Planetary Radio • Apr 05, 2024

Space Policy Edition: Real and Acceptable Reasons for Space Exploration

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Michael d griffin official portrait

Michael Griffin

Former Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Casey dreier tps mars

Casey Dreier

Chief of Space Policy for The Planetary Society

Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin joins the Space Policy Edition to discuss his notable 2007 speech outlining the tension between so-called “real” and “acceptable” reasons for space exploration.

“Acceptable” reasons for space exploration are logical, policy-friendly justifications such as workforce development, technology spinoffs, and STEM engagement. They are quantifiable and dispassionate — the Vulcans of arguments.

However, Griffin argues that the essence of humanity's drive to explore space is the “real” reasons, which are intuitive, emotional, and grand. They have value but are hard to quantify. These include the innate human desire for competitiveness, curiosity, and the urge to leave lasting legacies through monumental achievements.

Why do we have this dichotomy? What in the system itself prefers acceptable reasons over real reasons? And how can we leverage the relative strengths of both systems to be better space advocates?

Looking Homeward
Looking Homeward NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, Expedition 24 flight engineer, looks through a window in the Cupola of the International Space Station. A blue and white part of Earth and the blackness of space are visible through the windows. The image was a self-portrait using natural light.Image: NASA


Casey Dreier: Hello and welcome to the Space Policy edition of Planetary Radio, the monthly show where we explore the politics and processes behind space exploration. I'm Casey Dreier, the chief of space policy here at The Planetary Society, and I am very excited about today's guest and today's topic, which has just been a not necessarily obsession of mine, but of ongoing interest, it's Dr. Mike Griffin. He was the former NASA Administrator under George W. Bush from 2005 to 2009, and most recently the former Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering where he helped establish the Space Development Agency within the Space Force. Dr. Griffin gave a speech back in 2007 that has greatly influenced how I think about communicating the value of spaceflight and the value of space science. It's called, Space Exploration, Real Reasons and Acceptable Reasons. The idea is that there is a dichotomy between how we justify spaceflight within our political system and the actual reasons for doing it, which tend not to map as well. His so-called Real Reasons. The acceptable reasons are the ones that we can all list off the top of our head. The economic value, the technological spinoffs, the inspiration and motivation for future STEM leaders. All sorts of very measurable, practical, useful things that are true but tend to maybe miss the point, or at least as Mike Griffin would call them, derive from the ultimate reasons, the real reasons, the things that we might even call right-brained reasons, for lack of a better term. The idea to do something, contribute to something bigger than oneself, to pursue the sublime, to discover and seek out things that satisfy our curiosity that are innate to human existence to help contribute something greater to the future of the species than we might otherwise do. To basically make you feel something that maybe we don't normally feel in society. Now, these can all feel like somewhat wishy-washy or subjective things, and they are, but this is something that our founder, Carl Sagan, I think trafficked in expertly, this aspect of ourselves that is hard to quantify, but doesn't mean it's any less important. And what has fascinated me over the years with this idea of real and acceptable reasons is that the way that we justify ultimately public investment into space flight inadvertently devalues these experiential aspects. And the older I've gotten in life, and the more that I've experienced, the more I savor and truly value the invaluable, the hard to quantify, the difficult, these subjective aspects of being. And I think our culture itself has in a sense moved away with it and become more, in a sense, quantified as we traffic in a world of information. And I don't know if this is necessarily the only way to talk about space flight or that we shouldn't move away from talking about the acceptable reasons, but I wonder if there are opportunities to further express and prioritize and highlight the real motivations for going into space, to talk about the things that may seem uncool or may seem unfashionable, the earnest aspects of human existence that space flight can touch upon, the things that stick with you, the things that are inexpressible, the things that you think about at night as you fall asleep about the vastness of the universe. These are all something that really no other endeavor can touch upon. So this is why I had Mike Griffin who gave this speech back in 2007 on the show today to discuss these ideas and his thinking behind it and his evolution of that thinking over the years and where it has worked and where it hasn't, and perhaps give space advocates like ourselves something to think about when we go to our friends, to our representatives in government, to anybody to say, how are we talking about these? What are the systems that we've created for our societies and what do they inherently value or not? And how can we change these conversations to create opportunities to resonate these ideas with something bigger than ourselves? That's what Dr. Mike Griffin will talk about today. But first, something far more practical and acceptable, which is that The Planetary Society, my organization, the organization that creates and enables this show is an independent member supported organization. That means we don't have big corporate money. That means we don't get government money. That means we exist because of listeners like you. So if you are a member already, first, thank you. You literally enable this all to be, we would not exist without you. If you are not a member, I hope you consider joining. Memberships at The Planetary Society are open to anybody, and they start at just $4 a month at And this is something, again, that if we didn't have your support, we would not exist to be able to talk about really exciting ideas, to promote these aspects of spaceflight, to pursue interesting technological concepts and fly light sails and just share our passion, beauty and joy of spaceflight. So again, if you are a member, thank you. And if you are not a member and are just thinking about it, take a look, Lots of great reasons, very lots of good acceptable reasons to join The Planetary Society, but at the end of the day, the real reason being part of something bigger than yourself that wants to make the world's, plural, more exciting and more accessible for everybody. So I hope you consider it, thank you. And now my discussion with Dr. Mike Griffin, former NASA administrator on his speech, Spaceflight, the Real Reasons and Acceptable Reasons. Dr. Mike Griffin, thank you so much for joining us today on the Space Policy edition.

