It wasn’t too long ago that it was announced Mike Griffin would be the new NASA administrator. Many of us in the pro-Frontier movement were pleased to see that someone who could actually spell “space” and understood terms like “return on investment” was taking the helm of an agency that had been woefully adrift for many years. With his diverse background, which included real commercial experience, and bringing with him a circle of friends and associates including many of the most ardent supporters of human expansion into the frontier, we thought we at last had found someone we could work with.
Two months later, some are grumbling that he is doing some very important things wrong — exactly and diametrically wrong. Or is he? I for one am still hopeful, if a bit concerned.
Understand that from a frontier perspective the president’s mandate — in the context of our national heritage (and as refined by the Aldridge Commission) is based on three points:
1. We are to explore and expand beyond the Earth.
2. This exploration and expansion is to be affordable and sustainable (i.e. permanent).
3. The only way to assure expanding permanence is the development of an economic infrastructure as part of that exploration.
Thus, permanence is the goal. And to be permanent, this expansion not only has to pay for itself, but create new value for our society economically and strategically as well as scientifically. And the way we do this in America is through the real private sector working in partnership with the government.
There are a lot of small firms and even a few giant non-space companies out there who want to get involved, from providing the space transportation to building and supporting the facilities, firms who believe they can leverage off of the effort to grow profitable enterprises — the ultimate marker of success on the frontier. But there is a lack of knowledge regarding how best to make the transition to this model, as well as great mistrust on both sides of the public/private line.
However, since a strong private-sector infrastructure is central to permanence, one of the most important things the government must do is catalyze and enable the growth of a strong and broad in-space industry that goes well beyond traditional contractors, which are basically an extension of the government.
This means opening up to new ideas and players, enabling the growth of small firms into major players, financially anchoring operational infrastructure rather than owning it and embracing the pay-for-performance culture that powers the rest of the nation outside of NASA’s gates. It also means being consistent, predictable and always pushing out whatever knowledge and industrial wealth it creates beyond the stultifying hallways of government and into the creative wealth generator of the marketplace.
Yet, in his first few weeks on the job, according to some, Mr. Griffin has done much that appears the opposite. He has cancel ed and threatened to cancel innovative contracts that would seem to be critical to the early development of exactly the sort of private-sector infrastructure needed to lower costs and assure the sustainability of the effort. He also has begun a drive to bring knowledge in house and empower NASA centers and groups that are legendary for their lack of success, vision and innovation.
If one looks back at the endless flow of taxpayer dollars into the endless series of failures and dead ends in human spaceflight we have witnessed since the beginning of our national space program, it is clear that Mr. Griffin must make major changes. If he is to succeed in his mandate to get us back to the Moon and on to Mars he must make tough choices, and there are no easy answers.
In such a situation it is tempting to harken back to the “good ol’ days” of Apollo, when a focused and NASA in-house-dominated team carried out an incredible program and put us on the Moon in under 10 years. This seems to be the model Griffin is adopting. Unfortunately, for all its virtues, this is a deeply and fatally flawed model. Yes, it got us to the Moon. But it could not keep us there. Whatever societal and political blame you wish to make, centralizing and institutionalizing our national space agenda set it up to be unsustainable once it reached its stated goal.
Imitating Apollo will result in the same end — if it even gets that far — for the costs of today’s program far exceeds the available funding . According to some sources, even if NASA shuts down all the non relevant field centers it now operates, fires all the employees at those centers, kills all the research we are ostensibly going to do on the way out, tosses the space station into the trash, retires its private jets and makes its managers fly coach, the money just isn’t there.
Thus, I am hopeful that the signs we see on the outside are not really where Griffin is going. Call me nave, after all I have only been in this game for 20 years or so, but I am hopeful that what appears to be going backwards is actually not.
One reason lies in some thoughts he shared with me a few weeks back. (I compliment him for talking with one such as myself, for his candor, and for allowing me to share some of his words.) In our dialogue he said two very telling things, that if true, make his current actions more understandable, if not offering a glimmer of hope as to what is to come.
Responding to my Frontier paradigm, his basic tone was that as a public servant working for the president, he has to do whatever it takes to achieve the explicit goals given to him. (i.e. return to flight, building a Crew Exploration Vehicle and getting us back to the Moon and on to Mars). In his own words: “I have to execute a government program with public money that does not depend for its success on whether industry can do what they promise, or not.”
This statement, when combined with other recent statements and memos circulating in NASA indicate a drive to consolidate a space-knowledge base within the agency, rather than in private companies, which “come and go” in his words.
I have to believe (for now) that he understands collapsing the corporate aerospace duopoly into a closely controlled arm of a NASA Space Design Bureau will not work. Rather, I choose to think he is actually just trying to make NASA more technically competent and a better customer.
In the same written conversation with me, he appeared to be speaking of that catalyzing function for the real private sector (beyond the contractors) when he stated: “How can I use public money to make a space market available to purely commercial enterprises — pay for performance, period — without having a government program that sits on the sidelines waiting for private industry to deliver?” Perhaps he does get it and is merely consolidating and taking control over his core, and he intends, once this is done, to begin bringing in the private sector in a strong and meaningful way. Right now it just isn’t clear.
Whatever he feels he must do in the near term, I urge Griffin and his team to not lose sight of the goal of permanence and the only formula that can work to support it — free enterprise — the same one that powers the nation that pays their salaries. The worst possible choice here is to end competition and catalyzation, and to euthanize the early precursors of what can become a vibrant and self-funding space industry with the capability to dramatically lower costs. They must not ignore the N ew S pace revolution going on just outside the agency’s gates in the form of companies like SpaceX, Bigelow, t/Space, XCor, CSI, Scaled Composites and the others being born as we watch.
My hope resides in part on his closing words. He ended his note by stating his belief in the private sector and with: “Yet, one of the grades on my report card,” when I am done, should be, ” what kind of commercial space industry have you left behind you?”
School is in session.
Rick Tumlinson is a s pace consultant and co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation.