Next NASA chief will face big decisions on future moon missions

In a 2014 photo taken while serving as a U.S. Senator, Bill Nelson (center) examines a model of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida with ex-astronaut Chris Ferguson as a guide. (NASA Photo / Kim Shiflett)

President Joe Biden’s decision to head NASA – former US Senator Bill Nelson – will be in the hot seat on a number of problems in human space travel that require a difficult balance between “old space” and “new space”.

Nelson is a 78-year-old Democrat from Florida who took a space shuttle flight as a Congressman in 1986 and served three terms in the Senate before his defeat in 2018. In today’s statement announcing his nomination, the White House said Nelson was known as a senator for our nation’s space program, “and that” almost every piece of space and science law has left his mark. “

“I am honored to be nominated by Joe Biden and, if approved, to help lead NASA into an exciting future of opportunity,” Nelson said in a statement. “The workforce exudes optimism, ingenuity and ability. The NASA team continues to achieve the seemingly impossible when we venture into the cosmos. “

Nelson has traditionally opted for Old Space – that is, for established aerospace companies such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

Most famous (or best known) was that he advocated NASA’s multi-billion dollar space launch system while serving in the Senate, giving the SLS the nickname “Senate Launch System”.

The rocket engines on the SLS first core stage, of which Boeing is the prime contractor, underwent their first successful full-time hot-fire test on Thursday. This is in preparation for an unscrewed round-the-moon test flight scheduled for late this year or early next year. This reflects a schedule that is years behind the original plan and costing billions of dollars over the original budget.

Even before Biden’s intentions were announced today, Nelson was criticized by those who prefer to turn away from SLS and double down on New Space companies like SpaceX, which have a faster development schedule at a lower cost.

“His legacy is the monster rocket, and in some ways it is a poetic justice that it will be his cross,” wrote Lori Garver, who disapproved of Nelson during her tenure as NASA deputy administrator in the Obama administration, in a tweet .

But the dichotomy between old and new has collapsed dramatically in the two years since Nelson left the Senate. SpaceX, the epitome of the New Space company, has become NASA’s leading operator for travel to and from the International Space Station. Meanwhile, Boeing has suffered more than a year of setbacks when it put its own spacecraft, the CST-100 Starliner, into service – and lost its offer to build a lunar lander for NASA.

It could be argued that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space project spawned the biggest breakdown of the old versus new paradigm: Blue Origin is widely viewed as a New Space company, but its moon lander team consists of three Old Space stalwarts : Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper.

In a tweet, Blue Origin congratulated Nelson on his selection. “Your experience on and off earth will ensure we have strong leadership and commitment when the US returns to the moon – this time to stay,” the company said.

Important decisions about NASA’s Artemis lunar program must be made under Nelson’s watch. NASA’s total budget for the current fiscal year is approximately $ 23.3 billion. However, some observers say it may need to add another $ 5-7 billion per year to fund Artemis adequately. It would be up to Nelson to sell NASA’s next budget request to his former congressional colleagues.

Within the next month or two, NASA is expected to select which team or teams will launch the construction of the human landing system for missions to the lunar surface. There are currently three teams in the running: Blue Origin’s “National Team”, SpaceX and Dynetics.

Congress has given NASA only about a quarter of the $ 3.3 billion it was aiming for in support of land development efforts in the current fiscal year – and that could force the space agency to downsize its plans to make the first Artemis Crew in the south of the moon touch down polar region in 2024.

If NASA’s budget is limited, the decisions that lie ahead for SLS and Artemis could spark a game of chess between old and new space, if not a war of flames. For example, if the national team is the only choice for Artemis’ landing system, SpaceX would almost certainly contest the decision. But if the national team is left out, it could spark protests from Congress that incumbents with lesser proven technologies are bypassed.

Similar scenarios could come into play when it comes to funding NASA’s SLS rocket and Orion crew capsule versus spacecraft Starship and SpaceX’s super heavy booster.

If history is a guide, Nelson and the leaders of Congress want to protect the SLS. But SpaceX is pushing its plan for moon ships with spaceships at full speed. SpaceX even has the ability to send people around the moon on a privately funded flight before SLS and Orion do it for NASA. Omitting SpaceX would raise specific questions about NASA’s priorities.

In any case, unless Nelson sabotages himself during his verification hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, it’s almost certain that Nelson will be the Florida man who makes the decisions at NASA. Today Nelson was commended by former NASA chief Jim Bridenstine, acting NASA administrator Steve Jurczyk and the senators who will vote on the confirmation.

“Bill Nelson has long been one of NASA’s strongest and most ardent supporters,” Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Wash, chair of the trade committee, said in a statement. “I am confident that he will have the expertise and political acumen to maintain and develop the nation’s leadership in space in both the public and commercial sectors.”

That sentiment was supported by Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla. “I can’t think of anyone who could run NASA better than Bill Nelson,” he said in a statement. “His nomination gives me confidence that the Biden administration finally understands the importance of the Artemis program and the need to win the 21st century space race.”

When then President Donald Trump selected Jim Bridenstine as NASA administrator in 2017, Rubio questioned the election because Bridenstine was an Oklahoma congressman with “political baggage”.

Nelson also voiced concerns at the time and voted against Bridenstine. “The head of NASA should be a space professional, not a politician,” he said.

Last but not least, the latest turn in Nelson’s long career should show even his critics that people and space perspectives can change dramatically over time.

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