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Optimism as NASA Chief Charts New Course

“We’ve gone from what I would say is the worst morale we’ve had in the 23 years I’ve been here, to some of the best,” the NASA engineer told Michael Griffin, “and the trajectory is still up.”

Griffin was presumably gratified, if a little mystified, at this effusive vote of confidence from an employee during his visit to NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View a few weeks ago. After all, he had held the position of NASA administrator for just over a month -- not long enough to do much more than talk about his policies, rather than actually implement them.

The enthusiasm that greeted Griffin reflected the strain Ames felt under his predecessor, Sean O’Keefe, a budget-minded bureaucrat who was viewed as having little understanding of the role NASA’s four major research centers (including the Dryden Flight Research Center in the Mojave Desert) played as the agency’s intellectual core.

O’Keefe proposed to cut the Ames budget from $820 million in the current fiscal year to $630 million next year and as little as $465 million by 2009. Hundreds of government engineers and scientists were to be laid off or replaced by outside contractors; research that was years in the making was to be canceled and facilities shuttered. An outflow of talent had begun to punch holes in projects that might be impossible to fill. (The center’s professional staff, which peaked at about 2,200 during the Apollo missions, is down to about 1,350 now.) Instead of long-term science, the center was moving toward short-term projects that fit within its straitened budget but were sure to yield sparser results.

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“There was a sense of a place that wasn’t what it once was,” says Roger Remington, an expert in human cognition who left Ames this year for Johns Hopkins University. “There was a sense that your work was, at best, tolerated reluctantly.”

When Griffin, a physicist and engineer, took over, he placed many O’Keefe initiatives on hold, including plans to outsource much of NASA’s research to industry. Griffin hasn’t promised that there won’t be layoffs ahead. But as recently as last week he reassured the staff by e-mail that he values the centers as the repositories of the agency’s “core intellectual capability.” Many staffers take this as a sign that he doesn’t share O’Keefe’s enthusiasm for outsourcing. That impression was presumably enhanced by news reports over the weekend that Griffin is planning a major housecleaning at NASA headquarters, aimed at reorienting the agency from a politically-minded bureaucracy to a scientific research establishment.

Founded in 1939, Ames brims with important history, yet is unknown to most Californians. Its dozens of industrial buildings are hidden behind a scrim of vegetation off Route 101, the freeway spine of Silicon Valley. Some still bear the name of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA, the space agency’s 1950s forebear.

Ames researchers developed the swept-back wing and the Pioneer 10 spacecraft, the first man-made object to leave the solar system (carrying Carl Sagan’s famous plaque addressed to any alien civilizations it might encounter out there). In the 1960s it was the home of Illiac, an early government supercomputing project.

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The sprawling campus still proclaims its devotion to big science. Some buildings sprout gargantuan steel ducts, others are connected by pipelines to towering spherical gas tanks. Dominating the landscape is a five-story intake vent for the center’s largest wind tunnel--part of a complex that might be mothballed if NASA can’t transfer it to the Air Force.

Inside the center’s unique Arc Jet complex, where the space shuttle’s insulating tiles were developed, three furnaces can blast superheated gas at test materials to simulate reentry temperatures of more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Its vertical motion simulator, where shuttle pilots train for landings at airstrips located around the world, can raise a model cockpit more than 60 feet while supplying convincing rolls, tilts and yaws. (Invited to try my hand, I landed the shuttle flawlessly four times at Kennedy Space Center and Edwards Air Force Base. Piece of cake. How come we make such a fuss over these big-shot flyboys, anyway?) Its FutureFlight Central facility houses a control tower mock-up that can simulate the 360-degree view of air traffic controllers at airports still on the drawing board; in recent years it has been used to test the practicality of reconstruction proposals at LAX and Dallas-Fort Worth International.

Ames has been moving from aeronautics research like FutureFlight toward areas that might better suit NASA’s evolving priorities, which include reestablishing the shuttle program and planning for further manned space exploration. “One of my goals is to help create the new science of astrobiology,” Glenn Hubbard, the center’s director, told me, referring to the study of human survivability in space.

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But Ames has also been trying to fend off budget pressures, in part by striking commercial deals with its Silicon Valley neighbors. “I’ve been explicit about moving from the ‘University of Ames’ model to ‘Ames Inc.,’ ” Hubbard says. But that trend makes some scientists uneasy. Many made a conscious career choice to join Ames rather than a university or business, and they regard their civil service status as the equivalent of academic tenure.

“When the best and the brightest got out of grad school, one of the attractions of NASA was that you could focus on long-term science and engineering goals,” says Lee Stone, vice president for legislative affairs at the Ames Federal Employees Union. The threat of layoffs and budget cuts has undermined that appeal, possibly for years to come.

Still, Stone says Griffin has given Ames professionals grounds for cautious optimism.

“He’s talked the talk,” he says. “Whether he walks the walk depends on how he sets up the next few years’ budgets.”

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Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. You can reach Michael Hiltzik at golden.state@latimes.com and read his previous columns at latimes.com/hiltzik.


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