Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Russians Are Going! The Russians Are Going!

The American Space Shuttle orbiter Atlantis docks at the Russian space station Mir on June 29, 1995. Image source: NASA.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

By the end of the 1980s, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and the Soviet Union was in its final days. The communist nation's financial exhaustion led the Gorbachev regime to seek a space partnership with the United States, which was flush with cash and starting a new commercial launch industry.

The George H.W. Bush administration saw an opportunity to end decades of Russian enmity, signalling an end to the Cold War and perhaps finding a partner for the President's Space Exploration Initiative.

The United States was planning a space station, named Freedom by President Reagan in July 1988, but the project lacked strong Congressional support. NASA's bureaucracy came under fire from a 1990 committee appointed by President Bush, which faulted the agency for “a natural tendency for projects to grow in scope, complexity, and cost.” The committee found that “NASA has not been sufficiently responsive to valid criticism and to the need for change.” A partnership with Russia might help sway skeptical members of Congress, arguing that it would reduce costs.

The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in August 1990 worried American political leaders, not only because of the threat to oil supplies and regional stability in the Middle East, but also the potential for desperate unpaid Soviet aerospace engineers to seek employment with rogue nations willing to pay well for their talents.

And so it was that the American and Russian space agencies, after decades of competition for international prestige, began to form partnerships.

International Launch Services, a business partnership between Lockheed Martin and Russian companies Khrunichev and RSC Energia, offered commercial uncrewed launch services on an American Atlas or a Russian Proton booster. Take your pick.

The Soviets had operated space stations in low Earth orbit since Salyut 1 launched in April 1971. Many smaller stations had orbited since then, a frequent destination for cosmonauts in Soyuz capsules, and for Progress robotic cargo ships. The Soviet Union had far more experience with space stations than did the United States; a new space station called Mir was under construction, with its first module launched in 1986. Unlike Freedom, which would require the Space Shuttle (and therefore risk the lives of crew) for assembly, Mir was assembled using Proton boosters. The Bush administration saw an opportunity for transfer of the Soviets' technology and expertise to NASA.

Mikhail Gorbachev was replaced by Boris Yeltsin in December 1991. The new Russian president, at a June 1992 summit with Bush, signed an agreement that became the foundation for American and Russian joint dependency in space for human space flight. Among the agreement's provisions:

  • A rendezvous between the Space Shuttle and Mir
  • Possible use of Russian technology on Space Station Freedom
  • American approval for a U.S.-built telecommunications satellite to launch on Proton

Bill Clinton succeeded Bush as the U.S. President in January 1993. The Clinton administration continued to expand cooperation in space with Russia. At an April 1993 summit in Vancouver, Yeltsin said that he and Clinton had “decided to join forces, the U.S. and Russian administrations,” in space.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin and American President Bill Clinton at Vancouver in April 1993. Image source: UPI.

In the last years of the 20th Century, the U.S. succeeded in persuading Russia to join the other space station partners —Europe, Japan, and Canada — in a unified project. Mir would be abandoned, and elements of Freedom would now be joined to Russian modules to assemble an International Space Station.

The core section was an American-financed, Russian-built module called Zarya (Russian for "Dawn"), which provided the first propulsion and power for the station. It was followed by the Russian segment's Zvezda (Russian for "Star") module, which housed the first crews. Assembly of the rest of the ISS was largely completed by Space Shuttle missions.

By the beginning of the 21st Century, the American and Russian human space flight programs had merged, reliant upon one another. U.S. space companies had become intertwined with their Russian counterparts, which came to rely on their American partners as a reliable source of revenue. Lockheed Martin, the earliest significant American company to embrace partnership with Russia, chose the Russian RD-180 engine for its new Atlas V booster. The first Atlas V launched in 2002.

After the Space Shuttle orbiter Columbia was lost on re-entry in February 2003, NASA turned to the Russian space agency Roscosmos for ISS crew and cargo deliveries. Had there been no partnership with Russia, the other nations would have had no means of rotating crews or transporting payloads until the Space Shuttle returned to flight thirty months later.

Comity goes only so far in international relations. It's an axiom that nations will always act in their own self-interest.

