Mike Griffi speaks at the Heinlein Centennial conference on July 6 in Kansas City, Missouri. (credit: J. Foust)
Transcript: Mike Griffin at the Heinlein Centennial
Monday, July 16, 2007
Mike Griffin: Thanks Tim [Kyger, conference chairman], although I don’t know if the rest of you will want to thank Tim for having me here or punish him for having me here, but I’ll leave that for you to decide. And I don’t really get any credit for the US Vision for Space Exploration, as it’s called. I really think that goes to variously, the Gehman Commission for pointing out that flying people back and forth to the space station was not a big enough goal, to the President for accepting that and directing that a larger goal will be set, and to the Congress for approving those; NASA 2005 authorization act that makes it the law of the land, that NASA is to be doing and we’re training to the Moon and from there to Mars. Those are good goals, I think, for the space program and I think we have a lot of people to thank for that. I’m probably not the right one but I appreciate the sentiment.
I was pleased to accept Tim’s invitation to join the group here to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Robert Heinlein’s birth. In my view, which might be a minority in the world but is probably not a minority in this group, Heinlein was an extremely influential personality in some ways that he may not often be given credit for. I thought I talk a little bit about that today.
I have a confession to make. I didn’t get interested in space because of Robert Heinlein. [Laughter] I got interested in Heinlein because I was interested in space. [Applause] I mean, I am an aerospace professional with very minor and fleeting periods aside. I’ve really never done anything but aerospace and most of that’s been space. And I have been studying to do this, or doing it, since I was five years old. I got interested and I was born in ’49 so that tells you about when I was starting in on this. I got interested when, I guess more or less coincidentally, my mother gave me a book called A Child’s Book of Stars, set at an appropriate intellectual level for maybe a seven or eight-year old kid, and as I’ve said, in a couple of other speeches where I’ve talked about that as being a seminal influence on me. I pointed out that with what was known in 19—I think the book’s copyrighted in 1953—with was known in 1953, almost everything in the book is wrong. [Laughter]
But that didn’t matter, I was overly fascinated by it and I went from there to Willy Ley and Wernher von Braun on the Walt Disney channel, and also the Collier’s articles—I remember going down to the library and looking at the Collier’s magazine articles—and by the art of Chesley Bonestell, who I think did as well in picturing what the solar system would be like, given our state of knowledge of the time he was doing it, as could have been done. Again, most of that was wrong. But who knew?
And so, unlike maybe many of you, I didn’t become interested in space because of science fiction. I became interested in science fiction because of space. And to be interested in a science fiction as a kid, and I read many, many other genres as well, but to be interested in science fiction was to be interested in the works of Robert Heinlein. But that order of things has given me a different perspective on Heinlein’s career and contributions than I think many others may have. And to sort of explain that a little more, I would take you back, and I see many people, at least a number of people, of my vintage are greater. The 50’s and 60’s were a real golden age for at least American advancement in aerospace. And it wasn’t just space. In fact, in the 50’s wasn’t primarily just space. It was about high-speed airplanes, research aircraft. That was the era in which we designed and built the X-15, which ultimately flew 199 flights over the course of an 11-year program, setting all kinds of records, and many, many other things.
Aerospace was alive at that time in a cultural matrix in the United States, which cherished accomplishment on the frontier, any frontier. We were pushing computers. We were pushing the frontiers of democracy. We’re doing other things. We were going back to the South Pole for the first time in 40 years and we were putting people there to stay, learning the winter over. We were doing things. It was a time when President Kennedy could stand up in front of the country and say that that generation was willing to bear any burden and pay any price for the defensive liberty in the world and not be laughed at.
We’ve come a long way since then, some of them good, not all of it good. But in those times, space captured the attention of, in my view, those who, in an earlier era would have become mountain men, or would have gone to sea, or would have learned to fly, contraptions made out of cloth and sticks because it was the frontier.
So, a question that has often been asked and that I’ve asked myself is, “Was the growth of science fiction as a genre and hard science fiction in particular, a response to the cultural zeitgeist or was it a cause of it?”
I think in all such questions, there is an inevitable chicken-and-egg effect, one sponsors the other in a reinforcing loop. But, I think that if asked that, when I have been asked that, I often said that I think the growth of science fiction helped to create the cultural matrix in which we saw the advancements that we saw in aerospace in the 50’s and 60’s, more so that than the other way around.
