NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine testifying July 17 at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on U.S. moon and Mars exploration plans. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine expressed reservations Jan. 27 about a NASA authorization bill introduced in the House last week that he fears could constrain the agency’s approach to human space exploration.

Bridenstine’s concerns about the NASA authorization act, introduced Jan. 24 by the bipartisan leadership of the House Science Committee and its space subcommittee, extend to some in industry who fear being shut out by the House’s approach for returning humans to the moon and on to Mars.

“I am concerned that the bill imposes some significant constraints on our approach to lunar exploration,” Bridenstine said in a statement posted on the NASA website, referring specifically to language in the bill that would make NASA change its approach to developing a human lunar lander.

“In particular, we are concerned that the bill’s approach to developing a human lander system as fully government-owned and directed would be ineffective,” he wrote. “The approach established by the bill would inhibit our ability to develop a flexible architecture that takes advantage of the full array of national capabilities — government and private sector — to accomplish national goals.”

NASA’s current approach to the Human Landing System (HLS) program is to use public-private partnerships, initially with several companies to study lander concepts, then to fund development of one or two landers that would be owned by the companies building them, with NASA purchasing services. The House bill instead called for a government-owned lander, and specified that it be an integrated design launched on a Space Launch System rocket.

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), an industry group whose members include some of the companies bidding on the HLS program, also criticized the language in the bill. “As written, the NASA Authorization bill would not create a sustainable space exploration architecture and would instead set NASA up for failure by eliminating commercial participation and competition in key programs,” the organization said in a Jan. 26 statement.

In a Jan. 27 letter to the bill’s four co-sponsors, Eric Stallmer, president of the CSF, offered even stronger criticism, saying it “explicitly and unfairly excludes the participation of the American commercial spaceflight industry, irrationally barring fair competition from NASA’s deep space exploration initiatives.” Stallmer called on the committee to withdraw the bill and “engage in a fully transparent process” with all stakeholders.

Bridenstine didn’t make a similar request in his statement, instead offering “an opportunity to work with the Committee on a bill that would accommodate a broader partnership approach.” He said that experts in the agency were reviewing the bill to identify any other, more technical issues with the bill.

The bill overall sought to redirect NASA’s Artemis program, which plans to return humans to the moon by 2024, into a broader humans-to-Mars program that would postpone that lunar return to 2028. In addition, the bill calls for a human orbital Mars mission in 2033, and directs NASA to focus its work on technologies for lunar missions to those needed for later Mars missions.

Bridenstine stated that NASA backed an approach “that supports and enables human missions to Mars,” but warned that was a “very challenging” goal. “If we are going to accomplish this goal, we will need the flexibility to rapidly develop technical expertise using the Moon and to fully engage commercial and international partners,” he wrote.

While the CSF came out strongly against the bill, other organizations were more circumspect, and even supportive, of the legislation. The Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, whose members include many companies involved in NASA’s overall exploration programs, said it wasn’t surprised to see the bill emphasize Mars as a long-term goal for the human spaceflight program given versions of that goal have been in past authorization bills.

The organization, though, didn’t address the controversy about specific provisions in the bill, like lunar lander development. “However the path to executing this goal — including meaningful activity at the moon — remains a topic of significant discussion, and this bill is helping to spark a robust exchange about the best way to achieve that bipartisan vision,” Mary Lynne Dittmar, president and chief executive of the organization, said in a Jan. 27 statement.

The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) spoke out in favor of the bill almost immediately after the House released it. “NASA is a critically important organization that is leading us into the future. It not only conducts cutting-edge research, but also drives our economy and inspires the next generation of American workers,” said Eric Fanning, president and chief executive of the AIA, in a statement. “But none of this is possible without the passage of an authorization bill.”

Mike French, who is the vice president of space systems at AIA, also backed the bill. “The space policy community should be smiling. We now have bipartisan, bicameral support across Congress and the executive branch to return to the moon this decade and go on to Mars,” he said in a Jan. 25 email.

The House Science Committee’s space subcommittee plans to mark up the bill Jan. 29. Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.), chair of the subcommittee and lead sponsor of the bill, is scheduled to speak the next day at the 23rd Annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference here, an event hosted in part by the CSF.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...