LOGAN, Utah - There's a big role for small satellites in NASA's future, not only to create needed infrastructure at the Moon and Mars, but also to help hone the technical and managerial skills of the agency's workforce.
NASA chief, Mike Griffin, flagged an array of issues he faces--from tight budgets, cost overruns, an aging employee base, to the role of space entrepreneurs and low cost access to space--in kicking off on Monday the 20th Annual Conference on Small Satellites here at Utah State University.
The week-long conference is sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Utah State University, with the meeting focused on the past, present and future of small satellites.
Griffin spotlighted the role of NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) that has produced a new, more detailed picture of the infant universe by measuring the properties of the cosmic microwave background radiation over the full sky.
Similarly, Griffin pointed to the Reuven Ramaty High-Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (RHESSI) satellite and its delving into the secrets of solar flares. Highlighted too was the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) set to launch as a hitchhiker craft onboard NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2008, as well as future Scout missions at Mars.
"Small satellites are important. We are not abandoning them in the future," Griffin advised.
"There was a time when the only satellites the United States could put up were small. And when we had more capability we started doing bigger things ... and for some things size does matter," Griffin told over 850 attendees of the small satellite meeting--the largest in its history. "I think the thing is not to get locked up on one particular class of spacecraft as the solution for all of our problems," he explained.
Infrastructure in solar system space
Looking at the Moon, Mars, and beyond agenda now being tackled by NASA, Griffin pointed to the need for small satellites to handle communications, navigation and other services.
"We need infrastructure in solar system space," Griffin said. In his view, a majority of that type of infrastructure is best served by using a plethora of smaller satellites rather than a few big ones, labeling it a distributed approach using smaller satellites and not taking a "Battlestar Galactica" approach.
"It's much better to have a network of small satellites doing the same thing--each of them having an IP [Internet Protocol] address or the equivalent ... a network that's available at the click of a mouse button," Griffin explained.
Griffin said that there are values the small satellite community brings to the space community as a whole--values not to be ignored, but seldom mentioned.
Small satellite missions should be viewed as training ground for young engineers, he said. Furthermore, they help coach program managers early as to appropriate amounts of process and bureaucracy needed to perform larger missions later in a person's career.
In a question and answer period, Griffin detailed NASA budget reality.
"We are doing fewer missions of any kind that I would like ... and doing fewer small missions than I would like if I was in a well-ordered world," Griffin said.
"I live in a NASA world," Griffin added, one that is defined by the loss of space shuttle Columbia and an expenditure at last count of $2.7 billion dollars to return to flight, "without extra funding to do so."
Griffin said that he concurs with the policy environment that NASA is now addressing, one that calls for the completion of the International Space Station, retirement of the shuttle, and moving toward the Crew Exploration Vehicle.
However, the NASA head also pointed to the cost overrun of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
"I live in a world where about 15 minutes after I walked in the door the JWST community presented me with a, shall we say, an under-funding of about $1.5 billion dollars," Griffin said. He salutes the project as the highest priority within the astronomy line at NASA and is determined to complete the telescope project, "but 1.5 billion comes from somewhere."
These realities are facts on the ground, Griffin said, "the world I live in." He added that over the next few years "let's just all hang in there and do the best we can."
COTS: gambling NASA's money
Griffin said he considered himself as "one of the change agents" in turning to the talents of entrepreneurial space firms. This Friday, NASA will unveil its strategy with private space companies to provide commercial orbital transportation services, better known as COTS.
A half billion dollars over the next four years is being applied by NASA as seed money to prime the pump for COTS.
"I have a lot of hope if we can get an existence proof in place of cheaper space transportation at any level," Griffin said, that it will then serve as a driver on market prices to get the cost of access to space down.
"I'm using the first market that NASA has ever had as the anchor market and that market is space station resupply," Griffin explained. "I'm very much hoping that the entrepreneurial space firms, some of them at any rate, can step up to the challenge."
But the NASA administrator also said that situation is not a given.
"There have been some entrepreneurial space successes, but by and large I think it's only fair to point out that most of space entrepreneurship exists on viewgraphs," Griffin said.
"The time is right that if there is some NASA money on the table ... some of these entrepreneurs can step up," Griffin concluded.
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