I mean, American kids had for generations been raised on boyhood stories of people who accomplished themselves in difficult arenas. There was Jack Armstrong, all-American boy, and Tom Swift and then later Tom Swift Jr. and Rick Brant and other things that maybe many of you, like me, read as kids. We celebrated the accomplishments of great people and people were acknowledged to be great people.
So, in science fiction literature, Tom Swift, I think, led inevitably to Asimov, Clarke, and inevitably Heinlein. And if asked, I would say that I think that Asimov painted the broadest canvas and Clarke was the best technician. But Heinlein was the guy that put you there. Heinlein’s literary skills combined with his technical knowledge put you there, in a way that no one else did and, frankly, that not even the best in my opinion have done since. I enjoy reading science fiction to this day, and my own opinion would be that I’ve not seen Heinlein’s equal at putting you there.
He made it the most real. And he did it in The Saturday Evening Post. I mean, he started in pulp fiction but he put it in The Saturday Evening Post. And that had never been done before. He created worlds of the future that John Q. Public or Joe Six-Pack or whatever you want to call the average American person, average American family, would have delivered to their door once a week and read.
In general, the great early authors of hard science fiction, I think, created a climate in which it became ultimately possible to talk about putting people in space, about going to the Moon, about going to Mars, without having people question your sanity. It didn’t have to be a fantasy, like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels, which of course were interesting and fantastic to read. But Heinlein and Clarke and others made it real. You could see how it could happen. It didn’t happen quite in those ways but you could see how it could happen.
In fact, it became a reasonable presidential response to a geopolitical conundrum to propose that the United States put a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth before this decade is out. That became a reasonable thing for a US president to stand up and say, and I don’t think that would have happened without the hard science fiction authors and I especially don’t think it could have happened without Heinlein’s contributions.
I think, I’m not sure that I completely recall, but I think the first time my novel that I read was The Man Who Sold the Moon, which of course, led immediately to The Green Hills of Earth, which was an anthology of short stories, most of which were published in The Saturday Evening Post. And I would say, even looking back on it now, was there ever a collection of short stories that made space development seem so logical, so real, so imminently possible? I mean, in a way, Heinlein made it seem humdrum, construction jobs in orbit, digging in on the Moon. And yet you knew, if you ever have done anything real yourself, whether it was sweeping the gym or were working on your bicycle as a kid, you knew that to do anything real, you were going to get your hands dirty. And Heinlein’s characters got their hands dirty.
He made it seem again real. I sometimes think that we, at NASA, should do so well today. But we can’t because Heinlein’s fine sense of place, of feeling, of ‘you are there’, to quote the title of a TV show in the 50’s hosted by Walter Cronkite. Heinlein’s sense of ‘you are there’ was the most unique of gifts. Again, I have not seen it better. Robert Heinlein made space a place. In fact, he made many places in space, places that people could envision, other people going or maybe even themselves going and that hadn’t been done before. And I think that’s the debt that we space professionals, looking at Heinlein’s career from a space professional’s knothole, I think that’s the debt that we owe and should recognize.
Now, Heinlein’s contribution didn’t end there. I mean, I’ve read all the collected Heinlein works, everything that at least is known to still exist, and it’s impossible to read his works without noticing or without seeing critical reviews that Heinlein is given to preaching in some of his, I would say, less elegant works. It becomes, well, not everybody has everyday in peak form, right? Every once and a while I make a bouncy landing. And when Heinlein bounced the landing, it was because he became a bit too didactic and a bit too preachy. And it sometimes it became obvious that the point of view of, point of interfering with the story, and, of course, one of Heinlein’s own credos was that first you had to tell a great story. Now, he was so good at that, that he could still tell a great story even when he went a bit over the line. But Robert Heinlein had a lot to say about morality and usually he said it through the lives of his heroes and usually he did it in a very soft and understated and elegant way by example rather than by preaching, by the way his heroes acted. You liked Heinlein’s people because of who they were and what they stood for.
So, Heinlein was a moralist, in my view, but what were his morals? Well, that’s very interesting because they weren’t those that would occur immediately to many, at least if the man’s character could be judged by his literature. I mean, for Heinlein, clearly, morality went beyond what church you attended or what god in which you believe if you attended a church and if you believe in God.
Heinlein’s morality went beyond counting how many sex partners a woman had and deciding whether she is a good woman or not based on that. Heinlein’s morality went beyond deciding what gender a person preferred. Things that are often cited to be the definition of morality or not, today, were not questions for Robert Heinlein, they were answers for individual people to supply for their own lives but not to be supplied by others.
