NASA’s Bill Nelson shows how sausage making will take America back to the moon
Bill Nelson, the administrator of NASA, attended a hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies on the subject of the space agency’s fiscal 2022 budget recently. His testimony was a master class on how sausage making is going to take America back to the moon. It also demonstrated the wisdom of once again naming a politician as the chief of NASA.
German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once famously said that one should not look too closely at how laws or sausages are made. However, a look at how the subcommittee hearings proceeded is a master class on the unseemly side of how laws, in this case NASA funding, are made.
Much of the hearings consisted of various members of the subcommittee complaining about how SpaceX got the sole contract for the lunar Human Landing System (HLS) that will take the first Americans to the lunar surface in over 50 years. The theory is that, just as with the Commercial Crew program, two providers are better for the redundancy they provide. Nelson, several times, had to explain that the reason NASA was not able to contract for two lunar landers was that the previous Congress was excessively stingy in funding the HLS, granting just $850 million for the current fiscal year instead of the $3.4 billion that NASA had requested.
Fortunately, as Space News reported, Nelson offered a way for Congress to correct its mistake. He noted that the Biden administration and Congress are debating the content and scope of an infrastructure bill, which Nelson and members of the committee were careful to call a “jobs bill.” The NASA chief suggested that it would be a good idea if Congress could give the space agency about $11.6 billion of that bill.
Over $5 billion would go for the follow-on selection for the lunar HLS, presumably giving companies such as Blue Origin a second shot at the prize. Another $5.4 billion would pay for repairs and infrastructure upgrades at various NASA centers. Two hundred million dollars would pay for developing new space suits for lunar explorers, and $585 million would help to develop a nuclear thermal rocket system to take astronauts to Mars. The money would presumably be paid out over several years.
Nelson’s plan depends a lot on there being an infrastructure or a jobs bill. As Hot Air reports, the back-and-forth between the Biden administration and Senate Republicans over how much the bill will cost, how it will get paid for and what will be included is still ongoing as of this writing.
Nelson was also quick to show an image taken from the Chinese Zhurong rover of the surface of Mars. While he was careful to congratulate the Chinese for their space feat, he also took pains to note that it represented a burgeoning capability in space that could prove to be a challenge to the United States. The Chinese are planning to land their taikonauts on the moon, he stated. The implication was clear — The United States had better get moving with the Artemis return to the moon program lest it get shown up by China.
Nelson did not spend much time going over the wonky arguments for funding NASA, the science, how it facilitates commerce, or even how it inspires America’s youth. He concentrated on two primal motivators that everyone, especially members of Congress, experience: greed and fear.
Funding NASA, even out of the grab bag infrastructure or, if one prefers, jobs bill, means money for campaign contributors and employment for voters. Failing to fund NASA might mean having to watch Chinese taikonauts on the moon doing the one small step and one giant leap routine on live streaming video with Americans nowhere to be seen. The humiliation would be exquisite. Politicians who let it happen might not be in office for very long.
It’s all sausage making. NASA ought not to be a jobs program. NASA is supposed to be about exploring the universe. However, Nelson knows that the unseemly stuff like jobs in the district and not being shown up by one of the world’s least favorite countries motivates politicians more than the glories of pushing back the final frontier.
One can only hope that the unquestioned benefits of space exploration, the science, the commerce and the soft political power will follow resulting from all that money that Nelson seeks to extract from his fellow politicians and that not too much of it will be wasted.
Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and, most recently, “Why is America going back to the Moon.” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times and the Washington Post, among other venues.
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