The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Griffin and Marburger
NASA administrator Mike Griffin (left) is thinking about commercialization and credibility within NASA, while presidential science advisor John Marburger (right) argues that exploration for exploration’s sake is insufficient. (credit: J. Foust)

Hoping for a reality tomorrow

Last week’s Goddard Memorial Symposium, held in the suburbs of Washington, DC, had the usual array of government officials, industry executives, and scientists as speakers. Among them were the two keynote speakers: NASA administrator Mike Griffin and John Marburger, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. It was not the first time either had addressed the symposium, as Marburger had delivered a keynote address there in 2006 and Griffin was making his third speech in as many years there (“I think you guys need to get a life,” Griffin joked at the beginning of his speech last week.) For both, though, it was probably their last opportunities to speak there in their current positions, barring the (unlikely) possibility either or both survives the transition to a new administration next January.

Given the circumstances, it would be tempting for both of them to look back at what they have accomplished in their jobs rather than look ahead to a future that will unfold after they have moved on. Yet look ahead is what they both did, each recalling one of the conference namesake’s most famous quotations: “It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.” However, their hopes for today were somewhat different, as Marburger, charged with a broad portfolio of science policy, took a wide-ranging, strategic view, while Griffin, responsible for implementing the national space exploration policy, tackled the subject from a more tactical aspect.

More commercialization, less conflict

Griffin, kicking off the conference Wednesday morning, discussed some of his “hopes for today” that he desires to become reality in the years to come. Not surprisingly, money was at the top of his list. “It is a fact that, as a matter of national policy spanning multiple administrations and Congresses, NASA just is not allocated the budget resources to accomplish all of the things that our many constituencies would like to see done,” he said. He credited the Bush Administration for allowing the NASA budget to keep pace with inflation, unlike, many other domestic programs, although he said those increases did not reverse “the reductions made in prior years”—a reference to the decline in NASA’s budget, when adjusted for inflation, through much of the Clinton Administration.

“Given what we know of NASA’s budget over the past several decades and what we might reasonably project, we can either bemoan the underfunding of our nation’s efforts, we can wallow in self-pity, or we can find some more productive and constructive approach to our problems,” said Griffin.

For those seeking much bigger increases in NASA funding, Griffin’s first “hope for today” is relatively modest: that NASA’s budget continue to increase at the rate of inflation for the next 50 years. Admitting that it’s “hardly inspirational rhetoric”, he said that level of funding can still achieve major goals in the years to come. “If we make the necessary strategic investments and maintain the sense of purpose that I find around the agency today, then we can indeed be back on the Moon by 2020, have a lunar base by mid-decade, and we can be on Mars by the mid-2030s,” he said.

“So, given what we know of NASA’s budget over the past several decades and what we might reasonably project, we can either bemoan the underfunding of our nation’s efforts, we can wallow in self-pity, or we can find some more productive and constructive approach to our problems,” he concluded. “I choose the latter.”

One of those more productive and constructive approaches he described was an increasing reliance on commercial services. “No one who has worked both in government and in the private sector can fail to note the efficiency of commercial operations as compared to those of government, when such comparisons are possible,” Griffin, who has worked in both the public and private sectors, said. He noted ongoing efforts like COTS and the recent contract to Zero G Corporation to provide parabolic flight services to NASA. On the latter point, he said that NASA would study in the coming months whether the agency should retain its own aircraft for such flights or rely instead exclusively on the private sector.

Griffin was also optimistic about the prospects for doing business with the emerging commercial suborbital spaceflight industry, noting the requests for information (RFIs) that NASA released the previous week about using those services, once available, for science and astronaut training. “I very much hope that NASA researchers and astronauts will be proactive in taking first advantage of such capabilities as they are developed by the nation’s entrepreneurs,” he said.

“The entrepreneurial commercial space endeavors that seem to be burgeoning in this country and maybe even elsewhere—I view them as almost unmitigated good,” Griffin said in response to a question after his speech. “We haven’t had too much government space; we’ve had not enough commercial space over the history of the space program.”

One area of concern for Griffin is the degree of divisiveness and self-interest he finds in some people in 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 people upset the carefully-planned priorities of the scientific communities, not to mention national policies as outlined by the White House and endorsed by Congress. “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.”

