Here’s what the former head of NASA has to say about the lunar mission delay

Here’s what the former head of NASA has to say about the lunar mission delay

Here’s what the former head of NASA has to say about the lunar mission delay

This week, space enthusiasts and a slew of celebrity guests gathered to watch the historic launch of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), the staggeringly expensive rocket intended to launch American astronauts to the moon in just a few years.

The only problem? The launch did not happen. To get a sense of perspective, we called Sean O’Keefe, who worked as a NASA administrator from 2001 to 2004, to get the view of someone who ran the agency before the SLS was even in active development.

And yes, we couldn’t help but ask questions about Elon Musk, NASA’s strained relationship with Russia, and more.

This interview has been edited and abbreviated for clarity.

Futurism: Of course we speak because the launch of SLS did not go as planned. What do you think will happen if it doesn’t take off during the upcoming launch windows?

Sean O’Keefe: That’s hard to speculate as there is no particular mission launch that I can recall during my tenure that ever happened on the scheduled date and time. It is inevitable that all sorts of scheduling problems will arise if everything is not exactly right. This is a very rigid process where everything has to work exactly as it should. It’s a very, very disciplined process. So the amount of time, care and effort that goes into each launch is always a lot, and there are many stories of Apollo missions, for example the old Saturn V, which took days and days and days to finally launch.

This is not a new development, it is not something that has surfaced. And this is a demonstration of the agency’s usual prudence. There is an abundance of focus on the things that really require diligence and care and attention to detail where everything has to be aligned just right, or they will try again another day until they get everything right.

NASA has relied heavily on commercial spaceflight since your time there, with SpaceX now the prime contractor sending American astronauts into orbit. Do you think that was a good strategic shift, and where do you see it going next?

SO: In so many ways, everything SpaceX and Blue Origin do — developing rockets and the ability for spaceflight — is the same pattern and procedure that has been modified over decades. And they do it much, much more efficiently, higher performance, all that. But I don’t know if it will be more or less useful in that context, because it’s still a big process improvement they’re looking at, but not one that’s revolutionary in that sense.

I assume you are a SpaceX fan, or are you in favor of NASA’s partnership with SpaceX?

Oh yes, sure. I think what they’ve done here is everything we envisioned 20 years ago, which is, how do you get out of this case where NASA does operational resupply missions and repetitive reuse? That’s not what the government does. That’s what the industry knows how to do.

Some people have said there is tension between some at NASA and SpaceX.

Oh, Elon Musk was in my office quite regularly.

Really? Can you explain that?

Oh it was fascinating [laughs].

He was in his early forays trying to explore spaceflight, and we had conversations.

I’m sure there was a lot of friction. And I comment on that, that internal vision. It’s always like this every time you see competitors, and it’s human nature to look at something or someone new and say, “Well, no, this is our territory, this is our territory.”

So I’m really attached to the image of baby Elon Musk holding meetings at NASA in the mid-2000s. Can you tell us more about what those meetings were like?

It was an interesting exchange of attempts to exploit his aspirations, as he put it, to listen to his aspirations of what he was trying to think through. He’s an imaginative guy, let’s leave it at that [laughs].

He is not lacking in energy, nor in confidence. And it resulted in some very interesting conversations in that regard. What he clearly articulated was an ambition that we also had to develop and drive the idea, not only among the legacy companies, but also many other companies in the commercial world. The idea was, “Let’s use your thoughts and your skills to solve problems or overcome limitations so that we can use them to move forward with other exploration activities.”

Switching up a bit, what do you think of the Russian threats to leave the International Space Station?

They’ve threatened to leave the ISS ever since I walked into the station, and probably ever since I got there. It’s standard theater, and I’m not saying that to be dismissive. Now, of course, one of those times when it feels like the sky is falling – it just could. But I just don’t know when they’ll ever really pull the trigger, even though they talked endlessly about it.

I have to level up – our Russian colleagues at the time were incredibly diligent people, incredibly professional. I was very struck by the incredible commitment they have put in, the pride they have in their space program, and yet they do it with baler wire and duct tape. It’s pretty rough there, really. They do things in a way that we wouldn’t have done them in a million years. I mean, it’s just incredible.

Whenever there was any kind of bilateral meeting between me and my colleague, and I’m sure it was for my predecessors and successors, it always starts with a lecture from the Russian side, with this Rodney Dangerfield style and attitude. It was incredible. I had to sit there and listen to their grievances, their release of irritations and everything else. And this is the warm-up, these are the preliminaries. We’re not getting anywhere until we get past this, and when they don’t get their way, they threaten to do something that is absolutely ridiculous.

It’s been that way for as long as I’ve ever known, on every occasion where they didn’t get the answer they wanted, they said, “Well, we’ll have to reconsider whether we pull out.” And our answer was always, “And where could you go?” I mean, it’s not like calling out for a pizza.

This whole relationship is put together to create a mutual interdependence, and they know it. And that’s part of their psyche about how to deal with that, so they always say, “You depend on us as much as we depend on you.” And there’s no doubt, that’s true.

The best example I can give you is that after the Columbia disaster in 2003, we grounded the Space Shuttle for two years and had to go through the whole process of figuring, soup to nuts, everything that could take this contributed and correct each of them.

The Russian Soyuz missiles were a huge advantage, and the whole partnership with the Europeans and the Japanese, the Russians, the Canadians and us, the United States. The whole partnership really depended on having that lifting capacity because it wasn’t like we could just say, “Okay, let’s just put it on our own rocket and send it there,” it wouldn’t happen. So this was something that was in everyone’s best interest to find out and find out. We had to lean on the Russians, because they had the only opportunity to fly, do logistics, ship the groceries and do crew changes for the space station.

The Russians, as I said, always started any discussion with the words, “We need to change this agreement.” And this time they came to the table and said, “We need you, for the partnership, to pay us cash for flights of both the Soyuz and Progress vehicles,” the unpressurized cargo flights that would go back and forth to the station. They said, “You had to pay in cash.” They didn’t get much money or support from the Russian government, then or now.

So our response was, “Hey, I’m really happy to entertain that. And what I’ll do is bill you the cost of every cosmonaut who’s ever flown on a shuttle mission, I’ll just subtract the cost.” of those flights from what you ask us to pay you now. So I assure you you pay us and not the other way around, because the cost of that is considerably higher.”

Needless to say we never transferred a cent. That’s for sure. And no one has ever paid us anything from the Russian side.

My last question is one we should always ask space people: do you believe in aliens?

I think there must be other life forms somewhere. Do I have anything to substantiate that belief? No, not a thing.

Is there really anything in Area 51? I’m sure it’s there, but I’d have to kill you if I told you [laughs].

More views from inside NASA: How NASA got the award on the SLS, according to its former second-in-command

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