Former NASA administrator hates Artemis, wants to party like it’s 2008


Mike Griffin's plan for a fast Moon return would use two upgraded SLS rockets.
Enlarge / Mike Griffin’s plan for a fast Moon return would use two upgraded SLS rockets.

On Wednesday, former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, 73, put forward a deferential but determined countenance as he addressed a House subcommittee that was conducting a hearing on NASA’s Artemis Program to return humans to the Moon.

“I will be direct,” Griffin said. “In my judgment, the Artemis Program is excessively complex, unrealistically priced, compromises crew safety, poses very high mission risk of completion, and is highly unlikely to be completed in a timely manner even if successful.”

Essentially, Griffin told the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, NASA could not afford to faff around with a complex, partly commercial plan to put humans back on the Moon, with an eye toward long-term settlement. Instead, he said, the agency must get back to the basics and get to the Moon as fast as possible. China, which has a competing lunar program, must not be allowed to beat NASA and its allies back to the Moon. The space agency, he said, needed to “restart” the Moon program and chuck out all of the commercial space nonsense.

The Griffin plan

The House members in attendance never pressed Griffin for details about this plan, but they are outlined in his written testimony. It’s an enlightening read for anyone who wants to understand where some traditional space advocates would take the US space program if they had their way. It may not be entirely theoretical, as Griffin could be angling for a comeback as NASA administrator if Donald Trump is elected president.

In Griffin’s case, he would return the country to the cozy confines of 2008, just before the era of commercial space took off and when he was at the height of his power before being removed as NASA administrator. Griffin’s plan for an accelerated lunar mission, in short, calls for:

  • Two launches of the Space Launch System Block II rocket
  • A Centaur III upper stage
  • An Orion spacecraft
  • A two-stage, storable-propellant lunar lander

This architecture would support a crew of four people on the lunar surface for seven days, Griffin said. “The straightforward approach outlined here could put US-led expeditions on the Moon beginning in 2029, given bold action by Congress and expeditious decision-making and firm contractor direction by NASA,” he concluded.

With this plan, Griffin is essentially returning NASA to the Constellation Program that Griffin helped create in 2005 and 2006. The spacecraft (Orion) is the same, and the rocket (SLS Block II instead of Ares V) is similar. The proposed lunar lander looks somewhat like the Altair lunar lander. He is trying to put the band back together, relying on Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman to get astronauts back to the Moon in a quick and efficient manner.

The Griffin Plan to return to the Moon.
Enlarge / The Griffin Plan to return to the Moon.

Michael Griffin testimony

The problem with Griffin’s plan is that it failed miserably 15 years ago. The independent Augustine Commission, which reviewed NASA’s human spaceflight plans in 2009, found that “[t]he US human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory. It is perpetuating the perilous practices of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources.” And that is probably putting it politely.

There are some huge fictions in Griffin’s plan. One is that there would be two SLS Block II rockets ready to launch in 2029. Recall that it took 12 years and $30 billion to develop the Block I version of the rocket. The earliest NASA expects an interim version, Block 1B, to be ready is 2028. But magically, NASA will have two builds of the more advanced Block II rocket (with more powerful side-mounted boosters) ready by 2029.

Then there is the lunar lander. It has not been designed. It is not funded. And if it were built through the cost-plus acquisition strategy outlined by Griffin, it undoubtedly would cost $10 to $20 billion and take a decade based on past performance. A reasonable estimate of Griffin’s plan, based on contractor performance with Orion (in development since 2005) and the SLS rocket, is that if NASA’s budget roughly doubled, humans might land on the Moon by the late 2030s.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *