Sunday, September 4, 2022

Thin Air



Why does the launch vehicle on the left look like the one on the right? And why is that a bad idea? Images source: NASA.

Bedeviled by liquid hydrogen leaks in their Space Launch System's core stage, NASA's Artemis 1 launch team have decided to cut their losses and roll the launch vehicle yet again back to the Vehicle Assembly Building.

The devil is in the details.

Liquid hydrogen is a finicky fuel. It's one of many options an engineer has when designing a new rocket. Few rockets, though, use this fuel, which has the chemical formula LH2.

Rockets go up because of the combustion exhaust from the engine nozzles. As Isaac Newton would say, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. To create combustion, a chemical reaction is created in the engine’s combustion chamber. For combustion to occur, the reaction must complete what firefighters call the fire triangle. The three components of the fire triangle are a heat source, an oxidizer, and the fuel.

The heat source is typically some sort of ignition, e.g. a spark igniter or an injected chemical called TEA-TEB. The RS-25 Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs), repurposed for SLS, use an augmented spark igniter.

The most common oxidizer is liquid oxygen (LOX). To keep oxygen in a liquid state, it must be chilled to at least -297°F (-183°C).

But that's positively balmy compared to liquid hydrogen.

To keep LH2 in a liquid state, it must be maintained at a minimum temperature of -423°F (-253°C).

Starting in the 1950s, NASA and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), began researching a number of fuels that could be mixed with an oxidizer to create combustion for rocket propulsion. LH2 was one of the more exotic fuels researched. LH2 provided about 40% more thrust per pound of fuel burned each second than RP-1, a highly refined kerosene that leaves a hydrocarbon residue after combustion. RP-1 is used to this day by rockets such as the SpaceX Falcon 9 and United Launch Alliance Atlas V, because it can be maintained at room temperature and it's relatively affordable. Hydrogen, the lightest element, is only about half as dense as kerosene.

To achieve the equivalent thrust of RP-1, an LH2 design would require a much larger tank. The tank's components would have to resist LH2's extremely low temperatures. Any leak could lead to catastrophic consequences. A hydrogen fire in daylight is invisible. In the early days of Saturn, support crews would carry brooms in front of them; if the broom caught fire, they knew hydrogen was leaking and burning.

The first stage of the Apollo-era Saturn V generated 7.5 million pounds of thrust from its five F-1 engines. Those engines burned RP-1. Wernher von Braun and his design engineers knew that an LH2 tank would have to be much larger than the S-IC first stage. The Saturn V's upper stages used LH2; they operated in the vacuum of space after the first stage had escaped the atmosphere, achieved near-orbital velocity, and separated from the rest of the stack. The upper stages, therefore, didn't have to be very large.

The Saturn rockets were expendable, meaning the stages either fell back into the Atlantic Ocean, burned up in the atmosphere, or were abandoned to the solar system.

The Space Shuttle, however, was intended to be reusable.

President Richard Nixon's 1969 Space Task Group Report recommended, “A reusable chemically fueled shuttle operating between the surface of the Earth and low-earth orbit in an airline-type mode” as part of a “space transportation system.” (The STS designation for Shuttle missions was an acronym for Space Transportation System.).

If reusability was the goal, LH2 seemed to make more sense as a fuel than RP-1, because RP-1 engines would require cleaning after a flight. An LH2 engine's exhaust is water vapor.


An early Space Shuttle design concept. Image source: Capcom Espace.

The problem, though, was launch.

Unless a very large fuel tank was used, LH2 due to its low density wouldn't provide enough thrust to launch a big heavy payload. NASA engineers in the early 1970s tried all sorts of concepts, such as a second spaceplane as a booster burning a conventional fuel, while the orbiter would use LH2 once in space. The booster spaceplane would also be crewed, and glide to a landing back at the launch site. This Rube Goldberg Machine concept wasn't very practical or affordable.

The chosen design fudged on the promise of full reusability.

NASA engineers came up with an expendable External Tank (ET) that contained the LOX and LH2. It separated from the orbiter 8½ minutes after launch, fell back into the atmosphere and disintegrated over the Indian Ocean.

To build up enough thrust to leave the pad and send the payload on its way, the engineers attached Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) on either side of the ET. The SRBs burned a solid fuel for a little more than two minutes after launch, then separated from the ET and fell back empty into the Atlantic Ocean. Recovery ships retrieved the SRBs and brought them back to Cape Canaveral for refurbishment.


The STS-1 launch on April 12, 1981. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

If you watch a Space Shuttle launch, those three engines firing on the bottom of the orbiter might look impressive, but they're not providing most of the thrust. Each of the three engines provides only about 500,000 pounds (2 million N) of thrust. Each of the two SRBs provides about 3 million pounds (13.3 million N) of thrust. The rough calculation is that the SRBs provided about 80% of the thrust at launch. The LH2-fueled SSMEs provided the remaining 20%. Imagine how huge the External Tank would have to be to provide all that thrust at liftoff! The orbiter would have required much larger engines, or many more engines.

The Space Shuttle program was bedeviled by hydrogen leaks. The leaks occurred throughout the history of the program, including STS-119 and STS-127 in 2009, and STS-133 in 2010, near the program's end.

It was around that time that Congress was debating what human spaceflight program should succeed the Space Shuttle.

The Machiavellian machinations of that period have been detailed by NASA's then-Deputy Administrator, Lori Garver. Her book, Escaping Gravity, was published in June. I published a review of the book on June 1.

NASA's Fiscal Year 2011 budget, proposed by the Obama administration, included $3.1 billion over the next five fiscal years to research and develop a new approach to first-stage launch propulsion, and another $7.8 billion over those five years to invent new approaches to spaceflight such as in-orbit fuel depots, and new rendezvous and docking techniques.

Led by two Senators, Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), Congress said no to all that.

The Obama administration's proposals didn't protect existing Shuttle contracts, and therefore contractor jobs, in the senators' states. Aided and abetted by other members of the Senate and House, and apparently certain NASA executives as well as the Shuttle contractors, they imposed on the White House a program they named, “Space Launch System.”


September 14, 2011 ... Senators Bill Nelson and Kay Baily Hutchison unveil their design for Space Launch System. Video source: Space SPAN YouTube channel.

A group calling itself the Competitive Space Task Force dubbed the proposal Senate Launch System because it was designed to protect vested interests rather than push new launch technologies. NASA was required to use existing Shuttle technologies and faciities, and was forbidden from innovating unless there was no choice. Rather than fight a losing battle, the White House succumbed to political pressure and agreed to the perpetuation of 1970s technologies. New first-stage booster technology and in-orbit fuel depots were forgotten. SLS became the law of the land in the 2010 NASA authorization act.

Mandating that NASA use existing Shuttle technology meant the continued use of LH2 as a fuel. SLS is basically a Space Shuttle stack, except the side-mounted orbital spaceplane has been replaced by the Orion capsule atop the stack. The SSMEs, now called RS-25s, migrated from the bottom of the orbiter to the bottom of the enlarged external tank, now called a Core Stage. Even though the Core Stage is much bigger than its side boosters, once again the SRBs will provide most of the thrust at liftoff, about 75% by NASA's estimate.

So here we are, twelve years after the hydrogen leaks of STS-133, twelve years after Congress foisted SLS upon NASA ... and we're still experiencing hydrogen leaks.

The NASA engineers of the 1970s can be forgiven for selecting LH2. They were trying to develop a reusable launch vehicle; clean-burning hydrogen as a fuel made sense to them. NASA's charter directs the agency to engage in the “improvement of the usefulness, performance, speed, safety, and efficiency of aeronautical and space vehicles.” Pushing the envelope is NASA's raison d'être.

But SLS is not new technology. NASA engineers were forced by Congress to design a launch vehicle with technology nearly a half-century old. Unlike Shuttle, SLS is not partially reusable. It's expendable. As did their predecessors, the SRBs will fall back to the Atlantic Ocean, but this time they won't have parachutes. They'll splat into the Atlantic Ocean, and what remains will sink to the bottom. The Core Stage will fall back into the atmosphere and destroy itself, along with the RS-25 engines that were scavenged from the Shuttle orbiters. Engines that were used over and over on Shuttle will be used once more, but never again.

