Saturday, March 20, 2021

Nelson Fills the Bill

Rep. Bill Nelson flies on the STS-61C mission in January 1986. Image source: WLRN, Miami/South Florida web site.

In nineteenth-century America, when producers found short acts to supplement the main attractions, nicely filling out an evening’s entertainment, they were said in a rhyming phrase to “fill the bill.”

— Professor Paul Brians

The White House made official yesterday what had been rumored for a month now.

Former U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) has been nominated to be the next NASA Administrator.

My February 23 blog article made clear what I think of this nomination.

I concluded, “My personal belief is that Senator Nelson is well-intentioned. But he's not the right man for this job.”

Others were involved, but Nelson remains the poster child for the pork-laden process that led to the Space Launch System.

During a March 18, 2010 Senate subcommittee hearing on U.S. commercial space capabilities, Nelson rhetorically posed the question:

What would happen if Congress decided — since the Congress controls the purse strings — that we wanted to take the $6 billion projected by the president over the next five years and use that not for human certification of the commercial vehicles but instead to accelerate the [research and development] for a heavy-lift vehicle for the Mars program?

Nelson set in motion an either/or battle between what came to be known as “OldSpace” and “NewSpace” for the future of NASA's human spaceflight progam.

A June 2020 estimate for Space Launch System costs. Image source: NASA Office of the Inspector General Infographic.

Here we are a decade later, and NASA has already spent more than $17 billion on SLS, according to a March 2020 NASA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report.

When he unveiled the SLS design in September 2011, Nelson said, “The cost of the rocket over a five- to six-year period in the NASA authorization bill was to be no more than $11.5 billion. This costs $10 billion for the rocket.”

Nelson told Bart Jansen of Florida Today on September 20, 2010, “If we can't do a rocket for $11.5 billion, we ought to close up shop.”

That was more than a decade ago. History has proven him wrong. SpaceX, and soon Blue Origin, will have heavy-lift vehicles that will render SLS all but obsolete at a fraction of the cost.

We've all said stupid things we've had to live down. But few of us have cost the taxpayers billions of dollars.

Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, who dueled with Nelson in those either/or days, tweeted on March 18:

“The book” refers to a tell-all Lori is writing about events during her Obama administration tenure.

SLS will be the Scarlet Letters that Nelson will wear on his chest for the rest of his political life but, beyond the space policy wonk bubble we live in, Nelson's nomination seems to be universally praised.

My guess is that President Biden sees Nelson as a safe choice.

Biden and Nelson were contemporaries in the Senate. They were both viewed as centrist Democrats, compromisers who reached across the aisle to find a consensus.

Unlike Nelson's NASA Administrator predecessors, Charlie Bolden and Jim Bridenstine, it's unlikely that any serious opposition will arise in the Senate to block Nelson's confirmation. It was Nelson, ironically, who blocked the nomination of President Obama's original choice Steve Isakowitz, in favor of his STS-61C pilot Bolden. Nelson also objected to Bridenstine's nomination, saying that “The NASA administrator should be a consummate space professional who is technically and scientifically competent and a skilled executive.”

Bridenstine yesterday released a statement endorsing Nelson.

A new President wants to avoid controversy and delay where possible. Biden's priorities ahead include the For the People Act voting reform measure, a big infrastructure bill, and raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations. He also has to bring in for a successful landing the battle against COVID-19.

The last thing he needs is a fight over the leader of an agency whose annual spending is less than one percent of the federal budget.

Nelson is two months older than Biden. They're both 78 years old. It's unlikely that Biden will serve more than one term. Vice President Kamala Harris may be the heir apparent.

Although not yet announced, it's been rumored that former NASA astronaut Pam Melroy will be named Nelson's Deputy Administrator. She might be the heir apparent as well.

I think Nelson will serve long enough to get Space Launch System across the finish line, then step down in favor of Melroy. He'll continue the status quo, which will appease the OldSpace crowd in Congress looking to protect the pork flowing to their districts and states.

Of the four Senators, including Nelson, who foisted SLS upon NASA in 2010 to protect OldSpace contractors, only one is left in office, Richard Shelby (R-AL). Shelby has announced he will retire after his term expires in January 2023. His departure will remove major OldSpace clout from the Senate appropriations process.

By then, either SLS will have flown or it will have failed.

When Shelby goes, perhaps Nelson will go as well.

In the meantime, Nelson fills the bill.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Garver Unchained, Part V

The March 7, 2021 telecast of “60 Minutes” included a segment on the women leading NASA's Project Artemis. Video source: 60 Minutes YouTube Channel.

Lori Garver is the biggest thorn in the backside of OldSpace.

The one-time Executive Director of the National Space Society, Garver is best known for her service as NASA Deputy Administrator during President Obama's first term.

Although she often shares the credit (or blame, depending on your perspective) with others for the revolution she unleashed on the NASA bureaucracy during those four years, Garver is the one who is lauded (or vilified) for ushering in the era of what is called NewSpace.

Not everyone is happy with the use of the terms “OldSpace” and “NewSpace.” I wrote a blog article about it in November 2013.

I wrote back then, “It's about a way of going about your business.”

OldSpace colluded with members of Congress to perpetuate lucrative NASA contracts using monopolistic business practices. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, ATK (later, Orbital ATK, today Northrop Grumman) had Space Shuttle contracts, Constellation contracts, and now Space Launch System contracts.

NewSpace welcomes competition. They invest their own money, sharing the risk in a new program, not expecting the government to pay for all of it.

The definitions are not always pure. Today's NASA Public-Private Partnerships are government seed money hoping to grow a vibrant domestic space industry by planting seeds where new technology might grow. NASA assumes some of the risk, but the entrepreneur must invest as well, assuming some of the risk. The commercial enterprise may fail or fall, and so NASA may be blamed by members of Congress for wasting taxpayer dollars instead of just giving a “cost-plus” guaranteed-profit contract to a legacy aerospace company.

NASA's commercial cargo and crew programs began under President George W. Bush. The Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office opened in November 2005, more than three years before Barack Obama took office.

Garver served on the Obama administration's transition team, so she knew that the Bush administration had funded commercial cargo but not crew. NASA was to rely on Project Constellation, a classic OldSpace cost-plus program, for crew rotations some day to the International Space Station, although on paper Constellation was to be funded by ending the ISS in 2016. Go figure.

In March 2009, two months after Obama took office, media reports surfaced that Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) had pressured the Administration into dropping its preferred NASA Administrator candidate, Steve Isakowitz. Garver confirmed that in a March 18, 2021 tweet. She wrote, “He personally blocked Obama's extremely qualified candidate to force his own,” retired astronaut Charlie Bolden, who had been pilot on Nelson's tag-along Space Shuttle flight in January 1986.

Garver eventually succeeded in the cancellation of Constellation and the funding of commercial crew, but it was only after the Administration compromised with Nelson to fund another cost-plus program known today as Space Launch System. Congress underfunded commercial crew by 62% over the first three years of the program, while SLS fell years behind schedule and went billions over budget despite Congressional largesse.

After she left office in 2013, Garver was freed of her expectations to support Administration policy and speak her own mind. Which she does quite well.

I began that year the “Garver Unchained” series of blog articles, documenting the more public instances in which she spoke her mind about the space-industrial complex. The most recent was April 2016, when she exposed how the departing Bush administration's NASA staffers were less than forthcoming with Constellation performance data.

On March 7, 2021, the CBS News program 60 Minutes ran a segment about NASA's Project Artemis, which relies on SLS and NASA's Orion crew capsule to send astronauts to the Moon. The segment included interviews by Bill Whitaker with Artemis Launch Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson and Marshall Space Flight Center Director Jody Singer.

The segment was pretty much a puff piece until Whitaker introduced Garver, who had the audacity to tell the truth.

I would not have recommended the government build a $27 billion rocket when the private sector is building rockets nearly as large for no cost to the taxpayer.

When asked about the multi-year delays and cost overruns, Singer replied:

The Space Launch System, I'm proud to say, has work that's over 45 states and over eleven hundred vendors, so the Space Launch System is a national vehicle. That means jobs. That means that across the nation, for the SLS alone, there's over twenty-five thousand people that have jobs.

Classic OldSpace.

It's not about efficiency. It's not about innovation. It's not about the destination.

It's about workfare.

Nelson and other members of Congress told us just that ten years ago, when they unveiled the Space Launch System design. One politician after another marched up to the microphone to brag about saving jobs in their district or state.

Garver described the SLS program as “socialist,” which seemed to surprise Whitaker. When he sought clarification, Garver replied:

You will plant the potatoes in March. You will build your rocket in my district.