Mike Griffin: You're welcome.

Casey Dreier: Well, we're here to talk about a speech that you gave a few years ago now but has resonated with me and it sounds like many others over the years, which is the idea, and in a sense, defining this dichotomy of how we talk about and justify space exploration, which you will just use your parlance today for real reasons and acceptable reasons. And for anyone who hasn't read or listened to your speech, why don't you just quickly summarize what you define as real and acceptable reasons for spaceflight in terms of how we talk about them, particularly in the United States.

Mike Griffin: Well, very briefly, it came to me that everything that we do with public funding, everything we do as a society, now I'm a free market conservative, and so I'm fully in support of private enterprise, but rationally there are things which are important to societies which don't look good on a balance sheet and if they are important to society, then they must be done by the government and they must be done with public funding. And the justification for the expenses that go with public funding are always, in my experience, detailed analytical as rationally justified as possible, even if from my perspective, they are actually stupid justifications, there is always an attempt made to justify them with numbers and analysis. And so I call those broadly acceptable reasons, and any given person would disagree with any given budget expenditure, but there is always an attempt to, if you will, create a trail of breadcrumbs between what's desired and why we're doing it. On the other hand, much of what human beings really do from falling in love with your spouse to why you prefer to play golf rather than tennis, to, fill in the blank, is governed by, I'm going to say emotional considerations, intuitive considerations. Those intuitive considerations may well be, I hope they are, informed by your education and your analysis, but in the end, you do them because you want to. And I call those the real reasons. And I'm saying that the desire to explore space, to look past the next frontier, which is an extraordinarily human characteristic, it's motivated really by real reasons. And we try to go back and we try to justify it with analysis, but that's just nonsense. We do it because we're driven to do it. And I pointed out in the speech that it creates many, many benefits. I don't want to redo the speech here, I'd have to reread it, but it creates many benefits for us that we would never get if we thought only analytically.

Casey Dreier: Well, your contention, and we'll link to your speech for anyone who wants to read it, and it's not a long speech, and I think it's worth reading still, but your contention is that in a sense that we've inverted the argument. And just to kind of rephrase some of what you're saying here, particularly in space, that we are leading with acceptable reasons, with analytical reasons in order to quietly justify the real reasons. But it's always a bit of a stretch, it's always a bit of a belabored effort [inaudible 00:10:36].

Mike Griffin: That's exactly right, because you can't really construct. With present technology, the term commercial space, which is heavily overused and mostly in inapplicable, it's almost an oxymoron except for commercial communication satellites. So we talk about commercial space as if there was a viable business plan there and there's just not. There are no stronger space cadets than I, but you can't justify it on a balance sheet.

Casey Dreier: You have a monopsony purchaser of the government, right? [inaudible 00:11:12], yeah.

Mike Griffin: That's right, because again, space exploration doesn't grace a corporate balance sheet. And for those things that don't look good on a balance sheet, if society wants them done, it's going to have to be paid for by the taxpayers of that society and administered by, one hopes, competent government officials.

Casey Dreier: I mean, you described yourself as a free market conservative and it's almost, I mean, the market doesn't necessarily even have... You don't make arguments in a sense necessarily within a market. The market, at least as I would characterize it, and I'm curious if you agree, the market kind of acts as it does through its space set of that individually motivate people. And you can't really describe it as a one thing because then-

Mike Griffin: No, it's not. It's-

Casey Dreier: ... it's kind of a natural expression of thousands and millions of different motivations and intents.