So, what were the things that if you read the novels of Robert Heinlein carefully, or his non-fiction carefully, what would you conclude that the man believed and what would you conclude that you might take forward in your life? Well, I made a list of—I don’t have a written speech, I made some notes on some pieces of paper on the airplane ride out. That’s what I did. I mean, you could not read Heinlein’s novels without, I think, concluding that evidence in kindness to the weak or to the disadvantaged or to the infirm was a value. You couldn’t read them without inferring that charity to the needy, to those who need, was a good thing. You couldn’t read his novels without understanding that the man worshiped achievement and hard work necessary to get to it.
Another theme was self-sacrifice for the greater good when necessary. Keeping your word. Keeping your commitments. Getting an education and continuing to get an education. Respect for seniors, and notice I do not say respect for authority. [Laughter] Which is somewhat lacking in my own life. [Laughter] Minding one’s own business, understanding the requirement that human beings have for personal privacy and right they have to it. The need for formal politeness in social settings. We see far too little of that today, in what passes for civil discourse in politics, and we’ve reached the point where matters that many of us will think ought to be private, or which ought to be technical, are now being judged on the standards that one might use for religious arguments or art appreciation arguments, matters of opinion that should not be.
And finally, the goal of seeking wisdom, always. I think the strong theme that runs through Heinlein’s work is a goal of seeking greater wisdom, of being willing to change your mind in the face of new facts. If we can’t do that, then learning becomes impossible.
These are values. These are great values that I think are wisely passed along to any generation that will listen to them.
Finally, I think there was another contribution, and there may be more than I have seen, but another contribution I have noted in Heinlein’s works, which I would say, sort of, is subtitled Heinlein and critical thinking. If the first section of this talk was Heinlein and his base community and the second section was Heinlein and values, then I would say, Heinlein and critical thinking is the third theme I want to comment upon.
Because for the devoted Heinlein fan, which I became, and I spent my youth and actually up until the present moment, reading incessantly so, I read an awful lot of stuff but I tried not to miss anything by Heinlein. But, especially if you read a lot of other stuff, it quickly becomes apparent that Heinlein’s hard science fiction was in many ways a minor portion at his career. I think it was a minor portion of his career. And even those novels set in a space setting or having a space theme made space and the human frontier a stage for societal struggles and questions and conflicts between and among different values for living.
And that incredible gift that I mentioned earlier, the ability to make whatever he was writing about real and plausible served Heinlein well. He was given a gift with his DNA, and he paid that gift forward, in his phrase, to us with another gift, and that was the ability to portray, and the portrayal in his body of work, of alternate ways of living and a gift for making them seem so natural that someone not hopelessly imbued in their own culture could only, say, read them and say, “Well, you know, why not?” And maybe you wouldn’t choose to go there but you could say, “Why not,” because he had made his world a plausible world.
He could see and make you see the other side of nearly any question. And to me, that is the key first step in the development of the skill of critical thinking which is so crucial to life in a republic. We have elected and appointed leaders; for the nonce, I happen to be one of them. But America was built on the questioning of leadership well, and the questioning should be intelligently motivated. There’s a phrase I sometimes use that if I don’t know something about a topic, I’ll say, “I don’t have a right to an opinion on that.”
Heinlein’s work, implicitly, carries with it the ethos that you have to know something to be entitled to an opinion. Why and why not? Why not is the skill of critical thinking. Why and why not are poles apart in intellectual discourse and in their implications. The youngest child learns quickly to ask why. The acceptance of the answer or not tells you something about what that child’s future can be.
Anyone can ask why. Those who make the future are the ones who ask, “Why not?” Heinlein could make you ask that question. Through his novels, he could teach you critical thinking and that’s a valuable skill.
Again, Heinlein can see, could make you see anything in a favorable light. He had the skill of being able to paint anyone as a hero. At different times and in different novels, he painted common soldiers and supreme commanders as heroes. He painted aliens as heroes. He could a paint a prostitute as a hero and a home-and-apple-pie mom as a hero. He could paint a rogue and a scalawag as hero and a settled family man as a hero. He could treat beggars and tycoons with equal grace. He could even paint a government bureaucrat as a hero. [Laughter] [Applause] I mean, was there ever a more sympathetic hero than Mr. Kiku?
