NASA Administrator Bill Nelson seems to have come around to the private space industry. In an interview with Newsweek, Nelson praised SpaceX for its progress in the spacefaring realm while criticizing Boeing for its much-delayed Starliner spacecraft.
“I think the private space industry is extremely beneficial,” Nelson told Newsweek in an article published last week. “Just look at what SpaceX has already accomplished.”
Well now, this is certainly a new perspective from the former astronaut, who was sworn in as administrator for the space agency in May 2021. In 2010, the then-senator and chairman of the science and space subcommittee argued whether the $6 billion funding NASA was seeking at the time for its commercial crew taxis would be better spent on the space agency’s heavy lift rocket.
Twelve years later, NASA’s Space Launch System rocket is struggling to get off the launch pad after several delays and significant budget overruns. At the same time, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is a wild success, as it now regularly ferries astronauts to the International Space Station using its reusable Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule. On top of four successful crewed missions to the ISS, NASA recently awarded five additional ISS trips to SpaceX worth $1.4 billion. SpaceX is also currently developing a lunar lander for NASA’s Artemis 3 mission, while the space agency put out the call yesterday for proposals from private companies to develop a second lunar lander for future missions to the Moon. “I promised competition, so here it is,” Nelson said earlier this year. “Competition leads to better, more reliable outcomes.”
However, NASA’s other commercial crew partner, Boeing, has struggled to certify its CST-100 Starliner due to a slew of delays and technical problems. A botched uncrewed test of the system in December 2019 led an independent NASA-Boeing review team to issue 80 recommendations to Boeing, in what was a scathing indictment of the project and the company itself. The reusable crew capsule recently completed its first uncrewed end-to-end test flight and Boeing is now hoping to complete a crewed demo mission in February 2023.
“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 told Newsweek. “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?”
As a newcomer on the scene, SpaceX certainly wasn’t a fan favorite at first. Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver revealed in her recently published memoir that she faced backlash for supporting SpaceX’s partnership with the space agency. “In response to public comments Elon Musk had made about SpaceX’s ability to improve on NASA existing programs, Bill Nelson shouted at me to ‘get your boy Elon in line,” Garver claimed in her memoir.
He certainly appears to have been one of those people who “poo-pooed” SpaceX in the beginning, but now Nelson is seemingly jumping ship to join the winning side and realign himself with an evolving space industry.