Garver was referring to edicts issued in the Soviet era that required crops to be planted at a certain time of year to meet quotas, regardless of agricultural reality.

While NASA has spent the last ten years designing and building a rocket that has yet to launch, SpaceX has matured the Falcon 9, bound together three into the Falcon Heavy, and with its own money is test-firing (and blowing up) Starship prototypes in Texas.

The SLS core stage finally had a successful full-duration test fire yesterday in Mississippi. The stage may be shipped to Kennedy Space Center by the end of April. But most observers think the Artemis 1 uncrewed test flight won't be until sometime in 2022.

$20 billion can buy a lot of potatoes.

Prior “Garver Unchained” articles:

Garver Unchained September 10, 2013

Garver Unchained, Part II January 3, 2014

Garver Unchained, Part III December 4, 2014

Garver Unchained, Part IV April 26, 2016

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Out of the Blue

A Blue Origin pathfinder version of New Glenn briefly glimpsed February 12, 2021 inside their Exploration Park factory in north Merritt Island. Image copyright © 2021 Stephen C. Smith. Click the image to view it at a larger size.

Normally a quiet if not secretive company, Blue Origin surprised NewSpace observers on February 25 when they finally gave the outside world a glimpse into their Space Coast operations.

Blue was last heard from on January 14, when the company launched its latest suborbital test flight from the launch site outside Van Horn, Texas. Although this was the company's fifteenth successful uncrewed test flight of New Shepard, they've yet to announce when they might fly crew.

When that happens, it won't be at Cape Canaveral. New Shepard is for suborbital missions, not just for adventure tourism but also limited microgravity research. Those missions will launch from Van Horn, in the remote desert of west Texas.

Here in east-central Florida, construction of their Orbital Launch Site Manufacturing Complex on Space Commerce Road began in 2016. We've watched one facility after another being constructed, but here we are in 2021 and Blue has yet to launch anything other than hopes and dreams from the Cape.

A hint that actual hardware might arrive soon was spotted on February 12, when what appeared to be a New Glenn prototype poked its head out of the factory like Punxsutawney Phil out of his burrow. Emre Kelly of Florida Today confirmed that the artifact was a pathfinder. Simpler than a test article, a pathfinder is typically used for fitting tests and early simulations.

Blue remained silent until February 25 when the company issued a press release and posted three YouTube videos of Cape operations.

As major progress is being made on the New Glenn launch vehicle and its Cape Canaveral facilities, the schedule has been refined to match the demand of Blue Origin’s commercial customers. The current target for New Glenn’s maiden flight is Q4 2022. The Blue Origin team has been in contact with all of our customers to ensure this baseline meets their launch needs.

The press release blamed “the recent Space Force decision to not select New Glenn for the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 Launch Services Procurement” for any delays, which seems odd, but whatever.

This first of three videos gives outsiders a look inside Blue's Merritt Island factory, where the pathfinder is clearly visible. Video source: Blue Origin.

The second video shows the 23-story tall New Glenn Tank Cleaning and Processing (TCAP) Facility. Video source: Blue Origin.

The third video unveils the renovated Launch Complex 36, once the home of the Atlas-Centaur. The Vehicle Access Tower is designed to support human spaceflight. Video source: Blue Origin.

Blue Origin is owned by Jeff Bezos, arguably the richest person on Earth. (Elon Musk was first until a slide in Tesla stock.) Bezos announced on February 2 that he was stepping down as Amazon's CEO to focus on other projects, including Blue Origin.

Unlike Musk, Bezos is not a hands-on guy when it comes to his rocket company.

Musk graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1997 with dual bachelor degrees in economics and physics. An engineer who once hired Musk for a startup company said that Elon “was not afraid to just go figure things out.”

Bezos has a degree in electrical engineering and computer science from Princeton University. These skills were parlayed along with early career experience in the banking and investment industries into creating Amazon. His passion for space colonization led him to create Blue Origin.

But there's no evidence that Bezos involves himself in daily engineering decisions as does Musk. Elon tweeted in February 2019, “I have been chief engineer/designer at SpaceX from day 1.” He then wrote, “Had I been better, our first 3 launches might have succeeded, but I learned from those mistakes.”

The Blue Origin motto is Gradatim Ferociter! meaning, “Step by Step, Ferociously.” SpaceX has had plenty of spectacular failures, while Blue has had none, but that's okay as far as Musk is concerned. During a February 11 podcast, Musk said:

“This is a test program. We expect it to explode. It’s weird if it doesn’t explode, frankly. If you want to get payload to orbit, you have to run things close to the edge.”

A decade ago, Musk had an ample share of harsh critics. I heard Space Coast locals dismiss him as a “hobbyist” who would “blow things up and kill people.”

Well, they were right about the “blowing up” part.

Musk's approach was antithetical to the NASA and “OldSpace” way of doing business. In the Cold War era of the 1950s and 1960s, when computers were in their infancy, the only way for military (and later civilian) government programs to learn rocket technology was to test a rocket science hypothesis by launching it. If it blew up, figure out where you went wrong and try again. It was hideously expensive, but in the end the United States mastered rocketry.

In the early days of American ballistic missile rocketry, technological advancement came from trial and error — often error. Video source: Air Force Space & Missile Museum.

As the technology matured, NASA grew risk-averse. Losing fourteen crew members on Challenger and Columbia didn't help. In 2011, former National Space Council executive secretary Mark Albrecht described NASA as a “risk-averse feudal empire” and worried that “the national security space program is not far behind.”

In 2006, Boeing and Lockheed Martin formed United Launch Alliance, a legal monopoly to assure that both companies were the only two suppliers of medium-to-heavy national security-related launch services in the United States. Commercial payload customers, such as communications satellites, went overseas to Europe, Japan, and Russia, costing less. Launching on a Russian rocket might be more of a risk, but the company paid a little more in insurance premiums and still came out with a better deal than flying with ULA.

It look a long time for SpaceX to break through ULA's legal monopoly, but today's NASA helps space entrepreneurs by absorbing some of the risk. NASA purchases a service to help advance the technology. If the service fails, as happened with the SpaceX CRS-7 cargo Dragon launch, NASA loses payload but SpaceX (and NASA) learn what went wrong and fix it. Those lessons helped develop a more reliable and robust Falcon 9 that now sends NASA crew to the International Space Station.

The SpaceX CRS-7 launch failure on June 28, 2015. Video source: NASA.

Despite its public failures, SpaceX now dominates the global launch industry. The question in my mind is where will Blue Origin find customers, when they're ready to fly.

Those SpaceX Phase 2 launch services contracts went to SpaceX and ULA, because they have proven hardware ready to fly. Blue Origin does not. It was a criticism levelled at SpaceX a decade ago when they complained about the ULA monopoly. You don't have proven hardware. Why should the military take a risk with expensive national security payloads?

The Obama administration's NASA helped SpaceX and other “NewSpace” companies mature their technologies by absorbing the risk. The Trump administration continued that approach with Jim Bridenstine as Administrator.

Some argue that today's launch market is glutted with too many providers. The emergence of small rocket companies is adding to the glut.

Is there a market for New Glenn?

SpaceX has trouble finding customers for Falcon Heavy. In three years, Falcon Heavy has flown only three times, the first a demonstration flight sending Elon's cherry red Tesla Roadster to intersect with the Mars orbit. The Falcon Heavy manifest has a classified military payload scheduled for July 2021, and another in October 2021. According to one list, two Heavy launches are booked for 2022. NASA just announced the Falcon Heavy will launch the first two elements of the Gateway lunar orbital station, but that awaits Congressional funding.

Comparing data on both companies' web sites, Falcon Heavy can deliver more payload than a New Glenn. Falcon Heavy can deliver 140,000 pounds to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), while New Glenn will deliver 100,000 pounds. To geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO), Falcon Heavy can deliver 58,000 pounds, while New Glenn will deliver 28,000 pounds.

Blue has announced a few New Glenn commercial customers. Eutelsat was the first, originally targeting 2022. A pre-bankruptcy OneWeb was next, reserving five launches with their Exploration Park neighbor, but post-bankruptcy who knows where that stands. Asian company mu Space has also announced a flight with New Glenn.

Blue Origin does have a NASA contract for Project Artemis. Blue is part of a “national team” that includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper developing a lunar lander called Blue Moon that could be used for crew or cargo. Two other companies, SpaceX and Dynetics, have submitted competing designs. NASA intends to down-select to one or two of these competitors in April.. Congress has not provided NASA with the funding to go ahead with the project, so this may not be a significant revenue source for Blue any time soon.