So, throughout Heinlein’s novels, throughout his body of work, there was a consistent theme, and that theme, if nothing else, that theme was that there’s not just one way to think and not just one way to do things, and the people should have the liberty and the right and privilege to choose their way. And that sometimes they would have to fight for that but that right is worth fighting for.
So, those are some things that I got from Robert Heinlein’s body of work and I’m pleased to have been able to be here to share them with you today. I promised my host that I would leave some time for questions if folks had them because I’m sure you’ll be shocked to find that when I go out in public with this current job that I have, I’m often asked a lot of questions. So, if I were to make some time available to you to do that, the floor is yours if you’re going to ask a question, I appreciate it if you’d say it loudly enough that I can hear it and I would appreciate if you’re going to ask a question, if you would actually ask a question rather than make a statement. Thanks.
Question: I heard that there’s a lot of problems with radiation especially primarily on a solar event. What is being done with all these?
Griffin: The question seems to be about radiation in deep space and what we’re doing about it. And that’s a very good question. It’s also very complex, so let me not try to beat it to death but let me try to give you some of the dimensionality of the question.
We do not have any significant experience based on the effect of heavy ions, meaning deep-space radiation, on human beings, or on animal issue of pretty much any kind. Some experiments have been down on the ground and we’ve got 12, 13 days of exposure.
But the Earth, Earth-orbiting astronauts are shielded from deep-space radiation, a goodly fraction of it by the Van Allen belts. So, that the radiation spectrum on space station is only about, only has about 25% commonality with what people will experience in deep space.
Worse than that, space is a medium of transit. When we go to the Moon, when we go to Mars, eventually, when we go to other places further out beyond that, they will each have their own radiation environments. The radiation environment of the Moon is created by spall and backscatter effects from heavy ions and solar protons events impacting on the surface of the Moon, which of course involves the lunar surface chemistry.
Same thing will be true on Mars, different chemistry. If we decide that the asteroid Ceres or the asteroid Vesta is a useful place for human occupancy, different chemistry. So, the radiation environments in the different places are not the same, and they’re not the same as deep space, and we know almost nothing about—that’s probably too strong—we know very little about any of them.
We’re going to learn, that we’re going to begin learning those things when we do start sending people to the Moon and letting them live there for six months periods and then rotating them back to Earth.
We will learn some of it on the space station and we’re going to have to put pieces together as we go. And in my mind, and I don’t mean to be—the medics would probably cringe, but in my mind it’s not dissimilar the way human beings had to learn about long—how to survive long, open ocean voyages without the proper compliment of vitamins. It was known when Captain Cook made his first voyages that sailors who eat sauerkraut, they wouldn’t get scurvy. And the British later discovered that lemons, which they call limes, will have the same effect with less unpleasant side effects. [Laughter] So, the British started carrying limes on board and that’s how we got the limeys but they learned by doing it and somehow we’re going to have to do it.
Question: Do you know of a way how magnetic shielding can help us?
Griffin: I don’t know what the future of magnetic shielding for radiation is going to be. So, let someone have a question. Thanks. In the back…
Question: Since the name of your talk is the “Future of NASA”, and this is the Heinlein Centennial, please give us one suggestion for how you would inculcate the values of Heinlein to the young generation now so that NASA becomes as important to the culture now as it used to be back in the 1950’s. Is that clear?
Griffin: It is clear, I don’t see it as my purpose to tell other people what their values have to be. [Laughter] So, that’s not one of my goals as administrator. I don’t know who put the title for that talk in the program but I never intended to talk about that. [Laughter] To get at the essence of your question, it is my belief, which means that I can’t prove it, but it is my belief that when young people see exciting and challenging endeavors as possibilities before them that many will join, that they will do the hard things necessary to be part of these endeavors.
Spaceflight, in all its forms, robotic and human, is the hardest thing that human beings do, when you add it all up. I mean, individual things are quite complex, I would not attempt to pass as a brain surgeon But when you add up the difficulty level in a variety of disciplines, it’s my observation that, technologically speaking, spaceflight is today the hardest thing that human beings do. So, it is one of the frontiers.
