By Cat Hofacker and Ben Iannotta|September 2021
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Mike Griffin worked on the Strategic Defense Initiative during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush years, ran NASA for President George W. Bush, and was in charge of research and development at the Pentagon for much of the Donald Trump administration. While Griffin’s time at these agencies has come and gone, the Defense Department and NASA continue to grapple with the topics that dominated his tenure. Now that Griffin is an independent consultant in Virginia and Alabama, it seemed like the right time to connect with him on Zoom to talk about China, space launch and the early universe.
Cat Hofacker: Let’s start with the Space Launch System: It seems like the rocket’s been in development so long that NASA has evolved into a different agency.
Mike Griffin: I think you’re right. The agency seems to be evolving into a government bureau whose job it is to write checks to billionaire entrepreneurs. And while I have a great deal of admiration for billionaire entrepreneurs, writing checks to them or to other large prime contractors is not the proper function of government. The purpose of NASA was originally, and I think properly, to manage, to design, to orchestrate, to conduct, to carry out the publicly funded space program. SLS is an example of what NASA and other government agencies used to do: lay out the requirements for something that you want. In this case, a heavy-lift launch vehicle to accomplish space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit. You run a competition and you hire a contractor to build it to your design, and the contractor is being paid public money to do a job in the public interest. So we’ve gone from that to an evolution where NASA competes a human lunar landing mission, and the contractors are not even being told what the specifications are, and they’re not building to government direction. So in that kind of an environment, there really isn’t a purpose for NASA.
C.H.: NASA’s approach seemed to work well for Commercial Crew, considering the goal of ensuring access to ISS.
M.G.: I did not approve of Commercial Crew. And, oh, by the way, they’re not commercial. A commercial enterprise is one in which a company develops a product or a service on their own dime, brings it to the market and sells it for whatever the market will bear. I was not in charge at the time and certainly had no voice in the decision, but speaking personally, I would have opposed any decision to turn the design of human-rated spacecraft over to industry to do as they wished. Because when it goes wrong — as I can tell you from the return-to-flight experience after the space shuttle Columbia — the appropriate government managers are the ones who will be held accountable, because it’s publicly funded. It’s not the industry CEOs. The money and the accountability have to go together, and when you try to separate those, it fails.
C.H.: What about the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program you started as a precursor to Commercial Crew?
M.G.: We at NASA conducted an experiment to which we allocated $500 million to see whether cargo transportation to the space station could be provided by independent contractors crafting their own rocket designs. The experiment turned out positively because shortly before I left the agency in December of 2008, Bill Gerstenmaier signed the first actual commercial cargo contracts to SpaceX and what was then called Orbital Sciences. I think the contractors did it pretty well. That’s not the same as saying that those same contractors are ready to provide the much more difficult solution to human space transportation. In my judgment, they weren’t ready then, and since they didn’t fly until 2020, I think that judgment turns out to be correct. So I would not have done Commercial Crew in the same way that commercial cargo was done. NASA funded the program and yet gave up a large measure of control over what the designs were going to be and how they would be carried out. I don’t approve of such structures where public funds are involved.
Ben Iannotta: Here at Aerospace America, we have a lot of conversations about what the word “commercial” means.
M.G: The term has been expropriated by a very large group of people who would like you to believe that because something is built by a nontraditional contractor, meaning a new entry into the field, that it’s commercial. That’s not the definition. Now look, I’m a huge fan of Christensen’s disruptor thesis [a reference to the late economist Clayton Christensen, author of “The Innovator’s Dilemma”] and the idea that new entrants to the field would come along and disrupt established prime contractors and set them back on their heels and make them rethink what they’re doing, couldn’t support that more strongly, but that’s not the same as commercial.
B.I.: Aren’t there now — or soon will be — truly commercial spacecraft like Starship that would be able to do basically what SLS would do?
M.G.: Maybe. We haven’t seen Starship get higher than what? 10,000 feet. I hope for their eventual success. I’d like Starship to succeed. I’d like New Glenn to succeed. I’d like ULA’s new Vulcan Centaur to come online. But the SLS was intended to be the taxpayer’s vehicle for space exploration. As an analogy, we have lots and lots of commercial air transportation, but the Air Force operates Military Airlift Command [Now Air Mobility Command] on behalf of, ultimately, the taxpayer. If commercial enterprises don’t want to do what you want them to do, or if they decide it’s no longer in their interest to do so, well, there’s still Military Airlift Command.
B.I.: A lot of taxpayer dollars are going into the Starliner service Boeing is creating, and yet the NASA-Boeing report about the aborted attempt to reach the space station has not been released. Would that be acceptable for a government-owned spacecraft?
M.G.: You’re getting at the heart of my objection to labeling something as commercial and treating it from a government oversight point of view as if it is commercial, when in fact the funding is largely public funding. The government actually didn’t have a right to get all of the data in question with the Starliner failure because of the way things were set up. Now, if Boeing were funding all of that on its own nickel, then I would say that the public has absolutely zero right to any knowledge of what goes on inside that program.
B.I.: How is that different from government insight into the crash of a Boeing plane?
