Nelson Bullish on Starship Despite Failure, Worried About Budget Cuts

Nelson Bullish on Starship Despite Failure, Worried About Budget Cuts

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson expressed confidence today that the Artemis III mission will launch around the end of 2025 as planned despite the failure of SpaceX’s Starship launch last week. Starship will be the Human Landing System that takes NASA astronauts from lunar orbit down to and back from the surface. Without Starship, there is no landing. Nelson downplayed the failure as “not a big downer in terms of how SpaceX does things.” Of greater concern is the spending cuts that passed the House yesterday as part of a deficit reduction bill.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson testifies to the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, April 27, 2023. Screengrab.

Nelson was testifying to the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee about NASA’s FY2024 request. Like the recent Senate and House appropriations hearings, the strong message is that NASA enjoys enthusiastic, bipartisan support, especially for the Artemis program to return American astronauts to the Moon.

A clear motivation on both sides of the aisle is maintaining U.S. leadership in space, especially in what many view as a “space race” with China.

Committee chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) called getting Americans back on the Moon before China gets astronauts there a top priority.

“I want to be clear that I will do everything within my power to ensure that the next astronauts on the Moon are Americans.” – Rep. Frank Lucas

The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), concurred. “We can’t give up leadership in the international space efforts and we cannot cede our leadership in space and aeronautics to China.”

Lucas asked how confident Nelson is that Artemis II will launch in 2024 and Artemis III in 2025. Artemis II is a crewed test flight around the Moon. Artemis III is the mission that will land two American astronauts, including the first woman, on the Moon for the first time since the Apollo program.

Nelson explained that it will be two years before Artemis II is ready because of a decision years ago to reuse the avionics boxes from Artemis I.  Artemis I flew in November 2022 so that pushes Artemis II to November 2024 and Artemis III is “about a year” later.

Artemis III requires not only the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, but Starship in its configuration as a Human Landing System (HLS). Orion will deliver astronauts to lunar orbit, but cannot reach the surface. NASA selected SpaceX’s Starship as the HLS for Artemis III in 2021 and later expanded that to the second landing, Artemis IV.

The long-awaited first launch of Starship was on April 20, but it exploded over the Gulf of Mexico four minutes after launch when control was lost and the flight termination system activated. Nelson said today that SpaceX is “hardware rich” so losing the vehicle is not all that troublesome because it has others ready to go. But “it blew a hole in that launch pad.”

I can report to you as of today that SpaceX is still saying that they think it will take about at least two months to rebuild the launch pad and concurrently about two months to have their second vehicle ready to launch.

Now understand that the explosion — that’s not a big downer in the way that SpaceX does things. They are hardware rich meaning they’ve got a lot of those rockets ready to go. And that’s their modus operandi. They launch. If something goes wrong they figure out what it is they go back and they launch it again. So I anticipate that we will see a number of launches from Boca Chica, Texas and then they’re gonna bring that rocket to Bill Posey’s and my home county [in Florida] and launch it there after they have already proven and had the experience. So I’m fairly confident [of the schedule]. But there are a lot of things that still have to be done. — Bill Nelson

Nelson repeated SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk’s estimate that it will take two months to rebuild the launch pad, but Musk is renowned for overly optimistic schedule estimates. Not to mention he also will have to get another launch license from the FAA, which regulates commercial space launches.

The FAA said it will be monitoring SpaceX’s clean-up activities to ensure the company complies with environmental requirements established prior to launch. Considerable dust and debris were created when the 33 engines fired at liftoff sending a plume of soil and sand over nearby areas and starting a small fire.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is among the federal, state and local agencies assessing the environmental impacts of launching from Boca Chica and issued a statement that the “plume cloud of pulverized concrete deposited material up to 6.5 miles northwest” of the launch pad and left “approximately 385 acres of debris on SpaceX’s facility and at Boca Chica State Park.”

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But funding is likely to be the biggest factor in the pace of the Artemis program. NASA’s $27.2 billion request for FY2024, a 7.1 percent increase over FY2023, was the focus of the hearing.

Yesterday, the House narrowly passed a deficit-reduction bill, the Limit, Save, Grow Act, which calls for cutting federal spending back to FY2022 levels and allowing only 1 percent per year increases for the next 10 years. The vote was 217-215.  Four Republicans joined 211 Democrats in voting no. (One Republican and two Democrats did not vote.)

Nelson reiterated today that such funding constraints would be “devastating” not only to Artemis, but to NASA programs across the board. He also stressed that a Continuing Resolution (CR) that keeps NASA at its current FY2023 funding level would “mean a serious curtailment of a number of our missions.”

Rep. Max Miller (R-OH), who represents NASA’s Glenn Research Center, told Nelson “it’s nobody’s intention to cut the funding for NASA. But this is what happens when we as a full body of the House can’t come together for the betterment of our country and every American.”

The comment is somewhat surprising coming from a Republican who voted in favor of the bill, but illustrates the complexity of the budget situation in Washington at the moment.

A CR is almost inevitable. The question really is how long it will last. Even if Congress does ultimately approve the full NASA request, the agency made difficult choices just to get to this point.

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) chairing a hearing on NASA’s FY2024 budget request, April 27, 2023. Screengrab.

Lucas asked about the impacts of “ballooning” costs for the Mars Sample Return mission on other science programs. While the James Webb Space Telescope is “impressive,” it was billions over cost and years behind schedule and “came at the expense of many other worthy science missions.” He doesn’t want to see a repeat, noting the VERITAS Venus mission was postponed to at least 2031, the Geospace Dynamics Constellation heliophysics program was paused, and the NEO Surveyor asteroid detection spacecraft was delayed.

NEO Surveyor is fully funded in the FY2024 request, but was cut last year so if NASA must operate under a CR at last year’s level, it will be further delayed.

The Planetary Society has mounted a petition to Congress to restore funding for VERITAS so it can launch in 2029. It was postponed because the money was needed to pay for an overrun in the Psyche mission.

Other members asked about a range of other NASA space and aeronautics programs. NASA certainly does not lack for bipartisan support in Congress, but funding all these programs while cutting federal spending to the extent demanded by House Republicans yesterday seems improbable at best.

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