Friday, September 24, 2021


The first commercial passenger flight from Detroit to Cleveland, in 1928. Video source: King Rose Archives YouTube channel.

Say what you will about the year of our Lord 2021, but future aerospace historians will remember this year as when commercial space travel finally became viable.

On July 11, billionaire Sir Richard Branson and invited passengers reached an altitude of about 53 miles on their Virgin Galactic suborbital flight.

After he landed, Branson said:

We're here to make space more accessible to all. We want to turn the next generation of dreamers into the astronauts of today and tomorrow. We've all us on this stage have had the most extraordinary experience, and we'd love it if a number of you can have it, too. If you ever had a dream, now is the time to make it come true. I'd like to end by saying welcome to the dawn of a new space age.

Nine days later, on July 20, the world's richest man, billionaire Jeff Bezos, and his invited guests reached 66 miles on their Blue Origin suborbital flight.

After he landed, Bezos said:

What we’re really trying to do is build reusable space vehicles. It’s the only way to build a road to space, and we need to build a road to space so that our children can build the future.

Space Coast news coverage of the Inspiration4 launch, September 15, 2021. Video source: Spectrum News via Space SPAN YouTube channel.

On September 15, SpaceX launched Inspiration4, the first all-American orbital commercial mission, from Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A. Billionaire Jared Isaacman purchased a crew Dragon flight atop a Falcon 9 rocket, a three-day mission that reached an altitude of about 364 miles, or about 100 miles higher than the International Space Station's orbit. Isaacman selected three passengers from all walks of life to join him.

With all three flights, some of the media focus was on the “billionaire” status of those financing the flights, as if it's immoral for rich people to pay for non-rich people to go into space.

Some complain that the money could have been better spent on the impoverished, the homeless, the afflicted.

But guess what?! We're a rich nation. We're capable of doing more than one thing at a time.

According to the Federal Reserve, the net worth of U.S. households at the end of 2021's second quarter was $141.7 trillion.

If you want to solve poverty, homelessless, and diseases, we're awash in money to do it. You need to convince your elected officials to do something about these problems.

The Inspiration4 mission's goal was to raise $200 million for St. Jude's Hospital. SpaceX founder Elon Musk donated $50 million after the flight to put the effort over the top.

More firsts are planned in upcoming months.

Roscosmos will launch a film director and woman actor to the International Space Station in early October. The Russians launched several space tourists in the early 2000s, starting with Dennis Tito for $20 million in 2001.

SpaceX and Axiom Space are targeting February 21 for the Ax-1 mission. Three affluent investors will join former NASA Space Shuttle astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria for an eight-day mission to the ISS.

While some spin these historic firsts as a criticism of the ills of capitalism, I think the larger point is being missed.

The technology has advanced.

No longer does NASA control who goes into space. You don't have to be a government employee to go into space. A government agency (the Federal Aviation Administration) regulates the flight, but doesn't decide if you're worthy of it.

Inspiration4 was the first orbital flight with no NASA involvement, other than being the landlord who leased SpaceX the launch pad.

SpaceX trained the crew, launched them, and landed them safely.

SpaceX did everything that NASA has done for the last sixty years.

Within the next decade, we may see other American companies achieve the same capability.

NASA is finally returning to its original purpose when it was founded in 1958.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration began on October 1, 1958. It was created as a political response to the panic following the early Soviet Sputnik flights, when the mistaken public perception was that American space technology was inferior to the Soviet Union.

The political solution — a bipartisan agreement between the Republican Eisenhower administration and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson — was to merge the old National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) with existing military space research programs that could be spun off into a civilian agency. NASA took over military research programs such as the X-15 and what eventually became Project Mercury.

These were research programs. They were not intended to be operational programs providing routine access to space, much less to compete with a commercial space industry that didn't exist at the time.

The NACA was created in 1915 because of the public perception that American aviation technology lagged behind Europe.

