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Criticism Over NASA’s New Moon Rocket Hurting Morale

October 22, 2008

NASA administrator Michael Griffin said Tuesday that unfounded criticism of America’s next-generation moon rocket is hurting the space agencies morale but hasn’t stopped progress on the craft.

Critics in the media and on anonymous Internet blogs are questioning the motives and ethics of engineers designing the new rockets, Griffin said.

He said briefing charts used by NASA managers sometimes show up on Web sites without the proper context and opponents of the agency’s plans to replace the space shuttle with two new rockets have wrongly accused NASA managers of incompetence and worse.

Griffin spoke at a symposium of top NASA leaders and industry executives in Alabama where posed the question: “Are we at a place where differences of engineering (opinion) are cited as evidence of lying or malfeasance? This is not how any of us were taught to conduct an engineering discussion.”

According to Griffin, the criticism hasn’t slowed development of the Ares rockets being designed for the Constellation program to lift astronauts and cargo to the space station, the Moon and eventually Mars, but it is “still hurting”.

“I think there is a certain amount of damage to people’s morale that accrues when they know themselves that they are doing good work and telling the truth and the product of their work is besmirched anonymously by others who bring forward no data and can do so almost continuously,” he said.

In August, a safety panel at NASA reported that the space agency and its moon program had problems related to employee morale, funding and leadership.

NASA plans to retire the space shuttle in 2010. Bu the space agency plans to fly a test version of the Ares rocket in late spring or early summer. The first missions aboard Ares are scheduled for 2015.

NASA is studying the effects of both delaying the shuttle’s retirement and speeding up work on Ares, Griffin said. Some lawmakers are worried that NASA might not be able to reach the space station if the shuttle is down and Ares isn’t ready.

“I’m not blind to the fact that several legislators have called out the need to look at such questions in the next Congress, and I think if such questions are going to be asked, it’s best for the answers to come from NASA,” he said.

Either Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain are expected to continue the Constellation program after taking office in January, said Frank A. Slazer, the president of the American Astronautical Society, which promotes space science and exploration.

Slazer said NASA spending on the project is “infinitesimally small” compared to the $700 billion financial bailout approved by Congress and the government-funded program will provide a boost to the technology sector amid a crunch in commercial credit.

A bill recently signed by President Bush would provide $20.2 billion for NASA in the upcoming year, including an additional $1 billion to speed up work on Constellation. But it is now up to the next administration and Congress to decide how much of that money will be spent.

Image Caption: Crew Mobility Chassis Prototype – The Crew Mobility Chassis Prototype is NASA’s new concept for a lunar truck. Researchers are trying it out at Moses Lake, Wash., this week as part of a series of tests of lunar surface concepts. One feature is its high mobility. Each set of wheels can pivot individually in any direction, giving the vehicle the ability to drive sideways, forward, backward and any direction in between — important if the truck becomes mired in lunar dust, needs to zigzag down a steep crater wall or parallel park at its docking station. NASA currently is building the spacecraft and systems to return to the moon by 2020. Image Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

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