Planetary Radio • Apr 02, 2021

Space Policy Edition: Biden Names His NASA Administrator

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On This Episode

Casey dreier tps mars

Casey Dreier

Chief of Space Policy for The Planetary Society

Kaplan mat headshot 0114a print

Mat Kaplan

Senior Communications Adviser and former Host of Planetary Radio for The Planetary Society

Bill Nelson, former Senator from Florida, congressional astronaut, and father of the Space Launch System, will likely be NASA's next administrator. President Biden's nomination was met with a wave of critiques by pro-commercial space advocates who see Nelson's support for the SLS as a threat to NASA's public-private partnership model. Casey and Mat look at the criticisms and the opportunities that may be available with a former Senator leading the U.S. space agency.

They also discuss The Planetary Society's global Day of Action which saw hundreds of Society members meet with elected officials in Congress in support of space exploration, along with the news that the National Space Council will continue. They close with a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the first Space Shuttle launch, including new Shuttle budget data collected by Casey.

Bill Nelson on Space Shuttle Columbia
Bill Nelson on Space Shuttle Columbia Then Congressman Bill Nelson enjoying an orange on Space Shuttle Columbia back in 1986.Image: NASA
The senator and the future administrator
The senator and the future administrator The crew of space shuttle Columbia poses for an in-flight portrait in January 1986. Florida Senator Bill Nelson, rear center, became friends with Charles Bolden, rear right, who was also a spaceflight rookie at the time.Image: NASA


Mat Kaplan: Welcome back everybody to The Space Policy Edition of Planetary Radio. We are glad to have you. I'm Mat Kaplan, the host of Planetary Radio, the weekly show and co-host of this monthly approach to all that is going on in the world of Space Policy and Advocacy, which is, after all, what makes all the rest of it happen, or at least an awful lot of it. And so we are once again appropriately joined by the Senior Space Policy Advisor for the Planetary Society, our Chief Advocate, Casey Dreier. Welcome, Casey. And congratulations.

Casey Dreier: Thanks, Mat. The congratulations is for our recent completion, successful completion, I should say, of our global Day of Action here at the Planetary Society. So I appreciate that.

Mat Kaplan: Quite a success. I want you to tell us some of the details, give us some of the stats of what was accomplished, as we speak it was less than 24 hours ago on the 31st of March. I'm just impressed by how you were able to pull this off you and our colleagues, of course. When it's tough enough to do it when everybody flies in, and you get to stand in a room with everybody, and this time, of course, it had to be virtual.

Casey Dreier: Yeah. Right. Like many things, this is not how I expected this event to go this year. If you would have asked me a year ago, well, maybe actually a year ago.

Mat Kaplan: Maybe, just barely.

Casey Dreier: If I was being a little more dour on my predictions. Yeah. Well, let's say what we usually do. The Day of Action usually is when we invite Planetary Society members to join me and our colleague, Brendan Curry, in Washington, D.C. And we go in person to advocate for space science, exploration, planetary defense, the search for life, the planetary society's core priorities. And we go meet with people face to face. We do a ton of meetings. We're running around Capitol Hill. Everyone's wearing their suits, carrying their talking points, making the case for space. And then we meet up afterwards. We grab a drink and a bite to eat. We all celebrate. We hang out. It's just a such a great time. It's a lot of work, but it's really fun.

Casey Dreier: Obviously, running around, shaking hands, meeting people over and over again, not what you want to be doing right now. So like many things, we reevaluated and moved it online this year. So that was an experiment for everybody, including me. And I think it went pretty well. I think everyone at this point knows how to use Zoom, knows how to use a chatting software like Slack, preliminary numbers. Now I think about 175 ish meetings with about 145 individual members doing those meetings. We had a bunch of in-person meetings with representatives themselves, Charlie Crist, Ami Bera, and others. It was just seemed to go very well for people, all things considered. And really, I heard some great things. People who couldn't normally travel easily. It's not cheap to travel to D.C. People come on their own dime, people sometimes just physically aren't able to travel that well. We're able to participate this time.

Casey Dreier: So there was some really interesting pieces of feedback from that. People, all things considered, seem to really enjoy themselves. They made a great case for space, and we'll be following up, got a lot of work to follow up on me and Brendan here to really make that stuff effective and long-lasting, which is kind of the deal at the Society.

Mat Kaplan: And to clarify, Brendan Curry, of course, our man in Washington. And when you said 145 members, you're talking about members of the planetary society. I just want to make sure people know.

Casey Dreier: Yeah, that's good.

Mat Kaplan: ... they actually touch... You touched even more members of Congress. Then you had individuals volunteering.

Casey Dreier: Yeah. Each member of the Planetary Society had about three to seven meetings kind of depending on where they were and who they were in a small group with. So we had a great turnout this year. It's about 20% higher than the previous year. And again, we asked people to pay to register. It costs us money. We do a lot of work. We do all the scheduling for our members. And we do a lot of the prep work. We do an online training session. We ask a lot of people to do this. And when they do it, though, we get great feedback, and we did get great feedback from our contacts in congressional offices, people who met with our members of the Planetary Society, frequently, they were mistaken for space professionals. And that's something we always emphasize.

Casey Dreier: These are, for the most part, regular people who just loves space. They're not advocating for any personal gain. Like me, they don't make any money. If the Europa Clipper mission launches or we get them our sample return mission, and they don't get any contracts. They don't get any whatever deals. They just get to enjoy the experience. They get to enjoy the science that comes out of it. That's what makes the Society so unique in this sphere. And we're the largest congressional visits program that does this just with regular people.

