Mike Griffin Reveals His Commercialization Vision for NASA: Part 2

By Keith Cowing
June 22, 2005
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Mike Griffin Reveals His Commercialization Vision for NASA: Part 2

Part 1 of this story contained comments made by MIke Griffin as he addressed a sold out breakfast sponsored by the Space Transportation Association Tuesday morning in Washington, DC. The audience was a typical mixture of commercial representatives, members of Congress and their staff, space media, and NASA personnel.

Following his remarks, Griffin took questions from the audience:

Frank Sietzen: As you know, a year ago, a commission headed by former undersecretary of Defense Pete Aldridge reviewed the President’s vision for space exploration, and made a number of recommendations – a couple of which were in the commercial area. Would you comment as to whether or not you feel bound by any of the Aldridge recommendations – is it a framework that informs your deliberations – or do you think it is irrelevant?

Mike Griffin: Look, you’re going to get my standard answer with regard to recommendations. If I am to be bound by a recommendation then I need to resign and we need to put the recommender in charge – which I am happy to do, by the way, after about two months on this job. [laughter] In fact, don’t ask twice!

I have few better friends in this business than Pete Aldridge in fact he is a fairly consistent source of good advice to me as a friend and a mentor. The whole thrust of my comments today is that I generally do support the notion that we’ve got to get commercial enterprise into the space business. We simply must, or there is no future for us continuing to build manned spacecraft or $200,000/pound – and where all that goes. We’ve got to do better. And that will only do better if we have some true competition.

But with respect to any advisors – any study groups – any recommendations we’ve received, I listen very carefully to recommendations. I discussed them with the provider of those recommendations. I work them into the strategy going forward. We at NASA, at the management level, work those into our strategy – but I cannot possibly feel bound by them because, you know, it may not fit the overall plan.

Rich Coleman: [inaudible] Asked for comments on heavy lift options

Mike Griffin: I have said in the past: NASA owns a heavy lifter – it lifts about 120 tons each time it lifts off. Of that 120 tons, 20 is cargo, and 100 is payload shroud – the payload shroud is the orbiter. From the point of view of the cargo, the orbiter is the payload shroud. From the point of view of the crew, it’s their vehicle – and their lifeboat. But, those who’ve known me – agree or disagree – like it or don’t like it – those who have known me know that for 25 years I have been saying we don’t want to be mixing crew and cargo up. You know, my car has a trunk. That is the amount of cargo I want in the crew vehicle.

So, as we look to the future, the overall CEV system that we will be advocating will ship cargo. It will also ship crew. Most of the time it won’t ship both of them on the same launch. For the heavy lifter, I am looking to adapt shuttle-derived systems to the needs of Moon-Mars because we already have a vehicle that is in the class that I want. We’ll see how that works.

Keith Cowing: With regard to your heavy lifter: you are spending a lot of time right now getting it back into operation. Much of this work has to do with meeting the recommendations of the CAIB report. Do you feel the same commitment that your predecessor did to embracing what the CAIB recommended? Do you think they went too far? Do you think they did not go far enough? Do you think you’ve been too complaint? Where do you see the mix?

Mike Griffin: The CAIB recommendations in their full scope are recommendations and they are not all implementable. I said this – literally – on my first day in office – you can beat me all you want – but you can’t make me smarter than I am. Many have tried. [laughter] We do not know how to effect a tile repair within the sphere of the CAIB recommendation. Now, the recommendation itself is fine. It’s a great recommendation, you know: see if you can figure out how you can fix tiles and reinforced carbon-carbon on orbit. Great idea. We haven’t been able to do it. So, unless someone walks in with the magic recipe some time in the next few days, we’re going to have to sign up to launch Discovery and Eileen Collins and her crew without having complied with that recommendation because we can’t. And that is one example – there are some others.

Again I’ll say what I said before: I’ve been in this business 35 years. I’ve served on a lot of failure boards – unfortunately because they don’t call them “failure boards” because it was a great day. I’ve headed failure boards. Failure boards parachute in, they study the situation, they study the organization, they make recommendations, and then they pull the ripcord and jump out. And that’s what they should do. And no one has recognized this more publicly and firmly than Admiral Gehman. Admiral Gehman has been very clear – these were our recommendations at that point in time. Use them as you think best. And we are absolutely doing that.

