Shooting the Moon

NASA taps in-house talent to slow spending and speed missions.

In June, 18 months after President Bush directed NASA to return astronauts to the moon and then send them to Mars, lawmakers who hold NASA's purse strings were pressing Michael Griffin for answers. How will we get there? When will we get there? How much will it cost?

After just 10 weeks on the job, NASA's 11th administrator couldn't say. But he did know this: Most of the more than $2 billion allocated for the ambitious exploration initiative since January 2004 had not, in his opinion, been spent wisely. "The soonest that we could . . . stop spending money in directions that we felt were unprofitable and unpalatable . . . would be none too soon," Griffin told the House Science Committee on June 28.

From the hardware to the head work, Griffin is redefining almost every aspect of the nation's civil space program. Nowhere will his influence be more evident than in contracting for the agency's signature mission, exploration of the moon and Mars.

He has put Congress and industry groups on notice that, under his direction, NASA will take a more straightforward approach to acquisition and procurement that relies less on inexperienced companies and holds prime contractors to higher performance standards. "There won't be balloon payments at the end and there won't be get-well arrangements if you screw up. On the other hand, there will be fairly substantial rewards for people who can deliver," Griffin said in a June 21 speech to the Washington-based Space Transportation Association.

And forget the future envisioned for several NASA field installations. Griffin has ruled out converting them to federally funded research and de-velopment centers. Unlike his predecessor, former White House budgeteer Sean O'Keefe, Griffin sees nothing to be gained by putting such government facilities in private hands.

His main objectives are to rebuild the technical competence that distinguished NASA during the Apollo era but was lost to years of outsourcing, and to close the gap in U.S. access to space between the shuttle's retirement in 2010 and the first flight of a multipurpose crew exploration vehicle in 2014.

After giving the boot to 11 teams of outside experts and their protracted effort to "roadmap" exploration concepts, Griffin gave a small internal team 60 days to draw up new plans and cost estimates.

He also accelerated acquisition of a replacement for the space shuttle and canceled plans to hire an integrator for the exploration initiative. A policy statement issued April 27 said future strategic technical decisions would be made in-house.

"I hope never again to let the words 'spiral development' cross my lips," the civil space chief said at the June 28 hearing, condemning the build-a-little, fly-a-little acquisition strategy that NASA borrowed from the Defense Department for its space shuttle replacement.

The six-passenger crew exploration vehicle is being designed to transport astronauts to the moon and to make shorter trips to and from the space station. Exploration managers planned to acquire it in phases, in which two teams of contractors would compete for the contract with prototype spacecraft in a 2008 fly-off. In June, NASA picked the teams-one led by Lockheed Martin Corp. and the other by Northrop Grumman Corp. and Boeing Co.-but moved the "down-select" to 2006 and said nothing about a fly-off.

Griffin has promised to present a "logical, clean, simple, straightforward" exploration plan to Congress sometime in September. He told lawmakers in June: "We do not believe that the problem needs to be as complicated as some have said."