WASHINGTON – A Senate committee on Tuesday hailed President Bush's choice to be the next NASA administrator while giving rocket scientist Michael Griffin (search) a daunting list of tasks, including saving the Hubble telescope (search) and speeding the delivery of a new manned space vehicle.
Members of the Senate Commerce Committee said it was urgent to get Griffin on the job before the planned launch next month of the first space shuttle since the Columbia broke up over Texas in February 2003.
But a scheduled vote Tuesday was put off when Sen. George Allen (search), R-Va., sought information from Griffin on such issues as administration plans to cut NASA's budget for aeronautics research. Some 1,000 jobs at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia could be lost under President Bush's proposed budget.
Griffin, 55, who has a resume of seven degrees and is head of the space department at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, is expected to win confirmation without opposition. He would be NASA's 11th administrator, succeeding Sean O'Keefe (search), who left the post in February to become chancellor at Louisiana State University.
Griffin, in testimony to the panel, said he was a wholehearted supporter of Bush's exploration vision to return humans to the moon in the next 10 to 15 years and ultimately launch manned flights to Mars and beyond.
"The United States needs to look in new directions and look beyond where we have been in the last several decades," Griffin said, stressing that the space shuttle function of servicing the International Space Station did not qualify as a good risk for human space flight.
Bush's long-range plan has not received a warm reception on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers concerned that the costs of returning to the moon and beyond would necessitate sacrifices in other popular programs.
Several senators urged Griffin to take steps to resuscitate the Hubble Space Telescope, which is wearing down and will fail unless costly and risky action is taken to save it.
Griffin said the knowledge of the universe gained from the Hubble compares to Einstein's theory of relativity but, citing the costs of an unmanned fix, said he would "like to take the robotic mission off the table." He said he would reassess the possibility of a manned mission to the telescope after the shuttle flights are resumed.
Griffin also agreed with senators that there was an unacceptable gap between the planned retirement, no later than 2010, of the space shuttle, and the launch some five years later of the next-generation manned vehicle, called the Crew Exploration Vehicle.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who heads the Commerce Committee's panel on science and space, said such a hiatus was "a security issue for our country."
Griffin concurred: "I do not believe we would wish to see a situation where the United States is dependent on any partners, reliable or unreliable" for access to space.
Allen said he was concerned about the administration's plan to cut in half NASA's aeronautics research funding at a time when the U.S. aviation industry's share of the world market has fallen below 50 percent.
Griffin said he did not know the administration's rationale for the cuts, which he said were "somewhat worrisome" in light of the advances of Airbus and other foreign competitors.
Also on Tuesday, Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., said he planned to block a vote on the U.S. trade representative nominee, Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, until the Senate takes up his legislation to allow the United States to enforce fully anti-subsidy laws against non-market economies such as China's.
Bayh said he supported the Portman nomination but "I cannot sit idly by while American workers and companies continue to be victimized by foreign countries who violate our trade agreements with impunity." Bayh's action came as the government announced that the U.S. trade deficit hit a record $61 billion in February.
Portman's supporters have been urging a quick confirmation as Congress gears up for what could be an uphill effort to pass a major free trade agreement with five Central American countries and the Dominican Republic. He would succeed Robert Zoellick, who left the trade job earlier this year to become the top deputy to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.