Mike Griffin: That's right. Billions of people in one way or another engage in transactions in the free market. And the result is what we observe at a macro scale, but any individual actor chooses as he or she wishes, but what we refer to as the free market is the sum of all those. Now, my point would be that one of those actors, any given actor might be a business which is trying to make money. Well, businesses with stupid business plans don't live long enough... I mean, they don't make money and they don't live long enough to continue making mistakes. So businesses have to make a profit in order to continue to be businesses. So there are constraints around that. You have to have people who are willing to invest their money in your business idea, they have to have some reasonable expectation of a return on their investment. The investment has to pay back within reasonable time scales, and those can vary. The greater the reward that you expect, the more you're willing to wait, but you're not willing to die before you get rewarded. So there are constraints around free market business plans that simply do not address everything that a society might want to do collectively for its future benefit, maybe for the benefit of my grandchildren. I'll give you a very humdrum example, which any of your listeners can look at on the internet and verify my facts. The Hoover Dam was put into operation in, as I recall, 1937. If you look at the, I guess it's The Hoover Foundation, whatever, you'll find that it began to pay back in 1987. So no rational financial investor is going to invest in the Hoover Dam construction and early operation of it with the expectation that they would get payback in 1987. That's just not going to work. But I don't know that I would find any sensible individual who thinks that the United States of America should not have developed the Hoover Dam. It essentially created the modern American Southwest. That was worth doing, in my judgment at any rate, that was worth doing. But it is not a doable thing by the free market, and that's the difference I'm trying to illustrate.

Casey Dreier: Right. And I agree, and I think it's almost... Might it kind of suggest that the free market's kind of its own thing. It's not a place where you argue what it should or shouldn't do.

Mike Griffin: It does what the integration of all investors and participants in it do.

Casey Dreier: Right. And so by being a public activity for space, I think that we're in a sense stuck with or limited to this discourse of public debate. And I think this is what's really interesting about how you frame this dichotomy of how we then present the reasons of why we do things. Because the system itself is... The old phrase, "The medium is the message." And the medium of public policy is analysis and discussion and numbers and logic in the ideal case. And so how do we then try to apply... I mean, of course we would try to apply these so-called acceptable reasons within that medium because anything else would be almost. By the very essence of how the system works, it does not accept deeper subjective appeals to emotion. That seems to be, in a sense, the problem of trying to overlay these two things.

Mike Griffin: So I may be an engineer's engineer, but I recognize that much of what we do is driven by reasons that we can't quantify because they may be inherently not quantifiable or they may be quantifiable by some more superior intelligence, but we haven't managed it.

Casey Dreier: Right. I mean that's also the aspect of this, that things that are measurable are what gets talked about then in these systems [inaudible 00:16:12]-

Mike Griffin: Well, we measure what we can measure.

Casey Dreier: Right, exactly. And the things that are inherently difficult to measure just are, it's almost tautological, but then are difficult to measure and therefore to quantify. And again, I think that's what fascinates me about this whole concept that you put forward of that, the things that are hard in a sense to quantify are implicitly, potentially explicitly, devalued in the system that we have to-

Mike Griffin: Well, they are explicitly devalued in modern society. They are, they are devalued on purpose in society because they are not easily measurable and therefore judgeable. But my point was that doesn't make them unimportant.

Casey Dreier: Right. And I think that's the interesting thing about, then how do you... And this is again what I grapple with, so I mean obviously as a space advocate myself and someone who tries to communicate and convince people about the value of this, this idea that can we appeal to these other aspects of inherent values that are not easily in a sense, measurable. And let's just state out a few examples just so our listeners have concrete ideas about exactly what we talk about. So you list in your speech, at least as a starting point, some real reasons for space flight being, monument building, competition, the curiosity. I would even add the opportunity for the sublime, which we don't have much in our modern society either. This comparison of something greater than ourselves. And then acceptable reasons being the litany that I can list off, or any one of us can list off, scientific value, STEM development, workforce improvements, economics, jobs, all the things that we lead with. But the big picture things, these ideas, these long-term concepts of meaning almost are what can stir something more deeply within an individual. And let me just rephrase this as a question to your experience. So I mean, after you pitched this or gave this speech, I mean you were an NASA administrator, you had to work deeply within these systems of public policy to fight for your own budgets and fight for your priorities. How would you approach these systems? Would you try to appeal to acceptable reasons or would you start to pursue real reasons? And did you see a difference or preference for one over the other in your personal experience?

Mike Griffin: Well, people I think somewhat misunderstand the role of the head of any agency, not just NASA, the head of any agency in government. As a political appointee, you are required to implement the plans of those who represent the elected leader, in the United States, the President, and somehow you have to mesh that in the United States with what Congress wants to do. And there are always compromises. But you have, as the head of an agency, only a very limited ability to put your own stamp on the direction in which the agency goes and in what its priorities are. I probably did that more than most, and I was not, in my judgment notably successful. And as I say, I probably pushed that more than most, in part because President Bush was willing to listen to what I had to say. But you're quite lucky, as an agency head, you're quite lucky if people even ask your opinion on what should be done. And I'm not being snarky, and that's not a joke. So my advocacy was generally restricted to trying to explain to the Congress why it was that we needed A, B, and C to accomplish what the nation's space policy was. It largely was not an exercise where I was enunciating what I thought policy should be. People really misunderstand the role of an agency head.

