Sunday, November 20, 2011

Astronaut Garrett Reisman on SpaceX and the United States space program

With the space shuttle program now history, NASA intends to focus on exploration while delegating manned low earth orbit operations – including support for the International Space Station – to private ventures. The challenge for these entrants in a new kind space race? Create vehicles that are safe for manned flight. Dr. Garrett Reisman, 43, is up to that task. Born in Morristown,New Jersey and raised in Parsippany, NJ, Reisman flew aboard all three surviving shuttle orbiters and logged three months living in space aboard the ISS before leaving NASA earlier this year to join SpaceX, the aerospace firm established by PayPal founder Elon Musk. Reisman's daunting charge is to make SpaceX's manned spaceflight ambitions a reality. I spoke with Reisman while the Space Shuttle Atlantis was making its final flight. The first part of our conversation follows, with part two coming as the next installment of AEROSPACE PERCEPTIONS.

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Garrett, you grew up in the years after the Apollo program, when the national fascination with space flight and America’s space program had begun to ebb. What drew a kid growing up in northern New Jersey to pursue a path that leading to a career as a NASA astronaut?

I always was fascinated with space, and with science and technology in general. Flying and aviation was always something I was interested in. I remember at Lake Hiawatha Elementary School in Parsippany going and taking out every book they had on airplanes – reading about turn and bank indicators when I was in third grade. So it was definitely a passion of mine from early on. But I never thought of it (space?) seriously as something I could do as a career. I used to watch films of the Apollo flights – we had a Super 8 movie of Apollo 11 that I watched over and over, so many times that the film kept breaking and I'd have to patch it back together with scotch tape. The weight of the tape on the reel was probably greater than the weight of the movie! So I was inspired by all that, and what NASA had done. I never thought, “Hey, this is a career that I can pursue” because I just didn't think it was within the realm of possibility. It wasn't until later, near the end of my time as an undergraduate, that I began to think that maybe this is something that was possible. So if you'd asked me when I was in high school in NJ what I was going to be when I grew up, I would have said maybe a doctor, maybe an engineer, as I was definitely interested in science and technology – but I never would have said astronaut.
Garrett Reisman's official NASA astronaut portrait.

Currently in New Jersey and most parts of the Northeast, we’re seeing a focus politically on local issues, while the concept of national visions seems to be a legacy of the past. With that in mind, how can the space program sell itself in this political climate?

There will always remain desires as long as we remain human beings, inherent desires to explore and go further and further. No matter how much the local news is talking about fights with the teacher union versus local politicians or whatever the issue might be, there will still be a kid in the back yard looking up at the stars. That's never going to change. And I guess what it takes in the current fiscal environment to achieve some of those dreams and enable that exploration is a new way of doing business. We can't continue to spend the vast sums of money that we have in the past on space transportation without being a lot more cost effective in how we go about doing things. And that's why NASA has started this commercial space enterprise, looking to private companies like SpaceX to take the lead in transporting people off the planet.

Going forward in this post-space shuttle era, how much of the American space program will be or should be surviving on government funding?

Well, the government is the anchor tenant. So for us at SpaceX, as we're looking to develop a rocket to bring people into space, the people that are our prime customers are NASA astronauts. So what we're trying to do is develop a craft that can get NASA astronauts from Florida up to the International Space Station. SpaceX has its own skin in the game, where we're making our own investments, and that's something that's new – that's something you can do in a commercial contract with the government that the government hasn't been able to do in the past. So we're leveraging private investment, putting private money up as matching funds to the government investment and we're achieving some tremendous results that way. So, for example, it cost us a total of $300 million to develop the Falcon 9 rocket, from a blank sheet of paper – no manufacturing capability, no launch pad, nothing at all – to the first flight of this rocket. Of that $300 million, roughly half of it came from NASA and half of it from private investment, our venture capitalists who have invested in SpaceX. So for $300 million, only half of which was government funds, we developed and flew this rocket. Now NASA and the air force have a cost model, where they estimate what it would cost to develop a rocket like the Falcon 9, and when they ran that model putting in all the data that represents the Falcon 9, they came up with a cost estimate of $4 billion to do that. And that is not a surprise – that is what it's cost in the past. So we're talking about $300 million, only half of which came from taxpayers compared to $4 billion, which is how we've done business up to now. So that's what I meant before when I said that the old way of doing things has got to change. We don't have the luxury of throwing that kind of money away any more – not when every single aspect of the federal budget's being gone through with a fine-toothed comb.
Garrett Reisman speaks with the media at the SpaceX facilities near Kennedy Space Center in July, 2011. Behind Reisman is the successfully flown Dragon capsule, the foundation for SpaceX efforts going forward.

Early in the run up to the next year’s presidential elections, we've seen several candidates bring up NASA as a topic – and sometimes a target – in debates. Do you think NASA is something that can conveniently be supported or criticized depending on which way the political winds are blowing?

Oh, absolutely. NASA, as an agency, is facing a bunch of cuts just like every other federal agency. But at the same time, there's this widespread... I would almost say despondency, or a lot of doom and gloom, anyway, about the end of the space shuttle program. So we just launched the last space shuttle, a week from today it's going to land, and that's going to be it – no more ability for the United States to launch people into space. We'll have lost that capability. And the only part of NASA's budget that's being spent on doing anything about that is the Commercial Crew program. The president requested $850 million for the next fiscal year to work on this and to do something about getting Americans back into space on American rockets and stop paying the Russians $53 million per seat to get our guys up to the space station. So the president requested $850 million, the Congress, in their authorization bill last year, said, OK, $500 million. So they cut it down to $500 million. And now in the most recent appropriations bill that just went to the house this week, it got cut down to $312 million. So we're talking about putting $312 million to do something about getting Americans back into space again, compared to NASA's  budget, which is, I think, $17 billion or so. So you're talking about a tiny, tiny percentage. So the same politicians that lament the fact that we're losing the space shuttle and our country can't put people into space anymore are also giving us virtually nothing to do anything about it.

Stay tuned for the second part of this conversation with Garrett Reisman...