Griffin: The Space Shuttle Was a Mistake

September 28th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

This according to NASA Administrator Michael Griffin in today’s USA Today. Here is an excerpt:

“The space shuttle and International Space Station – nearly the whole of the U.S. manned space program for the past three decades – were mistakes, NASA chief Michael Griffin said Tuesday. In a meeting with USA TODAY’s editorial board, Griffin said NASA lost its way in the 1970s, when the agency ended the Apollo moon missions in favor of developing the shuttle and space station, which can only orbit Earth. “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 … 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.”"

This is a startling admission from the NASA administrator, and perhaps a positive sign that real change is possible. I do have mixed feelings about the admission. One the one hand, it vindicates the arguments made by a team of scholars that I was part of in the early 1990s under the leadership of Rad Byerly that focused on developing space policy alternatives (PDF) to those presented by NASA. But on the other hand it raises the frequently-asked-question, what good is robust policy analyses if decision makers are unaware of it or for other reasons is not useful in decision making? It would be easy (and oh-so-appealing) to simply conclude that researchers produce knowledge and what decision makers choose to do (or not do) with it is their responsibility. Similarly, it would be easy to simply ask policy researchers to become political advocates. From my perspective, academic policy research can and should be better connected to decision making, and there are alternatives to these two models of interaction. This is a subject that we’ll be devoting much time to in the near future.

For further information on the space shuttle and space station see the publications of Rad Byerly here. And also this paper of mine on the space shuttle program:

Pielke Jr., R. A., 1993: A Reappraisal of the Space Shuttle Program. Space Policy, May, 133-157. (PDF)

4 Responses to “Griffin: The Space Shuttle Was a Mistake”

  1. Eli Rabett Says:

    This never was a secret. People were saying with reason that the shuttle was a bad choice before it was built and certainly much before 1992. The space and earth science community in NASA were powerless against the astronaut lobby, but they certainly opposed the shuttle program and the space station.

    Give someone else some credit

  2. 2
  3. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:

    Eli- Thanks for this comment. You are of course correct that the shuttle received criticism from its inception. Please have a look at the paper I reference and Rad Byerly’s books for a cataloguing of (and participation of) many of the voices that you refer to. There was something very unique about the effort created by Rad Byerly to initiate an independent (of NASA) voice on space policy, and to date there has been nothing similar. Of course, the earth and space science community have run hot and cold on shuttle/station, depending upon how it mapped onto their interests.

  4. 3
  5. Eli Rabett Says:

    Roger: Since the shuttle and space station never mapped very well, if at all, onto space/earth science, I think you will find any enthusiasm from those communities was well feigned, ususally in the presence of a knife to various budgets.

    Enthusiam at the level of non-assistant administrators and lower never existed

    The Hubble telescope is a good example on both ends and on that somewhat delphic note I will end.

  6. 4
  7. Kyle Says:

    “From my perspective, academic policy research can and should be better connected to decision making, and there are alternatives to these two models of interaction. This is a subject that we’ll be devoting much time to in the near future.”

    Look forward to this.