Transcript: NASA Administrator Michael Griffin on 'FNS'

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The following is a partial transcript of the July 2, 2006, edition of "FOX News Sunday With Chris Wallace":

"FOX NEWS SUNDAY" HOST CHRIS WALLACE: Joining us now from Cape Canaveral in Florida to discuss the mission of the shuttle Discovery is NASA administrator Michael Griffin.

Mr. Griffin, thanks for joining us on what's got to be a very busy day.

NASA ADMINISTRATOR MICHAEL GRIFFIN: Well, you're very welcome. It is, but I'm happy to be here.

WALLACE: I can't hear Mr. Griffin.

Go ahead, sir.

GRIFFIN: I'm speaking.

WALLACE: Go ahead, sir.

GRIFFIN: I'm speaking.

WALLACE: Yes, I can hear you now. Go ahead.

GRIFFIN: Fine. I'm very happy to be here. Thanks for having me.

WALLACE: Great. How is the launch looking today? How's the weather and what's the condition of the shuttle?

GRIFFIN: Well, the vehicle is just as clean as a whistle. We're literally not working any issues on it. So we're counting down, hoping for weather. Weather probability — the weather guys are saying about 30 percent chance we can go today.

WALLACE: Given the controversy over the decision to launch, are you and the rest of the launch team feeling any added pressure?

GRIFFIN: Certainly not. What you're seeing is not any additional controversy. What you're seeing is that it's kind of out in the open, being conducted in a very open way, just as you would expect a healthy technical organization to do. I'm really very proud of it.

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WALLACE: Well, let's talk about that, sir, your decision to launch. At the final flight readiness review on June 17th, which is just two weeks ago, NASA's top safety officer and chief engineer both voted no go on a launch. Isn't that a big deal?

GRIFFIN: Well, it is a big deal. However, responsible program officials and many others voted to go. And in fact, I think the vote was 13-2, so it didn't matter what I did. I was going to have to overrule somebody who is a very high-level NASA official. I mean, you kind of are damned if you do and damned if you don't.

In this particular case, I had spent an awful lot of time of my own studying the issue very carefully, because I knew it was going to be controversial, and my analysis of it convinces me that the chances of damaging the orbiter are quite small, and this is a risk worth taking at this time to get us back on track in space.

I would note also that even the safety officer and the chief engineer agreed that we are not, with this decision, risking crew. The risk is to the vehicle, not the crew, and I felt that it was acceptable to take.

WALLACE: Well, but let's follow up on that. On the certificate of flight readiness which both the safety officer and the chief engineer had to sign, both crossed out the written statement that they approve proceeding with the launch and, in fact, the chief engineer added this — and let's put it up on the screen — "I remain no go based upon potential loss of vehicle."

Again, sir, isn't that troubling?

GRIFFIN: No. I've, again, studied the issue very carefully. Unless I want to promote the chief engineer to being administrator, I make the tie-breaking decisions. We looked at this as carefully as we know how, and I think it's safe to go, and we're going to fly.

WALLACE: Let me ask you about that, because you say this shows a healthy disagreement, a healthy process in making the decision. It's been reported that this is the first time in shuttle history that a launch has proceeded without the unanimous agreement of top officers. Is that true?

GRIFFIN: I don't know about that. I've been back at the agency in this capacity for 14 months. I've been part of a lot of flight readiness reviews in the past for one vehicle or another.

And it is a typical pattern of behavior that people who have concerns, if there are one or two of them, are often reluctant to raise those concerns because they feel that they might derail the process for something, and that's a level to which they don't want to go.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board led by Admiral Gehman noted a tendency at NASA prior to the loss of Columbia to a certain conformity of opinion — group think, if you will.

I've striven mightily since arriving back at NASA to promote an open and vigorous dialogue on technical issues, and that's exactly what we did. And when people know that they can speak up, when they know there's not only no retribution but there is encouragement to speak up, they're more likely to do so.

We want to have all the issues on the table before we make a decision, but we must make a decision. One way to make that decision would be to say that if anyone has an objection, we don't go. That's not the management approach I'm using.

WALLACE: You talk about the decision and how it was made after the Columbia disaster. The Accident Investigation Board issued the following statement, and let's put it up on the screen. "More troubling, the pressure of maintaining the flight schedule created a management atmosphere that increasingly accepted less than specification performance of various components and systems."

Mr. Griffin, are you making the same kind of judgment that led to previous disasters?

GRIFFIN: Not at all. There is a schedule component to all of our decisions, and there must be. We are not given unlimited time by the Congress to carry out the finishing of the completion of the space station program. Schedule is a factor. We're taking it into account.

We are not doing silly things in order to fly. We need to replace the ice-frost ramps. We know that. On the other hand, we regard the risk of flying with the current ice-frost ramps for the next few flights as very small and well worth taking.

WALLACE: You know, what we should talk about — and let's, in fact, put the graphic up on the screen, if we can, that shows you have made some changes.

You have taken away the so-called PAL ramps. The protuberance air load ramps have been removed, and that's where some of the shedding of the foam from the external fuel tank came. But as you mentioned, there are still these 34 brackets in the ice foam ramps, and those are still there and still a possible danger in terms of shedding.

Based on your analysis, what is the chance that foam will shed off the fuel tank and hit the shuttle?

GRIFFIN: Well, I will say this. Foam will be shed from the fuel tank and will hit the shuttle. Our objective is to make sure that those pieces which do are small or that they're released at a time when it's not a concern, either when the shuttle is moving very slowly or when it's essentially out of the sensible atmosphere.

It is precisely that type of data that we need to fly to collect to determine whether our improvements to the external tank have been successful or not. We can't answer that question in wind tunnels alone, and we certainly can't answer it by analysis.

We're operating here at the limit of the technical state of the art, and we need to fly.

WALLACE: Mr. Griffin, let's talk about the program in general. Last year you were asked whether the shuttle program was a mistake, and you said the following. Here it is. "It's now commonly accepted that was not the right path," meaning the shuttle program.

Sir, given all of the problems, given obviously these two disasters that we've had with the shuttle, is it worth spending more money, risking the lives of the astronauts, for 17 more missions to complete a space station, an international space station, whose scientific value is somewhat suspect?

GRIFFIN: Well, the value of the space station, in my view, is partly in the science but has never been all about the science. It's really about learning to live and work in space for extended periods of time.

It's about creating a toehold off the surface of the Earth and using it as a stepping stone to Mars, which is a long-term goal for not only NASA and the United States, but for all mankind.

The quote that you supplied, while correct, is a bit out of context. When I said it's commonly acknowledged that this was not the right path, I meant the retreat from the moon to restricting ourselves, the United States, to operations in low Earth orbit.

I have said many times over the years that I believe that those decisions were wrong decisions. They were made 30 years and 35 years ago.

This president, this Congress, have given us an opportunity to reverse those decisions and set about the business of space exploration beyond low Earth orbit again, and it's time to seize on that opportunity.

WALLACE: Well, Mr. Griffin, we want to thank you so much for talking with us, answering all of our questions. And I know I speak for all Americans when I wish you and the entire NASA team the very best of luck on this mission.