Administrator Griffin at Small Sat Speaks on COTS:

I am at the Small Sat Conference in Logan, Utah and heard the Griffin speech on Monday. I was with Leonard David who also heard the speech and then wrote the article that has been selectively quoted widely on the net and in discussion groups. The link to the story is at the bottom of this post. Evidently there is resentment that he referred to many entrepreneurial businesses as having their existence based solely on viewgraphs. Let me tell the rest of the story right here.

Griffin repeated many times that he believed in the private sector to be successful and he repeated over and over again that he was gambling a half of billion tax payer dollars on COTS. He was very hopeful that the companies would be successful and that this seed investment would indeed payoff. Again, in response to a question form the audience, he repeated this many times. Leonard reported this accurately it in his article. Note the following which is the entire piece Leonard wrote on this subject:

“COTS: gambling NASA’s money
Griffin said he considered himself as “one of the change agents” in turning to the talents of entrepreneurial space firms. This Friday, NASA will unveil its strategy with private space companies to provide commercial orbital transportation services, better known as COTS. A half billion dollars over the next four years is being applied by NASA as seed money to prime the pump for COTS.

“I have a lot of hope if we can get an existence proof in place of cheaper space transportation at any level,” Griffin said, that it will then serve as a driver on market prices to get the cost of access to space down.

“I’m using the first market that NASA has ever had as the anchor market and that market is space station resupply,” Griffin explained. “I’m very much hoping that the entrepreneurial space firms, some of them at any rate, can step up to the challenge.”

But the NASA administrator also said that situation is not a given.

“There have been some entrepreneurial space successes, but by and large I think it’s only fair to point out that most of space entrepreneurship exists on viewgraphs,” Griffin said.

“The time is right that if there is some NASA money on the table … some of these entrepreneurs can step up,” Griffin concluded.


Now, maybe Griffin’s choice re the comment on viewgraphs was inappropriate, I am not writing this note to defend Griffin or what he said. However, if we can all step outside the particular agenda we care about and share and see us as the steward of public money being held accountable for how we spend it, with Congress ready to pounce on us for the slightest misdeed, what do you do? Invest wisely or throw money at companies that have yet to build anything, have marginal or poor business plans and maybe management, have never bent metal, etc. Being a steward of public money, if the position is taken seriously, implies a pretty high standard of stewardship, like a trust fiduciary. That is why banks with trust departments are normally quite conservative with how a user might want to use the money in a trust they manage.

Here at Small Sat, there are lots of new space companies bending metal, working solid business plans, going after a defined market with a customer, even if it’s the Air Force, DARPA, the feds, etc. Of course not all here are like that but a good many are. They have financing, they have sales and a positive cash flow, a market and clearly are and will continue manufacturing product and bending metal. They have seasoned management, they know business, markets, finance, etc. They have business plans that are not vaporware. They do not live by Power Points alone. In fact, when they show a Power Point in their booth, etc, its to support their actual business which is underway. Its not rhetoric or PR without substance. This is a very different group of businesses from what we may normally think of when talking about or considering or new space. In fact, I am not sure that these companies would consider themselves being new space or I don’t know, I’ve not asked many of them that question but those I have asked do seem to classify themselves as businesses.

Having heard Griffin’s remarks in person, I am convinced he sincerely wants COTS to be successfully and hopes that the companies getting the money evolve into serious private sector space companies. That is why his priming the pump with a half billion of seed capital. In fact, he mentioned he hoped private companies even those other than the COTS winners become successful.

The rest of his speech dealt with small sats given this is the conference at which he was speaking but it was through the Q&A where the good information was revealed. He is clearly pressured by Congress and the Administration to see the VSE through to completion. He claims he makes hard choices on how to use limited funds and lots of needs for these funds so he does take from here and there to fund the priorities he was hired to complete: The JWST and the VSE. Thus, programs suffer, including education. In fact it was the area of education that was most controversial here at Small Sat given his very plain language that NASA has no funds and will not support educational programs, and its not NASA’s job to do that.

This brings to mind the recent developments with the State of New Mexico and the report it received from its financial advisors re their spaceport plans. According to the news in the main Albuquerque newspaper, the spaceport plan is not an investment but a project and business development program for the two companies involved, T/Space and Virgin. So what did New Mexico do? They fired the investment firm. Shoot the messenger, don’t address the problem. Well, like Griffin, New Mexico administration is the steward of their public money. How do they best server their tax payers and meet the standards of a fiduciary responsibility? Is it by shooting the messenger or dealing with the problem to come up with workable solutions to produce a different and credible outcome? I don’t have sufficient information on this subject to render a real opinion and I don’t rely on newspaper articles but like Griffin, the Governor and the New Mexico legislature is responsible for the proper use of New Mexico public money. I think it will be interesting to see how the New Mexico situation develops.