Casey Dreier: Sometimes we come off as so prepared and so capable that people just assume that we're representing space professionals. So it's a great thing that we get to correct. And that's something we emphasize that these are just regular people doing this. And that's actually one of our greatest strengths. At the Planetary Society is that we help this kind of grassroots effort to show that people themselves care about space science and exploration. And we do that by showing up in person and putting in that legwork.

Mat Kaplan: You know what else was so impressive? As I looked at some of the images grabbed of these members of the Society, they were dressed for inside the beltway, I mean, no, another reason they were confused. Some of them for professional lobbyists, there was so entertaining, so great, and impressive to see them sitting in suits and ties and wonderful outfits in front of their webcams for these meetings.

Mat Kaplan: You also threw in some great perks. I didn't get to participate in everything, but I really enjoyed the presentation primarily by Lindley Johnson and Kelly Fast of the NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office, great presentation, and what a nice personal perk for the participants.

Casey Dreier: This is one of the fun things about doing it right there, it's going to take your whole day. You're probably taking time off of work, particularly when you're traveling. We want it to be, it's like a day of being on the Hill. And a lot of the times you get these special briefings from experts at NASA or other experts in the space business. So we actually did two this year. We had Sean Mahoney, who you know, the CEO of Masten Space Systems. They're putting together their own commercial lunar payload delivery service for NASA as super fun to talk to him about that. What they were doing with this is this new era of commercial lunar exploration.

Casey Dreier: We also had Dr. Lori Glaze, The Division Director for NASA's Planetary Science effort, great of them to spend the time, lot of great questions, as you might imagine. And it's just something that we try to build into this experience. So you're not just taking things out. You're not pushing things out into the world. You're taking things in. So you get to have this very enriching experience that gives you a lot of in-depth knowledge. And you come out of this. My favorite thing is hearing from members who come out of this and say, if it's their first time, especially that they were nervous about it, totally reasonable, but then they did it, and they're like, "Oh, I can do this. I can go to Congress and say, as a citizen, this is something I believe we should do. I understand how this works. I am confident to be able to do this again." That's something in a big way for me, just personally, is helping people understand their role in our democratic system.

Casey Dreier: To emphasize that, it's a very empowering experience to be able to go out, share what you want, which is your right to do. And you go out there, and you know your numbers, you've done the studies, you've taken space advocacy one-on-one, you know all the details you're coming off extremely well-prepared, and it pays off. So we have a ton of great follow-up because of the work that our members did, that we will be following up with all these offices now across the country. And really, I think just in general, very receptive to our messages this year and both sides of the aisle, about our five for five plan that we propose to the Biden Administration, really pursuing the NEO Surveyor mission.

Casey Dreier: Again, I think this idea that COVID happened, this idea that very low probability events can still happen. And for ones that are particularly high impact, you got to do a little bit of prep in advance. And when you do that, you can mitigate. Should that happen? You're ready to go. NEO Surveyor, getting hit by an asteroid, nothing more high-impact, and getting hit by an asteroid. And having a spacecraft out there, looking for these things in advance, even though it's a low probability, probably a good idea.

Casey Dreier: So I think there's a lot of receptivity to that. So I was very Boyd by that experience. And again, seeing our members turn into experts. We're not training them to be lobbyists. We're training them to be good citizens. And that's a huge difference. They're there because they want to do this and that they believe in this. And that's just a very powerful thing. So it's always really fun to see that.

Mat Kaplan: I only wish that lots more Americans are wherever you live, that everybody could have this sense of engagement and responsive government that our members get to get are out of participating in Day of Action. And I know that they feel that these are the rewards we get every year and we are getting them about this just completed Day of Action as well. So are you taking registrations for next year?

Casey Dreier: Give me a couple of weeks. But yeah, I mean, this is a yearly thing that we do. This is a big commitment for the society. It's a lot of work, but the payoff is great. Usually when we're in person, it's such a fun way to meet your fellow members. Something that I've just so proud of at this organization is how great our membership is. And you know this Matt from meeting them in person, the type of people who become Planetary Society members, they're so interesting. They're passionate. They're just nice. And they're generous and supportive. And we just have a really great time meeting each other and feeding off energy. I always say to them, "We don't have any idea what our backgrounds are when we meet, particularly at the Day of Action." And it can be a little. We're going in talk about policy and politics. That can be a non-satisfying experience. Anyone that has been at a Thanksgiving dinner table with your proverbial uncle arguing about something, not a fun experience, but what we always talk about here when we come together to advocate for space is this unifying thing. Space brings us together. And it brings out the best in us as our boss says.

Casey Dreier: So we always say the only politics here is space politics, and you can have strong opinions about space politics, but you still know at heart that everyone in that room that you're meeting for the first time or in this case, virtually that you share something in common by being a Planetary Society member, you meet another Society member, you instantly know one thing about them that they are profoundly moved and odd by the opportunities we have to explore this Cosmos that we exist in.

Casey Dreier: That connection has been so positive for people. And it's so rewarding to see people engage on that. You're catching me on my downwards. Am I right after the Day of Action? Usually, it's a such a great mood. We want to keep growing this program, getting more and more people to be able to do this. And ultimately, what we're trying to do is not just help space exploration, but just again, help people be better citizens, that they have confidence in the system that we have, and that they understand how to work within it. So there's all sorts of benefits to it. Plus, you get those cool briefings by NASA folks.

Mat Kaplan: So you can't quite register for the 2022 Day of Action yet, which fingers crossed, we'll be back in D.C., [crosstalk 00:12:23] all of us gathering in person, but you can take the first step in that direction by going to and becoming a member of the Planetary Society. I mean, that's why we've been using the word member over and over. Not in this case in reference to members of Congress. It is the starting point, but it's hardly the finish, and there are so many other opportunities and things that we can offer you as a member. So I hope you'll take a look if you haven't done that yet. And for those of you who already are members, keep a lookout. I'm sure you will be hearing about the 2022 Day of Action probably not in the next few days, but it's going to come around. I think we can count on Casey and his colleagues putting it together once again.

