In the past several years, a few high-profile failures have softened the public's enthusiasm for space exploration. However, too few people realize that NASA is in the midst of a transformation. Indeed, much of NASA's recent move away from lumbering bureaucracy and toward a revitalized exploration organization is the result of Administrator Michael Griffin's hard-charging, optimistic approach to running the space agency.
When Sean O'Keefe resigned the position in early 2005, Griffin was appointed to lead the troubled agency toward a future in line with President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration, the U.S. space policy first announced in 2004. The policy -- which calls for completion of the International Space Station (ISS), retirement and replacement of the Space Shuttle, and returning man to the moon -- presented Griffin with many challenges.
To meet these challenges, in 2006 NASA announced that a new generation of launch vehicles was selected to replace the Space Shuttle, which will retire in 2010, and also unveiled a contest called Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS), which marked the first time NASA actively sought to engage the private sector in developing spacecraft. Griffin set aside $500 million for two companies that could best demonstrate how to deliver an unmanned payload to the ISS. In August, the prize money was awarded to Rocketplane Kistler and SpaceX.
"While the business of space flight is still dangerous for people and uncertain even for cargo, and while it has very high barriers to entry, I nonetheless believe that the time has come for the government, and especially NASA, to make the investment in commercial transportation services that we are doing with COTS," Griffin said at a January meeting with the Space Transportation Association. "I don't think the commercial space community will find a more sympathetic ear than that of the current NASA management team."
On Dec. 4, 2006, NASA took another extraordinary step by outlining plans for a permanent settlement on the moon. The five-year construction phase is anticipated to begin in 2019. The moon facility is expected to serve as a staging area for manned missions to Mars.
It seems with Griffin at NASA's helm, the sky is no longer the limit -- it's the starting line.