A 2015 NASA documentary on the 100th anniversary of the NASA. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Aviation engineers joined the NACA to force-feed technology into the American aviation industry. Because computers didn't exist, the NACA built wind tunnels at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia to test their ideas.

Many of the airplane technologies we take for granted today came out of the NACA, such as engine cowlings, the shape of an airplane fuselage, and the angles of airplane wings.

But the government didn't run the airlines, as NASA has controlled space access for the last sixty years. NACA made their findings available to the private sector, so America could compete on a global stage.

The events of 2021 are evocative of the earliest years of American commercial passenger aviation.

Just as the affluent are paying now to fly with SpaceX, Blue Origin, or Virgin Galactic, so did the affluent pay airplane companies to fly them on the first short hops from one city to another.

A January 1, 1920 article in the Chicago Tribune declared that “air transportation is now practicable” but noted that “the cost of travel is high.” The author estimated the cost of a flight from London to Paris at about $100, which works out to about $1,300 today. A cursory Google search shows that the cost of a London-to-Paris flight today is roughly $100 round-trip, but you can find cheaper.

Five years later, in March 1925, an author for the North American News Alliance wrote, “the aeroplane has served no better use than killing men; it is still almost a failure as a commercial vehicle.”

The governments of Europe are encouraging civilian flying as a subsidiary to their military plans. Were it not for that, Europe would probably see from one year's end to the other only a little stunt-flying at country fairs.

Is that any different from now, one hundred years later, when Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are just now launching suborbital hops?

The SpaceX Inspiration 4 mission, and next February's Ax-1 mission, are viable because NASA selected SpaceX, Falcon 9 and Dragon for commercial cargo, which allowed SpaceX to mature those technologies to fly government employees.

Despite the author's skepticism, only two years later was Charles Lindbergh's nonstop transatlantic flight from New York City to Paris. That flight was to win a $25,000 prize (about $360,000 in today's dollars) offered in 1919 by French-American hotel owner Raymond Orteig. Six men died over the years before Lindbergh finally won.

When he returned a month later to New York City, Lindbergh in a speech said, “Our greatest need is for airports close to the great cities.” He foresaw the next great technological leap as “multimotored planes” and urged the nation to look forward to a time when passenger service would be “better than that of any European country.”

Three years later, multimotored translantic flights were about to become a reality.

The Dornier Do X flight of August 1931. Video source: Discovery Channel via Inventing the World YouTube channel.

In February 1930, American aviation pioneer William Stout was quoted as saying that $750 million had been spent in the last two years on commercial aviation technology. That's about $11.4 billion in today's dollars! One can imagine critics saying that the money would be better spent on helping those suffering during the Great Depression.

“Nothing has yet come out of it” but, “When it comes, then will come the revolution of aeronautics.”

German airplane designer Claude Dornier had completed the Dornier Do X, a giant flying boat with six propellers and twelve engines, capable of carrying 169 passengers. In August 1931, the Dornier Do X flew from west Africa to Brazil, then north until it finally arrived in New York City, completing the first transatlantic flight of a large passenger plane.

Although the Dornier Do X was too inefficient to fly as a commercial enterprise, it proved the technology, and established the precedent.

William Stout's 1930 views regarding passenger aviation. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: Miami News-Record via

Perhaps the modern equivalent will be the SpaceX Starship and Super Heavy, currently being developed at Starbase near Boca Chica, Texas. According to the Starship User Guide, “the Starship crew configuration can transport up to 100 people from Earth into [low Earth orbit] and on to the Moon and Mars.”

In a September 21 address to the United Nations General Assembly, Secretary General António Guterres cited “billionaires joyriding to space” as one of the world's problems. According to Jeff Foust at Space News:

“At the same time, another disease is spreading in our world today: a malady of mistrust,” he said, after mentioning the pandemic and the climate crisis. That included, he said, when people “see billionaires joyriding to space while millions go hungry on earth.”

He did not elaborate on that claim in his address, saying only that such issues may cause people “to lose faith not only in their governments and institutions but in the values that have animated the work of the United Nations for over 75 years.”

