Trump’s space leader says SpaceX is outstanding, but…

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Scott Pace, a well-known academic figure in the aerospace community, was named executive secretary of the National Space Council[3] in July. As such, he was the first key appointee of the Trump administration on space policy in regard to the future of the military, civil, and commercial space enterprises. While it is not entirely clear how influential the new council will be, it is clear that Pace will have a strong voice in whatever direction it goes.

Although generally regarded as highly capable, thoughtful about space policy, and certainly a true believer in the value of robotic and human spaceflight, the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University has in recent years made comments that have raised concern among commercial spaceflight advocates.

In particular, during both interviews and comments to Congress, Pace has expressed skepticism about both NASA’s commercial crew program under President Obama and the abilities of Elon Musk and his rocket company, SpaceX. “It’s kind of amazing to me that the Trump administration would line up against the commercial space industry like this,” said one former White House official who helped NASA develop the commercial crew program under President Obama.

Looking at his watch

Late last week, CQ Press published a lengthy review[4] of the developing private space industry alongside NASA’s traditional approach to spaceflight. The article contained an interesting comment from Pace: “Elon Musk sat in my office in 2002 and told me he’d have 10 launches a year by 2006,” he said. “I’m still looking at my watch.” It is absolutely true that Musk is guilty of over-promising on timelines, but virtually every aerospace program–aside from NASA’s race to the Moon before the end of the 1960s–has faced delays.

And while Musk is often late, he sometimes over-delivers. For example, he didn’t just build a rocket capable of delivering supplies to the International Space Station, he built a reusable one. With this criticism of SpaceX, essentially saying the company is unreliable, Pace is echoing the same derogatory remarks that one hears from US aerospace officials who are competitors of SpaceX, individuals who work at places like Boeing or for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket.

Ars asked Pace if he had intended to criticize SpaceX in such a manner. “That comment is accurate but somewhat dated–I believe I said it a few years ago,” Pace replied. “As you point out, SpaceX exceeded 10 launches this year, which is an outstanding achievement.

They’ve also regained international market share for the United States, which is also terrific. I don’t see it as derogatory but rather a statement of skeptical caution about ambitious goals.” For a comment made in 2014 or 2015, the skepticism was perhaps warranted.

But it turns out that Pace’s comment wasn’t made a few years ago. According to the CQ Press story author, Patrick Marshall, Pace made the comment during a telephone interview on May 24, 2017. What Pace said at the time was effectively true–SpaceX had launched just six times by mid-May.

Yet by then, the company had also just flown its first national security mission, re-flown a first stage, and was on pace[5] for a dozen launches or more this year. (The company’s 11th launch of 2017 could come as early as Sunday). Asked about this, Pace subsequently said that the “looking at my watch” anecdote is a comment he has made for several years, and he acknowledged that he did tell it to Marshall in May. “That comment is accurate and it was true for years,” Pace said. “In 2017, it became obsolete–which was an outstanding achievement for SpaceX.”

Commercial crew doubts

Back in 2012, shortly after the space shuttle had stopped flying, the White House and NASA’s administration were in a battle with Congress to obtain full funding for the commercial crew program. This was NASA’s plan to provide funding for SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada to develop transport vehicles to carry crew to the International Space Station.

This program saved NASA money, but it required the agency to give the private companies more leeway in the design of their spacecraft and the rockets they would use. Like some in Congress, Pace was critical of this approach. This fixed-price form of contracting was a “major risk” to NASA, Pace testified[6].

New space actors, he said, lacked the operational experience of major space projects and “have the potential to affect the sustainability, safety, and security of the space environment and thus impact US interests in space.”

Appearing on the Kojo Nnamdi radio show in February 2012, Pace went further in his criticism of the Obama administration and its plan to try to accelerate development of commercial space capabilities in order to fill the gap created by the space shuttle’s retirement. “I think this is somewhat dangerous,” he said[7]. “Accelerating the rules means that you will be taking risks by potentially putting people or high value cargo on before you’ve established a real track record. And I think that’s the approach that has a lot of people worried, particularly those of us who remember the results of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.”

Fourteen flights?

In speaking about commercial crew on the radio show, Pace also noted that it is difficult to get insurance for satellites flying on new rockets and that most providers won’t fly expensive payloads on anything but well-tested boosters. “You’re probably not going to put something expensive until you’ve seen seven successful flights, and you really don’t have a sense of the long-range reliability of the vehicle until you’ve had about 14 flights,” he said.

Pace’s implication here was that NASA was taking risks by flying commercial crew astronauts on privately developed launch systems with less oversight than NASA had exercised over previous human spaceflight programs. By contrast, because of its history and expertise, Pace seems to agree that NASA should not be subject to such requirements with the Orion spacecraft[8] and SLS rocket[9] NASA is developing through traditional contracts that include more oversight and much higher costs. (See, for example, here[10]). Humans are presently scheduled to fly on Orion and Space Launch System in 2023 for the first time; that would be just the SLS rocket’s second flight.

In some respects, the commercial crew systems are much more well-tested than NASA’s own vehicles. For Boeing, NASA’s astronauts will ride into space in a Starliner spacecraft atop the Atlas V rocket, and for SpaceX, they’ll fly a Dragon on a Falcon 9 booster. The Atlas V rocket has made more than 70 flights into space, all successful missions.

The Falcon 9 rocket has launched 38 times in a series of evolving configurations with the primary payload reaching orbit 37 of those times.

Commercial’s role

At least in his role as a private citizen, Pace is a strong believer in a NASA-led return to the Moon that includes substantial international partnerships. Very likely, this is the direction he will nudge Trump’s space policy[11] toward, as developing lunar facilities offers a meaningful goal for NASA’s human spaceflight program while also serving the national interest in beating China back to the Moon.

In these activities, Pace has advocated[12] a “mixed strategy,” saying that commercial companies will have a meaningful role to play, such as prospecting for ice on the Moon or delivering cargo to the lunar surface. But given his skepticism of commercial crew to low-Earth orbit, he is dismissive of the idea that new space companies might have a role in transporting astronauts into deep space or otherwise supplanting the activities NASA envisions for the Orion spacecraft or SLS rocket.

For companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, which have been pushing[13] for “fixed price” awards to help spur NASA’s expansion into deep space, it seems clear that the new, key player in US spaceflight policy has a healthy skepticism of anything but traditional contracts with extensive NASA oversight.

References

  1. ^ Enlarge (cdn.arstechnica.net)
  2. 29 posters participating, including story author. (arstechnica.com)
  3. ^ National Space Council (arstechnica.com)
  4. ^ lengthy review (library.cqpress.com)
  5. ^ was on pace (arstechnica.com)
  6. ^ testified (elliott.gwu.edu)
  7. ^ he said (thekojonnamdishow.org)
  8. ^ Orion spacecraft (arstechnica.com)
  9. ^ SLS rocket (arstechnica.com)
  10. ^ here (physicsworld.com)
  11. ^ space policy (arstechnica.com)
  12. ^ advocated (elliott.gwu.edu)
  13. ^ have been pushing (arstechnica.com)

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