AmericaSpace Note: The following remarks were delivered by former NASA Administrator Dr. Mike Griffin on 6 September 2012 for the inaugural lecture of Georgia Tech’s Gebhardt Lecture. It is used with permission by Dr. Griffin.
Michael D. Griffin
Chairman & CEO
6 September 2012
Good afternoon. I am truly honored to have been asked to deliver the inaugural Gebhardt Lecture. Georgia Tech is one of the world’s great institutions, a place at which I am always pleased to be.
Before I begin, I must in fairness note that the views I offer today are entirely my own. They do not represent my company, or the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, of which I have the honor to be the current president, nor any other committee or association of which I am a member. They are solely my personal views. I am again honored that you have asked me to share them with you.
The subject of my talk today is one that, once upon a time, I would never have imagined offering. I mean, why do we want to have a space program? Wasn’t that a “given”? I once thought so. For more than fifty years, the exploration and development of space by the United States could have been characterized, without much exaggeration, as “all government, all the time”. There were exceptions, notably with regard to the commercial communications satellite industry, but they were just that – exceptions. Despite the entreaties of many who argued for policies designed to encourage the development of commercial space enterprises, space development remained essentially a government preserve. Things have certainly changed. Now, at least where the most visible symbol of the American space program – human spaceflight – is concerned, today’s policy environment is almost diametrically opposed to this decades-old paradigm. U.S. crew transportation to low orbit has been set aside as a commercial preserve, when and as that capability may appear, and new private space enterprises are in vigorous pursuit of defense and intelligence community markets as well. Today I would like to explore the ramifications of such policy shifts, and will try once again to say why I think we need a robust national space effort, even as much new space activity shifts toward commercial development. So, let’s recap a bit. Where were we, where are we now, and what are the implications of the shifts in space policy that we have seen over the last few years?
Let’s look back four years, to Fall 2008, just prior to the election. Back then, NASA was well along in its implementation of what was, in my view, the most sensible civil space policy that this nation had embraced since the time of Apollo. The policy rose from the ashes of the Columbia accident and the observation by Admiral Hal Gehman’s Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) that, for three decades, the human spaceflight space program had proceeded without a compelling national mandate. Responding to this and other observations by the CAIB concerning the lack of a coherent national strategy for the space program, President Bush articulated the Vision for Space Exploration in 2004, which was subsequently established as the law of the land in the NASA Authorization Act of 2005. Pursuant to these instruments of policy and law, the agency was directed to return the Space Shuttle to flight, to use it to complete the International Space Station (ISS) in accordance with our domestic and international commitments. Following completion of the ISS, the Shuttle would be retired from service, to be replaced by a new human space transportation system that would be capable of ferrying U.S. and international partner astronauts and their equipment to and from the ISS, while also providing the capability to return to the moon. We would then use the experience gained from ISS and lunar operations to move onward to Mars.
With a bit of effort, one could capture the essential features of this policy in a single sentence – in my view a key feature of any policy purporting to be “strategic”. When we talk about national policy, we are in fundamentally talking about “what we will do”. If that cannot be expressed plainly, likely it will not happen. Churchill understood this, as did Kennedy and Reagan.
In any case, this policy was approved by large margins in both House and Senate by a Republican Congress in 2005, and again by a Democratic Congress in 2008, each time with features that I regarded as improvements. By 2008, NASA was well along in implementing that policy through its Constellation program, which planned to restore U.S. human access to space by late 2014, and lunar return by about 2020, depending as always upon budgetary exigencies. Both candidates for president in that year had pledged support for that program, and both had promised to reduce “the gap” – that period of unseemly dependence by the United States on Russia for crew transportation to the ISS following Shuttle retirement and prior to deployment of the first elements of Constellation. While it would take a decade and more, we seemed well on the way to recovery from the Columbia accident, as well as from the thirty years of uncertain national space policy leadership which had preceded it.
