The final frontier

Everything about being the incoming administration is tough, and President-elect Barack Obama will have no shortage of tough decisions about science policy.

The Orlando Sentinel reports that NASA is already digging a moat, lifting up the drawbridge and preparing for a siege.

NASA administrator Mike Griffin is not cooperating with President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team, is obstructing its efforts to get information and has told its leader that she is “not qualified” to judge his rocket program, the Orlando Sentinel has learned.

Griffin’s resistance is part of a no-holds-barred effort to preserve the Constellation program, the delayed and over-budget moon rocket that is his signature project.

nasa.jpgNASA’s budget is small potatoes compared to some recent government programs — at around $17 billion is only about 40 times smaller than the $700 billion Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008. But, it sets up an interesting question.

Are the programs worthy scientific endeavors, a critical pseudo-extension of our national security and national pride into the great beyond and a extension of the infrastructure the Obama administration says should be invested in?

Or are they an overindulging slate of geek hubris, a chronically over-budget and poor investment when money would be better spent on more terrestrial matters?

NASA has had its share of successes and failure, and a higher failure rate is probably more tolerable when working at the extreme limits of human exploration and knowledge. And while President Bush laid out his Vision for Space Exploration plan in 2004 with ambitious goals of returning humans to the moon by 2020 and putting people on Mars shortly (in NASA terms) after that, the burden will be on Obama to determine what is a worthy investment and what’s a waste of money.

My guess is that greeting the transition team with a mix of confrontation and paranoia isn’t going to help your chances in preserving your programs.

Soon after, [Obama space transition team head Lori] Garver and Griffin engaged in what witnesses said was an animated conversation. Some overheard parts of it.

“Mike, I don’t understand what the problem is. We are just trying to look under the hood,” Garver said.

“If you are looking under the hood, then you are calling me a liar,” Griffin replied. “Because it means you don’t trust what I say is under the hood.”

Aside: If you’ve ever wondered about the breathtaking scope of the U.S. federal budget, spend your coffee break looking over this massive interactive graphic.