On an otherwise slow news day, space-wise. The headline belongs to Eric
Berger at Ars Technica:
I mean, if you even know anything about that classic movie
They Live, how do you not start reading that?
Eric's main point in his summary of Bill Nelson's tenure as NASA Administrator
is that he has exceeded the expectations that he and many of us had for
Nelson. To start with, it's rather common for a new administration,
especially when it's from the other party, to tear apart any concrete actions
from the previous administration. When Nelson was nominated to be the
administrator (March '21) he had been a critic of the commercial space
industry that the agency was increasingly turning to for lower-cost services.
And he had harshly criticized the previous administrator, Jim Bridenstine,
saying a politician should not lead the space agency, despite having been a
politician for 45 years himself.
Instead, Nelson has stayed with the major changes from Bridenstine, brought on
competent people from NASA to be his backup: Pam Melroy, the second woman
to command a space shuttle, became his deputy administrator. Nelson's
friend and shuttle commander, Bob Cabana, was tapped to become associate
administrator. Nelson has them do the hard stuff; the technical stuff
he's incapable of, leaving him to do what he does best—schmooze. Play
Nelson does not deserve credit for all of the space agency's achievements
during the 18 months since he took over as administrator. Many of these
projects were begun years or decades ago. But he has brought them over the
finish line and led the agency into what is a golden era for many of its
programs. Consider some of NASA's recent achievements:
Launch and deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope, a $10 billion
project that could easily have failed
Launch and successful flight of the long-delayed Artemis I mission,
kicking off the return of NASA astronauts to deep space
Preserving the fragile International Space Station partnership with Russia
amid the tumult of the Russian war against Ukraine
DART impact mission a success, finally fulfilling NASA's mandate to
demonstrate a capability of deflecting an asteroid
Securing full funding for the Artemis program, including for spacesuits
and SpaceX's Starship lunar lander
Given the achievements above, it can be reasonably argued that 2022 was the
best year for NASA since 1969, when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. Moreover,
the future is bright for the space agency. For its science directorate, NASA
officials can point to a string of ongoing science mission successes—the
Ingenuity helicopter is yet flying on Mars after more than a year,
for example—and a pipeline of forthcoming exploration missions that include
returning Martian rocks to Earth while visiting the intriguing moons of
Europa and Titan. And with humans, for the first time since Apollo, NASA has
a credible path for human exploration of the Moon and perhaps, one day, Mars
with the Artemis program.
Artemis. I think I've been critical of the program, but I also think it
has richly deserved that attitude. Economists talk of the
sunk cost fallacy; it's a common thing in a case like Artemis that has been late and over
budget almost since its inception. What was spent over budget is lost; it was a bad
decision and the only real questions should center on the costs to complete it
versus starting over again. Eric Berger maintains that staying with
Artemis and pushing to get it flying was the right thing to do.
When Bridenstine created the Artemis program he infused it with a strong
ethos of NASA being "one of many customers." This meant he wanted NASA to
buy services at a fixed price from the commercial space industry, rather
than give out large contracts to traditional space companies. Nelson, who as
a politician received plenty of contributions from these traditional
aerospace contractors, might have been expected to push back on
Bridenstine's lean into commercial space. But he has not. Rather, Nelson
supported the space agency's controversial sole-source award to SpaceX for a
lunar lander contract when it was under fire from Congress. He also has kept
on awarding major contracts, including for Artemis spacesuits, on a
Heck, in May,
Nelson called out the agency
for awarding cost-plus contracts in the past for its major exploration
programs. "You get it done with that competitive spirit," he said of
competitive, fixed-price contracts. "You get it done cheaper, and that
allows us to move away from what has been a plague on us in the past, which
is a cost-plus contract, and move to an existing contractual price."
Did we say he was going do what he's best at - schmooze?
Around this time—when he was chastising Congress for cost-plus contracts,
which he helped write back in the day—Nelson made his strongest move as the
space agency's administrator. While Bridenstine had done an excellent job
creating the Artemis program and building support for it among the space
community, he never succeeded in getting Congress to pay the full tab. In
particular, he struggled to raise funds for the lunar lander.
But for the fiscal year 2022 budget,
Nelson delivered. For the first time, NASA received all of the money it requested from
Congress for the Artemis program. Every last penny. This was no sweat,
It turns out it's fairly easy to work with those Senators when they're personal friends. Isn't that the essence of the swamp and the revolving doors between so many agencies and the regulatory agencies that supposedly control them? Strictly speaking making a senator the head of NASA isn't the same as, say, a former Securities and Exchange Commission chief going to work for a Too Big To Fail bank, but it's pretty similar overall.
I'm not as completely in Eric Berger's camp in thinking Nelson has been a great administrator but some of these things Berger points out surprised me, in a good way. I had always assumed Nelson's pledges about supporting NASA were really about hometown politics because of our proximity to the KSC and many of the big contractors. Maybe he's a bit more real.
I guess it's saying something when a guy you expected nothing from does a few things right and the reaction is excessive praise.
Artemis I mission during one of its trips to the pad that didn't result in flying. NASA Photo.