Breakfast with NASA Administrator Mike Griffin


NASA Administrator Mike Griffin made his first public appearance outside of NASA on Monday. The forum he chose was a breakfast hosted on Capitol Hill by Women in Aerospace (WIA). While founded 20 years ago with the impetus of helping women network within the aerospace community, WIA has a long tradition of being a facilitator of networking for both genders within the Washington D.C. aerospace community.

The breakfast was held at the Capitol Hill Club, a bastion of Republican politics and revelry located across the street from several House office buildings. Decorated with flattering and sometimes idealized portraits of famous Republican personalities, it is the quintessential place to network, hob nob, and gossip.

The event was sold out and a dozen or so people stood along the periphery to listen to Griffin. Among the companies and organizations who bought tables at the event: Aerospace Industries Association, AIAA, ATK, Ball, CSC, Futron, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, tSpace, USA, and United Technologies.

Much of what Griffin said was a repeat of things he had said immediately prior to his confirmation and afterwards in official NASA events. I will focus on what he said that had not been heard before.

Of course we learned some things about Mike Griffin we did not know. He is part Cherokee. He once went golfing with Alice Cooper (the rock star) and had to be told who/what Cooper was (which makes me wonder if Griffin knew about Exploration Systems Advisory Committee member Jeff "Skunk" Baxter's tour of duty in "Steely Dan" and "The Doobie Brothers"). Griffin also has no patience. According to a description of Griffin by one of his former bosses: "Mike not only has no patience, you'd have to add patience to Mike just to get up to zero."

With regard to NASA 'culture', Griffin said: "NASA has been besieged on all side about its culture. Culture was implicated in the Challenger accident; Culture was implicated in the Columbia accident. I am not sure that I think that is the best word - but I am not a psychologist so I will leave that to them. When I think of what needed to be, and needs to be, and will be different within the NASA culture, to me it essentially comes down to what I would call common courtesy. I have read the report of the Columbia accident board three times. I have read the report of the Challenger commission probably more than that. What I see that we need to focus on at NASA in terms of mending the culture to the extent that it needs to be mended are traits that we were taught in Kindergarten. Listen to what other people have to say. Pay attention to their opinions. Given them the respect of hearing them out, of hearing them through, and encouraging them to speak - and making sure that all the viewpoints are heard."

He continued "There is no question that managers must make decisions - it is what managers get paid to do. In a tongue and cheek way I often define management as the art of making decisions with less information than any fool would like to have. But in order to make good decisions, with less information than you would really like to have, it is important to hear all of the information you can get. And when we talk about mending aspects of the NASA culture, which might need mending, I think that is the first feature. People need to know that there is encouragement -and not retribution for having something to say which is different than might be the common thought of the common herd. That is nothing more than the common courtesy that we learned at our mother's knee - and just need to remember to practice."

With regard to technology, risk and the value of exploration, Griffin said: "Spaceflight with the technology we have will continue to be expensive, difficult and dangerous. There will come a time when it is not. 150 years ago, one fourth of all the steam ships we sent out on ocean going voyages didn't come back. Steam boilers would blow up. The technology of the time was not sufficient to understand the relationships between boiler pressures and heat and strength of materials and the quality of fabrication required to construct them. Indeed, the origination of pressure vessel codes in the United States arose out of requirements by insurance companies on the manufacturers of steam ships to operate them at pressures they could withstand with substantial margin. When steam ships were first sent out into the open ocean there was, of course, no radio, they'd go out and a sizeable portion of them would no come back and people didn't know why. They hadn't; had these kinds of problems with sailing ships since the art of sailing had been well mastered. When steam ships came along, that was a new art of ocean going navigation that needed to be mastered."

Griffin continued: "And one day we will master space flight - but that day is not now. And so, in a time when spaceflight is expensive, difficult, and dangerous, the goals must be worthy of the risks. That was a key finding in the Columbia accident report and one that I have certainly resonated with. Apparently the White House resonated with it as well because the President's vision for space exploration gives us a strategic vision and a purpose for NASA and the civil space program where, in my judgment, the goals are worthy of the costs and the risks."

"There are differences of opinion on this matter." Griffin noted. "I personally know scientists who believe that the only proper purpose of the space program is to fly unmanned scientific spacecraft. There are, on the other end of the spectrum, those who believe that the only proper purpose of a publicly funded space program is to figure out how to put more and more people in orbit and let them go settle the new frontier. The truth is that public policy will not seek either extreme. We will continue forward with, we believe, a relatively balanced program of human space flight and scientific research. I think that's proper. But the human space flight portion of the program has been redirected toward a goal that is now judged, I believe, to be more worthy than sending astronauts to circle the Earth time after time and, at most, to be aboard the space station. We're going to do those things- but we're going to do more. I believe it is now understood that the centerpiece of the program can't be the international space station supported by the Shuttle. We need more than that. The right strategic vision is of human exploration beyond low earth orbit.