I know the Griffin comments will be controversial. They certainly were at Small Sat. Those supporting education were totally pissed. Those wanting more science missions were totally pissed and frustrated. Everyone seemed to think Griffin could do more than what he said he was able to do regarding spreading the money around. But the bottom line is this is how Griffin sees his position and role at NASA so this is the reality he is going to deal with and we are going to have live with while he is administrator.

I was ready to ask a question about his seeing the Space Frontier Foundation White Paper and his thoughts on it and its impact on him and NASA Administration. They cut the questions off without calling on several of us and he was whisked out due to a demanding schedule. There was no mingling with him or following him to ask him the question in private so to speak. In contrast, the Director General of ESA spoke this morning, has been here at the conference most of the week and is widely available to mingle and talk with us. General (ret) Lord of Space Command was the key note on Tuesday and was widely available to mingle with us all, having lunch with us, etc. In fact, I believe Gen. Lord will soon be a guest on The Space Show as it is now being structured. Watch Space Show newsletters for information on this as General Lord has much to say that will interest us all.

I believe this is a fair report on the Griffin speech at Small Sat and the reaction to it. Leonard David did a good job of reporting. I hope you all read his article which is linked at the bottom of this email. Check it out at:

8 thoughts on “Administrator Griffin at Small Sat Speaks on COTS:

  1. Blog readers, this post was properly formatted in Word and appeared proper before I published it. When it was published, the formatting was thrown to hell. Sorry about that, don’t know why it happened or how to prevent it next time. Just letting you know I am aware of the formatting issue and that the desired formatting did not come through on the final publication.

  2. I was sitting next to Professor L at the SmallSat meeting with Dr. Griffin and corroborate the context of the Griffin remarks. The discussion groups Professor L cites were clearly misrepresenting the context of the remarks. Leonard David’s quotes were entirely accurate and accurately represented the context. I am personally convinced that Dr. Griffin is truly supportive of commercial, but he must also be prudent with public funds. SmallSat is where the true alt.spacers — those who have carved out niches and make money from space — meet.

  3. just to interject a quick fact, the White House’s Advisory Board actually chidled NASA and Griffin recently over the same issue saying that NASA hadn’t invested ENOUGH in the Private Scctor, which was intergral to the “President’s” plan to get us to space quicker, by contracting all the obligated missions, like ISS, to the industry leaving them to focus on longterm results.

  4. From the UP Aerospace FAQ:

    Q. Where do you conduct your space flights?

    A. All of our missions take place at the brand-new “Spaceport America” in Upham, New Mexico. The Spaceport offers numerous advantages over other launch facilities in North America. Historically, the region experiences 340 days of sunshine per year — a key advantage for our frequent launch schedule. The Spaceport also offers controlled airspace, another positive factor for high-rate launch operations. The Spaceport is easily accessible via two major airports — one in Albuquerque, New Mexico and the other in El Paso, Texas. Nearby lodging and dining are also available. In short: UP Aerospace and the Spaceport America have created the ideal space-launch environment for both mission success and an overall positive mission experience.

    If New Mexico can persuade a number of the succesful small sat companies to operate from this new spaceport, that is a “win-win” for New Mexico and for these companies who can increase their public exposure by associating with a better publicized facility.

  5. Bill, satellites cannot be launched from the New Mexico spaceport. UP is straight up and down suborbital and by the way, there is no flight yet, let alone space flights and missions. Notice plural, present, and future tense. We all wish them success but wishes are not yet reality. Check launch info and tell us all how a satellite can be launched from the New Mexico spaceport. Hint: Think Lonestar (and not the beer)!

  6. “he was gambling a half of billion tax payer dollars on COTS”

    Aerospace cost plus contracts can be considered a gamble ( considering previous track record, with abysmal odds )
    But how is payment on delivery a gamble ??

  7. Kert,a correction for you. Based on your comments, your assumption seems to be that COTS is a pay on delivery program. Its actually a grant, payable to the winners over four years and payable even if they don’t produce a quality design, vehicle or anything. There is no promise to buy what is produced with COTS money or to further contract with the winners. Also, the COTS four year program is subject to all the typical political pressures of a policy change and possible cancellation during the four year process. Thus, the gamble is, in the eyes of Griffin, NASA could spend the money and have nothing to show for it. Or very little to show for it. Furthermore, this post and the Griffin speech comments pertained to COTS and not to other forms of government contracts, payments, or programs. One could find all sorts of good and bad examples with government spending programs and grant money. But the Griffin speech and this discussion pertained to COTS, not other government programs. I urge you to read the COTS program description to understand what it is about it. When you read it, you will see why many space advocates are not supporters of the program. It is a controversial program but in any event, Griffin is in charge and this is what exists in reality, it is the reality at hand. Using one program to explain another type of program is not constructive.

  8. professorl

    Kistler seems to think they can launch orbital missions from Nevada.

    I have not studied the Las Cruces corridors in any detail yet if they exist for Nevada, why not New Mexico?

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