Today the strategic coherence and generational scope of this plan is gone as if it had never existed, had never been approved, twice, as the law of the land. The one element of the plan that was respected was the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in 2011, and with it all U.S. capability for human spaceflight. However, the next phase of the plan, the direction to NASA to develop a new human spaceflight system for access to low Earth orbit (LEO), has been set aside. In its place, rather than a NASA designed, directed, and managed development program, we have a plan by which two-and-one-half awards have been provided to three contractors to learn, or re-learn, what one of them has been paid by the U.S. government to do for over fifty years now. These recent awards, following on prior programs, provide well over a billion public dollars for capital investment in private companies, investment for which NASA cannot set requirements, cannot direct design features, cannot control management practices, cannot require financial audits, and receives no product other than the right to purchase a service at market price when and as it becomes available.
The near-term goal of a U.S. led, international return to the moon and the establishment of a lunar base, the logical follow-on to the now-complete ISS, has been set aside, replaced by a mission to an asteroid for which no clearly worthwhile candidate is presently available and which cannot possibly occur prior to the mid-2020s. The heavy-lift launcher being designed to re-enable lunar access has been set aside, to be replaced by the similar-appearing but less capable Space Launch System (SLS) designed to support this so-called “beyond LEO” exploration. But the program is substantially underfunded, and no knowledgeable observer believes that multiple Congresses and succeeding presidents will provide the resources necessary to complete the SLS, when the only announced goal is a mission so lacking in justification that its own proponents cannot even identify the destination.
These changes were, of course, justified by assertions that the prior program was an artifact of the Bush Administration, rather than of the two Congresses which codified the plan into law, that it was “unexecutable”, supposedly citing the findings of a committee chaired by the highly respected Norm Augustine, and that in any case the program was behind schedule and over budget. While it is clearly the prerogative of any new presidential administration to propose changes to Executive Branch policies and programs, for whatever reasons that administration finds appropriate, I must take this opportunity to set the record straight, as I see it, regarding the assertions made with respect to the Constellation Program and its cancellation.
First, I’ve read the Augustine Committee report carefully, and while it is possible that I have missed it, nowhere in the report can I find the assertion that Constellation was “unexecutable”. What I saw was the Committee’s assessment that, with the budget profile provided to that group as a ground rule for their study, lunar return would have been delayed until the late 2020s. With that I agree, and I agree that to pursue such a program plan is rather silly. But that does not make it “unexecutable”, a characterization conferred on the Committee’s report by others. And if it were, it then also calls for the question as to why an asteroid mission which cannot occur prior to 2025 is acceptable, whereas a return to the moon in the same timeframe is not.
Regarding mission schedules, which for the present are paced by budgetary rather than technical considerations, I think it is now generally understood that the budget provided to the Augustine Committee for its work was substantially lower than the last budget submitted by the Bush Administration, and also lower than the next budget submitted by the Obama Administration. Thus, the budget provided to the Augustine Committee to guide its work was entirely artificial, representative of no plan which either preceded or followed.
Nevertheless, Augustine’s recommendation was not, as many believe, that Constellation should be cancelled. Rather, the Committee’s primary recommendation was that the NASA budget should be increased by about $3 billion per year. To put this figure in perspective, it was no more than authorized (though not appropriated) by the Congress, and less in real-dollar terms than in FY92, the final Bush 41 budget. Thus, the Committee’s recommendation was hardly for some extravagant, budget-busting caricature of a rational program for civil space science and exploration. The Committee recommended an entirely affordable level of spending for a robust national space program.
Second, the Augustine Committee did not criticize the execution of the program. Quite the contrary. In the words of the late Sally Ride, a member of the Committee, “The program comes pretty close to performing as NASA advertised as it would. … NASA’s planning and development phase of Constellation was actually pretty good.” (Space News, 13 Aug 2009)
Further, I will quote from a portion of the 15 Sep 2009 Hearing before the House Science Committee, in which Mr. Augustine and Dr. Crawley respond to questioning by Chairman Gordon concerning the status of the program:
Chairman Gordon: Is it (Constellation) technically sound and effectively managed?
