NASA’s Sudden, Strange and All Together Predictable Announcement

Well, the moment that many people longed for (or long feared) came yesterday morning as NASA announced its Space Launch System plan. And it turned out to be as every bit as thrilling, terrifying and anticlimactic as anyone could have envisioned. It was also downright strange. Much stranger than anyone could have imagined.

How so? Let us count the ways:

  • After waiting for months to announce a decision, the actual press conference was hastily arranged. How hastily? NASA sent out notices about the press conference the night before.
  • NASA leaks like a sieve, so everyone knew what the damned thing was going to look like months ago, removing any suspense from the proceedings.
  • Administrator Charles Bolden went to the Senate to make the announcement instead of doing so from a NASA facility.
  • Who knew that Bill Nelson is not only a distinguished Senator but also a rocket scientist and flight attendant? He’s the one who explained the safety features of this Boeing 737-800….uh, Senate designed mega rocket (the capsule is on top, which is convenient in the event of an unscheduled water landing, i.e., booster explosion).

As to why the announcement was made so suddenly, one can only speculate that Congress’s patience had reached its end and legislators forced the issue somehow. (To which I would reply, “Oh yeah?! How about delivering a fraking budget on time? And not like six months late?) Actually, the FY 2012 budget is due in only two weeks (which could slip, again). Whatever the case, a firm plan for SLS probably couldn’t wait much longer.

From a public relations perspective, the timing was not great. The announcement completely overshadowed the space agency’s other big human spaceflight news, the Space Act Agreement with ATK on the Liberty rocket, that was made public the day before. This couldn’t have pleased the NASA or ATK public affairs offices, even though it was actually good news for the embattled solid-rocket booster manufacturer.

Bolden going to the Senate to make this announcement was indicative of the unprecedented space policy environment we operate in. Normally, the White House sets space policy and Congress makes changes around the edges. In this case, however, Congress is the one that demanded that that NASA build the giant rocket from the remnants of the space shuttle and Constellation programs,m against the wishes of the space agency and the Obama Administration. NASA has spent the last 11 months trying to figure out how to do that without breaking its budget and also accomplishing its other tasks. We’ll see how that goes.

The decision has appalled members of the NewSpace community, who see the rocket as a budget-eating black hole that will suck money out of the commercial crew program, prevent NASA from doing any real exploration, and eventually get canceled after only a few flights due to its high operating costs.

That all could happen. But, in the meantime….well, to paraphrase President Laura Roslin, “The war over heavy lift is over. And we lost. We need to make babies now.” The NewSpace folks need to focus on making the most of what support they are getting from NASA. Build those orbital crew systems. Close the gap. Fly suborbital. Fly Early. And often. Get those baby birds into the air. Prove that you can do these things.

Other than Elon Musk and Bob Bigelow, there’s been a helluva lot more talking than flying in NewSpace. When you start flying and producing real results, these budget battles will be easier to win.