With regard to the vision a political leader exerts, Griffin said: "Its a daring move any time a national leader would call for a bold new program as President Bush has done. Calling for a renewal of exploration - and effort that is right at the edge of the sate of the art. But it was exactly that same way back in 1492 when Queen Isabella basically overrode her husband King Ferdinand's reluctance to back Columbus's voyage. That is not widely known today, but Queen Isabella was indeed queen of Aragon in her own right - and had substantial resources of her own not dependent upon Ferdinand's permission for them to be used. Ferdinand's advisors and treasurers were advising him very strongly not to back Columbus. Spain was coming to the end of a long siege to throw the Moors out of Spain. The effort had gone on for 800 years."

With regard to the present time, Griffin said: "In the 21st century for America to go forward and remain and for our culture and our values - and the values of western civilization to go forward, it is necessary that America be the pre-eminent space faring nation. I don't know when it will happen, or exactly how it will happen, but I know it will happen, that one day there will be as many people living off the Earth as living on it - and that may be a thousand or two thousand yeas in the future. But when that occurs, it is my belief that we want their ideals, their culture, their thoughts to be those of western civilization because I believe, that for all of its flaws, that the civilization that we have evolved in western society is the best we've seen so far in human history. I think it needs to be improved upon - but not replaced. If we are not the preeminent spacefaring nation it will not survive because the future for human kind is in space not on Earth. We can only do our small part today."

When asked to comment about the U.S. industrial base - what he likes and does not like, Griffin said "the thing to like about it is how incredibly capable it obviously is. Everything we have in the world of aerospace from Piper Warriors to SR-71s to F-22s comes from that industrial base. I'll offer a personal opinion: I was not fond of the industry restructuring that went forward following the downing of the Berlin Wall. There was a lot of consolidation, it was, in fact. requested by senior government leaders at the time - both on the Hill and in the Executive Branch to achieve a certain amount of industry consolidation. My own opinion is that has gone too far. I am a fan of competition, I believe in it - I think it makes us sharp. Not every problem can be solved by competition. But many can. We have consolidated to the point that, as NASA Administrator, I'd have a certain worry if I saw any more of it because I think we all collapse into one big company. That worries me. I'll be doing what I can do to establish competitive approaches because I think that is going to bring out the best in us."

Making reference to Griffin's statements about competition and large monolithic aerospace companies, I asked Griffin what he thought about the Boeing/Lockheed Martin announcement that they were going to from one giant monolithic company to market their Atlas V and Delta IV EELVs (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle).

Griffin replied: "I think it is probably a good thing for the EELV side of the launch industry. I think that the Air Force - and the companies themselves have come to the ... we have to start facing facts. There is not enough commercial traffic for EELV to sustain two - and there is not enough military traffic to sustain two. The original hope behind EELV was that there would be .. that if the government undertook the development of these new birds that between commercial traffic and military traffic you'd have enough to sustain two. I thank that it is recognized that that's just not there - at least not at present. So, if there is a certain amount of collapse of that business venture into one - and then letting the joint venture pick the right vehicle for the right flight - I think that's great. I think that would be a problem if that were the only launch option available to the nation. The President's space policy directs the DoD and NASA to work together to advance architectures for space flight. With a preference- but not a requirement - for EELV. The reason for the preference is obvious because you've already got developed systems."

He continued: "On the NASA side we have the obligation to come forward to the leadership with our view of the launch architecture as well - and our requirements. Now our requirements are going to be in the range of several tens of metric tons for the new Crew Exploration Vehicle and notionally 100 metric tons for heavy life requirements for return to the Moon. Those are the requirements. I personally don't care how they get met. NASA needs to be more than just about getting up the first hundred miles. We've spent far too long trying to overcome that problem. So, as NASA Administrator today, I already own a heavy lifter. That heavy lifter is the Space Shuttle stack - it currently carries the Orbiter. So every time I launch, I launch 100 metric tons into low orbit which, of course, is what we need for returning to the moon. So as I have said often, tongue in cheek, from the point of view of the cargo, the shuttle is a payload shroud - a rather heavy one. But the intrinsic capability of the stack is quite impressive. It's not quite up to where Saturn V was - but it's close - and it's there. So, I will not give that up lightly and, in fact, can't responsibly do so because, it seems to me, any other solution for getting a hundred metric tons to orbit is going to be more expensive than utilizing efficiently what we, NASA, already own."

