Bridenstine’s Bill Would Radically Restructure NASA

NASA LOGOBy Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA would be given a mandate to pioneer the development and settlement of space and a commission dominated by Congressional appointees to oversee those efforts under a bill proposed by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK).

The measure’s basic premise is that NASA’s problems stem from unstable presidential commitments to space exploration as opposed to Congress’ tendency to support expensive programs that bring funding into particular states and districts.

“Over the past twenty years, 27 NASA programs have been cancelled at a cost of over $20 billion to the taxpayer,” according to a statement on a website devoted to the measure. “Many of these have come as a result of changes in presidential administrations.

“Due to the decades-long timelines of many NASA programs, the NASA administrator should have a set term that spans multiple administrations,” the website reads. “And instead of ever-changing Congressional budgets, NASA should be given certainty and flexibility to spend resources where most critical. In return for this stability, mechanisms must be put in place to ensure programs remain on track and leadership is held to account.”

Rep. Jim Bridenstine
Rep. Jim Bridenstine

The space agency’s charter would be rewritten with a pioneering doctrine that would read:

“Congress declares that the general welfare of the United States requires that the unique competence in scientific and engineering systems of the Administration also be directed toward the pioneering of space. The objectives of such pioneering shall be to increase access to destinations in space, explore the possible options for development at these destinations, demonstrate the engineering feasibility of such development, and transition those activities to Federal agencies outside of the Administration or persons or entities outside of the Federal Government.’’

Specifically, NASA’s goals would include:

‘‘(1) The expansion of the human sphere of influence throughout the Solar System.
‘‘(2) To be among those who first arrive at a destination in space and to open it for subsequent use and development by others.
‘‘(3) To create and prepare infrastructure precursors in support of the future use and development of space by others.’’

The bill is clear about where NASA should focus its efforts.

“Until Americans land on Mars, NASA’s main human spaceflight priority shall be to land Americans on Mars,” the bill reads.

An artist concept depicts a greenhouse on the surface of Mars. Plants are growing with the help of red, blue and green LED light bars and a hydroponic cultivation approach. (Credit: SAIC)
An artist concept depicts a greenhouse on the surface of Mars. Plants are growing with the help of red, blue and green LED light bars and a hydroponic cultivation approach. (Credit: SAIC)

Bridenstine’s bill would shift power from the president to Congress by creating a 21-member commission to oversee NASA. The president would appoint four members of the commission, with each house of Congress appointing eight members each. The appointments would be evenly split between the majority and minority parties.

The commission would appoint its own chairperson, who would be a former NASA administrator or deputy administrator if feasible.

The president would appoint the NASA administrator from a list of candidates provided by the commission. The administrator would serve a five-year term.

NASA’s administrator would be charged with submitting a multi-year budget beginning in fiscal year 2018. Congress would provide multi-year or no-year appropriations.

The space agency would develop 10- and 20-year plans for the agency that would be reviewed by the commission.

The Robotic Arm on NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander carrying a scoop of Martian soil bound for the spacecraft's microscope. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)
The Robotic Arm on NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander carrying a scoop of Martian soil bound for the spacecraft’s microscope. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

“The first 20-year plan…shall designate a 5-year range by which NASA intends for American astronauts to land on the surface of Mars,” the bill reads. “NASA shall include an update of this range in any subsequent 20-year plan developed before such landing occurs.”

A $250 million revolving fund would be established for the administrator to use for infrastructure projects and programs that are suffering from development problems.

The measure provides for the cancellation of any program that exceeds program life cost projections by 30 percent unless Congress authorizes the continuation of the program.

Bridenstine’s bill would require the NASA Inspector General to develop a process for the automatic removal of the administrator due to program overruns and delays or deviation from the 10- and 20-year plans.

Under the measure, NASA to maintain a permanent presence in low Earth orbit after the International Space Station is retired. NASA is planning to operate the facility with its international partners until 2024 and possibly longer.

Two BA_330 modules docked in lunar orbit. (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)
Two BA_330 modules docked in lunar orbit. (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

The bill calls for a pilot program “to demonstrate the viability and capabilities of crewed commercial low Earth orbit platforms. Any such an agreement shall include a commitment by the commercial partner to fund the development and construction of the private sector low-Earth orbit platform.”

The measure downgrades the role of the scientific community in planning space and aeronautical activities “by striking ‘the scientific community in planning scientific measurements’ and inserting ‘future utilizers of space destinations, including commercial entities, the scientific community, and academia, in planning for measurements.’”

Bridenstine’s bill would prohibit NASA from doing work performed by other federal agencies and require the agency to eliminate any activities that are inconsistent with the pioneering doctrine.

The NASA administrator would hire an independent outside organization to determine which programs should be eliminated or transferred to other government agencies or the private sector.