Mr. Augustine: … We did review the program and its management. We believe it to be soundly managed. Technically, the program has some significant problems — technical problems. And this is not to be unexpected in a program of this difficulty and this magnitude. We saw no problems that appear to be unsolvable, given the proper engineering talent, the attention and the funds to solve them. Having said that, I’d like to turn to my colleague, Dr. Crawley. …
Dr. Crawley: No, I — I think, Norm, you have summarized this quite well at the — at the highest level. There were on our committee a number of people who had actually built space flight hardware, and their general consensus on the assessment of the Constellation program technically is, as Norm says, that it had — it has problems — all real programs where you’re really building hardware encounter problems, developmental problems — but that we didn’t see any of them, including some of the famous — vibration problem in the Ares 1 or the vibro-acoustic environment, the noise environment around the Orion — that were not surmountable with proper engineering talent and skill, which we believe NASA can bring to bear.
Third, it is not true that, again as widely believed, the Obama Administration saved the ISS from planned cancellation by the Bush Administration after 2015. In point of fact, the 2008 NASA Authorization Act contained specific language to the effect that the Administration would take no action to preclude the continued operation of the ISS beyond 2015. Once signed into law by President Bush, as it was, extension of ISS operations into 2016 and beyond became the law of the land, as well as Administration policy.
It is true that Office of Management and Budget (OMB) financial projections did not at that time incorporate the funds needed for sustained ISS operations beyond 2015. That is irrelevant. Budget projections beyond the rolling five-year presidential budget request submitted to the Congress each February are at best a hopeful fiction, generally the product of career staff work rather than that of elected officials. The last budget which the Bush Administration could influence in any significant fashion was that for FY09; the last year for which they could even offer an opinion was FY13. Bush Administration officials always understood that the decision concerning whether to continue ISS operations beyond 2015 was beyond their purview.
The practical effect of the policy shift which I have summarized here has been to eviscerate the human space exploration program of the United States, understood to be that which is conceived and directed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in accordance with the provisions of the 1958 Space Act. The next vehicles which will carry U.S. astronauts into space are today being designed and built largely with public funds, yet NASA cannot direct the course of their development. Funding for NASA’s development work, SLS and the associated Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle (MPCV), is stretched thin, well below critical mass, supporting a mission which is far from compelling. Thus postured, NASA can only become irrelevant to the future of human spaceflight, and quickly so at that, other than as a pass-through agency for the transfer of funds.
If as a nation we continue with this plan, NASA can still conduct excellent science missions and can continue in its multi-decade role as the premier developer of space and aeronautics technology. But NASA’s raison d’etre, its core mission of leadership in the development of human spaceflight – that will be gone. This cannot be a surprise to the originators and proponents of the current policy. They know very well what they have done.
I mention all of this not to protest the cancellation of the Constellation Program, though I do believe such to have been ill-advised. However, it would have been far more straightforward and transparent for the administration to have said something like, “We understand that NASA is making good progress toward the goals set for it by the prior administration and Congress. However, we do not believe that these are the proper goals for the U.S. space program. We believe that the time has passed when the nation should pursue a human spaceflight program designed, developed and directed by NASA, and we propose an entirely different approach.”
While I and many others would still disagree, this is a proposition which could be debated, discussed, and resolved ultimately by the Congress. There are many reasons to be skeptical about the use of government as a tool with which society attacks a problem. Indeed, this is a core tenet of political conservatism as the term was once understood. But while conservatives are properly skeptical concerning the role of government in society, they do understand that there exist certain activities that are important to society and which at the same time do not favorably grace a corporate balance sheet. In my view, the space program is one of those activities.
The core argument of those who support the new approach is that NASA, rather than being a leader in the development of human spaceflight, but has become an impediment. The agency, it is said, has become old, slow, risk averse, and excessively bureaucratic. Looking at the example set by the information technology and consumer electronics industries, which are today driven almost completely by commercial competitive pressures, many assert and others wonder whether it might not be true that space development would benefit from being turned over, lock stock and barrel, to the market.