Casey Dreier: No, that's worth exploring. And I think that's an important... I mean, you do have a certain amount of internal advocacy with the Office of Management and Budget. You're trying to argue for a piece of the pie [inaudible 00:20:32].

Mike Griffin: Yes, you are. And that's your place to argue what you want to be done and why you think it should be done. And generally speaking, you're ignored.

Casey Dreier: And I think that's important because that's coming from higher up in a sense than the White House, and this is then the difficulty of-

Mike Griffin: Well, not really, the president and the chief of staff and the other close advisors to the President do not have the time to delve into the mechanics of every agency. There will be some activities that are their hobby. I devoutly hope that every president cares deeply about the Department of Defense and the intelligence community because in my view we have enemies in the world and those things come first. But presidents simply don't have the time to delve into all these workings. So the Office of Management and Budget attracts people who want to have power over whatever it is that they want to have power without having earned their way up the ladder. They get a job ad or an appointment to the Office of Management and Budget, depending on their level, and now they have very significant power over what gets done, because in the end, presidents and congresses can say what they want, it really doesn't matter, your priorities are what you spend your money on. Just as in your home life, regardless of what you say, your actual priorities are those things on which you spend your money, and it's the same for nations. So the Office of Management and Budget in the United States is a home for people who want to exercise power that they would not get if they had to earn their way up a corporate or an agency ladder by means of outstanding accomplishments. And so you're making your argument, but they came to the Office of Management and Budget with their own arguments and they're going to implement those unless it runs afoul of something the president wants to do. Now, right, absolutely, Casey, to your point, if the president has a particular preference on where money shall be spent, well then the OMB guy who's in charge of that area has no choice except to say, "Yes, sir." But that's a very limited number of things for any given president. I mean, president Obama wanted to instantiate Obamacare, he got it. Anybody in the OMB who felt that we should be doing something else with national medical care was out of luck with that president.

Casey Dreier: Right, but there's only a handful of top priorities from the White House [inaudible 00:23:22]-

Mike Griffin: There's only a handful of top priorities that any given president can care about.

Casey Dreier: Mm-hmm. And I would imagine the people at the OMB aren't the most sympathetic to real reasons of doing things.

Mike Griffin: They may be, but if they are, it doesn't show. Okay? Because their own real reasons, they're in control of the budget and you're always arguing, as an agency head for any agency, it's not just NASA, you're always arguing up till against somebody who has their own reasons. And those could be "acceptable reasons" or "real reasons", but they're theirs, they're not yours.

Casey Dreier: Right. So where does this come... I mean, just for the purposes of this discussion, because I think one of the values of thinking this way of real and acceptable reasons is in terms of how we talk to different audiences and what we're really talking about when we try to justify the value of something. So putting aside the difficulties of the OMB structure within the federal government, [inaudible 00:24:27]-

Mike Griffin: The mechanics of government may not be of that much interest to your listeners.

Casey Dreier: Well, I mean that's kind of why they listen to the show. And if they're not, then they're probably listening to the wrong show. I mean, because this is the essence of it, because this is, at the end of the day, because controls what does happen, and this is why I am so interested in that the structures themselves, not even... The individuals within them are in a sense expressions of the structure and the structures we've created in our democracy select for these so-called acceptable reasons.

Mike Griffin: That's exactly right.

Casey Dreier: And then it inherently then puts at a disadvantage, things like spaceflight that are real reason motivated and they're inverted and put into, they're kind of twisted into the structures to be appropriate to them. And this is where maybe this kind of maybe raises the bigger question of, how do we then as democracies invest in these types of activities, if the very system we've devised for ourselves is at best hesitant to accept it, the motivations for something? And I'll focus down on something because I think this is something interesting to me too. The real reasons that you identify tend to be, to me, very personal and subjective, and you stated the same thing, and I agree with that completely. But can a society, in a diverse democratic society will that work if you don't have, in a sense, a monoculture that you can just assume shares the same values at a certain level? Can you use those as... Can you just assume anyone else... I mean, I think this is why we tend to default to acceptable reasons. You can say, "Well, here's the numbers," and theoretically you can't argue with numbers. I mean, there's always some, you can move those around. But at some base level, you're using a system that is somewhat dispassionate, somewhat objective, somewhat external to the subjective experience of others, and that's why you try to convince people with it. But if people don't share your values, they don't just say, "Oh, I don't think space... I'm not curious." How can you then levy curiosity as a fundamental value? I mean, I think in a bigger sense, in a democracy, can this work?

