Sunday, February 26, 2012

A chat with former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin…

In my time with NASA (yes, when I’m not writing, I truly am a rocket scientist), I’ve been fortunate to be recognized with selection to a few prestigious development opportunities. One such opportunity sent me to Ames Research Center outside San Francisco, CA to serve as the Deputy Mission Systems Engineer on the LADEE project, a lunar orbiter scheduled for a 2013 launch.

The program I was selected for, the Systems Engineering and Leadership Development Program (SELDP), had me meeting with industry leaders and spending time at nearly every NASA center (there are 10) learning the benefits of the Space Agency. This past week, it afforded me the best benefit yet: I spent more than four hours talking with former NASA Administrator (and current, University of Alabama-Huntsville professor emeritus) Michael Griffin on his thoughts regarding systems engineering and the future of Americans in space.

Let me go on record by saying that, before meeting him, I already had a high opinion of the guy. He has numerous Masters Degrees, three PhDs, and had written several highly respected papers on space-related topics. The most influential of these, in my eyes, was his assessment of commercial opportunities and the likelihood of private entities to succeed in their space ventures… brilliant paper. Most of the working-level engineers cheered his hiring in 2005 and mourned his leaving in '09. He's a technical guy and lacks the diplomacy and tact of Washington insiders. He doesn't hold back his opinion, and it's a refreshing perspective.

I agree with every word of his paper, and it’s hard not to given the facts Griffin lays out, namely that private companies are in it for profit. And, there are few opportunities for straight profit in space. The benefits to stakeholders come from the contracted monopoly a private entity obtains by working with the government (see the GPS and comm. satellite industry, for example). Though some private companies have shown interest in the exploration of space, it’s not a viable option for anyone looking to make a profitable return-on-investment given the high risk (technical, cost, and schedule) involved. Elon Musk and Richard Branson (representing Space X and Virgin, respectively) are not exceptions. These entrepreneurs are sinking their money into these ventures out of curiosity. They will never make money on their endeavors until a golden asteroid is found in low-Earth orbit.

Griffin knows this, and he expertly explains it in the paper. In person, he’s intelligent and humble. You can’t help but like the guy. His ideas are forward-thinking and visionary which makes his firing in 2009 a horrible shame (but I digress). We need not worry for him, though. He had dozens of offers after NASA and is arguably one of the brightest individuals on the planet.

Some highlights from the discussion last week:

When asked about his doctoral thesis on computational fluid dynamics: “What took me three years to accomplish thirty years ago is now a homework problem for graduate students. People ask me if that bothers me. I say, this is why we do engineering. To make it better, easier, for the next guy.”

On current college curricula: “We’re teaching disciplines, not systems. Every engineering student should have basic understanding of circuits. Of statics. Of materials” … “Things fail not because a system fails but because its interactions with other systems fail.”

On our dependence on tools and software due to growing complexity: “When I was in school, the best way to find flaws was to build something and see where it breaks. Now, we have tools that can do that for us.”

Follow up question on those tools breeding ignorance and dependencies: “The pendulum has swung far to the extreme, in that case. When I offer solutions to my students, I give them an Excel file with the solutions spelled out. You have to know where you went wrong to know what to do right.”

NASA Chief Engineer Mike Ryschewitsch was in attendance, as well, and echoed Griffin’s thoughts. The experience showed me that there are people in our industry with intelligent ideas and visions, but both are things that I feel are sorely lacking at this point. In the past 18 months, the United States has gone from the leading nation in space to 3rd, 4th, or even 5th. The Russians are certainly passing us. The Chinese have high-minded ideas though nothing (official) to show for it. They’re on their way, though. The Japanese are quickly making a name for themselves, and even the Indians are experimenting with some interesting rocketry ideas.

The experience with Mike Griffin showed me what could be and, though it’s not what IS right now, I hope that it’s what will be again.

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