The Blue Moon technology demonstration for Project Artemis. Video source: Blue Origin.

Blue has a reliable income source providing its BE-4 engines to ULA for the new Vulcan rocket. A Vulcan pathfinder arrived at Cape Canaveral last month. The most powerful version of Vulcan delivers slightly more payload to orbit than a Falcon 9, but doesn't approach the New Glenn or Falcon Heavy.

Another project on the horizon for Blue is Project Kuiper, which technically is an Amazon project but logically would launch on New Glenn, just as the Starlink satellites launch on the Falcon 9. But just as with launch vehicles, Bezos is far behind Musk in the competition to build an operational satellite constellation.

A March 1 article by Eric Berger of Ars Technica suggests that Blue's business suffers from unrealistic timelines and too many competing projects.

But many of the criticisms fairly levelled at Blue Origin were once levelled at SpaceX.

SpaceX has no rockets. They can't legally challenge the ULA monopoly.

SpaceX can't survive without government contracts. Those are taxpayer subsidies!

Elon has too much on his plate, with SpaceX and Tesla Motors and Solar City and The Boring Company. Elon is easily distracted.

SpaceX projects go off on tangents that are cancelled. Remember Red Dragon? Elon should focus on one project.

Elon's timelines are unrealistic. There's “Elon Time” and real time.

I think those of us who dabble in space punditry tend to be impatient. Rocketry is still expensive and difficult and dangerous. In addition to New Glenn, it's taken years for Blue Origin to renovate Launch Complex 36. SpaceX signed its LC-39A lease in April 2014. The first SpaceX launch from 39A was February 2017. Blue signed its LC-36 lease in September 2015, but unlike SpaceX they've had no hardware to launch.

Blue Origin can survive as long as Jeff Bezos wants to invest his otherworldly riches in keeping the company going. But the fundamental difference between Blue and SpaceX is the latter's willingness to take a risk to compete. SpaceX is the hare to Blue's tortoise; in fact, Blue has a tortoise on its coat of arms.

In the parable, the tortoise won the race.

UPDATE March 4, 2021 — SpaceX launched, landed, and blew up another Starship yesterday in a 10-kilometer hop from their test site in Boca Chica, Texas. The test was a quintessential demonstration of how SpaceX advances its knowledge base by tolerating failure, even encouraging it.

Eric Berger at Ars Technica wrote:

Starship is undergoing a unique development program, progressing through rapid iterations and taking risks by design. Each failed mission buys down risk for future flights. It's no accident that SpaceX is building a new Starship every two or three weeks in South Texas. Being hardware-rich means you can move fast, try, fail, try again, and ultimately succeed.

The March 3, 2021 SpaceX Starship SN10 test. Begin the launch at the 10 hour 23 minute mark. Video source: NASASpaceflight YouTube channel.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

O Say Can You C

Historic Hangar C at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The U.S. Air Force roundels on the facade are a recent addition. Unless otherwise noted, all images on this page are copyright © 2021 Stephen C. Smith. Click an image to view it at a larger size.

Hangar C is one of the most historic sites at what is now called Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. It was the first hangar built on the Cape, in 1953, near the first four launch pads.

Where are Hangars A and B? They were to the south at what is now Patrick Air Force Base in Cocoa Beach. The Cape missile range has always been a part of Patrick AFB.

Hangar C in its earliest days housed the first Redstone missiles to launch off the Cape, at Pad 4, as well as early cruise missiles that launched from nearby pads.

The historic hangar today is used to store artifacts restored by the Air Force Space and Missile Museum.

Hangar C had been off-limits to the public until early 2020, when the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex offered a once-a-week “Rise to Space” Tour. A few guests were able to go inside Hangar C before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down KSCVC bus tours and the U.S. Air Force suspended tours of the base.

I recently was invited to go inside Hangar C to view the addition of a new artifact, which you'll learn about at the bottom of this article. Come inside!

A sign inside Hangar C displays the building's history.

This sign discusses Wernher von Braun's history with the Cape. Legend has it that von Braun had an office upstairs.

Where was von Braun's office? Looking at these windows, his office was on the lower level, the second window from the right. The first window is above a stairwell from the first floor.

Inside the rumored office of Wernher von Braun. According to the legend, his personal scribblings are hidden behind the wall panelling. The floor is wrapped in plastic due to asbestos removal.

These overhang offices were not part of the original structure. They were added later. Von Braun's “office” was across a corridor from these later additions.

A new arrival is a restored Pershing II surface-to-surface guided missile. Only seven remain in existence, and the museum has one of them. According to a 45th Space Wing press release:

In 1987, after the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the United States and the Soviet Union had to eliminate all short to intermediate range ground launched missiles, including the Pershing II. Only seven of these missiles were allowed to remain as long as they were demilitarized and preserved for public display. The Pershing II in the Hangar C collection happens to be one of only four remaining with the original erector launcher included.

Here are images of the restored missile.

The missile atop its erector launcher.

A schematic on the side of the erector launcher.

The “We Gave Peace a Chance” sign is a replica of one seen in a famous photo of a Pershing II being withdrawn from service in Germany.

The sign provides the history and specifications of the Pershing II.

Hidden under the erector launcher is a plaque listing those who have worked on each restoration of the artifact. The most recent restoration was by Guard-Lee of Apopka, Florida.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Full Nelson

December 10, 2018 ... Senator Bill Nelson's farewell speech on the U.S. Senate floor commenting on his history with the U.S. space program. Video source: U.S. Senate.

Media reports in the last few days suggest that former U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) may be President Biden's choice for the next NASA Administrator.

Digital magazine Breaking Defense broke the story on February 22:

The rumor was followed by Eric Berger of Ars Technica in a more detailed February 23 article:

Two sources told Ars that Nelson is pushing hard to become administrator and is leveraging his friendly relationship with Biden to do so. "This is more than a rumor," one source said. However, it is also not a done deal, as after the rumor broke, there was pushback in the space community about the appointment of Nelson to the position, who has a long and at times contentious history in the space community.

Rachel Joy of Florida Today also reported on the rumor, noting that last August the former Senator ruled out his interest in the Administrator job:

“If Joe Biden is elected, I will give a recommendation of a handful of people that I would recommend to be the head of NASA, and my recommendation would not include myself,” Nelson explained in August.

Four years ago, the notion that a politician should run NASA would have been unthinkable. Then-President Donald Trump nonetheless nominated Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), a former Naval aviator who later became director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum, to run NASA.

Both Nelson and fellow Florida Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) opposed Bridenstine's nomination.

Rubio said he and Nelson “share the same concerns” and worry Bridenstine’s “political baggage” would weigh him down in a GOP-led Senate that has grown increasingly resistant to Trump. NASA can’t afford that, Rubio said.

During Bridenstine's November 1, 2017 Senate confirmation hearing, Nelson said:

“The NASA administrator should be a consummate space professional who is technically and scientifically competent and a skilled executive,” said Nelson, who wields great influence over the space agency, in his written opening statement. “More importantly, the administrator must be a leader who has the ability to unite scientists, engineers, commercial space interests, policymakers and the public on a shared vision for future space exploration.”

If Nelson is nominated, you can bet on that quote being read back at him from a Republican on the confirming committee.

Nelson has family roots on the Space Coast. His grandparents obtained land under the Florida Homestead Act of 1862 at what is now the north end of the Kennedy Space Center runway.

In this 2014 documentary, Senator Nelson talks about his grandparents acquiring land at what is now Kennedy Space Center. The segment begins at the 4:22 mark. Video source: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Those who oppose his possible nomination cite in particular two moments in Nelson's political career.

The first is how Nelson used his position of influence in Congress to obtain a ride on the Space Shuttle.

Once the four Shuttle orbiters came online, NASA started looking for individuals who were not professional astronauts to fly on missions, demonstrating its “routine” capability. U.S. Senator Jake Garn (R-UT), who headed a Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversaw NASA's budget, for years lobbied the agency to fly him on a Shuttle flight.

As recounted in Ronald Reagan and the Space Frontier by John M. Logsdon, in November 1984 Garn received a letter from NASA Administrator James Beggs inviting him to make “an inspection tour and flight aboard the shuttle.” The letter indicated that, “other Congressional leaders 'directly responsible for NASA activities would be given consideration if they are interested' in making space trips.”

When the 99th Congress began in January 1985, then-Rep. Bill Nelson succeeded in being named chair of the House space subcommittee. He'd already written letters to Beggs expressing his interest in a flight. On September 6, 1985, Nelson received a letter from Beggs extending the same offer of “an inspection tour and flight aboard the shuttle.” With only four months of training, Nelson launched on the STS-61C mission on January 12, 1986.

