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What yesterday’s National Space Council meeting really reveals

Link here. While most news articles about yesterday’s third public meeting of the National Space Council are focused on Trump’s apparently off-the-cuff announcement that he wants a new military branch dubbed the “Space Force,” the story at the link provides a nice summary of the entire meeting, including a look at the presentations by four astronauts, two scientists, and one businessman.

The panel of former astronauts also offered some more general advice, including the importance of international and commercial partnerships, seeking bipartisan support to ensure the long-term viability of NASA’s exploration plan, and more outreach to the public. “We have got to get the support of the American people by getting the message out to people,” Collins said.

That panel came after another panel of two space scientists and one businessman who has flown payloads on the ISS. They argued for the importance of both human and robotic exploration, rather than one taking precedence over the other.

One of the astronauts came out against LOP-G, but his alternative suggestion was not really very different from that proposed by the other astronauts, calling for a massive NASA-run Apollo-style government space project:

Appearing on a panel during the meeting at the White House, Terry Virts said that the proposed Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a human-tended facility in orbit around the moon, wasn’t an effective next step in human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit after the International Space Station. “It essentially calls for building another orbital space station, a skill my colleagues and I have already demonstrated on the ISS,” he said. “Gateway will only slow us down, taking time and precious dollars away from the goal of returning to the lunar surface and eventually flying to Mars.”

Virts wasn’t specific on what should replace the Gateway as that next step but called for an Apollo-like model of stepping-stone missions to return to the moon, with ISS, he said, serving well as the Mercury role.

Meanwhile, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine gave his full endorsement of LOP-G.

Virts’ comments came after NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the Gateway played an essential role in developing a long-term, sustainable human presence at the moon. “This is our opportunity to have more access to more parts of the moon than ever before,” he said of the Gateway, a reference to its ability to shift orbits using its electric propulsion system. He also played up the role of the Gateway in bringing in international and commercial partners while taking a leadership role in space exploration.

“The goal is sustainability,” he said. “When we’re going to the moon, as the president said in his speech, this time we’re going to stay, and the Gateway gives us that great opportunity.”

What we can glean from these presentations, all very carefully staged by the council to support what it wants the government to do in space, is that the Trump administration is going full gang-busters for another big Kennedy-like government space program, launched by SLS. They haven’t announced it yet, but they are definitely moving to propose such a program.

And such a program will cost billions, take forever to do anything (if it does anything at all), and accomplish nothing but spread pork to congressional districts while sustaining the big space companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing and possibly reshaping the new space companies — tempted by the big cash being offered by the government — into becoming as bloated and as uncreative.

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NASA administrator in talks about commercializing ISS

In a wide-ranging news article today, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine revealed that the agency is in discussions with many private corporations about the possibility of privatizing ISS.

Bridenstine declined to name the companies that have expressed interest in managing the station, and said he was aware that companies may find it “hard to close the business case.” But he said there was still seven years to plan for the future of the station, and with the White House’s budget request “we have forced the conversation.”

Bridenstine’s approach to ISS’s future seems reasonable to me. At some point the federal government needs to face the station’s future, and now is a better time to do it then later.

The article however confirmed my generally meh opinion of Bridenstine. First, he reiterated his born-again new belief in human-caused global warming, a belief that seemed to arrive solely for him to gain the votes to get him confirmed in the Senate.

Second, he said this about LOP-G, NASA’s proposed international space station that would fly in lunar space.

Known as the Lunar Orbiting Platform Gateway, the system would be built by NASA in partnership with industry and its international partners, he said.

“I’ve met with a lot of leaders of space agencies from around the world,” he said. “There is a lot of interest in the Gateway in the lunar outpost because a lot of countries want to have access to the surface of the moon. And this can help them as well and they can help us. It helps expand the partnership that we’ve seen in low Earth orbit with the International Space Station.”

But the first element of the system wouldn’t be launched until 2021 or 2022, he said. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words illustrate why Bridenstine seems like a lightweight to me. LOP-G might be flying near the Moon, but nothing about it will provide anyone any access to the lunar surface. Not only will it not be operational in any manner for more than a decade, at the soonest, but it doesn’t appear designed to make reaching the lunar surface any easier. Instead, it mostly seems designed to justify SLS and Orion, and provide that boondoggle a mission.