If SLS is expendable, then there's no reason to use liquid hydrogen as a fuel. But Congress didn't care. They were interested in protecting Shuttle contacts, and the jobs that went with them.

The irony is that Bill Nelson, the co-architect of Space Launch System, is now NASA Administrator. The fox is now running the hen house.


September 2, 2022 ... Science correspondent Miles O'Brien interviews Bill Nelson and Lori Garver about SLS delays. Video source: PBS NewsHour YouTube channel.

When asked by PBS science correspondent Miles O'Brien about the false assumption twelve years ago that perpetuating old Shuttle technologies would result in faster development of SLS, Nelson replied, “It was a seducing argument, because there were certain technologies we were comfortable with.”

Imagine if, at the dawn of the 20th Century, with the advent of the automobile, Congress had decided to protect the horse-and-buggy industry by mandating that government agencies only purchase horse-drawn carriages. To torture an analogy, horses were the liquid hydrogen engine of their time. They were finicky. And sometimes leaked. (Road apples were the era's hydrogen leak.) But they were reusable.

What should NASA's launch future be? The horse-drawn carriage? Or the Tesla?


UPDATE September 5, 2022 — If LH2 is too impractical for launch reusability, then what fuel is?

The answer seems to be methane, which has the chemical formula CH4.

To turn methane from a gas to liquid, its temperature must be at least -260°F (-162°C). So unlike RP-1, it can’t be kept at room temperature, but it's warmer than LH2 and almost as cold as LOX.

SpaceX and Blue Origin are now producing liquid methane engines. The SpaceX Raptor will be used on the company’s new Starship and Super Heavy vehicles. The Blue Origin BE-4 engine will be used on their New Glenn, and is also being sold to United Launch Alliance for their Vulcan rocket. All three companies plan to reuse part or all of their boosters.

Like RP-1, methane is a hydrocarbon, but its combustion residue is much cleaner, meaning a vehicle with CH4/LOX engines can be processed and launched again much more quickly. If you’re a commercial company like SpaceX, Blue Origin, or ULA, that efficiency reduces costs and makes your product more competitive.

Elon Musk’s vision for SpaceX is to colonize Mars, making humanity a multiplanetary species. NASA and other spacefaring agencies have been searching for methane on Mars; if it exists, then one day it might be collected to refuel spaceships. Methane naturally exists throughout the solar system, but then hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, so your fuel of choice may depend on the physics of your travel.

Had Congress passed the Obama administration’s Fiscal Year 2011 budget request to fund new first-stage launch propulsion technologies, by now NASA probably would have developed functional CH4 engines and American industry would have leapt ahead of the rest of the spacefaring world.

Because Congress opted to go backwards, American entrepreneurs Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos invested their billions in reusability. The United States is now the only nation with reusable boosters, no thanks to Congress.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Garver Unchained, Part VI: "Escaping Gravity," A Book Review


Lori Garver interviewed in May 2013. Video source: NASA Video YouTube channel.

“You can recognize a pioneer by the arrows in his back.”

— Attributed to Dr. Beverly Rubik

Other than Elon Musk, arguably the most disruptive and controversial figure in American aerospace this century is Lori Garver.

Loved and reviled, admired and feared, Garver as President Barack Obama's first NASA Deputy Administrator fought to change the agency's sclerotic culture. For decades, NASA had wasted taxpayer money and failed to deliver promised new technologies. She was the champion for a “NewSpace” movement that had long believed NASA should open the space frontier to human settlement through the private sector.

The Commercial Cargo and Commercial Crew programs began under Obama's predecessor, but Cargo wasn't a priority and Crew wasn't funded. The George W. Bush administration's priority was Project Constellation, an “OldSpace ” government program based on government rockets that promised the Moon but was years behind schedule, way over budget, and plagued with technical problems. Urged by Garver, the Obama administration proposed cancelling Constellation. Congress ultimately agreed.

It's been nearly ten years since Garver left office. Her legacy is undeniable. It's because of her that government astronauts now travel to the International Space Station in commercial spacecraft launched on commercial rockets, at a fraction of what it cost during the Apollo and Space Shuttle years.

NASA loves to promote its “spinoffs.” The spinoff from the Commercial Crew program is that strictly private crews now fly to space. The Inspiration4 mission in September 2021 flew four civilians for three days to the highest altitude achieved by humans since the Apollo era. The Axiom Space Ax-1 mission in April 2022 sent a private crew of four to spend 17 days in orbit, most of that time aboard the ISS.

Suborbital adventure tourism flights by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin also flew for the first time in 2021. Although neither is part of the Commercial Crew program, both companies have been paid by NASA to fly microgravity experiments, and may in the future fly NASA astronauts on suborbital training flights.

Garver was vilified during her service, the Wicked Witch of the West Wing so far as the OldSpace community was concerned. She insisted that NASA respect taxpayer dollars and the chain of command. Her presence threatened a space-industrial complex that had long flipped the bird at government rules and regulations. Entrenched bureaucracies, legacy contractors, connected lobbyists, and their politician beneficiaries viewed her as an incorruptible clear and present danger to their status quo.

After she left office in September 2013, Garver spoke more openly about NASA affairs she'd witnessed, which led me to post a series of blog articles called “Garver Unchained.” You can find all the articles at the bottom of this column. Over the years, publicly and privately, I've urged her to write a book that documented the pivotal events during her time serving President Obama.

My wish is granted.

Escaping Gravity: My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age is part memoir, part tell-all, part public policy manual. For the first time, Garver details what really happened behind the scenes, and quotes some of her enemies in the NASA hiearchy as well as on Capitol Hill.

For years, astronauts and politicians have taken pot shots at her. Some might say the book is self-serving, but she wasn't the one who called her names, lied about her career and her politics, or threatened her with death. This is Lori's chance to fire back, on the record, and call out those who thought more about their own little fiefdoms instead of what was best for the nation.

Take for example these words in a 2013 interview by four-time Space Shuttle astronaut Scott Horowitz, who as Associate Administrator during the Bush administration participated in the design of Constellation's Ares I.

Bullshit. It’s just bullshit. I’ll tell you what it is, and it was told to me face-to-face by the person who’s doing this. It’s politics. In 2008 Lori [B.] Garver looked at me at a symposium, out at Stanford [University, Stanford, California], shortly after I left NASA — I’d never been at this thing before — and said, “When Hillary Clinton is elected President I’m going to cancel Constellation.”

I said, “Why would you do that? One, you seem not to know very much about it. Two, what if you find it’s actually meeting its goals, and has issues, but it’s doing well?”

She looked at me and says, “You don’t understand, it’s politics.”

This is all about taking money away from red states [Republican party strongholds] and sending it to people who support their political desires. It’s that simple. Anybody who thinks it’s anything else is full of themselves. I lived in [Washington] DC for about two and a half years. I couldn’t wait to get out. Eight-mile-by-eight-mile square, referred to as a 64-square-mile logic-free zone.

I wasn't there, so I can't tell you if his recollection is true or false, but his remarks reflect a stunning ignorance about NASA's budget and appropriation process. Lori Garver knows better.

Perhaps most disappointing is to read in detail about the dysfunctional relationship between Garver and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. A four-time astronaut and former Marine Corps general, Bolden served Obama across both terms. Whatever else one might think of Charlie, you can't help but like him. He's humble, cordial, and warm. Many times over his years in office, he's been moved to tears during public remarks, wearing his heart on his flight suit.

During the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, Garver served as space advisor to candidate Hillary Clinton. After Clinton lost the nomination, Garver joined Obama's campaign and helped evolve its space policy. After Obama was elected, Garver led the team to transition NASA leadership from the Bush administration to Obama.

The transition team, according to Garver, recommended Steve Isakowitz. At the time he was the Department of Energy's Chief Financial Officer, appointed by Bush in 2007. Isakowitz had also worked in the Office of Management and Budget, which determines each federal government agency's budget for a fiscal year, and served as the Deputy Associate Administrator for NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.

