NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has defended the agency's stance on aeronautics and space exploration, but has acknowledged that, until recently, that NASA had "lost its way."
In a forthright address to the Society of Experimental Test Pilots in California, Griffin says that until US president George Bush's recently crafted 'Vision for Space Exploration' plan was unveiled "I believe we'd lost our way. To restrict ourselves to orbit is the wrong choice in my view."
Although he says NASA and the US must "finish the international space station (ISS) as per its agreements with the 15 international partners, many continue to question the value and worth of the space station. If we'd fully had our wits about us it is fair to say we'd probably not have been spending the huge amount of money on it that we're doing. But it is important to keep to those commitments."
In the meantime, Griffin says the "number one job is to oversee flying the Space Shuttle safely" in its remaining missions to support the construction of the ISS before its planned retirement in 2010. "The Space Shuttle is not safe to fly in any conventional sense of the word. It can be flown safely with greatest of care, but let's not kid ourselves. Spaceflight is in its infancy."
Reacting to on-going criticism of the continuing cuts in aeronautics research at NASA, Griffin says "we need to do something about that. It's been allowed to founder a little bit." Commenting that the last US strategic plan for aerospace was crafted in 1982 he says "we need to do better than that," and adds that together with the US Federal Aviation Administration, Defense Department and Office of Science and Technology, NASA is working on a new plan which will be released in December.
Commenting on the recent budget, which again has received widespread criticism from lawmakers from both parties, academics and aerospace leaders who say the reductions are hampering NASA's ability to develop new aviation technology, Griffin says "I'd like to see it increase, but money is limited."
He adds that the aeronautics budget impact appears to be worse than it actually is because of a comprehensive accounting revamp that is included in NASA's new budget for the first time. "Under this new and unified accounting system the overhead will be managed on an agency-wide basis," he says, adding that much of the money ordinarily appearing as budget allocations for aeronautics research in former years was actually always intended to support one of the four main centres at Ames, Dryden, Glenn and Langley.
"This will now be centralised. As of 1 October we scrape off all the overhead and identify all the directorates which are directly funded. It's a lot more transparent and that isn't pretty. But the change does mean, however, that in future the money will go to aeronautics research alone (and not subsidising the centres)."
Speaking the day before, on 26 September, at the House Committee on Science's Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, associate administrator Lisa Porter says the aeronautics budget will "decrease by about $200 million under the overhead cost simplification system. But let me be clear, the $200 million was never used for research; it was always set aside to pay the overhead costs of the four research centres."