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NASA head denies dustup with Obama team

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin yesterday denied a newspaper report that he had stonewalled members of President-elect Barack Obama's transition team seeking info on operations at his agency. The Orlando Sentinel, quoting anonymous sources, reported Wednesday that Griffin had failed to cooperate with Obama aides and had instructed civilian space contractors to support the agency's current direction and refrain from discussing other options when contacted by the transition team. Griffin in a written statement said that he was "appalled by any accusations of intimidation" and that he encourages "a free and open exchange of information with the contractor community."

At issue is the future of the planned upgrade to the space shuttle, the Constellation program, which Griffin has been shepherding toward its scheduled 2015 debut. The problem is that the space shuttle is due to be retired in 2010, leaving at least a five-year gap in the U.S.'s ability to independently send astronauts into space, a prospect that some lawmakers, including Republican Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (who represents Houston, a hub for the space industry), find unacceptable.

According to the Sentinel, Constellation "is the center of what Griffin sees as his legacy to return humans to the frontiers of space." It would allow the U.S. to send astronauts to the moon and beyond, whereas the space shuttle is limited to low-Earth-orbit missions such as ferrying people and payloads to and from the International Space Station. But when Obama's emissaries arrived at NASA, they asked, among other things, how much money could be saved by canning part of the Constellation program. The specter of project cutbacks, the Sentinel said, "was enough to spur Griffin and his supporters into action," limiting staffers in what they could tell the transition team and asking contractors to run responses to the Obama group's questions by NASA officials in advance.

In his statement, Griffin denied interfering, calling the largely anonymously sourced article "simply wrong." He asserted that NASA is making "every effort to 'lean forward,' to answer questions promptly, openly and accurately," claiming that the agency had replied to 185 of the transition team's 191 requests for information and was addressing the other six in a timely fashion. (Griffin was traveling outside Washington, D.C., today and was not available for further comment, according to a NASA spokesperson.)

Griffin, appointed by Bush near the start of his second term, has earned praise from some quarters for his willingness to take politically incorrect stances, including his steadfast refusal to extend the shuttle's timeline beyond 2010. That position puts him largely in agreement with the Accident Investigation Board convened after the Columbia disaster, which recommended replacing the shuttle as quickly as possible. But he has also faced criticism for his similarly stubborn devotion to Constellation, a replacement that some observers would like to see reconsidered.

Photo of Michael Griffin courtesy of NASA/Renee Bouchard

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