His nomination was shot down by Bill Nelson, a fellow Democrat and the senior senator from the State of Florida. Nelson served on the Senate committee that would review and approve the President's NASA nominations. In early 1986, while serving as Brevard County's representative in the House, Nelson flew at NASA's invitation on the last flight of the Space Shuttle before the Challenger accident. Charlie Bolden was his mission's pilot. The two became lifelong friends. Nelson insisted that Bolden be the nominee. Obama, preoccupied with the Great Recession and national health care, acquiesced rather than get into a fight with Nelson. On May 23, 2009, the White House announced the President's nominations of Bolden for Administrator, and Garver for Deputy Administrator.

The Senate ultimately confirmed them both.


The Senate confirmation hearing for Charlie Bolden and Lori Garver on July 8, 2009. Video source: Space SPAN YouTube channel.

The relationship between Bolden and Garver, at least publicly, seemed warm and affectionate. At a July 2009 NASA “all-hands” meeting, Bolden described himself as a hugger and admitted that he cried easily. Garver said she was a hugger too, and they hugged on stage. “Feelings are not something that were popular in the last few years at NASA,” Garver said, “but they’re back. Feelings are back!”

Here's how the Code of Federal Regulations defines the roles of the Administrator and Deputy Administrator:

Administrator — “NASA is headed by an Administrator, who is appointed from civilian life by the President by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. The Administrator is responsible, under the supervision and direction of the President, for exercising all powers and discharging all duties of NASA.”

Deputy Administrator — “The Deputy Administrator of NASA is also appointed by the President from civilian life by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. The Deputy Administrator acts with or for the Administrator within the full scope of the Administrator's responsibilities. In the Administrator's absence, the Deputy Administrator serves as Acting Administrator.”

The regulation granted the deputy “the full scope of the Administrator's responsibilities,” meaning Garver was just as responsible as Bolden for acting at the “direction of the President.” Garver details in the book her June 2008 space policy discussion with candidate Obama, her leadership of the President-Elect's NASA transition team late that year, and her oversight of the NASA section of the President's proposed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus bill introduced in Congress in February 2009. Garver was implementing candidate Obama's campaign promise to stimulate the commercial use of space and private-sector use of the ISS. She was never discouraged by Obama or anyone else in the White House from pursuing this transformative agenda.

In one role or another, formal or informal, Garver for a year had been representing Obama's direction for the American space program. Bolden was a latecomer, imposed by an influential senator with a different agenda. He had no vested interest in furthering the President's policies, other than a statutory responsibility to act at the “direction of the President.” To Garver, Bolden seemed more interested in protecting the workforce and legacy contractors, many of whom were his friends and former colleagues.

Lori wrote how disappointed she was that she wasn't able to resolve her problems with Charlie. She left the agency in September 2013, with the arrows in her back just like Dr. Rubik's pioneer.

Another criticism levelled at Garver was that she wasn't an engineer, she wasn't “technical.” Take for example this criticism by three-time Shuttle astronaut Mike Coats, who went on to serve as the Johnson Space Center director from 2005 to 2012.

It’s not unusual to have the Deputy Administrator be a political type, political appointee; Shana [L.] Dale was a Republican under Mike [Griffin], so it wasn’t unusual to have it. Lori started to — and I think Charlie didn’t have any choice — but she wanted to get involved in the technical decisions, in the management decisions. Remember, Lori had no executive or management experience. None, zero, zip. And she had no technical background. She prided herself on not being technical, and now she’s the Deputy Administrator of NASA.

You can click here to read NASA's Lori Garver biography and judge for yourself. You'll find that Mr. Coats and the truth are not close friends. In the book, Garver denies that she tried to impose “technical” design decisions.

James Webb, the NASA Administrator under President John F. Kennedy, wasn't “technical” either. His college degree was in Education. He later earned a juris doctor degree and became a lawyer. Webb served in both the public and private sectors; his federal service included stints in the Bureau of the Budget and the State Department. When Kennedy appointed him, Webb was a director at an Oklahoma oil company. Webb didn't have to be an engineer because he had Wernher von Braun running Marshall Space Flight Center, charged with designing the agency's launch vehicles. Von Braun had a credible track record going back to his Peenemünde days in Germany.

A half-century later, when Garver took office, NASA's track record for decades had been less than stellar when it came to designing launch vehicles. Constellation was the latest in a series of projects that had fallen behind schedule and gone way over budget. The days of Wernher von Braun were long in the past.

To this day, Webb is generally revered as the best Administrator in NASA History. Michael Griffin, the final Administrator during the W. Bush administration, was an aerospace engineer and closely involved himself in Constellation's design and development. The record suggests that having an engineer in charge of NASA is not only unnecessary, but might be analogous to nominating a fox for Hen House Administrator.

If Garver has a primary antagonist, it's Bill Nelson.


Lori Garver (far left) attends a 2010 meeting with Charlie Bolden, Bill Nelson, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and others. Image source: CNBC.

It didn't make the final print, but in May 2020 Garver published a “preview” of her book on the CNBC web site, co-written by CNBC space reporter Michael Sheetz. Along with Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), Nelson had led those trying to save Constellation, or at least the legacy contracts associated with Constellation.

Out of their negotiations with Bolden and the White House came a “grand compromise” in which Congress would agree to end Constellation and fund Commercial Crew, but only if the Obama administration agreed to support yet another new government launch vehicle, ultimately called Space Launch System.

When it came time to fund Commercial Crew, Nelson and the rest of Congress underfunded the NewSpace program by 62% over its first three years, delaying the project until the end of the decade. SLS, however, was fully funded. Congress wrote a law requiring NASA to use the legacy contractors from Shuttle and Constellation. No bids, no competition.

Here we are in May 2022, and SLS has yet to launch. No surprise, it's years behind schedule, way over budget, and plagued with technical problems. The first uncrewed test flight is now planned for no earlier than August 2022. In an April 2022 report, the NASA Office of the Inspector General stated, “NASA will exceed its current timetable of landing humans on the Moon in late 2024 by several years due to technical difficulties,” projected that NASA will have spent $93 billion on Project Artemis by 2025, and the cost per mission will be $4 billion.

Nelson's 2010 law mandated that SLS launch by the end of 2016. It's now more than five years behind schedule.

The cruel irony is that, in 2021, newly inaugurated President Joe Biden nominated Nelson to be his NASA Administrator. The fox now runs the hen house.

It came too late to be included in Lori's book but, on May 3, 2022 during a congressional hearing, Nelson stunned the space industry by ridiculing no-bid cost-plus contracts as a “plague” afflicting the agency. NASA had used cost-plus contracts for decades, which assured that OldSpace companies were guaranteed a profit, no matter how poorly they performed. Nelson's SLS, foisted on the American taxpayer twelve years ago, is the latest example. During her time in office, Garver fought to replace cost-plus with fixed-price contracts negotiated by competitive bid.

Commercial Crew was her finest moment, and her vindication.

He never uttered her name, but Nelson's turnabout was a tacit admission that Lori had been right all along.

To quote from page 238 of Escaping Gravity:

It took non-vested interests with the resources to take on the space-industrial complex to jump-start the transition to a new space age. Thanks to a handful of space pirates, billionaires, and bureaucrats willing to stand up to the system of patronage, progress is now being realized. A program that was scorned by the establishment when it was introduced is now using innovative, reusable, private-sector-driven technologies to provide space transportation at a fraction of the cost of past government owned and operated programs — just imagine what else is possible.

I'd like to imagine that those arrow wounds in her back have begun to heal.


Garver acknowledges in her closing Author's Note that she's not a professional writer. This is, after all, a memoir. As such, I did find a few errors. In particular, on page 167 the book states that the SpaceX Falcon Heavy launches from “the same pad where the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Shuttle missions had launched.” That's incorrect. Pad 39A was built specifically for the Apollo Saturn V, then in the 1970s converted for Shuttle. Mercury and Gemini were south at Cape Canaveral launch pads.