I would point the Secretary General to the giant leaps one hundred years ago in aviation technology, at the time of a global depression, that led to commercial passenger aviation affordable for almost anyone on the planet.

Millions go hungry on Earth not because of NewSpace.

They go hungry because global leaders can't get their priorities straight.

I suspect that those who are hungry don't blame Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson for their hunger.

I do suspect that, when they see “regular people” going to space, many of them are inspired to believe that better days lie ahead.

Because if that is possible, solving hunger and homelessless and disease can't be that hard.

BREAKING NEWS September 24, 2021TMZ reports that 90-year old actor William Shatner is one of the crew members for the scheduled October 15 launch of Blue Origin's New Shepard. The report has not been confirmed by Mr. Shatner or any other source.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Tampa, We've Had a Problem

May 25, 1961 ... President John F. Kennedy proposes landing a man to the Moon by the end of the 1960s. Video source: NASA.

Sixty years ago today, on September 19, 1961, NASA announced that its human spaceflight program would be based in Houston, Texas.

As with most government programs, politics played a role in the decision.

The popular myth is that Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson somehow steered the decision to his home state. That myth is not supported by the evidence.

But members of Congress, governors, and many others with a vested interest tried to interfere in the selection.

An excellent resource for this topic is John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, by John M. Logsdon, who is generally considered the preeminent American space policy scholar. The book focused on the politics and policy behind Kennedy's decision to propose what came to be known as Project Apollo. Logsdon's work will be cited throughout this article.

Dr. John Logsdon presents a lecture based on his book, “John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon.” Video source: KISSCaltech YouTube channel.

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy proposed to Congress that the United States land a man on the Moon by the end of that decade.

Twenty days earlier, NASA had launched the first American into space, Alan Shepard, on a fifteen-minute suborbital flight from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Shepard and the other Project Mercury astronauts were based at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. Langley's facilities were limited, and NASA management knew that much more extensive facilities would be required for what was then called the Space Task Group.

Word leaked out through Aviation Week magazine that NASA might be looking to move its Space Task Group headquarters. According to the article, the leading candidate cities were Houston, Texas and Tampa, Florida.

Politicians began to do what they do — protect the interests of their constituencies.

Both U.S. Senators representing Virginia fired off protests to NASA officials. Logsdon wrote on page 126 that Langley's specialty was engineering research, not the “engineering development, flight operations, and especially project management skills” required for Apollo.

The U.S. Air Force, during the Eisenhower administration, in April 1960 announced their intention to close MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa by mid-1962. Planes and pilots already were being transferred elsewhere. Despite the recent overthrow of Cuba's government by forces led by Fidel Castro, one USAF official in June 1960 told the Tampa Tribune that Air Force officials didn't see any immediate “physical” threat from Cuba.

Local leaders were scrambling to find a reuse for the base. For Tampa, the Space Task Group was political manna. With Cape Canaveral about 150 miles to the northeast, MacDill to them seemed a logical solution. Tampa and Florida state leaders began a statewide campaign to bring the STG to MacDill. W. Scott Christopher, executive secretary of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, told the Tampa Tribune that he'd been tipped by an “important supply source in the missile industry” that STG might move to Tampa. He claimed that NASA had already decided that MacDill was “the only Florida site NASA would consider.”

U.S. Senator Spessard Holland (D-FL), a member of the Senate subcommittee responsible for NASA budget appropriations, joined the Tampa chamber's effort and said that he'd heard Houston and also Moffett Air Force Base in the San Francisco Bay area were candidate sites.

Tampa had Holland, but Houston had Rep. Albert Thomas (D-TX).

Thomas was chair of the House appropriations subcommittee that controlled NASA's funding. Houston was in his district. During the Eisenhower administration, Thomas had urged NASA to locate a “laboratory” affiliated with Rice University, and threatened to withhold funding until he got his way. The “laboratory” went to Greenbelt, Maryland, home of today's Goddard Space Flight Center, but Thomas's intentions were clear.

