NASA's Griffin Has High Expectations for Space Entrepreneurs
LOGAN, Utah - NASA later today will announce winners in the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration effort. Those picked are to develop and demonstrate services that could pave the way for contracts to launch and deliver crew and cargo to the International Space Station.
The COTS initiative is an innovative step for NASA. It will be followed in the weeks to come by selection of a prime contractor to build the post-shuttle Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV).
In an exclusive interview earlier this week, NASA Administrator, Mike Griffin, spoke to SPACE.com prior to his kickoff speech at the 20th Annual Conference on Small Satellites being held here at Utah State University.
Griffin addressed a range of space topics, including entrepreneurial space groups, the CEV, and the vulnerability of the space shuttle fleet.
Both the COTS effort and the CEV are programs represent turning points for NASA.
In this regard, Griffin spotlighted the role of the CEV as a beyond-Earth exploration vehicle, but also its job in flying to the International Space Station.
"Per Presidential policy statement, the CEV can also be used to ferry astronauts and cargo to and from the space station. If we have to do that with it we will," Griffin noted. "But ... given the lead time we've got, we would like to have in place at least a couple of purely commercial enterprises that can step up to the space station logistics task."
Space station logistics starts with cargo, Griffin said, with transporting crew as the real prize. Given the availability of that commercial capacity, it should be cheaper than government capability, Griffin explained. "If it isn't we won't buy it," he said.
"So when, if, and as commercial capability becomes available in the post 2010 time frame, that's our baseline plan for dealing with station logistics," Griffin stressed.
The CEV will be utilized for station tasks very sparingly, Griffin said. "Our goal is to enable the commercial sector to take care of that...that's the plan."
The strategy to make use of commercial providers for the station means relinquishing control of a current NASA role. But playing the commercial card is not a given.
"We can't make a commercial sector come into being. I can incentivize it," he said, at the tune of about half billion dollars over the next several years.
As for how well the COTS initiative worked overall, Griffin said he had very limited engagement with the process.
"I hope it has gone well for both the government guys and the commercial sector. It's my intent that it went well," Griffin said.
Griffin agreed that NASA's COTS effort will yield a status report on the overall health of entrepreneurial space in the United States.
"I've said many times that I think--obviously by the fact that I'm gambling a half-billion dollars here--commercial space has a pretty strong supporter in me as NASA Administrator," Griffin said. "This is something that I really, really, really want to do."
But Griffin added that the government can only put out an incentive. "We cannot make an arms-length commercial arrangement come into being. So I hope it comes true. But so far what we have from entrepreneurs--with a couple of exceptions--is mostly viewgraphs."
"I don't even mean that in a disparaging way," Griffin continued. "Every real piece of hardware has to start with an idea. So we're offering our money as an incentive to translate from idea to reality. My hope is that the entrepreneurs who have been saying that they can step up, step up."
While Griffin said this hope is heartfelt, he added: "If it doesn't work, I've frankly made the wrong bet ... with a good amount of money that we could have used for other purposes if the entrepreneurial sector is, in fact, not able to step up."
In regards to entrepreneurs who are "beyond PowerPoint", Griffin saluted SpaceShipOne lead designer, Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites in Mojave, California.
"Frankly, I really wish them all well. Because if we don't get classic American industrial entrepreneurship involved in the space business it's not going to be what it can be," Griffin said.
Looking back into aviation past to today, Griffin pointed out that the government-industry partnership that existed was a generator of great progress.
"I think the space business has not progressed as rapidly as did aviation, in part, because we didn't have that industrial entrepreneurship. Space from the first was viewed as more of a government-only activity. Frankly, I deplore that view," Griffin emphasized.
Griffin said he abhors that view because it was allowed to stay in place. "It represented a lost opportunity ... and I think it represented bad policy," he said.
Now the stated policy of the U.S. Government is to make available opportunities for entrepreneurship in space, Griffin stated. "Both the Congress and the White House want us to do this and I'm completely behind it."
String of shuttle flights
Putting aside COTS and CEV, another key Griffin assignment is retiring by 2010 an aging space shuttle program.
Meanwhile, preparations are now underway at the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida to fly shuttle Atlantis and its six-person crew to the International Space Station--departing on a target date of August 27. It will be NASA's third shuttle mission since the tragic loss of shuttle Columbia and crew on February 1, 2003.
Concerning the future of the space shuttle fleet and its string of coming flights, Griffin is pragmatic.
"If we had some hiccup in a [space station] assembly sequence," Griffin said, "let's not be silly, of course the program's not over. But if we had another major shuttle accident, I cannot envision using the shuttle to finish the station."
As a for instance, if a shuttle orbiter fails to deploy its landing gear upon touchdown, damaging the vehicle but not hurting the crew, Griffin said NASA would then press on.
"But at the same time I'm reluctant to provide a lot more in detail because there are too many different kinds of categories. We have to evaluate what happens as it happens," Griffin continued. "But if we have another Challenger or Columbia type accident I think the program's done. Of course, I could be overruled. I live every day knowing that I can be overruled."
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