Orion vs Dragon
An email suggested an internal NASA competition between "Old Space" vehicles like Orion (left) and "New Space" alternatives like Dragon (right), but others involved in the transition say no such competition is under consideration. Credit: SpaceNews illustration/ESA/SpaceX

The email promised that big changes were coming soon to NASA.

The Jan. 23 message from Charles Miller, a member of the Trump administration’s “landing team” at NASA, to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Robert Walker, the former congressman who advised the Trump campaign on space, claimed that the White House was preparing to approve a series of memos that would be signed by the acting NASA administrator, outlining a new strategy for NASA.

The memos would establish three “task forces” within the agency to study various space commercialization issues, offering strategic options for the White House to consider. “This is an opportunity for some positive messaging for Trump,” Miller wrote, saying the studies could demonstrate “he is a smart futurist that knows how to leverage the entrepreneurial genius of American industry.”

One would examine how to carry out “a seamless low-risk transition” from the International Space Station to commercial space stations. That is something NASA was already exploring with studies that could lead to the addition of a commercial module to the ISS.

Another would study a “space industrialization initiative” that could, Miller wrote, “prioritize economic growth and the organic creation of new industries and private sector jobs, over ‘exploration’ and other more esoteric activities.” It would be modeled on the work of NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Council for Aeronautics, in the early aviation era.

The other task force would examine a “rapid and affordable return to the moon” that might not require NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion vehicles. Instead, the message stated, “NASA will hold an internal competition between Old Space and New Space” about getting people to at least lunar orbit by 2020.

That idea — competing NASA’s program of record against commercial challengers — attracted the most attention, particularly among critics of the current programs. NASA’s current plans don’t expect the first crewed SLS/Orion mission to take place before 2021, and possibly not until 2023. Such a competition might be as the first step in canceling those programs.

“We have to be seen giving ‘Old Space’ a fair and balanced shot at proving they are better and cheaper than commercial,” Miller said, not specifically identifying the companies considered to be “Old Space,” or even SLS and Orion. But, he added, “If this initiative can be approved quickly by the White House, and appropriately funded, we will see private American astronauts, on private space ships, circling the moon by 2020.” (Emphasis in original.)

Yet, while the email promised that the memos might be signed as soon as Jan. 27, there’s no evidence of action by either the White House or NASA. No memos have been released, and there’s been no sign of other changes in direction at NASA directed by the new administration. (Miller, no longer at NASA, declined to comment Feb. 7 on the proposals in his earlier message.)

“Many folks are asking about new initiatives and guidance,” NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot wrote in a Feb. 3 memo to agency employees. “At this point, there has been no new guidance on any of our current work, despite what you might have heard being speculated.”

Others took issue with the accuracy of the email. “It does not reflect the discussions that took place or the agency action plan that was sent to the White House,” said a source familiar with the transition effort, but not authorized to speak on the record, in an interview. “It’s just plain wrong.”

The transition team, the source said, was not seeking to pit established programs versus commercial upstarts but instead looking at how they could work together. There was broad agreement, the source added, that NASA needed its own heavy-lift launch vehicle and spacecraft.

What the transition team ultimately provided to the new administration was a more balanced view of the need for both government and private efforts that could “re-energize the space program,” according to the source. “That was well-received.”

Pledging allegiance to SLS
If the intent of the plan, or at least the leaked email, was to shake up the status quo at NASA, including cornerstone exploration programs like SLS and Orion, the opposite seems to have happened. People have since lined up to profess their support for SLS and Orion as essential programs, whether NASA continues its “Journey to Mars” or takes a near-term detour to the moon.

They include Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), widely considered a leading candidate to be the next NASA administrator. Miller, in his email, supported Bridenstine for the job while also identifying potential candidates for deputy administrator who share “the same general/overall vision of transforming NASA by leveraging commercial space partnerships.”

Bridenstine, though, asked about SLS and Orion after a luncheon speech Feb. 8 at the 20th Annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, emphasized his support for them. “SLS and Orion are absolutely critical to the future of America’s preeminence in space, without question,” he said. “I fully support SLS and Orion.”

Bridenstine’s comments came a day after the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), one of the conference’s cosponsors, came out in support of SLS.

“The exploration of space for all purposes, including commercial spaceflight, is our interest. And to that end, the CSF is announcing that we see many potential benefits in the development of NASA’s Space Launch System,” said Alan Stern, chairman of the board of the CSF. “The SLS can be a resource that benefits commercial spaceflight.”

The CSF’s endorsement of SLS is particularly surprising since some of its member companies, such as Blue Origin and SpaceX, are developing their own heavy-lift vehicles that might ultimately be competition for SLS. Those vehicles, while having a smaller payload capacity than SLS, may be far less expensive than the estimated price of $1 billion per SLS launch, a figure NASA’s Bill Gerstenmaier provided at the conference.

“CSF has evolved over the years. There’s a strong net benefit in SLS,” Stern said in an interview at the conference, describing why the organization, whose members include launch providers as well as spaceports, suppliers and other companies, would back SLS. As for commercial competition, he said, “The market will sort that out.”

Even critics of the new administration support SLS and Orion. In a Feb. 9 white paper, the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank that has opposed many of President Trump’s political nominees and policies, called on the White House to provide stability to NASA by continuing key exploration programs.

“Instead of commissioning yet another time consuming, high-level study of America’s human spaceflight program that forces NASA to change direction, the Trump administration should build on the bipartisan consensus achieved by Congress and the Obama administration in 2010,” the center said in its white paper. “In particular, NASA should receive additional funding for the Orion and SLS programs, which are critical parts of any deep space exploration mission.”

This confluence of endorsements may simply be a coincidence: people expressing their support for SLS and Orion for their own reasons, rather than a coordinated campaign. And even without their support, any effort to eliminate or bypass SLS with commercial alternatives would likely face strong opposition in Congress, where many key members remain strong advocates of the rocket.

“We obviously have to also make certain that the SLS rocket is fully funded, that it stays on time and on track,” said Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, in a Feb. 7 speech at a Space Transportation Association luncheon. He went so far as to suggest that the Trump administration include SLS in any broader infrastructure bill it plans to introduce in the near future.

Big changes may yet come to NASA, although it appears the administration is in no hurry to enact them — hardly a surprise given the historic low priority of space policy. But if and when those changes come, it’s more likely they will revolve around, rather than involve, SLS and Orion.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...