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Obama vs. NASA, round 1

December 11, 2008 |  6:07 pm

NASA Administration Michael D. Griffin, pictured in October 2008 (AP Photo).

First Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and now Michael D. Griffin. The NASA administrator is stubbornly putting another big wrinkle in the Obama transition:

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 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.

Now, I'm no fan of Cold War-era human space exploration that does little more than show the world how smart and rich we Americans are, but the Obama presidency does provide Griffin plenty to worry about. As The Times mentioned in an editorial last summer, Obama has stated -- in writing -- that NASA's Constellation program will come under Obama's budget scalpel to free up funding for the president-elect to fulfill an Earth-bound promise:

Red Planet policy turns out to be one of the areas in which McCain and Obama present bright, clear policy differences. In short, McCain supports the vision for space exploration that President Bush articulated in 2004, which committed NASA to returning human beings to the moon by 2020, with a vaguely defined ambition to send astronauts on to Mars before 2050. This vision has since coalesced into NASA's Constellation program, intended, among other things, to replace the retiring space shuttle. And the Democratic contender? Earlier this year, in a 15-page position paper detailing his ideas for education, Obama sneaked in the following line at the end: "The early education plan will be paid for by delaying the NASA Constellation program for five years."

Indefensible as Griffin's actions are here, the NASA administrator's stonewalling to incoming Obama bureaucrats doesn't come entirely unprovoked. Griffin's agency is the patriotic window-dressing to which elected types love to promise support for futuristic human space exploration when constituents are watching but don't actually pay for when it's budgeting time. Witness President Bush's election-year call in 2004 for humans to return to the moon by 2020 and make their first trip to Mars some decades thereafter -- a monumental feat that would require an equally monumental infusion of cash to NASA. Yet NASA's annual budget increases since 2006 have barely outpaced inflation (again, no complaints here).

But Griffin should understand that Constellation isn't his baby. Instead, landing a man on the moon using public money is a matter of national policy that will require more than $100 billion in taxpayer funding through the years. And even without Obama's promise to delay Constellation, the program would probably fall victim to record federal deficits in Washington during the economic recession. As The Times editorial board said in 2005 after Griffin announced his optimistic moonshot:

Given these more urgent concerns, cost overruns on a NASA project of dubious scientific value should not be tolerated. If that means delays, so be it. The moon is creeping away from Earth at a rate of only 3.8 centimeters per year; it’ll still be around if we can’t get there by 2020.

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