Griffin Splits with Scientists
What the SSB and scientists generally wanted to do cost a great deal of money, and Griffin was increasingly annoyed with scientific criticism and calls for NASA to do more when it had a flat budget. He had reconstituted the top-level NASA Advisory Council to reflect his and Bush’s priority, the Moon-Mars mission. He had appointed Harrison Schmitt, former Apollo astronaut and New Mexico senator, as NAC chairman. Schmitt was not happy with the role some leading scientists played on the council. He wanted them to advise Griffin how to carry out existing priorities. They disagreed with the priorities. He complained they were not being useful. Griffin backed Schmitt, and on August 21 he sent a message to the NAC that revealed his frustration not only with the scientists on NAC but with his scientist-critics generally.
“The scientific community. . . expects to have far too large a role in prescribing what work NASA should do,” Griffin charged. He noted that the community spoke of effectiveness in NASA policy. “By ‘effectiveness,’ ” said Griffin, “what the scientific community really means is ‘the extent to which we are able to get NASA to do what we want to do.’ ” He said that if NAC members wanted to have NASA take a different course than it was taking, “the most appropriate recourse” was “to resign.”
The chair of NAC’s scientific subcommittee, Charles Kennel, a former NASA Earth Science Division leader, currently director of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, did resign. Griffin then personally requested that two other members, Wesley Huntress and Eugene Levy, the provost of Rice University, step down. Huntress countered, “This is a different NAC. Our advice was simply not required nor desired.” The current council, he added, “has no understanding or patience for the science community process.”52
While Griffin battled over policy with scientists in Washington, including Fisk and Huntress, former associate administrators of NASA’s Science Directorate, NASA’s operations on Mars continued to go extremely well and provide remarkable discoveries. In early October, Opportunity began complicated maneuvers 242 million miles from Earth at the massive Victoria Crater. This was potentially the most spectacular and significant target of the entire $800 million twin-rover mission. “We are frankly feeling a little overwhelmed by what we see so far,” said Squyres.53
Later in the month, the first results from MRO yielded new evidence of diverse watery habitats capable of supporting life eons ago. MRO also found evidence of recent climate changes only hundreds of years apart.54 As November began, MRO’s predecessor, MGS, reported technical problems. Launched in 1996, it had been the longest-lived Mars mission in history, and one of the most productive. On November 21, Michael Meyer of NASA’s SMD said at a press briefing at JPL, “We may have lost a dear old friend and teacher.” He declared that MGS had “surpassed all expectations.”55 Its most important findings had come in its waning days of operation and were not announced publicly until NASA had carefully confirmed them in December.
A comparison of photos taken several years apart by MGS found that two gullies, at least, had apparently experienced flash floods between the photo shoots. “Water seems to have flowed on the surface of today’s Mars, said Meyer at a December 6 news conference. “The big question is how does it happen, and does it point to a habitat for life?”56 “This is the sort of thing you dream about, what everybody’s been waiting for,” said planetary scientist Jennifer Hellmann of NASA’s Ames Research Center. The discovery lent support to the existence of liquid water so near the surface, at least in places, that it could spurt out on rare occasions.57 MGS also found evidence of recent high-velocity impacts from meteorites. This finding was critical in that it pointed up hazards for human exploration. Either way, MGS could not have ended its life on a more significant note.