Bridenstine pledges support for SLS and Orion to senators

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WASHINGTON — As the Senate Commerce Committee prepares to advance his nomination as NASA administrator to the full Senate, Jim Bridenstine offered pledges of continuity for many key agency programs.

In responses to questions submitted for the record by several members of committee and posted to the committee’s website, Bridenstine said he believed the Space Launch System and Orion programs were critical to the agency’s exploration plans, as well as contributions from commercial space ventures.

“SLS and Orion will serve as the backbone to our country’s Deep Space exploration architecture,” Bridenstine said in response to a question from Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) about how those programs would fit into NASA’s long-term exploration plans. He used the same language in similar questions from other senators about the future of those programs.

“In order to go back into Deep Space, we need the ability to throw tens of metric tons of mass to trans-lunar injection as well as carry wide pieces of hardware, which the SLS will be uniquely suited to do,” Bridenstine continued. Orion, he added, offers a life support system to “support astronauts for longer missions, is more hardened against radiation, and is designed to withstand the heat of re-entry from trajectories that accompany missions to Deep Space.”

In responses to questions from seven senators, all Republicans, Bridenstine showed no signs of making major changes to existing NASA plans, like continued development of the SLS and Orion, nor commitments to major new efforts.

Asked by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) about the Deep Space Gateway, the concept for a cislunar facility NASA is studying, Bridenstine said such an outpost could be useful, but didn’t take a hard position on whether it should be developed.

“The idea of a platform beyond LEO and in cislunar space provides a lot of opportunities for the United States,” he said, including roles for international and commercial partners. “Should I be confirmed, I look forward to working with Congress to determine if the Deep Space Gateway or other Deep Space architectures enable sustainable deep space exploration.”

Bridenstine also did not commit to an extension of the International Space Station beyond 2024, in response to another question from Lee. “The decision of whether to extend United States support of the ISS beyond 2024 is a complicated challenge,” he said, describing factors ranging from the research utility of the facility to budget issues.

“If I am confirmed as NASA Administrator,” he concluded, “I intend to work with Congress to weigh the options and to determine the best path forward for the ISS.”

Bridenstine expressed his support for commercial space ventures, seeing them as partners in NASA exploration activities. That includes providing in-situ resources, such as water ice extracted from the moon or asteroids.

“Should I be confirmed, NASA will look to study and characterize the amount and nature of the water ice on the Moon, as well as other celestial bodies,” he said in response to a question on the issue from Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) “The capabilities needed to extract and utilize this resource would be a focus of the space technology program I plan to lead, if confirmed.”

He added that companies with plans to harvest resources from asteroids and other celestial bodies could play a role. “If confirmed, NASA will examine and consider opportunities for partnership with these commercial entities,” he said.

Some questions were more parochial in nature. Wicker asked about the use of Stennis Space Center, located in his home state, including concerns that maintenance of the center’s facilities had been given a lower priority compared to other NASA facilities. Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) asked about Earth science missions, noting that some instruments being developed for them are produced in his state. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.) asked Bridenstine for his views on NASA’s Independent Verification and Validation facility, based in her state.

The questions offered an opportunity for Bridenstine to discuss current and proposed agency activities, something that got little attention during his Nov. 1 nomination hearing. During that hearing, he faced critical questions from Democratic members about his views on climate change, social issues and his ability to lead the agency. Few senators from either party asked specific questions about NASA programs.

The committee is scheduled to vote to advance his nomination, as well as several others for non-NASA positions, to the full Senate in a brief executive session on Nov. 8.