Casey Dreier: We usually open registration in September. And we will let you know, particularly if you subscribe to the Space Advocate Newsletter. And let me say one more thing before we move on, which is just to publicly thank all the members who came and showed up and did the work. It's so easy nowadays, particularly with the internet to just kind of sit on the sidelines and either complain or gripe or say whatever. It's so easy to kind of express your opinion without doing anything about it. And these people came and did something about it. It takes work to do it. And so I just, I cannot thank them enough for spending that time and sharing their passion and doing the legwork necessary to get this type of investment to happen. So just want to make sure that I acknowledge them and the work that they put in because it was a lot.

Mat Kaplan: Well said. So the Day of Action wasn't the only action taking place in Washington, D.C. But I think we need to travel up to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue to hear more of what's been in the news over the last few days and weeks at the White House. And let's begin Casey with the end of speculation about who the Biden Administration, about who Joe Biden would tap to become the next leader, the Administrator of NASA, subject to congressional approval, of course. Tell us about Bill Nelson.

Casey Dreier: Well, there's always that history. Do you want an astronaut to lead NASA? Historically there's been a lot of astronauts who led NASA. Do you want an administrator or bureaucrat to lead NASA? And those are good too. And now, with Jim Bridenstine, we've had a politician leading NASA in the past. So the answer was kind of a little bit of everything.

Mat Kaplan: [inaudible 00:14:54].

Casey Dreier: We had Bill Nelson, the former Senator of Florida, former member of the House of Representatives before he was a Senator. And while he was the House member flew on the Space Shuttle, Columbia in January of 1986, actually the flight before challenger with Charlie Bolden, actually, who was on that mission as well. One thing I'll say preface this, the Planetary Society organizationally commits to working with whoever the NASA administrator is. And so, as part of that, we don't weigh in officially one way or another on the nomination. So we're not going to be supporting Mr. Nelson, and we're not going to be going against them. When asked, like we did with Brighton Center and others, we will share, we can give like an analysis. We can talk about the various aspects of the person themselves and think about what type of administrator there'll be.

Casey Dreier: So this is what this is going to be. And I think a lot of people, particularly online, have had, let's say, mixed feelings about the nomination. And we can talk about that. Mat, I imagine at some point you've crossed paths with Bill Nelson, have you?

Mat Kaplan: I think we've been in the same room, but no, we have not actually met. Of course, now I wish that I had invited him to be a Planetary Radio guest. But we'll have to see if we can pull that off as we did with Jim Bridenstine a couple of times and Charlie Bolden before him. That's one of the reasons I'm dying to hear from you about Bill Nelson stands. I mean, I know from things that you've written and said that he is deeply interested in NASA and the space program, big fan of Space Launch System, isn't he?

Casey Dreier: He was kind of the father of the Space Launch System with Kay Bailey Hutchison from the Senator of Texas, too, at the time. He was the Chair of NASA's Authorizing Committee, which writes the NASA Authorization Bills. And we talk a lot about money in this. We talk about appropriations because those have to happen every year. Without an appropriations bill, NASA shuts down, government shuts down. So those have to happen. There's no way to block those. You can't have a filibuster and appropriations. So those tend to be just more relevant because of the way that Congress has been trending in the last 20 or so years, the partnering bill, the authorization, which on paper kind of sets and legally sets the policy priorities of NASA itself, it doesn't technically fund the space agency. It can authorize funds to be appropriated. It can recommend funds, but ultimately it's up to the appropriators.

Casey Dreier: That does not have to happen every year. It used to happen a lot, but very rarely. So the last time I think we had was 2017, is when we had NASA authorization signed into law. So obviously, NASA doesn't pop out of existence if we don't have an authorizing bill. So we can kind of forget how important they can be. And so the 2010 NASA Authorization that created basically the last decade of NASA, that was probably the most important piece of legislation in terms of NASA's programmatic makeup in the last couple of decades, frankly.

Casey Dreier: Why does that? Obviously, because it created the Space Launch System, rocket, it continued funds for the Orion spacecraft. This is in the context of proposed cancellations of the constellation program. And at the same time, it put the stamp of approval on commercial crew. It recommended aggressive funding for commercial crew for cargo. And so it kind of created, in a sense, this hybrid dual approach to human space flight that NASA has been working in for the last 10 years.

Casey Dreier: Obviously, the Space Launch System and Orion have come under quite a bit of critical response because they have not met their budgets or schedules. And in the same time, we've seen this incredible success of companies like SpaceX, functionally revolutionizing the launch vehicle market.

Casey Dreier: Bill Nelson, as the author, prime author of that bill, the NASA Authorization Bill takes a lot of responsibility. And should for that outcome. Online, I think there is a quite a bit of negative response to the proposal of Bill Nelson to run NASA Administrator because of his association with this old school way of doing human exploration. And I think honestly that's a bit unfair because of how that legislation embraced commercial crew, but also we just need to look at Bill Nelson's role. And I'm not saying this is going to be one way necessarily or the other, but just contextually, he was the Senator of Florida. At a moment when the Shuttle Program was winding down, the Constellation Program was being canceled, and there was a century-level recession happening to the country.

Casey Dreier: So tens of thousands of aerospace jobs were disappearing from Florida. His job as Florida Senator is to help the state. It's not to give NASA the best broad futuristic view. That's just how our politics work. He's the representative from Florida, just like Kay Bailey Hutchison representative from Texas.

