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NASA chief Michael Griffin praises post-Columbia effort in farewell

The administrator says goodbye to employees via a live broadcast.

January 17, 2009|John Johnson Jr.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, who guided the space agency through one of its most turbulent periods following the Columbia shuttle disaster and the decision to scrap the shuttle fleet by 2010, bid a somber farewell to NASA's employees Friday.

Griffin, 59, had submitted his resignation to President-elect Barack Obama along with other agency heads several weeks ago. His was apparently accepted.

In Griffin's goodbye address, broadcast in a live feed from NASA headquarters in Washington, he praised workers for their efforts to bring back the agency after the 2003 devastation of Columbia, in which seven astronauts died when their ship broke up during reentry with a damaged left wing.

"Nothing, nothing in the world, is harder than picking yourself up after a cataclysm . . . and moving forward, and we've done it," said Griffin, who in 2005 was picked by President Bush to be the 11th NASA administrator.

He urged workers to support the next administrator. In recent weeks, several names have been floated by the incoming Obama administration, including former astronaut Charles Bolden and retired Air Force Gen. J. Scott Gration. Bolden has support on Capitol Hill; Gration helped Obama draft a new space policy.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who serves as chairman of the Senate commerce subcommittee on space, has cautioned Obama against picking an outsider.

It has been no secret that Griffin wanted to stay on. In recent weeks, allies organized a lobbying effort aimed at convincing Obama that this would be a bad time to shake up the space agency.

But there were indications that Griffin's road map, which has been to pour all possible efforts into replacing the shuttle fleet and returning the United States to the moon by 2020 and building bases there, did not fit Obama's plans.

"If you can't support the agenda, then the proper thing to do is to leave," Griffin said. "There are many different things you could do with a $17.5-billion NASA civil space program. But what we can't do is squabble and fight."

Frequently acerbic, always blunt, Griffin liked to portray himself as an engineer, not a politician. He could be biting with the reporters who covered him and rarely dodged questions. Though he made enemies in the agency, it wasn't because he engaged in conventional, Washington-styled gamesmanship.

His greatest accomplishment, he said, was getting the shuttle flying again after the Columbia disaster. But his plans to permanently retire the fleet after construction of the International Space Station is finished next year have not set well with critics inside and outside the agency.

As things stand, that would leave a four-year gap in the U.S. manned space program, during which astronauts would have to catch rides to space on Russian Soyuz vessels. Griffin has held to the deadline for ending the program because he feels the shuttles are inherently unsafe.

The Ares-Orion spacecraft, now in the early development phase, returns to the Apollo model of putting astronauts at the top of the rocket stack, so that nothing can fall off during launch and hit the crew module, as happened with Columbia.

"NASA will look great whether we're asked to return to the moon and establish a permanent presence there and go to Mars, as I think we ought to be asked to do, or whether we're asked to carry out some other task," Griffin said Friday.

Griffin said Associate Administrator Christopher Scolese would oversee the agency until a new administrator was selected.

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john.johnson@latimes.com

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