What is to become of the U.S. Space Program under Biden? Part 2
This note is a follow on to the note for the Week of January 17th. At that time, we had only preliminary data on the NASA transition team and no definite government position. This week we learned that Senator Bill Nelson is going to be the next NASA Administer, and that has certain implications that I will cover in the following. In a statement, the White House said, “In the Senate [Nelson] was known as the go-to senator for our nation’s space program and flew a six-day mission in the Space Shuttle in 1986”. He was also a chief architect of the 2010 law that directed NASA to develop a heavy-lift rocket known as the Space Launch System so, this choice raises concerns that the Biden may restore a more traditional space program that relies on large, legacy aerospace companies such as The Boeing Company and Lockheed Martin, rather than more nimble newcomers like SpaceX. I’ve included three news articles covering different opinions of the Nelson selection below to show where the media is at.
SPACE (3/20) reported that the nomination of Nelson “signals that shakeups are unlikely in big-ticket NASA projects, such as the Artemis program of crewed lunar exploration, said space policy expert John Logsdon.” Logsdon said, “One of the buzz phrases during the [presidential] transition was ‘continuity of purpose,’ and I think that’s what one is likely to see with Mr. Nelson – a continuation of the existing program, adjusted to both technical and financial realities.”
Space News (3/19, Subscription Publication) reported that the nomination of Nelson “has won widespread support from both members of Congress and the broader space community.” Former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said, “Bill Nelson is an excellent pick for NASA administrator. ... Nelson will have the influence to deliver strong budgets for NASA and, when necessary, he will be able to enlist the help of his friend, President Joe Biden. ... The Senate should confirm Bill Nelson without delay.”
The Hill (3/21) “The reported nomination of former Florida Sen. Bill Nelson (D) to be the next NASA administrator proves, if it does anything, that it is a turning world.
Back in November 2017, when Nelson was the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, during confirmation hearings he glowered at then-Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) and declared that a politician had no call to become the head of America’s space agency. An aerospace profession, meaning an engineer, a manager or an astronaut would be a better fit for the job.
Probably because, despite Nelson’s best efforts, Bridenstine won confirmation anyway and then went on to become the most celebrated NASA administrator since James Webb, the former senator from Florida has altered that assessment. A politician, after all, can do a pretty good job directing America’s space program. Indeed, on that basis, Bridenstine has endorsed Nelson’s nomination, setting aside obvious personal considerations for what he sees as the good of NASA. Still, the matter should come up during Nelson’s confirmation hearings just to see how he will answer.
Bridenstine put his political skills to good use running NASA and advancing the Artemis return to the moon program. He left behind partisanship and sold the program to members of Congress, foreign leaders, business tycoons and the general public. As a result, when Bridenstine resigned from NASA, the incoming administration endorsed the Artemis program. He proved that a politician could run NASA and run it well. People of all political persuasions mourned when Bridenstine left for the private sector.
However, the supposition that Nelson is right for the job just because he is a politician too becomes doubtful when one examines his record. If Bridenstine could be considered a Jedi Master of politics where space is concerned, Nelson more resembles a Sith lord.
Besides subjecting Bridenstine to a Star Chamber of a confirmation hearing, Nelson has on several other instances played politics for dubious reasons.
When Nelson was still a member of the House, he used his position to obtain a slot on a space shuttle mission. He had no qualifications other than the fact that he controlled a lot of NASA funding. The astronauts so resented his presence on the shuttle that they bestowed him with the nickname “Ballast”.
Nelson is also one of the parents of the super-heavy, super-expensive, and far-behind-schedule Space Launch System (SLS), which some wags have dubbed the “Senate Launch System.” Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver described how funding the SLS was the price Nelson and others exacted for approving the Commercial Crew program in what she called a “Faustian bargain.” Congress went on to underfund the program to send astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). Despite that fact, the Crew Dragon is now flying and the SLS has yet to get off the ground. Many consider the SLS as an albatross holding Artemis back, suggesting that NASA should use commercial launchers to get astronauts to the moon and Mars.
On the other hand, the SLS recently passed its hot-fire test as the last step of the Green Run. Its engines burned over eight minutes, the time they must fire during a launch, successfully.
Nelson is almost certain to be confirmed. Many of the members of the Senate Commerce Committee have served with him and most are his friends. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who also opposed Bridenstine, has endorsed his old fellow senator. Still, the hearings should not be a rubber stamp. Nelson should be questioned about his current positions on space policy thoroughly. For example:
What are Nelson’s feelings concerning commercial space flight? Does he support obtaining the Human Landing System that will take Americans to the lunar surface commercially, in the same manner as the Commercial Crew program?
