Thursday, December 11, 2008

NASA has become a transition problem for Obama

CAPE CANAVERAL – NASA administrator Mike Griffin is not cooperating with President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team, is obstructing its efforts to get information and has told its leader that she is “not qualified” to judge his rocket program, the Orlando Sentinel has learned.

In a heated 40-minute conversation last week with Lori Garver, a former NASA associate administrator who heads the space transition team, a red-faced Griffin demanded to speak directly to Obama, according to witnesses.

In addition, Griffin is scripting NASA employees and civilian contractors on what they can tell the transition team and has warned aerospace executives not to criticize the agency’s moon program, sources said.

Griffin’s resistance is part of a no-holds-barred effort to preserve the Constellation program, the delayed and over-budget moon rocket that is his signature project.

Chris Shank, NASA’s Chief of Strategic Communications, denied that Griffin is trying to keep information from the team, or that he is seeking a meeting with Obama. He also insisted that Griffin never argued with Garver.

“We are working extremely well with the transition team,” he said.

However, Shank acknowledged Griffin was concerned that the six-member team – all with space policy backgrounds – lack the engineering expertise to properly assess some of the information they have been given.

Garver refused comment about her conversation with Griffin -- and his remark that she is “not qualified” -- during a book-publication party at NASA headquarters last week. Obama’s Chicago office – which has sent similar transition teams to every federal agency – also had no comment.

People close to Garver, however, say that she has confirmed “unpleasant” exchanges with Griffin and other NASA officials. “Don’t worry, they have not beaten me down yet,” she e-mailed a colleague.

And this week, Garver told a meeting of aerospace representatives in Washington that “there will be change” to NASA policy and hinted that Obama would name a new administrator soon, according to participants.

Those who spoke for this article, including a member and staff in Congress, NASA employees, aerospace executives and consultants, spoke only on condition that their names not be used.

Garver’s team is one of dozens of review panels that over the last few weeks have descended on every government agency. Armed with tough questions, they are scrutinizing programs, scouring budgets and hunting for problems that may confront a new president.

Though their job is to smooth the transition between administrations, their arrival also brings a certain level of anxiety, particularly when programs face tough questions, as at NASA.

Said John Logsdon, a George Washington University professor who co-wrote the book honored at the NASA party, "There is a natural tension built into this situation... Mike is dead-on convinced that the current approach to the program is the right one. And Lori’s job is to question that for Mr. Obama. The Obama team is not going to walk in and take Mike’s word for it.”

The Bush White House has pledged cooperation, and many agency leaders have told staff to cooperate fully. Griffin himself sent a memo urging employees “to answer questions promptly, openly and accurately.”

At the same time, he made clear he expected NASA employees to stay on message.

For example, transition-team interviews have been monitored by NASA officials “taking copious notes,” according to congressional and space-community sources. Employees who met with the team were told to tell their managers about the interview.

The tensions are due to the fact that NASA’s human space flight program is facing its biggest crossroads since the end of the Apollo era in the 1970s. The space shuttle is scheduled to be retired in 2010, and the next-generation Constellation rockets won’t fly before 2015.

Nearly four years ago, President Bush brought in Griffin to implement a plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 as a prelude to going to Mars. Griffin and his team selected Constellation, with its NASA-designed Ares I rocket and Orion capsule, as cheaper and safer than existing rockets. Constellation – especially Ares 1 -- is the center of what Griffin sees as his legacy to return humans to the frontiers of space.

Griffin has made no secret that he would like to stay on but only, as he recently told Kennedy Space Center workers, "under the right circumstances," including being able to finish Constellation.

But budget problems and technical issues have created growing doubts about the project. Griffin has dismissed these as normal rocket development issues, but they’ve clearly got the transition team’s attention.

When team members arrived three weeks ago, they asked the agency, among other things, to quantify how much could be saved by canceling Ares I. Though they also asked what it would take to accelerate the program, the fact that the team could even consider scrapping the program was enough to spur Griffin and his supporters into action

According to industry officials, Griffin started calling heads of companies working for NASA, demanding that they either tell the Obama team that they support Constellation or refrain from talking about alternatives.

The companies, worried that Griffin may remain and somehow punish them if they ignore his wishes, have by and large complied.

One consultant said that when Garver invited “several” mid-level aerospace executives to speak to the team, their bosses told them not to go and warned that anything said had to be cleared first with NASA because Griffin had demanded it.

Documents and e-mails obtained by the Sentinel confirm NASA’s efforts to coordinate what’s said.

A Dec. 3 e-mail to Constellation contractors from Sandy Coleman, an executive with Alliant Tech Systems, the prime contractor on the Ares I, said that Griffin wanted NASA to pre-review any materials given to the team.

“Phil [McAlister, the NASA contact for the transition team] relayed a request by Mike Griffin that if we plan to provide the Transition Team any reports or studies that were performed under NASA contracts that we provide them a copy first … ,” Coleman wrote.

The e-mail followed two teleconferences set up by Shank and another NASA official, Gale Allen. According to documents produced from the teleconferences, the point was to “to develop a strategy for promoting the continuation of Constellation in the next administration.”

Among the ideas agreed on: tell the team that an Obama White House “could take ownership of the [Constellation] program and ‘re-brand’ it as their own with minor tweaks.”

Another set of talking points, presented during a Nov. 21 teleconference, was called “Staying the Course on Constellation.” Among the points: Ares 1 had been thoroughly studied “and is sound” – and any change would make NASA look bad. “If NASA appears to be wavering by not staying the course … this would cause a loss of public and stakeholder confidence in NASA,” it said.

Shank said that the contractors – not NASA -- had requested the teleconferences. “We do not seek to intimidate at all," he said.

Tensions were on public display last week at the NASA library, as overheard by guests at a book party.

According to people who were present, Logsdon, a space historian, told a group of about 50 people he had just learned that President John F. Kennedy’s transition team had completely ignored NASA.

Griffin responded, in a loud voice, “I wish the Obama team would come and talk to me.”

Alan Ladwig, a transition team member who was at the party with Garver, shouted out: “Well, we’re here now, Mike.”

Soon after, Garver and Griffin engaged in what witnesses said was an animated conversation. Some overheard parts of it.

“Mike, I don’t understand what the problem is. We are just trying to look under the hood,” Garver said.

“If you are looking under the hood, then you are calling me a liar,” Griffin replied. “Because it means you don’t trust what I say is under the hood.
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