Griffin’s hopes for today: more commercialization, less divisiveness

NASA administrator Mike Griffin gave the keynote speech yesterday at the Goddard Memorial Symposium, for the third year in the year (“I think you guys need to get a life,” he joked.) His speech had the theme of “The reality of tomorrow”, borrowing from a statement by Robert Goddard: “It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.” So what are Griffin’s hopes for today?

One of them is a desire for more unity within the space community. “Over the course of my career in this business, I have often been disheartened by the large number of diverse, I can only say ‘entrepreneurs’, in search of NASA funding who place their self interests over the greater good of the aerospace community,” he said. These are people, he said, who try to promote their own pet projects over those priorities laid out by the White House and Congress or decadal surveys in various scientific fields. “If we wish a better reality for tomorrow, we as a community must police this behavior; those who engage in it must be made to feel, and must be, unwelcome in the community at large. My hope for today is that there will in the future be more respect for each others’ work.”

Related to that is a desire to rebuild credibility that Griffin believes has been undercut by cost and schedule overruns for projects that turned out to be more difficult than their proponents originally stated. “NASA managers, the White House, and Congress have seen this behavior too many times, and the agency has lost a great deal of credibility over the decades as a result,” he said. “There was a time—I remember it, and many of you here are old enough to remember it also—when what NASA said could be taken to the bank. Anyone here think it’s like that today? No show of hands for how great our credibility is? Thought not.”

Griffin did call for more use of commercial capabilities where available. He noted the agency’s recent contact with Zero G Corporation for parabolic flight services, and added that NASA will take “a hard look over the coming months” at whether the agency needs to keep its own aircraft for such flights. He also mentioned the recent RFIs for commercial suborbital services issued by NASA last week. “I very much hope NASA researchers and astronauts will be proactive in taking first advantage of such capabilities as they are developed by the nation’s entrepreneurs.” Later, in response to a question on the subject, he called “entrepreneurial commercial space endeavors that seem to be burgeoning in this country and maybe even elsewhere—I view them as almost unmitigated good”, adding that NASA “can’t pick winners, but we can use winners.”

12 comments to Griffin’s hopes for today: more commercialization, less divisiveness

  • Charles in Houston

    Space Politics Aficionados –

    The government had a monopoly on the space industry at one time and we are slowly progressing towards an actual commercial space industry. Now, communications companies own and operate geosychronous communications satellites. More recently, that has happened with Earth resources satellites. Many of these have started with non-American services which perhaps motivated the availability of American based services. Now, launch companies use government launch facilities to launch commercial boosters, or they have created a new launch site (a floating platform). We have finally seen a startup company which could put people into suborbital trajectories which go into what we define as space. Many sectors of the exploitation of space are being opened to commercial companies. The next step should be the launching of logistics to the only destination in orbit – the Space Station.

    Still, the government has a jealously guarded monopoly on launching logistics to the Space Station, and launching people into Earth orbit. There is a lot of justification for the care which is taken before allowing vehicles to approach or dock with the Space Station.

    What is needed is for the government to move a lot faster in letting go of the mission of launching logistics to the Space Station (as the next logical step). Companies have a hard time competing with the government since the government does not have to show a profit or answer (the same way as commercial entities) to stakeholders. The government has to allow commercial entities to access their launch facilities and has to participate in certifying cargo vehicles to dock with the Station. In time, we will have commercial space stations but they are not there now. So Mike Griffin wants to use commercial capabilities where available, but NASA needs to make sure that it does not prevent those from becoming available. The government is in the position of having to nuture it’s own replacement. Hopefully, Mike Griffin or his replacement will allow this progression to continue.


  • Al Fansome

    I was really struck by reading the transcript from the February 27th Senate hearing last week.

    A large part of the hearing was the Senator of Florida (Nelson) and the Senator of Louisiana (Vitter) beating up the NASA Administrator about putting more money into COTS in order to “reduce the gap”. Senator Stevens (Alaska) even showed up only to ask about the “gap”, giving money to the Russians, and if more money would solve NASA’s problem.

    They spent more time talking about COTS than anything else.

    I detect a disturbance in the force.

    – Al

  • John Kavanagh

    NASA’s institutional risk aversion extends to full committal to COTS. Awesome to see Congress cognizant of the commercial space alternative to Soyuz.

  • Rick

    I agree that the commercialization of space is already leading to many new technologies; however, cautionary considerations regarding abuses should not be made light of.

    Historically, abuses that are levied against governmental agencies can be traced to connections within the private sector. Precious resources, such as the International Space Station, should be globally treasured, fully utilized, yet protected from the potential for destruction from a nefarious intent or a “rushed to market” error in use of new technology.

  • Ray

    Jeff: “One of them is a desire for more unity within the space community.”

    One reason there is so little unity at the moment among the NASA human spaceflight, space science, and entrepreneurial space interests is the current monolithic NASA human space transportation development program is too big. It crowds out NASA funding that might have gone to one of the other interests, and does little to help those other interests until and unless it achieves its goals of a lunar base in 2020, and then transforms that effort to one that fosters science and commerce.

    It’s a bit of a stretch.