Garver writes that NASA, under the Bush administration, had intended to fund Constellation by ending the ISS program. That is true, in that the Bush administration's final proposed NASA budget, Fiscal Year 2009, page Spa-28, showed NASA still intended to end ISS operations in Fiscal Year 2016. But Garver doesn't mention that Section 601(a) of the 2008 NASA Authorization Act required the Administrator to “take all necessary steps to ensure that the International Space Station remains a viable and productive facility capable of potential United States utilization through at least 2020 and shall take no steps that would preclude its continued operation and utilization by the United States after 2015.” Which took precedence? The law, of course. But as we discussed upstream, NASA management had no problem with thumbing its nose at the White House or Congress. Had the status quo continued, sometime around 2015 NASA would have submitted a budget that ended ISS, and Congress would have decided to say yes or no. Its demise was by no means a certainty. Garver wrote on page 7 that she believed, “NASA's unstated plan was essentially to trap the next President into adding several billion dollars a year to keep money flowing to Shuttle, Constellation and Space Station contractors.” The conflict with the law is a fine point I would have added, to clarify the “trap.”

Garver uses the term “cup boys” throughout the book, a phrase she adopted from a female NASA executive who used it to describe male colleagues with “ubiquitous coffee mugs adorned with their military call signs ... I've worked with many cup boys throughout my career and found their predisposition to oppose new ideas and new people was often contrary to NASA's mission.” Garver writes on page 141 that Bolden “continued to side with the cup boys more than the President.” On page 177, she describes Mike Coats as Bolden's “best mate and cup boy.” Although I'm sure the ridicule is richly deserved, I'm not sure it's helpful. It's no more appropriate than if Coats or Scott Horowitz referred to her supporters in writing as “Gal Pals.”

On page 195, Garver writes about the so-called “Mercury 13” program, which didn't really exist despite popular myth. I wrote about the Mercury 13 mythology in July 2021. Lori writes that the women “met the qualifications but were kept out of the NASA program.” As I wrote, Dr. William Lovelace conducted a series of private tests circa 1960 to see how women scored when they took the same physical exams as the male Project Mercury candidates, but they didn't undergo all the other tests. Not all women took all tests. NASA was never involved, nor did they explicitly exclude women, because the criteria required military test pilots. At the time, all military test pilots were white males. The term “Mercury 13” was concocted in the 1990s by a documentary film producer who needed a catchy title. Could women have done the job? Absolutely. But Project Mercury and its immediate successors were highly risky and dangerous test flights of unproven technology. Male or female, the agency needed candidates with experience in the environment of aeronautical test flight. The solution would have been for the military to start hiring women as test pilots so they could develop the experience and skills. NASA wasn't proactive about gender and ethnic diversity until the Astronaut Class of 1978 at the dawn of the Space Shuttle era.

Garver is one of the woman pioneers mentoring other women for careers in aerospace. She helped start a woman internship program known today as the Brooke Owens Fellowship. “Brookies” are increasingly common in the industry, thanks to Lori and her co-founders. It's only a matter of time before a “Brookie” goes to space. Future “Brookies” may wish to read Escaping Gravity to better understand the aerospace business, to know what to expect, and how Lori Garver made it a bit easier for them.

Who else should read Escaping Gravity?

It should be required reading for any student enrolled in the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, Garver's alma mater. Anyone interested in public service, especially as a federal government bureaucrat, will find lessons to learn about navigating the treacheries of politics and policy. Those of us who are space policy wonks will finally enjoy reading what happened behind the scenes.

It also leaves the bread crumbs for future historians to follow as they study the most transformative era in the history of human spaceflight since the 1960s. History will be kind to Lori Garver. It will not be as kind to many others.

Escaping Gravity will be available on June 21, 2022. Click here to pre-order on Amazon.com at this link.


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

Garver Unchained, Part V March 19, 2021

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Balance of Terror


Roscosmos General Director Dmitri Rogozin (left) with Russian President Vladimir Putin in October 2021. Original image source: Getty Images via Ars Technica.

Back when I was studying foreign relations in university in the late 1970s, mutually assured destruction (MAD) was considered common sense defense policy. The idea was that, if an enemy attacked you with a nuclear weapon, you responded in kind. If one side didn't back down, the war would continue to escalate until both sides — and, presumably, the entire population of Planet Earth — were rendered extinct.

One wonders why the United States and Soviet Union didn't just point the missiles straight up to come back down and commit mutual suicide. It would be more effective.

President Nixon's National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, reflected in his 1979 memoir White House Years about American strategic doctrine when he assumed office in 1969:

It was all very well to threaten mutual suicide for purposes of deterrence, particularly in case of a direct threat to national survival. But no President could make such a threat credible except by conducting a diplomacy that suggested a high irrationality ... And if deterrence failed and the President was finally faced with the decision to retaliate, who would take the moral responsibility for recommending a strategy based on the mass extermination of civilians?

Despite his many failings, Nixon is also remembered for his bold steps to cool off the Cold War. He signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1970, then entered into the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty in 1972.

Nixon and Kissinger adopted a policy of détente, meaning a negotiation of stability and even parity between the two nations.

Decades later, the Soviet Union is no more, replaced by the Russian Federation. Several of the former Soviet states, such as Ukraine, are now independent nations.

MAD is now considered, well, mad. It's an obsolete defense tactic. As Dr. Kissinger wrote, a state leader would have to act highly irrational for MAD to have credibility.

Russian President Vladimir Putin may have just gone MAD.

The Russian Defense Ministry has confirmed that a missile strike destroyed a defunct Soviet-era reconnaissance satellite, identified as Cosmos 1408. The satellite was probably built in the 1970s by Ukraine's Yuzhnoye Design Bureau and launched in 1982.

Official Ministry statements were reported by the government-owned wire service TASS and the government-owned news web site Russia Today.

The test left a debris cloud that could orbit Earth for years and poses a threat to the International Space Station. The destruction caused NASA to awaken the ISS crewmembers — including the Russians — and send them to their space capsule lifeboats. NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei joined Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov in their Soyuz capsule, while recently arrived Crew-3 members — three Americans and a German — took shelter in their SpaceX Dragon awaiting word to abandon ship.

An angry NASA Administrator Bill Nelson took to Twitter:

If anyone in the U.S. government, military or civilian, knows how Russia destroyed its spy satellite, they're not talking. Neither are the Russians. Russia Today called it a “missile test” but provided no details.

Anti-satellite (ASAT) tests have been conducted by the United States since 1959 and Russia since at least 1963. The Secure World Foundation tracks ASAT tests. According to an SWF spreadsheet last updated at the end of 2020:

The sheet currently lists more than 70 tests that have been conducted by four countries (the United States, Russia, China, and India) since 1959. The majority of the tests were conducted by the United States and Soviet Union during the first two decades of the Cold War, but there has been a recent resurgence with more than 20 tests conducted since 2005. In total, ASAT testing has created nearly 5,000 pieces of cataloged orbital debris, more than 3,200 of which are still on orbit. Many of the tests pushed orbital debris much higher than the altitude of the destroyed object, which contributed to the average lifespan of 25 years for the debris from each test to re-enter the atmosphere.

According to the spreadsheet, the last U.S. test was 2008. All debris from U.S. tests has re-entered the atmosphere and burned up.

Before yesterday, the last Russian test was in 2019. Russian tests have left about 900 pieces of debris in orbit, and a little more than half have burned up. According to the U.S. Space Command, the latest Russian test left at least 1,500 pieces of debris.

China has conducted only one test that resulted in the destruction of a target. That 2007 event left about 3,500 pieces of debris in orbit, and less than 20% of them have re-entered the atmosphere. The ISS has performed several maneuvers over the years to avoid that debris, most recently on November 11.

But China has none of its people at risk on the ISS.

That's why Russia's test seems inexplicable to many observers.

According to The Washington Post, Administrator Nelson believes that his counterpart Dmitri Rogozin and Russian space agency Roscosmos officials were unaware in advance of the test or the potential consequences.