Casey Dreier: So the incentive for him was to protect Florida jobs. And that's, I think why you see things like the NASA Authorization Bill, which is declared you shall make this rocket, you shall use the same contractors that you use to build shuttle and constellation, and you shall use these pieces of the shuttle in order to make this rocket work. It's not great policy if you're looking at a holistic view of NASA, but it is great policy if you are a Senator of Florida and want to get reelected. And ultimately, again, that failed. He lost his reelection 2018 dudes. Dude I'd probably shifting demographics and partisanship, but that was his incentive structure.

Casey Dreier: This doesn't say that that's a great decision, but he will not be Florida Senator anymore. And the question is, and this is what would be, I think, important to be discussed at his confirmation hearing is, how has his thinking evolved in those 10 years? So he hasn't actually written a lot of what his opinions are since that legislation. So you have to kind of go back a long ways and say, "Has his opinions changed, what would he do different? And now that he's again not representing the state of Florida, what is his approach NASA going to be?"

Mat Kaplan: So I wonder if maybe there's a potential parallel here to what we saw with Jim Bridenstine, who there was a lot of concern expressed about when he was nominated by President Trump. And we learned that Jim Bridenstine, the Congress Representative was quite different from Jim Bridenstine, the NASA Administrator. And in terms of views about many things.

Casey Dreier: Yeah. I think that's a really important piece of context that we need to keep in mind. And we don't know what Bill Nelson thinks yet, because we haven't said it to anybody. And so this will be a great opportunity for him to say. And so just like Jim Bridenstine, and again, this is something that else people go. And I think rightly at this point it criticized him now for being a little bit hypocritical. Bill Nelson came up very strongly against Jim Bridenstine for being a politician to run NASA. And I didn't agree with that at the time. I think there's nothing wrong with a politician running NASA. And I think as we saw with Bridenstine, ultimately in his role in it kind of helps maybe to have someone who understands how Congress works to sell NASA in a sense to its prime audience, which is members of Congress.

Casey Dreier: Jim Bridenstine had some baggage coming into that hearing into his nomination, lot of criticisms about how he would behave, his opinions on climate change. And during his hearings, admitted to it. He said, "My views have evolved. I accept the scientific consensus on climate change." He addressed issues with equity and kind of how he would treat his workforce, the role of science in NASA. And a lot of people just didn't believe him, which again, given the political context fine, I understand it, but it turned out he was honest, and that's how we behaved it in his role as NASA Administrator. And he was a very refreshing administrator in the sense that I think his outsider aspect coming into the agency, in a sense, maybe freed him up a little bit to really think about how to manage things, how to run things, and also how to... He himself was kind of NASA's biggest fan and cheerleader. You could feel his enthusiasm with him.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah. Absolutely.

Casey Dreier: He won over Bill Nelson in that job. Somewhat ironically, when Bill Nelson was nominated, Jim Bridenstine issued a statement supporting the nomination. So I think we should give Bill Nelson a chance to answer some of these critiques and also just accept that people do and should change with new data because, at the same time, this nomination is pretty much in the bag. There's almost no way he will very likely be the NASA Administrator. And so I want this to be a successful administration to keep NASA moving in the direction that it's been going. So how do we make that happen?

Mat Kaplan: I was going to ask you, and you've just answered my question about whether the silks are smooth sailing for a guy who acts. After all, we'll be in a hearing with many of his former, well for current friends and former colleagues in the Senate. So I guess it's looking pretty good.

Casey Dreier: Yeah. I mean, Marco Rubio, again, Republican from Florida, his previous junior member of the Florida Senate already came out, endorsed the nomination again, as you pointed out, he worked well across the aisle, which is good. We need that. He's an old kind of Senate guy, and another benefit of this, let's not forget Joe Biden was an old Senate guy too. And so having that connection, being able to access the president and derive a lot of your effectiveness as a head of an agency like NASA kind of derives from people's perceived sense of your influence.

Casey Dreier: There's a soft power aspect to this based on your connections to the White House. If people think that the White House doesn't have your back, not that interested in you, you're going to find it harder to get things done. Conversely, if you are known to have a good relationship with the President, you kind of derive some influence and power from that.

Casey Dreier: So I think it's not a bad thing from the pragmatic perspective of NASA, being able to secure an audience with the White House to fight for priority within government. There's a lot going on. So can NASA capture attention and be relevant for things like these big infrastructure pushes, for funding increases, for scientific investment or not. And so I think NASA will benefit from a highly connected administrator. Who's also good at working Congress and working across the aisle in Congress.

Casey Dreier: All of this, I should say, sidestep some of the fundamental critiques of Bill Nelson himself. Two other things. One is that in some ways, in a lot of ways, he will actually have less influence at NASA than he did as the Chair of the Senate Authorizing Committee for NASA. He is not free to do whatever he wants as NASA Administrator. He has to answer to the White House, and he has to stay within the law as passed by Congress. So he could set previously helped set what that law was, and NASA would to do it. But now, as Administrator, he can't just go out and pursue it on his own. So in some ways, he actually has less control over the overall direction.

Mat Kaplan: Before you go on, I was just thinking, could you see an Administrator, Nelson sitting in his office in Washington saying, "Well, this is ridiculous. Who put this policy in place?" "Oh, wait a minute. It was me."

Casey Dreier: Yeah, that's very possible. But that's important to remember too, that the role is changing. That doesn't necessarily mean he'll be the greatest NASA Administrator or the worst NASA Administrator, but the role and the incentives that drive the decisions that he will have to make are going to be different.

Casey Dreier: The other thing that's important to remember too, and this doesn't excuse where the programs are now, but in 2010, when they were doing this authorization, when they were proposing the cancel constellation, we didn't know that SpaceX would be SpaceX yet. It was not unreasonable to be skeptical that commercial crew would work. And that was the proposal was to put everything in commercial crew to return humans to low Earth orbit, and then kind of figure out do high-tech development in engine development with everything else.

