Thursday, September 29, 2005

To the moon and beyond

In a meeting with USA Today's editorial board on Tuesday, NASA administrator Michael Griffin revealed that he thinks that the space program is way off course -- and has been for the past 30 years:

"It is now commonly accepted that was not the right path," Griffin said. "We are now trying to change the path while doing as little damage as we can."

The shuttle has cost the lives of 14 astronauts since the first flight in 1982. Roger Pielke Jr., a space policy expert at the University of Colorado, estimates that NASA has spent about $150 billion on the program since its inception in 1971. The total cost of the space station by the time it's finished -- in 2010 or later -- may exceed $100 billion, though other nations will bear some of that.

Only now is the nation's space program getting back on track, Griffin said. He announced last week that NASA aims to send astronauts back to the moon in 2018 in a spacecraft that would look like the Apollo capsule.

The goal of returning Americans to the moon was laid out by President Bush in 2004, before Griffin took the top job at NASA. Bush also said the shuttle would be retired in 2010.

Griffin has made clear in previous statements that he regards the shuttle and space station as misguided. He told the Senate earlier this year that the shuttle was "deeply flawed" and that the space station was not worth "the expense, the risk and the difficulty" of flying humans to space.

But since he became NASA administrator, Griffin hasn't been so blunt about the two programs.

Asked Tuesday whether the shuttle had been a mistake, Griffin said, "My opinion is that it was. ... It was a design which was extremely aggressive and just barely possible." Asked whether the space station had been a mistake, he said, "Had the decision been mine, we would not have built the space station we're building in the orbit we're building it in."

I have always been a big supporter of our space program but I have to admit that I always preferred the rocket over the shuttle. There is something about the Apollo days that captures the imagination and I regret that I was too young to remember Man first setting foot on the moon. That was when America knew how to dream big. It's time we started heading back in that direction.

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