According to Logsdon, Kennedy's newly appointed NASA Administrator, James Webb, was well aware of Thomas's interests and so NASA officials visited Houston on May 16, 1961 to meet with representatives of the Chamber of Commerce. Thomas made it clear that his offer, and threat, still stood. Rice University was willing to donate a large plot of land. George Brown, a local construction company owner who had financially supported Johnson's political campaigns, hoped to get the contract to build the new center. But the search didn't begin in earnest until after August 7, 1961, when Congress passed the appropriations bill to fund the new center.

Other regions bid too. The White House and NASA were bombarded by offers, through politicians in both houses of Congress. Republican governor John Volpe of Massachusetts pressured Kennedy to deliver the new center to their home state. Kennedy told Webb that the Administrator should make the final decision “in the light of the national interest,” free of political pressure.

On July 7, 1961, Webb directed the creation of a selection team, and the development of selection criteria. According to a 2017 Johnson Space Center history article:

Essential criteria for the new site included the availability of water transport and a first-class all-weather airport, proximity to a major telecommunications network, a well established pool of industrial and contractor support, a readily available supply of water, a mild climate permitting year-round outdoor work and a culturally attractive community. Houston was initially included by virtue of the San Jacinto Ordnance Depot, since military rather than commercial facilities were judged best for helping handle NASA's large retinue of jets and specialized equipment, and because of its recognized, prominent universities, including Rice, Texas, and Texas A&M.

Logsdon wrote on page 129 that 23 sites were reviewed by the selection team — two in Florida, three in Louisiana, nine in Texas, four in Missouri, and five in California. The requirement for a mild climate eliminated Massachusetts and other candidates.

While the NASA selection team began visiting potential sites, events elsewhere in the world decided MacDill's fate — and won Houston the new field center.

During the summer of 1961, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev tested the inexperienced new American president by escalating events in Berlin. The East German government, backed by the Soviet Union, began building a wall to separate the Soviet zone from the zones controlled by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. The wall would keep the people of East Germany from defecting to the West. The border was closed on August 13, 1961, and by the end of the month Kennedy had begun activating National Guard units for overseas deployment.

On July 31, 1961, the Air Force announced that MacDill would remain open indefinitely, with its B-47 bomber fleet remaining closer to Europe and Cuba.

The St. Petersburg Times reported the next day that Air Force chief of staff Curtis LeMay believed MacDill could house both the 306th Bomb Wing and the new NASA facilities.

But the reality was, so long as MacDill remained a military base, it would be a prime target for an enemy nuclear attack.

As NASA officials prepared to inspect MacDill, the Tampa Bay Times reported on August 19, 1961 that an “informed source” claimed the “Tampa Bay area is the most likely choice, bar none.” The report noted that the team was also going to visit Green Cove Springs Naval Base near Jacksonville, Florida.

The NASA team arrived Monday night August 21, and toured the base the next day.

A NASA selection team tours MacDill Air Force Base on August 22, 1961. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: The Tampa Times.

The Tampa Times quoted NASA Ames deputy director Jack Parsons as saying that close proximity to cultural and educational facilities ranked high on the list of criteria. The problem was not keeping so much as attracting technical personnel. Representatives of local universities acknowledged that they lacked the graduate programs NASA sought for their engineers and scientists, although such programs were planned for the near future.

NASA announced on September 19, 1961 — sixty years ago today — that the selection team had chosen the Rice University site.

Florida governor Farris Bryant, a Democrat, said that he didn't believe political considerations entered into the decision, but Republican Rep. William Cramer (R-FL) charged that President Kennedy had left the decision to Vice President Johnson, a Texan. Cramer offered no evidence to back up his allegation.

Many other locals tried to blame Johnson. Winston King, a member of the Tampa team, alleged:

My sentiments are perhaps summarized by a statement made by a high NASA official in Washington last week when he said, “Everybody in NASA wants to go to Tampa. Tampa has everything we need. However, it lacks only one thing. It does not have a Lyndon Johnson.”