But at the end of the day the line management in the implementing organization has to be in charge – and at NASA, our line management is in charge. I am at the top of that pyramid and if we goof I expect to be fired – if that’s how its got to be.

Alan Ladwig: Your transition coming in has created a great cottage industry in rumors and speculations. Are you thinking that things are pretty much on the schedule that you’ve been laying out for the architecture study, for releasing the RFP on the CEV, or are there changes to come? Or is it too early to tell?

Mike Griffin: Well, with regard to feelings: I don’t do feelings. Just think of me as Spock. [laughter] I think that the exploration architecture study is solidly on track. Everyone here in town is familiar with our budgeting cycles and all that you have to do. So we have certain “need dates” from our exploration architecture in order to be consistent with OMB and the Hill and the folks who are, frankly, trying to help us. So, we have those study goals and I think we’re doing fine in meeting them.

The other big conundrum that we have is that we will be retiring the shuttle in 2010. We have 113 flights of history. We know – to the extent that something can be known through statistics – we know that we can’t launch 28 shuttle flights, which is the current station assembly manifest, between now and when they retire. We have a very high likelihood of getting 19 or 20 flights – and I would say a near certainty of getting 15 or 16. So, somewhere in there – in a best case, maybe 23. So somewhere in there represent an achievable number of shuttle flights that we can do.

We have to figure out how best to assemble and or utilize what is the best combination of assembly and utilization for the International Space Station, going forward in the next 5 years, using the asset that we have, and flying it as many times as we expect to be able to fly it – and then, how much of the station task should be left to the new system – the CEV and/or possibly other mechanisms. That’s the other study we have going and I think it too is doing just great.

As far as the cottage industry of rumors: I do know it is out there. There are basically two approaches to all that. I can address rumors and commentary – and most of the time I think I have a reasonably intelligent response to rumors and commentary. Others might disagree – but I do the best that I can. But if I start engaging in addressing all of that, Alan, is that that is how I spend my whole day – because there are more of them than there are of me. Or I can just ignore it – and just do, with the management team, we try to do what we think is right and in the bets interest of the taxpayer and being effective stewards of public money. And we try to just let the record speak for itself – and that’s where I kind of choose to go. Good question – thanks.

Lori Garver: On the ISS crew/cargo [inaudible] I think it is great to have the non-traditional approach. I am wondering if A. large companies should look to that [inaudible] and B. How would you expect someone to get skin in the game and try to bid on a non-traditional approach [inaudible]

Mike Griffin: The question was: does the government have to have the ability to supply crew and cargo to station – and doesn’t that form competition with entrepreneurial or other providers – and what we will we be doing as we move forward be restricted only to entrepreneurial providers?

Second question first: No, of course not. Competition is competition – everybody gets to play. Our business terms are going to be “business terms” and whoever wants to wander in the door and raise their hand and say “I want to play” is welcome to do it. Anybody who can meet the business terms, by definition, will be doing the kinds 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 I must make – because I want to make because I want to make it is that the government will not provide the requested service if there is a commercial provider who can do it. Now, for that, I will need the cooperation of the Congress – these two Gentlemen here [Rep. Hall R-TX and Rep. Calvert R-CA] – plus many more because there is “opportunity cost”. It has been a congressional goal, oft stated to me, read you: Mike, pay attention – listen up – Mike – you need to get commercial industry involved in this. Well, I support that – so I salute and say yes sir, throw me in that briar patch.

It doesn’t come free. 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 deciding to go out of business. That happens. So we have to have our capability. If we want to have an industry we have to use the industrial capability – if it is available. That means, that with public money, we will be spending a certain amount of money to keep that capability in being that may not be as fully utilized as it could be.

Now hopefully 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. I want to make those assets as fungible as possible so that they can be moved to the thing where that will be a more a government oriented enterprise – going to the Moon. But if we want to establish a commercial space industry in this country that can compete in the world, there will be an opportunity cost to that – and I think we should just face up to that right now. I think it is worth it. But I think kidding ourselves is not what I do.

QUESTION: Where do you see international competition in terms of man-rated flights?

Mike Griffin: The United States needs its own strategic capability to put people into space – OK? Launch systems – crew vehicles. If there are other systems out there provided from beyond our shores, I think 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 – which we might or might not chose to purchase depending on the terms – and depending, frankly, on the intergovernmental agreements, that we do need our own capability – and we will have that if there is anything that I have to say about it. There might not be – but if there is – we will.