In my opinion, I have often stated through a series of policy mistakes, tracking back to the early 1970’s, the United States retreated from the frontier of space exploration and chose to concentrate on low Earth orbit. We’ve been doing that now for 35 years and I think that was a strategic mistake. I do take umbrage when the people blame NASA for that. NASA is an executing arm of the federal government. I don’t, and no prior administrator is allowed to just make up what we’re going to do. At best, I get a voice in the discussion, at best, and it’s not a majority voice. NASA takes instruction from the Congress and the President. Ultimately, those instructions reflect what those people believe will get them elected or re-elected. In the early 1960s, space was an election issue, it has not been since. I think it’s regrettable for our country, I think that’s regrettable for our culture and our society and the values that we hold, but it is so.
We’ve been given a very good vision—which I actually prefer the word “strategy”—by this President and by the last, previous Congress. If successive Presidents and Congresses realize that they have been given a good strategy, a good policy. a good set of words in a row to guide NASA’s execution, then the United States will reclaim, I think, its rightful course in space development, which is to be at the frontier. If future policy makers choose again to make the mistakes that were made in the 1970s, I will regret it but I must be realistic with you, there is very little that I can do about it.
Question: Are there any plans for studies of critical issues which are the building or designing of at least reusable lunar landers or at least the current design so that it can be modified very easily later to be reusable? And also the use of orbiting fuel depots in both Earth and lunar orbit based on the current Orbital Express technology.
Griffin: Well, I don’t know that it needs to be based on the Orbital Express technology, although that was a very successful mission, but yes, we are thinking critically about the utility of fuel depots and future architectures both around the Earth and around the Moon because you’re right, in the long run, I mean, I’ve written what we’re attempted to be learned papers on the topic and I mean, being grounded in economics. In the long run, we cannot have a usable and useful space exploration effort throwing everything away on each flight. So, yeah, we are looking at future reusability. A key to that is learning at an early time to begin mining oxygen from the Moon. For some decades, the most common propellant combination is going to be liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. Seven-eighths of that by weight is oxygen, and so you can make, you can get enormous leverage. If we never find water on the Moon you can get enormous leverage by mining oxygen and there are portions of the Moon where the lunar crust is 40% oxygen by weight and is 20 or 25% most everywhere.
So, we will need to be learning to do those things. The first step is getting there. I often talk about these kinds of problems and I try to paint a picture frame for people. And part of what I like people to understand is that we’re in our first 50 years of spaceflight. Well, an analogy that I like to use is that human beings, at least as far as we can tell from history, minor exceptions aside, human beings first began with very open ocean voyages initiated from Western Europe somewhere around A.D. 1000.—I’m not going to argue about the date, it’s irrelevant—with the Viking explorations.
So, fifty years into the first Viking explorations of open ocean voyages, how impressive do you think that was looking back? I mean, not very, right? So, we’ve been at this for a thousand years. And in the last 100 years, we’ve got into the point where human beings know how to build ships that are safe enough for open ocean voyages to that people will do them as entertainment, for travel and leisure. I mean, that’s an interesting thing to think about. So, we’ve been at spaceflight for 50 years. It’s going to take a little while to figure out how to get it right.
Question: Recently, I read a treatise from another science fiction writer which, regrettably, I’ve forgotten, and said that the almost incalculable distances between habitable planets would make it infeasible to pretty much ever colonize any other planet. I was curious what your feelings on it and whether we have a better chance at researching terraforming and staying within our local planets.
Griffin: I think that’s silly. I’m not going to comment on travel between the stars because that’s a little outside my understanding. But within the solar system, you have a rather immense set of material and energy resources available for the use of human beings if we wish to do it. At today's specific impulses of 450 seconds or so for in-space propulsion, it’s hard labor. It’s like Lewis and Clark trekking across the country and taking three years to do it and get back, or one of Captain Cook’s voyages.
Captain Cook’s first voyage in the Endeavour took three years. He set out with 94 people, he acquired a few more when he went and stopped in port, somewhere along the way, I think South America. He had 102 people on board, essentially, then when he really left, he started out. He lost 38 in these people. When he came back after three years, he was praised for his exceptional skill in husbanding his crew, which tells you something about how dangerous it was to do what they were doing, with sailing ships.
Now, using liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen as propulsion to sail the inner reaches of the solar system is like sailing to Australia in a wind-guided ship. We can do it, but just barely. We’re going to need nuclear propulsion and then after that we’re going to need better nuclear propulsion.
If we can figure out, and many authors have, technical authors have advance schemes for doing so, if we can figure out how to get specific impulses in the five to ten thousand second range, that opens up the entire inner solar system out to Jupiter or so, for human exploration in a modest manner.
