Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Experts on the Future of Space

For a space geek like me, the nice part about living and working in Huntsville, Alabama is the ready access one can have to hearing and speaking with some of the eminent voices in the human spaceflight community. This week, a former program manager, former Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) Director, and former NASA Administrator held forth at a lunch-and-learn session at MSFC's Activities Building titled "The Evolution of Space Flight from Government to Private Sector."

The talk actually mirrors the careers of Steve Cook, Dave King, and Mike Griffin, who were leading NASA, Marshall, and the Ares Projects a scant four years ago and are now all in the private sector to one extent or another. Cook and King are senior managers at Dynetics while Griffin has been an engineering professor at University of Alabama-Huntsville.

Much to my surprise, the gentlemen did not prepare any remarks. This was a straightforward ask-the-experts panel, with the audience members asking questions on a microphone or on 3X5" cards. Given the stated topic of the appearance, the questions quickly honed in on where government would most likely play and where in the space business.

Getting Started
Griffin started off the discussion, stating that he believed government should most likely fulfill the role of providing the first guaranteed market(s) for private industry, which would attract private investment. Another future role would be for the government to build what it thinks it wants first, then license the intellectual property so others could build it. However, right now Griffin believes that, "Regrettably, the market's not big enough." The biggest barrier to private-sector entry into space right now was the prohibitive cost of RDT&E (NASA-speak for Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation).

Cook answered the rhetorical question, "Do we (commercial entities) have the ability to launch cargo into space? Of course. Crew? Hasn't been done yet." For Cook, the issue wasn't capacity, but market size. "Committed investment by the government could provide that and it would justify the investment."

Griffin's ideal choice of a guaranteed, lucrative government market would be providing cargo for an established lunar base. Yet he cautioned enthusiastic supporters of commercial space, stating that human spaceflight carries with it huge risks, and that while large commercial firms like Boeing might absorb the damages from a catastrophic failure, smaller firms could get wiped out.

Cook suggested future needs for the super-heavy-lift Space Launch System, including the lunar base Griffin alluded to and space solar power systems, both of which would require large payload space initially. Cook likened SLS to the Transcontinental Railroad or Interstate Highway System: a large investment made by the government for the benefit of all.

Government and Private Sector Roles

Griffin pointed out that venture capitalists like investments that give them a return on investment (ROI) ten times their initial input. Proven space-based investments like communication satellites only provide 13 to 15 percent. He pointed out that space investments are on the high end of risk for business investments. This fit well with my own personal view, and the card with my question came up next, which was "What activities do you think it's crucial for government to do in space, and what activities are crucial for the private sector?" Griffin responded that "Nobody is stopping anyone in the private sector from doing what they want in space. If they've got a proven business model, they should do it." A self-described fiscal conservative, Griffin did not think government should have a say in where the proper balance point is, that's for the citizenry to decide and for the private sector to conduct as much private activity as the market will bear.

King felt government should help the market along, taking the lead on strategic capabilities and ensure that commercial capacity is a going concern. He did point out the need to get access to low-Earth orbit (LEO) at a lower cost, but didn't make any specific recommendations as to how to effect that outcome.

Cook shifted gears a bit, talking about the regulatory environment and how government should ensure consistent safety standards for astronauts and passengers. He felt that safety standards should be the same whether someone was flying aboard a NASA spacecraft or commercial one. He also noted the difficulty in defining "commercial" missions right now (I suppose an example would be something like NASA astronauts flying aboard a private vehicle to the International Space Station--the launch provider might be getting paid, but is the flight really "commercial?") In any case, Cook felt the rules should be the same, and that would take some negotiation among NASA, the FAA, and private industry.

The Long View

The panel also touched on international affairs, with Griffin stating emphatically that "Space is a strategic human frontier for the future" and that the only way to ensure that Western values and practices such as freedom and capitalism are continued as human civilization expands outward is for the United States to participate. However, the entrepreneurial investments would not occur without a long-term commitment by the U.S. government to space activities.

The Local View

Someone asked what Dynetics' new rocket-launching partnership with SpaceX and Scaled Composites, Stratolaunch, would mean for Huntsville. Dave King felt that the Stratolaunch vehicle would be able to transform how we view space tourism, space launch, and other activities. Stratolaunch is based in Huntsville, and Dynetics has responsibility for a major component of the system as well as systems integration. One side effect would be to bring more commercial space activity to Huntsville, which King felt was too dependent on the government dollar anyway.

Life "Outside the Gate"

Marshall Space Flight Center is situated in the middle of Redstone Arsenal, which is the property of the U.S. Army and thus "gated" off from the general public. A member of the audience asked the panel about the difference in their lives outside the gate. Cook was the first to answer. He talked about the similarities first, emphasizing the need for a manager to communicate a clear vision and to get employee buy-in for what you're trying to do. He also felt the employees' passion for the work was kindred. The biggest differences he cited were the smaller bureaucracy and the lack of distinction between "institutional" and "project" functions. King felt that privately held companies could make longer-term decisions with fewer rules and less institutional friction when it comes to making decisions. Griffin added that there was less work in the private sector related to "grooming the institution."

One thing King suggested to anyone interested in jumping outside the gate was that the individual should pick an environment where the values match yours. Along similar lines, Cook stated that you need to "hold onto your core values, but be willing to change everything else" to adapt to the market environment.

What Next?

Someone had to ask the magic question: "How do we assure long-term support for programs that take 20 to 30 years to execute?" Griffin, typical of his sense of humor, responded, "Why are you asking me when I'm obviously inadequate to the task?" Still, Griffin felt that long-term support for large national programs are possible. He cited examples such as the Transcontinental Railroad system, which took over 50 years to complete; the Social Security system; and maintaining funding for the armed forces. He believes NASA has long-term public support. However, Griffin did not agree with the administration's call for a mission to an asteroid: "You're not going to have long-term support for a vision when the goals make no sense."

Another question concerned keeping the workforce motivated in periods of institutional or programmatic uncertainty. The advice wasn't too unfamiliar: decide what you want to be passionate about, focus on what you can control, and "Run to the fire, go find some hard problems to try to solve and be bold about it."

Parting Thoughts

Returning to themes that began their discussion, the panel members reiterated their belief that the future of commercial spaceflight wouldn't be too promising without a guaranteed government market as a matter of public policy. Griffin noted that "Europe sees the strategic value of owning the space launch market. What's wrong with us that we do not?"

Dave King had one of the closing comments of the afternoon in responding to the ongoing rivalry between government and commercial space, stating that people were focusing on an unnecessary conflict. He wished "we could see value in each, concentrate on the genius of the 'And' instead of the tyranny of the 'Or'."

We'll see what happens next.

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