Casey Dreier: So one, it was an unproven path. It turned out to be right, but it wasn't crazy to say, to be skeptical about it. Now that doesn't excuse some of the rhetoric that was used at the time, but I think SpaceX hadn't even launched a full mission to the space station yet, I think when this bill was passed. It was very close to that.

Casey Dreier: So they hadn't demonstrated their feasibility. And again, looking at the time sense, SpaceX is kind of like sui generis organization. Like how many SpaceXs are we going to have? Boeing still has not flown humans into space. It wasn't unreasonable. So we're looking back now with SpaceX, being this incredible outlier fan organization that is developed. And again, revolutionized launch. They hadn't done that yet. I very much doubt they would try to build an SLS now via the Senate process. Maybe they would, but you could not argue that in the same way anymore. It would be a purely political move, as opposed to, you can argue if you had grown up or you had flown on the space shuttle-like Bill Nelson had represented Florida, you understood this way of doing business. That that was the way... That was the only data point that we had for success.

Casey Dreier: History has proven that the bet was right, but I think we can give a little bit of slack if you weren't on that train right at the beginning. And this is why I think the confirmation will be really interesting to hear his thoughts on commercial space flight now.

Casey Dreier: Again, I think a lot of people are concerned because of his role offering the existence of the SLS about that he won't be supportive of commercial space flight. And again, we don't have a ton of data. I think he does support it. I guess again, it was written into an authorized at a very high level, Congress underfunded it, but the appropriations committees that underfunded commercial crew were not his committee. He was on an authorizing committee. So he's not responsible for underfunding commercial crew at that time.

Casey Dreier: This is just to add. I think nuance because I think some of the rhetoric has been a little overblown that I've seen online about them. And again, this isn't to say he's going to be a great administrator or not a good administrator. This is important to understand. I think the context of where he is coming from and his role going forward as NASA administrator. So I think the big question is, is he going to fight for something like a commercial partnership for the human landing system for Artemis. And I think that that's a salient question, and will he fight that? Or will he kind of try to revert it back to a classic cost-plus contracting method that we've seen people try to push through? I think that's very much something that we should probe in the confirmation hearings and look to see what he says.

Mat Kaplan: Great insights. Let's hope that those confirmation hearings have at least begun if not been completed. By the next time we talk to each other as part of the space policy edition, Casey and I have much more to share with you after this break. Stay with us.

Casey Dreier: Space exploration doesn't just happen. In a democracy where you're competing against other priorities and resources, we need to maintain a constant engagement in the political process to ensure the types of missions we want to see in the future. I'm Casey Dreier. I'm the Chief Advocate here at the Planetary Society. I'm asking you to consider making a donation to our program of Space, Policy, and Advocacy that works every single day to promote your values in space science and exploration to the people who make the decisions in our democracy. Your donations keep us independent, keep us engaged and keep us effective. Go to That's Thank you.

Mat Kaplan: Administrator Nelson or whoever takes on that seat at NASA headquarters, it looks like is going to have to continue to be a part of something that also returned to the American scene under President Trump. Didn't we just hear that the White House has said, "Yep, we're going to keep the National Space Council around?"

Casey Dreier: Indeed. That was the other big policy news since our last Episode, the National Space Council, of course, being chaired by the vice president, made up of the cabinet-level members of various federal agencies that intersect with Space, including national security, and had been unusually active. And I'd say unusually effective under the Trump administration, under the guise of Dr. Scott Pace, and who we've had on the show and as a very kind of energized space council that did a lot of work in a very short amount of time.

Casey Dreier: This is an area where I'm happy to be wrong. I was thinking you would not see this. I would have assumed that based on the lack of information that we saw from the campaign that the Biden White House would probably have restructured its decision-making process, like they had started to with national security, moving it into these separate areas where Space is just a part of it.

Casey Dreier: So, yeah, it's nice to see, but at the same, the National Space Council is just a tool, it's mere existence does not guarantee effectiveness or a high profile for Space. And we've seen this, I'd say under George HW Bush, a much more mixed outcome. They were trying to do a lot but ran into some bureaucratic and internal divisiveness. I think because they weren't sure what the role was going to be. And it was then disbanded by President Clinton going forward and kind of sat out for a while. And so it's really going to see how much does the White House want to use this as a tool? And how much does Vice President Harris want to embrace her role as the chair of this committee as well? Because again, this is going to be like the NASA Administrator, the ability of the National Space Council to drive consensus, to do its work, and to be successful comes from in a sense that soft power statement of how much support and backing does it have from the White House, how much support does Kamala Harris clearly have, or not from Joe Biden?

Casey Dreier: So all of these things have yet to be worked out. And again, we don't know exactly what the makeup is going to be yet of the new National Space Council. So a lot of people have been pushing it forward. I always felt that was a bit kind of putting the cart before the horse, where again, it's like you just, the fact that you have the tool doesn't mean it's going to be effectively used, but it's a nice statement. And I think this is showing in a sense, maybe an unexpected, but pleasantly. So evolution of Space within the Biden Administration compared to the Biden campaign, which said literally almost nothing about Space. And so a lot of people assumed it just wasn't going to be a priority.

Casey Dreier: Seeing President Biden react to the landing of the Perseverance Rover and his multiple times talking to NASA and folks at JPL, you se Kamala Harris, speak to astronauts like a half dozen times now on the space station, Biden keeps bringing up Mars Sample Return as a next logical step he's endorsing, kind of bought into the mission and particularly for the role of the European allies in making that happen. And of course, now that they've also endorsed Artemis, the White House has said that. And they've also said just a couple of days ago that Space is one of the areas in which there is very little disagreement between them and the previous Trump Administration, which is not a phrase you will hear from this White House often.

