Thursday, November 17, 2016

Will Trump Moon NASA?

Donald Trump on election night. Image source: Associated Press via

It's been ten days since Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shocked the world, and this blogger, by winning the presidency.

Many pundits are performing their own electoral autopsies — a Los Angeles Times article suggests Hillary Clinton fundamentally misread voter anger in Rust Belt states — but this blog is about space advocacy, so let's talk space.

Insiders have suggested that the Trump team didn't really expect to win the election, so no transition teams were in place, but he won so now they're scrambling to appoint administrators who will implement Trump's vision for America.

New Jersey governor Chris Christie was in charge of the transition, but media reports suggest he's been sacked and replaced with Vice President-Elect Mike Pence. Christie was recruiting lobbyists for government posts, which Trump had promised not to do. Trump has announced that lobbyists must terminate their registration, and promise not to lobby for five years after leaving the administration.

NASA has been notified it won't receive a transition team “at this time,” according to an internal NASA memo, so we shouldn't expect any consistent vision for space from the Trump administration for the foreseeable future.

Trump never really articulated a consistent vision, at least when it comes to space.

In November 2015, Trump told a ten-year old boy in New Hampshire that he'd rather fill potholes than fund NASA. In August, Trump said in Daytona Beach that NASA was “like a Third World nation,” oblivious to all NASA is doing in the solar system that no other nation on Earth can do.

Trump lacked a space policy until mid-October, when someone in the campaign realized that Florida was in play. Former congressman Bob Walker (R-PA) was retained to write a space policy that was published October 19 on the Space News web site. Trump's running mate Mike Pence appeared October 31 in Cocoa where he echoed talking points from Walker's article.

Walker today is part of Wexler | Walker, a lobbying firm based in Washington, D.C. Walker's biography on their web site states:

Wexler | Walker clients have direct access to Bob’s depth of experience. While he specializes in issues that stem from his chairmanship of the Science, Space and Technology Committee, his leadership and parliamentary expertise help guide all of the firm’s clients toward successful outcomes. Walker knows how the process works and can help develop strategies and policies that are especially tailored for success. Moreover, he then is willing to implement those strategies and policies by making the case on Capitol Hill and in the executive departments and agencies. A major space publication, Space News, attested to his effectiveness saying, “One of Washington’s most influential lobbyists” whose “stature and influence have only grown since leaving Congress.”

Along with former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich, Walker authored an opinion article published February 12, 2010 in the Washington Times. Titled “Obama's Brave Reboot for NASA,” it was one of the few columns supporting the President's plan to cancel the botched Constellation program, extend the International Space Station to 2020, and prime the pump on the commercial crew program.

Commercial crew had been around since NASA opened the Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office (C3PO) in November 2005, but the George W. Bush administration never funded it. Commercial cargo was under way, with the first contracts issued to SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler in 2006, but it was not a priority as the agency focused on Constellation.

The Aldridge Commission holds a public hearing in New York on May 3, 2004. Image source: University of North Texas.

Walker served in 2004 on Bush's Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, also known as the Aldridge Commission after its chairman, Pete Aldridge. The group was to recommend how to implement the President's Vision for Space Exploration. Included in the June 2004 report, A Journey to Inspire, Innovate, and Discover, was an entire chapter dedicated to advocating commercialization of access to space. The chapter, “Building a Robust Space Industry,” was the foundation for the creation of C3PO, the commercial cargo and crew programs, and the movement today known as NewSpace to open space to the private sector.

In their editorial, Walker and Gingrich criticize the NASA bureaucracy for resisting the advice of that commission and others:

NASA consistently ignored or rejected the advice provided to it by outside experts. The internal culture within the agency was actively hostile to commercial enterprise. A belief had grown from the days when the Apollo program landed humans on the moon that only NASA could do space well and therefore only NASA projects and programs were worthy. To his credit, former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin adopted a program to begin to access commercial companies for hauling cargo to the International Space Station. That program existed alongside the much larger effort to build a new generation of space vehicles designed to take us back to the moon. It has been under constant financial pressure because of the cost overruns in the moon mission, called Constellation.

