The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Credit: JPL

WASHINGTON — Proposals to restructure NASA’s space technology and human spaceflight programs are on hold as the agency weighs other organizational changes.

Speaking at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council Aug. 30, Steve Jurczyk, NASA associate administrator, said he briefed Administrator Jim Bridenstine on reorganization options last month, but that Bridenstine had yet to make a final decision.

“To date, the administrator has not made a decision,” Jurczyk said. “We decided to defer a decision pending a couple other ongoing actions.”

Plans to restructure the agency’s space technology work stem from development of the fiscal year 2019 budget proposal. Jurczyk said the Office of Management and Budget, in its “passback” of the agency’s initial proposal, directed NASA to look at restructuring funding of space technology and human spaceflight, as well as its organizational structure.

The final budget proposal, released in February, eliminates space technology as one of the major accounts in the budget. Instead, the budget includes an “exploration research and technology” account, along with new “deep space exploration systems” and “LEO and spaceflight operations” that are similar to the existing exploration and space operations accounts, but with some minor changes.

The budget proposal also announced plans to consider related organizational changes that could do away with the Space Technology Mission Directorate. One option, said Jurczyk, was to create a single mission directorate focused on exploration, effectively combining space technology with the existing Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, or HEOMD. A second option would replace the existing mission directorates with two new directorates, one focused on “exploration operations” such as the space station and the other an “exploration systems and technology” directorate.

Jurczyk said the agency study later added a third option that would effectively preserve the Space Technology Mission Directorate, adding to it some advanced exploration technology development currently done in HEOMD.

The study developed various “figures of merit” for the three options, he said, but did not disclose how the three options rated. NASA also considered congressional feedback, with House appropriators accepting much of the reorganization other than keeping NASA’s Human Research Program in the exploration account rather than exploration research and technology. Senate appropriators, by contrast, did not accept the new budget account system at all, using the existing structure in its fiscal year 2019 bill.

Jurczyk said Bridenstine deferred a decision on the new structure because of two issues. One is an ongoing assessment of how HEOMD will manage its various programs, including development of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway and future lunar lander initiatives. That includes determining what efforts are run out of NASA Headquarters and which are delegated to field centers.

Lobbying is already underway by centers and members of Congress to win that work. An Aug. 28 letter by several Republican members of the Texas congressional delegation to Bridenstine asked the administrator to base a future lunar lander program at the Johnson Space Center in the state. “It’s been NASA’s main center for human spaceflight for more than half a century, and there is no better place for a program that will once again land Americans on the moon than JSC,” Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), one of the members who signed the letter, said in a statement.

A second is a study directed by OMB to examine turning some or all of NASA’s field centers into federally funded research and development centers, or FFRDCs, as part of a broader proposed reorganization of federal agencies. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, operated by Caltech for NASA, is the agency’s only current FFRDC. That study was scheduled to be delivered to OMB Aug. 31, with a briefing at OMB planned for Sept. 7, Jurczyk said.

Jurczyk said the agency decided to wait until all of those activities were done before making decisions on restructuring mission directorates. The intent, he said, is to “integrate that into a single plan for NASA of how we’re going to make changes to organizational and program structure to set us up for success.”

Jurczyk didn’t comment on the contents of the FFRDC study, but acknowledged that turning existing field centers into FFRDCs, run by an outside organization, would be difficult. “We have studied this many times over the last couple of decades,” he said. “It’s very challenging to ‘convert’ a civil service organization into a contractor or non-civil service managed organization.”

Les Lyles, chairman of the NASA Advisory Council, concurred. Lyles served on the 2004 Aldridge Commission, whose recommendations included examining turning field centers into FFRDCs as an alternative to closing some centers. That recommendation was not taken up by NASA.

“There are potential good things about it,” he said, “but it’s a huge challenge to try to make it a reality.”

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...