To make room for Nelson, payload specialist Greg Jarvis was bumped to the next flight, STS-51L. That mission was destroyed on launch, January 28, 1986. The orbiter Challenger and seven crew members died, including Jarvis.

Rep. Bill Nelson (D-FL) launches with the crew of STS-61C, January 12, 1986. Video source: Air Force Space and Missile Museum.

If Beggs' intent had been to curry favor with Congress to protect NASA funding, it worked, because Nelson would go on to co-author the creation of what critics would dub the Senate Launch System.

Nelson was elected to the U.S. Senate in November 2000. By the time Barack Obama became President in January 2009, Nelson had risen to chair of the Senate space subcommittee.

In its proposed Fiscal Year 2011 budget request, the Obama administration shocked members of Congress by proposing the cancellation of the Constellation program. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden wrote in a statement:

Now let’s discuss the Constellation Program. The Program was planning to use an approach similar to Apollo to return astronauts to the Moon some 50 years after that program’s triumphs. The Augustine Committee observed that this path was not sustainable, and the President agrees. They found that Constellation key milestones were slipping, and that the program would not get us back to the moon in any reasonable time or within any affordable cost. Far more funding was needed to make our current approach work. The Augustine Committee estimated that the heavy lift rocket for getting to the moon would not be available until 2028 or 2030, and even then they found “there are insufficient funds to develop the lunar lander and lunar surface systems until well into the 2030s, if ever.” So as much as we would not like it to be the case, and taking nothing away from the hard work and dedication of our team, the truth is that we were not on a path to get back to the moon's surface. And as we focused so much of our effort and funding on just getting to the Moon, we were neglecting investments in the key technologies that would be required to go beyond.

So this budget cancels the Constellation Program, including the Ares I and V rockets and the Orion crew exploration vehicle. NASA intends to work with the Congress to make this transition smooth and effective, working responsibly on behalf of the Taxpayers.

I'll save you all the Sturm und Drang, and instead refer you to an excerpt from a forthcoming book by then-NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, who was fighting to free NASA from the grips of the “OldSpace” contractors who poured millions of dollars into lobbying members of Congress, and employed tens of thousands of NASA-related jobs across the nation.

Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) meet with NASA and White House representatives in 2010 to discuss the Obama administration's FY2011 budget proposal. Image source: CNBC.

Senator Hutchison outlined her bargain: If and only if the Administration agreed to have NASA build their own large rocket and capsule — keeping the existing multi-billion-dollar contracts intact — would the four Senators agree not to block the President’s top initiative: Commercial Crew. I feared the deal being offered would end up setting back much needed progress. NASA couldn’t afford to fund both the Commercial Crew and Constellation programs without significant cuts to its other priorities. Nearly half of NASA’s $19 billion budget at the time was spent on a handful of large, long-established programs that Congress would never cancel — and the other half was needed to cover its massive institutional costs. The “deal” would consume 80% of NASA’s discretionary funding for new initiatives on a slightly different version of Constellation — still based on 40-year-old technology.

The White House agreed to the deal, but when it came time to fund Commercial Crew, Congress reneged. During its first three years, Commercial Crew was underfunded by 62% from what the Obama administration proposed, setting back the program about three years.

September 14, 2011 ... Senator Bill Nelson reveals the SLS design, calling it “the monster rocket.”

Nelson would become a staunch proponent and defender of the new heavy-lift launch vehicle midwifed out of the deal, which became known as Space Launch System. Nelson himself hosted the bipartisan press conference on September 14, 2011 that revealed the vehicle design.

Nearly ten years later, SLS has still yet to fly. By one estimate, NASA has already spent $20 billion on SLS.

As “NewSpace” matured and proved its viability, Nelson demonstrated his confidence in the emerging industry. In August 2017, for example, Nelson toured Space Florida's Exploration Park to visit the new Blue Origin and One Web facilities.

Senator Nelson tours Exploration Park on August 9, 2017, predicting “several launches a week” are in the Cape's future. Video source: Florida Today.

“A dream of mine is happening in front of our eyes,” Nelson said. “We are seeing the true space complex for the United States being created right here in Brevard County.”

Nelson was defeated for re-election in November 2018. In his farewell address to the Senate floor on December 10, he touted his support for commercial space and the future it would play in strengthening the U.S. space program.

Is Bill Nelson the right man for the NASA Administrator job?

My personal opinion is that he's a decent man who sincerely cares about the Space Coast, about Florida, about space exploration and commerce.

But he's not the right man for the job.

As he said last August, “The NASA administrator should be a consummate space professional who is technically and scientifically competent and a skilled executive.”

Nelson served as the Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner and Fire Marshal of Florida from 1995 to 2001, but otherwise he's a career politician. Bridenstine served as the Tulsa Air and Space Museum from December 2008 until he was elected to Congress in November 2012.

Nelson flew as a nominal payload specialist on STS-61C, but didn't undergo any significant astronaut screening or training. Bridenstine was a naval aviator.

During his time in Congress, Bridenstine was a fervent climate change denier. Once he became Administrator, he acknowledged that climate change is real and renounced his earlier statements.

Nelson has yet to acknowledge the failure of Space Launch System to deliver on time or on budget. If he became Administrator, it's highly unlikely he would fight to phase it out and replace it with a more affordable alternative, such as a SpaceX Falcon Heavy or Starship, or a Blue Origin New Glenn.

That might not matter, because so far the Biden Administration has shown no inclination to end SLS. Of the four Senators who midwifed SLS, only Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) remains, and he's announced that he will retire once his term ends in January 2023.

The essential difference between Nelson and Bridenstine is that Nelson has a vested interest in assuring his political legacy by protecting SLS at all costs. Bridenstine had no personal interest, yet realized that cancelling SLS was not politically viable during the last administration. Bridenstine once made the mistake of suggesting that Falcon Heavy could replace SLS; Shelby asked for his resignation, and Bridenstine backpeddled.

As is President Biden, Nelson is well-connected on Capitol Hill, and widely respected by members of both parties. Nelson often partnered with Senator Rubio for legislation of benefit to Florida. Nelson would likely continue Bridenstine's practice of NASA bipartisanship.

Bridenstine surprised many of us by his enthusiastic embrace of NewSpace. Although politics forced him to use SLS and the Orion capsule for sending crew to the Moon, where possible he's given NewSpace the opportunity to participate in other Project Artemis programs. The Gateway space station, for example, will be built by contracts awarded through open competition without NASA dictating each step of design. Earlier this month, NASA awarded SpaceX a contract to use Falcon Heavy to launch Gateway's power and habitation modules to lunar orbit no earlier than May 2024. The power element will be built by Maxar Technologies of Colorado, while the habitat outpost will be built by Northrop Grumman of Virginia.

Will Nelson be as aggressive in cutting corners to speed the bureaucracy by awarding Space Act Agreements, rather than the OldSpace approach of cost-plus contracts? As of the end of 2020, NASA had 1,160 active SAAs. Of those, 802 were entered after July 30, 2017 — 69%, most of them during Bridenstine's tenure.

The reason I think Nelson is not the person for the job goes back to 2011, when NASA warned Congress that the December 31, 2016 deadline mandated for launch was not feasible.

In January 2011, NASA issued a report which stated that, “a 2016 first flight of the SLS does not appear to be possible within projected FY 2011 and out year funding levels.”

NASA followed up with an external analysis by Booz Allen Hamilton in August 2011 which found that, “The SLS cost estimate assumes several cost efficiencies that have not been realized on previous NASA programs. These efficiencies represent cost risk to the program as it is unclear whether they are realistic and leads to the impression that the estimate is optimistic.”

Nelson and Hutchison didn't care.

The January 17, 2011 Orlando Sentinel reported:

“The law directs NASA to build on past investments in human spaceflight by leveraging existing knowledge from the space shuttle and Constellation programs,” they said in a letter to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. “We expect NASA to work with Congress to identify ... how existing contracts and technologies will be utilized,” reminding Bolden that this was not optional. “It is the law.”

By “existing contracts” they meant the existing Project Constellation contractors. NASA was not allowed to go to competitive bid for SLS. NASA had to use Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and ATK (today part of Northrop Grumman). It was all about protecting the contractors, and the voters who worked for them.

Even though this was ten years ago, the article was spot-on about the cost of SLS:

... [T]he agency has told the Orlando Sentinel that the new rocket could cost as much as $20 billion — about $9 billion more than the initial budget Congress has set — and take up to two years longer than the six-year deadline set by lawmakers.

