NASA's Griffin Takes SmallSat Conference to Talk Entrepreneurs, Budget Issues

LOGAN, Utah - There's abig role for small satellites in NASA's future, not only to create neededinfrastructure at the Moon and Mars, but also to help hone the technical andmanagerial skills of the agency's workforce.

NASAchief, Mike Griffin, flagged an array of issues he faces--from tight budgets,cost overruns, an aging employee base, to the role of space entrepreneurs andlow cost access to space--in kicking off on Monday the 20th AnnualConference on Small Satellites here at Utah State University.

Theweek-long conference is sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics andAstronautics and Utah State University, with the meeting focused on the past,present and future of small satellites.

Smallsat missions

Griffin spotlighted therole of NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) that has produceda new, more detailed picture of the infant universe by measuring the propertiesof 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 Orbiterin 2008, as well as future Scout missions at Mars.

"Smallsatellites are important. We are not abandoning them in the future," Griffin advised.

"Therewas 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 somethings size does matter," Griffin told over 850 attendees of the smallsatellite meeting--the largest in its history. "I think the thing is not to getlocked up on one particular class of spacecraft as the solution for all of ourproblems," 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 andother services.

"Weneed infrastructure in solar system space," Griffin said. In his view, amajority of that type of infrastructure is best served by using a plethora ofsmaller satellites rather than a few big ones, labeling it a distributedapproach using smaller satellites and not taking a "Battlestar Galactica"approach.

"It'smuch better to have a network of small satellites doing the same thing--each ofthem having an IP [Internet Protocol] address or the equivalent ... a networkthat's available at the click of a mouse button," Griffin explained.

Griffin said that thereare values the small satellite community brings to the space community as awhole--values not to be ignored, but seldom mentioned.

Smallsatellite missions should be viewed as training ground for young engineers, hesaid. Furthermore, they help coach program managers early as to appropriateamounts of process and bureaucracy needed to perform larger missions later in aperson's career.

Budget realities

Ina question and answer period, Griffin detailed NASA budget reality.

"Weare doing fewer missions of any kind that I would like ... and doing fewer smallmissions than I would like if I was in a well-ordered world," Griffin said.

"Ilive in a NASA world," Griffin added, one that is defined by the loss of spaceshuttle Columbia and an expenditure at last count of $2.7 billion dollars toreturn to flight, "without extra funding to do so."

Griffin said that heconcurs with the policy environment that NASA is now addressing, one that callsfor the completion of the International Space Station, retirement of theshuttle, and moving toward the Crew Exploration Vehicle.

However,the NASA head also pointed to the cost overrun of the James Webb SpaceTelescope (JWST).

"Ilive in a world where about 15 minutes after I walked in the door the JWSTcommunity presented me with a, shall we say, an under-funding of about $1.5billion dollars," Griffin said. He salutes the project as the highest prioritywithin the astronomy line at NASA and is determined to complete the telescopeproject, "but 1.5 billion comes from somewhere."

Theserealities are facts on the ground, Griffin said, "the world I live in." Headded that over the next few years "let's just all hang in there and do thebest we can."

COTS: gambling NASA's money

Griffin said he consideredhimself 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.

Ahalf billion dollars over the next four years is being applied by NASA as seedmoney to prime the pump for COTS.

"Ihave a lot of hope if we can get an existence proof in place of cheaper spacetransportation at any level," Griffin said, that it will then serve as a driveron market prices to get the cost of access to space down.

"I'musing the first market that NASA has ever had as the anchor market and thatmarket is space station resupply," Griffin explained. "I'm very much hopingthat the entrepreneurial space firms, some of them at any rate, can step up tothe challenge."

Butthe NASA administrator also said that situation is not a given.

"Therehave been some entrepreneurial space successes, but by and large I think it'sonly fair to point out that most of space entrepreneurship exists onviewgraphs," Griffin said.

"Thetime is right that if there is some NASA money on the table ... some of these entrepreneurscan step up," Griffin concluded.

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.