The bill is silent on what activities would be canceled or transferred. However, it is possible that parts of NASA’s Earth sciences budget would be targeted, in particular any research into global warming. Republicans could argue it is both irrelevant to the pioneering mission and that it duplicates work being done by other federal agencies.

Sen. Ted Cruz
Sen. Ted Cruz

The Republican Party’s position on global warming is that it is not a threat, and its members have severely criticized the Obama Administration for spending billions on researching it. In fact, Bridenstine and fellow Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) have teamed for a similarly named measure aimed at making the country more dependent upon carbon fuels. [Ted Cruz, Jim Bridenstine Push Back Against Climate Change Alarmists with ‘American Energy Renaissance Act’]

Cruz and other top Republicans have argued that NASA’s research should be transferred to other agencies that are also studying global warming. They believe that the work distracts the space agency from its core mission of exploring space.

Bridenstine, who like Cruz hails from a state heavily dependent upon oil and gas revenues, has criticized the Obama Administration for spending more on global warming research than on studying the weather.  [Jim Bridenstine: U.S. spends 30 times as much on climate change research as on weather forecasting]

The Congressman has proposed shifting funding from global warming to severe weather research. This change would benefit his native state of Oklahoma, which is prone to tornadoes.

Under Bridenstine’s bill, NASA would be required to lead a study on how results from emerging private sector capabilities could be incorporated into Earth sciences missions.

The measure also includes a 25-percent discount on bids submitted by launch providers that use domestic rocket engines after Dec. 31, 2022.

A massive explosion occurred right after the Antares rocket hit the ground.
A massive explosion occurred right after the Antares rocket hit the ground.

As of Oct. 1, 2019, NASA would be required to determine maximum possible loss from a mission that it contracted to a launch provider. Launch providers would be required to purchase insurance for either $500 million for third-party liability and $100 million for damage to government property, or the maximum probable loss, whichever is less.

NASA would also conduct a study on how to remediate orbital space debris done in cooperation with Department of Defense, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Federal Aviation Administration.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    Manned Mars landings are 30+ years away. Unmanned Moon landings are only a couple of years away. Manned lunar landings could easily be done within the next decade. This bill could end up forcing NASA to go the wrong way.

  • mike_shupp

    Are there 21-member commissions supervising any other US government agencies? What successes and failures have they had with their 30 Year Plans? Inquiring minds want to know!

  • ThomasLMatula

    He forgot to include the kitchen sink, the bill needs to be amended to include it.

  • momerathe

    One the one hand, I can see the benefit of budgetary stability to NASA. On the other hand, I wouldn’t trust a Congressman as far as I could throw them.

  • Stability for good programs are good. Stability for bad programs are bad. Programs which are very expensive, make slow progress, and don’t lower future costs are bad. So I don’t want stability at this time. I’d like to see change.

  • redneck

    10 and 20 year plans make little sense in a changing world. Prevents the flexibility that new capabilities offer.. SLS for example.

  • se jones

    Wait – what?

    …NASA administrator should have a set term that spans multiple administrations,”…and leadership is held to account.”

    So the admin can’t be thrown under the bus, how you gonna hold him to account, public flogging?

  • Douglas Messier

    You didn’t read far enough. There would be a system for removing an administrator if too many programs ran over budget or if that person failed to follow the long-range plans, etc.

  • Douglas Messier

    This is only about a third of what’s in the bill. Other sections cover commercial and military space. I’m working on stories about the other two sections.

    Bridenstine says he doesn’t expect the entire bill to pass, but hopes to get parts of it passed as part of different measures. He sees this as a starting point for discussions.

  • passinglurker

    Let me guess the commercial end is about ending all subsidizing/commercial crew under the label of “deregulation” or such.

    While the military end is about establishing the ULA monopoly and making them use the AR-1 instead of the BE-4

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, if you are not able to beat them on economics, make them illegal 🙂

    As for ending subsidies for commercial crew, this could well back fire on them. Although SpaceX, BA, etc., are more than willing to take government money, especially since NASA pays so well, they are driven to open space up for humanity, unlike NASA. So this may just result in them slipping away from NASA’s control and surging forward.

    Look what happen when the NSF decided to stop subsidizing the Internet and turn it loose in 1993. Rather than firms like AOL going away, it took off. Of course firms like AOL did fade away,but only because they couldn’t adapt fast enough when the flood of new business ideas. But I still recall listening IT folks taking in the late 1980’s (Gopher net days) about how few folks would find value in email or even being online except for researchers…

  • Panice

    So NASA would be even more a creature of Congress than it is now. Let the gridlock begin!

  • Panice

    Correct! I wager that most of those 27 NASA programs that were cancelled were failing and would still be wasting money if they were not cancelled.