Question-and-Answer Session With Mike Griffin

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The following are excerpts from the question-and-answer session following NASA Administrator Mike Griffin’s June speech to the Space Transportation Association.

Do you feel bound by any of the Aldridge Commission recommendations?

If I’m to be bound by a recommendation then I need to resign and you need to put the recommender in charge.

I have few better friends in this business than Pete Aldridge, and actually he’s been a fairly consistent source of good advice to me and frankly is a mentor. The whole thrust of my comments today is that I do support [their] recommendation that we’ve got to get commercial enterprise into the space business. The simple fact is that there’s no future for us continuing to build manned spacecraft that cost $200,000 a pound. We’ve got to do better and will only do better if we have some true competition.

What are your thoughts with regard to the funding of the development of a NASA heavy lifter?

NASA owns a heavy lifter. It lifts about 120 tons every time it takes off. Of that 120 tons, 20 tons is cargo and 100 tons is payload shroud. The payload shroud is the [shuttle] orbiter. For 25 years I’ve been saying that we don’t want to be mixing crew and cargo up. My car has a trunk. That’s the amount of cargo I want in a crew vehicle.

So as we look into the future, the system, our [Crew Exploration Vehicle] system that we will be operating, will ship cargo. It also will ship crew. Most of the time it will not ship both of them on the same launch. For the heavy lifter I am looking to adapt shuttle-derived systems because of the needs of Mars and because we already have a vehicle that is in the class that I want. We’ll see how that works.

On the ISS (international space station) crew/cargo you’ve outlined, I think it’s great to have the non-traditional approach. Do you think large companies should look to this, since that’s your favored approach, or do you really think that’s for non-traditional or smaller companies — start-ups? How would you expect somebody to put skin in the game to try and bid for a non-traditional approach, since you’re probably doing a cargo version of the Crew Exploration Vehicle.

Competition is competition, everybody gets to play. Our terms, our business terms are going to be business terms. Anybody who can meet the business terms by definition will be doing the kind of things we want. If I fail in setting forth my business terms to specify what I want, then shame on me, not shame on the provider.

Now about competition, yes you raise a very good point, and the pledge that I must make, because I want to make it, is that the government will not provide the requested or required service if there is a commercial provider who can do it. Now for that I will need the cooperation of the Congress because there is an opportunity cost.

We must have for ourselves, for the government, the capability to move crew and cargo around. We cannot be hostage to an individual provider that can stop or go out of business. That happens.

If we want to build an industry we have to use the industrial capability, if it’s available. That means that with public money we will be spending a certain amount of money to keep a capability in being that may not be as fully utilized as it could be. Now hopefully, you know, I and the folks who are working on this will design an architecture that allows us, with relative efficiency, to move those assets toward exploration and away from supplying the space station.

Where do you see international partners in terms of human-related flights?

The United States needs its own strategic capability to put people into space: a launch system and crew vehicle. If there are other systems out there provided from beyond our shores, that’s great. We’d be in a hell of a spot today if the Russians weren’t space station partners. But irrespective of the existence of other capability, we do need our own capability and we will have that if I have anything to say about it.

What kind of commitment can we expect, what do you have in mind for the ISS? Like number of flights per year? What do you see as the timing of the [request for proposal]? And the timing of the service?

Lots of detailed questions that I can’t answer yet. I’m not so much interested in numbers of flights as delivery of a certain tonnage of cargo, up-mass and down-mass, a certain number of crew rotations per year and how you apportion. When we look at it, the offered service can’t look stupid, but the whole point of specifying what we want at an appropriate and high level is to allow people to have different approaches for meeting those requirements.

This stuff will all be rolled out … [but] first of all we have to put it together, we’ve had other priorities like return to flight. Look for something by very early fall.

When actually would you hope for this commercial capability coming from what have been considered the non-traditional contractors?

By doing this at the start of my tenure — we’ve got three and a half years left — I would hope that such arrangements would be within sight of fruition by the time I walk out the door and will be part of our planning moving forward.

Now in 2009 we will still be assembling the space station and we will still have the shuttle available to do that, but we will be within very close sight of retiring the shuttle, and we would need other mechanisms. And so the very firm hope is that as the shuttle retires in 2010, there are going to be commercial mechanisms in place for resupply, up-mass and down-mass, and we’ll be using them.

You said something about cargo first and then crew. Do you see a need for near-term cargo to help with supporting ISS before assembly complete or not?

I said cargo first and then crew because in my head you’ve got to prove to me that you can deliver cargo and then deliver crew.

When we looked at alternate access to the station before, one of the stumbling blocks was always the down-mass requirements. Do you see that in the call for services? Is there going to be a specific requirement as well as up-mass?

Well, the way you do a business deal is you specify what you want and then negotiate for what you can get.

In a contract … obviously you want a business deal that can make money, which naturally we have to do, but we’ll say what we want in the way of down-mass, and I do recognize the difficulty of it, and providers will offer what they think they can provide, and we’ll negotiate on a price and a frequency. I don’t know any other way to do it that doesn’t get back into the prime contracting mold that I want to break out of. So the most intelligent thing that I can do is to start with here’s what I want, now tell me what you can do.

Back to ISS cargo delivery — for technical reasons, delivery to the door has a lot of issues. Would you consider a hybrid solution where you accept delivery to the curb, and the government takes it the rest of the way?

Absolutely. The visiting vehicle requirements on the station can be kind of onerous, so could there be a middle man who makes money by being that middle man? The analogy is when a big ocean liner comes into port, they send a pilot out to take it the last mile.

I’m trying to avoid a description of a fixed solution. I’m trying to say: Here are the people we need. Here are the cargo we need. Let’s try to figure out a way to build an industrial capability that can do this. I want to be flexible rather than prescriptive.