle program and progress on the replacement Constellation program. Griffin shared that the available funding did not make it possible to continue the shuttle until Constellation is ready to fly. In the interim NASA will rely on the Russian Soyuz system to supply the International Space Station and transport its crews. He did say that he would prefer not to rely on another nation to support our space needs, but the funding simply does not support continuing to fly the shuttle while developing a replacement system.

When asked about the reported vibration problems with the Constellation solid rocket motor, Griffin offered that he was surprised at the reaction to the reports and asked, "I wonder what the response should be to an engineering problem?"

He went on to say a number of engineering answers to the challenge are under development, and a meeting next month will choose the top two for further development.

In response to a comment that excellence is always expected from NASA, Griffin added, "What we are doing here is exploring space; this is rocket science, we are operating on the frontier."

Griffin was asked to speculate what he might do if the NASA budget were doubled, a budget that in real terms would be comparable to the Apollo era budgets. He answered in three parts: first, he would not put the United States in a position where it had to rely on other nations for access to space. He would extend the shuttle program and accelerate development of the Constellation program.

Second, he would develop significant new systems in parallel, much as happened during the Apollo program.

And finally, he would restore research funding to the levels seen early in NASAís history. He would encourage more "blue sky" stuff, some of which, admittedly, would not work.

"This country has benefited enormously in the past from the vision of policymakers that understood that investment in science, engineering, technology, and mathematics without a guarantee that it will work pays off," Griffin said. "It does not all work, but for this country most of it has worked, and has paid off enormously."

NASA does not have as large a presence at EAA AirVenture this year as it has had in years past, and Griffin was asked why that was. He said that was due to a number of special 50th anniversary celebrations that are going on across the country, but he fully expected NASAís usual display to be back next year.

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