Still, Bridenstine has in the past been generally in favor of commercial space, and that position appears to be benefiting NASA’s commercial crew partners. Prior to Bridenstine’s arrival the decisions of NASA’s safety panel acted to repeatedly delay the launch of the manned capsules being built by SpaceX and Boeing. Now that safety panel seems to have seen the light, and is suddenly more confident in these capsules. I suspect Bridenstine might have had some influence here.

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Bridenstine confirmed as NASA administrator

After an eight month delay, caused partly by the refusal of any Democrats to vote for a Trump nominee, Congressman Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) was today confirmed as NASA’s administrator.

The vote passed 50-49, and only finally occurred because Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) decided to stop opposing Bridenstine.

I don’t think this nomination will matter much. The people who are really in charge of the U.S. space effort don’t work for NASA, and in fact are not even in the government. They also have enough financial power that they probably can force NASA to do what they want, over the long run. Bridenstine will I think carry water for them.

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NASA’s interim administrator to retire in April

NASA’s interim administrator, Robert Lightfoot, has announced that he plans to retire in April.

Lightfoot’s retirement leaves NASA without any leadership, as the Senate has shown no interest in confirming Trump’s candidate for the position, Congressmen Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma).

All 49 Democrats in the Senate are expected to vote against to Bridenstine’s confirmation, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) is also reportedly also opposed, Space News reported. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) is not in Washington as he undergoes treatment for cancer, leaving Bridenstine short of the 50 votes needed for confirmation.

Bridenstine is not a perfect choice, and I have reservations about his commitment to commercial space, but the reasons for the Democratic opposition is, as far as I can tell, the same as all their other opposition to every other Trump or Republican proposal: pure spite. “We hate it because of YOU!”

The lack of a politically appointed administrator at NASA however is not necessarily a bad thing, considering that the important stuff happening right now is not at NASA but in the private sector. Having NASA adrift for awhile might actually work to weaken NASA’s pork projects, SLS and Orion, that are in direct competition with private space.

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Factional bickering dominates nomination hearing for NASA administrator

Quite boring. Factional bickering yesterday between Democrats and Republicans dominated the nomination hearing of Congressman Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) for NASA administrator.

Today’s contentious nomination hearing for Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) to be NASA Administrator was split along partisan lines. Democratic Senators questioned his credentials and viewpoints about climate change, sexual harassment and other issues that could affect how he runs the agency and its personnel. Republicans defended him and chafed at the tenor of the hearing. The committee could vote as early as next week on whether to send the nomination to the full Senate.

I did not watch the hearing because I knew this would be what I’d see and I didn’t want to be bored for two hours. It ain’t news anymore to find Democrats opposing anything proposed by the Republicans. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter. Bridenstine will almost certainly be approved along partisan lines in the Senate, and nothing I have read about him suggests he is going to do anything significant or radical. He has made it clear, both in recent interviews and articles as well as his testimony yesterday as reported by numerous articles that he does not wish to rock the boat. He supports all of NASA’s current programs, commercial space, SLS/Orion, climate research, everything. I do not expect him to make any radical changes in the direction NASA is going.

In fact, the people who will change NASA are not even in the government. I expect the actions of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos to have far greater impact in the coming years, with politicians and bureaucrats in NASA forced to follow them, as they have been forced to follow Musk during the past half decade.

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The first meeting of the National Space Council

The first meeting of the National Space Council just wrapped up. You can see highlights here. I have several thoughts.

The entire event was very carefully staged, with the planned outcomes determined beforehand. The three panels of speakers were organized to match up with the three main actions the council intended to pursue, with the questions from the various high level Trump cabinet members clearly arranged to line up with each panel. Moreover, the fact that all these panel members were there and participating in this staged event suggests that Trump himself is directly interested, and insisted they do so.

The first action was a decision to rework the country’s overall space policy, including its future goals for exploring the solar system. This action item was linked with statements by officials from Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Orbital ATK, and was clearly intended to placate their desire to keep what they all called “sustained” and “reliable” funding. It was also clearly linked to Pence’s opening remarks, which insisted that the U.S. should return to the Moon, permanently, and use that as a jumping off point for exploring Mars and the rest of the solar system.