"And on the other end of the scale, we need to look at what new development makes the most sense. The CEV, with all that I want it to do, in terms of its ability to service space station and, later, go to the Moon, cannot be easily assumed to weigh less than 30 metric tons - the weight of the Apollo Command and Service Module stack (leaving aside the Lunar Module). It is not reasonable to suppose that vehicle that needs to carry maybe twice that many crew on some Earth orbital missions or have some cargo for some minor cargo and consumables, and have other missions, will weigh much less than that. A mass of that order will be at least several metric tons. It is, in effect, a shuttle replacement. Well, we don't have a vehicle today which does that job. So, the question going forward is, OK. you're going to have to do something new to do that job. What is that new thing? Will that be derived from general components at the NASA end or will that be an EELV upgrade? AS far as I am concerned its all about the money."

"My job now is to be a responsible steward of the taxpayer's funds. So, I will be advocating whatever method of getting crew exploration vehicles to orbit appears to me to be the cheapest. I won't be the sole judge of that, of course. Everyone who can use a calculator will be adding that up. But that's the goal - to operate cheaply, efficiently, routinely, and safely -- all those things - to the extent that we can figure out how to do it."

With regard to how the aerospace community can reach out to the public to get them to support the vision for space exploration, Griffin said: "I don't know - public affairs- and how to do all that is not my specialty. I know we need to do better." He spoke of his fondness for golfing and getting to know his companions: "For a hundred years I have been saying that I am in aerospace. Immediately people latch on to me and say 'wow that's so great'. I never never never see any one who thinks that being in the space business or having anything to do with the space program is not great. It doesn't matter whether I was on the military side or the civilian side - and I've got about equal time in both. hey just think the space business is great. That's fine - I do too. But then they start telling me as they have been for 20 years with such as "what are doing with this space station?' We should be on the moon. We should be going back to the moon. We should be going to Mars. We should be out there doing things. I mean, I get this from people who drive trucks for a living. I get this from plumbers."

A relative of Griffin's once asked about the ISS, saying that it was not worth time staying upon "and he started to explain to me how - space stations are OK if we are using them as a place to assemble stuff so that we can go somewhere else. That would be a useful function for a space station -but he did not think we were doing that based upon reading Popular Science and the newspaper. And I am sitting there listening to this guy and he knows more about the architecture for space flight than (as far as I can tell) half the people in the community. He's got the big picture on what the proper functions and roles are of the basic hardware elements. When I engage the public it s usually on a golf course and the people involved can come from anywhere. So, I don't know what we need to do to connect with the public - but they're trying."

When asked about Centennial prizes, Griffin said: "I like the prize concept. I regretted from outside that we were as limited dollar wise as we were. Going forward, I am going to try to put some human capital behind it -- my own -- and get that elevated. I think it is a good idea. I think it is one of the best ways to encourage entrepreneurship."

Asked how he'd approach his job with a background of both private and public sector experience, Grififn said: "What I want to try to do - and I need to get the team to go where I want to go - as we create the lunar architecture - and as we create the system that will supply station for the long term - as we learn to do other things - I want to favor architectures - collections of systems. I want to favor architectures which provide opportunities for people to interface with NASA at the service provider level. I want to provide places where, if a commercial provider can step forward and perform the service or deliver the goods, that they can do so - and they get rewarded. But we don't have to depend on them. I cannot put public money at risk depending on a commercial provider to be in my series path. He might decide not to show up - for good and valid business reasons."

"I can't put return to the moon and crew exploration vehicle capability - I can't put the ability to send humans into low Earth orbit on behalf of the government at risk based on whether or not a commercial provider decides that he actually wants to do it that day. But I can provide mechanisms where if the commercial provider shows up, the government will stand down - and will buy its service and its capability from the industrial provider and let them have the competition among themselves. In other words, a phrase I have used is 'I don't want to pick winners - but I do want to be able to reward them'. If you can prove yourself to be a winner then NASA should be able to reward you. And we need to transition to that. It's not necessarily a huge shift in our thinking. But we need to create an atmosphere within the government that commercial providers of a given service are welcome. And the architecture has to be structured so that there are those opportunities."

Griffin closed by saying "Being NASA Administrator is a great opportunity. I am going to use it personally for everything I can get out of it on behalf of the American space program and all of you."

Please follow SpaceRef on Twitter and Like us on Facebook.