Mike Griffin: Well, it can only if a substantial majority, not everybody, but a substantial majority shares a particular value. And I mean, Apollo was created at a time, the early 1960s and in a place the United States where broadly speaking, for at least a few years, people were motivated by national pride to overcome the technological beating that they had taken by the Soviet Union. I mean, I was eight years old when Sputnik was launched, and I remember quite well, I mean, how could you not remember? Newspapers were coming out with headlines that occupied the top third of the page and commentators spoke of little else, and for several years thereafter, overcoming what we viewed as a gap between our performance and that of the Soviet Union was something that was broadly shared by Americans. And that's why I've often referred to Apollo and human spaceflight generally as actually a national security program, not in the sense of having better guns and bombs, but being able to demonstrate your societal superiority so that you don't have to resort to guns and bombs because other people don't think they can win.

Casey Dreier: It's the plumage on a peacock basically is the Apollo... In that context, it's the feathers.

Mike Griffin: That's right. The peacock spreads its feathers to impress its adversaries that, it's not a good idea to attack me. Exactly. That is almost the ultimate non-quantifiable reason. So yes, the society has to have, broadly speaking, a majority has to share certain values. Personally, in my opinion, I don't know that these values have ever been better stated by an American leader than they were by John Kennedy in his September 1962 speech at Rice University. Whereas part of that speech, he talks about not just space, but other things the administration is doing on the technological and exploratory frontier. And he said, "Why do we do these things? We do them not because they are easy, but because they are hard." A famous speech, I was once privileged to give a speech at that same podium that was used by President Kennedy. For whatever other virtues and faults he had, as the historical record has emerged, that particular speech resonated with me and I think many others of the time and later times, there is value in overcoming those things which are hard. I believe it was George Mallory who was asked, "Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?" And he said, "Because it's there." And why is Tennyson's poem Ulysses so compelling as he ends the poem with the phrase, "To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield." There's something very, very compellingly human about that phrase. I love that poem. And you have to say, I have come to the conclusion, I could easily be wrong, I'm so often wrong, but I've come to the conclusion that this trait is a survival value for the human race that urge to see what is over the next hill, to climb the next mountain, sail the next sea, is very hazardous to individual humans, but very beneficial to the race because it expands our range of human activity and provides resilience. An earthquake can wipe out Los Angeles, but it can't wipe out the United States. Well, an earthquake could wipe out the Great Rift Valley in Eastern Africa, and at the right time could have wiped out essentially every human on earth or human to be on earth. But an earthquake can't wipe out the whole earth. And in that sense, the urge to explore and to settle and to pioneer new territories is what has given us the earth. And so I think there actually is an analytical reason behind what I've classified as a real reason, but it is so hard to quantify that, what is the survival value to the human race of being willing to risk their material fortunes in their lives to extend the frontier? How do you quantify that survival value? I'm convinced it's there, and I'll be the very first to admit I don't know how to measure it.

Casey Dreier: I mean, that's ultimately, I think the best argument for human spaceflight in the long run, which is what you mentioned before of [inaudible 00:31:54]-

Mike Griffin: And I'm a long run guy. I'm the opposite of an instant gratification guy.

Casey Dreier: Well, this is what... Hey, you have enough degrees, I think that that's clearly the case.

Mike Griffin: No, that was always fun for me. But there are people who play the short game and people that play the long game, and I'm always looking at the long term, it's how I'm constructed. I don't know that that's a benefit for everybody. Somebody's got to be paying attention to what the next summer's crops are going to be, and I'm not that guy.

Casey Dreier: We'll be right back with the rest of our Space Policy edition of Planetary Radio after this short break. This is Casey Dreier, the chief of Space Policy here at The Planetary Society, inviting you to join me, my colleagues, and other members of The Planetary Society this April 28th and 29th in Washington DC for our annual Day of Action. This is an opportunity for you to meet your members of Congress face-to-face and advocate for space science, for space exploration, and the search for life. Registration closes on April 15th, so do not delay. I so much hope to see you there at our Day of Action in Washington DC this April 28th and 29th. Learn more at Well, this is where, again, I think it's interesting in terms of the systems we've devised for ourselves and what they highlight and what they don't. I was going to ask, in a sense, since you gave the speech, which was a good 15 or so years ago now, if you-

Mike Griffin: I think it was 17 years ago.