Casey Dreier: So President also put a moon rock in his office. Maybe he's been looking at that a lot. Maybe he read our report that said his legacy could be a Mars rock for a future administration. That evolution has been great to see. And I think it's one of those things really speaks to the quality and care of the staff, like on the space council with Dr. Pace and others. And also, the work that Jim Bridenstine did kind of against a lot of headwinds to maintain that bipartisan aspect of the work that they did. And that's really paying off now where their new administration is not going to tear up everything and start a new.

Mat Kaplan: It sure was nice to see the new President's reaction during the perseverance landing. During, and after that perseverance landing, he had a much better experience than President Bartlet in the West Wing, who was so excited about whatever that Mars mission was. They added to an episode which didn't make it, but it did result in that terrific, little speech about the importance of exploration. Are you also encouraged when you see the elevation of essentially the national science adviser, the head of the office of science and technology policy being added to the cabinet, something which has never happened before?

Casey Dreier: Yes. As a pro-science guy in many ways, I guess, or that word. Yeah, no, I think that's great. That's actually why I kind of assumed that Space Policy would be coming out of the Office of Science and Technology Policy because of the cabinet promotion. And so it's interesting to see that now kind of remained as kind of broken out, obviously with a lot of coordination from OSTP.

Casey Dreier: The role of science, I don't think anyone in the last year can complain about how much that we're investing too much in science. The fact that we have and are getting vaccines right now to offset a terrible pandemic disease that came out of nowhere within 12 months, the science, I think, has earned its pay, earned its keep for another couple of centuries or so.

Mat Kaplan: Man, I hope so.

Casey Dreier: Yeah. Well, and I think just the understanding too that science it's been interesting to see because science is also a tool. And science and scientists, their job is to, in a sense, report their best understanding of the world. To develop the best mental model or understanding of how the world works, elected officials. Then in a sense, have to take that information usually, which is incomplete or contradictory sometimes because science and the natural world can be and then make decisions from it. Elevating science to a cabinet-level position underlines, I think, the importance of that advice and emphasizes that scientists are feeding, they're providing a service to the overall well functioning of a democracy, and take that role seriously in a sense. You can't be a political completely because anything becomes political at some level with people involved.

Casey Dreier: Understanding how that works and having a good representative for scientific method and critical thinking. And again, representing our best understanding at that moment because science is subject to revision and improvement and understanding people who respect that process. I think that's a great symbolic move. And I think we're seeing a lot of ways to support science. And I think ultimately, what we need to see is make sure that this administration and Congress support scientists themselves to do the work because you can have a science advisor, great. But if you don't have enough funding to enable scientists to do science, what will they be advised on? And so it's a symbolic thing. That's great, but you have to follow it up by investing in, for lack of a better term, the infrastructure of salaries.

Mat Kaplan: There you go. And that's it. I mean re infrastructure, it's not just roads and bridges. It's human factors, it's human resources, and labs at universities and other institutions across the country. There's our segway. We don't yet. I mean, I know you were hoping that we would have a little bit more budget information that's specific to NASA by this point we don't, but we do now have this, I think it's a 1.925 something trillion-dollar infrastructure proposal, which is goes far far, its reaches far broader than roads and bridges.

Casey Dreier: Yeah. And it's very expensive as you might imagine. It's also quite a general proposal still, not unexpected if you read through Biden Campaigns Literature, which I did. And they called for a huge hundreds of billions of dollars of investment in R&D Research and Development and workforce and high-skilled manufacturing and others. The statement from the White House is that they want to increase overall US spending on research and development to it where it was in the 1960s as a percentage of GDP, which is would be a huge, huge investment.

Mat Kaplan: Including Apollo Investment. Right?

Casey Dreier: Yeah. And that was actually driving most of it. And there's some nice work. Matt Hourihan, who was on our show, not too long ago, had some good kind of tweet threads about it. There was more of the development than the research at that point because that was just building Apollo kind of, but very good ambition. I will stand by this that you cannot spend too much on scientific research and development. I don't think at any point a nation would regret that. Because again, you look at the range of things. When you have a lot of funding, you are able, in a sense, to try things that aren't guaranteed. This is maybe deeper is we could have a discussion with it, another expert some time, but there's a problem of when you have too little funding, there becomes a certain amount of conservatism in what you grant funding to.

Casey Dreier: There's so little of it. You want to make sure that it's going to pay off, so to speak, or that it's going to work. And so every grant proposal kind of has to be done already to show it will work. And so a lot of scientists basically have to show that their science has already kind of done and then ask for money to "do the research" where I really, we should be saying, we should have really good hypothesis that may or may not work and allow ourselves to find which ones do and don't.

Casey Dreier: So when you're in a restricted environment of funding, naturally, you want to, so that you are investing in "good things" and so the people evaluating it in the program officers who grant it tend to become again, very conservative and only give it to things that may give small advances to what we already know if you were a "moonshots" and if you have more money floating around to accept risk and to accept a broad range of kind of creative ideas, maybe you get something like the ARPANET again. It creates the internet, or who knows. You have more flexibility, and you can support more people with a more diverse set of ideas and backgrounds, and capabilities to participate in the system.

Casey Dreier: We don't know what we're going to figure out or create from it, but we almost certainly know that something will happen. This is the paradox of R&D. We don't know it. That's why we need to do it. And we don't know which one will pay off in a sense in applied science to society, but probably something will, that's been obviously proven many times over in the last 75 years or so.

Casey Dreier: This is huge increases for science relative to where it is now, but as this overall percentage of what the government spends, it's still would be very, very minor as we talked about with Matt Hourihan, well within and still way less than what we would spend on humanitarian, social support programs, housing, and all these other areas of human need.

