NASA's Griffin Has High Expectations for Space Entrepreneurs

LOGAN, Utah - NASA later todaywill announce winners in the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS)demonstration effort. Those picked are to develop and demonstrate services that couldpave the way for contracts to launch and deliver crew and cargo to theInternational Space Station.

TheCOTS initiative is an innovative step for NASA. It will be followed in theweeks to come by selection of a prime contractor to build the post-shuttle CrewExploration Vehicle (CEV).

Inan exclusive interview earlier this week, NASA Administrator, Mike Griffin, spoketo prior to his kickoff speech at the 20th AnnualConference on Small Satellites being held here at Utah State University.

Griffin addressed a rangeof space topics, including entrepreneurial space groups, the CEV, and thevulnerability of the space shuttle fleet.

Baseline plan

Boththe COTS effort and the CEV are programs represent turning points for NASA.

Inthis regard, Griffin spotlighted the role of the CEV as a beyond-Earth exploration vehicle, but also its job inflying to the International Space Station.

"PerPresidential policy statement, the CEV can also be used to ferry astronauts andcargo 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 acouple of purely commercial enterprises that can step up to the space stationlogistics task."

Spacestation logistics starts with cargo, Griffin said, with transporting crew as thereal prize. Given the availability of that commercial capacity, it should be cheaper thangovernment capability, Griffin explained. "If it isn't we won't buy it," he said.

"Sowhen, if, and as commercial capability becomes available in the post 2010 timeframe, that's our baseline plan for dealing with station logistics," Griffinstressed.

TheCEV will be utilized for station tasks very sparingly, Griffin said. "Our goal isto enable the commercial sector to take care of that...that's the plan."

Relinquishing control

Thestrategy to make use of commercial providers for the station meansrelinquishing control of a current NASA role. But playing the commercial cardis not a given.

"Wecan'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.

Asfor how well the COTS initiative worked overall, Griffin said he had verylimited engagement with the process.

"Ihope 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'sCOTS effort will yield a status report on the overall health of entrepreneurialspace in the United States.

"I'vesaid many times that I think--obviously by the fact that I'm gambling a half-billiondollars here--commercial space has a pretty strong supporter in me as NASAAdministrator," Griffin said. "This is something that I really, really, reallywant to do."

But Griffin added that thegovernment can only put out an incentive. "We cannot make an arms-lengthcommercial arrangement come into being. So I hope it comes true. But so farwhat we have from entrepreneurs--with a couple of exceptions--is mostlyviewgraphs."

"Idon't even mean that in a disparaging way," Griffin continued. "Every real piece ofhardware has to start with an idea. So we're offering our money as an incentiveto translate from idea to reality. My hope is that the entrepreneurs who havebeen saying that they can step up, step up."

WhileGriffin said this hope is heartfelt, he added: "If it doesn't work, I've frankly made the wrong bet ... witha good amount of money that we could have used for other purposes if theentrepreneurial sector is, in fact, not able to step up."

Beyond PowerPoint

Inregards to entrepreneurs who are "beyond PowerPoint", Griffin salutedSpaceShipOne lead designer, Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites in Mojave, California.

"Frankly,I really wish them all well. Because if we don't get classic Americanindustrial entrepreneurship involved in the space business it's not going to bewhat it can be," Griffin said.

Lookingback into aviation past to today, Griffin pointed out that thegovernment-industry partnership that existed was a generator of great progress.

"Ithink the space business has not progressed as rapidly as did aviation, in part,because we didn't have that industrial entrepreneurship. Space from the firstwas viewed as more of a government-only activity. Frankly, I deplore thatview," Griffin emphasized.

Griffin said he abhorsthat view because it was allowed to stay in place. "It represented a lostopportunity ... and I think it represented bad policy," he said.

Nowthe stated policy of the U.S. Government is to make available opportunities forentrepreneurship in space, Griffin stated. "Both the Congress and the WhiteHouse want us to do this and I'm completely behind it."

String of shuttle flights

Puttingaside COTS and CEV, another key Griffin assignment is retiring by 2010 anaging space shuttle program.

Meanwhile,preparations are now underway at the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida to fly shuttleAtlantis and its six-person crew to the International Space Station--departingon a target date of August 27. It will be NASA's third shuttle mission since thetragic loss of shuttle Columbia and crew on February 1, 2003.

Concerningthe future of the space shuttle fleet and its string of coming flights, Griffin is pragmatic.

"Ifwe had some hiccup in a [space station] assembly sequence," Griffin said, "let's notbe silly, of course the program's not over. But if we had another major shuttleaccident, I cannot envision using the shuttle to finish the station."

Asa for instance, if a shuttle orbiter fails to deploy its landing gear upontouchdown, damaging the vehicle but not hurting the crew, Griffin said NASAwould then press on.

"Butat the same time I'm reluctant to provide a lot more in detail because thereare too many different kinds of categories. We have to evaluate what happens asit 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 beoverruled."

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

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.