Casey Dreier: 17 years ago, if you've evolved on that thinking and where you've seen it take root, because I would add, we talked a little bit about the commercial space growth, and I know you debate that term, but the, just for shorthand, I think the growth of perceived commercial space in the United States and elsewhere. But companies like SpaceX really have embraced the real reason. I mean, their stated reason is to settle Mars and everything else falls beyond that. And regardless of what they kind of do in the short term, that is the organizing principle that I think, to your point in the speech, brings them the best employees, brings the best engineers, brings them people who are willing to work 80, 100-hour weeks for not extra pay, who are hyper focused and have that, I think, relationship to monument building too. Like, "We're going to be the ones to contribute to make species multi planetary."

Mike Griffin: I mean, I agree. Elon Musk and I would have far more differences than we would have alignment, and we're not friends, to put it mildly. But yes, Elon states publicly often that his goal was to take humans to Mars, and I understand that.

Casey Dreier: Well, and I think my point with this in particular is that that's a company, not even a publicly traded company, but that is this relationship in a sense that it's these real reasons that resonate-

Mike Griffin: Well, you couldn't do that kind of a thing with a publicly trade company.

Casey Dreier: Well, exactly, right. And we clearly see-

Mike Griffin: It wouldn't be responsible behavior to the stockholder.

Casey Dreier: Right. And so this is I guess my point is where is this domain that we can apply these real reasons to? And my challenge is that we can see then the public sector being generally resistant to this because it has this broad swath of, it's a large group dynamic, and it defaults to acceptable reasons, whereas we've seen the increasing power and capability of at least private sector space, I think we agree on that term, or at least privately controlled space. That's where you've seen this take root, because Blue Origin's in a similar, at least on paper, a similar framing.

Mike Griffin: Yeah, Jeff Bezos has... I've been in the audience when Jeff Bezos has remarked, and he's often remarked on it in print, that he wanted to become a successful businessman so that he could put the money into space exploration.

Casey Dreier: Yeah. And so-

Mike Griffin: [Inaudible 00:35:55].

Casey Dreier: So you talk a lot about cathedrals as kind of the example of space exploration being a modern cathedral in your speech. And it's almost too, the people who were funding cathedrals, that wasn't a democracy back then. And this is where I see the challenge being of, how do you impress a real reason on a group rather than an individual, or are we limited to finding ways to empower individuals or small groups of people to serve that role? And that may be too much... I am not going so far as to say we just give up on the public sphere for this, but we've clearly seen these real reasons take root outside of the public sphere in the last 20 years versus the larger group dynamic.

Mike Griffin: I think that's good, but it only works as long as the particular individual is sufficiently well resourced and still alive to carry out their purpose.

Casey Dreier: It's certainly risky, right? Yeah, with all the... Yeah.

Mike Griffin: And you made a point just to... I don't want to bet the outcome of societal functions and capabilities on an individual, you made a point just a moment ago that I took note. Yes, I used cathedrals in my speech as I plucked it out of my brain intuitively, because they took, in some cases, centuries to complete. And you made the point that they were not done by democratic societies, absolutely not. So there's no possible way that any king, any autocrat, any tyrant, there's no possible way that such a person can establish an enterprise that takes many decades longer than he or she will live up to centuries to complete, unless the society as a whole actually shares that value. I mean, the next autocrat will come along and do something different, but they didn't. They finished the Notre Dame Cathedral. And you know what? After the fire a few years back, they're close to getting it back online. Why is France doing that? Why did the rest of the world contribute money to France to help rebuild the Notre Dame Cathedral? That's what I'm talking about. And again, I'm just an engineer, but these things seem to me to be rooted in the actual construction of what we are as human beings and therefore can't be ignored. It is what we are.

Casey Dreier: In your experience, I mean, you again, in the speech 17 years ago, you highlight that we live, and particularly in America, in a cynical society, and I think that's only grown more so in the intervening years, particularly in the rise of social media.

Mike Griffin: Well, our engagements in Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf War, the second Gulf War, do not encourage a lot of non-cynics. I'll just say that.

Casey Dreier: Well, and as you point out, it's healthy to have a certain amount of cynicism. I remember very vividly one journalist describing, I think it was when James Webb Space Telescope launched, "Seeing," I'm paraphrasing, "NASA is this bastion of earnestness in a profoundly cynical society," and in a refreshing way. And I think in a sense, I wonder if that's almost a hook back into establishing and highlighting and celebrating these real reasons of spaceflight, is that it's almost a counterpoint to trends of our society that are leaving us more dejected and angry and isolated, that these real reasons push back against all of those. Even-

Mike Griffin: They do, they do push back.

Casey Dreier: ... curiosity, monument building feelings like you were doing something with meaning. And that to me, just to kind of bring this back, I see as an opportunity to, if not in the public policy sphere, maybe in the public sphere, to raise these as salient values.