It’s really a question of the energy resources and energy efficiencies that we can bring to bear on the target that tell us how far away something is. Australia today is a day away, less than 24 hours to Australia. It’s the same physical distance as it was when Captain Cook took three years to get there and back. So, it’s not how far it is, it’s what you have at your command to get there. I’m not ready to write the epitaph on what technology human beings are going to learn to master.
Question: I was curious what you guys are doing in regards to a mission to Europa. I notice that recently, it didn’t make the budget and what are your future plans on that?
Griffin: Well, it did make the budget. You’re looking at the wrong category. We’re enlarging the scope to an outer planets mission. Europa now, in light of discoveries made by Cassini at Saturn and particularly Titan and Enceladus, it seems a bit chauvinistic to focus only on Europa. Now, Europa may still be the target but what we wanted to do was to open it up to scientific peer review and consideration that the closest icy moon, which is Europa, may not be the easiest one to get to or may not be the most scientifically interesting. I mean, Enceladus is scouting water geysers, that may be more interesting. So, we thought we’d open the question up. So, we’re beginning the planning, we’re doing some competitive studies for an outer planets mission.
Question: I live about 200 miles down southeast of here, at the home of slapstick living and most of the folks down there are convinced that the Moon landing were a hoax, and wrestling’s real. [Laughter] Do you have any ideas on how to speak to these people?
Griffin: I don’t. [Laughter] [Applause] I mean, what can we say? I mean, all the guys who were still alive and a couple of the ones who are not have all become personal friends of mine, and in the intervening decades. I don’t think they’re lying to me. I just don’t. I don’t know what to tell people who say the Moon landings were a hoax.
Question: Well, I liked your previous answer about needing to work on some seriously advanced technologies to open up the rest of the solar system. It’s frustrating that, it seems from an external perspective so much of the NASA’s budget and NASA’s focus still on the trucking company and things like NAIC, NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, which really was the far-out concepts for 40 years from now, disappeared from the budget this year. Is there no way to carve out enough money to do the truly advanced stuff?
Griffin: I have a phrase that I use a lot, life is hard, then you die. Right now, nowhere in the country is there, to the best of my knowledge, a significant push, in any agency or department in the federal government, is there a significant push for advanced technology R&D in any field. I think that’s regrettable but it is so.
We consistently have advanced technology money. I won't say cut from our budget because our budget is going up. NASA’s budget in real dollar terms is on a slight upward glide path. But Congressional preferences and frankly even administration preferences over the last several administrations have been to focus on current missions and current capabilities rather than setting aside money for technology development.
I am authorized, which actually means required, in my budget to do more things than I have the money to pay for it. And we have—NASA has been committed by the President and the Congress to do more things than we have the money to pay for it. That is simply a fact. And so, I have to pay attention to nearer-term commitments, like it or not, and many people don’t, I mean, many do not, that I have to pay attention to near-term commitments that have been specifically called out in our authorizing and appropriating legislation such as finish the space station and do a certain array of science missions and so on and so forth.
In the 60s, we spent, in the decade of the 60s, we spent about 6% of the NASA budget on space and communications technology, and another 6% on advanced aeronautics technology. So that was a total of about 12% of our budget on technology.
We’re spending today about 3.1 or .2 percent of our budget on technology, most of that in aeronautics and I remind you again, I will spend the rest of my life reminding people, NASA doesn’t get to pick its agenda, you can believe it or not, you can like it or not, you know, I’ll give you a chit to talk to the chaplain, it’s just the fact. [Laughter]
Question: I was spending some time with the Rolling Stones this week—
Griffin: You would be my wife’s hero and that would be her fondest dream, spend time with the Rolling Stones.
Question: No, no, Heinlein’s Rolling Stones.
Griffin: Oh, that? Sorry. [Laughter]
Question: You’re going to the asteroids tomorrow?
Griffin: To where? Pardon?
Question: Is it tomorrow that Dawn launches?
Griffin: No, it has been postponed.
Question: OK, I missed that, but very soon I hope.
Griffin: We hope so too.
Question: What are your thoughts about people visiting an asteroid?
Griffin: I keep saying in speeches that I regard that the various asteroids including the near Earth, especially the near Earth asteroids, as being both a threat and opportunity. The threat is obvious: every century or so we get a small meteorite strike somewhere. They don’t always have to land in Siberia. So, we need to know what’s out there.
