Marburger’s Speech

There’s been a lot of discussion over the past few days about OSTP Director John Marburger’s speech at the recent Goddard Memorial Symposium, but there were a couple of good points that I felt deserved repetition, and I also had a few thoughts I would like to add.

One of the memes that John started two years ago is the concept of extending our nation’s economic sphere throughout the Solar System. Early on in his speech, referring to the thriving commercial satellite market, John states that “Humanity has succeeded in incorporating Low and Geostationary Earth orbit in its economic sphere.” While I think he’s basically right, I’d just point out that LEO and GEO are still only on the fringes of our economic sphere. While there are a couple of (very large and profitable) niches that have been exploited in spite of the immature state of existing earth-to-orbit transportation systems, none of these markets really have succeeded in catalyzing further demand for other services in LEO and GEO. While lots of money is being made, and lots of useful services are being provided, we still have a long way to go before I’d really state that LEO and GEO are firmly within mankind’s “economic sphere”.

The most important idea from this speech is found in the next paragraph:

If we are serious about this, then our objective must be more than a disconnected series of missions, each conducted at huge expense and risk, and none building a lasting infrastructure to reduce the expense and risk of future operations. If we are serious, we will build capability, not just on the ground but in space. And our objective must be to make the use of space for human purposes a routine function.

He amplified this point a few paragraphs later:

Exploration that is not in support of something else strikes me as somehow selfish and unsatisfying, and not consistent with the fact that we are using public funds for this enterprise, no matter how small a fraction of the total budget they may be.

If the architecture of the exploration phase is not crafted with sustainability in mind, we will look back on a century or more of huge expenditures with nothing more to show for them than a litter of ritual monuments scattered across the planets and their moons.

I think that though this may not have been his intention, these quotes highlight most of my current frustration with NASA’s current approach to executing the Vision for Space Exploration. Having NASA develop its Constellation architecture means that 20 years from now, it will be just as hard for a commercial entity to get to the moon as it would be if Constellation was cancelled tomorrow. Nothing that is being done “reduces the risk or expense of future operations” or “makes the use of space for human purposes a routine function.” I’m glad that at least someone is trying to tie this all back to actual benefit to the nation. I’m also glad that John pointed out that the whole “NASA only spends less than 1% of the federal budget” line does not give NASA carte blanche to spend that money however it darned well pleases. That money is supposed to be spent in a way that furthers the national interest, preferably in a way that makes space more accessible for everyone.

Now, NASA isn’t completely neglecting its responsibility to help reduce the risk and expense of future commercial, defense, and NASA operations. They are doing such things as COTS and Centennial Challenges. And people in power seem to be finally wising-up to the idea that COTS is the only real hope for reducing the gap, and the only way to economically services the ISS once the Shuttle is finally retired. But I do think that it’s a big negative mark that the vast majority of the money NASA will spend over the next decade on Constellation has nothing to do with making the moon easier for everyone to access in the future.

There’s been talk from NASA and some of their less discerning fanboys of a “Lunar COTS”. Basically the idea is to waste $100-120B on using Constellation to setup a small ISS on the Moon, and then once its there start paying commercial entities to service said base. This creates an interesting situation. Since NASA won’t have done anything for over a decade to help make it easier for commercial entities to actually service the moon, they’ll either have to keep sustaining the base themselves while they spend the money to belatedly help develop that commercial capability. Or, if the commercial market has independently created that capability anyhow, that NASA base will likely be only a small niche market in the cislunar space. The smart thing to do would be to start finding ways to develop or promote those commercial capabilities from the start. Things like funding research or sponsoring prizes for fielding the technologies needed for propellant depots. Acting as a customer for commercial services especially on-orbit propellants. Acting as a better customer for commercially attained lunar environmental data. Finding ways to promote translunar tourism and eventually lunar orbital (or Lagrange point) stations. Finding ways consistent with federal laws to act as an anchor tenant, to champion these new technologies, to fund demonstrator missions, and even to put money aside in escrow for being a leading customer for these new capabilities.

For a short duration before Griffin got in as NASA’s administrator, NASA was actually acting in a way to more fully fulfill mandate to “promote commercial as well as international participation “to further U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests.” Under the guidance of O’keefe and Steidle, NASA setup several billion dollars worth of “Human and Robotic Technologies” research to help develop and field the technologies that would allow it to more effectively achieve its exploration goals. It was set to operate its exploration architecture in a way to leverage to the maximum extent possible existing and future commercial capabilities. To act as though NASA can’t do that is to ignore the fact that that was its very plan up until Griffin took the reins.

