Nelson’s Proposed NASA Continuity is Good for Space Exploration

It’s worth saying that as a space exploration enthusiast and advocate, it’s encouraging that the senate committee hearing for Biden’s choice for NASA administrator earlier today focused so much on continuity with the actions and decisions initiated by Jim Bridenstine, and more indirectly Mike Pence, particularly on the moonshot Artemis program.

As a loyal Seattleite, I’m supposed to side with Senator Cantwell’s objection on the exclusion of Blue Origin in NASA’s recent controversial and frankly unusually aggressive decision to pick SpaceX for the first round of funding for a new moon lander at the exclusion of any backup redundancy option.

There is a strong argument though that administrator nominee Bill Nelson (formally both a Floridia senator (D) and a payload specialist for NASA aboard Space Shuttle Columbia in 1986) rightly sided with Kathryn Lueders, the Source Selection Authority for the Human Landing System (HLS), who decided the matter. SpaceX provides equal or greater than technological capacity to Blue Origin, and significant administrative and management capability in comparison. (The third competitor, Rocketdyne, well…NASA wasn’t sparing. The analysis was harsh and a bit brutal.) Their foremost choice was well motivated.

However, it’s not that it’s the foremost choice but the only choice that’s the concern, you as well as Cantwell might protest. The response to that is grounded in the very continuity that Nelson proposes. NASA recently received a quarter of the money they asked for for developing the lander of the new moon program — What is it with Congress being cheap-asses with space? Most headline government programs easily eclipse all of the NASA annual budget — which would normally lead to a limping-along, postponed-deadline, limited-scope correction which is both typical for the agency and by those shifting political circumstances would condemn long-term, intensive space projects to a useless development treadmill.

But NASA surprisingly didn’t do that this time. Instead of spreading its money over multiple contractors, it picked one it had confidence in and doubled down on it specifically with the goal of actually accomplishing Mike Pence’s ambitious goal of returning people to the moon in just three or so years. By going with Starship, they chose 1) a system which has already seen tangible progress unlike its two competitors, and 2) a company which has shown it has already invested heavily in that system, and isn’t just leeching off of taxpayer dollars. (The SpaceX bid was both lowest in dollar amount and most reasonable in payment schedule, as well as with by far the most company money spent already.) By doing so, NASA chose a reasonable and efficient path that may actually lead to that ambitious 2024 target being realized.

This is a big deal. For once in the agency’s modern history, politics have been sidestepped in favor of seeing the stars and reaching the heavens. No more back and forth with each congress and with each presidential administration. Just a single-minded, clear-sighted focus on what we need to do.

I’m glad the new administrator Biden picked is on board with that. There are many good reasons left-leaning partisans may dislike or hate Mike Pence, but quickly and ambitiously returning to the moon shouldn’t be one of them. NASA’s unconventional decision to facilitate that outcome should be encouraged and supported.

References

Mostly riffing off of this: “Main Engine Cut Off” (MECO) by Anthony Colangelo. I highly recommend his podcast available in the usual places.

The FY2021 budget summary for NASA provided by Space Policy Online.

NASA’s Source Selection Statement for the Human Landing System.

This effort has evolved to primarily be for clearly communicating technical subject matter to the public: largely my two passions astrophysics and space travel.

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