Saturday, May 20, 2006

In a Heartbeat

Note: I've been real busy lately and haven't had time to post much. This particular post has been in my queue for a couple of months now.

Mike Griffin came to MSU (Mississippi State) a couple of months ago to give the inaugural lecture in the Giles Lecture series. The event was well attended and the question and answer session was at least as enlightening as the prepared speech. I actually got to ask the first and last questions of him after his speech. I will give my impressions of his speech and the Q&A below. Please note that I am posting from memory alone (stupid camcorder batteries) and will be paraphrasing the responses of Dr. Griffin. If anyone out there has a link to an official transcript or access to a recording of the event, I would be grateful for that information.

Update: I finally found the link to the transcript

The first half-hour of the speech was a lot of things that I had heard or read about before. (Part of the hazards of following just about every new development coming from NASA and the private spaceflight sector. Eventually you'll start hearing the same things over and over again.) He began by talking about the new motivation for the agency in the form of the Vision for Space Exploration, and how the students in the room might be able to take part in this new era of exploration and discovery. He mentioned that NASA would have needs for talented individuals in a wide variety of fields; not just science and engineering, but also business and management. He also spent a few minutes providing justification for the investment of our tax-dollars in the space program and the benefits that our society enjoys when we invest just a little bit of our resources on opening up new horizons, as opposed to turning in on ourselves and stagnating.

The last ten minutes or so, he talked about some of the new collaborations between NASA and MSU. He mentioned my advisor by name. (We're working on next generation CFD solvers for modeling rockets and rocket engines.) He also announced that our Geospatial Resource Institute would be working on a database system which would act as a clearing house for much of the Earth observation and remote sensing data that NASA handles.

Then Dr. Griffin took our questions. As I mentioned, I got the first and last questions in. My first question was really just to satisfy my own curiosity. After hearing about all of his advanced degrees, I just had to ask him: "So, how long were you in graduate school anyway?" His response was that the only time he was a full time student was the three years it took him to get his PhD. He said that whenever he would take a new job somewhere near a university, he would take some classes, and 30 or so credit hours later, he'd have another degree.

Someone else asked Dr. Griffin about his opinion of the new private spaceflight industry. He replied that he had put a lot of effort into getting the half-billion dollars allocated for the COTS program, and so obviously he was a strong supporter of their efforts. He wants to see them succeed.

I spent a few minutes preparing my next question; something I've been wondering about for some time now. And so for the final question I asked, "If these newer companies come through and provide commercial ISS resupply by 2010, would he then support allocating more funds for the inclusion of these companies into the lunar architecture. His reply was immediate, "In a heartbeat".

I then asked the obvious followup question: "So how would that effect the billions of dollars that are going to be poured into the major aerospace contractors over the next few years to begin developing elements of the lunar architecture?" The reply to this question was much longer, but the general gist was that he would not expect that these companies would be able to grow themselves into the size required to support the development of lunar exploration architecture and still be as small and nimble as they are now. If they can prove themselves capable of doing the "mundane tasks" of orbital delivery of crew and cargo, then they could take their place among the ranks of contractors who can credibly propose solutions to more difficult missions. He reiterated his view that NASA should not be doing the "easy things" (like LEO access), but should instead be focused on the "hard things" (like going places that commercial sector could not or would not be going to in the near term). Unfortunately, he did not indicate that he intended to extend the COTS like procurement strategy to these "hard problems".