Once again, no evidence was provided to support the claim, nor was this “high NASA official” ever named.

Did Johnson influence the decision?

Dr. Logsdon's book concludes he did not.

Johnson's primary contribution to Kennedy administration space policy was his April 28, 1961 memo recommending a crewed lunar mission by the end of the 1960s. Kennedy had made Johnson chair of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, but the Council had only one full-time employee and was no more than an advisory body. NASA Administrator James Webb answered to Kennedy, not Johnson. To quote from page 124 of Logsdon's book:

Webb was scrupulous in keeping Johnson informed, but he made it clear that he worked for the president, not the vice president. This also left little room for the vice president and the Space Council staff to play a central role in most of the decisions on how best to move forward in sending Americans to the Moon.

According to Dr. Logsdon, MacDill had been the selection team's first choice, but “at the last minute the Air Force changed its mind about closing MacDill, and the team's second preference, the Houston site associated with Rice University, became the top-ranked choice of the site selection group.”

Logsdon wrote, “it was Albert Thomas, not Johnson, who had the greater influence on the decision to locate the center in Houston.”

So what happened to MacDill?

It's still open to this day.

According to MacDill's web site, “the 1961 Berlin Crisis and 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis led to a reprieve of the planned cutbacks and highlighted MacDill's strategic value.”

If the Soviet bloc had not erected the Berlin Wall in the summer of 1961, if the Cold War had remained cool, the Air Force might have proceeded with closing MacDill, and NASA might have decided to choose Tampa instead of Houston.

Had history followed a different path, the first word spoken on the surface of the Moon might not have been “Houston”:

“Tampa, Tranquility Base Here. The Eagle has Landed.”

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Decadal Survey

September 14, 2011 ... Then-Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) unveils the design for the Space Launch System.

Imagine the consequences if politicians, and not engineers, designed rockets.

On January 10, 1962, NASA engineers at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama announced that they would evolve their Saturn rocket into an advanced version with five first-stage engines and 7.5 million pounds of thrust. This advanced Saturn would be capable of sending American astronauts to land on the Moon.

Engineers made the decision, at a NASA center dedicated to rocket design, free of political influence.

The first Saturn V launch was a little less than five years later, on November 9, 1967.

Now let's imagine that politicians took it upon themselves to design a rocket, not for a specific mission or destination, but to protect a workforce.

That's what happened ten years ago today,

On September 14, 2011, then-U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) and now-retired U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) led a bipartisan media event on the ground floor of the Senate Dirksen Building in Washington, DC to unveil the design for a new rocket they were foisting upon NASA, to be called the Space Launch System.

The basic design of SLS was dictated by Congress in the 2010 NASA authorization act.

The legislation mandated that NASA must base SLS on Space Shuttle technology, and use existing Space Shuttle and Project Constellation contractors without competitive bid. The law discouraged innovation, telling NASA to “minimize the modification and development of ground infrastructure and maximize the utilization of existing software, vehicle, and mission operations processes.”

The bill also directed that SLS have “operational capability” by no later than December 31, 2016.

Just who actually came up with the SLS design has never been clear. Members of Congress dominated the event a decade ago. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was relegated to a minor role, speaking for five minutes, while the politicians congratulated themselves for all the jobs they were going to create.

I've written many times about this event, most notably a September 2012 blog article titled “The Monster Rocket.” It was a phrase Nelson has used many times to describe SLS, the phallic symbolism lost upon him.

In a boast that has proven wildly wrong, Nelson said that day:

This rocket is coming in at the cost of what not only what we estimated in the NASA authorization act, but less. 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.

An Artemis cost graphic issued in March 2021 by the NASA Office of the Inspector General. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: NASA OIG.

The NASA Office of the Inspector General issued a report in March 2021 which showed that to date NASA had spent $17.2 billion on the “monster rocket,” with another $2.6 billion expected in the current fiscal year. That's $19.8 billion, or about double what Nelson said it would cost.

But none of that mattered ten years ago. What did matter to the assembled politicians was that they were able to boast about all the jobs they were creating in their districts and states.

