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Bill Nelson: now an advocate of private commercial space?

Though this is certainly not a firm rule, I rarely pay much attention to the nomination hearings in the Senate that take place whenever a new administration from another party takes over and nominates a new set of Washington apparatchiks to run various government agencies. Almost always, you can glean most of what you need to know by reading the nominee’s opening statement as well as later news reports. Saves a lot of time.

Last week came the nomination hearing of former senator Bill Nelson as NASA’s new administrator. As I had expected, based on all reports the hearing was a lovefest, with almost all questions friendly and enthusiastic. This is generally what happens when a Democrat gets nominated, as the Democrats have no reason to oppose the nominee and the Republicans generally don’t play “we oppose all Democrats, no matter what.” It also always happens when the nominee is a former member of that exclusive senatorial club, as Bill Nelson was.

The first news reports also mentioned that Nelson seemed surprisingly enthusiastic towards commercial space, given his past hostility towards it. This report by Mark Whittington today at The Hill provides a much deeper look, and notes that, as his report’s headline states, Nelson is now “a born-again” believer in the idea of capitalism in space, with NASA now merely being the customer. This is a major change from his position when he was a senator, when he tried repeatedly to strangle commercial space and give its money to SLS.

Nelson also announced that he was totally committed to continuing the Artemis program and timetable as laid out by the Trump administration:

Nelson … expressed support for the idea of landing on the moon by 2024, on Mars by the 2030s, the Artemis Accords, the National Space Council and NASA’s Earth science programs to help fight climate change. He even expressed concern about China’s drive for space dominance.

Indeed, the one overriding message that Nelson sought to impart was that his tenure as NASA administrator would be one of continuity with the previous regime. He would not propose any drastic changes in policy but would rather seek to continue those enacted by the previous administration. In past changes of presidencies, NASA has suffered whiplash with abrupt changes in the direction of its human spaceflight program.

Why has Nelson changed so thoroughly? And why is the Democratic Biden administration going along as well, given the Democrats lockstep opposition to all things Trump for the past four years as well as their routine hostility to private enterprise? This paragraph by Whittington says it all:

Part of what must have changed Nelson’s mind is the fact that SpaceX is now providing assured American access to space. Not coincidentally, SpaceX is launching the Crew Dragon from the Kennedy Space Center in Nelson’s own state of Florida, providing lots of jobs and money. Nothing changes minds as thoroughly as success. [emphasis mine]

Private enterprise and competition, based on profit, will always out do anything a state-run centralized program tries to accomplish. We have seen this fact well demonstrated in the past decade. Nelson — and the Democrats — are now board, at least when it comes to launching things into space. Because of this buy-in the coming decade for the exploration of space will likely be a spectacularly wonderful thing.

If only these Democrats could recognize that this fact also applies to Earth. If they did, they might finally get out of the way of all Americans, allowing everyone to once again pursue their own happiness, based on freedom and liberty.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.

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  • mkent

    In past changes of presidencies, NASA has suffered whiplash with abrupt changes in the direction of its human spaceflight program.

    Not really. This only really happened when Obama tried to cancel Constellation. Previous manned space programs enjoyed bipartisan support. For example, the Shuttle was started in the Nixon administration and survived the Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush administrations before finally being shut down during the Obama administration. The Space Station was started in the Reagan administration and survived the Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump, and now the Biden administration.

    Only Constellation was cancelled by the incoming administration, but that’s because it was a really bad program. Sensible programs don’t have that happen, and Bridenstine made sure that Artemis was sensible.

    Why has Nelson changed so thoroughly?

    I’m not convinced he has. My take on the confirmation hearing was that he pretty much supported everything. It was his side of the lovefest. You could almost hear Oprah saying “You get a car, and you get a car, and you get a car — you all get cars!”

    But based on this and the general stability the manned space program generally has (as mentioned above), I don’t expect any wholesale changes in Artemis — just some tinkering around the edges.

    This is a major change from his position when he was a senator, when he tried repeatedly to strangle commercial space and give its money to SLS.

    I think the reason for that is that SLS is not under threat. There certainly wasn’t any evidence of it at the confirmation hearing. I have to give Bridenstine credit for this too. As much as I wanted him to successfully cancel SLS and Orion, once that failed he was able to build a sustainable program with the parts of the compromise he had left. He was so successful that neither side is under threat any more.

    Private enterprise and competition, based on profit, will always out do anything a state-run centralized program tries to accomplish.

    All other things being equal, yes. But state-run centralized programs can wield vast resources and overwhelm a profit-based private enterprise program. As Stalin once said, “Quantity has a quality all its own.”

  • Ray Van Dune

    “Never underestimate Joe’s ability to screw things up!” – Obama

    Joe’s most likely screwup… President Harris.

  • mpthompson

    the Shuttle was started in the Nixon … before finally being shut down during the Obama administration.

    You are correct that the shuttle program ended during the Obama administration, but in reality, the shutdown was initiated during the previous Bush administration when it was announced in 2004 the shuttle program would end once the ISS was complete in 2010. Obama just did mop-up of the program. Even if Obama wanted to keep the shuttle flying, re-starting critical supply chains previously shut down would have been prohibitively expensive, if not impossible.

  • wayne

    Ray Van Dune–

    “My grandparents were Jamaican slave-owners.”
    President Harris

  • Jeff Wright

    What Nelson did was to keep no-name brands from raiding SD-HLLV budgets.

    When the DOT.COM bubble burst, the Air Force tried to put their EELV albatross on NASA’s neck. The sub-orbital types wanted Ares money….and I’m glad they didn’t get it.