That criticism is noteworthy in today's context, because others who appear to be involved in Trump's space transition team share similar thoughts.

Mark Albrecht, who was executive secretary to the National Space Council under President George H.W. Bush, is currently chairman of the board for U.S. Space. According to the company's web site:

U.S. Space is a U.S.-owned provider of dedicated, commercial space solutions to serve the nation’s interests. The company was formed in 2009 to address the nation’s need for dedicated, flexible satellite capacity that could be provided quickly and with private financing. The company provides best-of-breed hybrid development and operations solutions to meet diverse customer needs. The spirit of service, innovation and customer orientation drives all we do.

Several reports have suggested that Albrecht is on the short list to be named NASA Administrator. Of the various rumored candidates, he's the one with the most space-related management experience.

For years, Albrecht has articulated a specific vision for the American space program. We can visit some of his statements to deduce what his intentions might be for NASA.

In his 2011 book Falling Back to Earth, Albrecht wrote in the acknowledgements, “If nothing else, this book is a call for renewal and reinvigoration of American exceptionalism through our space exploration program.”

On page 23, Albrecht sums up his impression of the NASA bureaucracy at the time.

... NASA was a jumble of activities that was a constant and dynamic balance of interests promoted and pursued by an active and vocal academic community, regional requirements based on a widely distributed “center” structure closely tied to local congressional delegations, the needs and demands of a large and growing astronaut corps, and a contractor community eager to unilaterally defend and expand individual ongoing activities.

His comments in recent years haven't wavered from that view.

On pages 192-194, Albrecht offers his vision for NASA.

NASA must be entirely restructured. As part of this restructuring, NASA must first significantly limit and focus its mission. Far too many useful and interesting, but not core, civil space program missions have grown at NASA: earth science, education, information technology, even the historic aeronautics mission. These and other missions are better fits elsewhere in the federal enterprise. NASA must focus its resources exclusively on a core mission of exploration and non-Earth focused space science. (Emphasis in the original.)

Earth science seems the most likely part of NASA's portfolio to disappear under the Trump administration. Many Republicans in Congress deny climate change science, or at least that humans are responsible for it, and have aimed to cut NASA's earth sciences budget. Although Trump and Senator Ted Cruz clashed on the campaign trail, Cruz shares Albrecht's view that earth science is not a core NASA mission. That notion was debunked by, which properly noted that earth science was one of NASA's original directives when it was formed in 1958. Trump himself tweeted in November 2012, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Cruz currently chairs the Senate's space authorization committee, and probably will in the next session, so it seems likely that the U.S. may become “a rogue nation on climate change” as one observer recently commented.

February 26, 2015 ... Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) denies climate change by tossing a snowball on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Original video source: C-SPAN.

Albrecht calls for NASA to expand its commercial partnerships “with a greater reliance on overall enterprise program management, insight, and technical assistance, rather than oversight and control.”

He then cites the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a “virtual NASA center,” as a model “for all NASA activities in the future.” Although he doesn't use the specific term, Albrecht seems to be referring to JPL's unique role as a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC). Bob Walker's 2004 commission made a similar recommendation:

The Commission proposes a new model for the NASA Centers. We feel that NASA should transition its Centers through an open, competitive process, to become Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs).

FFRDCs provide a tested, proven management structure in which many of the federal government’s most successful and innovative research, laboratory, technical support, and engineering institutions thrive. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab is currently so configured, as are the Department of Energy’s flagship national laboratories. Typically, an FFRDC is managed under long-term federal contract by a university, a non-profit, or for-profit organization selected through open competition.

FFRDCs provide compensation and personnel benefits for their employees that are competitive with the private sector and have personnel flexibility similar to the private sector. They are entrepreneurial in their culture, yet they are prohibited from competing with the private sector to manage production programs. The value of FFRDCs is rooted in their technical competence, flexibility, independence, and objectivity in support of a given federal agency’s technical projects. FFRDCs can perform work for non-government organizations so long as this work does not detract from their independence, objectivity, or create a conflict of interest.