NASA was right about the $20 billion figure, but it's been much longer than eight years.

On February 22, NASA announced that the Green Run Test for the first SLS core stage had been postponed yet again due to a problem with a liquid oxygen valve.

Nelson failed to listen to NASA leaders when they were telling him that SLS would cost much more than budgeted, and take much longer than mandated by the law. Nelson and his Senate Launch System cohorts wrote a law that forbade NASA from going to competitive bid, which would have protected the taxpayers and perhaps resulted in a heavy-lift system that would be flying by now.

Nelson and his colleagues believed they could design a rocket better than NASA.

Ten years later, Nelson has failed to admit he was wrong.

During Bridenstine's November 2017 confirmation hearing, Nelson said, “The administrator must be a leader who has the ability to unite scientists, engineers, commercial space interests, policymakers and the public on a shared vision for future space exploration.”

When given the opportunity to do that, Nelson failed.

My personal belief is that Senator Nelson is well-intentioned. But he's not the right man for this job.

UPDATE February 24, 2021Florida Today reports that Space Coast representative Bill Posey (R-Rockledge) has endorsed Nelson for NASA Administator:

“I think Bill Nelson would be a great NASA Administrator and I can’t think of anyone better President Biden could appoint to that position," he told FLORIDA TODAY.

Friday, January 8, 2021

What's in a Name

The new Cape Canaveral Space Force Station sign at Gate 1. Image source:

Vice President Mike Pence visited Cape Canaveral on December 9, 2020 to announce that Cape Canaveral Air Force Station had been renamed Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, and that Patrick Air Force Base (of which the Cape is a part) had been renamed Patrick Space Force Base.

Some people love the name change. Some don't.

The idea has been around for a while.

In 2011, space entrepreneur James C. Bennett wrote an article for The New Atlantis proposing “a 'Coast Guard' for space.” This was at the dawn of what today is commonly called NewSpace.

In the decades since NASA was designated the lead agency for civil-space activities and the U.S. Air Force (USAF) for military space activities, little serious discussion has been devoted to the question of whether those entities in their present forms are well suited for discharging the government’s space interests. The closest we have come to such discussion has been the occasionally recurring proposal to spin off a military Space Force from the Air Force (much as the Air Force was itself spun off from the Army). On the civil side, the model of NASA as a unified agency has been largely immune from scrutiny.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) for years has been a leading proponent of a Space Force. In September 2016, Rogers as chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee held a hearing to discuss national security space.

He cited a July 2016 Government Accountability Office report which recommended the creation of a “space force” to “absorb all DOD and NRO space acquisitions and operations functions.” The report found that, “Fragmented space acquisition leadership means that 'no one is in charge.'”

With bipartisan support, Rogers inserted language into the Fiscal Year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act to create the Space Force, but the language didn't make it to the final bill reconciled with the Senate.

Rogers found a willing President in Donald Trump, who issued Space Policy Directive 4 in February 2019 directing the Secretary of Defense to create a “legislative proposal” for the Space Force.

The Space Force was finally approved in December 2019 in the 2020 NDAA. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN), who took over as chair of the strategic forces committee after the Democrats regained their House majority, told Space News that Trump deserved little credit:

“This is not a Trump idea. He tried to hijack it long after the House Armed Services Committee voted 60-1 to establish a Space Corps,” he added. “Trump’s blatant support of a Space Force does not make it a Republican idea.”

The recently passed Fiscal Year 2021 defense budget included $15.2 billion for the Space Force, which still answers to the Secretary of the Air Force, just as the Marine Corps answers to the Secretary of the Navy.

When I first heard the idea, my concern was that creation of a Space Force would give our adversaries an excuse to start their own military space branches, but they're already militarizing space anyway.

In September, the Pentagon reported that China is amassing anti-satellite weaponry. In 2007, China launched an anti-satellite weapon that destroyed one of their own weather satellites, scattering debris that posed a hazard to other spacecraft. In December, Russia launched an anti-satellite test.

An October 2019 report on the X-37B landing at Kennedy Space Center. Video source: CBS News YouTube channel.

We do it too, of course. In May, the U.S. Navy announced it had conducted an anti-satellite test using the X-37B spaceplane.

The reality is that this is coming, whether we like it nor not.

The United States had an aviation capability in World War I, but it wasn't until 1947 that the U.S. Air Force was created as its own separate military branch. The Army Air Service began in 1926, and for decades advocates supported giving military air power its own separate and equal branch.

Creating a new military branch has its own speed bumps. In December, Vice President Pence announced that Space Force soldiers would be called Guardians, which I guess is better than Spacemen but it still sounds a bit ridiculous, immediately drawing comparisons to the Guardians of the Galaxy movie franchise.

Our best hope is that the United States, with a new President, can somehow find a way to convince the nations of the world to end their militarization of space. History teaches us that's unlikely, but we did finally manage to contain nuclear weapon proliferation. No nuke has been used in combat since 1945.

I do wonder if, in a hundred years or so, we'll learn of a new military branch called the Time Force to fight the Temporal War.

Vice President Mike Pence at Cape Canaveral on December 9. Video source: Fox 35 Orlando YouTube channel.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Arecibo Falls

The top image shows the Arecibo observatory site this morning after the collapse. The lower image is prior. Image source: @DeborahTiempo on Twitter.

Astronomy lost one of its most historic telescopes this morning when the Arecibo Observatory steerable receiver and catwalk collapsed into its already damaged reflector dish.

The National Science Foundation, which owns the observatory, posted on Twitter:

The instrument platform of the 305m telescope at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico fell overnight. No injuries were reported. NSF is working with stakeholders to assess the situation. Our top priority is maintaining safety. NSF will release more details when they are confirmed.

NSF is saddened by this development. As we move forward, we will be looking for ways to assist the scientific community and maintain our strong relationship with the people of Puerto Rico.

According to the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC) web site:

The Arecibo Observatory had its origins in an idea of Professor William E. Gordon, from Cornell University, who was interested in the study of the Ionosphere. Gordon's research during the fifties led him to the idea of radar back scatter studies of the Ionosphere. Gordon's persistence culminated in the construction of the Arecibo Observatory which began in the summer of 1960. With its 305m (1000ft) diameter dish constructed in 1963, the Arecibo Observatory continuously provides valuable data for the scientific community and the world.

The NAIC web site offers a detailed description of the telescope's design. It consisted of a 1,000-foot diameter reflector dish suspended by a network of steel cables above a natural mountain valley bowl. Suspended 450 feet above the reflector was a 900-ton platform hung in midair on eighteen cables strung from three reinforced concrete towers

These cables would one day lead to its doom.

Arecibo was built in the infant years of radio astronomy. Until the mid-20th Century, most astronomy focused on optical astronomy — what we can see with our own eyes, aided by a telescope. Astronomers began to realize that the universe might be visible in other wavelengths of light.

A few astronomers and others interested in the search for extraterrestrial life reasoned that, just as radio waves are used here on Earth for communication, so might alien civilizations use radio waves to communicate with each other — and perhaps even us.

In 1960, radio astronomer Frank Drake at the National Radio Astronomy Laboratory in Green Bank, Virginia began research attempting to detect evidence of extraterrestrial communication.

In 1961, Drake hosted the first Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) conference at Green Bank. Among the attendees was a young astronomer named Carl Sagan. From that conference emerged the Drake Equation, a formula attempting to estimate the number of transmitting extraterrestrial societies in our galaxy.

Carl Sagan's 1980 “Cosmos” visits the Arecibo Observatory to discuss the Drake Equation and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Video source: Bogdan Iancu YouTube channel.

Drake visited Arecibo in 1963 and met with Gordon. In his 1992 book, Is Anyone Out There? The Scientific Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, Drake wrote:

I could see its potential to become the most sensitive instrument ever applied to radio astronomy research. All you had to do was figure out a way to stabilize the platform so it didn't sway in the wind or rise and fall with the temperature changes, and then you could have access to all wavelengths. Granted, that was a tall order — an engineering brainteaser that would cost millions — but I suspected it could be done. And if and when that happened, the instrument would be uniquely suited to search for life in space.

Arecibo's unique capabilities led to the discovery of the first binary pulsar in 1974 by Russell A. Hulse and Joseph H. Taylor, Jr, of Princeton University, for which they received the 1993 Nobel Prize for Physics. According to a Nobel press release:

Here a new, revolutionary “space laboratory” has been obtained for testing Einstein’s general theory of relativity and alternative theories of gravity. So far, Einstein’s theory has passed the tests with flying colours.

