Long before U.S. Vice President Mike Pence swore in Jim Bridenstine as NASA’s 13th administrator April 23, the space community wondered what kind of leader the agency was getting. Bridenstine was well known from his time advocating for space in Congress, but how he would run the agency, and the priorities he would emphasize, were less clear.
Those questions remained open three weeks into the job. Bridenstine has kept a fairly low profile since that swearing-in ceremony at NASA Headquarters. He has yet to undertake any kind of public tour of the agency’s field centers, and opted to watch the flight of NASA’s InSight Mars lander — the first agency mission to launch since taking office — from a conference room at headquarters rather than go to Vandenberg Air Force Base. (That wasn’t necessarily a bad decision: those at the launch site, socked in by dense fog, reported feeling, rather than seeing, the successful liftoff.)
In the public comments he has made, including speeches last month at a Mars conference and an industry day for a commercial lunar project, the outlines of what Bridenstine will prioritize have started to come into focus. That approach includes attempts to balance a new policy to return to the moon with a longstanding but long-term goal of sending humans to Mars, while seeking to further elevate the role of the private sector in those efforts.
Balancing the moon and Mars
Many of the decisions regarding what NASA will do, and how, were made in the seven-and-a-half-month gap between when the White House nominated Bridenstine at the beginning of last September and when the Senate, on a strict party-line vote, confirmed Bridenstine April 19. Those decisions include the signing by President Trump in December of Space Policy Directive One, which instructed NASA to “lead the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations.” That approach, the policy stated, would involve “an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners.”
NASA rolled out its plan for implementing that policy in its 2019 budget request in February. The “Exploration Campaign” combines the Space Launch System and Orion with the development of a cislunar habitat now called the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway and the development of lunar landers of increasing capability, ultimately leading to those that can carry people.
But, just as Bridenstine was taking office, NASA was canceling a lunar mission that predated the new campaign. Resource Prospector was a project that the agency had worked on, albeit at a low level, for several years. It would have landed a rover near the lunar poles, traveling into permanently shadowed craters to look for water ice.
“Resource Prospector was formulated in a totally different environment, including under a totally different policy,” explained Steve Jurczyk, acting associate administrator, in a presentation at a May 1 meeting of the Space Studies Board. Only a single rover was planned, he said, operating for just a single lunar day, or two weeks. “It was a very focused mission with a fairly short duration.”
While lunar scientists were disappointed in the cancellation of Resource Prospector, Bridenstine endorsed that decision in an April 27 tweet that coincided with the release of a draft request for proposals for NASA’s new Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. That is one element of NASA’s Exploration Campaign where it will buy payload space on small, commercially developed landers flying as soon as 2019.
“Resource Prospector instruments will go forward in an expanded lunar surface campaign,” he wrote. “More landers. More science. More exploration. More prospectors. More commercial partners.”
Bridenstine backed up that tweet with an appearance at an industry day for the CLPS program at NASA Headquarters May 8. In his brief remarks — he spoke for less than four minutes — he drew comparisons with previous efforts to return to the moon, notably the Space Exploration Initiative introduced in 1989 by the first President Bush and the Vision for Space Exploration unveiled in 2004 by the second President Bush.
“To many, this may sound similar to our previous two attempts to get to the moon,” he said after reading the key passage of Space Policy Directive One. “However, times have changed.”
What’s changed, he argued, was a combination of technological and financial innovations, from miniaturization of spacecraft to growing private investment. “This will not be Lucy and the football again,” he said, referring to the recurring Peanuts scene where Lucy holds a football for Charlie Brown to kick, only to pull it away at the last moment. “We are going to the moon.”
That line triggered applause in the NASA Headquarters auditorium, but at another auditorium across town it created some unease. At the Humans to Mars Summit, taking place on the George Washington University campus, some attendees pondered how important Mars was for NASA now that the agency was focusing more on the moon. The Exploration Campaign’s only reference to Mars is development of future missions to return samples from Mars collected by the upcoming Mars 2020 cover.
A day after his appearance at the CLPS industry day, Bridenstine gave a speech at the Humans to Mars Summit, where he sought to reassure Mars advocates that he had not forgotten the red planet.
“If some of you are concerned that our focus in the coming years is the moon, don’t be,” he said in remarks lasting about 10 minutes. “The president’s vision has emphasized that our Exploration Campaign will establish American leadership in the human exploration of Mars. We are doing both the moon and Mars, in tandem, and the missions are supportive of each other.”