Mike Griffin: I wish that could be done more often and by people who are better at it than I am because if I were better at it, we would already have large bases on the moon and have made the first trips to Mars, so I've failed. But to your point about cynicism earlier, I love the famous quote by, at least attributed to Oscar Wilde, "That a cynic is a person who understands the price of everything and the value of nothing." Price is quantifiable and value [inaudible 00:40:30].

Casey Dreier: Right. And well, again, I just want to go back to your experience. So after NASA, I mean, you've done a number of things in the private sector, but also at the Department of Defense. Just out of curiosity, when you were in that role, you helped establish the Space Development Agency and some of these more experimental and interesting dynamic aspects as Space Force was being established. Was that all acceptable reason, discussion at that level? Is national security space purely a means of acceptable discussion? Is there any role for, so-called real reasons within that? What was your experience in that sphere compared to NASA?

Mike Griffin: Well, national security space, for me at least, is about the acceptable reasons, and I'm the motivating force behind the Space Development Agency, yes. I would say Dr. Derek Tournear has done a wonderful job of turning that vision into concrete hardware, and so I take no credit for that. But at that time, acting Secretary of Defense, Patrick Shanahan totally got it when I made the case on why we needed a new agency, and he backed me all the way, but for me, it was about acceptable reasons. So for me, a National Security Space program is pretty much about acceptable reasons.

Casey Dreier: Right, an entirely different domain [inaudible 00:41:53]-

Mike Griffin: An entirely different domain. I mean, now, yeah, there's a real reason involved at the very top of the pile, which is, do you value your society or not? I mean, if you don't really think we have something to contribute to the human race, maybe we should just seek surrender terms now because we're spending a lot of money to try to make sure that those societies in the world that share what we call Western values or values close to those, we spend a lot of money trying to make sure that those values are preserved, meaning we don't have to surrender. But if you don't think that our shared Western values are worthy of being promulgated down to future generations, then we should just seek terms. So yeah, there's a real reason at the top end of this.

Casey Dreier: Yeah. Pivoting a little bit to the civil space side of this, in the relationship of the global sphere, where have you seen that, I mean, either through your experience as NASA administrator or outside of that, where have you seen these bigger real reasons resonate? Or have you in other nations? The framing of your speech is a very US-centric one, reasonably, you're speaking to a US audience, but thinking more broadly, do you see opportunity or challenge?

Mike Griffin: Other societies, people from other countries have, on many occasions, told me how much they love that speech. Few people go into the space business thinking that they're going to make a lot of money or thinking that they're going to be lionized by their society or that they're going to make the Time 100 or whatever your criteria are for that kind of gratification. Few people enter the space business for such reasons. They do it because it's exciting, it's forward-looking, it's at the frontiers of what's possible. Some of what we want to do turns out to be beyond the frontiers of what was possible. Those are motivating factors that I see in people. They want to join the space business to make a difference, and that's not restricted to Americans. So many, many people have told me how much they like that speech. I've gotten more attention for that speech, that one speech, than any of well over a hundred that I've given over the years.

Casey Dreier: Well, there's your monument building right there [inaudible 00:44:30]-

Mike Griffin: I wasn't trying to do that. The story behind that speech is maybe a little bit humorous and indicative of my own limitations, so I'll tell it here for your audience. Some people have heard it before, but most have not. My good friend and former astronaut, and at that time in 2007, early 2007 was the director of Johnson Space Center, retired Navy Captain Mike Coats. And there was an event in Houston by the, I forget the name of the group, to be honest with you. It was an event-

Casey Dreier: I think it was the Quasar Award Dinner by the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership.

Mike Griffin: Wow, thank you very much. Casey.

Casey Dreier: I've done my homework on this.