Debra Facktor Lepore: what kind of commitment do you have in mind for the ISS – like the number of lights per year, [inaudible], what would be the timing of the RFP, and the timing of the service?

Mike Griffin: Lots of detailed questions from Debra – that I can’t answer – yet. I am not so interested in numbers of flights as delivery of a certain tonnage of cargo – upmass and downmass – and a certain number of crew rotations each year. And how to apportion – how do you split the package up to the first order is not my concern. 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 solutions for meeting the requirements. This stuff will be rolled out – first of all, it has to be put together – we kind of had other priorities with Return to Flight – I just wanted folks to know where we’re going – and the time frame over which we’re going there over the next few months. So look for something by early Fall. This is the first day of Summer. Look for something by very early Fall.

Part of the message to the commercial sector is – its not that I don’t care – its not that we, this new management team doesn’t care – it’s that we’re busy. We’re real busy. But we do care and this is kind of the first head’s up about that.

QUESTION: Having come into this industry from the satellite communications industry I very much appreciated your analogy. I’d also, like you, had a hard time understanding why cost-plus contracts [inaudible] among commercial contractors is [inaudible] the timing of the RFP and all of that related to ISS [inaudible] longer time frame when you would hope that commercial capability coming from what is considered non-traditional contractors – what is the time frame – over what period of time?

Mike Griffin: In doing this at the start of my tenure, my hope is that then we’ve got almost 3 1/2 years left, and I would hope that such arrangements would probably not be at fruition – but would be within sight of fruition by the time I walk out the door. There will be a firm part of our planning looking forward. Now, in 2009, we’ll still be assembling the space station – and we’ll still have the shuttle available to do that. But we will be within very close sight of retiring the shuttle and we will need other mechanisms. So, the very firm hope is, that as the shuttle retires in 2010, that these commercial mechanisms to do resupply – upmass and downmass – and then later on, crew – will be in place.

Klaus Heiss: One model that has been very successful is COMSAT …

Mike Griffin: It is good that you mention that, I did not want to get into names.

Heiss; … yes, but they are there – and [the period between] 1958 – 1961 is very, very interesting. Do you see that once the shuttle gets out of business that the space station could be transformed organizationally into something that is not totally government – something partially private – and follows the COMSAT/INTELSAT model – and then maybe extending that further beyond? You don’t have to answer – but sometimes, there is a dichotomy between government and industry – with a big river in between – and maybe an institutional bridge [inaudible] which has been very successful.

Mike Griffin: Sure. Its just not my first concern right now – but there is nothing inherently wrong with the model.

Jim Muncy: You said something just a moment ago about cargo first – and then crew. Do you see a need for near-term cargo supporting ISS or …

Mike Griffin: I just said “cargo first – and then crew” because first you’ve got to prove to me that you can deliver cargo – then we can deliver crew. The nature of what constitutes a “crew” has to be left to the provider and the purchaser as we would consummate the deal. So, I don’t have a religious preference in that. Our cargo needs – upmass and downmass – are fairly well understood for ISS. Those will be able to be specified.

QUESTION: When we looked at alternate access to station before, one of the stumbling blocks was always the downmass requirement. Do you see in the call for services that there is going to be a specific requirement for downmass as well as upmass?

Mike Griffin: The way you do a business deal is you specify what you want – and then negotiate for what you can get – if you actually have to run a business that makes money – which I actually had to do. So, we’ll say what we want in the way of downmass – 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 contractor 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”.

Mike Lounge: [regarding ] the ISS cargo delivery: for technical reasons “delivery to the door” has a lot of issues. Would you consider a hybrid decision where you “deliver to the curb” – and have a government solution for bring it to the station?

Mike Griffin: Absolutely. We’re open to it – I mean, I do get it – the visiting vehicle requirements on the station can be kind of onerous. So, could there be a middleman who makes money by being that middleman? Sort of an analogy is when a really big ocean liner comes into a port, they send a pilot out to take it the last mile. I am trying to avoid the description of a fixed solution. I am trying to say “here are the people we need, here is the cargo we need – let’s try and find a way to build an industrial capability that can do this. I want to be flexible rather than proscriptive.

Thank you very much.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.