This is the essential claim of those who style themselves as “NewSpace”: they are more efficient than government. I must first say that, by itself, this is a rather sorry standard to be waving about. Any private entity that cannot perform its mission with greater efficiency than a government really should not be whining about unfair competition. I mean, if you cannot even beat the government, why should taxpayers buy your product? But with that said, I broadly agree with the claim. Private industry is more efficient than government. If “efficiency” were the only measure of merit, the sole coin of the realm, then the argument would be settled and we would be done.
So, why do we want to have a space program, understood to mean a societal enterprise, a national endeavor, a (cringe when you say it) “government space program”, that is worth more to us than the key benefit the market provides and the government does not – efficiency? Is there a role and a mission in a democratic society for a large and significant effort with goals reaching beyond private interest, or not? Can we embrace a venture which is an instrument of national policy, stature, eminence, and leadership that does not look good on a balance sheet? I think there is such a role. I think that we can embrace such a venture. I think that we must.
Corporate entities, no matter how successful, do not and inherently cannot represent, speak for, or embody the national interest. They exist to promote the interests of their owners, the shareholders, whether few or many. They can do many things, but they cannot form and lead international partnerships, they cannot take responsibility for expanding the human frontier, and they cannot project national power and will and presence onto that frontier. In the expansion of our western frontier now more than a century ago, wherever the U.S. Army went, that place became the United States. The ranchers and miners and shopkeepers followed, ultimately creating the economy that became the envy of the world. They made the expansion of our frontiers worth doing. But they did not lead it.
Next, for reasons including but hardly limited to the above thoughts, I consider “space” in all its aspects – human spaceflight, scientific discovery, power projection, missile defense, environmental monitoring, communications, geodesy, space situational awareness, position, navigation and timing, intelligence gathering, global military awareness – to be a strategic realm for human society generally and for the United States in particular. We would be a far less influential nation in the world and far poorer at home had Apollo and GPS and Corona and Early Bird and TIROS and their numerous successors not happened. I imagine that most of you would agree. Even our adversaries, while quite likely regretting it, would also agree that our early investment in “space” in all its aspects, and our continuing preeminence in that arena, has helped to make and keep the U.S. a true world superpower.
Finally, the United States in its superpower role has done, and must do, many things with which not all other nations agree. We do these things in the name of national, or even global, security. But in the longer run, real national security consists of finding common cause with others, of seeking and affirming partners and allies, of working together on things which are grander than any of us can do individually. Long term national security consists of doing, with others, things that all like to do. Nothing, absolutely nothing, that the United States does in concert with other nations fits this mold better than opening the space frontier. This is an endeavor that is exciting, fascinating, and challenging for all, one in which we can lead not just a coalition of the willing, but a coalition of the eager. I cannot more strongly emphasize what I believe to be the national security benefits of proactive U.S. efforts to establish and lead such enterprises.
But if “space” writ large is strategic for the United States, how can we then justify placing sole dependence for certain of its aspects in the hands of private entities? Companies can be bought and sold, can go out of business, can terminate product lines, can expand them or contract them according to management’s view as to what will be best for the company. Indeed, if management fails to respond to market forces in these and other ways, they can and should be replaced, and quite likely will be. But the best decisions to win in the marketplace are not always the best decisions for the long-term benefit of the nation. If an enterprise is strategically important to society, only the government of that society can guarantee the long term constancy of purpose that is needed.
But, it is said, the nation through its government can do these things, and do them best, by purchasing the necessary goods and services from commercial providers, letting the magic of the marketplace separate the good designs from the poor ones, the reliable providers from the inept. The government does not need to direct and control the design of such things, nor closely manage the providers who furnish them. And, indeed, this is exactly right – when there is such a marketplace. There is little need for government intervention in the design and development of jet engines or communications satellites and, where there is, that need is confined to highly specialized military requirements not germane to civil needs. For much of what is required in these and many other fields, government can do quite well by purchasing, to the maximum extent possible, commercial products and services.
