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Former NASA administrator Mike Griffin, speaking at the Mars Society conference in Dayton, Ohio, on Friday, criticized many aspects of the White House’s plans for NASA. (credit: J. Foust)

Griffin’s critique of NASA’s new direction

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Former NASA administrators are not generally known for being outspoken about space policy after their tenures running the agency. They tend to go on to other pursuits, often outside of space entirely, rarely holding forth on NASA in any public capacity. Sean O’Keefe focused his attention first on running a university, LSU, and more recently as an aerospace executive, emphasizing the “aero” more than the “space”. His predecessor, Dan Goldin, was NASA administrator for nearly a decade but virtually dropped out of sight afterwards, beyond the odd situation in late 2003 when he was selected to become president of Boston University only to have his contract bought out immediately before he was to take office.

Griffin summarized his opinion of the White House plan for NASA in a single sentence: “We’re not going anywhere and we’re going to spend a lot of money doing it.”

Mike Griffin, however, is not content to remain quiet during this period of upheaval in space policy. The administrator who oversaw the formation and initial development of the Constellation architecture—most notably the Ares 1 rocket and Orion capsule—is clearly not happy to see the White House and even Congress willing to dismantle part or all it in favor of a new approach to human space exploration. Speaking Friday at the Thirteenth Annual International Mars Society Convention in Dayton, Ohio, Griffin made perhaps his strongest criticism yet of the administration’s plans, as well as described what he thinks a space program should do.

Spending money going nowhere

Griffin started his speech by first reviewing the administration’s proposed plan for NASA, and his take on it—which, not unexpectedly, wasn’t particularly positive. One area of concern he expressed was the plan by the White House to defer a decision on a heavy-lift vehicle (HLV) to no later than 2015. “I would ask you to note the timing,” Griffin said: a 2015 decision would come near the end of President Obama’s second and final term (assuming he wins reelection in 2012), and thus the funding decisions would be put in the lap of his successor. “By the time there was any budget year that would actually have to support the development of a real heavy-lift rocket, the president who is promising to do it will be gone,” he said.

Griffin also suggested that the plan didn’t put much thought into the decision to defer a human return to the Moon in favor of a mission to a near Earth asteroid by 2025. The made that choice, he suggested, “apparently without realizing that the delta-V to get to almost all asteroids is higher than the delta-V to get to Mars” with similarly long travel times and limited launch windows. “In a number of ways reaching asteroids can be harder than reaching Mars.”

He was skeptical of the plan’s emphasis on “gamechanging” technologies to enable human space exploration. “Any time I develop a new technology I potentially change someone’s game,” he said. “Without a plan, I don’t know what game, I don’t know if it’s the game I ought to be changing, or if it’s a high-value game or a low-value game, but I’m going to change something, so it’s pretty easy to promise that I’ll do gamechanging technologies.”

He added that such technology development programs can be prime targets for future budget cuts, either by the Office of Management and Budget or in Congress. “The Congress surgically removes those programs and spreads the money to goals that they have in mind,” he claimed. “No congressman or senator ever gets credit for a technology program. Congressmen and senators get credit for projects.”

“If you can’t beat the government deal you shouldn’t be in business, and if you can beat the government deal I ought to get the best deal that you can make as an American taxpayer,” Griffin said of commercial crew providers.

Griffin summarized his opinion of the White House plan for NASA in a single sentence: “We’re not going anywhere and we’re going to spend a lot of money doing it.” He referred to a 2007 essay he wrote for Aviation Week where he concluded that the agency actually received more inflation-adjusted funding in its last 15 years than it did in its first 15. “The US space program has not accomplished as much in its last 15 years as in its first 15 years, given more money,” he said. “So, if you like that, you’ll really like the next decade, in which we do almost nothing and spend just as much.”

Government vs. commercial human spaceflight

Much of his speech addressed one of the biggest areas of debate about the White House’s plan: its reliance on commercial providers for transporting astronauts to and from LEO. Doing so, and in the process abandoning the government capability to do so, is unwise for a number of reasons, he argued in his speech.

