Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Headline of the Day Caught My Eye

On an otherwise slow news day, space-wise.  The headline belongs to Eric Berger at Ars Technica:

Bill Nelson came to NASA to do two things, and he’s all out of bubblegum 

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 politics.

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 fixed-price basis.

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, Nelson said.

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.


  1. I have been burned too many times to be hopeful, but . . . I'm pulling for 'em.

  2. I expected Nelson to be at his most heinous feckless self, you know, like when he held NASA hostage so he could get a shuttle ride.

    But... dangit, he's actually performed far better than I expected. Good for him. Let's see if he keeps it up.

  3. SiG, could part of this simply be we have come to expect so little, that even minimal success is considered a triumph?

    1. Part, but certainly not more than 99%.

      "Hey... I expected him to burn everything to the ground, but he's actually improved a couple of things."

      wait... I can't find my box of sarcasm tags...

  4. On that sunk cost fallacy: the problem is, you know exactly what you've spent so far, but how much it will take to finish is unknown, no matter how much we think we know about the future effort.

    This messes with the psychology.

    Sometimes the right person comes up with the right idea and that future cost is drastically reduced. Thus, always the hope.

    1. I don't like the term fallacy because, as you say, you know the total cost up to this point in time, but you don't know the cost to finish the path you're on AND you don't know what the costs of starting over will be. Let's say they started over on SLS, or a newer design. I'd think there may be more unknowns in starting over than plunging ahead with the old program.

      I use the term sunk cost fallacy because it's well-known and it does talk about some real things.

    2. When I was doing million-dollar projects, I always applied a factor of four to the cost estimate. Funny, then I always managed to come in under budget -- but only just slightly.

      The size of the fudge factor is a good indicator of the capability of organization.

    3. Malatrope, my personal "fudge factor" was 2.7, it worked quite well. Didn't do multi-million stuff, just stuff under $100K.

      Boss one day told me that my number(s) was/were overblown, he figured it would cost this much budget and take this much time - he overrode my figures. Guess what? I nailed it and he looked stoopid. He decided to take it out on me, I quit two weeks later. Never looked back.

  5. All out of gum: https://pergelator.blogspot.com/2015/04/im-all-outta-gum.html

    1. I've read that Roddy Piper ad libbed the line in They Live and John Carpenter (writer and director) liked it so much they kept it. I have no idea if he invented or just remembered it from an older movie.

      OTOH, whenever I look into what I think of as a famous quote I find all sorts of conflicting information on who said it or when it was said. As a result, I don't know that he made it up on the spot (They Live was made in '88) but it's the one I associate it with hearing first.