Arecibo was subjected to Nature's forces over the decades. A January 2014 earthquake damaged one of the main suspension cables. In September 2017, Hurricane Maria damaged the observatory, causing an antenna to snap from the overhead platform and puncture the dish, along with the loss of various equipment. Puerto Rico experienced an earthquake swarm in late 2019 and early 2020.

On August 10, 2020, a cable broke, causing a 100-foot long gash in the reflector dish.

The failure of a support cable on August 10, 2020 damaged the reflector dish. Image source: University of Central Florida.

A second cable failed on November 7, and on November 19 the National Science Foundation announced that the telescope would be decommissioned.

The telescope as it appeared in November 2020. Image source: University of Central Florida.

Following a review of engineering assessments that found damage to the Arecibo Observatory cannot be stabilized without risk to construction workers and staff at the facility, the U.S. National Science Foundation will begin plans to decommission the 305-meter telescope, which for 57 years has served as a world-class resource for radio astronomy, planetary, solar system and geospace research.

The decision comes after NSF evaluated multiple assessments by independent engineering companies that found the telescope structure is in danger of a catastrophic failure and its cables may no longer be capable of carrying the loads they were designed to support. Furthermore, several assessments stated that any attempts at repairs could put workers in potentially life-threatening danger. Even in the event of repairs going forward, engineers found that the structure would likely present long-term stability issues.

The “catastrophic failure” occurred today.

The University of Central Florida, which manages the telescope for the National Science Foundation, issued a press release this afternoon with first images of the damage.

The collapsed telescope as it appeared in today's UCF press release. Image source: University of Central Florida.

The investigation into the exact details of the platform’s fall is still ongoing. Initial findings indicate that the top section of all three of the 305-meter telescope’s support towers broke off and landed outside the area of the dish. As the 900-ton instrument platform fell, the telescope’s support cables also dropped. The Gregorian Dome is in the dish and the platform is lying on the edge of another side of the dish.

The observatory’s learning center, located near Tower 12, appeared to sustain heavy damage from falling cables. Although the 305-meter telescope dish sustained heavy damage, parts remain intact.

By one count, today over one hundred radio telescopes operate around the world. Space News reported today that Arecibo was becoming techonologically obsolete, and early discussions were already under way between NSF and the U.S. Space Force for collaboration on new planetary radar systems.

In 1974, Arecibo transmitted a radio message in 1974 towards the globular star cluster M13. It was a simple pictorial message depicting the telescope, our solar system, DNA, a stick figure of a human, and some of the biochemicals of earthly life.

The message will take 21,000 years to reach M13, unless it's intercepted on the way. If anyone ever does receive it, the response is unlikely to be received for many thousands of years.

But if first contact ever does happen, it may be due to the telescope that fell today to the ravages of nature and time.

An April 2019 tour of the Arecibo Observatory. Video source: SETI Institute YouTube channel.

UPDATE December 2, 2020 — D.A.S. Drones Perez posted this drone video on YouTube of the collapsed telescope.

Drone video of the collapsed Arecibo Observatory. Video source: D.A.S. Drones Perez YouTube channel.

UPDATE December 3, 2020 — The National Science Foundation today released video of the telescope's collapse.

Two angles of the telescope collapse. Video source: National Science Foundation YouTube channel.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Now, Where Were We

The core stage for the first Space Launch System launch is lifted in January 2020 at the Stennis Space Center. Image source: NASA.


Is this thing on?

Okay, where were we ...

When I posted my last blog article on May 30, 2017, I felt like I had nothing new to say.

NewSpace good, OldSpace bad.

Blah, blah.

Three years and six months have passed since that last moment of indulgent self-pity and, yeah, not much has changed.

In that farewell article, I wrote:

Sure, I could write yet another screed about Space Launch System being years behind schedule while wasting taxpayer dollars, but by now I think pretty much everyone knows that.

See, I told you nothing much has changed.

Where We Are

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on election night. Image source: USA Today.

A lame-duck President is about to leave office, whether or not he likes it, and replaced by a new one.

Space as a topic did not warrant a position paper from the Joe Biden campaign. The campaign web site's position papers reference NASA data in the climate change plan. The plan for American manufacturing and innovation proposes a $300 billion investment over four years in research and development. Although it doesn't mention NASA, it does propose “major increases in direct federal R&D spending” in various science-related agencies, as well as “breakthrough technology R&D programs to direct investments to key technologies in support of U.S. competitiveness.”

The reality, of course, is that no President unilaterally determines the course or funding of the American government's space activities. That power lies with Congress.

How much influence the Biden administration will have with Congress is yet to be seen.

Although the next session of the House of Representatives remains in Democratic control, the Senate's majority has not yet been determined. Two special elections in Georgia on January 5 will fill that state's two Senate seats. Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock will try to unseat Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. Although Donald Trump narrowly lost Georgia, it's hard to say how much of that reflects personal distaste for Trump as opposed to a preference for a Democrat. Perdue finished about 87,000 votes ahead of Ossoff, but failed to achieve a 50%+ victory because of a Libertarian candidate who received about 115,000 votes. Warnock won about one-third of the vote in a special election that had 20 candidates on the ballot, with Loeffler receiving about a quarter of the vote.

If the Democrats win both seats, then the Senate is tied 50-50, and the Vice President breaks any ties. That person remains Mike Pence until Kamala Harris takes office on January 20, 2021.

If the Republicans retain control of the Senate, it's likely that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will continue his obstructionist practices, and little of the Biden agenda will move forward. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) would continue to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee, where he protects the SLS and OldSpace pork flowing into Alabama. If the Democrats take control, the gavel could pass to the current vice chair, Patrick Leahy (D-VT). On the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, Leahy published “Reflections on the Moon Landing.” He's long served on the panel's science subcommittee, and is also known as a huge fan of the Batman universe, having appeared in five Caped Crusader films. A nerd in charge of the Senate committee appropriating NASA spending can't be bad, can it?

Check back after January 5.

Where We've Been

Among the many fibs that Trump has told in the last five years is his false claim that he somehow resurrected NASA from the dead. On August 5, 2020 he tweeted:

NASA was Closed & Dead until I got it going again. Now it is the most vibrant place of its kind on the Planet...And we have Space Force to go along with it. We have accomplished more than any Administration in first 3 1/2 years. Sorry, but it all doesn’t happen with Sleepy Joe!

On November 15, 2020, after SpaceX launched four astronauts to the International Space Station aboard Crew-1, Trump falsely claimed:

A great launch! @NASA was a closed up disaster when we took over. Now it is again the “hottest”, most advanced, space center in the world, by far!

NASA never closed, of course, nor was it “dead.”

The Bush Years

January 14, 2004 ... President George W. Bush announces the Space Shuttle will retire once the International Space Station is completed. Video source: C-SPAN.

As for the commercial crew program, that can be traced back to President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration.

Taking into consideration the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, on January 14, 2004 Bush announced that the Space Shuttle would be retired upon completion of the ISS, circa 2010.

Bush appointed a commission to recommend how to implement his VSE. Their June 2004 report included a section titled, “Building a Robust Space Industry.” The chapter began:

The vision for space exploration offers the nation and the world a chance to redefine the paradigm of space flight. Our goal is to transform space exploration from a small, experimental research program, largely performed under the auspices of government into a fully integrated sector of American life, involving government, commercial, educational, and industrial players.

NASA opened the Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office on November 7, 2005. Although crew was in its name from the inception, then-NASA Administrator Michael Griffin funded only the cargo program, a robotic counterpart to his Project Constellation. Intended to keep Shuttle-era contractors and their employees at work, Constellation's Ares I would have used a solid-fueled first stage based on the Shuttle's solid rocket boosters to launch a crewed Orion capsule to service ISS.

The Obama Years

President Barack Obama at Kennedy Space Center, April 15, 2010. Video source: NASA.

When Barack Obama became President in January 2009, the Shuttle's supply chain had been shut down, so it was too impractical to resurrect that technology. Constellation had received a number of bad audits, most recently August 2009, and an independent committee's October 2009 report concluded that Constellation was unsustainable without a huge cash infusion.

Based on those findings, the Obama administration rocked the OldSpace world when its proposed Fiscal Year 2011 budget cancelled Constellation. The budget proposed funding commercial crew, and extended the ISS from 2015 to 2020.

Obama delivered a speech at Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010, in which he proposed increasing NASA's budget by $6 billion over five years. $3 billion would be invested in researching a “heavy lift rocket,” but the ISS and commercial crew were the immediate priority. The long-range goal was to have humans at Mars by the end of the 2030s.