A group calling itself the Competitive Space Task Force posted in March 2011 a now legendary article dubbing SLS the “Senate Launch System”. Its authors wrote:

The Congress is assuming, in the face of numerous studies indicating otherwise, that the lowest-cost approach for the future is to continue the high-cost approach in which we've been engaged for the past half century. Note also that there are many heavy-lift concepts that do not employ solid rocket motors, and that the only thing for which they are “critical” is the maintenance of a jobs base in the state of Utah.

The number of projected jobs made the front page of next day's Florida Today, the newspaper for Florida's Space Coast and those who worked at Kennedy Space Center.

The paper estimated that “roughly 2,000 KSC jobs” would be created by the proposed SLS. The first uncrewed test flight would be in 2017, and the first “piloted” mission would be in 2021.

The front page of the September 15, 2011 Florida Today. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source:

If you look at your calendar, you'll notice that we are indeed in 2021. Not only has no one piloted the Orion spacecraft atop SLS, but SLS has yet to fly at all.

Although NASA still clings to the notion that the first test flight, dubbed Artemis I, will launch by the end of this year, the realists think it'll be sometime in Spring 2022 — assuming there are no more delays. Artemis II, the first flight with crew, is projected for some time around 2023.

No one at the SLS unveiling could have foreseen that, a decade later, Nelson would be the one running NASA.

No one could have foreseen that any politician would be in charge of NASA. That changed in September 2017 when President Donald Trump nominated House representative Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) for NASA Administrator.

Florida's two U.S. Senators criticized the nomination, not just Nelson but also Republican Marco Rubio. In a written statement, Nelson said, "The head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician." Rubio felt the nomination might be held up due to partisanship.

To open Bridenstine's nomination hearing, Nelson said, "The NASA administrator should be a consummate space professional who is technically and scientifically competent and is a skilled executive."

Bridenstine left NASA on January 2021, the date that Joe Biden became President. I'd argue the consensus is that Bridenstine proved the skeptics, including Nelson, wrong.

Jeffrey Kluger of Time wrote that Bridenstine “became something NASA always needs: a leader with both a vision to sell and the ability to sell it.”

May 14, 2019 ... In a “Moon Town Hall,” Administrator Bridenstine announces Project Artemis.

Perhaps his signature achievement will be viewed by historians as his packaging disparate NASA programs into one marketable concept, called Project Artemis.

Artemis gave SLS and Orion a specific near-future mission — to land the next man and the first woman on the Moon by 2024.

President Barack Obama, in an April 15, 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center, set NASA's next goal for human space flight as sending people to Mars by the end of the 2030s.

The Obama administration didn't ignore the Moon. Our lone natural satellite would be left for the private sector, through a program called NextSTEP. The first NextSTEP request for proposals was issued by NASA in October 2014.

NASA intends to engage partners to help develop and build a set of sustainable, evolvable, multi-use space capabilities that will enable human pioneers to go to deep space destinations. Developing capabilities in three key areas — advanced propulsion, habitation, and small satellites deployed from the Space Launch System — is critical to enabling the next step for human spaceflight. This work will use the proving ground of space around the moon to develop technologies and advance knowledge to expand human exploration into the solar system.

Congress never warmed to the idea of an Apollo-style and Apollo-budget program to send humans to Mars, perhaps because the return to their districts and states would not be immediate. SLS protected jobs, and that was good enough.

Project Artemis packaged SLS pork with NextSTEP, and added a lunar space station called Gateway that used a solar electric power and propulsion element the Obama administration had originally intended to develop as part of its Asteroid Redirect Mission. Never popular with Congress, ARM was cancelled by the Trump administration in December 2017, but the power and propulsion element eventually became part of Gateway.

The Obama administration used a loophole in NASA's founding charter to sign Space Act Agreements (SAAs) with the private sector, circumventing the expensive pork-laden “cost plus” contracts favored by Congress that guarantee profits for legacy contractors, such as those no-bid SLS contracts. SAA contractors win a competitive bid for a fixed price, and are paid only after delivery of the service.