However, much of what is needed in the space enterprise, and particularly in the development of human spaceflight, is simply not available in the civil marketplace. The right space program – establishing a lunar base, for example – could well foster the development of such markets. But in the fifty-year history of human spaceflight there simply has been no such market. There is thus not a multiplicity of competitors to allow the emergence of winners and losers, and no market pressures to create them are immediately apparent. Human spaceflight in particular is, for the present and near future, one of numerous “products” not furnished by the marketplace, one of those things which, if we desire it, can only exist if government pays to build what is desired. For now, public expenditures are required if human spaceflight is to be developed.
Where market forces exist, they act to compel good behavior and to eliminate those competitors who perform poorly. We take this for granted; for example, there are no bad restaurants in New York City. When competitive market pressures are absent, as for public enterprises, the oversight of public expenditures by public employees is necessary to ensure that the government actually obtains that for which it has bargained.
But if government is to direct the development and acquisition of a product not freely available in the market, it must be done well, from a position of knowledge, experience, and expertise. Government managers must be responsible and accountable for the efficacy with which the public funds entrusted to them are spent. To be accountable, they must have both insight and oversight concerning the actions taken by those who are paid to perform on the public behalf. They must be empowered to direct what is being done with the funds for which they are responsible.
How best to do this, and how to do it over the long term in highly specialized niches, has proven to be a very difficult problem. Not many people today believe that we are doing it as well as it could be done. Indeed, I believe that the primary reason for the recent surge in the popularity of what is being called “commercial space”, is simply the distaste of all parties for the acquisition system processes we have allowed to grow up over the decades since World War 2. To say that they are cumbersome, slow, and costly would be an understatement. We can do better. But if so, then that is the problem to be fixed. We cannot solve it by abdicating responsibility for the acquisition of public goods to private entities.
This takes me to my primary concern with so-called “commercial space” as it has been put into practice.
I think most of us would agree that the common use of the term “commercial” means that a product or service is conceived by an entrepreneur, who then raises the investment capital necessary to bring it to market, charging whatever price the market will bear. The investors collectively own the product, reaping whatever gains are to be had, or suffering whatever losses may occur.
The current use of word “commercial” when linked with “space” is harder to understand. There is still no significant market other than the government, and the majority of investment capital has come from public funds. For example, prior to the CCICap (Commercial Crew Integrated Capability) awards, SpaceX had received about $800 million from NASA (Source: http://www.spacenews.com/civil/120525-spacex-boosts-commercial-credibility.html), whereas its founder and other investors had put in about $200 million. (Source: http://www.cnbc.com/id/47207833/Elon_Musk_on_Why_SpaceX_Has_the_Right_Stuff_to_Win_the_Space_Race) So, the U.S. government is the 80% majority investor in SpaceX – and this is prior to the $400+ million CCICap award. But, the government does not own the design or the product when it is complete; it does not own even 80% of it. What NASA “owns” is the right to buy a seat at market price. The only real change from the classic “prime contract” seems to be that a largely different set of contractors is performing the work, which is done primarily with public funds but without government supervision. The working definition of “commercial” seems to be “not built by an established contractor working to government specifications”. I have only one question: can I get that deal?
Of course, the new “commercial space” companies quite naturally expect to get government business for their finished products. This is entirely reasonable. They also want to develop their products according to their own design concepts and engineering standards, which is also to be expected in the normal course of free enterprise endeavors. The free market sorts out those whose concepts and standards meet with consumer approval, and those which do not. The winners win. Government sets (for example) certification standards for airplanes, but does not tell airplane companies what airplane to design or how to do it. If a company designs appealing and useful airplanes, they sell, and if not, then not. This is what we expect of the workings of the free market.
However, while the government buys, rents, or books passage for crew or cargo on lots of airplanes, it does not provide front money for commercial airplane companies to perform product development, and, if it does not like a product that is offered, does not have to buy it.
The twist with “commercial space” as it has taken shape is that the companies involved are saying that they must have government money in advance of performance to develop their product, while yet maintaining their right to conduct that product development according to their own concepts and standards. Nonetheless, the government must buy their product when it is available, and – oh by the way – is not allowed to develop its own product, because it will compete unfairly with “commercial” offerings.
