Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin had been tucked away in academia for some three years when he was called on to help reverse the fortunes of Schafer Corp., the Huntsville, Alabama, engineering and technical analysis firm whose sales had been declining following the loss of key contracts with NASA and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.

Griffin, who departed NASA in 2009 with the change in presidential administrations, was ready for a switch. While serving as an eminent scholar and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, he was tapped frequently by U.S. government agencies for consulting work including the recently completed study for the Air Force on mitigating a loss of access to the Russian-built RD-180 rocket engine.

“So I realized after about three years that I really wasn’t occupied with university stuff — I was just sitting in a university still in this arena,” Griffin said. “It was hard to find time to teach class. I didn’t want to do it that way so I decided that it wasn’t the right spot for me.”

The move seems to be working out, particularly for Schafer, where Griffin took over in August 2012. The company is expected to increase its revenue by about 12 percent, to $120 million, this year, and Griffin says there’s no reason it cannot maintain that growth rate for the next five years.

The privately held company has some 600 employees, which is up a bit from a year ago, Griffin says.

Schafer’s most promising growth areas likely are outside the aerospace sector — in information technology (IT), for example — but Griffin also sees potential new revenue streams in space and missile defense. Currently aerospace, much of it classified, represents about 30 percent of the company’s total business.

Being back in the private sector hasn’t stopped Griffin from voicing opinions about NASA’s human spaceflight program. A vocal critic of the decision to scrap the Constellation lunar exploration program for which he was architect in chief, Griffin recently co-wrote an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle endorsing an outside proposal to send astronauts on a Mars flyby mission in 2020.

That mission, the brainchild of pioneering space tourist Dennis Tito, would leverage hardware NASA is already working on, namely the heavy-lift Space Launch System and Orion deep-space capsule. The catch is that the mission would have to launch in 2021 to minimize the transit time to Mars.

Griffin spoke recently with SpaceNews Editor Warren Ferster.

What are Schafer’s aerospace programs to the extent that you can discuss them?

In general terms I can say we do directed energy work for the Air Force, space situational awareness for the Air Force, atmospheric corrections for optical systems.

Are Schafer’s contracts typically program specific?

Exactly. Directed energy is an example. If you want to propagate laser beams in the atmosphere, we’re your people. We’re part of the contractor team that runs the Maui optical site in Hawaii, which the Air Force uses to take pictures of things. If you want to take a picture clearly then you have to have atmospheric correction. It’s a fairly small group of people who know how to do that kind of thing. We’re in that community.

Is your space situational awareness business growing?

No. It’s stable; I certainly wouldn’t say it’s growing. Our growth has been in IT, systems engineering and technical analysis work is doing well, DARPA and Homeland Security.

Is any of your work for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency work space-related?

Some of it is but I can’t go into what we do for DARPA.

Are you looking to get back into doing work for NASA and the Missile Defense Agency?

Yes, absolutely. In fact the Missile Defense Agency Engineering and Support services contract comes up next year. We’ll be going after that for sure. And then we did win a spot on the KLXS-2 team — the Kennedy Launch Services support contract. Millennium Engineering is the prime. So we’re trying to regrow the company back into the aerospace sector, both national security and civil.

Is NASA’s Space Launch System an opportunity?

Absolutely. Boeing has the prime contract on that but there are places for professional services contractors such as us. Boeing hires a lot of those people. Teledyne has got the engineering services and prototyping contract—we’re a Teledyne team member on that. That’s an indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract.

What has been Schafer’s revenue curve since it was acquired in 2008 by Metalmark, the private-equity company?

It’s been down until this year. So it’s a bit of a turnaround. We’re looking to grow at least 12 percent a year for the next five years — that’s our target.

Do you think that’s realistic in this environment?

I do. We’re looking for more than that in the IT sector — I think that’s entirely reasonable — and in the government services sector that kind of growth might not be achievable but when you average it all out I think 12 percent is very reasonable.

Is Schafer interested in corporate acquisitions?

If it’s a good deal, yeah. Two years ago we acquired a small outfit that does highly classified stuff. We added them to the Schafer portfolio.

Can you name the company?

No. They do work for the National Security Agency. We’re always on the lookout for a good financial deal. If you’re in the private-equity business this is a good time to be a buyer. We have an offer in right now for a small acquisition that I cannot name. I’ve been here about 18 months we’ve put in offers on three or four things in that time.

You recently helped write a report that laid out some pretty serious consequences for losing access to the RD-180, which serves as the main engine on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket. What message were you trying to send? 

I’d rather not comment on the RD-180 — I’d really rather have the Air Force do the commenting on that.

OK, aside from the study, has the United States neglected development work in propulsion?

It’s very clearly true that it has been a long time since the United States has developed a liquid rocket engine in the 500,000-pound thrust class or larger. The last one was the RS-68 for the Delta 4 and the last time before that was the Space Shuttle Main Engine.

Do you think liquid-oxygen (LOX)-hydrocarbon is the way to go, as Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, has suggested?

I don’t want to get into what our committee recommended. As Gen. Shelton said, certainly we were urging that people look at LOX-hydrocarbon. Whether the hydrocarbon is kerosene or methane remains to be determined. But there is a clear lack today of independent U.S. capability in that arena, and we’ve been buying it from Russia for 20 years. Policymakers are going to have to decide whether that situation should continue.

You’ve voiced support for the 2021 Mars flyby mission proposed by Dennis Tito’s Inspiration Mars group. What about that mission do you find so attractive?

It certainly is within the realm of possibility. It’s a good opportunity from an astrodynamics point of view — it’s in the right place and we can get there with not a lot of energy. We have talked for three decades about how Mars is the long-term goal. Here’s an opportunity to do a number of things you’re going to have to learn to do when you’re going to put people on Mars. You’re going to have to learn to fly in space for a long period of time — hundreds of days. You need to know about the radiation environment — we don’t know enough about that now. There’s the challenge of the life-support equipment — it has to work for hundreds of days. There’s the challenge of bringing together a re-entry vehicle that has to come in at a higher speed than we’ve ever done before. These are things like when we did Apollo 8, which went around the Moon. Apollo 8 wasn’t a lunar landing but it helped people answer a lot of questions about going to the Moon. If the United States were to step up and do [a Mars landing mission], a Mars flyby at an early opportunity would answer a lot of questions for us. Things that whenever you go you’re going to have to answer them sometime.

Wouldn’t it be difficult to make the 2021 launch window, even if NASA started working in earnest on such a mission at the start the 2015 fiscal year?

Yes, of course it would be challenging. That is one of the reasons it would be worth doing. If we are ever to land on Mars, the challenges imposed by the proposed flyby will have to be faced. The sooner we do so, the better.

Would that require a reordering of NASA’s priorities?

Probably so, but that is not for me to say.

Suppose the White House elects to do this but NASA is unable to pull the mission together by 2021. Are there worthwhile near-term backup mission options available — to any destination — or would NASA be forced to stand down until the next opportunity for the Mars flyby, which as I understand it comes in the 2030s?

I don’t know. That sounds like a great study question for the astrodynamicists.

If given the opportunity, would you consider going back to NASA?

I’m always available for government service at the right level if somebody wants me to consider coming back. Most people, if asked, will agree to serve. It’s a duty.

Warren Ferster is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews and is responsible for all the news and editorial coverage in the weekly newspaper, the Web site and variety of specialty publications such as show dailies. He manages a staff of seven reporters...