Mat Kaplan: Of what use is a newborn babe. One of the reasons I love that little NASA program called NIAC, NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts, and the planetary society's own new step grant program, which folks will be hearing much more about in the coming weeks and months. Can we say anything about the outlook for specific funding for NASA, or do we just need to wait for that sort of top-line view when it appears hopefully before we talk again?

Casey Dreier: It's the opening offer. That's the power of the White House proposal is that it sets the initial conditions of the debate that'll then ensue, so we need that. I'd have to say we had a lot of very positive reactions to our five for five-pitch for NASA's budget. The Biden Administration wants to come in and increase NASA by more than 5%, 100% for that. Let's do it.

Mat Kaplan: And remind us you were talking about that five for five. It's 5% increases in real dollars for five years-

Casey Dreier: For five years.

Mat Kaplan: ... if we put us in a pretty good place.

Casey Dreier: Yeah. NASA has been growing on average at 4%. Interesting thing, NASA's budget is actually on its longest streak of increases in its history if you adjust for inflation. So in its overall purchasing power, NASA's budget has gone up on average of something like 2% with inflation since 2014. I mean, that's actually why we're able to do things like Artemis and Commercial Crew and James Webb Space Telescope and Perseverance, and [crosstalk 00:45:20]. All of our positive conjunctions here are because of that steady growth. In real dollars, it's 4%, inflation-adjusted dollars it's something like two. So in real dollars, 5% keeps you above inflation keeps you growing. I think we saw with a White House proposal last year that they proposed a 12% increase, which again would have been great.

Casey Dreier: Politically, it's harder to do the big jump. It's almost like you kind of sneak by any kind of scrutiny, not scrutiny, but debate or pointless debate because obviously, NASA needs the money. It's easier to-

Mat Kaplan: Consider the source, everyone.

Casey Dreier: It's a little easier here to escape notoriety if you're just kind of doing as toward us kind of slow and steady, but after a few years. So I mean, because of our average 4% growth over the last seven years, NASA's budget has gone up by five and a half-billion dollars. That's nothing. The National Institute of Health had the same kind of strategy in the late 90s that ultimately doubled its budget. But it did a little bit a year, a little bit a year, a little bit a year. So compound growth, everybody that helps.

Casey Dreier: That's kind of the idea with a five for five. I should say very good response from both sides of the aisle on that. And that's a great place to be. And we will look to the Biden Administration proposal here coming out soon, and encourage the members of Congress to keep that growth going. This is investment in the country itself.

Casey Dreier: So we talk about infrastructure. NASA is part of infrastructure, Space as part of our infrastructure, and our infrastructure of highly trained, highly skilled workforce, creative, critical thinkers. Investing in my kind of personal pet interest is using NASA to invest in the small businesses, the public university systems, the educational systems around the country at places that aren't classically known for being "space areas." There's lots of people who don't know that they're a great space scientists because they've never been presented with the opportunity, whether financially or personal reasons, they have to go to the nearest state school that just doesn't happen to be in a space center, whether they work in a small manufacturing business or whatnot like, but NASA has those connections. And if you strategically invest throughout the country through these types of big ambitious programs to develop professors, to develop research institutions, to develop support for students, to work with spacecraft data, to be a part of missions, whether or not you're at a big Ivy League or a mid-sized state school, there are good people who will be attracted to that. And new avenues will open up to enter into this incredible field.

Mat Kaplan: That's also hope along the way for a raise and some hope for all those post-graduates out there who someday at least have the potential of leading us across the final frontier. Speaking of which, I won't say we saved the best for last, Casey, but it certainly is the most nostalgiC. Next week my feature guests on Planetary Radio, the weekly edition, our April 7, show will feature Bob Crippen. Bob Crippen was the pilot on the very first space shuttle mission, STS-1, commanded by John Young, who we've lost. It's a terrific conversation. I just was blown away about how open he was and what an enjoyable conversation it was.

Mat Kaplan: The 40th anniversary of that flight is April 12th. And that also happens to be the 60th anniversary of the first human making it up above Earth's atmosphere into orbit Yuri Gagarin. It is Yuri's nights, something that I talked to Bob about by the way. I know, because we've talked about this a lot, this is a very meaningful anniversary for you as well.

Casey Dreier: I bet you can tell the rough age of any person based on their most kind of emotional connection to what NASA Human Space Flight program. I was a kid of the shuttle era. So I was born not long after the first flight. And I grew up with that, with the shuttle being what space exploration was with humans. My LEGO sets were shuttle LEGO sets, not even the fancy new one. The old-school LEGO classic. When I subscribed to Odyssey magazine, it was the shuttle on the cover all the time. It's been fun. I've been kind of honor the 40th anniversary of the Launch of Columbia. I put together kind of a quick overview of relooked at the some of the old budget numbers and say, "What did it cost to develop the space shuttle program?" And so that'll be published here maybe by the time, not necessarily by the time this Episode comes out, but definitely by the 40th Anniversary itself, it's almost done, but I can tease some of the numbers, man, if you're curious.

Mat Kaplan: Please.

Casey Dreier: I was able to break out the development for every major section of the shuttle. So the orbiter engines, the external tank, the boosters, and also the cost of all the facility upgrades that NASA had to do, to put out the landing pad and so forth. So the total cost of the shuttle came into and surreal your dollar. So without inflation-

Mat Kaplan: Wait, before you say it, drum roll, please. No, no, that's the drum head. I'm sorry. That's not appropriate. Please. Go ahead. The total cost.

Casey Dreier: Depends on your opinion of the development cycle. A total cost about 10.6 billion for the research and development portion and the construction of facilities.

Mat Kaplan: Oh, I didn't mean, I'm, sorry, that was an accident, and that was an accident. Believe it or not. I swear, folks. Okay.