M.G.: I think there’s a bit of a different situation there with a transportation service, such as what airlines and railroads provide. We have determined in our society as an output of the democratic process that we want certain safety standards in transportation to be promulgated and enforced. So when common carriers breach those standards, yes, there is a legitimate public right of intervention through the appropriate agencies. That’s not the same as if a company like SpaceX or Blue Origin or any other company wishes to create a private space transportation capability. Carrying paying passengers at their own risk is decidedly not a public utility. It’s a joy ride. Now, if such an enterprise progresses to the point where one of these companies or a new company is offering to convey people from Chicago to San Diego by means of rocket travel — “we’ll get you there in 15 minutes for a very high price” — now it becomes a public conveyance and it’s going to be governed by the same safety standards as the National Transportation Safety Board imposes on other public conveyance.
B.I.: So on these suborbital flights, are you in the camp that thinks they’re breaking new ground, or are they repeating what people like Alan Shepard did half a century ago?
M.G.: They have, in fact, not repeated, but done things in a different way. That’s good. I’m hoping for more privately funded space transportation capability. That’s great. To use an analogy, there was a time when the only computers in existence were built by governments. It’s a good thing when things can transition from the only people who can build them are our government enterprises to you can buy it in the store.
B.I.: Do you think these space tourism flights will help open the space frontier?
M.G.: That’s a little excessive. A suborbital flight would be a great, fun experience for somebody who can afford to pay for it. Good luck and good on them, but it’s not within a loud shout of opening the space frontier. The design is not remotely close to what you need to get to orbit, because the energy difference between a suborbital flight, such as we saw a few weeks ago, and orbit is more than a factor of 50. Nonetheless, it’s still a pretty impressive private accomplishment.
B.I.: How do you think this growing competition between the United States and China in deep space is going to play out?
M.G.: China under President Xi seems to be, I can only say, purposely picking fights with the West. To what point, I don’t understand. It is adversarial behavior to build islands in what everyone else believes to be international waters. Many things that China is doing today seem to me pointlessly adversarial in a world that doesn’t need more adversarial behavior. No one was picking on China when it was allowed into the World Trade Organization, two decades ago, and yet now China seems to be trying to pick fights with the West. So collaboration with China in deep space seems to me to be dependent more upon their behavior than ours. I would point out, the United States never declares anybody to be an adversary. We don’t like having adversaries. We like cooperating with others as best we can. We do not pick fights with other countries. It’s just not our history. In fact, you could argue that historically we’ve been late to need when confronting bad behavior.
B.I.: If you were to testify to Congress today, would you still warn as you did in 2018 that U.S. aircraft carriers are vulnerable and that the U.S. has no corresponding way to hold China at risk?
M.G.: That comment is still true, and now I think we’re making progress toward fixing it. But you don’t need me to talk about this and you don’t need a classified discussion to talk about it. Just Google DF-21 or DF-26, and you’ll find that they come up under the slang term of “carrier killers.” That’s what the Chinese designed them to do.
B.I.: So in hindsight, was it a mistake for the U.S. to focus so much on air-breathing propulsion with the X-43 and X-51 rather than trying boost glide right away?
M.G.: It’s not an either-or thing. It’s an “and” thing. The United States needs high-speed air-breathing, long-range strike for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that they are individually cheaper, and you can greatly increase the load-out on ships and planes. I will always, until something better comes along, be a fan of high-speed air-breathing capability that we need to create for the longest ranges. And for the most timely application of force, you need the rocket-powered boost glide. It will always be quicker on target than air-breathing strike, and we’ll always have the capability for longer range.
CH: Let’s talk about the Webb telescope. Will the fact that it is way behind schedule and over budget have a chilling effect on future ambitious concepts?
M.G.: That depends on when you take that view. I personally worked on Hubble, and when the telescope was put into orbit, there were congressional hearings and such about what a disaster it was because it was not competently done at first. And there was no other way to say it: NASA screwed up and the contractors screwed up and in a big way. Fast forward 30 years — the only people who think Hubble was a mistake were people who were in another branch of science and resented the money that went to Hubble. I had to deal with a lot of that at NASA. There were people who absolutely did not want another Hubble servicing mission because it was going to take money away from whatever it was they wanted to do. And I just didn’t agree. Webb has had enormous development problems with obvious and visible lack of competence at times on the part of both the government and the contractor. Mistakes were made that shouldn’t have been made. When you move a large telescope and nuts and bolts start falling out, somebody has clearly screwed up: There’s no other way to put that. But if it is all fixed — and we won’t know until it’s launched — and if it works well, and if it reveals underlying new truths about how the universe is put together, then in 30 years, nobody’s going to think it was a mistake.
CH: But tomorrow’s telescopes are being designed today, so it seems like they will experience that chilling effect.
M.G.: They probably will. Webb got started for real either shortly before or during my tenure at NASA, and by that time Hubble had proved itself to be an enormous success. Could you have started another big telescope earlier had Hubble been a success from the first? Sure. So yeah, there will be a penalty to be paid by others in the astronomy community for the performance on Webb.