Nearly two years ago then-NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine made a remarkable appearance before a Senate committee to discuss US leadership in space. He was feeling the pressure to keep deadlines—something NASA struggles to do given the scope and complexity of its projects. At the top of Bridenstine’s mind was remaining on track for a June 2020 launch of an uncrewed Orion spacecraft to the Moon.
“I think we as an agency need to stick to our commitment,” he told a handful of senators in the committee meeting. “If we tell you, and others, that we’re going to launch in June of 2020 around the Moon, I think we should launch around the Moon in June of 2020.” Then, referencing the commercial space industry, he added, “We have amazing capability that exists right now that we can use off-the-shelf in order to accomplish this objective.”
This may not sound too dramatic, but in the realm of space policy and Congressional hearings, this was heresy. Congress had created the Space Launch System rocket in 2011, and forced it upon an unwilling White House. Now, they were being told the space agency did not actually need the large rocket to fly the very missions it was created for. Days later, Bridenstine took this heresy further when he suggested SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket could boost humans to the Moon.
Shortly after all of this, Bridenstine was called to a meeting with Richard Shelby, the senior senator from Alabama who chaired the powerful Senate Appropriations committee. Effectively, the octogenarian Shelby controlled NASA’s budget. Moreover, the SLS rocket was being managed in his state, at the Marshall Space Flight Center. The program was worth thousands of jobs. Shelby was livid. In his southern drawl, he told Bridenstine he should resign.
NASA administrators are appointed by the White House, and Bridenstine ultimately received backing from Vice President Mike Pence in this showdown with Shelby. But never again during the nearly two years left in his tenure did Bridenstine talk about launching the Orion spacecraft on anything but an SLS rocket. Weeks later, at a hearing before Shelby’s appropriations committee, Bridenstine was especially deferential. Only the SLS rocket, he said, could meet NASA’s needs.
Shelby wielded this kind of power over NASA’s human spaceflight program for the better part of a decade as he accumulated power and seniority in the US Senate. But now, he is in the minority after Democrats took control of the Senate. And this week, Shelby announced that he would not run for re-election in 2022. So what does this all mean for NASA and space policy?
Shelby has a legacy of overwrought rhetoric as well as protecting contractors that contributed to his campaign and did business in Alabama. He began flexing his power more than a decade ago.
In 2009, the Obama administration convened a blue-ribbon panel, led by Norm Augustine, to consider NASA’s human spaceflight future. In early 2010 they returned with their verdict: The agency’s plan, which included building a very large rocket, was unsustainable. This led the Obama administration to cancel this Ares V rocket, which was managed in Alabama.
Shelby emerged as the key bulwark to protect Marshall Space Flight Center. After all, this was where the Saturn V and space shuttle boosters were designed. The ability of NASA to explore deep space “has always been and always will be through Marshall Space Flight Center,” he said at the time.
When the Obama administration further suggested that NASA should pivot to relying more on the commercial launch industry, the Alabama senator stepped up his rhetoric aimed at Obama and NASA’s deputy administrator, Lori Garver. “The president’s proposed NASA budget begins the death march for the future of US human space flight,” he said. “Congress cannot and will not sit back and watch the reckless abandonment of sound principles, a proven track record, a steady path to success, and the destruction of our human space flight program.”
In retaliation, Shelby not only helped lead the Senate’s effort to develop the Space Launch System rocket to replace the Ares V, but also actively opposed funding the Commercial Crew program to use private rockets and spacecraft to carry astronauts to the International Space Station.
A decade later, of course, the Commercial Crew program has begun to deliver despite years of funding delays. Meanwhile, the SLS Program continues to suffer problems, and after spending $20 billion NASA is still likely at least a year from a test flight for the vehicle. This, for a rocket originally supposed to launch in 2016. While Shelby undoubtedly delivered for his constituents, he hamstrung the space agency.
Garver, who left NASA in September 2013, said she believed that Shelby’s departure could open the door to more deal-making on space policy with Congress.
“Senator Shelby’s strong advocacy for NASA programs based in his home state of Alabama has shaped human space flight immeasurably—leading the appropriators to oppose Commercial Crew funding in favor of increases for SLS,” she told Ars. “As the last of the four Senators who fought against Commercial Crew and demanded NASA build its own rocket, his departure could open up new areas for cooperation between the administration and the Hill moving forward.”
The world has changed a lot over the last decade. While large contractors such as Boeing have been building the SLS for NASA, new space competitors such as SpaceX and Blue Origin have emerged with cost-competitive large rockets. SpaceX has already demonstrated its own, privately developed Falcon Heavy booster, and it is beginning to launch prototypes of its next-generation Starship vehicle.
It seems probable that Shelby’s departure would make it easier for the Biden White House to cancel the SLS rocket program should it continue to face technical difficulties, such as the failed hot-fire test of the core stage. It will also make the program’s end all the more inevitable should SpaceX succeed in launching Starship into orbit on its Super Heavy rocket. Without a potent backstop like Shelby, the reality of a heavy-lift rocket that costs significantly less than SLS, has a greater lift capacity, and is capable of multiple reuses should be impossible to ignore.