The notion of making NASA centers competitive has been a non-starter, both in the NASA bureaucracy and the members of Congress who represent districts or states with NASA centers. Competition means a risk of job losses if a center can't adapt. The idea resurfaced this year, when House space appropriations subcommittee chair Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) requested NASA consider converting Ames Research Center to a FFRDC. The request may have been a political dig, because the ranking Democratic member of that subcommittee happens to represent Ames. Culberson did not suggest converting Johnson Space Center, in his city of Houston, to an FFRDC.

If the Trump administration advances the FFRDC proposal again, expect a political firestorm on Capitol Hill.

Albrecht writes that “Congress must support changes at NASA.”

Congress must provide permissive statutory contexts for aggressive public-private initiatives in which the government's role in development is supportive, advisory, and front-end loaded, and in which industrial partners are accountable for delivery and performance, and incentivized by reward for performance based on private investments and returns.

But he offers no explanation for how to persuade members of Congress to overlook their own parochial interests, reversing a behavior that goes back to the founding of the republic.

Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) for years has protected pork for the legacy aerospace companies. He's a three-time winner of the Porker of the Month award by Citizens Against Government Waste. Shelby chairs the subcommittee that appropriates NASA spending, the Senate counterpart of Rep. Culberson, and continues to introduce legislation that cuts commercial space while increasing funding for Space Launch System.

Albrecht calls for “artificial barriers to entry for industrial development” to be reduced or eliminated. “The test for participation should be limited to an ability to finance a significant portion of development and operations cost and reasonable demonstration of capability and capacity.”

Albrecht's final point states, “Private industry should be incentivized to bring world class capabilities to exploration, including international partnerships based purely on financing and technical capability rather than on 'foreign policy' considerations.”

Mark Albrecht speaks October 3, 2016 at Baker Institute in Houston. His remarks begin at the five-minute mark.

Five years later, Albrecht's views haven't changed.

Albrecht appeared October 3 on a panel at the Baker Institute in Houston titled, “Lost in Space” about the state of NASA and future U.S. space policy. He claimed that NASA was taking on activities inappropriate for the agency, such as earth sciences and stem cell research. Each of these activities develops constituencies that, in his view, demand more of NASA's budget. Albrecht also said that large initiatives such as Constellation and now Space Launch System have schedules and cost estimates that are “optimistic.” He believes that these inappropriate programs erode the base for the large initiatives which, in combination with overly optimistic schedules and cost estimates, cause delays and cost overruns.

Another potential NASA administrator is Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), a former aviator in the U.S. Navy Reserve and former executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum.

Bridenstine is a climate change denier. In 2012 he said, “There is no credible scientific evidence that greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations, including carbon dioxide, affect global climate. I oppose regulating greenhouse gases. Doing so will significantly increase energy prices and keep more people in poverty.”

In April, Bridenstine introduced H.R. 4945, the American Space Rennaissance Act (ASRA). Although he stated at the time he didn't expect it to pass, he described it as “a repository for the best space reform ideas,” which means it gives us an insight into what a NASA Administrator Bridenstine might do.

According to the Act's web site:

The mission of H.R. 4945 the American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA) is to permanently secure the United States of America as the preeminent spacefaring nation. Accomplishing this objective will require transforming government processes and unleashing commercial innovation. While these shifts will not be void of challenges, the resulting technological advancements, increased efficiencies, and enhanced resiliencies will secure the United States as the global leader in space for generations to come.

Much of the bill is concerned with military issues, responding to nations and others who would threaten U.S. space assets.

The bill proposes that, starting in 2023, the Department of Defense (DOD) give a 25% credit to any rocket engine produced in the United States. That would imply a reference to the Russian RD-180 engine currently used on the United Launch Alliance Atlas V. ULA is already planning a new vehicle called Vulcan that would be operational in 2023, coincidentally.

