In an interview with Newsweek, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson made a rather interesting comment about the agency’s two Commerical Crew partners’ progress. The once anti-commerical Senator praised SpaceX for its progress and threw shade at Boeing for still not completing its test flights.
“Everyone poo-pooed SpaceX”
Administrator Nelson assumed the office in May of 2021 and is a long-time player in the space industry. In a Newsweek article detailing SpaceX’s triumph in the commercial space sector and NASA’s problems getting the Space Launch System to launch, there was a rather interesting quote from Nelson.
“When there was the beginning of the space cargo and crew [programs], the two serious bidders were SpaceX and Boeing, and everybody poo-pooed SpaceX and said, ‘Oh, Boeing is a legacy company,'” Nelson said. “Well, guess who is about to make its sixth flight after its first test flight with astronauts, and guess who’s still on the ground?”
This article didn’t detail that Nelson took part in that “poo-pooing” of SpaceX when attempting to get funding. As a Senator from Florida, Nelson was set on getting funding for his beloved Space Launch System rocket and Orion rather than commercial options for low Earth orbit. In fact, he suggested completely defunding the Commercial Crew Program and giving that money to that same legacy company, Boeing, to develop SLS.
“What would happen if Congress decided — since the Congress controls the purse strings — that we wanted to take the $6 billion projected by the president over the next five years and use that not for human certification of the commercial vehicles but instead to accelerate the [research and development] for a heavy-lift vehicle for the Mars program?” Nelson asked United Launch Alliance President and Chief Executive Officer Michael Gass.Excerpt from a SpaceNews article written in 2010.
Boeing used to be Nelson’s favorite
Nelson’s recent support for SpaceX and general commercial space is new and welcomed, but his love for the massive program that is SLS lives on. Unfortunately, Nelson’s beloved rocket has repeatedly run into costly delays over the decade of its development. We are currently awaiting a successful cryogenic propellant test on Wednesday to see if work to replace a seal was successful. The rocket can attempt another launch attempt on September 27.
As Nelson was referring to in his quote, Boeing, the prime contractor for SLS, is also running into issues with its Starliner spacecraft. Boeing was the favorite when the winners of NASA’s Commerical Crew Program were announced, and just like Nelson said, “everyone poo-pooed SpaceX.”
However, SpaceX has become the star of human spaceflight. Launching seven crewed missions to date since 2020, and Boeing only has two somewhat troublesome uncrewed test flights. Next up for Starliner will be a crewed flight test once the spacecraft is deemed ready for flight again.
Nelson was a controversial choice as administrator, and it’s easy to trash him for his past comments. Although, since becoming NASA’s chief, he has been an incredibly supportive giant of further commercialization of space. Funding has increased again for NASA’s programs which include private space ventures, and the agency even ditched its internal spacesuit development program for proposals from the commercial sector.
Nelson is only one year into his time at NASA, and most of the programs he runs are carried over from the previous administration. Hopefully, we will be able to speak highly of Nelson’s term in the coming years as he puts his (hopefully commerical) touch on NASA.