    Planetary scientists were used to Dan Goldin handing out Delta II sounding rockets like lollipops and did JPL ever chain-smoke that crutch. Well-it might be cheap to keep kids quiet in the back seat who can’t scream with a sucker in their mouths…but they need a filling meal at the end of the day. Candy money goes into a table meal. It takes more time and money, yes-but is better. That was Ares V.

    More capability than the bomb disposal robots JPL was used to-so they cried. The robot people would rather have the sucker…and have always been against new vehicle development-and human spaceflight. SD-HLLV advocates have always been on the outside looking in.
    So when a Shelby or Nelson finally had OUR backs for a change…the fangs came out. Libertarians always hated us. But the military turned on us. But if you want REAL missile defense-you need an HLLV that can shoot down at ICBMs just rising…not small solids going up at MIRVs about to hit.

    HLLVs allow for big all-terrain rovers. Now that Musk understands the need such that he is working on a HLLV on his own…Nelson can let his foot of the gas now that we have two efforts.

    The sub-orbital hype has been exposed-proving Nelson and Shelby to have been right in opposing that little New Space power grab at the least.
    While the “Rand” somethings still hate SLS…HLLVs in general are no longer in the doghouse. So there is that at least.

  • Edward

    There seems to be a misunderstanding of the history of the U.S. manned space program.

    Nixon tried to kill the Space Shuttle, which was intended to be a much smaller vehicle with a very small pallet bay for experiments. The Shuttle was intended to be an inexpensive way to perform the manned portions of the low Earth orbit portions of the Apollo Applications Program, such as Skylab. Instead, Nixon’s actions resulted in NASA making compromises with the Air Force that led to a much larger, flexible vessel that required a more pliable fragile heat shield, which turned out to be fragile, rather than a single-piece metallic shield.

    Clinton changed the mission of the ISS to one that employed Russia’s space industry, and this came a great expense to the U.S. Congress balked at a $32 billion station, but under Clinton’s leadership the station cost $100 billion to build.

    Bush made additional changes to ISS in 2001 and 2002, resulting in a smaller crew and much less science being accomplished. Bush also changed the course of U.S. manned space program.

    Obama did not want SLS, which means that if it weren’t for Congress, the U.S. right now may not have any capability to launch people to the ISS. When Obama cancelled Constellation, the Commercial Crew Program would only be attempted if commercial companies could demonstrate that they could launch their own rockets and payloads to the ISS. Many people doubted that commercial companies could accomplish this at all. When Obama was cancelling Constellation, it looked like the U.S. space program would end with the Space Shuttle, and that is a major reason why Congress kept Orion and demanded SLS. Congress wanted a manned space program.

    Trump redirected SLS from an unwanted mission to an asteroid rock (which even the asteroid scientists didn’t want) to a permanent base on the Moon, which was one goal of the Apollo Applications Program.

    I count five major shifts in NASA’s direction across ten presidents and eight changes of political party.

    In addition, the Delta II was an orbital class rocket, not a sounding rocket.

    Jeff Wright,
    I wish you would be more clear. Your analogies are unclear as to who and what you are talking about. I worked in the industry during the time you are talking about, and whatever you are saying does not sound familiar enough for me to make it out. Others less savvy to the space industry and the space program are likely completely flummoxed. You may be intending to make a point, but who knows what that might be?

    So there is that at least.

    Whatever “that” may be.

    But if you want REAL missile defense-you need an HLLV that can shoot down at ICBMs just rising…not small solids going up at MIRVs about to hit.

    The meaning of this one sentence is least confusing. You seem to believe that a heavy lift launch vehicle (e.g. Atlas V and Delta 4, which were designed under the Air Force’s HLLV program in the 1990s) can reach an ICBM early in its flight. HLLVs are much slower to rise than ICBMs, because their first stages are very heavy with propellants, and they would be very expensive to use for such a mission. For the same reason, they would not be good against intermediate range ballistic missiles, either.

  • Jeff Wright

    I was thinking large orbital assets. HLLV to me means 80-100 tons…all cryogenics for cold-gas thrusters. SDI looked toward an SLS type Magnum..but Super Heavy might do. Too shiny and warm but…for space based missile defense assets-the bigger the LV the better.

    My calling Delta II a sounding rocket was tongue in cheek. My point is that we thought too small then. Starship, SLS, LM-9, etc. is getting that Dandridge Cole scope back. When I think low cost-the image of that puny Delta sticks in my crop. Musk thinks that huge SS/SH can be even cheaper than Falcon-proving Super HLLV advocates right. Having one hydrogen capable is worth the cost-in case Musk dies. Like Korolev-it is a forceful personality that makes all the difference. If SS becomes routine…then I can relax. I spent my life waiting for the other shoe to drop. Musk’s success still seems too good to last. I really hope I’m wrong. NASA administators need to be like Supreme Court members-to outlive petty Presidental terms.

  • Edward

    Jeff Wright,
    I wish you would communicate better. The only two statements that I thought I understood turned out to mean something else.

    To the rest of the world, heavy-lift launch vehicles have a capacity of 20 to 50 metric tonnes to low Earth orbit. More than that is called a super heavy-lift launch vehicle.

    The reason that Delta II was more popular than super heavy-lift launch vehicles is that larger launch vehicles were very costly. Even governments, which have deep pockets, were not willing to spend the money to think big. Delta II and its Thor predecessor were popular for almost two-thirds of a century.

    SpaceX is moving to the Starship, because they have figured out how to launch them for a very low cost to themselves and how to charge a much lower price to their customers, relative to current launch vehicles. SLS is so expensive that no one has thought of many projects to use it for. Now is the time to think big, and once the price tag for a Starship launch is known, we should see a few companies thinking big.

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