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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The head of the space agency NASA gets a chance to make his case this morning. He heads an agency that has been denounced, first in Wired magazine and then on this program. The agency's big goals include a permanent base on the moon and manned missions to Mars, priorities that dismayed the writer Gregg Easterbrook.

Mr. GREGG EASTERBROOK (Senior Editor, New Republic): Well, they're about to embark on a $200-300 billion project to build a Motel 6 on the moon. And it's a commitment that makes no sense on any grounds.

INSKEEP: On this program yesterday, Gregg Easterbrook said NASA's billions could be spent on more relevant pursuits. Among other things, he wants more extensive study of global warming. So we called NASA administrator Michael Griffin.

Griffin took on many issues raised by Gregg Easterbrook, or as the NASA administrator pronounced it, Esterbrook(ph).

Mr. MICHAEL GRIFFIN (NASA Administrator): Well, when Easterbrook talks about a Motel 6 on the moon, that's a pejorative characterization. If I were to categorize it as an outpost on mankind's farthest frontier, it has a completely different tone to it and can be used to describe exactly the same set of equipment and exactly the same purpose.

INSKEEP: Let me use your term. Is that outpost for mankind on the moon something that is practical, given the expense that it now costs, given our current technology, to get things into space, get them to the moon, get supplies there and on and on?

Mr. GRIFFIN: Well, when Easterbrook talks about hundreds of billions of dollars, he's adding up the cost over many years of operation. In practice, we would be supporting an outpost on the moon with a few billion dollars per year of regularly budgeted expenditure. I have no quarrel with Gregg's assertion that we need to develop better methods of transportation, more efficient rockets and so on and so forth. I agree with that.

Right now, the nation's policy makers in Congress and in many successive administrations have not chosen to allocate money toward the development of new systems, and so therefore we fly with the older systems that we have inherited from our past.

INSKEEP: That leads to another point, which Easterbrook made, which he aimed directly at you. And let's just listen to the way that he puts it here.

Mr. EASTERBROOK: My objection is why doesn't the NASA administrator - current one, Michael Griffin, or the previous one, Sean O'Keefe, any of them - why don't they stand up to this? They don't lose their First Amendment rights when they become NASA administrators. They can say no, these ideas are crazy. Let's do something scientifically rational. And they don't, they always carry water.

INSKEEP: His argument is that you should know that this is not the best use of money. Do you think it is the best use of money or not?

Mr. GRIFFIN: I completely support - I have not lost my First Amendment rights. I completely support the plan and the priorities that the Congress and the president have set forth for NASA.

INSKEEP: Well, I guess he is arguing on one level that simply, that there are other priorities out there. Are there priorities that you've had to cut in the last couple of years as you've reoriented toward the moon and other things that you've regretted having to cut?

Mr. GRIFFIN: Well, we have not cut any major priorities. Again, the regrets would always be that there are things left undone that we could do, but I think we've got the best $16.5 billion space program that we could have. But $16.5 billion will buy many different kinds of space program. The question is, in a democratic society, who gets to choose? Unfortunately for Gregg, it's not him.

INSKEEP: One thing that's been mentioned, that NASA is perhaps not spending as much money as it could on, is studying climate change, global warming, from space. Are you concerned about global warming?

Mr. GRIFFIN: I am aware that global warming - I'm aware that global warming exists. I understand that the bulk of scientific evidence accumulated supports the claim that we've had about a one degree centigrade rise in temperature over the last century to within an accuracy of about 20 percent. I'm also aware of recent findings that appear to have nailed down - pretty well nailed down the conclusion that much of that is manmade. Whether that is a long-term concern or not, I can't say.

INSKEEP: And I just wanted to make sure that I'm clear. Do you have any doubt that this is a problem that mankind has to wrestle with?

Mr. GRIFFIN: I have no doubt that global - that a trend of global warming exists. I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with. To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of the Earth's climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had, and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn't change.

First of all, I don't think it's within the power of human beings to assure that the climate does not change, as millions of years of history have shown. And second of all, I guess I would ask which human beings - where and when - are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now, is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that's a rather arrogant position for people to take.

INSKEEP: Is that thinking that informs you as you put together the budget, that something is happening, that it's worth studying, but you're not sure that you want to be battling it as an army might battle an enemy?

Mr. GRIFFIN: Nowhere in NASA's authorization, which of course governs what we do, is there anything at all telling us that we should take actions to affect climate change in either one way or another. We study global climate change -that is in our authorization. We think we do it rather well. I'm proud of that. But NASA is not an agency chartered to, quote, "battle climate change."

INSKEEP: I want to ask a little broader question, given that you're in a moment when the agency is reorienting its priorities. It's been commonly said that the space program in general does not have the same hold on the American imagination that it did a generation ago. Do you agree with that?

Mr. GRIFFIN: Well, I do. I've made that point myself. The point was also made by the Columbia accident investigation board led by Admiral Hal Gehman after the loss of Columbia. And he pointed out that the biggest single lack for America's space program was an overarching strategic vision for the program. The administration listened and the Congress listened and resoundingly passed an authorization act for NASA, which directs the agency to return astronauts to the moon to prepare for permanent occupancy there and to plan for Mars. Now we're doing that.

I believe that that is a strategic goal that is within the limits of our technology. I admit just barely, and that is a strategic goal worthy of the pursuit.

INSKEEP: Michael Griffin of NASA, thanks very much.

Mr. GRIFFIN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Griffin was responding to the writer Gregg Easterbrook on this program yesterday. And you can hear that interview again, if you like, by going to our Web site, npr.org. You're listening to NPR News.

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