Casey Dreier: Your opinion is very low, I guess, of the development process. Well, so if you-

Mat Kaplan: Absolutely not.

Casey Dreier: To adjust for inflation. If you adjust to 20 $19. So that was spread out through the 1970s. If you adjust for inflation, the development costs through 1982 comes to about 47.8 billion to develop the shuttle and build the facilities. This was a really wildly ambitious project. It's kind of sheep attitude to pick on the shuttle a little bit for not being cheap and not launching as much as they ever wanted it to, but how many reusable spacecraft had they made at that point? I mean, it was the idea that they would do this right after Apollo is pretty amazing. They started developing the space shuttle formally in '72, and they'd done some pre-development work in '70 and '71 and a little earlier. But that's like talking about Yuri Gagarin. About 10 years after the first person ever flew in Space.

Casey Dreier: It is not an easy thing to build a reusable spacecraft. We should give the shuttle a bit of a break that it didn't quite make it say ambition, wildly ambitious targets. It's an amazing piece of machinery. And it's an interesting, the political situation around it evolved really interesting and something I kind of chuckle at you look at the accounting for this. The Space Shuttle was very closely managed by the White House's Office of Management and Budget. I'd say over-managed.

Mat Kaplan: Yes, I would too.

Casey Dreier: That was one of the problems that ultimately compromise the reusability aspect of the shuttle. We have an interview with John Logsdon in the past episodes of this, about the Reagan space policy and kind of the future of a post-Apollo era, shuttle almost didn't happen. The White House under Nixon, very tight on their budgets. They didn't want NASA to do a big Apollo-style program that got the shuttle in large part because they would make jobs in California, which Nixon right before his reelection, so wanted to deliver jobs, aerospace jobs to California, the original budget of the shuttle was going to be something like $5.25 billion in $1972. So if you control for any inflation, you'd have to bring it back to $72. And that is basically what the ultimate cost came out to be, kind of amazingly enough, but this is where I chuckle as the accountant looking at the budget.

Casey Dreier: It's kind of because they just declared in 1982 that development was done, and development you'd see it trending down, but it had not gotten close to zero. And anyone watching any observer of the show program knows that it's not like they just pumped out shuttles off of an assembly line for the next 30 years that it was in a constant state of kind of improvement and development after that.

Mat Kaplan: Especially after the challenger disaster.

Casey Dreier: Absolutely.

Mat Kaplan: When an enormous investment was put into a very substantial upgrades to the shuttle.

Casey Dreier: Absolutely. And you can even see development money shifting over. You can see moving from "development into production" starting as early as 1978, clearly before they had finished launching it the first time and that they would have to go and upgrade it. So it's a bit of an accounting trick, but I think again also interesting to just compare $48 billion over 11 years or so. That's about where we are 11 years is kind of close to where we are with the SLS. And if you look at SLS and Orion, you're actually less than that. You're at about 40, maybe 38.

Casey Dreier: In the context of large aerospace, contractor-led human Space flight launch systems, you don't have that many. You use the Apollos, the Saturns, the pilot program, the space shuttle, and now the SLS/Orion. SLS the Orion is actually the cheapest one we've made so far. Not saying it's cheap. It's just relatively cost cheaper. But also, I would say also just really important context. The space shuttle, wildly ambitious, all brand new. SLS, is just kind of reusing shuttle engines, reusing shuttle boosters. All of those things were developed brand new plus the orbiter just itself, a fantastically capable and complex massive spacecraft.

Casey Dreier: So you kind of got as much more of fresh development and much more ambitious in what they were trying to do than the SLS. But yeah, I'll have this up a number with you, if you want to dive into those numbers, you can check it out, and we'll have a whole webpage plotting how much NASA spent per year over the course of development for each of the major aspects of the shuttle. Just really fascinating. And again, reminder of kind of what the type of work and effort that goes into making something like this. It's what it took to make again, that very... If nothing else Iconic, nothing else looks like the space shuttle, except for the burden, which coincidentally looks like the space shuttle. But it is a very distinctive look in very distinctive spacecraft. The face of, kind of the US-based program for almost 30 years.

Mat Kaplan: And as listeners will hear Robert Crippen tell me if they listen to the April 7, Planetary Radio, it's going to be a very long time before we see a spacecraft with the kinds of capabilities that the space shuttle gave us at high cost and never quite everything that was dreamed of, but still a pretty magnificent ship.

Mat Kaplan: Casey, I can't wait to look at your new piece because I know the kind of work that you do on these budgets, looking into the past, and nobody else really does that. And nobody else hosts the space policy edition every month with me. I hope maybe you can stop by at the beginning of next week, April 7, Episode of Planetary Radio. And we'll talk a little bit more about that for those poor folks out there who aren't SPE regulars, but catch the regular weekly series.

Casey Dreier: Matt, I'd be delighted.

Mat Kaplan: That's Casey Dreier. He is the Senior Space Policy Advisor for the Planetary Society. Also, our Chief Advocate. I'm Mat Kaplan, the host of Planetary Radio reminding you, once again, you like all this stuff, you like activities like the day of action and the advocacy that Casey and Brendan Curry and others conduct on behalf of the Society on behalf of our members, well then become a member, check it out at And we would love to have you on board.

Mat Kaplan: We'll see you on the first Friday in the month of May, which Casey, if I'm not mistaken, will also be the anniversary of this program, this Space Policy Edition to Planetary Radio. We'll confirm that and get back to you. In the meantime, Casey, have a great month. We're going to have a lot to talk about. Thanks for joining me once again.

Casey Dreier: As always, Mat.

Mat Kaplan: And to the rest of you, stay safe, stay well. If you haven't been vaccinated yet and you're eligible, go out there and do that and we'll get together in person sometime soon. Take care, everybody.