Scottish economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith wrote about self-interest in 1776 his fundamental work of classic economics, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Associate professor of political science Lauren Hall wrote for Adam Smith Works in 2018:

Rather than defending active vice as something that leads to virtue, Smith is critical of vicious behavior and argues in both “Wealth of Nations” and “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” that benevolent and virtuous behaviors are both necessary and desirable for stable social orders. Far from providing rationale for selfish material pursuits, Smith’s self-interest, properly understood, encourages a kind of virtue that protects both individuals and their communities. Smith’s self-interest is the foundation not just of economic order, but, along with sympathy, for the moral order on which the larger economic order rests. Self-interest, it turns out, is a key component in the creation of a stable, just, and orderly society in which individuals are secure and able to pursue their own goals.

Hall distinguishes between self-interest and selfishness:

The impartial spectator (Smith’s version of a conscience), which is built up over long experience, generally looks kindly on the pursuit of self-interest. It is, after all, nothing more than what everyone pursues. At the same time, the impartial spectator, impartial as he is, draws a sharp line between self-interest that is neutral in its effects on others and self-interest that harms others to benefit oneself.

Two significant events near the end of this century's first decade forewarned that the self-interests of the United States and Russia in space were about to diverge.

A year after the loss of Columbia, the George W. Bush administration announced its Vision for Space Exploration. The VSE aimed to return humans (presumably Americans) to the Moon by 2020, “in preparation for human exploration of Mars and other destinations.”

The VSE also declared that the U.S. would, “Promote international and commercial participation in exploration to further U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests.”

No specific mention was made of Russia.

As for the ISS, the U.S. would honor its commitment to its international partners to complete the station, but its purpose would change from science to “understanding how the space environment affects astronaut health and capabilities and developing countermeasures.” The ISS would be phased out by 2015 to provide funding for the VSE, which would evolve into Project Constellation.

A June 2004 report by a presidential commission predicted a role for the nation's international partners, but that role would be determined by U.S. self-interest:

How our international partners will participate in the vision will depend on the specifics of the architecture that will be established by the United States and the value potential partners bring to the elements of the mission. Prior to entering into government-to-government agreements, the United States must first determine its own requirements, expectations, milestones, and risks. It must also determine what part of its national industrial base it must protect and what technologies it is prepared to transfer to the international partners.

Nothing personal, comrades, but America First.

The VSE foresaw a four-year gap where NASA would rely on Roscosmos Soyuz spacecraft for American crew rotations to ISS. That reliance would continue until Constellation's Orion capsule came online, and its Ares I booster.

By the time Barack Obama became President in January 2009, Orion and Ares I were years behind schedule. If and when they came online, they were intended to fly to a location that the Bush administration planned to end by 2015. Section 601 of the 2008 NASA authorization act required NASA to keep ISS operational at least through 2020, but the Obama administration inherited a plan to shut it down in 2015.

The Obama administration, in its Fiscal Year 2010 budget request, proposed cancelling Constellation to extend ISS to 2020, and funding the commercial crew program, which was on paper during the Bush administration but unfunded, to end U.S. reliance upon Russia by 2015.

In a grand compromise, Congress finally agreed to extend ISS and cancel Constellation, but NASA would have to design and build a new system, the Space Launch System. Over the next three fiscal years, Congress underfunded commercial crew, providing only 38% of what Obama requested, extending NASA's reliance on Roscosmos until the end of the decade.

Protecting pork for legacy aerospace companies was more important to Congress than ending reliance upon an increasingly disruptive foreign power.

The other significant event was the rise to power in Russia of Vladimir Putin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2015 at the opening of a Russia avation and space show. Image source: Associated Press.

The former KGB intelligence officer has been President or Prime Minister of Russia since 1999. Former U.S. Ambasador to Russia Michael McFaul wrote in Foreign Policy in 2020:

Today, Putin has replaced Russia's fragile democracy from the 1990s with a consolidated autocracy. Over time, Putin has explicitly rejected liberalism and multilateralism and instead embraced and promoted conservative, orthodox, nationalist ideas. The clash between Putinism and liberalism takes place not only between states but within them.