It is this posture that I find so offensive. If I pay you to do something for me, I want you to do what I want done, not what you want to do. I further want you to do it in the manner in which I want it done, not as you may happen to want it done. That is what I expect for the money I provide – just as I would if, say, I engage your company to build a custom home for me. If you do not choose to do what I ask, as I ask it to be done, that is okay. In that circumstance, however, I am not required to buy your product. I can seek another provider who will agree to do as I ask.
But this quid pro quo, which would apply exactly in the case of a commercial contract for a custom home, apparently does not apply to a commercial contract for a custom spacecraft. NASA is forced to provide development money for a product whose design it cannot influence, and then to buy the product when it is finished, regardless of what responsible agency engineers might deem to be appropriate. The only outcome of such behavior that can possibly occur is that a technical, operational, or business failure will occur – and NASA will be held accountable for the failure, because public money was expended.
To this latter point concerning accountability for failure (no one ever worries about accountability for success), a few questions come to mind.
What does happen after the first failure? Who will bear the liability for damages? If not the company, then how will losses due to accidents or other non-performance be indemnified? If the government indemnifies such losses, why is that acceptable for “space” and not for other transportation sectors, or indeed a whole range of other products?
Where is the market that will sustain these enterprises, if they successfully develop their products? The ISS crew and cargo market is clearly not big enough. If we are investing public funds in new corporate endeavors, how can we know that the new entities can and will remain in business? How can the government be assured of continued access to space for crew and cargo, the very service it is expecting to receive in exchange for its upfront support?
Who will answer to the Congressional investigations that will and must take place when failures have occurred on public funds, costing the lives of public employees? Are such investigations not to be expected? If not, then why exactly is it that the next recovery from a human spaceflight accident will not be like the first three, again given that public employees and public funding are involved?
From the policy perspective, why does anyone think that the government in general or NASA in particular has any role in or responsibility for promoting “commercial space”? Why is “commercial space” anything more than a procurement strategy, from the perspective of a government customer? In keeping with its responsibility to execute its tasks efficiently, NASA should certainly purchase commercial products and services when and as they are available and applicable to the task at hand. Commercial providers should likewise expect NASA to be a customer, and should expect to provide products and services that meet NASA’s standards. Beyond that, what exactly is the policy justification for linking “commercial space” to NASA?
More broadly, it may be noted that no one in government is actually in a position to block a “commercial space” effort, irrespective of what their wishes might be. In our society, anyone can found a commercial space company and pursue the investment capital which is necessary to bring a product to market. Why is it the fault of NASA, or of government generally, that such efforts have not, to this point, shown notable success? And again from a policy perspective, why is it a responsibility of government to invest in areas where private financiers have declined to do so? If a commercial market does not yet exist, why is it a government responsibility to create it?
These are difficult questions. I will offer the prediction that, eventually, we will have to grapple with them, and that real answers will have to be provided. When that is done, we will understand once again how slippery is the slope of providing large public subsidies in advance of performance, in an attempt to create a market where none presently exists. In the meantime, we are holding one of our national crown jewels, our space program, hostage to the hope that this approach can work in space, when it has never worked anywhere else.
I will close by saying that no one more strongly supports government policies designed to promote the effective development of viable private space enterprises than do I. I once worked for such a company, its ultimate fate as grim as that of most in this still-nascent arena. But I continue to believe that such companies and enterprises will be founded, that some will succeed, and that the human expansion into the space frontier will benefit enormously thereby.
However, there is a fundamental difference for society between a publicly funded and directed enterprise chartered to define, explore, settle, and exploit a new frontier, and an enterprise founded and directed for the purpose of creating wealth, of providing returns on shareholder investments. The distinction in motivations between these two things is one that, in this case, does have a difference. My hope is that, in our space program, we Americans can still recognize that difference, celebrate it, and use each where it is best applied. We are not there at present.