NASA's founding charter, the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, had a list of permissible activities by the agency. Bridenstine would strike three of them:

(4) The establishment of long-range studies of the potential benefits to be gained from, the opportunities for, and the problems involved in the utilization of aeronautical and space activities for peaceful and scientific purposes.

(5) The preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology and in the application thereof to the conduct of peaceful activities within and outside the atmosphere.

(9) The preservation of the United States preeminent position in aeronautics and space through research and technology development related to associated manufacturing processes.

Bridenstine would add these new paragraphs:

(1) The expansion of the human sphere of influence throughout the Solar System.

(2) To be among those who first arrive at a destination in space and to open it for subsequent use and development by others.

(3) To create and prepare infrastructure precursors in support of the future use and development of space by others.

The bill would also dilute the ability of the President to choose his own Administrator, turning over that decision to a NASA Leadership and Advising Commission dominated by members appointed by Congress. The Administrator would be limited to a five-year term. This is similar to other bills introduced in recent sessions that attempted to turn over control of NASA to Congress, but such bills inevitably have failed to go anywhere.

H.R. 4945 calls for a project exceeding its budget by 30% to be terminated, as well as an Administrator whose agency experiences consistent delays and cost overruns. If around during the Apollo program, James Webb would have been long gone by the mid-1960s.

April 16, 2010 ... Jim Bridenstine is interviewed on KOTV Channel 6 in Tulsa about President Obama's space policy speech. Original video source: KOTV.

President Barack Obama's space policy speech on April 15, 2010 set Mars as NASA's goal for human spaceflight, using an asteroid rendezvous mission as a stepping stone. Bridenstine appeared on Tulsa television the next day to endorse Obama's vision, but now that he's a member of Congress and a member of the opposition party he no longer supports the asteroid mission. H.R. 4945 calls for cancellation of the Asteroid Redirect Mission, “unless NASA can compellingly demonstrate the mission’s utility.”

Bridenstine earlier this month, in remarks at NASA's Lunar Exploration Analysis Group meeting, stated his clear preference to reorient human spaceflight to the Moon. He said, “This is our Sputnik moment. America must forever be the preeminent spacefaring nation and the Moon is our path to being so.”

A significant difference between Albrecht and Bridenstine might be the Space Launch System. Albrecht has said little supportive of SLS; in his 2011 book, Albrecht wrote this about NASA's large-scale programs:

As best as I could determine, these major projects were limited in cost, size, and schedule only by the capacity of the largest launch vehicle: the behemoth Titan IV. If we had a heavier lifter, I am confident we would have had even more costly, bigger, and slower NASA projects.

That doesn't sound like someone who would embrace SLS.

Bridenstine's H.R. 4945 states that SLS and the Orion capsule “represent core elements of deep space exploration systems farthest along in development” and calls for those programs to be fully funded so as to keep on schedule.

Albrecht seems largely agnostic about the ISS, having expressed skepticism in the past about the value of its scientific research. In Falling Back to Earth, Albrecht describes NASA as “a completely discretionary activity and it is managed exactly as you would anticipate given that fact: namely, inefficiently, with lowest common denominator solutions that balance whole communities of stakeholders through compromise and program growth for the sole sake of consensus and some semblance of forward progress.” He cites as “the most egregious example” Space Station Freedom, the predecessor design for ISS. In the book, Albrecht views the transition from Freedom to ISS in the early 1990s as a means of employing the Russian aerospace industry after the fall of the Soviet Union. Beyond that he doesn't seem to see much value in the place.

Bridenstine's H.R. 4945 calls for continued ISS operation to the end of its natural life span, with a strategy to turn over low Earth orbit to the private sector — which is what the Obama administration is already doing.

The same 25% credit for U.S.-made engines starting in 2023 for DOD would also apply to NASA.