Other than SLS and the Orion crew spacecraft, much of Project Artemis will be performed by SAA contractors or NASA's international spacefaring partners. The Trump administration and Bridenstine embraced SAAs, now reluctantly accepted by Congress, as a way to accelerate the Moon program.

The 2009 Augustine Committee report issued in October 2009 discussed the need for a “super heavy-lift launch vehicle” for deep space missions, but in a context of the absence of in-space refueling. The committee wrote, “... a prudent approach is to develop a heavy-lift launch system with sufficient capabilities for early missions, which would later be enhanced by in-space refueling when it becomes available.”

Congress for years has generally been resistant to the notion of propellant depots in space, perhaps because such technology could obviate the need for a big expensive no-bid government rocket. But in October 2020, Bridenstine announced fourteen “Tipping Point” awards to American companies to demonstrate various in-space “cryogenic fluid management technologies.”

When Congress mandated SLS in 2010, no “super heavy” launch vehicles were on the private sector horizon. Why? The government hadn't paid them to build one.

April 5, 2011 ... Elon Musk unveils the concept for the SpaceX Falcon Heavy. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

SpaceX had just launched the first Falcon 9 in June 2010. The Falcon Heavy concept was unveiled in April 2011. With his typical over-optimism, SpaceX founder Elon Musk predicted the first test flight would be in 2013. It was actually 2018.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos announced the New Glenn orbital launch vehicle in September 2015. When it will launch is anyone's guess.

In all fairness, when Nelson unveiled the SLS design ten years ago today, no commercial super-heavy option was credible. But neither was there any deep-space mission that required one. The priority for human space flight was completion and operation of the International Space Station.

Had Congress supported an SAA-style competition similar to NASA's ISS commercial cargo and crew programs, it's likely that a super-heavy vehicle would have been developed by now for less than what SLS has cost the taxpayer, and be operational.

Nelson has only been NASA Administrator since May 2021. It's too soon to judge what his legacy as Administrator will be. For now, he seems content to continue the course of the last administration, which built upon what President Obama, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver began in the early 2010s.

An early test has been to shepherd NASA's delicate relationship with Roscosmos, at a time of frosty relations between the United States and Russia.

The Russians have sent mixed messages about maintaining their ISS partnership after 2024. Although the ISS's life space is estimated to be at least through 2030, Russia recently reported “superficial fissures” in the Zarya module that “will begin to spread over time.”

In the United States, private companies already have begun to develop commercial space habitats, some of which may become part of Gateway, or fly in low Earth orbit, as a complement and one day a replacement for ISS. SpaceX and Axiom plan crewed private missions to ISS within the next year.

July 21, 2021 ... Bill Nelson discusses with the Washington Post the Chinese space program. Video source: Washington Post Live YouTube channel.

Nelson may also have to address the maturation of the Chinese space program. Nelson believes that NASA is “in a space race with China” and notes that their program is intertwined with their military, unlike NASA in the United States.

But because of what he said ten years ago, Nelson's legacy will forever be linked to his midwifery of Space Launch System. Success or failure, SLS will be remembered as Bill Nelson's “monster rocket.”

For his legacy to be more than that, to be remembered as another Bridenstine, Nelson will have to place “NewSpace” ahead of OldSpace, which means at some point ending SLS.

SpaceX is developing and testing its Starship technology at their Starbase facility near Boca Chica, Texas. When operational, it's projected to deliver 100 metric tons to low Earth orbit, more than the SLS Block 1 at 70 metric tons.

More powerful versions of SLS are on the drawing boards, but at what expense?

That may be the true test of Nelson's NASA legacy. Will he support spending more billions on SLS Block 1B and Block 2, or will he save that money by acquiring more affordable launch services from SpaceX or another vendor?

Who will design American launch vehicles — engineers or politicians?

If only Nixon could go to China, then perhaps only Nelson can end SLS.