I guess the question boils down to what Marburger said: do we intend to extend humanity’s economic sphere of influence to include the rest of the Solar System?

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
Jonathan Goff

About Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
This entry was posted in Commercial Space, ESAS, NASA, Space Development, Space Policy. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Marburger’s Speech

  1. Michael Mealling says:

    I am quickly becoming a big Marburger fan….

  2. Keith Cowing says:

    Posting a link on NASA Watch. BTW Griffin is not NASA’s “president” 😉

  3. rburton says:

    The biggest barrier remains low cost space access, an area NASA does not seem interested in pursuing. If Dr. Marburger is serious, he will promote this area.

  4. kT says:

    John Marburger isn’t serious about anything, certainly not science, or he would have resigned long ago.

    He’s trying to salvage his reputation long past the time it is salvageable.

  5. heroine says:

    The biggest problem seems 2 B the image of a “space company” that NASA has built up when in reality most bloggers would rather have a “technology company which also uses space”. Until that changes, a return to the O’Keiffe days may be hard won.

  6. Frank Sietzen says:

    A perceptive analysis.
    However, the biggest obstacles to any “lunar COTS” is NASA’s own internal resistance to the commercial world. The LEO COTS program is struggling just to get it’s tiny $300 million.
    But if COTS can susscessfully demonstrate crew and cargo access to the ISS, then the issue will be: why does the government need to buy Orion and Ares for the same purpose at billions more/
    That day will tell the tale for the future of NASA and its commercial-friendly rhetoric.

  7. Jon Goff says:

    Thanks for the link. Yeah, Rand also pointed out that and some other grammatical errors. Thanks for the heads up.

    That’s what I get for posting so late at night. *sigh*


  8. Jon Goff says:

    Yeah, it will be interesting to see how COTS plays out. The sooner the commercial market is able to step up to the plate, the more serious the questions are going to be asked of NASA. Unfortunately, you’ll also likely see more pushback from NASA because even if everyone there were a perfect saint, they have lots of institutional disincentives against change.


  9. michael lembeck says:

    Now is the ripest time for COTS to be successful, if (and that’s a big if) there is a real market to begin with. I’ve always contended that NASA needs to “abandon LEO” in order to credibly create a “market” for commercial transportation services. You simply can’t expect investors to make resources available when NASA competes directly in the market.

    By creating, and now expanding, the so-called “gap” NASA has effectively “abandoned LEO.”

    Of course, the question remains as to whether the space station will a.) be a large enough market in and of itself, and b.) be made accessible enough for those seeking low cost access to LEO as a principal part of their business case.

    Just where is the LEO “market” and why hasn’t it generated enough pressure on its own to solve the transportation problem?

  10. Nathan Koren says:

    Michael — the LEO “market” consists of weather satellites, imaging & remote sensing satellites, communications satellites, and GPS satellites. The reason that this market hasn’t solved the transportation problem is that its demand is inelastic. Weather satellites, for example, are worth many billions of dollars on-orbit — but there don’t need to be very many of them. High launch costs have a tiny impact on their overall value, and a dramatic drop in launch costs would not spur demand for many additional weather satellites. Same goes (to a greater or lesser extent) for all of the other LEO industries. None of them particularly care about launch costs. The only entities that *do* care are the launch companies themselves, which of course would like the costs to remain high. High costs = high margins, and if the demand is constant (that is, it does not change with respect to cost) then high costs = maximum profit. Low costs would be a money-losing proposition for the launch companies, without adding much value for the other market players.

    The only thing that will change this is if highly elastic LEO markets can be developed (eg. manufacturing or tourism). In elastic markets, lower costs create much higher volumes, meaning that launch companies can increase their overall profits even as margins fall. Without elastic markets in LEO, the industry will never generate enough pressure to solve the transportation problem. Now that businesses like space tourism are on our side of the horizon, there is finally beginning to be significant pressure in that direction.

    In regards to the space station, I’d have to say that the answers to your queries are A: No, and B: No. Hopefully Bigelow will allow us to begin asking some follow-up questions along those lines…

  11. Jon Berndt says:

    A really thought-provoking analysis.

  12. Jon Goff says:

    Thanks for the kind words. Thought-provoking was exactly what I was trying for. 🙂


  13. Jon says:

    I went back and took another look at the t/Space Lunar Roadmap presentation, Creating a Frontier. Seems like that sort of lines up with some of Marburger’s points and yours, here.

    jon (berndt)

  14. Jon Goff says:

    Jon B.,
    Good find! There are lots of good points. The key one though is that while NASA’s current plan might survive long enough to return people to the moon, there are other approaches they could take that would be far more beneficial to the nation as a whole.


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