NASA weighs changes to space technology programs and organization

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WASHINGTON — As NASA reviews the windfall it received in the 2018 omnibus spending bill last week, the agency is moving ahead with a reorganization of its space technology work that puts in question the future of some of its current projects.

The fiscal year 2018 omnibus spending bill, formally signed into law by President Trump March 23 after a last-minute veto threat, includes $20.736 billion for NASA. That is more than $1 billion above what the agency received and more than $1.6 billion above the agency’s request. That included funding for several Earth science missions targeted for cancellation in the request, and for NASA’s education office, which was slated for closure.

“The [fiscal year] 2018 budget that was signed by the president on Friday is actually very, very good for NASA,” said Chris Scolese, director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, during a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s technology committee there March 26. “A lot of the missions that were cancelled because of some great concerns have been restored, at least for 2018.”

The bill also included $130 million for Restore-L, a satellite servicing mission run out of Goddard. The administration sought $45 million for the program in the request, seeking to turn it from a standalone mission to a more general technology development effort.

“It wasn’t that it wasn’t good technology,” said James Reuter, acting associate administrator for space technology, of Restore-L at the meeting. Instead, he argued, the proposed cut — also included in the fiscal year 2019 budget request — reflected its large cost inherent as a full-fledged mission rather than a smaller program that could launch as part of a larger mission. “A large part of the cost that makes Restore-L difficult for us to fund is that it is a standalone mission.”

That increase in Restore-L counteracts an overall increase in NASA’s space technology program, which requested $678.6 million for 2018 and received $760 million in the omnibus bill. Reuter noted that in addition to the Restore-L increase, the report accompanying the bill directed NASA to spend $75 million on nuclear thermal propulsion technology, versus $35 million the agency planned to spend. It also included a small increase for the Flight Opportunities program to carry research payloads on suborbital vehicles and parabolic aircraft flights.

NASA will now, as in past years, develop an operating plan to allocate funds included in the bill but not earmarked to specific programs. “We didn’t get enough money to cover every single one” of its programs at desired funding levels, he said. “But we think we’re in the ballpark.”

At that plan is developed, NASA is also weighing larger changes to its space technology effort in the fiscal year 2019 budget proposal. That proposal calls for reorganizing space technology, moving it into a new Exploration Research and Technology budget line and combining it with some existing exploration research projects and the agency’s human research program.

There are two reasons for these changes, said Steve Jurczyk, who had been associate administrator for space technology but was recently elevated to acting associate administrator. One was integrating similar programs and eliminating any potential duplication. The other, he said, was to focus that technology work on exploration-related projects.

“We’ve been asked to focus our investment in two areas: technologies that enable human exploration of the solar system, and technologies that advance commercial space activities and interests,” he said. “Those commercial activities will ultimately feed back to enable exploration.”

That raises questions about the future of space technology projects at the agency devoted primarily to enabling science missions. Some of those projects have exploration applications and will continue, Jurczyk said. One example he gave was deep space optical communications that will be tested on the Psyche asteroid science mission but which could also be used on future exploration missions.

Less certain is the future of technologies that don’t have similar exploration-related applications. That includes, he said, development of advanced thermal protection system technology needed for future missions to land on Venus or Titan. “We’re not going to send people to Venus or Titan” for the foreseeable future, he said.

For such programs, he said, NASA’s space technology mission directorate will discuss with the science mission directorate how to wrap up, transfer or stop work on them.

That will affect only a small fraction of projects in the overall space technology portfolio. “What it boils down to is that five percent or less of our budget was really going towards things we could count as only science-focused,” Reuter said. “Most of our budget doesn’t really change much.”

Jurczyk is also leading an effort on how to organize the management of the agency’s exploration, space technology and operations programs. One option is to split NASA’s human exploration and operations mission directorate into two organizations, one focused on low Earth orbit operations and one on deep space exploration. The other would be to keep a single organization that would also include the space technology mission directorate.

He said the goal is to develop a proposal by this summer and discuss it with the authorization and appropriations committees in the House and Senate to see if they would support it. That would allow the reorganization to take effect at the beginning of the 2019 fiscal year October 1.

Another agency official said he saw no need to split up operations and exploration. “I see a of advantages of being integrated the way we are today,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, during a separate meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee March 26 at NASA Headquarters.

He noted that, as one example, there are a lot of similarities in preparations for the first flights of commercial crew vehicles as with Orion. “It wouldn’t make a lot of sense if one of those is done in one directorate and the other is done in another directorate,” he said.

He added there’s also ready good cooperation with NASA’s space technology mission directorate, which would be folded into exploration in both options. “I’m not sure there’s a lot of advantages of even moving it into the [exploration] directorate,” he said.

Push for Bridenstine

The new budget and planned reorganization come amid continued uncertainty about the agency’s leadership. Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who has been leading the agency since January 2017, announced plans March 12 to retire at the end of April. Jurczyk said he expected Lightfoot’s last day in the office to be April 20.

The White House nominated Jim Bridenstine for NASA administrator last September, and renominated him in January. In both cases the nomination cleared the Senate Commerce Committee on a party-line vote, but the full Senate has yet to take up to nomination amid widespread speculation there are not the 50 votes needed to win confirmation.

“The White House plans is for Bridenstine to be confirmed before Robert [Lightfoot] retires,” Jurczyk said. “Where they can make that happen or not is to be determined.”

He said he expected a renewed effort for Bridenstine’s confirmation when the Senate returns from its current break the week of April 9. “I know there’s going to be a push to get him up for a vote in the middle of April,” he said.

The Senate did confirm Jeffrey DeWit as NASA’s chief financial officer March 14. Jurczyk said that DeWit, the Arizona state treasurer, is expected to start work at NASA next week.

There is currently no backup plan should Bridenstine not win confirmation before Lightfoot retires, including who would serve as acting administrator, Jurczyk said. “There’s no Plan B right now. They’re pushing Plan A, which is that Jim Bridenstine is confirmed.”