Bridenstine Politely Responds to House Committee’s 2020 NASA Authorization Bill

Bridenstine Politely Responds to House Committee’s 2020 NASA Authorization Bill

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is politely asking the bipartisan leadership of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee to work together and modify its recently introduced 2020 NASA authorization bill.  The bill, released Friday, will be marked up at subcommittee level on Wednesday.  It takes a completely different approach to the future of human space exploration than what NASA and the White House are proposing as the Artemis program.

The bill, H.R. 5666, rejects not only the White House’s 2024 deadline to return astronauts to the lunar surface, but just about everything else about it.  It focuses on getting people to Mars, first to orbit the Red Planet in 2033 and to land “in  a sustainable manner as soon as practicable.”  Thus it embraces only those lunar surface activities essential to accomplishing the Mars goal, eschewing lunar outposts and resource exploitation that NASA wants the Artemis program to enable.

Jim Bridenstine, NASA Administrator. Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

It does support a return to the Moon, but by 2028, NASA’s original plan.  The Trump Administration is aiming for 2024 because it is the end of a second Trump term if he wins reelection this fall.

The framers of the bill are not in such a hurry to get back to the surface, and they do not want to stay any longer than necessary because Mars is the goal.

The legislation also sharply limits the role that entrepreneurial companies would play in human exploration.  NASA and the White House are embracing capabilities being developed by SpaceX, Blue Origin and others, as well as expanding the use of public-private partnerships (PPPs) instead of traditional government cost-plus contracts.  Building on its experience with the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs for the International Space Station, it similarly wants to buy services from companies to ferry astronauts between a lunar-orbiting space station, Gateway, and the lunar surface instead of owning the systems itself.

The bill rejects all of that.  It requires that the government own them and that the human lunar landers be launched as integrated systems on Boeing’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Exploration Upper Stage (SLS/EUS), not multi-component landers launched on commercial rockets and integrated at the Gateway.

Before becoming Administrator of NASA, Bridenstine was a member of Congress from Oklahoma and a member of this committee.  The fact that he has not been able to convince his former colleagues, including two from his own state (Horn and Lucas), of the merits of the Administration’s plan may foreshadow the challenges ahead in winning over others in Congress.  But first, he wants another chance with those who wrote this bill.

Today he posted his carefully worded views on his NASA blog.   The text is reproduced here in its entirety.

I would like to thank the Committee for producing a comprehensive NASA authorization bill. I am particularly encouraged that the bill is proceeding on a bipartisan basis, reflecting a consensus on a Moon to Mars approach. Maintaining a bipartisan, consensus approach is critical to constancy of purpose and supporting a long-term national commitment to the human exploration of the Moon and Mars. The bill envisions a destination of Mars while supporting missions to the Moon as the most effective strategy to achieve that critical, shared goal. NASA would appreciate the opportunity to work with the Committee in a bipartisan way, as we did with the Senate Commerce Committee, on some modifications.

I am concerned that the bill imposes some significant constraints on our approach to lunar exploration. As you know, NASA has successfully fostered the development of a rapidly expanding commercial economy for access to space. We would like to continue building on this success as we develop the most efficient mission architectures and partnership approaches to accomplish our shared goals.

NASA seeks to expand the sphere of economic activity deeper into space by conducting space exploration and development with commercial and international partners. Without the dynamic participation of commercial partners, our chances of creating a sustainable exploration program are significantly diminished. In particular, we are concerned that the bill’s approach to developing a human lander system as fully government-owned and directed would be ineffective. The approach established by the bill would inhibit our ability to develop a flexible architecture that takes advantage of the full array of national capabilities – government and private sector – to accomplish national goals. NASA would appreciate the opportunity to work with the Committee to develop language that would support a broader national and international effort that would maximize progress toward our shared exploration goals through the efficient application of our available resources.

NASA is fully committed to a lunar exploration program that supports and enables human missions to Mars. The Committee should be aware that the exploration of Mars is a very challenging goal both technically and from a resource perspective. If we are going to accomplish this goal, we will need the flexibility to rapidly develop technical expertise using the Moon and to fully engage commercial and international partners. We do think that the bill’s concerns for limiting activities on the Moon could be counterproductive. If we are going to explore Mars in a safe and sustainable way, we will require a strong in situ resource utilization capability and significant technology development using the surface of the Moon. NASA would appreciate more flexibility in defining lunar surface activities that may contribute directly to Mars exploration.

NASA subject matter experts are now closely reviewing the available bill text to identify issues and concerns of a more technical, detailed nature, and we would appreciate an opportunity to share the results of this review with the Committee at the appropriate time.

We would welcome an opportunity to work with the Committee on a bill that would accommodate a broader partnership approach. I appreciate the Committee’s bipartisan efforts and congratulate you on producing this bipartisan consensus in favor of a Moon to Mars exploration program.  — Jim Bridenstine

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