Cancelling Constellation in the middle of the Great Recession horrified key members of the Senate and House who represented states with a vested interest in the status quo. When the rhetorical dust settled, Congress agreed to cancel Constellation but replaced it with the Space Launch System, dubbed “Senate Launch System” by one critic. Commercial crew was underfunded by 62% over its first three fiscal years, extending U.S. reliance on the Russian Soyuz by about three years. According to a November 2013 NASA Office of the Inspector General report:

The combination of a future flat-funding profile and lower-than-expected levels of funding over the past 3 years may delay the first crewed launch beyond 2017 and closer to 2020, the current expected end of the operational life of the ISS.

In January 2014, the Obama administration announced the extension of ISS operations to at least 2024.

Generally overlooked at the time was a NASA program to kickstart commercial technologies and operations for beyond low Earth orbit. Dubbed NextSTEP, the program solicited “proposals for concept studies or technology development projects that will be necessary to enable human pioneers to go to deep space destinations such as an asteroid and Mars.” According to an October 28, 2014 press release:

... [T]he agency seeks to use public-private partnerships to share funding to develop advanced propulsion, habitation and small satellite capabilities that will enable the pioneering of space. Public-private partnerships of this type help NASA stimulate the U.S. space industry while working to expand the frontiers of knowledge, capabilities and opportunities in space.

NASA intends to engage partners to help develop and build a set of sustainable, evolvable, multi-use space capabilities that will enable human pioneers to go to deep space destinations. Developing capabilities in three key areas – advanced propulsion, habitation, and small satellites deployed from the Space Launch System – is critical to enabling the next step for human spaceflight. This work will use the proving ground of space around the moon to develop technologies and advance knowledge to expand human exploration into the solar system.

The Trump Years

President Donald Trump signs Space Policy Directive 1 on December 11, 2017. Video source: NASA.

Donald Trump took office on January 20, 2017. As with many presidents, government space wasn't an immediate priority.

Trump's first significant space-related act was to reactivate the National Space Council. On June 30, 2017, Trump issued an executive order to revive the Council, which had been unstaffed since President Bill Clinton took office in 1993.

Although the Council was created as part of NASA in 1958, its value over the decades has been debatable. President Dwight Eisenhower didn't want a board that might usurp his authority, so the bill's final language created an advisory panel that would have the President as its chair.

Perhaps the Council's most historic achievement was in the spring of 1961. Uninterested in running the Council, President John F. Kennedy appointed Vice President Lyndon Johnson to chair the panel in his place. After the Soviet Union orbited the first person in space, Yuri Gagarin, on April 12, 1961, Kennedy on April 20 charged Johnson and the Council to make “an overall survey of where we stand in space” and find “any other space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win”. Johnson's reply, eight days later, stated:

Manned exploration of the moon, for example, is not only an achievement with great propaganda value, but it is essential as an objective whether or not we are first in its accomplishment — and we may be able to be first.

As detailed in Dr. John M. Logsdon's 2010 work John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, after the Moon recommendation the Council had little influence on Kennedy or NASA. “[T]he Space Council as a body was not central to any of the civilian space decisions of the Kennedy administration”, but Kennedy was happy to have Johnson to appear at public events and give speeches.

Richard M. Nixon succeeded Johnson as President in January 1969, as it became apparent the United States would first attempt to land astronauts on the Moon later that year. Project Apollo already was winding down, and program contracts were being terminated. The Council rarely met during Johnson's presidency, and had little influence with Nixon. After taking office, Nixon directed a review of a post-Apollo space program, but instead of using the Council appointed a Space Task Group. Vice President Spiro Agnew chaired the Group and represented the Council. Dr. Logsdon's After Apollo? Richard Nixon and the American Space Program details the Group's deliberations and the largely symbolic role the Council had during the Nixon administration. The Group produced a report in September 1969 from which eventually emerged the Space Shuttle, but most of its recommendations were ignored as too expensive. The Council was disbanded in 1973 as part of a reorganization.

In 1989, newly elected President George H.W. Bush used an executive order to recreate the Council. On July 20, 1989 Bush directed Vice President Dan Quayle and the National Space Council to “report back to me as soon as possible with concrete recommendations to chart a new and continuing course to the Moon and Mars and beyond.” The Space Exploration Initiative, published in May 1991, provided a vision for the future of the U.S. in space, including a return to the Moon and then on to Mars. But it lacked congressional support, and went nowhere. The Council once again was disbanded after President Bill Clinton took office in January 1993.

The absence of an active Council in certain administrations shouldn't be interpreted as indifference to space. Those Presidents simply had a different bureaucracy for managing space policies and activities. President Obama, for example, appointed the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, which issued a report in October 2009 that became the foundation for the administration's space path forward. Obama also established a Space Interagency Policy Committee that in June 2010 released the National Space Policy, which is still in effect today.

We'll have to wait for when Trump administration papers are finally available to the public so scholarly research can begin, but based on public performance it seems reasonable to conclude that President Trump gave the Council more power and influence than it ever had under previous Presidents.

Trump's June 2017 executive order made Vice President Mike Pence chair of the Council, and appointed several Cabinet secretaries as members. Among the other members were the Director of Office Management and Budget (OMB), which manages how the White House runs the budget, and the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

On the campaign trail in October 2016, Pence said that Trump if elected would re-establish the National Space Council. Pence emerged as a true space enthusiast, appearing several times on the Space Coast during the four years of the Trump administration.

In July 2017, the White House announced that Space Policy Institute Director Scott Pace would be the Council's Executive Secretary. Pace, who succeeded Dr. Logsdon at the Space Policy Institute (which Logsdon founded), had a long space career in both government and private service. I suspect that future historians will conclude that Pace drove much of the Trump administration's space policy, civilian and military.

For the first time in its history, the Council met publicly. VERY publicly.

Vice President Mike Pence chairs a National Space Council meeting at Kennedy Space Center, February 21, 2018. Video source: NASA.

Say what you will about Donald Trump, but he understands the value of a spectacle — “the optics,” in more modern parlance.

Trump himself appeared with the Council before its June 18, 2018 meeting in Washington, DC. The Council met in public places, many of them significant to the American space program, such as Kennedy Space Center; the U.S. Space and Rocket Center at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama; and the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. The meetings were broadcast live on NASA TV and on the Internet.

These meetings were mostly for show, to ratify policies or directives already deliberated and completed behind the scenes, but they created the “optics” Trump wanted to demonstrate his administration's treating space as a priority.

Trump issued a number of Space Policy Directives (SPDs), which are a type of executive order that is a statement of presidential policy. Some were for show, while others may have more lasting historical significance.

Space Policy Directive 1, issued on December 11, 2017, was ballyhooed as Trump “reinvigorating America’s human space exploration program,” but in reality it was only a minor tweak to President Obama's 2010 National Space Policy. SPD-1 changed the wording in one paragraph to remove a reference to the politically unpopular Asteroid Redirect Mission, replacing it with “the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization.” Mars remained the long-range goal, but Trump removed the Obama-era timeline targeting the mid-2030s for the first human mission to Mars.

On September 1, 2017, the White House announced that congressman Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) had been chosen to be the next NASA Administrator. It was the first time that a politician had been selected to lead NASA, and was criticized by some in both parties. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) worried about Bridenstine's “political baggage.”

Three years later, as he reaches what most likely is the end of his tenure, Bridenstine has received widespread bipartisan praise for his performance, even if not everyone agrees with his agenda, which of course is driven by the White House, OMB, and the National Space Council. Forbes columnist Jonathan O'Callaghan called Bridenstine “The One Thing Trump Got Right.”

In my opinion, Bridenstine at times tends to exaggerate or even mislead when arguing his agenda. He's claimed that “there's hundreds of billions of tons of water ice on the surface of the Moon,” but that science is far from certain. Abundant water ice would mean the potential for a permanent lunar base site, but the practicality of harvesting and processing the ice remains unanswered. It's worth exploration, but you don't need people, and NASA's VIPER robotic rover will do just that, if Congress continues to fund it.

Much of this administration's NASA space policy is a continuation of the Obama era, but Bridenstine repackaged various programs into one more easily sold concept, called Project Artemis.

A December 2019 video summary of Project Artemis. Video source: NASA.

Artemis consists of the Bush-era Orion capsule (born as Crew Exploration Vehicle), Space Launch System (foisted upon NASA by Congress in 2010), the Obama-era NextSTEP, and the Obama-era Public-Private Partnerships, among other influences. The Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, begun under Bridenstine in November 2018, uses competition and firm-fixed pricing in the spirit of the commercial cargo and crew programs begun under Bush and Obama.

