As the Endeavour shuttle headed into orbit and a new NASA administrator was being approved, the most recent chief of the U.S. space program offered his thoughts on his term in office.
Michael D. Griffin, 59, served as the eleventh administrator of NASA from April 2005 to January 2009. He was brought in to oversee the space agency in the wake of the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster to restore public confidence in the space effort and to begin planning for the next generation of American space exploration projects. His accomplishments at NASA include: restoration of the space shuttle program, renewal of work on the International Space Station, repair of the Hubble Space Telescope, and increasing the agency's emphasis on earth sciences. He resigned in January this year to enable the new presidential administration to name its own candidate.
Griffin has since accepted a position as a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, where he will serve as the school's first Eminent Scholar in Engineering, interacting with the city's burgeoning high-tech community.
He granted us an interview on 15 July from his new home in Huntsville, where he was watching the latest shuttle launch, as well as coverage of the Senate's approval of his successor, Charles Bolden. We started with an even more historic NASA moment, though.
Spectrum: This is the week Apollo 11 took off on its voyage forty years ago. Where were you on 20 July 1969, and did the moon landing influence your career decisions as a young man?
Griffin: I was surrounded by a bunch of friends, all of whom were absolutely fascinated by what was happening. And no, the moon landing had nothing to do with my career decision. I was fascinated by science and engineering generally and spaceflight in particular from the time I was five years old.
Spectrum: What do you rank as your most satisfying accomplishment as NASA administrator?
Griffin: I was very proud of the team of senior career civil servants that I assembled during my tenure as administrator. I think it was one of the most competent groups of senior managers ever assembled at NASA.
Spectrum: Why should the engineering societies support the retirement of the space shuttle fleet and replace it with next-generation spacecraft, as envisioned in the Constellation program you have championed?
Griffin: Because it is time to retire the shuttle. Irrespective of other considerations, it cannot take us where we want to go again -- out beyond low earth orbit, to the moon, the near-earth asteroids, and Mars. We should build the new Constellation systems because [our engineers] can.
Spectrum: Where do you think humanity is headed in the exploration of space?
Griffin: There is no question, as I see it, that humans will explore our solar system and, eventually, learn to exploit its resources for economic benefit. And, who knows, maybe in the more distant future we will find a way to reach the stars. The real questions are which humans and when?
About the Author
Kieron Murphy is a contributing editor to IEEE Spectrum.