They’re an opportunity because if one wishes to create a spacefaring civilization, something like 20-25% of the asteroids so far surveyed are known to be the carbonaceous chondrite class and then another 5 or 10% are nickel-iron class, if I remember correctly and I don’t think I’m real far off. So anything in carbonaceous chondrite class has all kinds of interesting ices, methane ices, water ices, or any sort of volatile material out in space is very valuable.
So, they are an opportunity once one is off the surface of the Earth to avoid having to haul everything up from the surface of the Earth. Now, again to avail oneself of that opportunity requires quite a bit of capital equipment, quite a bit of infrastructure development. The locomotive was no use until outposts had been established in California and in Missouri and not only outposts but substantial cities and a transcontinental railroad could be built. It was completed, what, in 1869, or something like that.
Locomotives existed but were not useful in the settlement of the West before that time. And many historians have commented that the settling, true settlement of the West was made possible by the telegraph and the locomotive and everything up to that time was scouting expeditions. I think a similar analogy will play itself out in space over the next couple of centuries. My opinion, just an opinion.
Question: Probably the last one here.
Griffin: Last question.
Question: If you were to agree that NASA still has an ingrained “not-invented-here” culture, that that ought to change and that it’s harder to change than just telling people to stop it. What sort of thoughts do you have about how to go about that?
Griffin: I don’t agree. NASA does not have a not-invented-here culture. You misunderstand the nature of management when you make a remark like that. Managers have to hear information and make choices. There is an infinitude of choices, nearly, for every problem to be solved and even in the decision on what problem to take on. Some set of people would have to be appointed to the federal civil service or in another nation wherever they use for their euivalent to steward the resources which are provided for the accomplishment of the goals.
Choices have to be made. Every time somebody doesn’t like the choice which is made—every time somebody likes the choice which is made, you don’t hear from them. Every time someone doesn’t like the choice that is made, in whatever arena, they point to the person who is managing the portfolio for that arena and says, “He or she has not-invented-here attitude.” What that really means is, “They didn’t like my ideas as well as some other person’s idea or their own idea.”
Well, that’s always going to be true. All we’re doing—if they had picked your idea, then the other person would be upset. All we’re doing is determining what name goes on the ID card of the person who is upset. That’s all we’re doing, OK?
To run any program to reach a goal, choices must be made. Otherwise, note that making no choice is a choice, and all of those who disagree with the choice that is made, feel that whoever was in charge and made the choice, did so inappropriately, and was operating off of a not-invented-here framework, and didn’t want to listen to their ideas and wasn’t open to changing their minds, and so on and so forth. In individual cases, of course, that can be true. But, by and large, the people I work with at NASA are among the brightest people I’ve ever seen and they actually have a right to hold the opinions about how to do what they do that they do hold. And almost anybody, through public media or private correspondence or attendance at conferences or writing research papers or engineering papers, almost everyone who knows enough to be entitled to hold an opinion has an opportunity to make their case in a public forum. Good ideas, in the long run, sell themselves.
So, I don’t agree that the paradigm at NASA is “not invented here”. What I do believe is that responsible people are picked to accomplish jobs and at anytime a choice is made, it leaves a number of people disenfranchised and a number of people happy and the opposite choice would have had exactly the same effect and the only change would have been to the names of the people involved.
And I think that’s a perspective—pardon?
Question: Could you list two or three outside ideas that NASA adopted?
Griffin: Well, one of the NASA, one of the baseline ideas on going to Mars now is the idea of using the atmosphere and/or the soil to, in combination with nuclear reactors, to make one’s return propellant.
Another of the outside ideas that NASA has adopted and has become paradigmatic within the NASA is that we will use the resources of extraterrestrial objects like asteroids.
Another of the ideas that has been adopted from the outside is the idea that the Moon can be a learning ground for going to Mars. It’s not solely a destination in itself.
Another idea that came from outside NASA that has been wholly adopted is the possible utilization of whatever volatiles may be trapped at the lunar poles for the advancement of human settlement.
Another idea that came from outside NASA, actually it came from DOD and my shop in DOD when I was there, was the use of segmented mirrors in a phased array combination to generate a much larger aperture than any single mirror could do by itself. I mean, I could go on and on.
Individual people can and do pose problems, but if you have a better idea about how to do space flight that really is a better idea, you have an opportunity to make a public case to that.
It’s two o’clock. Thank you. [Applause] Thank you. So, thank you very much for having me here and have a good conference.