Bridenstine says President Biden should find his own administrator, “somebody who has a close relationship with the President,” and thinks he's not “right person” for that job, but that statement doesn't completely close the door on the possibility of his remaining in office.

If the Republicans retain the Senate in the new session, retaining Bridenstine would be one less person Biden would have to get through Senate confirmation. Just sayin'.

The other signature space policy directive of the Trump era is the creation of the Space Force. Space Policy Directive 4 (SPD-4), issued on February 19, 2019, essentially separated space-related activities from the Air Force into its own branch that is considered “a new armed service within the Department of the Air Force.” The Space Force is analogous to the creation of the U.S. Army Air Forces, a somewhat independent service that nominally answered to the Secretary of the Army but evolved into its own separate branch. Here's how the USSF web site defines its mission:

The USSF is a military service that organizes, trains, and equips space forces in order to protect U.S. and allied interests in space and to provide space capabilities to the joint force. USSF responsibilities include developing military space professionals, acquiring military space systems, maturing the military doctrine for space power, and organizing space forces to present to our Combatant Commands.

An October 2020 U.S. Space Force recruitment film. Video source: U.S. Air Force and Space Force Recruiting YouTube channel.

If history repeats itself, the USSF should evolve into its own robust bureaucracy, perhaps anticipating China as a future combatant.

National Defense magazine in January 2020 expressed skepticism about the agency, while others expressed support for the idea.

Where We're Going

President-Elect Joe Biden has named an eight-person agency review team to transition NASA into his administration. After the election, Trump refused to allow any member of his administration to work with Biden transition teams, under penalty of termination. The General Services Administrator on November 23 finally authorized the release of transition funds to the Biden team.

Sooner or later, the transition will begin.

The Biden administration takes office on January 20, 2021. They will inherit a Fiscal Year 2022 budget proposal in its final details, so the new White House staff will have little time to make substantive changes. Biden most likely will select a current NASA staffer as acting Administrator until his choice is announced. That person will have to go through a Senate review and confirmation — unless Biden keeps Bridenstine.

The white elephant in the NASA hangar is Space Launch System.

A test fire of its core stage is now targeting December 21. A failure, especially a castastrophic explosion, would sorely test Congressional support for the program.

Assuming that goes well, then NASA remains on course for an uncrewed test flight projected for November 2021. That mission, dubbed Artemis-1, would send Orion thousands of miles beyond the Moon for a three-week demonstration.

It's reasonable to assume that Artemis-1 will launch, absent another unanticipated delay or failure.

By November 2021, however, the new NASA Administrator should be in place, and the administration will have established its own space priorities.

SLS Block 1 will have 8.8 million pounds of thrust. The SpaceX Falcon Heavy delivers 5.1 million pounds, and Blue Origin's New Glenn will have 3.8 million.

But the SpaceX Starship Super Heavy looms later in the decade, offering 16 million pounds of thrust.

By the middle of the decade, the ever-increasing annual federal deficit may force Congress to give up its love affair with SLS, especially if Super Heavy becomes viable.

Just as Trump turned off the clock on Obama's 2030s Mars timeline, so Biden may abandon the unrealistic 2024 deadline established by Pence and Bridenstine for the first crewed Artemis lunar landing. Congress has shown little interest in providing the funding NASA has said it needs for 2024.

Project Artemis in concept is the right direction. Such a “giant leap” ten years ago would have been doomed to failure, because the NewSpace economy was far from mature. When President Obama toured the SpaceX launch site in April 2010, the first Falcon 9 launch was still two months away. Commercial cargo would not deliver a payload to the ISS for another two years. The first commercial crew launch was ten years in the future.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk leads President Barack Obama on a tour of Launch Complex 40, April 15, 2010. Image source: NASA.

When George W. Bush's commission proposed in June 2004 to “build a robust space industry,” I doubt anyone realized the consequence would be the demise of how NASA has done business since the Apollo era — issuing cost-plus contracts to aerospace companies that were guaranteed a profit without accountability. When Obama proposed Commercial Crew in 2010 to replace Constellation, members of Congress finally realized the threat that open competition, milestone payments and fixed-price contracts posed not only to the legacy jobs in their districts and states, but also to the constant flow of campaign contributions from those companies.

The Obama administration aggressively used Space Act Agreements to circumvent the old way of doing business. SAAs are authorized under the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act. Some members of Congress were so outraged by the use of SAAs that they demanded an investigation. The NASA Office of the Inspector General report found that NASA's use of SAAs increased 28% between 2008 and 2012. Although the report found several procedural concerns, OIG found nothing improper and acknowledged that “the milestone approach to managing cost, schedule, and performance for funded SAAs appears to have worked well for NASA in the commercial cargo and crew programs ...”

Throughout its history, SAAs have provided NASA a valuable means to advance science and technology and to stimulate research in aeronautics and spaceflight. In recent years, NASA has turned to SAAs to stimulate the private sector to develop spaceflight systems for commercial cargo and crew transportation and to help offset the cost of maintaining underutilized facilities following the end of the Space Shuttle Program.

NASA under Jim Bridenstine has benefitted from the political arrows absorbed by his predecessors, now using SAAs for hundreds of projects, many of them related to Artemis. As of September 30, 2020, the NASA web site lists 710 active domestic SAAs and four active international SAAs since July 30, 2017.

In many ways, NASA is returning to its roots.

The agency was born out of its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. The NACA was created in 1915 in response to European governments investing in applied sciences that gave them the lead in the young aeronautics industry. German dirigibles for long-range bombing of British cities and the rapid evolution of airplanes for reconnaissance and for pursuit underscored the shortcomings of American aviation.

In 1958, NASA was formed after the early Soviet achievements with Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2, as well as their lead in the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Several non-military programs from the Department of Defense were merged with the NACA to create NASA.

Nothing in the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act requires NASA to own its rockets, to fly people, or to explore other worlds. It does list a number of activities to which NASA can “contribute materially” for “the benefit of all mankind.”

Lyndon Johnson's April 28, 1961 memo acknowledged that the human lunar program's objective was “an achievement with great propaganda value.” Many Kennedy administration documents referred to “prestige.”

But the unintended consequence was the creation of a vast aerospace bureaucracy depending upon government contracts to keep employed tens of thousands of people across the nation, and the extended economic reliance of local communities dependent upon those jobs, regardless of need or national priority.

President Obama, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver were vilified by the OldSpace community — including some astronauts — for saying this had to change.

History has vindicated them.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on “Face the Nation,” July 14, 2019. Video source: CBS News.

Administrator Bridenstine often talks of NASA's role today as retiring risk — not just technical risk, but also political risk.

The profession of risk management didn't exist during NACA's time, but that was what the agency did. The NACA developed aeronautics technology and data that were researched and transferred to the private sector.

NASA's role for space exploration in the next four years should continue in this direction.

The last ten years have shown us that the basic capitalist principle of competition leading to innovation and affordability can also apply in the aeronautics sector.

On November 16, SpaceX flew an international crew of four astronauts to the International Space Station.

On November 24, SpaceX launched its 100th Falcon 9 mission, landing the booster for the seventh time, on a ship at sea no less, deploying sixty more Starlink satellites as the company builds a space Internet.

Axiom Space will attach a commercial habitat module to ISS, and will fly private sector astronauts to ISS on Dragon as early as 2021, including former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria and former Israeli fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe.

During Bridenstine's tenure, NASA has conducted competitions, awarded milestone payments, and signed fixed-price contract with many companies for elements of Project Artemis.

The next four years under President Biden, and whomever follows later in the decade, should continue to take NASA back to its NACA roots. As Bridenstine says, NASA's role should be to assume the risk and provide supplemental capital so that entrepreneurs feel comfortable with investing in new aerospace technologies that will reduce the cost and increase the reliability of space access.

While NASA's 1958 charter didn't require it to fly people or own its rockets, the very first objective was, “The expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.”

Biden has made climate change a top priority. NASA operates many earth observation satellites, some specifically addressing climate change, collecting data to share with the world.

Former Deputy Administrator Lori Garver is now CEO of Earthrise Alliance, “a philanthropic organization that converts Earth systems data into relevant and actionable knowledge to combat climate change.”

Look for NASA to play a significant role as the United States rejoins the Paris Agreement and once again leads the world in dealing with climate change.

That doesn't mean that Project Artemis goes away. But it does mean that, as intended during the Obama era, the private sector should assume increasing responsibility for deep space exploration and commerce, first to the Moon, and one day on to Mars.

That's a goal worthy of a great space agency. But then so is healing the Earth's climate.