Key Texas Congressional Leaders Object to NASA’s Choice of MSFC to Lead Lunar Lander Program

Key Texas Congressional Leaders Object to NASA’s Choice of MSFC to Lead Lunar Lander Program

Three key members of the Texas congressional delegation are urging NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine to reconsider his reported decision to name Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) to lead the effort to acquire human-rated lunar landers for the Artemis program.  Johnson Space Center (JSC) will have a role, but Marshall will be in charge according to a report in the media.  Bridenstine will be at MSFC tomorrow to make an announcement about the Centers’ roles, but both Texas Senators and the Congressman who represents JSC want him to delay it.

Marshall is in Huntsville, AL.  Alabama’s senior Senator is Richard Shelby (R), the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and a strong advocate for space projects in his state.  NASA will need his support to get the money to pay for the Trump Administration’s plan to return humans to the surface of the Moon by 2024, named Artemis after the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology.

Marshall manages development of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), a Saturn V-class rocket to send astronauts to the Moon and Mars.  The core stage of the SLS is being built at the Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans, LA, which is under MSFC’s umbrella.

SLS will launch crews aboard Orion spacecraft to a small space station orbiting the Moon, Gateway, where the astronauts will transfer to landers that will take them down to the surface and back. Orion will then return the crews to Earth.

JSC is near Houston, TX.  Home of the astronaut corps, JSC is managing both the Orion and Gateway programs.  It also manages the ongoing International Space Station program.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine: Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The question is which Center will manage development of the landers, a plum assignment. NASA plans to procure them through public-private partnerships rather than traditional contracts.  The actual design will be determined by whatever companies win the contracts, but NASA’s concept is for a triology of vehicles: a transfer vehicle to take the crew from the Gateway to a lower lunar orbit, then a descent vehicle to take them to the surface and an ascent vehicle to return them to Gateway.

Bridenstine visited Michoud today to observe progress on the SLS core stage and will be at Marshall tomorrow to make an announcement with regard to Marshall’s role in launching astronauts to the Moon and landing them on the surface.

According to Ars Technica, what Bridenstine will say is that NASA is assigning overall responsibility for the lunar lander program to Marshall, which will also oversee acquisition of the transfer and descent vehicles.  JSC will oversee the ascent vehicle.

In a letter to Bridenstine today, Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn and Rep. Brian Babin, all Republicans, expressed surprise and asked Bridenstine to reconsider.   They argue that JSC should be in charge of the entire program, not just one of the three vehicles. Marshall’s expertise is in rocketry while JSC is “ground zero for human space exploration.”

They also disagree with splitting the work between two Centers, “an unnecessary and counterproductive departure from the unquestionable success” of the lander for the Apollo program.

The integration of development responsibilities into one center — ideally the center with the longest history and deepest institutional knowledge of human space exploration — would be the most cost efficient, streamlined, and effective approach, and is the approach that NASA should pursue. — Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, Rep. Brian Babin

Cruz chairs the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation’s space subcommittee that oversees NASA.  Cornyn usually is not very active on space issues, but is up for reelection next year.  Babin is the top Republican on the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee’s space subcommittee and JSC is in his district.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) chairing a hearing on NASA’s exploration plans, July 9. 2019

A Cruz spokesperson told late this afternoon that neither the Senator nor his staff were informed of the decision in advance and the Senator has not spoken to Bridenstine since the letter was sent.

According to NASA’s press release about Bridenstine’s visit to Marshall, issued yesterday, Babin will participate in the event tomorrow.  Three other Republican Congressmen also are scheduled to speak:  Reps. Robert Aderholt and Mo Brooks from Alabama districts near Marshall, and Rep. Scott DesJarlais from a neighboring district in Tennessee.  Aderholt is the top Republican on the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA. Brooks is a member of the House SS&T Committee and its space subcommittee.

Bridenstine is scheduled to speak at 3:10 pm EDT.  His office did not reply to a request for comment by press time.

Today’s letter references another letter sent last year in which Cruz, Cornyn and Babin were joined by two other Republican House members from Texas, Lamar Smith and John Culberson, in making the case for JSC to be the lead center for the landers, but the other two no longer are in Congress to help fight the battle.  Smith, who chaired the House SS&T Committee, retired.  Culberson chaired the House Appropriations CJS subcommittee, but lost his bid for reelection.


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