Notes from the DC-X Reunion

Around this time last week, I was able to sneak away from preparations for the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge Team Summit to spend one half of one day at the DC-X Reunion Conference. There were a few other bloggers there, and you can find a few recaps like Jeff Foust's online, but I thought I'd pass along some notes for those of you who were unable to attend.

The Monday morning panel at the DC-X Reunion Conference. Photo Credit: W. Pomerantz, X PRIZE Foundation.NASA Ames Center Director and NGLLC Judge Pete Worden kicked off the Monday panel by asking a question I've found myself pondering more than once: what makes the current era of private space ventures any different than previous attempts, such as what was seen with Orbital Sciences in the mid-80s, or from any number of companies in the late 90s.

George Nield, the FAA's #1 space official, took a first stab at Pete's question, and offered a four part answer that was quite comprehensive. He discussed how those with high hopes for the emerging entrepreneurial space sector can look to the following for encouragement: a set of supportive national policies that explicitly call out the entrepreneurial sector; a set of realistic visions that approach specific markets, rather than a one-size-fits-all panacea; the demonstrated existence of non-federal funding, as seen both from high-net-worth individuals and from state and local authorities; and a workable, predictable regulatory framework. I'd be hard pressed to disagree with any of those.

Several other panelists chimed in noting that the existence proof offered by SpaceShipOne and, to an extent, by Falcon I, made a huge difference. Those are likely in large part the cause of a greater level of appreciation for the space industry currently being noted by Wall Street and Silicon Valley investors these days, as noted by SpaceX's Diane Murphy.

Pete Worden also posed a specific question about private efforts to the Moon which, much to my dismay, was largely lost in the responses to his first question. ISU's Michael Simpson offered a response that touched on both issues, though. A very important factor in both the emerging entrepreneurial sector (mostly based in the USA) and in the new private Moon rush is the stronger level of competition from Asia and other powers. An opening of the market and the availability of new launch vehicles at low prices both creates additional launch opportunities and offers new customers some price leverage, helping also to break the "oligopoly [of] single-source suppliers" that has impacted the industry on multiple levels. Simpson also pointed to the new wave of government orbiters, and noted that countries around the world are eager to show that they can join the elite club of those able to land something on the surface of the Moon.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin speaks at the DC-X Reunion Conference. Photo Credit: W. Pomerantz, X PRIZE Foundation.

Later in the day, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin addressed the assembled audience. Griffin was no stranger to the DC-X crowd, having helped oversee it in a previous position, and seemed genuinely fond of the program and those woh worked on it. His speech touched on many broader issues, which his characteristic, brusque frankness. In a partial answer to an unspoken question that hung over the whole conference--why hasn't a great program like DC-X been done again?--Griffin offered some borader context. (Paraphrasing from my rough notes) Griffin noted that "whatever NASA's faults might be, we did not make [space] boring, or bureaucratize space," noting that cuts to NASA's effective purchasing power began even prior to the Apollo 11 landings.

he also touched on some recent controversies, including the brouhaha over the Ares vs. DIRECT decisions for space transportation architecture. He told the audience that if NASA is stifling descent [as has been alleged by some], "we must be doing a poor job, as I've heard no shortage of it." (Again, please not that all quotations here are from my quick notes, so may be imperfectly transcribed). Griffin is "not putting my thumb on the scales" regarding any major programmatic decisions. He assured the audience that "We'll listen, but simply saying something is a better idea doesn't make it so."It seemed clear that Griffin did not find the data proffered by the DIRECT advocates to be sufficient or compelling, even in light of some problems with Ares Griffin views as fixable.

The Administrator also touched on prizes a bit in response to a recent op-ed by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in Aviation Week. Griffin stated clearly that he liked prizes, and indeed that he wished NASA could fund larger prizes and could allocate more funds for programs like COTS and breakthrough research projects. However, he took exception to Gingrich's suggestion that NASA be disbanded, and that the US Government instead offer a large, $20-billion prize for a human-to-Mars mission. "I'm one of Burt Rutan's biggest fans," he said, "but it is difficult to believe that twenty billion dollar prize for Mars would be a good way to go." Later, in the Q&A, Griffin clarified that he wouldn't oppose such a prize if it hand funding independent of NASA, but reiterated that a prize would not serve as a replacement for the agency.

Griffin had some other kind words for the entrepreneurial community, noting that he felt that human orbital flight was "within the reach, just barely, or commercial enterprise," and expressing his hearty support for the proposed suborbital science programs that would take advantage of private industry. He also expounded at length in response to a question of how NASA can emulate the DC-X's results by focusing on a highly empowered, small, Skunkworks like team, just as is now been used at a number of small firms. Griffin bemoaned that political realities of a large, nation-wide agency meant that he "needs permission" to run small size programs--something that is not trivial to get in a representative democracy. Additionally, he noted that procurement system designed to ensure absolute fairness between bidders has the consequence of adding real, significant costs--something that could easily be skipped by a private company with essentially no limits on what choices they make during procurement.

All-in-all, the DC-X reunion was an great event for the brief period I was able to attend. If nothing else, it served to hammer home a lesson about just how impressive the NGLLC teams really are!

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