It’s been stated firms which benefit from NASA, would be wise to tamp down the “defund NASA” rhetoric which comes out of the NewSpace movement’s base. It appears some among them are starting to realize that, given the fact their “chosen” launch vehicles and spacecraft are funded primarily by NASA – it might be a good idea to not bite the hand funds them. A few however have failed to get the memo. Some are even willing to rewrite history to achieve their ends. One such case is highlighted in a recent interview of Rick Boozer by Spacevidcast.
The NewSpace entity, Inspiration Mars, has not only announced its goal of sending a married couple on a flyby of the Red Planet by 2018 was impossible (it’s now 2021 at the earliest), but that to do so would require the “villain” of many a NewSpace narrative, NASA’s new heavy-lift booster, the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft to allow them do it.
A report appearing on Space.com details how Inspiration Mars publically acknowledged they need what many in the NewSpace movement have dubbed the “rocket to nowhere” (or the “Senate Launch System”) as well as an Orion spacecraft to actually do what they propose. Given this and considering that one of the chief promoters for commercial space efforts within the U.S. government, Barack Obama, has tapped SLS and Orion to fly his proposed mission to an asteroid, you would think the fan base would stop attacking SLS, realizing it is counterproductive at best and self-destructive to the NewSpace movement’s aims at worse.
In regards to Inspiration Mars’ call for help? Former NASA astronaut Sandra Magnus (currently with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics) as well as NASA’s former Associate Administrator for NASA’s Explorations Systems Mission Directorate, Doug Cooke, have expressed reservations about any aid NASA would provide to Inspiration Mars. The space agency was approached by Dennis Tito for assistance on his Inspiration Mars effort.
Despite this, there are still those who would have you believe NASA is in NewSpace’s “way” and that NewSpace can still do it better than the agency with more than five decades of experience in the matter. Spacevidcast’s Benjamin Higginbotham conducted an interview with Rick Boozer who penned: “The Plundering of NASA: An Expose’.” Mr. Higginbotham is a SpaceX employee who opened his interview with an image and comments about how SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is the way of the “future.” This sets the tone for the interview.
The Inspiration Mars hearing is discussed, even though neither of Spacevidcast’s hosts actually watched it. Boozer implies the Senate was behind the push for a 2021 Mars flyby mission. The Space.com report as well as those appearing on MSNBC, Space Politics and elsewhere run contrary to his claim. It wasn’t the Senate or NASA looking for a reason to “justify” the Space Launch System – it was a NewSpace entity reaching out to NASA to use SLS and Orion to complete the stunt of sending a couple around Mars. Both the host as well as the interviewee share a laugh as this falsehood is allowed to pass as fact. Stating events how they actually took place would have proven inconvenient given the nature of the interview.
Mr. Higginbotham asks if we should still fund SLS rather than let commercial companies such as his employer do it. The question he doesn’t address is – do it for who? Who would be the customer? NASA is the only customer and the space agency is still waiting for commercial companies to send a single human being into orbit, much less to the Moon or Mars. While the unmanned cargo missions that have started to occur are lauded by host and guest, the fact no astronauts have ever flown on these commercial craft is downplayed.
During his interview Boozer suggests that the Dragon spacecraft or Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser might be able to return from a near-Earth-asteroid mission – but Orion wouldn’t. He states this is due to the fact that it is based on the type of heat shield which conducted the only crewed mission to another world, Apollo, isn’t up to the task. He sums up his opinion by calling the use of this proven system “ridiculous.”
What might be considered “ridiculous” is getting the fact that it was Inspiration Mars who reached out to NASA and not the other way around wrong. Boozer follows this by using the comment: “…there’s a reality-distortion field surrounding SLS.” Well, he got that right, given he can’t get basic facts like who approached who correct? – and that two SpaceX employees are promoting his comments? That’s definitely distorted.
Boozer implies systems built by companies with no experience launching humans into space will do better than the space agency and supporting firms who have launched hundreds of astronauts into the black. Moreover he restates the sentiment NASA doesn’t want SLS.
Having interviewed NASA officials such as the agency’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development Dan Dumbacher and the NASA Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, William Gertenmaier? The refrain employed by Boozer that NASA didn’t “want” SLS – bears little resemblance with what these officials have stated repeatedly. In fairness, they work for NASA and therefore can’t be expected to speak ill of the program of record. More on fairness later.
Boozer continues by suggesting the Orion which will fly the uncrewed Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) is a lesser version of the spacecraft which will one day carry crews for reasons; “he won’t get into right now.” Could it be it’s an unmanned test flight and doesn’t need the environmental systems he mentions? There was no need to try and mislead folks into thinking the EFT-1 Orion was different for any reason other than to fit the requirements of the mission it was built for. So why do so? Moreover why didn’t Higginbotham do his job as a “journalist” and call him on this?
It’s obvious the guest has issues with SLS and Orion, rather than address errors stated by Boozer the host allows them to pass. Why? If you’re going to produce an interview shouldn’t you want to at least appear to be unbiased? The reason is as simple as it is appalling.
