Monday, September 24, 2007

NASA Adminstrator Griffin on Prizes and the Space Economy

The Space Review has an article about some speeches that NASA Administrator Griffin made on topics related to the space economy. I'll start with the comment that's most relevant to this site, Space Prizes:

He did warn, though, about going too far in the direction of incentives like prizes. “The people who suggest that we should put up a $100-billion prize for the first company to take us to Mars are idiots,” he said. “We need an appropriate balance between government sector activity and private sector activity. My point is that, for fifty years in the space business, we have not had that appropriate balance. We need to move more towards the middle.”

At this point I'm supposed to get indignant and protest, right? This is the Space Prizes site, after all. Well, I have seen some proposals for large Mars prizes, such as the one in Zubrin's "A Case for Mars" and one from Newt Gingrich on a $20 Billion Mars prize. There was also an editorial in the Wall Street Journal advocating a $50 Billion prize for development of a Moon base in lieu of NASA building one. To some extent I wonder if the goal of some of these prizes would be to prevent NASA cost overruns, rather than to actually accomplish the objective. In Zubrin's case, the proposal included numerous smaller, incremental prizes, so the big dollar figure is somewhat misleading. At any rate, the prize that Dr. Griffin describes doesn't sound too attractive to me.

However, I don't think many advocates of NASA or other government agency sponsored space prizes are talking about monstrously huge prizes like these. Clearly starting such huge government prizes would present insurmountable political difficulties, and getting serious competitors to raise the money needed to make the needed investments would also be, shall we say, challenging. I think most prize discussions have been much more modest. NASA's Centennial Challenges prize program hasn't been funded in the past 2 years, and this year it may, if it's lucky, get funded for $4 Million. That's a truly insignificant amount out of NASA's ~$50 Billion budget for the last 3 years. Most pro-prize discussions I've seen have advocated increasing that $4 Million to $10 or $20 Million per year. As you can imagine, this would hardly hurt the balance that Dr. Griffin is striving to achieve. NASA Centennial Challenges has many modest-sized prize ideas with potentially big payoffs, as can be seen here. There are many other modest but worthwhile prize ideas to pursue, too - adding to the Google Lunar X PRIZE (eg: bonus prizes for achieving NASA goals such as measurements or engineering demonstrations of interest to the NASA Moon program), adding to the Lunar Lander Challenge if some of that prize is won this year, prizes for improvements to suborbital vehicles, etc.

I'll also mention that more mainstream prize proposals tend to favor prizes with an identifiable commercial, as well as NASA, follow-on market for the winner than the $100 Billion Mars Prize that Dr. Griffin described. With modest size, a believable market, and a suitably difficult but publicity-generating challenge, prizes can work out quite well.

In summary, it would be helpful for Administrator Griffin to enthusiastically talk up his own Centennial Challenges program, rather than making prizes seem over the top. There isn't much he can do in a speech to help most NASA programs, since publicity doesn't matter much for them, especially as they are being developed, but it is important for prizes. I'd also recommend checking out some of the serious academic papers listed on this site, or some others in the economics and policy literature.

Administrator Griffin also discusses commercial suborbital vehicles.

“If I was still at the helm of NASA when such a service became available, I would guarantee you that we would use it to begin entry-level training of astronauts.”

That's a good idea, but why wait until after the service becomes available? It's highly debatable whether or not this industry will get on its feet, and if it does, whether or not U.S. companies will be involved. I'd suggest that NASA should be proactive in encouraging this industry, in particular (since NASA is funded by U.S. taxpayers) U.S. suborbital companies or related businesses. So, why not have a serious NASA effort to explore what suborbital services it wants, what are the technical characteristics of the rides it wants, and what would it be willing to pay for these services? This wouldn't be a contract - it would just be a statement of intention, subject to the usual ups and downs of the business - to try to clarify the business situation for investors, and the engineering challenge for engineers. Is NASA interested in astronaut training flights? How many? What flight profiles would be acceptable, and what are the payment tradeoffs? Is NASA interested in flying microgravity experiments? What about funding University microgravity experiments? How many, how big, how long should the flights be, and so on? Is NASA interested in making Earth observation measurements on suborbital flights for satellite calibration purposes, or for direct science? Are they interested in taking atmospheric samples? Astronomical observations? Instrument testing? Aeronautical testing? What payloads need people, and what can be done unmanned? What systems would NASA be willing to develop to attach to the vehicles if it looks like they're going to really be developed?

I'd like to see more NASA-industry discussions, and a NASA document that lays it all out so industry knows what NASA wants, and what it can bring to the table.

Not only that, but it would be interesting to see NASA show its interest in buying commercial space services by buying existing services from Zero Gravity Corporation, UP Aerospace, JP Areospace ... just to show that all this talk of buying services from entrepreneurial space companies is in all seriousness. If NASA doesn't need the actual services, maybe they would fit in nicely with NASA University outreach programs.

Finally, Griffin talked about COTS, a model for giving industry incentives when their services haven't been created ... yet.

Griffin talked about the role of government in helping enable new markets in space, specifically citing the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) efforts currently underway. “To me, this is exactly analogous to the way that government policy—enlightened public policy—spurred the aviation industry of the 20th century."

One potential problem with COTS is that it's directed at 2 specific companies with their own strengths and weaknesses, with a particular technical goal. Also, it isn't a whole lot of money for the enormous challenge of developing a launch vehicle and a spacecraft to reach the ISS. If RpK fails, I'd take a very serious and skeptical look at how much time and NASA funding any follow-on company will need to achieve their business and technical objectives. I wouldn't just give them X dollars because that's what RpK left over.

I'd also suggest that orbital launch services aren't the only area where the COTS model is applicable. I'd probably try the COTS model in a few other NASA business areas - perhaps ones that are significantly less challenging (and costly) than ISS resupply, given the funding that NASA has available.

In summary, I'm glad Dr. Griffin is talking and thinking so much about economics and space. I hope he's thinking a lot more about what he can do to improve the situation now, while the time is right, and while he can do something about it at NASA, rather than letting most of the decisions to buy commercial space services or present incentives to space companies to make new services wait until after the NASA Moon base is built.