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.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

O Say Can You C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are images of the restored missile.

The missile atop its erector launcher.

A schematic on the side of the erector launcher.

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Full Nelson

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

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

Digital magazine Breaking Defense broke the story on February 22:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nelson and Hutchison didn't care.

The January 17, 2011 Orlando Sentinel reported:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When given the opportunity to do that, Nelson failed.

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

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

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

Friday, January 8, 2021

What's in a Name

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

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

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

The idea has been around for a while.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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