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.

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