    As Administrator Griffin mentioned, some changes have recently been made that help address this problem. The lunar robotic science program now includes GRAIL, and possibly a small orbiter and 2 small landers. While this is offset by cutbacks in other robotic science areas, and doesn’t make up for the funding taken from robotic science for ISS/Shuttle/Constellation, it does at least begin a sustained lunar science program beyond LRO and instruments on foreign missions, which hopefully will result in common interests and mutual support in the human and science programs. Hopefully the lunar robotics line continues.

    Griffin also mentioned some of the commercial developments, like the Zero-G Corp business, the suborbital human commercial spaceflight RFIs from the NASA science area, and the Orbital COTS award. These are also promising steps that tend to combine the interests of the science, NASA human spaceflight, and commercial sectors. Hopefully the trend continues.

    My usual reaction is that we need to replace ESAS with something more modest, quickly done, and cheaper so we can address the science and commerce interests. However, I think I’d be satisified enough to not oppose ESAS – close enough to the unity Dr. Griffin wants – if something like the following extensions of the trends Dr. Griffin described happened:

    – suborbital human spaceflight RFIs taken to the next step, experiments to fly repeatedly on commercial suborbital vehicles in development, RFIs extended beyond NASA SMD to the rest of NASA (+ equivalents at NOAA, DOD, etc), and RFIs extended to uncrewed commercial suborbital vehicles as appropriate

    – lunar robotic science program extended to include ISRU demos, small demos of science missions that can be considerably improved by lunar astronauts, and incentives for Google Lunar X PRIZE missions to demonstrate technology or do science or experiments useful to the NASA lunar program

    – COTS cargo business deals for actual ISS support started (i.e. letting the vendors – SpaceX, Orbital, or other – know they’ll get at least X missions for Y dollars if they achieve the ISS goals)

    – COTS crew phase started (possibly in cooperation with Bigelow for technical compatibility, greater common incentives to transportation developers, etc)

    – new Centennial Challenges prizes funded, and similar space-related efforts in DoD (e.g.: DARPA), NOAA, and NSF

    Obviously NASA can only do so much – it can’t use commercial services that don’t exist yet, and can’t make other agencies use commercial space businesses. However, it can do a lot to encourage such services to be made, and to be sustained and improved once developed.

  • D. Messier

    Not a big fan of Griffin’s “with us or against us” rhetoric, otherwise known as “sit down and shut up (and do what I say)”). But, that’s par for the course for the Bush government for the last seven years, one month and twenty days). Feel free to dispute this is you wish, but there are many, many examples. So, be ready to argue your case.

  • canttellya

    The acorn don’t fall far from the tree…

  • How does publicly bashing NASA help? Please point out a time when anyone publicly criticizing NASA has made a NASA program better? And are pro-space NASA critics really naive enough believe that the Obama’s and the others in Congress and the White House who want manned space cut back are not using the arguments made by those who think NASA is “dumb” or “wrong” to go to their collegues and try to make the case that…well, perhaps it’s a good idea to withhold funding for (take your pick: Ares I, Ares V, Constellation) until NASA has figured out how to do it. Isn’t that the justification that Obama is now using to killed manned space? NASA doesn’t inspire, doesn’t know what it’s doing, so let’s shift its money to something else goes Obama’s argument.

    Think Apollo was a well run program? In some ways yes. But by 1964, North American had so screwed up the Apollo capsule contract that there were concerns within the aero community, concerns that pointedly were not voiced publicly–people understood that such criticism would have empowered NASA’s critics to cancel funding for Apollo–that NASA sent in Joe Shea to fix things (Apollo: The Race To The Moon [172]), which he almost did. And even after the fire, NASA supporters knew that they had to stand behind the program or loose it.

    What has changed since Apollo, since the 1960’s, that makes public dissent by space “supporters” of NASA’s execution the right thing to do?

  • […] is yet another post, this one at, referencing NASA Administrator Mike Griffin’s comments at the […]

  • D. Messier

    I dunno, Jim. Why have free speech at all? It’s clearly not working, so we should (what is that phrase some space expert likes to use….sit down and shut up?) and just go along mindlessly with whatever the current NASA administrator and the occupant of the White House want to do, no matter how lame-brained it might be.

    I can’t believe I have to even point out how bad an idea this is.

  • Al Fansome

    JIM HILLHOUSE: What has changed since Apollo, since the 1960’s, that makes public dissent by space “supporters” of NASA’s execution the right thing to do?

    Good question.

    1) SPACE SHUTTLE: NASA sold this nation on a government-designed, government-owned, government-operated space truck that would be all things to all people. It would fly 50 times per year, and would cost $10 million per flight (marginal cost).

    WE THE PEOPLE: Trusted the NASA leadership.

    RESULT: The Space Shuttle has never come close to achieving what was promised.

    2) SPACE STATION: NASA sold this nation on a government-designed, government-owned, government-operated space building that would do almost everything desired by a large list of people, it would be operational in a decade, and cost $8 Billion.

    WE THE PEOPLE: Trusted the NASA leadership.

    RESULT: The Space Station has never come close to achieving any of the specific goals that we were promised.

    Do I need to tell you about the X-33? The X-34? The X-38? The Space Launch Initiative? The 2nd Generation Reusable Launch program? The Orbital Spaceplane Program? The Crew Transportation Vehicle?

    So, when you ask what is changed since Apollo, my question to you is …

    Where have you been? on Mars?

    – Al

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