Mike Griffin: I've given more speeches than I have the IQ to recall. Anyway, so Mike had asked me to come down and give a speech for that occasion, and I promised to do so. Well, the work up to all that was in late 2006, early 2007 and the president's budget was getting ready to come out, and there had been an unusual amount of argument over what the NASA budget was going to be and what it would support, and what were the priorities. Bottom line, in that period of time for a period of several weeks, I was almost totally consumed by dealing with the OMB. So I did not, as was my normal habit, I did not have time to write a speech. And I never did two speeches that were the same thing, and even if I took a written draft from someone else, as I frequently did, by the time I got done editing it, it was my speech. But often I would just sit down and write them. So [inaudible 00:46:16], I get on the airplane and I'm thinking, I'll write a speech on the airplane going down to Houston. And right before I got on the airplane, I got a late breaking task, again, from the OMB, and I had to work that off. So I spent the entire time on the airplane working that task. So I arrive in Houston, drive to the place where I'm supposed to give the speech, and I have no speech. So I'm sitting at the table with Mike, who looks over at me and I'm scrawling a few notes, literally a few notes on a cocktail napkin. It's almost a trope, something on the back of a napkin. Well, that's literally what I was doing. I was making four or five notes of things I didn't want to forget to talk about on the back of a cocktail napkin. So Mike looks over at me and says, "Griffin, what are you doing?" And I said, "Well, I'm working on my speech." And he said, "You came down here to my event without a speech, you have no speech? Why did I depend upon you to have a speech?" And I said, "I don't know, but this is what I've got." So I stood up and gave the speech off the top of my head with those notes. So immediately after people kept coming up to me and saying, before I could even get out of the audience, they wanted a copy. And I said, "Well, I don't have a copy. There's no copy." And Mike heard that, came over and said, "Well, I had it recorded, so how about if I have it transcribed for you and we'll send it up to you and you can edit it." And he did that. And so I took out the ums and the hmms and all the stuff, but otherwise I didn't touch it because I didn't want to mess it up. I figured anything I did would just make it worse. And then the Smithsonian asked for it and published a slightly edited version of that, and NASA put it on the NASA website pretty much exactly as I did it, and it got more attention than anything else I ever did that I had put in way more effort. I mean, I can't tell you... I'm not a good writer, I'm a really bad writer. And so when I want to do a speech, it costs me an enormous amount of effort, far more than it ought to take. And so I put less effort into this and got more out of it than anything I've ever done.

Casey Dreier: There's an interesting lesson to take away from that. Well, I mean, it kind of perfectly matches... You, in a sense, opened up the earnest real reasons for doing things. You kind of had a direct conduit to what you were feeling about this versus overthinking it. And you even frame it a bit as this kind of left brain, right brain dichotomy. And I think that says, I mean, it's kind of appropriate to the message itself, it strikes me that it-

Mike Griffin: I guess so I would've never written that speech if I had sat down to write a speech. I'm glad you like it. I'm really glad others have liked it, but I have in the 17 years since, every time somebody reminds me of the speech or asks for a copy, I'm confronted by my own inadequacy and my own feelings that, I write so poorly, and it is so difficult for me and yet that speech was a big hit. I mean, how does that happen? It just seems so unfair.

Casey Dreier: Well, let me, just to wrap this up today, I think that's a good anecdote for this and a good lesson for people not to work too hard on their speeches when they give it. When, I'm sure you've been approached as I have over the years, with people who will come up and challenge you as to, why the US should spend money on NASA when there are so many other problems in the world, just to paraphrase that type of question. And we've all gotten this to some variation of aggression. And thinking about the response, what type of answer do you think a person like that is seeking? Do they want a real answer? Because my instinct is to respond with the acceptable reasons, and those always feel a bit inadequate as a response.

Mike Griffin: There's no acceptable reason you can give them, because what they want you to do is to say, "No, you're right. We should be spending the money on," and then you can fill in the blank for what their choice is. Because the fact of the matter is that human beings only have so many hours in a day, and the entire human race has only so much resources, and there are many worthy things, many things worthy of doing that don't get done because we run out of time, run out of money, run out of brains, whatever. That's just a fact. It has always been, and it always will be. And they want you to admit that your choice is specious and that their choice is better, and you're not going to win that argument. I don't even try. I'm known to be somewhat dismissive, not a good trait, but I'm known for that, and I fall back on the Rolls-Royce argument. If you have to ask how much it costs, you can't afford to buy it. If you have to ask why things like exploration are worth doing, then you're not going to understand my answer, so I don't have time for you.

Casey Dreier: Well, Mike, I want to thank you so much for your time today and for talking about this speech that you spent so much time laboring over, but has made such a long-term impact. Thank you, Mike. Thank you for joining us. That was Mike Griffin. You can find his speech on NASA if you just Google it. We will link to it on the show notes at I hope you think about this. I hope you stew on these ideas. I have not stopped thinking about these over the years, and it continues to influence my approach to space advocacy and to just communicating space, and again, what we value and what we consider important, and being able to talk about earnest things more openly because there is something inherently meaningful about it. As always, you can find more episodes of the Space Policy Edition, as well as our weekly show, Planetary Radio of which we are part at, or on pretty much any major podcast network. If you like these shows, please subscribe to them first and listen to every single one of them. Share them with your friends and review them if you like them. That really helps us get discovered by other people. The Space Policy Edition is a production of The Planetary Society, an independent nonprofit space outreach organization based in Pasadena, California. We are membership based, as I said, and anyone, including you, can be a member and memberships start at just $4 a month at Thank you for listening, until next month, ad astra.