TCS Daily

A New Captain for the Titanic?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - March 23, 2005 12:00 AM

President Bush has selected a new NASA Administrator, naming physicist Mike Griffin to the post. The appointment is widely, and rightly, seen as evidence that Bush really is committed to his stated goal of expanding human exploration of space, as Griffin is a longtime supporter of human exploration and settlement.

How much does this mean? It depends. Bush is thinking long-term here: No Kennedyesque declarations that occupy the center of his political strategy. Instead, he seems to be trying to gradually reconfigure the NASA bureaucracy away from the steady-state emphasis on satisfying constituency groups in the science, aviation, and legislative communities and toward an emphasis on, you know, actually going places.

Some people are optimistic. The Houston Chronicle observes:

        "Griffin has a long record of championing human space exploration as well as 
        displaying can-do management skills. If anyone can instill some Buck Rogers 
        excitement in NASA's far-flung bureaucracy, Griffin should be able to."

But even the Chronicle has its doubts:

        "Griffin's curse is to be tapped to lead an ambitious space program at a time 
        when Medicare and Medicaid expenses are exploding."

Among other budgetary pressures. Yet the real problem with NASA isn't money -- it's organization and mission. Scattered across numerous Congressional districts as a way of maintaining funding, NASA is also paralyzed by the need to satisfy many different constituencies. What's more, it has a bureacuracy that is, even by the standards of the federal government, rife with infighting and internal politics.

If Griffin is to accomplish much of anything, he'll have to do some serious restructuring and refocusing. Ironically, the budgetary problems may be his best friend.

Tight budgets and new requirements will give Griffin the excuse he needs to lay off people, fire people, and move things around in ways that the rather hidebound NASA culture usually doesn't permit. When there's plenty of money, it's very hard to shut down unproductive programs and people. When money is tight, it's actually easier to reform things, if those in charge are willing to bite the bullet and avoid a "democracy of pain" approach that cuts every project somewhat, producing less dissension at the cost of drastic losses in effectiveness.

By all accounts, Griffin is likely to be tough enough to pull that off, if he gets some political backing from the White House. And I hope that he does, because I think the focus on exploration, as opposed to pure science (or pork) is vital to humanity. As I've written before, the long-term (and even not-so-long-term) prospects for humanity look poor if we don't expand beyond the Earth:

        "Stephen Hawking says that humanity won't survive the next thousand 
        years unless we colonize space. I think that Hawking is an optimist
        . . . . As Robert Heinlein once said, the Earth is too fragile a basket to 
        hold all of our eggs. We need to diversify, to create more baskets. 
        Colonies on the Moon, on Mars, in orbit, perhaps on asteroids and beyond, 
        would disperse humanity beyond the risk of just about any single catastrophe 
        besides a solar explosion - and type G stars such as the sun don't do that 

Though I wouldn't make too much of it, this notion is, according to the Guardian, getting a bit of support from the latest extinction research:

        "After analysing the eradication of millions of ancient species, scientists 
        have found that a mass extinction is due any moment now.

        "Their research has shown that every 62 million years - plus or minus 3m 
        years - creatures are wiped from the planet's surface in massive numbers.

        "And given that the last great extinction occurred 65m years ago, when 
        dinosaurs and thousands of other creatures abruptly disappeared, the study 
        suggests humanity faces a fairly pressing danger. Even worse, scientists 
        have no idea about its source.

        "'There is no doubting the existence of this cycle of mass extinctions 
        every 62m years. It is very, very clear from analysis of fossil records,' 
        said Professor James Kirchner, of the University of California, Berkeley. 
        'Unfortunately, we are all completely baffled about the cause.'"

Sounds as if a bit of insurance is in order. Let's get those space settlements going.


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