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An Interview With NASA Chief Michael Griffin
It's been more than three years since President Bush announced an ambitious expansion of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA's) space exploration program. Uschamber.com staff caught up with NASA Administrator Michael Griffin to learn about the agency's progress and opportunities for the private sector.
uschamber.com: What are the goals of the space exploration program?
Griffin: The Bush administration has established a new goal of taking humans beyond earth orbit to the moon and eventually to Mars to explore, discover, and understand.
How far along is NASA?
The first step is to finish the space station using the space shuttle, then retire the shuttle in 2010 and replace it with a new vehicle, the Orion, for getting people into and out of orbit and taking them to the moon. Lockheed has the contract for the Orion and is on budget and on schedule. This year, we will put out the contract for the Orion launcher, the Ares 1, which will be shuttle derived but won't look anything like a shuttle. Then, we'll set about the task of developing heavy-lift rocket capability similar to that of the old Saturn 5 in the Apollo years. It, too, will be shuttle derived and will launch a lunar lander that can transport four people to the moon's surface instead of two and carry five or six tons of cargo.
What are some other NASA programs that don't receive as much public attention?
We have contracts out to entrepreneurial space firms that are working on developing space transportation capability to and from the space station so that the government doesn't have to do it. We also have 14 new missions in earth and space sciences, which account for a third of NASA's activities. To better understand climate change, we are designing an orbital carbon observatory to track carbon emissions. We have a global precipitation monitoring program to track rainfall patterns and assist in hurricane monitoring. We give prizes for key technical developments and recently awarded $200,000 to a person who came up with the best processes for handling lunar dirt.
Are there opportunities for small and midsize companies in NASA projects?
We have aggressive small business goals. In fact, 15% of NASA procurements go to small businesses. Perhaps the best opportunities for small and midsize companies arise from their alignment with large businesses. Northrup Grumman has the contract for the James Webb telescope, but the company integrates the contributions of many corporate partners and suppliers.
How does NASA's work benefit the U.S. economy and enhance its competitiveness?
Trying to do such difficult things as flying people and scientific instruments in space has a very positive effect on the American economy. It challenges our industrial base to work harder and smarter.
What are some examples of how NASA's work benefits the U.S. economy?
We owe cell phones and BlackBerries to the space program. The integrated circuits they use were created by the demands of the space program. Integrated circuitry is hugely expensive. No one but NASA would have undertaken it. But the space program had to have it. Liquid oxygen is another example. When I was a kid, you couldn't get oxygen at just any hospital. If you needed it, they put you in an oxygen tent. Today, every first responder and hospital have oxygen. Why? Because the space program needed enormous quantities of liquid oxygen, and
so U.S. industry learned how to manufacture, handle, disburse, dispose of, and treat liquid oxygen in a safe, reliable fashion.
When will public space travel become available?
Public space transportation is not a NASA mission; it will happen through the private sector. I can't say for sure when it will happen, but my guess is somewhere between 5 and 10 years. I'm looking forward to buying tickets for NASA crews.
How does NASA impact other issues?
As I mentioned, we're doing research to better understand climate change. We're also helping develop the next generation aviation system. Our piece is to research quieter and more efficient aircraft and to develop a better aviation safety program. We must develop safe methods that allow us to optimally handle more aircraft over nonstandard routes. The mathematics for doing this is very complex.
What can we expect from NASA in the next two decades?
In 10 years, we'll be getting ready to send people back to the moon and will have already landed the first spacecraft on Pluto. Through the James Webb telescope, we'll be able to produce an image of the universe's origins. In 5 years, the first spacecraft will have orbited Mercury. In 2011, a science laboratory will roam the surface of Mars.