Rogozin posted a tweet in Russian today that didn't defend the incident. He wrote that he had spoken by phone with Nelson. “In short, in the Russian language, we are moving on, ensuring the safety of our crews on the ISS, making joint plans. I am waiting for Bill in Moscow, because, for obvious reasons, I cannot visit the United States.”

Rogozin is under U.S. sanctions due to Russia's invasion of the Crimean part of Ukraine in 2012.

Here is Nelson's version of that conversation:

It's an unsually quiet response by Rogozin, whose boisterous and belligerent rhetoric at times has threatened and belittled the American-Russian space partnership. In 2014, when NASA still relied on Russia for ISS crew rotations, Rogozin suggested that NASA use a trampoline. As recently as June, Rogozin threatened that Russia will leave the ISS partnership in 2025 if sanctions are not lifted.

I assume that Nelson's intelligence is accurate, that the Russian military didn't inform Rogozin or Roscosmos in advance. Certainly President Putin knew, and gave his blessing, if he himself didn't order it.

The apathy towards the danger posed to Russian cosmonauts suggests that someone in power — and that means Putin — wanted to send a message. The cosmonauts' lives were worth the potential sacrifice.

Just my speculation, but my guess is it might have something to do with a November 1 Politico article that featured orbital photos of Russian troops and equipment massing on the Ukraine border. The photos were taken by a commercial satellite owned by American company Maxar Technologies.

The Politico article was specifically mentioned in another Russia Today article, one posted today about Ukraine leaders telling the European Union to prepare for war with Russia. The RT article concluded:

US news site POLITICO drew fire earlier this month for reports that claimed Russian forces were stepping up their presence near the border with Ukraine. Satellite images published alongside the article claimed to show Russian hardware near the city of Yelnya, around 250 kilometers from Ukraine, and closer to neighboring Belarus.

Someone in the Kremlin clearly doesn't like Maxar taking pictures of their troop movements, much less Politico reporting about it.

What better way to send a message than shooting down a spy satellite?

Cosmos 1408 intercepted radio emissions, it didn't take pictures, but a spysat is a spysat.

Putin's message may be to stop publishing photos of his troop movements, or next time he'll take out one of ours — military or civilian.

A ground-based missile isn't the only way to disable a satellite.

Professor Wendy Whitman Cobb of the U.S. Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies wrote for The Conversation web site today that the weapon used on Cosmos 1408 was probably a “direct ascent kinetic anti-satellite weapon. These are usually launched from the ground or from the wings of an airplane and destroy satellites by running into them at high speeds.”

A co-orbital anti-satellite weapon can be launched into orbit, then change course to collide with its target.

A non-kinetic anti-satellite weapon, such as a laser, can disrupt a satellite without a collision.

The U.S. Air Force robotic orbiter X-37B in May 2020 tested an on-orbit power-beaming system that could be used to direct high-powered microwaves and other direct energy beams at an enemy target in space.

In July 2019, former U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson revealed that the X-37B had the ability to change its orbit, possibly by dipping into the upper atmosphere to create drag, to confound an enemy trying to track and even target it.

To my knowledge, the Russians have demonstrated no comparable technology to the X-37B.

So what does Putin gain by destroying a defunct satellite and endangering cosmonauts?

Think MAD.

Dr. Kissinger wrote that, for MAD to work, a leader has to appear highly irrational.

Putin is many things, but irrational isn't one of them.

But he is cold and calculating.

Several of Putin's critics have died or been badly injured in assassination attempts.

Nixon and Kissinger believed that the way out of MAD was to establish parity between the United States and the Soviet Union. Each side would have roughly the same capped capabilities to destroy the other. But the capabilities would be capped, no longer beyond the ability of the Soviet economy to afford.

TASS reported today that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wants the U.S. to negotiate an outer space arms treaty with Russia and China.

“We would prefer that the United States should sit down at the negotiating table at last, instead of making groundless accusations, and discuss its concerns with regard to the treaty, which Russia and China are proposing to prevent this arms race and which the US cannot accept. It would be very interesting for us to hear a specific and reasoned position and not pretexts. We are ready for that,” Russia’s top diplomat said.

What better way to bring the U.S. to the table than a demonstration of a potential weapon of terror?

In October, Ars Technica journalist Eric Berger reported that Russia will cut the Roscosmos budget about 16% annually over the next three years, and that Putin is unhappy with the agency's performance.

Roscosmos is a nominally civilian agency, but still it's a sign that international sanctions are working. Russia doesn't have the money or the knowledge base to compete with the X-37B and other Western technologies.

So that's what Putin wants. A return to parity. A balance of terror that he can afford.

The international crew of the space station are no more than pawns in his geopolitical chess game.


UPDATE November 17, 2021 — The pro-Kremlin nationalist web site Pravda.ru published an article today claiming that a new Russian anti-missile system can shoot down the American X-37B robotic orbiter. It cites a Chinese website call Sohu as the source. This appears to be the source article, using Google Translate to translate into English. The article is dated November 14, the day before the Russian ASAT test.

Eric Berger of Ars Technica published a story today reporting that “some of the largest pieces of debris have already reached altitudes from as high as 1,100 km and as low as 300 km above the Earth.” The ISS typically is around 400 km.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Inspiration


The first commercial passenger flight from Detroit to Cleveland, in 1928. Video source: King Rose Archives YouTube channel.

Say what you will about the year of our Lord 2021, but future aerospace historians will remember this year as when commercial space travel finally became viable.

On July 11, billionaire Sir Richard Branson and invited passengers reached an altitude of about 53 miles on their Virgin Galactic suborbital flight.

After he landed, Branson said:

We're here to make space more accessible to all. We want to turn the next generation of dreamers into the astronauts of today and tomorrow. We've all us on this stage have had the most extraordinary experience, and we'd love it if a number of you can have it, too. If you ever had a dream, now is the time to make it come true. I'd like to end by saying welcome to the dawn of a new space age.

Nine days later, on July 20, the world's richest man, billionaire Jeff Bezos, and his invited guests reached 66 miles on their Blue Origin suborbital flight.

After he landed, Bezos said:

What we’re really trying to do is build reusable space vehicles. It’s the only way to build a road to space, and we need to build a road to space so that our children can build the future.


Space Coast news coverage of the Inspiration4 launch, September 15, 2021. Video source: Spectrum News via Space SPAN YouTube channel.

On September 15, SpaceX launched Inspiration4, the first all-American orbital commercial mission, from Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A. Billionaire Jared Isaacman purchased a crew Dragon flight atop a Falcon 9 rocket, a three-day mission that reached an altitude of about 364 miles, or about 100 miles higher than the International Space Station's orbit. Isaacman selected three passengers from all walks of life to join him.

With all three flights, some of the media focus was on the “billionaire” status of those financing the flights, as if it's immoral for rich people to pay for non-rich people to go into space.

Some complain that the money could have been better spent on the impoverished, the homeless, the afflicted.

But guess what?! We're a rich nation. We're capable of doing more than one thing at a time.

According to the Federal Reserve, the net worth of U.S. households at the end of 2021's second quarter was $141.7 trillion.

If you want to solve poverty, homelessless, and diseases, we're awash in money to do it. You need to convince your elected officials to do something about these problems.

The Inspiration4 mission's goal was to raise $200 million for St. Jude's Hospital. SpaceX founder Elon Musk donated $50 million after the flight to put the effort over the top.

More firsts are planned in upcoming months.

Roscosmos will launch a film director and woman actor to the International Space Station in early October. The Russians launched several space tourists in the early 2000s, starting with Dennis Tito for $20 million in 2001.

SpaceX and Axiom Space are targeting February 21 for the Ax-1 mission. Three affluent investors will join former NASA Space Shuttle astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria for an eight-day mission to the ISS.

While some spin these historic firsts as a criticism of the ills of capitalism, I think the larger point is being missed.

The technology has advanced.

No longer does NASA control who goes into space. You don't have to be a government employee to go into space. A government agency (the Federal Aviation Administration) regulates the flight, but doesn't decide if you're worthy of it.

Inspiration4 was the first orbital flight with no NASA involvement, other than being the landlord who leased SpaceX the launch pad.

