President Biden’s nominee to serve as the next NASA administrator, former Senator Bill Nelson, has overseen the agency’s budget and operations for the better part of 40 years. The White House announcement of his nomination said that “Most every piece of space and science law has had his imprint” and that “In the Senate he was known as the go-to senator for our nation’s space program.” Nelson’s outsized influence on NASA over four decades is undisputed, but some of us in the space community are concerned this may not be a feature.
NASA was created by President Eisenhower and Congress as a Cold War soft-power tool to organize and advance nonmilitary scientific and technical activities that could be uniquely conducted in the atmosphere and in space—and by 1969, the U.S. had achieved the seemingly impossible feat of landing humans on the moon. After the Apollo program ended, however, America’s human spaceflight program stalled. Changes in Presidential leadership and a more general lack of political will are the factors most often blamed for this, but that overlooks why the political will existed in the first place: our desire to beat the Russians.
The justification for Apollo led to an unsustainable program by design, since it was set up as a race. This unique why drove strategic and technical decisions with no regard to lowering operational costs, which would have led to a more sustainable program. Instead, it centered on beating the U.S.S.R. to the moon for the purpose of proving that democracy was a superior system for advancing scientific and technological achievement. Aligning the program to fulfill this purpose allowed NASA to reach this most audacious goal.
Thus NASA—a civilian space agency—was tasked with an essentially military objective as an instrument of the Cold War. This linkage increased the agency’s budget immensely, but also drove a culture centered on space feats for military men, and away from a focus on missions that better utilized the vantage point of air and space to benefit all of society—which could have encouraged a more diverse workforce, returned longer-term economic benefit and broadened its base of support.
Senator Nelson is most closely identified with human spaceflight and associated large hardware development programs, such as the space shuttle and deep-space launch vehicles. His nomination signals an intention by the president to continue this focus. But President Biden’s stated goals for the government include addressing climate change, social justice and equity. Aligning NASA’s purpose with the most important current priorities of our nation would serve to advance a space program that represents the future instead of the past.
When President Obama took office in 2009, the shuttle replacement program, known as Constellation, was experiencing significant technical problems; its initial cost estimates had tripled; and its schedule had slipped five years in its first four years of development. The president established a blue-ribbon panel of experts—chaired by one of the nation’s most trusted aerospace leaders—to undertake a review, which found the program “unsustainable” and recommended transitioning transportation of astronauts to and from the space station from NASA itself to more economical commercial launch services. President Obama proposed a program based on these recommendations, which would enable the agency to focus on innovative, sustainable missions that could expand our knowledge of our planet and our place in the universe.
Senator Nelson, the chair of the Space and Science Subcommittee, helped lead the opposition to the president’s budget proposal. He and his colleagues on both sides of the aisle passed legislation that would preserve existing, lucrative contracts, perpetuating expensive programs based on decades-old technology, which has kept more valuable missions grounded. The rocket Senator Nelson and his colleagues in Congress mandated—the Space Launch System (SLS)—was estimated to cost $10 billion and was scheduled to launch in 2017. As a result of these constraints, the SLS has cost U.S. taxpayers over $20 billion and is still a year away from its first-test flight. Even with Uncle Sam as a competitor, SpaceX has built its own heavy lift rocket—the Falcon Heavy—nearly as capable, with new, reusable technologies, at no cost to the taxpayer. The Falcon Heavy has already flown successfully several times.
Senator Nelson’s imprint on the space program has thus been to perpetuate a system that rewards legislators whose states and districts have existing space facilities and jobs to protect. This has predictably led to grand pronouncements based on unrealistic industry estimates, multibillion-dollar cost overruns, years of schedule delays and unmet expectations—the real reason new administrations have canceled human spaceflight programs. This system creates a handful of self-interested congressional boosters, but narrows the agency’s focus and limits broad political and public support.
NASA’s spending on human spaceflight is often justified by our innate desire to explore—which is driven by our need to survive. NASA is a national asset that, if given the right incentives, can make meaningful contributions to sustaining humanity on the Earth and eventually beyond. The Space Act that established NASA delineates several purposes for the civilian space agency. First among them is the expansion of human knowledge of the Earth and phenomena in the atmosphere and space.
