Griffin has since realized that being confrontational with the Obama team is not the right way to go about things. Obama’s made it pretty clear that he’s willing to work with everybody, Democrats and Republicans, but only if they are team players…. which Griffin definitely has not been. Griffin, and friends and family, have been lobbying the Obama team pretty heavily since then for Griffin to retain his job.
Griffin became head of NASA in 2005 at the same time that President Bush started to implement his “Vision for Space Exploration”, announced in 2004. The Vision laid out a plan to return to the moon and maybe even send men to Mars in the coming decades.
The Vision calls for the International Space Station (ISS) to be completed by 2010, at which point the shuttle would be retired. It also is the origin of NASA’s Orion spacecraft (which has since been expanded into the Constellation project). Finally, the Vision calls for lunar exploration with robots by 2008 and men by 2020, as well as robots to other planets and maybe crewed missions as well.
Obviously, we’ve fallen a bit behind. We’ve not sent any robots to the moon in the last year, and the ISS won’t be completed by the time the shuttle is retired (which is still on-target for 2010).
Griffin’s main cause for contention, though, is the Obama team’s concern that Constellation is a bit of a boondoggle. The transition team has been exploring the feasibilty of scrapping some parts of Constellation as a means of belt-tightening in this economic environment. The current projected costs of the entirety of Project Constellation are $97B through 2020, and $200B through 2030.
Constellation is an umbrella project encompassing several smaller projects. First, there is Orion, the shuttle replacement. Orion harkens back to 1960s style spacecraft, looking on the outside like an Apollo module on steroids (it will have more than double the volume). It will hold up to 6 crew, and the capsule will be reusable for up to 10 launches. On the inside, the controls will take advantage of modern tech, using “glass cockpit” computerized displays, automated docking (which the Russians and Europeans have been using for some time; we’ve never had a craft that didn’t require manual piloting for docking maneuvers) and much more advanced computers than the 1960s Apollo computers or 1970s/80s Shuttle computers.
Ares is the launcher that will get Orion into space, like the Saturn rockets took Apollo up. There are actually two Ares rockets being designed, the Ares I and the Ares V. Ares I will be the launcher for Orion, and Ares V will be used to launch cargo. Unlike the Shuttle program, crew and cargo will be launched separately and dock in space. The argument here is that this allows the two different Ares rockets to be optimized for their individual purposes.
Altair is the Lunar Module of the Constellation program. Altair will take four people down to the lunar surface and back up again. Altair has not yet been fully designed, but the concept is a lot like the original Lunar Module, but bigger.
Finally, there is the Earth Departure Stage (EDS), which will take the Orion and Altair out of Earth orbit to the moon. The EDS and Altair will be launched on an Ares V, rendezvous with the Orion (launched on an Ares I) and the whole shebang will go off to the moon (and back).
The Obama campaign has apparently been asking around to find out if significant savings could be obtained by cancelling Ares altogether, scaling back Orion, and using existing military rockets to lift Orion et al into space. This is the original conflict that got Griffin suggesting that the Obama team wasn’t competent to evaluate launch options.
All this is taking place against the backdrop of a possible Space Race Mark II, this time against the Chinese, who are planning lunar-bound launches starting in 2013 (probably bound for lunar orbit with landing later). While the moon isn’t really the strategic target it was viewed as in the 1950s, it would demonstrate who’s the boss in space.
Scientists are not happy with the manned program, as sending men into space is far more expensive than unmanned robots. Compare Constellation at $8B and more per year with $800M initial outlay and $20M/year for the Mars rovers. But it looks like politics and geopolitics will be driving the space program for the near future, even though Obama seems inclined to agree with the scientists on this one – at least, he did fairly early in the campaign.
So it looks like Griffin is out… but who’s in? Several names have been rumored, including former astronaut Major General Charles Bolden, former astronaut Sally Ride and Lori Garver. But this is really still very much up in the air; the transition hasn’t said anything about this post. Yet.