SpaceX trained the crew, launched them, and landed them safely.

SpaceX did everything that NASA has done for the last sixty years.

Within the next decade, we may see other American companies achieve the same capability.

NASA is finally returning to its original purpose when it was founded in 1958.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration began on October 1, 1958. It was created as a political response to the panic following the early Soviet Sputnik flights, when the mistaken public perception was that American space technology was inferior to the Soviet Union.

The political solution — a bipartisan agreement between the Republican Eisenhower administration and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson — was to merge the old National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) with existing military space research programs that could be spun off into a civilian agency. NASA took over military research programs such as the X-15 and what eventually became Project Mercury.

These were research programs. They were not intended to be operational programs providing routine access to space, much less to compete with a commercial space industry that didn't exist at the time.

The NACA was created in 1915 because of the public perception that American aviation technology lagged behind Europe.


A 2015 NASA documentary on the 100th anniversary of the NASA. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Aviation engineers joined the NACA to force-feed technology into the American aviation industry. Because computers didn't exist, the NACA built wind tunnels at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia to test their ideas.

Many of the airplane technologies we take for granted today came out of the NACA, such as engine cowlings, the shape of an airplane fuselage, and the angles of airplane wings.

But the government didn't run the airlines, as NASA has controlled space access for the last sixty years. NACA made their findings available to the private sector, so America could compete on a global stage.

The events of 2021 are evocative of the earliest years of American commercial passenger aviation.

Just as the affluent are paying now to fly with SpaceX, Blue Origin, or Virgin Galactic, so did the affluent pay airplane companies to fly them on the first short hops from one city to another.

A January 1, 1920 article in the Chicago Tribune declared that “air transportation is now practicable” but noted that “the cost of travel is high.” The author estimated the cost of a flight from London to Paris at about $100, which works out to about $1,300 today. A cursory Google search shows that the cost of a London-to-Paris flight today is roughly $100 round-trip, but you can find cheaper.

Five years later, in March 1925, an author for the North American News Alliance wrote, “the aeroplane has served no better use than killing men; it is still almost a failure as a commercial vehicle.”

The governments of Europe are encouraging civilian flying as a subsidiary to their military plans. Were it not for that, Europe would probably see from one year's end to the other only a little stunt-flying at country fairs.

Is that any different from now, one hundred years later, when Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are just now launching suborbital hops?

The SpaceX Inspiration 4 mission, and next February's Ax-1 mission, are viable because NASA selected SpaceX, Falcon 9 and Dragon for commercial cargo, which allowed SpaceX to mature those technologies to fly government employees.

Despite the author's skepticism, only two years later was Charles Lindbergh's nonstop transatlantic flight from New York City to Paris. That flight was to win a $25,000 prize (about $360,000 in today's dollars) offered in 1919 by French-American hotel owner Raymond Orteig. Six men died over the years before Lindbergh finally won.

When he returned a month later to New York City, Lindbergh in a speech said, “Our greatest need is for airports close to the great cities.” He foresaw the next great technological leap as “multimotored planes” and urged the nation to look forward to a time when passenger service would be “better than that of any European country.”

Three years later, multimotored translantic flights were about to become a reality.


The Dornier Do X flight of August 1931. Video source: Discovery Channel via Inventing the World YouTube channel.

In February 1930, American aviation pioneer William Stout was quoted as saying that $750 million had been spent in the last two years on commercial aviation technology. That's about $11.4 billion in today's dollars! One can imagine critics saying that the money would be better spent on helping those suffering during the Great Depression.

“Nothing has yet come out of it” but, “When it comes, then will come the revolution of aeronautics.”

German airplane designer Claude Dornier had completed the Dornier Do X, a giant flying boat with six propellers and twelve engines, capable of carrying 169 passengers. In August 1931, the Dornier Do X flew from west Africa to Brazil, then north until it finally arrived in New York City, completing the first transatlantic flight of a large passenger plane.

Although the Dornier Do X was too inefficient to fly as a commercial enterprise, it proved the technology, and established the precedent.


William Stout's 1930 views regarding passenger aviation. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: Miami News-Record via Newspapers.com.

Perhaps the modern equivalent will be the SpaceX Starship and Super Heavy, currently being developed at Starbase near Boca Chica, Texas. According to the Starship User Guide, “the Starship crew configuration can transport up to 100 people from Earth into [low Earth orbit] and on to the Moon and Mars.”

In a September 21 address to the United Nations General Assembly, Secretary General António Guterres cited “billionaires joyriding to space” as one of the world's problems. According to Jeff Foust at Space News:

“At the same time, another disease is spreading in our world today: a malady of mistrust,” he said, after mentioning the pandemic and the climate crisis. That included, he said, when people “see billionaires joyriding to space while millions go hungry on earth.”

He did not elaborate on that claim in his address, saying only that such issues may cause people “to lose faith not only in their governments and institutions but in the values that have animated the work of the United Nations for over 75 years.”

I would point the Secretary General to the giant leaps one hundred years ago in aviation technology, at the time of a global depression, that led to commercial passenger aviation affordable for almost anyone on the planet.

Millions go hungry on Earth not because of NewSpace.

They go hungry because global leaders can't get their priorities straight.

I suspect that those who are hungry don't blame Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson for their hunger.

I do suspect that, when they see “regular people” going to space, many of them are inspired to believe that better days lie ahead.

Because if that is possible, solving hunger and homelessless and disease can't be that hard.


BREAKING NEWS September 24, 2021TMZ reports that 90-year old actor William Shatner is one of the crew members for the scheduled October 15 launch of Blue Origin's New Shepard. The report has not been confirmed by Mr. Shatner or any other source.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Tampa, We've Had a Problem


May 25, 1961 ... President John F. Kennedy proposes landing a man to the Moon by the end of the 1960s. Video source: NASA.

Sixty years ago today, on September 19, 1961, NASA announced that its human spaceflight program would be based in Houston, Texas.

As with most government programs, politics played a role in the decision.

The popular myth is that Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson somehow steered the decision to his home state. That myth is not supported by the evidence.

But members of Congress, governors, and many others with a vested interest tried to interfere in the selection.

An excellent resource for this topic is John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, by John M. Logsdon, who is generally considered the preeminent American space policy scholar. The book focused on the politics and policy behind Kennedy's decision to propose what came to be known as Project Apollo. Logsdon's work will be cited throughout this article.


Dr. John Logsdon presents a lecture based on his book, “John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon.” Video source: KISSCaltech YouTube channel.

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy proposed to Congress that the United States land a man on the Moon by the end of that decade.

Twenty days earlier, NASA had launched the first American into space, Alan Shepard, on a fifteen-minute suborbital flight from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Shepard and the other Project Mercury astronauts were based at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. Langley's facilities were limited, and NASA management knew that much more extensive facilities would be required for what was then called the Space Task Group.

Word leaked out through Aviation Week magazine that NASA might be looking to move its Space Task Group headquarters. According to the article, the leading candidate cities were Houston, Texas and Tampa, Florida.

Politicians began to do what they do — protect the interests of their constituencies.

Both U.S. Senators representing Virginia fired off protests to NASA officials. Logsdon wrote on page 126 that Langley's specialty was engineering research, not the “engineering development, flight operations, and especially project management skills” required for Apollo.

The U.S. Air Force, during the Eisenhower administration, in April 1960 announced their intention to close MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa by mid-1962. Planes and pilots already were being transferred elsewhere. Despite the recent overthrow of Cuba's government by forces led by Fidel Castro, one USAF official in June 1960 told the Tampa Tribune that Air Force officials didn't see any immediate “physical” threat from Cuba.

Local leaders were scrambling to find a reuse for the base. For Tampa, the Space Task Group was political manna. With Cape Canaveral about 150 miles to the northeast, MacDill to them seemed a logical solution. Tampa and Florida state leaders began a statewide campaign to bring the STG to MacDill. W. Scott Christopher, executive secretary of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, told the Tampa Tribune that he'd been tipped by an “important supply source in the missile industry” that STG might move to Tampa. He claimed that NASA had already decided that MacDill was “the only Florida site NASA would consider.”