Those lunar missions, he said, “will allow us to prove and advance technologies that will feed forward to Mars,” such as precision landing and life support systems. Those systems “will enable us to land the first Americans on the red planet,” but he didn’t state when that would happen.
Building the railroad
Those speeches and statements revealed another key element of Bridenstine’s approach: an increasing role for private ventures in the agency’s exploration plans. While that’s not new — the commercial cargo program started when Mike Griffin was administrator and commercial crew began under Charlie Bolden — Bridenstine suggested commercial roles would grow for missions to the moon and Mars.
“To do so sustainably, we are going to expand partnerships with industry to deliver payloads to the surface of the moon,” he said at the CLPS industry day. “This will help us conduct more missions, more exploration, more prospecting and more science.”
At the Humans to Mars Summit, Bridenstine drew an analogy with the Lewis and Clark expedition in the early 19th century, followed six decades later by the development of the transcontinental railroad through the American West. In that analogy, Apollo 11 was the equivalent of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
“Forty-nine years after Apollo 11, it’s time to build our own railroad,” he said. “Like then, we need to enable public funds to support private equity and private funds to deliver more commerce, more economic growth, and solidify American leadership in space, science and discovery.”
He cited specifically those earlier programs led by Griffin and Bolden that enabled commercial development in low Earth orbit. “Their model can be extended to and around the moon and deeper into space, including Mars.”
One person who thinks Bridenstine will press for more commercial partnerships is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the chairman of the Senate’s space subcommittee and someone who vigorously championed Bridenstine’s nomination (after Bridenstine, in 2016, endorsed Cruz’s unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination.)
Cruz, speaking at the Humans to Mars Summit May 8, said he believed Bridenstine will emphasize public-private partnerships. “I am confident that Jim, leading NASA, is going to continue on the path we’ve seen,” which he described as “an incredible proliferation of public-private cooperation when it comes to space.”
“If we are going to go to Mars — and we are going to go to Mars — nobody thinks that is going to be driven solely by public funds from the taxpayers,” Cruz said. “That endeavor is far too enormous given the constraints of modern budget reality.”
Bridenstine has won praise so far for his leadership, including the effort to win support for both moon and Mars missions though commercial partnerships.
“I’m very excited,” said John Thornton, chief executive of Astrobotic, a company developing commercial lunar landers. He attended the CLPS industry day and said afterwards he was pleased with what the agency is planning. “I really have to commend NASA for their forward-leaning approach on how to do this kind of acquisition.”
“I know where we’re going. We’re going to Mars, and we’re going to do something at the moon along the way,” said Jeff Bingham, a former Senate staffer, at the Humans to Mars Summit. He said he was confident new agency leadership would follow existing policy, established in various NASA authorization acts, that included Mars as a longterm destination for human spaceflight.
It’s helped that, in his brief tenure so far, there have been few other issues for Bridenstine to deal with. Major robotic missions, as well as the International Space Station, have been running smoothly. NASA also received good budget news from the House Appropriations Committee, which introduced a fiscal year 2019 spending bill May 8 that gives NASA more than $21.5 billion, $800 million above what the agency received in 2018.
However, that honeymoon won’t last forever, and hard decisions are ahead for Bridenstine and NASA. In the coming weeks, he will receive a report from an independent review board examining the James Webb Space Telescope and its latest problems that could push the program over its cost cap of $8 billion. NASA owes Congress that report, and the agency’s new plan for dealing with its problems, in late June.
Bridenstine will also have to convince Congress of the administration’s proposal to end federal funding of the ISS in the mid-2020s. This could pit him against his Senate champion, Cruz, who remains critical of any plan that could end the station.
“As long as I am chairman of the space subcommittee, we will not be phasing out the ISS as long as there is scientifically usable life and we can continue to extend it,” he said. A day after his conference speech, he announced a May 16 hearing on the future of the ISS that will feature NASA officials, although not Bridenstine.
For now, Bridenstine seems focused on how to carry out the agency’s exploration plans to achieve the goals in that space exploration policy. At the end of his brief comments at the commercial lunar industry day, he sought to connect that program with the long-term vision of that policy and offered this advice: “Let’s get to the moon.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the May 14, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.