TCS Daily


Rocket Man

By Rand Simberg - March 28, 2005 12:00 AM

On paper, Dr. Mike Griffin certainly should be the best NASA administrator that the agency has ever had. If you called up Central Casting, and asked them to send you a NASA administrator, they'd presumably come up with someone with multiple graduate degrees in science and aerospace engineering, with vast experience managing space programs in industry, government (both military and civil) and academia. He would be someone who literally wrote the book on space vehicle design, who had previously been in charge of human planetary exploration at the space agency. He would be in full agreement with the president's new vision for space exploration. He would even have some experience in an entrepreneurial commercial space company. Most importantly (an issue that has been a major hindrance to finding NASA administrators in the past), he'd actually want the job.

 

At least that would be the common wisdom, among those who don't really understand how NASA works.

 

History, however, doesn't necessarily justify the expectations. One of the most successful administrators, Jim Webb (administrator during the early days of the Apollo program), had no technical background at all -- his academic background was in education and law. What he had was the ear of the White House, and a deep knowledge of how Washington and large bureaucracies work. Sean O'Keefe, who recently departed, will probably be remembered as a good administrator who took over the agency at a challenging time, but his background was program management, not space, and his job was to fix a dysfunctional bureaucracy, a task at which he made a good start, beginning to get the agency's books in order, but one that still remains to be finished.

 

So technical knowledge about space isn't necessary to be a good NASA administrator. Neither is it sufficient. Arguably, the worst administrator was Admiral Richard Truly, an astronaut, who sabotaged his president's attempt to move NASA beyond earth orbit, when he had the agency come up with a half-trillion dollar price tag for President George Herbert Walker Bush's Space Exploration Initiative in the early 1990s, and actually sent his congressional liaison over to the Hill to lobby against it (presumably because he saw it as a potential threat to continued Shuttle and space station activities). Dan Goldin had a technical background, and years of experience in the space industry, but the most charitable thing that can be said of his long (the longest, in fact) tenure as administrator in the 1990s was that it was mixed. He's in fact known most recently for managing to get Boston University to pay him a couple million dollars to not become their new president, which is pretty nice non-work, if you can get it.

 

But does it hurt to understand the "rocket science"? Because if it does, then Mike Griffin could end up being the worst administrator in history -- he's the most technically knowledgeable and experienced person to ever be nominated for the job.

 

Fortunately, it doesn't have to, but as noted, such knowledge isn't sufficient -- like his predecessors, he's going to have to deal with a truculent bureaucracy, pork-hungry committee chairman, and obstreperous NASA centers that have a lot more powerful congressman in their court than NASA Headquarters (in DC) ever will. He's going to have to develop an understanding, if he hasn't already, of some of the deeper institutional pathologies of the space-industrial complex.

 

One danger of having a technical hyperwonk in charge of space policy is that one can become too enamored of one's own ideas and own solutions, and pay insufficient attention to good ideas down in the trenches. A NASA administrator doesn't need to be technically innovative from the top down -- he needs to be organizationally innovative in a way that allows the best ways of doing things to percolate to the top. For instance, I'm particularly concerned because Dr. Griffin has expressed a firm opinion, as recently as a year and a half ago, that we must develop a heavy-lift vehicle in order to accomplish the president's vision, though that's a very programmatically risky and expensive route to take, and some think that such an approach could spell the death knell for the program.

 

My biggest concern, based on his previous stint at NASA, is that he will misdiagnose the problems. While everyone associates the mantra of "faster, cheaper, better" (a phrase, in light of several failed spacecraft during the 1990s, to which many engineers have since appended the words, "pick any two") with Dan Goldin, it really originated with Dr. Griffin. Before SEI died in the early nineties, he thought that the problem with its lack of public and congressional support was simply its high cost, so he came up with a concept called First Lunar Outpost (FLO). It was a "faster, cheaper, better" way to return to the moon. But shortly after the unveiling, the SEI program breathed its last.

 

But the problem with SEI wasn't just that it cost too much. The problem was that there was no clear rationale for it, and no obvious payoff for the public. George Herbert Walker Bush's son, the current president, may have the same problem with his more expansive Vision for Space Exploration. He has the advantage this time of a Republican Congress, and a secure second term in which to start to implement it, but he also faces huge budget deficits and distractions from other, larger domestic agendas, such as social security and tax reform, not to mention the war. In the face of these obstacles, the goal of making the new vision "sustainable" will be a major challenge for the new administrator, and that means a lot more than just getting the price tag down. He can't just focus on (as he seemed to a decade and a half ago) "doing the thing right." He has to do the right thing, which is much harder, particularly when it's not obvious what that is.

 

A simple "back to the future" approach, in which we attempt to return to the perceived success of Apollo, with a modern Saturn V, and expendable capsule, carries the danger of misunderstanding what it will really take to get us into space to stay. It's almost a "cargo-cult" approach, building the big launchers in the hope that we will somehow revive the glory of an imagined past. But ultimately, if the nation finally expands into space in a big way, it will have to harness free enterprise to the task, because it's not realistic to think that the public will continue to be willing to spend many billions every year to watch a few astronauts on other worlds, any more than they were the last time around.

 

Fortunately, the incoming administrator also knows something about that, having worked for a space startup in the 1980s (the American Rocket Company), and has made some encouraging noises about it.

 

Despite my stated misgivings, I'm cautiously optimistic. I think that Dr. Griffin has several things going for him -- his technical experience, his long nurtured and fervent hunger to see these things happen, his desire to go into space himself (probably a first for a NASA administrator, with the exception of Admiral Truly, and one that he must know will never be fulfilled with a business-as-usual approach), and most importantly his vision, which should be framed on the office wall of everyone involved in space policy:

"What the U.S. gains from a robust, focused program of human space exploration is the opportunity to carry the principles and values of western philosophy and culture along with the inevitable outward migration of humanity into the solar system."  Such an effort... would be similar to the influence the British Empire had because of its mastery of the seas. "Can America, through its mastery of human space flight, have a similar influence on the cultures and societies of the future, those yet to evolve in the solar system as well as those here on Earth? I think so, and I think our descendants will consider it to have been worth twenty cents per day."

If he lives up to his potential, he will be the greatest administrator of that long-troubled space agency in its history to date. I wish him the best.

 

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