U.S. Senator Spessard Holland (D-FL), a member of the Senate subcommittee responsible for NASA budget appropriations, joined the Tampa chamber's effort and said that he'd heard Houston and also Moffett Air Force Base in the San Francisco Bay area were candidate sites.

Tampa had Holland, but Houston had Rep. Albert Thomas (D-TX).

Thomas was chair of the House appropriations subcommittee that controlled NASA's funding. Houston was in his district. During the Eisenhower administration, Thomas had urged NASA to locate a “laboratory” affiliated with Rice University, and threatened to withhold funding until he got his way. The “laboratory” went to Greenbelt, Maryland, home of today's Goddard Space Flight Center, but Thomas's intentions were clear.

According to Logsdon, Kennedy's newly appointed NASA Administrator, James Webb, was well aware of Thomas's interests and so NASA officials visited Houston on May 16, 1961 to meet with representatives of the Chamber of Commerce. Thomas made it clear that his offer, and threat, still stood. Rice University was willing to donate a large plot of land. George Brown, a local construction company owner who had financially supported Johnson's political campaigns, hoped to get the contract to build the new center. But the search didn't begin in earnest until after August 7, 1961, when Congress passed the appropriations bill to fund the new center.

Other regions bid too. The White House and NASA were bombarded by offers, through politicians in both houses of Congress. Republican governor John Volpe of Massachusetts pressured Kennedy to deliver the new center to their home state. Kennedy told Webb that the Administrator should make the final decision “in the light of the national interest,” free of political pressure.

On July 7, 1961, Webb directed the creation of a selection team, and the development of selection criteria. According to a 2017 Johnson Space Center history article:

Essential criteria for the new site included the availability of water transport and a first-class all-weather airport, proximity to a major telecommunications network, a well established pool of industrial and contractor support, a readily available supply of water, a mild climate permitting year-round outdoor work and a culturally attractive community. Houston was initially included by virtue of the San Jacinto Ordnance Depot, since military rather than commercial facilities were judged best for helping handle NASA's large retinue of jets and specialized equipment, and because of its recognized, prominent universities, including Rice, Texas, and Texas A&M.

Logsdon wrote on page 129 that 23 sites were reviewed by the selection team — two in Florida, three in Louisiana, nine in Texas, four in Missouri, and five in California. The requirement for a mild climate eliminated Massachusetts and other candidates.

While the NASA selection team began visiting potential sites, events elsewhere in the world decided MacDill's fate — and won Houston the new field center.

During the summer of 1961, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev tested the inexperienced new American president by escalating events in Berlin. The East German government, backed by the Soviet Union, began building a wall to separate the Soviet zone from the zones controlled by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. The wall would keep the people of East Germany from defecting to the West. The border was closed on August 13, 1961, and by the end of the month Kennedy had begun activating National Guard units for overseas deployment.

On July 31, 1961, the Air Force announced that MacDill would remain open indefinitely, with its B-47 bomber fleet remaining closer to Europe and Cuba.

The St. Petersburg Times reported the next day that Air Force chief of staff Curtis LeMay believed MacDill could house both the 306th Bomb Wing and the new NASA facilities.

But the reality was, so long as MacDill remained a military base, it would be a prime target for an enemy nuclear attack.

As NASA officials prepared to inspect MacDill, the Tampa Bay Times reported on August 19, 1961 that an “informed source” claimed the “Tampa Bay area is the most likely choice, bar none.” The report noted that the team was also going to visit Green Cove Springs Naval Base near Jacksonville, Florida.

The NASA team arrived Monday night August 21, and toured the base the next day.


A NASA selection team tours MacDill Air Force Base on August 22, 1961. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: The Tampa Times.

The Tampa Times quoted NASA Ames deputy director Jack Parsons as saying that close proximity to cultural and educational facilities ranked high on the list of criteria. The problem was not keeping so much as attracting technical personnel. Representatives of local universities acknowledged that they lacked the graduate programs NASA sought for their engineers and scientists, although such programs were planned for the near future.

NASA announced on September 19, 1961 — sixty years ago today — that the selection team had chosen the Rice University site.

Florida governor Farris Bryant, a Democrat, said that he didn't believe political considerations entered into the decision, but Republican Rep. William Cramer (R-FL) charged that President Kennedy had left the decision to Vice President Johnson, a Texan. Cramer offered no evidence to back up his allegation.

Many other locals tried to blame Johnson. Winston King, a member of the Tampa team, alleged:

My sentiments are perhaps summarized by a statement made by a high NASA official in Washington last week when he said, “Everybody in NASA wants to go to Tampa. Tampa has everything we need. However, it lacks only one thing. It does not have a Lyndon Johnson.”

Once again, no evidence was provided to support the claim, nor was this “high NASA official” ever named.

Did Johnson influence the decision?

Dr. Logsdon's book concludes he did not.

Johnson's primary contribution to Kennedy administration space policy was his April 28, 1961 memo recommending a crewed lunar mission by the end of the 1960s. Kennedy had made Johnson chair of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, but the Council had only one full-time employee and was no more than an advisory body. NASA Administrator James Webb answered to Kennedy, not Johnson. To quote from page 124 of Logsdon's book:

Webb was scrupulous in keeping Johnson informed, but he made it clear that he worked for the president, not the vice president. This also left little room for the vice president and the Space Council staff to play a central role in most of the decisions on how best to move forward in sending Americans to the Moon.

According to Dr. Logsdon, MacDill had been the selection team's first choice, but “at the last minute the Air Force changed its mind about closing MacDill, and the team's second preference, the Houston site associated with Rice University, became the top-ranked choice of the site selection group.”

Logsdon wrote, “it was Albert Thomas, not Johnson, who had the greater influence on the decision to locate the center in Houston.”

So what happened to MacDill?

It's still open to this day.

According to MacDill's web site, “the 1961 Berlin Crisis and 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis led to a reprieve of the planned cutbacks and highlighted MacDill's strategic value.”

If the Soviet bloc had not erected the Berlin Wall in the summer of 1961, if the Cold War had remained cool, the Air Force might have proceeded with closing MacDill, and NASA might have decided to choose Tampa instead of Houston.

Had history followed a different path, the first word spoken on the surface of the Moon might not have been “Houston”:

“Tampa, Tranquility Base Here. The Eagle has Landed.”

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Decadal Survey


September 14, 2011 ... Then-Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) unveils the design for the Space Launch System.

Imagine the consequences if politicians, and not engineers, designed rockets.

On January 10, 1962, NASA engineers at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama announced that they would evolve their Saturn rocket into an advanced version with five first-stage engines and 7.5 million pounds of thrust. This advanced Saturn would be capable of sending American astronauts to land on the Moon.

Engineers made the decision, at a NASA center dedicated to rocket design, free of political influence.

The first Saturn V launch was a little less than five years later, on November 9, 1967.

Now let's imagine that politicians took it upon themselves to design a rocket, not for a specific mission or destination, but to protect a workforce.

That's what happened ten years ago today,

On September 14, 2011, then-U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) and now-retired U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) led a bipartisan media event on the ground floor of the Senate Dirksen Building in Washington, DC to unveil the design for a new rocket they were foisting upon NASA, to be called the Space Launch System.

The basic design of SLS was dictated by Congress in the 2010 NASA authorization act.

The legislation mandated that NASA must base SLS on Space Shuttle technology, and use existing Space Shuttle and Project Constellation contractors without competitive bid. The law discouraged innovation, telling NASA to “minimize the modification and development of ground infrastructure and maximize the utilization of existing software, vehicle, and mission operations processes.”

The bill also directed that SLS have “operational capability” by no later than December 31, 2016.

Just who actually came up with the SLS design has never been clear. Members of Congress dominated the event a decade ago. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was relegated to a minor role, speaking for five minutes, while the politicians congratulated themselves for all the jobs they were going to create.

I've written many times about this event, most notably a September 2012 blog article titled “The Monster Rocket.” It was a phrase Nelson has used many times to describe SLS, the phallic symbolism lost upon him.

