The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews
 

NSRC 2020

 
Griffin
Mike Griffin addressed NASA commercialization efforts in a speech at NASA Headquarters on December 5. (credit: J. Foust)

Griffin’s commercialization legacy

When the Bush Administration nominated Mike Griffin to be NASA administrator in March 2005, the space community anticipated that he would take special interest in efforts to promote the commercial space industry. Unlike his predecessor, Sean O’Keefe, whose career had been primarily in government and academia, Griffin spent significant time in industry, including a stint with the American Rocket Company (AMROC), a proto-NewSpace company from the 1980s, and as president of In-Q-Tel, a company that effectively serves as the venture capital arm of the CIA. As noted in this publication at the time of his nomination, “his experience bodes well for those who would like to see such [entrepreneurial] ventures play a bigger role in NASA’s programs.” (see “Getting to know Michael Griffin”, The Space Review, March 14, 2005)

Now, by most accounts, Griffin’s tenure at NASA is nearing an end. Unless the incoming administration elects to keep Griffin at the agency—an unlikely but not impossible turn of events—Griffin’s likely last major public statement on NASA’s commercialization efforts was made at a largely-overlooked speech Friday at NASA Headquarters during a ceremony to honor Armadillo Aerospace for winning one of the prizes in the Lunar Lander Challenge, one of NASA’s Centennial Challenges prize competitions. In that address Griffin made the case for not just what the agency should be doing to support commercial space efforts, but also why.

Parabolic and suborbital commercialization

Griffin’s speech, while largely a review of ongoing efforts, did contain some new developments. One was in the area of commercializing parabolic flight services for reduced and microgravity work. NASA operates a C-9 aircraft, dubbed the “Weightless Wonder”(but more popularly, if infamously, known as the “Vomit Comet”) that is used to train astronauts and perform experiments. A few years ago a commercial venture, Zero Gravity Corporation or ZERO-G, started performing similar flights for almost anyone who can pay the $4,950 price. ZERO-G also started to pursue providing similar flights for NASA.

“Tests aren’t yet complete, but project managers are confident that ZERO-G can meet our needs,” Griffin said. “Thus, we’re planning for the transition of all microgravity flight activities from the NASA C-9 to commercial aircraft.”

Early this year NASA awarded ZERO-G a one-year contract, with multiple one-year options, for parabolic flight services. Griffin said in his speech that ZERO-G has since performed a number of test flights to demonstrate their capabilities, in several cases flying experiments funded by NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.

“Tests aren’t yet complete, but project managers are confident that ZERO-G can meet our needs,” Griffin said. “Thus, we’re planning for the transition of all microgravity flight activities from the NASA C-9 to commercial aircraft.” The C-9 will be retained for space shuttle training work, and as a backup to ZERO-G, but Griffin said that “our primary path will be commercial.”

Griffin also discussed NASA’s interest in purchasing flight services from the emerging commercial suborbital industry, for applications ranging from scientific research to astronaut training. Griffin spoke the same day that two requests for information (RFI) were due to the agency on human-tended suborbital science and other research that could be performed in this emerging class of vehicles. NASA is also hosting a workshop on human-tended suborbital science on December 15 in San Francisco, timed to coincide with the American Geophysical Union meeting being held there.

Despite these efforts, as well as positive comments about the concept made by Griffin in a speech in March (see “Hoping for a reality tomorrow”, The Space Review, March 10, 2008), some in the industry have been concerned that NASA has been dragging its heels on this, particularly after one of its biggest proponents, former NASA associate administrator Alan Stern, left the agency earlier this year. His successor, Ed Weiler, was perceived to be less enthusiastic about the concept, noting the limited response to a similar RFI earlier in the year.

Griffin, though, indicated that he continued to support the idea of purchasing such services when companies start flying. “When the capability becomes available, we will purchase seats for various science payloads, microgravity experiments, and perhaps even astronaut training,” he said. “We’re not interested in doing ‘junk science’ just to fly it, and we’re not interested in subsidizing suborbital space tourism development as we are, in the same fashion, doing with COTS… But we do plan to leverage this new capability when it emerges to improve the science that we can conduct as we do today on sounding rocket missions or to lower our costs. You should see more about this initiative in next year’s budget request.”

Defending COTS’s cargo emphasis

NASA’s biggest commercialization effort during Griffin’s tenure, though, has involved the resupply of the International Space Station (ISS). Griffin discussed his plans for what would become the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program in a speech a couple months after becoming administrator, one where he said that “both sides have to have skin in the game,” eschewing traditional government procurement for agreements that involved progress payments for achieving milestones in the development of systems.

