Most of a Tuesday morning briefing by Mark Albrecht, president of International Launch Services, focused on the state of the commercial launch industry in general and ILS’ performance in particular. However, the conversation did drift to NASA’s exploration program. For that Albrecht could offer some unique insights: earlier in his career he served as executive secretary of the National Space Council during the Bush/Quayle administration, the last time the council existed in any meaningful form, and also during the last time the space agency and the White House were planning a bold exploration program.
Not surprisingly, Albrecht tried to sell the capabilities of the Atlas 5 (marketed by ILS) and potential evolved, more powerful variants of the rocket to carry out much of the exploration vision, although he admitted that these would never have the capability of a clean-sheet heavy-lift vehicle specifically designed to launch as much mass into orbit as possible. “My personal experience is that you tend to compromise and try to figure out what you can do with existing technologies to get the most capability out of it,” he said. He supported the provision in the new national space transportation policy that requires NASA and the Defense Department to work together on recommendations for heavy-lift launch capability. “I’ve been there, and you really don’t want to be sitting in your office in the White House designing space stuff.”
He also cautioned that schedule is a major concern for any launch vehicle or other large development program associated with the Vision. “One of the pressures in dealing with these kinds of exploration initiatives is that time moves at double time, and any part of the project that takes three or four or five years to show any progress is just tough.” He noted that Apollo is particularly remarkable in this respect because its big budgets survived in Congress for years during its development phase with little visible signs of progress. “That’s a tough trick in today’s environment, to have a program that’s going to take six years to really show something that the average Congressman or customer can go look at, and during those years sustain a really aggressive funding profile.”
Albrecht also seemed enthusiastic about the selection of Mike Griffin as NASA administrator, perhaps giving him one of the biggest compliments possible: “Mike Griffin wants to go.”