“As a matter of national strategic posture and purpose—national position in the world—I consider this to be regrettable,” he said. “I believe that our civil space program does provide strategic value for the United States and our partners and allies” by doing something that makes countries around the world partner with us. Abandoning the “the most basic and functional thing one can imagine” for the program, the ability to put people in orbit, “is strategically unwise.”

Griffin had more specific concerns about relying on commercial providers without any sort of government backup vehicle. One is the worry about the loss of access to space should a commercial provider have an accident. “How does the provider stay in business?” he asked, if the damages created by the accident exceed the value of the company. He also noted that if only a single commercial crew provider emerges, it could charge NASA exorbitant rates since the agency would have nowhere else to turn. “How do we protect ourselves from monopoly pricing?”

One solution he had to those concerns was to continue development of a government human spaceflight system, one that would be a backup if a commercial provider had an accident—or never entered service at all—of and also protect against monopoly pricing if there’s only one provider. “If there’s a government capability, then we’re okay,” he said.

He was particularly critical of unnamed companies that he claimed wanted protection from government competition while at the same time seeking a variety of support from the government. “Why is there a threat from a government provider of human spaceflight services by putative commercial providers?” he asked. “If you can’t beat the government deal you shouldn’t be in business, and if you can beat the government deal I ought to get the best deal that you can make as an American taxpayer.”

Those companies, he claimed, were really trying to get all the advantages of both commercial business practices and standard government contracting. “How is it a commercial enterprise if the government is providing upfront money, if the only market that is foreseen of any size is the government market, and if the government has to indemnify the company against egregious losses in order to keep the company in business?” he said.

He emphasized, though, that his criticism of commercial crew transportation did not mean that he was against commercial spaceflight, only that the current policy had made it an “either-or choice” versus government human spaceflight. “We seem to be setting up for an adversarial position between government enterprises and commercial enterprises, something that would serve us extremely poorly if it were allowed to continue,” he said. In other fields, like aviation, government and commercial entities coexist, and government makes considerable use of commercial aviation, but, he added, “The government does not choose, when strategic purposes are at stake, to give up its own capability to favor commercial contracts exclusively.”

What is a real space program?

During the question-and-answer session following his speech Griffin acknowledged the House and Senate NASA authorization legislation working its way through Congress (the full Senate passed its version by unanimous on Thursday night) that roll back some of the administration’s proposed changes. Even though the House version arguably is closer to Griffin’s original vision for Constellation—calling for the development of a crew launch vehicle and spacecraft first, whereas the Senate version provides for immediate development of an HLV—he took no stand on one versus the other. “Either one—both of those bills are, in my view, radically better than the administration’s plan,” he said. “They’re not as good, in my view, as we had, but radically better than the administration’s plan.”

“Does this nation want to have a real space program or not?” Griffin asked. (“Yes!” at least one person in the audience shouted.)

He did appear to take issue, though, with the Senate’s plans for an HLV that would place as little as 70 tons into LEO. “The question is what payload do you need for human exploration,” he said, noting that various studies concluded that the Saturn V “was about the lowest useful capability for exploration beyond LEO.” The Saturn V, of course, could put about 130 tons into LEO, nearly twice the capacity of the proposed vehicle in the Senate bill (although the bill's intent is that vehicle could be upgraded later to launch heavier payloads).

Towards the end of his speech, Griffin turned away from his criticism of the White House’s NASA plan and looked at the big picture. The fundamental issue of the ongoing debate, he said, is this: “Does this nation want to have a real space program or not?” (“Yes!” at least one person in the audience shouted.) “A real space program goes somewhere, goes somewhere worthy, it does something worthy when it gets there. It does it in a timeframe that is of interest to normal human beings.” And, he added later, in a subtle reference to the funding problems he experienced with Constellation during his tenure as administrator, “we’re going to pay for it. We don’t decide that we’re going to do it on half of what people tell you is needed.”

But what is the driving purpose for having a “real” space program? “What is the role in a democratic society of a government-funded space program?” he asked. He agreed with the rationale provided in the Augustine Committee’s final report, that human presence should be expanded into the solar system, providing “leadership on the frontier of human progress,” as he put it.

“There are unspoken larger issues about which we need to speak, and are not,” such as the purpose of a space program, Griffin said of contemporary space policy debate. Griffin made it clear Friday that he, at least, is willing to talk about them.