H.R. 4945 has no poison bill for climate change research, but it does have this provision:

An evaluation of how emerging capabilities in industry can provide new or alternative architectures for Federal Earth science missions that routinely collect data about atmospheric, oceanic, or terrestrial phenomena.

If Bridenstine were named NASA Administrator, it would be the first time a member of Congress has left the Hill to run the agency. Although he seems well-intentioned, my personal opinion is that putting a member of Congress in charge of NASA is like putting the fox in charge of the hen house.

Other candidates have been rumored in the mix for Adminstrator.

Retired astronaut Eileen Collins addresses the Republican National Convention on July 20, 2016.

Retired astronaut and Space Shuttle commander Eileen Collins addressed the Republican National Convention on July 20. Her brief remarks drew criticism from some who felt Collins should not be promoting a misognyist candidate. Collins reportedly deleted from her speech a specific endorsement of Donald Trump.

Since her retirement from NASA in 2006, Collins seems to have done little other than occasional public appearances and news commentary. Her résumé suggests she lacks the skill set to run a large government bureaucracy, much less work the halls of Congress.

Another rumored candidate is Michael Griffin, President George W. Bush's NASA Administrator from 2005 until Obama took over in January 2009. Griffin is blamed by some for the failure of the Constellation program. Space Frontier Foundation co-founder Rick Tumlinson wrote in 2010:

When he became administrator, Mr. Griffin had already decided how he was going to go to Mars and back to the Moon. He had published his plans long before in the Planetary Society magazine. In other words, since he knew what to do, no one else’s opinion was needed. With his supporters from Alliant Techsystems (ATK) and Lockheed Martin behind him, he promptly killed off all outreach into other communities, and began to implement his new Das National Rocket approach — an ill-conceived throwback system dubbed “Constellation,” which promptly drove President Bush’s whole concept of permanence beyond the Earth off a cliff. Rather than an economically sustainable plan to explore and open space, Bush’s vision was warped into yet another cost-plus jobs program with the ostensible goal of building yet another government rocket — destinations and long-term plans be damned!

When Griffin unveiled his plans for Constellation, he called it “Apollo on Steroids.”

Others have argued that the Bush administration underfunded Constellation, leading to technical setbacks and missed deadlines, an argument that has some justification.

In the transition from Bush to Obama, there were reports that Griffin family and friends were campaigning to keep him in the job. Another report had Griffin's people refusing to cooperate with the transition team's evaluation of Constellation, an allegation confirmed by Obama transition team leader Lori Garver in April 2016. Garver went on to become Deputy Administrator under Charles Bolden.

To this day, Griffin remains a vocal critic of the Obama administration. In April 2016, Griffin testified before the House Science Committee that the Obama administration has “no dream, no vision, no plan, no budget, and no remorse.”

April 15, 2013 ... Scott Pace and Robert Walker discuss the future of U.S. space policy. Video source: Council of Foreign Relations YouTube channel.

Ars Technica space journalist Eric Berger reported today that Space Policy Institute Executive Director Scott Pace “may be atop the list of some key decision-makers.” Berger writes that Pace is more of a Beltway insider who is largely supportive of the SLS, although he seems more inclined to reorient human spaceflight towards the Moon instead of Mars.

If you want a true dark horse candidate, consider Newt Gingrich.

For all this faults, Gingrich is a true space advocate. He's a member of the National Space Society Board of Governors. During his 2012 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Gingrich came to the Space Coast to deliver a space policy speech that detailed his vision for NASA. He then participated in a space policy roundtable at Brevard Community College.

January 25, 2012 ... Newt Gingrich delivers his space policy speech in Cocoa, Florida.

Gingrich proposed a Moon base by 2020, and a $10 billion prize for the first commercial enterprise that sent a human to Mars.

“I am sick of being told we have to be timid, and I am sick of being told we have to be limited to technologies that are 50 years old,” Gingrich said.

For his efforts, Gingrich was mocked on Saturday Night Live. Mitt Romney said he would fire anyone who recommended a Moon base. Gingrich lost the Florida primary, and the nomination to Romney.