Russia failed to live up to a secret agreement that required “an end to all Russian sales of conventional weapons to Iran by the end of 1999.” The Iran Nonproliferation Act, passed unanimously by both houses of Congress and signed by President Clinton in March 2000, prohibited any U.S. agency from making any ISS-related payments to Russia unless their government demonstrated “a sustained commitment to seek out and prevent the transfer to Iran of goods, services, and technology that could make a material contribution to the development of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, or of ballistic or cruise missile systems.”

In 2005, Congress exempted Soyuz crew missions from the act through 2011, but also extended the sanctions to cover assistance to Syria and North Korea. The law now has the unwieldly acronym INKSNA. Since then, Congress has routinely granted INKSNA exemptions for ISS, with the current exemption running through the end of 2025.

In 2008, Putin sent Russian forces to intervene in a civil war in the former Soviet republic Georgia. The United States protested, publicly and privately, but no sanctions were imposed. Condoleeza Rice, the U.S. Secretary of State at the time, wrote ten years later:

The United States is sometimes constrained in what it can do in circumstances such as the Georgian conflict. We focused our energies on stopping Moscow from overthrowing a new democracy that then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin hated with a virulence that is hard to overstate. America and its allies raised $1 billion in aid for the Georgians. Sanctions levied on the separatist regions remain largely in place, so Moscow foots the bill for its adventurism in territory that is difficult to develop economically.

A Russian cosmonaut used the ISS to photograph the war zone. A NASA representative replied that the photos were for humanitarian activities, and no further action would be taken.

Using a similar pretext in 2014, Russia invaded the Ukrainian regions of Crimea and Donbas. This time, the United States, the European Union, and other nations imposed sanctions. Among the first Russian government officials sanctioned was Dmitri Rogozin, a deputy prime minister who had Russia's defense and space industries in his portfolio.

Fully aware that Congress had kneecapped NASA's ability to rotate its ISS crews, Rogozin threatened to terminate Russian taxi services to the station, but it was an empty threat. At the time, NASA paid Roscosmos $71 million per crew member for transportation, and a $457.9 million payment was due.

These threats are often for domestic consumption.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov. Image source: TASS.

Similar threats have been made since then. In April, Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov said on a Russian television news program that the nation was fully capable of going its own way with a new space station, leaving the ISS partnership in 2025.

That would be the year that the ISS exemption from INKSNA expires.

Unlike 2014, NASA now has its own options for rotating ISS crews. The SpaceX Dragon has been flying crews since May 2020. The Boeing Starliner's uncrewed demonstration test flight suffered multiple anomalies, but another demonstration is planned for late July, and a possible crewed test flight by the end of this year.

SpaceX and Northrop Grumman provide robotic cargo deliveries to ISS, with the Sierra Space Dream Chaser planned for service in the next year or two. The SpaceX Dragon is the only vehicle currently capable of returning significant amounts of cargo to Earth. Dream Chaser will land on a runway, not just in the United States but possibly in other nations that contract for payload services.

An artist's concept of the Sierra Space Dream Chaser “Tenacity” currently being assembled at Kennedy Space Center. Image source: Sierra Space.

Russia needs the money, but the ISS partners soon won't need Russia any more.

The Zarya module, which provides propulsion for ISS, is owned by the United States. Russia can't decommission it.

As for Zvezda and the rest of the Russian segment, the service module suffers from leaks. Roscosmos could abandon it in place and walk away, but again that would terminate U.S. payments that keep Russian engineers employed.

The U.S. has plenty of domestic options for replacing Zvezda's capabilities and expanding the station, if it so desires. At least two American commercial companies, Axiom Space and Sierra Space, have plans to develop habitats that could be attached to ISS. The dormant Bigelow Aerospace attached its BEAM habitat to ISS in 2016.

Russia and China have announced a potential lunar exploration partnership, and are seeking international partners, but China isn't in a rush (early 2030s) and Russia doesn't have the money for such an expensive endeavour. No other nation has yet to join them, but eleven nations have signed NASA's Artemis Accords, mostly recently New Zealand and South Korea.

Putin and President Joe Biden are to meet June 16 in Geneva, Switzerland. Expectations are low, and space relations are not likely to be a top priority, but the posturing has already begun.