The definition of “Conflict of Interest” is: “A set of circumstances that creates a risk that professional judgment or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest.” One could argue working for a company which has competed for contracts for a project would preclude one from posting an interview with someone actively speaking out against your employer’s competition.
The real issue here isn’t just one of integrity or honesty, it’s money. NewSpacers want SLS and Orion’s funds. Here’s the thing – preferential treatment, one way or the other – is wrong. The system in place now has funds going to Commercial Cargo and Commercial Crew and funds going to exploration efforts. Boozer? Is arguing against this, he wants funds to all go to commercial companies, at least those he personally approves of. NASA’s current path, is far from perfect. But at least it makes sense.
What if another commercial company had won the contract, say RocketPlane Kistler? Where would we be then? Well, given this has already happened, and that Kistler went bankrupt – the answer to the question is obvious. You don’t give a massive, prestige-laden assignment to a company that has little experience in these matters, has no launch vehicle of the class required and has only conducted orbital, unmanned flights in the past two years. You give them to those who have been involved with every crewed flight the U.S. has conducted. Why? Because of the lessons taught to us by the demise of Kistler and others. Much as some wish it wasn’t – experience matters.
NASA should serve as a pathfinder, with commercial companies taking over operations that NASA has left behind. This sums up current LEO operations. When the space agency goes to an asteroid and then Mars? Once they’ve laid the groundwork for you to follow – then they can take over. But not before and certainly not before they’ve even conducted a single crewed orbital mission. If Boozer wants to discuss “ridiculous” – he need look no further than his suggestion that the inverse is true.
So, are these people to be taken seriously? Given they ask: “Our question: can the Space Launch System survive in a marketplace where private space can do it cheaper, faster and better?” – the answer is “no.” Why? Because no commercial firm has shown they can produce an SLS-class vehicle cheaper, faster or better. The question puts the cart before the horse. Moreover, those three words? Not the best choice.
For those who pay attention to space history – we know better than to ever use the terms faster, better and cheaper together in a sentence. Faster is how NASA’s Mars Polar Lander ended up scattered across the Martian terrain, better is how CONTOUR became debris adrift in space and cheaper is how Mars Climate Orbiter incinerated itself in the Martian atmosphere. History is a great teacher if you actually take the time to learn the lessons. Sure, I might be stretching the facts in that regard a bit to make a point. However, in comparison to Boozer’s comments? I might as well be religiously adherent to these events.
To answer the show’s question – no private space won’t “kill” the Space Launch System – “private space” is a little preoccupied cashing the checks NASA is sending to them - of which Mr. Higginbotham is paid. Even SpaceX’s CEO and Founder, Elon Musk, has taken to thanking the space agency that has made many of his efforts possible. Perhaps he should have a chat with his employee.
To his credit, Higginbotham queries Boozer, regarding concerns about commercial firms. However, this is cursory, the overall narrative is commercial is the “only” way. All the pre-show notations about the “views of this program” don’t remove the responsibility to be unbiased from Higginbotham’s shoulders. While we have surrendered to the fact the media is no longer unbiased, this level of biased behavior displayed in this interview – is hard to stomach, let alone watch. Watching Higginbotham and Boozer laugh, acknowledging he’s an employee of one of the groups who could benefit from SLS’ cancellation? – is disappointing. You can either be a journalist, tasked with telling the story in as unbiased a fashion as possible – or you can be a SpaceX employee – you can’t be both.
The real tragedy here is there are a few issues which Boozer raises which bear hearing out. However, this is drowned out in the ensuing anti-SLS campaign. Coupled with the fact the host works for one of the firms that would likely benefit from the downfall of SLS and that the guest is willing to misrepresent facts to save the NewSpace “brand” embarrassment? None of what comes out of the interview is of value. It must be regarded as tainted and therefore discounted.
The reason is simple. Would a Boeing or Lockheed-Martin employee and their spouse (the show’s co-host Cariann Higginbotham is also employed by SpaceX) be taken seriously after hosting a show critical of the competition? Imagine how the NewSpace fan base would react – I wager they would be apoplectic.
Higginbotham’s complicity is increased when he asks if voters will turn on Congress for voting to “waste” $9 billion on SLS. I found myself wondering – why he didn’t mention the $14 billion President Obama “wasted” when he cancelled the Constellation Program? Why didn’t he show some journalistic integrity and ask that? Perhaps it’s only okay to waste billions when your side benefits. It’s a double standard which runs throughout the NewSpace movement.
You can’t produce something for journalistic purposes while working for Boeing, Lockheed-Martin – or SpaceX. The under-the-breath snickers, eye-rolls and sounds of derision replete throughout Higginbotham’s comments detail more eloquently why not - better than anything I could ever write.
For a time this author worked for Spacevidcast. Upon hearing that SpaceX had hired Benjamin Higginbotham, but that he had not decided to close his outlet down - I left the company. While in the era of the 24 hour news cycle and “citizen journalists” – journalistic ethics have diminished – this author was shocked Spacevidcast would attempt to report on space news as it represented a direct conflict of interest. Spacevidcast has since validated these concerns with the interview noted above.
The opinions expressed in this opinion piece are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of SpaceFlight Insider.