Gingrich told Fox News on November 14 that he wants to be “be the general planner” for the Trump administration, “looking out over the next eight years and trying to design how we fundamentally reshape the federal government.” Gingrich would prefer an advisory position to a Cabinet post, but I have to wonder if NASA Administrator might be a dream job for him that he couldn't turn down.

The Trump administration has implemented a rule forbidding lobbyists, but Gingrich has never registered as one. Gingrich nevertheless is considered one of the most influential people inside the Beltway for his access to the corridors of power.

What lies ahead for NASA in the next four years? I'm glad you asked.

As for NASA Administrator, the first qualification is that the candidate wants to be Administrator. The position is considered by many to be a no-win scenario. The agency is pulled in many directions by members of Congress who view NASA as a collection of pork projects for their districts and states. NASA's budget is discretionary, which means that in future years the odds of a significant budget increase are slight. The new Administrator will have to deal with an extra layer of bureaucracy, answering to a new National Space Council.

Because no transition team is in place, it's likely NASA will stay the course for the foreseeable future. Any radical proposals will have to make their way through Congress, where they'll be eviscerated by the members zealously protecting parochial interests. If the Trump administration is inclined to truncate Space Launch System, a lot of political capital will have to be spent to get past Senator Shelby and others with a vested interest in its existence.

With the exception of Shelby, most members of Congress now accept commercial space, at least reluctantly if not enthusiastically. Although Trump himself has said little about space, he often commented favorably about SpaceX and other NewSpace companies.

NASA's earth sciences division seems a likely candidate for the ax, although that won't happen until at least the Fiscal Year 2018 budget cycle which begins October 1, 2017. Given that Congress these days almost never adopts a budget on time, the demise of earth sciences won't happen until at least 2018, which will be a mid-term election year.

It also seems likely that the Asteroid Retrieval Mission will be cancelled, as will the short-term goal of Mars. The consensus seems to be to focus on the Moon, which is not as far off from the Obama administration as some believe. The European Space Agency wants to create a “lunar village.” NASA supports the idea, but doesn't want to take the lead, having gone to the Moon in the 1960s. NASA has urged ESA to use American commercial NewSpace companies to provide off-the-shelf technologies to bring down the cost. That's largely what many of these candidates espouse, except they seem more inclined to have NASA take the lead. Mars will remain the long-term goal, but the Journey to Mars marketing campaign will end.

If Newt Gingrich wields as much influence within the Trump administration as he hopes, we might see much more emphasis on bold ideas that demonstrate American exceptionalism through NewSpace ventures. Gingrich most likely won't be Administrator, but he might work well with an Albrecht or Bridenstine, people who are willing to attempt restructuring NASA while outsourcing core tasks to the private sector. NASA's operational allies may think twice about continued cooperation if they're treated no longer as partners but subjugates of a new American space imperialism.

In the grand scheme, I don't think much will change. SLS will continue. Commercial space will continue. ISS will continue. Congress will resist any restructuring efforts that threaten parochial interests. The new administration may attempt to convert centers to FFRDCs, but that will go nowhere.

Our eyes will be lowered, from the Mars horizon back to the less challenging and more immediate destination of the Moon. NASA propaganda will pivot yet again, and we'll see all new computer animations of lunar bases that won't happen any more than those we've seen of Mars in the last eight years.

And while the vested interests compete for their part of the NASA pork, the NewSpace community will keep pushing forward, with the hope that one day these private companies liberate space from Congress.

One other person who might influence NASA's direction is Trump's newly appointed chief strategist, Stephen Bannon. A conservative firebrand who proudly links himself to the paranoid fringe of the extreme right, in earlier days Bannon in the 1990s ran Biosephere 2 in Arizona. During his tenure, there were allegations of scientific compromises, sexual and verbal harassment. Maybe he'll think that qualifies him to participate in the determination of NASA policy. We'll see.