Does Nelson support establishing a permanent, international lunar base? Does he support a human presence on the moon to conduct scientific and commercial, as well as prepare for expeditions to Mars? Does Nelson support developing lunar resources to sustain astronauts on the moon and to assist the Mars program?”
I pretty much agree with the articles above. Nelson is a politician, not an engineer, so I would expect him to try and continue with the Artemis Program basics and encourage NASA to use the Orion and SLS systems as built and continue with the funding available. I suspect that off-loading Artemis to a Space-X or Blue Origin rocket to save launch costs will no longer be in the cards. As you are aware there is currently a competition for the lunar lander portion of the system with three teams competing for the final award. The three teams are: the Dynetics Human Landing System, the National Team Integrated Lander Vehicle, and the Space-X Starship Heavy Landing System (HLS). The Starship HLS is a version of the Starship 2nd stage that is refueled in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and continues to the moon, so it really doesn’t fit in with the other two SLS boosted systems. I have included artist’s rendition of the three NASA lander concepts as figures 1 below.
Figure 1 – NASA Human Landing System (HLS) Candidates
NASA has selected these three companies to develop Human Landing Systems (HLS) designs over a ten-month period, before a down-selection to one or two vehicles that will fly uncrewed demonstration missions. The three awarded designs are drastically different from each other, utilizing different numbers of stages and offering different balances between performance and schedule risk. Blue Origin’s National Team consists of Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, and Draper was awarded $579 million for its design, and probably has the least schedule risk of the three offerings. Dynetics’ HLS team consisting of Dynetics and the Sierra Nevada Corporation was awarded $253 million and has more schedule risk because neither firm has experience with this magnitude of hardware development. Space-X was awarded $135 million, and NASA noted that there was significant schedule risk was associated with the Starship system. Yes, but the Starship is a commercial development, and the $135 M is an incentive to make sure they don’t overlook a potential lunar market. Note that the Starship and Dynetics designs more closely resembled the sustainable, reusable capabilities NASA wishes to utilize in the long term. I covered the details of the Starship and its potential lunar use back in my October 18th 2020 blog.
The current Artemis Program is basically three or four missions. Artemis I, originally scheduled for April 2021 was a SLS launch of an unmanned Orion capsule and thirteen Cubesats around the moon. That mission is currently scheduled for November 2021. Artemis II, scheduled for August 2023, is a repeat of Artemis I but with crew aboard the Orion capsule. Artemis III, scheduled for October 2024, would be launched by the SLS and would be the first landing of one of the uncrewed HLS shown above. I think Artemis I and II will happen approximately on schedule, but the monies just aren’t available to develop the HLS at all, let alone by the October 2024 date. I believe the Biden administration will continue development of the Artemis program, but I have serious doubts that the proposed schedule can be maintained, especially without a significant increase in funding (~ $3B per year). I would expect a first woman on the moon landing about 2026 or 2027 and that will require Bill Nelson fighting to increase the NASA budget.
The bottom line is that I would expect a greater emphasis on space science relative to climate change and a slow-down in the Artemis Moon Program to better match the funding Congress has provided. This would slide the first woman on the moon until 2026 or 2027. A schedule that matches funding is a good thing and should not significantly change the overall plan. It does open up the possibility that a private company, or companies, could beat NASA back to the moon or on the Mars. That would be a delightful result, but I understand the pitfalls all to well to give that much credence. Stay tuned and cheer for all sides.
Lockheed Martin has proposed a new interesting concept for a lunar lander recently (Space Review, 15 Mar 2021) and I will include it here as Figure 2.
Figure 2 Lockheed Martin Two-Stage Lunar Lander
This unique lander designs combines a Centaur upper stage with a lunar ascender stage to both reduce the hardware expended each mission and provide good visibility and access to the lunar surface. In all cases the Astronauts travel to and from the lunar orbit in the Orion capsule. The Lockheed Martin Concept is not intended as an alternate to the HLS shown above but as a thought project for future developments.
I listened to Biden’s Press Conference this week on the radio and I came away with the feeling that the event was largely staged. I heard only “softball type” questions from preselected, friendly reporters. I truly hope that is no going to be the case during this administration but events on the southern border are definitely being “managed” or pointing that way. If that happens to our space program, we will hear “great news” about small progress. If that happens, I will keep you posted. Fortunately, Jeff and Elon are still pushing hard so we can hope for real progress.
Thanks for reading.