NASA’s quest to expand human knowledge has driven us to develop sophisticated, technically advanced satellites that provide critical information about our home planet, revealing in detail how unprecedented amounts of greenhouse gases being released into our atmosphere are causing a climate crisis that threatens our existence. Poor and disadvantaged people are the most harmed by these changes, but all of life as we know it is under stress. Data show that over the next few decades, the damage we have caused will accelerate uncontrollably, making it even more difficult, if not impossible, to reverse. We are facing the tipping point for human life on our home planet.
Armed with the knowledge of what is happening and why, our view of Earth from space can offer solutions. Global, high-fidelity, verifiable satellite data can help fuel innovative technologies that will move us away from fossil fuels, and perhaps even let us pull planet-warming gases out of the atmosphere. They can also strengthen policies and treaties that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the first place. NASA investment in improved sensor technologies, data accessibility and distribution can provide critical, timely information to more precisely measure, model, predict and adapt to the climate crisis—limiting human suffering.
NASA could also move beyond measurement and into action by focusing on solutions for communities at the front lines of drought, flooding and heat extremes. This could make valuable contributions to the administration’s Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities and initiatives like Justice 40, which aims to deliver 40 percent of clean energy and other infrastructure investments to communities most affected by environmental degradation. NASA could participate in the Civilian Climate Corps in partnership with the Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture, engaging earth and data scientists to train members of the corps to use satellite data to inform communities about the unique challenges they face to support smart, local decision-making.
Increasing NASA’s investment in aeronautics research and development of clean technologies for air travel, including green fuels and electric- and solar-powered flight, could keep an important U.S. export industry growing. Collaborating with the U.S. private sector to support cutting-edge transportation technologies could put the U.S. at the forefront of a transformational infrastructure and economy based on renewable, clean energy. NASA’s human spaceflight programs could also be more focused on technologies and missions that advance sustainability on Earth and in space.
Another important justification for human spaceflight is its ability to inspire, and NASA must reach beyond its traditional constituency to create missions and activities that inspire those it has yet to reach. The agency has a history of limiting the potential contributions of much of society. NASA has flown over 300 astronauts to date, and less than 20 percent have been women; only three have been Black women. All nine NASA centers that have a person as a namesake are named after white men—one a known racist and segregationist—and a statue of Wernher von Braun—an ex-member of the Nazi SS—is still on display at the Marshall Space Flight Center. Nominating a NASA administrator who reflects the more than 50 percent of the population who have been disenfranchised would have shown an intent to reverse this discrimination.
Bill Nelson will be the 14th consecutive man to serve as NASA administrator over its 63-year history. Although three women have served as deputy administrators (me among them), the 11 acting administrators have also all been men. It is disheartening that the many qualified female scientists, engineers and policy experts who have worked in senior NASA positions, managed technical teams and led large organizations were overlooked. Gender bias—even if unintentional—is difficult to overcome. Patriarchal organizations often view strong, competent and confident men with good ideas as powerful—even if their ideas are unpopular—while viewing strong, competent and confident women with good ideas as arrogant or aggravating—especially when their ideas are unpopular. NASA has been caught in this trap for far too long.
Aligning leadership, funding and programs to fulfill meaningful national and public priorities is fundamental to democracy and should extend to the nation’s space program. NASA has the potential to make profound contributions to the most important goals President Biden is instilling across the government, if it can break from the parochial and patriarchal systems of the past. The aerospace industry predicts Senator Nelson’s relationship with the president will result in an increased NASA budget—which would be extremely beneficial—but that is only half the equation. Social relevance and benefiting all U.S. citizens should be more intentionally considered when developing NASA’s programs.
NASA’s raison d’etre—its why—is to undertake important societal challenges that can benefit from utilizing the unique vantage of the atmosphere and space. President Kennedy’s speech that set the stage for Apollo explained the challenge poetically: We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.
NASA’s preeminent, unlimited potential to benefit and advance society literally knows no bounds and is poised to help lift humanity. Although there are many women qualified to lead this charge, the most important criteria for the next administrator is being willing and able to advance NASA programs aligned with the nation’s values for the future instead of the past.
This is an opinion and analysis article.