The second action was a commitment to review, in the next 45 days, the entire regulatory bureaucracy that private companies must face. This was linked to the testimony from officials from SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Sierra Nevada.

The third action was a focus on the military and national security aspects of space, focused on the development of a “space strategic framework” that will apparently link the military needs with the growing commercial space industry. This framework has been under development for several months. The council actually spent the most time questioning the national security witnesses on this issue. This focus also aligns with the main interest in space held by Trump’s nominee for NASA administrator, Congressman Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma). Interestingly, Bridenstine was in the audience, but was given no speaking opportunity, unlike the NASA acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, who Pence specifically provided a moment to speak.

Overall, this meeting indicates that the Trump administration is likely not going to do much to drain the swamp that presently dominates our space effort. Trump’s interest in reducing regulation remains strong, but it also appears he and his administration is also strongly committed to continuing the crony capitalism that is wasting literally billions of dollars in space and helping to put the nation into unrecoverable debt.

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Trump nominates James Bridenstine as NASA administrator

As expected for months, Trump late yesterday nominated Congressman James Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) as the new administrator of NASA.

He will still have to be confirmed by the Senate. Interestingly, both Florida senators, a Democrat and a Republican, have announced their opposition to the nomination.

Bridenstine is somewhat in favor of private space, but previous analysis of his past proposals by myself and others has not been encouraging. What he will do as head of NASA however remains unknown. Based on his past statements, I would be surprised if he cut back on either commercial space or SLS.

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Congressman proposes new legislation to better regulate commercial space

We’re here to help you! In an effort to guarantee that the United States remains compliant with the UN Outer Space Treaty when its private citizens begin flying commercial operations in space, Congressman Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) is proposing new legislation that would better supervise and regulate the emerging commercial space industry.

Bridenstine explained that his top concern is that a U.S. company will proceed with a plan to put a spacecraft on the Moon or conduct on-orbit servicing or some other new type of activity only to have a “near-peer” country like Russia or China complain at the last minute that the United States is violating the OST. That would put the United States “in a difficult position,” he argues. Therefore he sees the need for “airtight” legislation that sets up a process by which the government authorizes and supervises these private companies. Once a company has gone through the process, the United States can unequivocally demonstrate to the international community that it has, in fact, complied with the treaty.

The Obama Administration has been open to working with these new companies, but he wonders if that will remain true over the long term future. He insisted that Congress “needs to exert its authority and power so that whatever administration comes next or is in place 50 years from now, the process exists” and is not subject to a new administration’s “whims.” He also worried that without a legislative solution, it could become a matter of “executive branch regulation by default.” That opens the possibility of some agency saying no, with no recourse for the private sector.

Read the whole report at the link. If you believe in freedom, competition, and private enterprise, it will chill your bones. At no time does anyone suggest that maybe the United States should simply get out of the Outer Space Treaty, as we are legally allowed to do according to the treaty’s own language. The treaty itself is a very bad law, as it makes it impossible for any private citizen or company in space to be protected under U.S. law, leaving everything instead in the control of United Nations bureaucrats and the polyglot of nations, many quite tyrannical, that dictate UN policy. Bridenstine’s proposals will only make this situation worse, as it will not only keep all control in the hands of the UN, but it will saddle American citizens with further regulations imposed by our own government.

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Congressman proposes major changes to regulation of commercial space

Doug Messier has posted a detailed analysis of Congressman Jim Bridenstine’s (R-Oklahoma) proposed American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA) that is definitely worth reading.

Most of the changes appear aimed at organizing the regulation process of commercial space more completely under FAA control, rather than the hodge-podge of agencies that presently have responsibility. The bill also encourages NOAA and NASA to increase their use of commercial data for weather and Earth remote sensing.

At first glance, the bill looks good, but it also is not likely to be passed as written. Moreover, not surprisingly it calls for a hefty increase in funding for the FAA agencies being given more responsibilities, but I wonder if Congress will comparably reduce the funding of those agencies it takes responsibility from. My instinct tells me no, which means of course that the government and bureaucracy grows again.

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