WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine, an Oklahoma Republican who is among the leading candidates to be the next NASA administrator, called upon his fellow lawmakers Thursday to support the Pentagon as it adapts to a radically shifting landscape in orbit.
Bridenstine, in appearances between two subcommittees of the House Appropriations Committee, also called on appropriators to fully fund the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). One of those appropriators offered, in return, an endorsement of Bridenstine’s unofficial candidacy to become the next NASA administrator.
In testimony in a “members’ day” session of the defense appropriations subcommittee, where committee members receive testimony from fellow House members, Bridenstine made the case for funding a range of military space programs from responsive launch to secure communications.
“In the space domain, the Department of Defense must develop, acquire, operate, and sustain space capabilities in fundamentally new ways,” Bridenstine said.
“Our current space systems are stovepiped, vulnerable, and expensive,” he continued. “Our next-generation space systems must be integrated, resilient, and affordable.”
Bridenstine’s testimony comes at a time when the nation’s capital is anticipating the release of a high-level “blueprint” budget proposal for fiscal year 2018. President Donald Trump is expected to ask for an increase in military spending, though there’s little certainty on how much of that extra funding will find its way to space programs.
The congressman urged his colleagues to support several major defense programs ranging from weather to launch.
The U.S. is falling behind on launch capabilities, Bridenstine said, adding that he would like to see at least $30 million for the Air Force fund responsive launch demonstrations.
“It’s truly disgraceful when U.S. companies, and U.S. astronauts, must hitch a ride on Russian rockets only to see Moscow use the fare to fund its military space programs,” he said in his prepared remarks. “The dearth of U.S. launch capacity is forcing our most innovative space companies to launch overseas on foreign rockets.”
Congress needs to support the Pentagon’s Space Test Program, which is used by the military to test out innovative concepts, Bridenstine said.
“An army of inexpensive, responsive rockets could rapidly populate and reconstitute military satellites,” he noted.
Another of the major efforts currently underway in the Air Force is the study of military satellite communications to draft a way forward following the launch of the last planned Wideband Global Satcom satellites. Bridenstine said the subcommittee should appropriate at least $50 million for research, development, testing and evaluation for the service’s pilot program to demonstrate follow-on capabilities.
“Will DoD replace one stovepiped, vulnerable, and expensive architecture with another? Or will DoD open the aperture and consider integrated, resilient, and affordable alternatives?” Bridenstine questioned. “This [analysis of alternatives] will shape the answer and the SATCOM Pilot Program will inform the process. Dedicated funding is needed to demonstrate promising technologies and commercial business models such as managed services.”
It would be a large boost over the $10 million House approprators gave the program in its fiscal year 2017 spending bill last year, he said, but the funding can help the Pentagon to find a better way to buy commercial satcom services than the current “annual spot market leases” which are “the most inefficient way possible.”
Likewise, Bridenstine said he wants to see more support for securing communications, an effort dubbed the Protected Tactical Service.
“Commercial satcom systems, the kinds that deliver DirecTV and internet from space, have a massive throughput advantage over government systems, but generally lack the most robust military-grade protection,” he said. “Protected Tactical Service helps ‘level the playing field’ by developing standardized protected waveforms and modems usable on both government and commercial systems. Bringing commercial up to military-grade protection moves us closer to a unified Satcom architecture.”
In a further effort to unify satellite architecture, Bridenstine voiced his support for the Air Force’s Enterprise Ground Services, a program that is trying to develop a standardized ground station for satellite control. Leaders at Air Force Space Command have long advocated for more interconnectedness between ground terminals, noting that some operations floors can have close to 20 unique control systems.
The congressman also said he would like to see $10 million in the budget for the Air Force’s follow-on for weather systems and efforts to purchase weather data from commercial services.
Funding FAA’s commercial space office
In a separate appearance before the transportation subcommittee’s members’ day, Bridenstine advocated for funding for FAA/AST. “What we need to within the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation is to make sure they are adequately funded for all the upcoming launches,” he said. That office regulates commercial launches by U.S. companies and also promotes the industry.
AST requested $19.8 million for fiscal year 2017, which appropriators granted in a bill that failed to become law. The agency is operating under a continuing resolution that funds it at the rate of its 2016 appropriations, $17.8 million, a level that FAA officials said last month is making it difficult for their office to make ends meet.
Bridenstine said that AST should receive a significant budget increase in 2018. “I’m requesting that the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation… be funded to the tune of $23 million,” he said.
Bridenstine himself, meanwhile, received a vote of confidence from Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA.
“I strongly support his application to become the new NASA administrator,” Culberson said at the transportation subcommittee hearing. “Jim would do a superb job with that position and I strongly express my endorsement and support for your work. I hope to see you become the new NASA administrator and I look forward to helping you in that role.”
Jeff Foust contributed to this article.