In a boast that has proven wildly wrong, Nelson said that day:

This rocket is coming in at the cost of what not only what we estimated in the NASA authorization act, but less. 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.


An Artemis cost graphic issued in March 2021 by the NASA Office of the Inspector General. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: NASA OIG.

The NASA Office of the Inspector General issued a report in March 2021 which showed that to date NASA had spent $17.2 billion on the “monster rocket,” with another $2.6 billion expected in the current fiscal year. That's $19.8 billion, or about double what Nelson said it would cost.

But none of that mattered ten years ago. What did matter to the assembled politicians was that they were able to boast about all the jobs they were creating in their districts and states.

A group calling itself the Competitive Space Task Force posted in March 2011 a now legendary article dubbing SLS the “Senate Launch System”. Its authors wrote:

The Congress is assuming, in the face of numerous studies indicating otherwise, that the lowest-cost approach for the future is to continue the high-cost approach in which we've been engaged for the past half century. Note also that there are many heavy-lift concepts that do not employ solid rocket motors, and that the only thing for which they are “critical” is the maintenance of a jobs base in the state of Utah.

The number of projected jobs made the front page of next day's Florida Today, the newspaper for Florida's Space Coast and those who worked at Kennedy Space Center.

The paper estimated that “roughly 2,000 KSC jobs” would be created by the proposed SLS. The first uncrewed test flight would be in 2017, and the first “piloted” mission would be in 2021.


The front page of the September 15, 2011 Florida Today. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: Newspapers.com.

If you look at your calendar, you'll notice that we are indeed in 2021. Not only has no one piloted the Orion spacecraft atop SLS, but SLS has yet to fly at all.

Although NASA still clings to the notion that the first test flight, dubbed Artemis I, will launch by the end of this year, the realists think it'll be sometime in Spring 2022 — assuming there are no more delays. Artemis II, the first flight with crew, is projected for some time around 2023.

No one at the SLS unveiling could have foreseen that, a decade later, Nelson would be the one running NASA.

No one could have foreseen that any politician would be in charge of NASA. That changed in September 2017 when President Donald Trump nominated House representative Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) for NASA Administrator.

Florida's two U.S. Senators criticized the nomination, not just Nelson but also Republican Marco Rubio. In a written statement, Nelson said, "The head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician." Rubio felt the nomination might be held up due to partisanship.

To open Bridenstine's nomination hearing, Nelson said, "The NASA administrator should be a consummate space professional who is technically and scientifically competent and is a skilled executive."

Bridenstine left NASA on January 2021, the date that Joe Biden became President. I'd argue the consensus is that Bridenstine proved the skeptics, including Nelson, wrong.

Jeffrey Kluger of Time wrote that Bridenstine “became something NASA always needs: a leader with both a vision to sell and the ability to sell it.”


May 14, 2019 ... In a “Moon Town Hall,” Administrator Bridenstine announces Project Artemis.

Perhaps his signature achievement will be viewed by historians as his packaging disparate NASA programs into one marketable concept, called Project Artemis.

Artemis gave SLS and Orion a specific near-future mission — to land the next man and the first woman on the Moon by 2024.

President Barack Obama, in an April 15, 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center, set NASA's next goal for human space flight as sending people to Mars by the end of the 2030s.

The Obama administration didn't ignore the Moon. Our lone natural satellite would be left for the private sector, through a program called NextSTEP. The first NextSTEP request for proposals was issued by NASA in October 2014.

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.

Congress never warmed to the idea of an Apollo-style and Apollo-budget program to send humans to Mars, perhaps because the return to their districts and states would not be immediate. SLS protected jobs, and that was good enough.

Project Artemis packaged SLS pork with NextSTEP, and added a lunar space station called Gateway that used a solar electric power and propulsion element the Obama administration had originally intended to develop as part of its Asteroid Redirect Mission. Never popular with Congress, ARM was cancelled by the Trump administration in December 2017, but the power and propulsion element eventually became part of Gateway.

The Obama administration used a loophole in NASA's founding charter to sign Space Act Agreements (SAAs) with the private sector, circumventing the expensive pork-laden “cost plus” contracts favored by Congress that guarantee profits for legacy contractors, such as those no-bid SLS contracts. SAA contractors win a competitive bid for a fixed price, and are paid only after delivery of the service.

Other than SLS and the Orion crew spacecraft, much of Project Artemis will be performed by SAA contractors or NASA's international spacefaring partners. The Trump administration and Bridenstine embraced SAAs, now reluctantly accepted by Congress, as a way to accelerate the Moon program.

The 2009 Augustine Committee report issued in October 2009 discussed the need for a “super heavy-lift launch vehicle” for deep space missions, but in a context of the absence of in-space refueling. The committee wrote, “... a prudent approach is to develop a heavy-lift launch system with sufficient capabilities for early missions, which would later be enhanced by in-space refueling when it becomes available.”

Congress for years has generally been resistant to the notion of propellant depots in space, perhaps because such technology could obviate the need for a big expensive no-bid government rocket. But in October 2020, Bridenstine announced fourteen “Tipping Point” awards to American companies to demonstrate various in-space “cryogenic fluid management technologies.”

When Congress mandated SLS in 2010, no “super heavy” launch vehicles were on the private sector horizon. Why? The government hadn't paid them to build one.


April 5, 2011 ... Elon Musk unveils the concept for the SpaceX Falcon Heavy. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

SpaceX had just launched the first Falcon 9 in June 2010. The Falcon Heavy concept was unveiled in April 2011. With his typical over-optimism, SpaceX founder Elon Musk predicted the first test flight would be in 2013. It was actually 2018.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos announced the New Glenn orbital launch vehicle in September 2015. When it will launch is anyone's guess.

In all fairness, when Nelson unveiled the SLS design ten years ago today, no commercial super-heavy option was credible. But neither was there any deep-space mission that required one. The priority for human space flight was completion and operation of the International Space Station.

Had Congress supported an SAA-style competition similar to NASA's ISS commercial cargo and crew programs, it's likely that a super-heavy vehicle would have been developed by now for less than what SLS has cost the taxpayer, and be operational.

Nelson has only been NASA Administrator since May 2021. It's too soon to judge what his legacy as Administrator will be. For now, he seems content to continue the course of the last administration, which built upon what President Obama, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver began in the early 2010s.

An early test has been to shepherd NASA's delicate relationship with Roscosmos, at a time of frosty relations between the United States and Russia.

The Russians have sent mixed messages about maintaining their ISS partnership after 2024. Although the ISS's life space is estimated to be at least through 2030, Russia recently reported “superficial fissures” in the Zarya module that “will begin to spread over time.”

In the United States, private companies already have begun to develop commercial space habitats, some of which may become part of Gateway, or fly in low Earth orbit, as a complement and one day a replacement for ISS. SpaceX and Axiom plan crewed private missions to ISS within the next year.


July 21, 2021 ... Bill Nelson discusses with the Washington Post the Chinese space program. Video source: Washington Post Live YouTube channel.

Nelson may also have to address the maturation of the Chinese space program. Nelson believes that NASA is “in a space race with China” and notes that their program is intertwined with their military, unlike NASA in the United States.

But because of what he said ten years ago, Nelson's legacy will forever be linked to his midwifery of Space Launch System. Success or failure, SLS will be remembered as Bill Nelson's “monster rocket.”

For his legacy to be more than that, to be remembered as another Bridenstine, Nelson will have to place “NewSpace” ahead of OldSpace, which means at some point ending SLS.

SpaceX is developing and testing its Starship technology at their Starbase facility near Boca Chica, Texas. When operational, it's projected to deliver 100 metric tons to low Earth orbit, more than the SLS Block 1 at 70 metric tons.

More powerful versions of SLS are on the drawing boards, but at what expense?

That may be the true test of Nelson's NASA legacy. Will he support spending more billions on SLS Block 1B and Block 2, or will he save that money by acquiring more affordable launch services from SpaceX or another vendor?

Who will design American launch vehicles — engineers or politicians?

If only Nixon could go to China, then perhaps only Nelson can end SLS.