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Yesterday’s meeting of the National Space Council resulted in a number of recommendations beyond vice-president Mike Pence’s announcement that the Trump administration is quite willing to dump SLS if it doesn’t get its act together.
First, see this statement by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. He outlines the tasks that NASA has now been given, including getting astronauts on the Moon by 2024. Those tasks also require NASA to “[s]tay on schedule for flying Exploration Mission-1 with Orion on the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket next year, and for sending the first crewed mission to the lunar vicinity by 2022.”
This article at SpacePolicyOnline outlines those tasks in more detail, stating that:
NASA will create a Moon-to-Mars Mission Directorate and make all necessary efforts to achieve Exploration Mission-1 no later than 2020 and Exploration Mission-2 no later than 2022. [emphasis mine]
These announcements inadvertently reveal two facts. First, the establishment of a new directorate at NASA is Bridenstine’s attempt to shake up and take control of NASA’s bureaucracy. This will allow him to put people in place that support his agenda.
Will this work? I doubt it. I have watched NASA administrators do this time after time in the past twenty years, with nothing really changing. In a sense, it is really nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Second, they are admitting here (as indicated by the highlighted words) that the first SLS unmanned launch will not happen in June 2020. They have reviewed everything and realized the fastest way to get this launch off is to allow SLS to launch it, but they have also realized that the June date can’t be met. This announcement gives NASA and Boeing an extra six months, to the end of 2020, to get the mission off the ground.
The recommendations also included the release of major suggested changes to streamline how both the State Department and the FAA regulate commercial space. Neither appear to streamline things much. For example, the FAA’s new rule [pdf] on federal commercial space transportation requirements is only 580 pages long. My eyes glazed over as soon as I started reading it. Similarly, the new State Department procedures appear as complex. I haven’t digested either yet, so my pessimism might be unfounded. We shall see.
All in all, the significance of these policy announcements is not so much in the details, all of which illustrate the continuing incompetence and failures of the federal space bureaucracy. What these announcements instead tell us is that the Trump administration is finally attempting the first baby steps for gaining some measure of control over that federal space bureaucracy. It is telling that bureaucracy that it had finally has to do something, or face the consequences.
Whether the administration’s efforts will succeed however remains very questionable. Many in that bureaucracy and in Congress will oppose this effort. They like things as they are, where billions get distributed throughout the country to their friends, and no one is ever required to accomplish anything. And they have managed for the past twenty years to maintain this status quo. It will not be easy to force a change now.