In a June 4 phone call with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, Dmitri Rogozin reaffirmed Russia's support for ISS and “shared the plans to develop the Russian segment of the station.” But Rogozin also complained about the sanctions. According to the Roscosmos English-language press release:

Therewith, the head of Roscosmos stated several questions that had been initiated by the US side earlier and now are substantially hindering the cooperation. First of all this is about the sanctions introduced by the American administration against the enterprises of the Russian space industry, as well as the absence of any official information in Roscosmos from the US partners on the plans to further control and operate the ISS.

Three days later, on June 7, Rogozin once again threatened to withdraw Russia from ISS, but once again it was for domestic consumption, a Russian parliament hearing.

Will the Russians go their own way?

We may know more after the Biden-Putin summit, but history tells us that the Russians will always be at the table when cash is on it.

The question space policy wonks should be asking is, are the reasons for the American-Russian space partnership still valid?

If not, are there new reasons?

To the first question, I'd answer no.

To the second question, I'd answer yes.

It's in American self-interest to maintain a stable working relationship with Russia, as well as any other spacefaring nation.

But the U.S. should no longer put itself in the position of relying on Russia for habitat modules or crew rotations or cargo delivery services.

If NASA no longer pays Russia for space services, does Russia have the wherewithal to continue?

Russia needs China a lot more than China needs Russia. China would be a new signifcant revenue source. Russia has far more experience in space than does China but, once that institutional knowledge is transferred, China might go its own way.

Russia won't get to the Moon any time soon with China. But they will with the United States and the Artemis Accords partners.

Dmitri Rogozin. Image source: TASS.

So far, Russia has declined to participate in Project Artemis. In October 2020, Rogozin criticized Artemis, calling the Gateway space station “too U.S.-centric.”

My opinion is that the U.S. should treat Russia the way it treats its domestic commercial companies.

The idea behind “NewSpace,” which traces back to the VSE, was to create a robust commercial aerospace industry from which NASA (and the military) could purchase products off-the-shelf.

No longer would there be a single-source means of reaching space.

If Russia wants cash, if Russia wants to be treated as an equal, fine. Compete to provide services to NASA, as do SpaceX, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and the rest.

James Clay Moltz of the Naval Postgraduate School wrote in 2019 of “an increasing disconnect” between Russia's nationalist agenda and its growing isolation from the rest of the space community.

Ironically, the very success of the Russian space industry in integrating into global supply chains in the 1990s has now made it dependent on foreign components for construction of satellites. A recent study indicated that up to 75 percent of electronic parts on certain current-generation satellites come from the United States. With the advent of Western sanctions after Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine, Russia has been forced to substitute substandard and often ill-fitting Russian or other foreign components from countries that do not adhere to UN sanctions. Russia may develop renewed capabilities, but it will take time and steady budgetary support for such efforts to succeed.

Moltz also wrote that NewSpace “has created serious new challenges” for Russia in the commercial space marketplace.

Put simply, prices are dropping, especially in the launch sector, and a variety of new products are now available from commercial start-ups that Roscosmos cannot produce or cannot offer with comparable quality and price.

Partnership with Russia in space no longer serves its purpose for the United States. Putin has shown no inclination to change the nationalist direction he is taking Russia. He recently signed a law banning certain opposition leaders and groups from running for office.

Putin may calculate that he can make more money selling Russia's aerospace technology to Iran and North Korea, but neither nation has a stable leadership, and as Adam Smith wrote rational leaders want a stable global order.

In any case, it's time to take Russia out of NASA's critical path. They'll be welcome back when it's in mutual self-interest.

Much of this article draws upon a February 2001 monograph by John M. Logsdon and James R. Millar, editors, U.S. - Russian Collaboration in Human Space Flight: Assessing the Impacts. Click here to access the PDF.

Insight into the first Bush administration's space policy comes from George H.W. Bush's National Space Council Executive Secretary, Dr. Mark Albrecht, in his 2011 work, Falling Back to Earth: A First Hand Account of the Great Space Race and the End of the Cold War. Click here to order the book on Amazon.com.

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: SpaceKSC.com.

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.