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.