Related to that, Griffin said, has been efforts to proponents to downplay the risks and costs of their missions. “This is a matter of integrity for our community,” he said. “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 when NASA’s word “could be taken to the bank.” “Anyone here think it’s like that today? No show of hands for how great our credibility is?” No hands went up among the couple hundred people in the room. “Thought not.”

The purpose of exploration

While Griffin focused on credibility and commercialization, Marburger stepped back and took a broader look at space exploration in general. The president’s science advisor made waves at the conference a couple years ago when he said the debate about the Vision for Space Exploration was, at its heart, “whether we want to incorporate the Solar System in our economic sphere, or not.” Marburger covered much of the same ground in his keynote address Thursday morning. “My concept of the Vision hasn’t changed very much,” he said, “but there are still a lot of people out there who need to hear about it.”

“We haven’t had too much government space,” said Griffin. “We’ve had not enough commercial space over the history of the space program.”

Some of those people who Marburger feels need to hear it may be those who participated in a space exploration workshop held last month at Stanford University. At the end of the two-day event, the attendees issued a joint communiqué that outlined their conclusions. Marburger said he had no issues with some of their points, such as one that stated, “Sustained human exploration requires enhanced international collaboration and offers the United States an opportunity for global leadership.” He did, though, have issues with one of the points in that statement, which says, “It is time to go beyond LEO with people as explorers. The purpose of sustained human exploration is to go to Mars and beyond. The significance of the Moon and other intermediate destinations is to serve as steppingstones on the path to that goal.”

“The purpose of sustained human exploration is not ‘to go to Mars and beyond,’” Marburger countered. “The purpose of sustained human exploration is… to serve national and international interests. And I think of those interests as much broader than simply going somewhere and coming back.” He noted that the national space exploration policy calls for advancing “scientific, security, and economic interests” through exploration. “Exploration that is not in support of something else,” Marburger said, “strikes me as somehow selfish and unsatisfying.”

He also took issue with the final part of the same point of the communiqué, which stated that the Moon in particular was intended to be primarily a “steppingstone” to Mars. “The part that’s missing is the lesson of all the activity that we have now in low Earth orbit,” he said. “What are we going to do with those steppingstones once we’ve planted flags on Mars and beyond? I read in these points a narrowing, not an expansion, of the Vision for Space Exploration. They ignore the very likely possibility that operations on the Moon and other intermediate destinations will serve national and international destinations other than science, but including science as an important objective.”

Today’s commercial space industry has proven, he said, that space can be useful in ways that cannot be foreseen by its pioneers, and therefore space exploration plans much be crafted to make such applications possible. “You might say ‘well, of course such economically beneficial occupation would naturally occur if the exploration phase discovered something of commercial value,’” he said. “But that’s not the way it works. If the architecture of the exploration phase is not crafted with sustainability in mind, we will look back on a century or more of huge expenditures with nothing more to show for them than a litter of ritual monuments scattered across the planets and their moons.”

“The future I look for in the human space enterprise,” said Marburger, “is one in which exploration has long since ceased and our successors reap the benefits of the new territories.”

While expressing some big hopes for the future of space exploration, he avoided some of the hot topics in the space exploration field today. He said he was “uncomfortable” with the desires of some to press ahead directly with human Mars exploration. “We do not at this time know how to send humans to Mars and bring them back safely, and the enthusiastic and detailed concepts that are widely discussed do not dwell on the difficulties,” he said. “It is a logical destination, but much of what I read about how and when we can get there is unrealistic.”

Later, in the question-and-answer session, he downplayed any thought of an emerging space race between the US and China, and expressed concerns about the effect a reaction to any major Chinese accomplishments would have on American activities. “We ought to try as hard as we can to exert a discipline on ourselves not to overreact, not to see in these various efforts by other nations opportunities to make a quick hit in some way, a quick splash of our own, and spend a lot of money and not get enough for it for the future,” he said. That tied into his prepared remarks, where he noted that the Apollo program “was not sustained, and its rapid demise created serious long-term difficulties for NASA and the entire space program.”

Throughout his speech he returned to his core argument, that exploration was not an end in and of itself, but rather a means to a broader, sustainable future for humanity in space. “Exploration by a few is not the grandest achievement,” Marburger said. “Occupation by many is grander.” (Although he added that by “occupation” he did not necessarily mean settlement but instead “routine access to resources”.) “The future I look for in the human space enterprise is one in which exploration has long since ceased and our successors reap the benefits of the new territories.”