“While I certainly wish I had more money to invest in developing COTS crew capability… I think it’s unwise to raid other accounts to increase our bet on COTS crew capability,” Griffin said.

The overall success of COTS won’t be clear for several years to come, but it has clearly attracted the interest of industry. SpaceX continued to make progress on its funded Space Act Agreement under the COTS program with the development of its Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 launcher, while Orbital Sciences Corporation, which won a similar agreement earlier this year after NASA terminated a prior agreement with Rocketplane Kistler, is ramping up its work on its Cygnus spacecraft and Taurus 2 rocket. Both companies, along with a PlanetSpace-led team that includes several major aerospace companies, are competing for the follow-on Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, scheduled to be awarded on December 23.

One area where at least some in industry have differed with NASA is on the program’s emphasis on cargo over crew transportation. The original COTS program included an option for crew transportation, known as Capability D, that NASA has not exercised. Proponents of “COTS-D” have argued that developing a crew transportation capability opens up new markets for providers in addition to servicing the ISS, something that cargo-only vehicles don’t offer (see “The COTS conundrum”, The Space Review, July 28, 2008)

In Friday’s speech, though, Griffin defended the emphasis on cargo. “I’ve been asked on many occasions for my opinion on commercial crew transportation to ISS,” he noted, then went on to explain that cargo is “our more critical need”. According to his logic, there is already a means for getting crew to and from the station once the shuttle is retired—the Russian Soyuz vehicle, for which NASA recently extended a contract with the Russian Space Agency for flights to the station in 2011–2012—but “we don’t currently have a method of getting cargo to space station, and we can’t support crew without cargo.”

On the surface that statement seems a little puzzling, since there are today vehicles that can provide cargo to the ISS: the Russian Progress vehicle and ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), with Japan’s H-2 Transfer Vehicle (HTV) under development. However, Griffin appeared to be referring to the anticipated shortfall in cargo capability to the station once the shuttle is retired even when those vehicles are taken into account, particularly given the needs of a six-person crew.

“While I certainly wish I had more money to invest in developing COTS crew capability—along with many other things I wish I had more money for—I think it’s unwise to raid other accounts to increase our bet on COTS crew capability,” Griffin said.

The value of prizes

Given that Friday’s speech was part of a ceremony to honor the winner of a NASA-funded prize competition, it was little surprise that Griffin also talked about the prize competitions, both in general and NASA’s Centennial Challenges effort in particular. Prizes have captured considerable interest in the space community—and elsewhere—in recent years, thanks in large part to the $10-million Ansari X Prize and the attention it garnered. That effort not only led to NASA’s own prize program, but also new interest in even bigger prizes, including prizes in the range of $5–10 billion for human missions to the Moon or Mars.

“Those of us on the government side of the space business must recognize a fundamental truth: if our experiment in expanding human presence beyond the Earth is to be sustainable in the long run, it must ultimately yield profitable results, or there must be a profit to be made by supplying those who explore to fulfill other objectives.”

Griffin said he favored the use of prizes in general, but not the proposals for billion-dollar Mars prizes. “For example, I think it would be fruitless for the American taxpayer to sponsor multi-billion-dollar prizes for manned missions back to the Moon or to Mars as some prominent members of the chattering class have suggested,” he said, an apparent reference to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has proposed such prizes before. “The high upfront cost and technical complexity of such missions to me renders them unrealistic for a private concern to undertake at this time. It’s an interesting thought experiment, but it’s not an idea which would gain much traction in the real world, in my opinion.”

He added that if establishing a human presence on the Moon was a national priority, the US government should be actively pursuing it. “We should not establish a prize for the accomplishment and then sit back and wait to see whether or not it is claimed,” he said. “We should either care enough to make it happen, or not bother.”

So when are prizes most effective for NASA or other government agencies? According to Griffin, it’s when such agencies “are actively seeking individuals and companies who would not normally participate in a traditional government procurement process.” He added: “Prizes entice the kind of people who are repelled by the cumbersome nature of government processes.” He cited examples ranging from Charles Lindbergh to Peter Homer, who won a prize in NASA’s astronaut glove prize competition last year.

All of these efforts Griffin mentioned in his speech—prizes, COTS, and other purchases of commercial services—touched upon a fundamental theme: the importance of getting the commercial sector involved in order to make NASA’s space exploration effort sustainable over multiple administrations and Congresses. “Those of us on the government side of the space business must recognize a fundamental truth: if our experiment in expanding human presence beyond the Earth is to be sustainable in the long run, it must ultimately yield profitable results, or there must be a profit to be made by supplying those who explore to fulfill other objectives,” Griffin concluded. “We should reach out to those individuals and companies who share our interest in space exploration and are willing to take risks to spur its development.”


Home