Bridenstine’s ASRA Bill Proposed Radical Changes in NASA’s Goals, Structure

NASA LOGORepublished from April 25, 2016

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA would be given a mandate to pioneer the development and settlement of space and a commission dominated by Congressional appointees to oversee those efforts under a bill proposed by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK).

The measure’s basic premise is that NASA’s problems stem from unstable presidential commitments to space exploration as opposed to Congress’ tendency to support expensive programs that bring funding into particular states and districts.

“Over the past twenty years, 27 NASA programs have been cancelled at a cost of over $20 billion to the taxpayer,” according to a statement on a website devoted to the measure. “Many of these have come as a result of changes in presidential administrations.

“Due to the decades-long timelines of many NASA programs, the NASA administrator should have a set term that spans multiple administrations,” the website reads. “And instead of ever-changing Congressional budgets, NASA should be given certainty and flexibility to spend resources where most critical. In return for this stability, mechanisms must be put in place to ensure programs remain on track and leadership is held to account.”

Rep. Jim Bridenstine
Rep. Jim Bridenstine

The space agency’s charter would be rewritten with a pioneering doctrine that would read:

“Congress declares that the general welfare of the United States requires that the unique competence in scientific and engineering systems of the Administration also be directed toward the pioneering of space. The objectives of such pioneering shall be to increase access to destinations in space, explore the possible options for development at these destinations, demonstrate the engineering feasibility of such development, and transition those activities to Federal agencies outside of the Administration or persons or entities outside of the Federal Government.’’

Specifically, NASA’s goals would include:

‘‘(1) The expansion of the human sphere of influence throughout the Solar System.
‘‘(2) To be among those who first arrive at a destination in space and to open it for subsequent use and development by others.
‘‘(3) To create and prepare infrastructure precursors in support of the future use and development of space by others.’’

The bill is clear about where NASA should focus its efforts.

“Until Americans land on Mars, NASA’s main human spaceflight priority shall be to land Americans on Mars,” the bill reads.

An artist concept depicts a greenhouse on the surface of Mars. Plants are growing with the help of red, blue and green LED light bars and a hydroponic cultivation approach. (Credit: SAIC)
An artist concept depicts a greenhouse on the surface of Mars. Plants are growing with the help of red, blue and green LED light bars and a hydroponic cultivation approach. (Credit: SAIC)

Bridenstine’s bill would shift power from the president to Congress by creating a 21-member commission to oversee NASA. The president would appoint four members of the commission, with each house of Congress appointing eight members each. The appointments would be evenly split between the majority and minority parties.

The commission would appoint its own chairperson, who would be a former NASA administrator or deputy administrator if feasible.

The president would appoint the NASA administrator from a list of candidates provided by the commission. The administrator would serve a five-year term.

NASA’s administrator would be charged with submitting a multi-year budget beginning in fiscal year 2018. Congress would provide multi-year or no-year appropriations.

The space agency would develop 10- and 20-year plans for the agency that would be reviewed by the commission.

The Robotic Arm on NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander carrying a scoop of Martian soil bound for the spacecraft's microscope. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)
The Robotic Arm on NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander carrying a scoop of Martian soil bound for the spacecraft’s microscope. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

“The first 20-year plan…shall designate a 5-year range by which NASA intends for American astronauts to land on the surface of Mars,” the bill reads. “NASA shall include an update of this range in any subsequent 20-year plan developed before such landing occurs.”

A $250 million revolving fund would be established for the administrator to use for infrastructure projects and programs that are suffering from development problems.

The measure provides for the cancellation of any program that exceeds program life cost projections by 30 percent unless Congress authorizes the continuation of the program.

Bridenstine’s bill would require the NASA Inspector General to develop a process for the automatic removal of the administrator due to program overruns and delays or deviation from the 10- and 20-year plans.

Under the measure, NASA to maintain a permanent presence in low Earth orbit after the International Space Station is retired. NASA is planning to operate the facility with its international partners until 2024 and possibly longer.

Two BA_330 modules docked in lunar orbit. (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)
Two BA_330 modules docked in lunar orbit. (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

The bill calls for a pilot program “to demonstrate the viability and capabilities of crewed commercial low Earth orbit platforms. Any such an agreement shall include a commitment by the commercial partner to fund the development and construction of the private sector low-Earth orbit platform.”

The measure downgrades the role of the scientific community in planning space and aeronautical activities “by striking ‘the scientific community in planning scientific measurements’ and inserting ‘future utilizers of space destinations, including commercial entities, the scientific community, and academia, in planning for measurements.’”

Bridenstine’s bill would prohibit NASA from doing work performed by other federal agencies and require the agency to eliminate any activities that are inconsistent with the pioneering doctrine.

The NASA administrator would hire an independent outside organization to determine which programs should be eliminated or transferred to other government agencies or the private sector.

The bill is silent on what activities would be canceled or transferred. However, it is possible that parts of NASA’s Earth sciences budget would be targeted, in particular any research into global warming. Republicans could argue it is both irrelevant to the pioneering mission and that it duplicates work being done by other federal agencies.

Sen. Ted Cruz
Sen. Ted Cruz

The Republican Party’s position on global warming is that it is not a threat, and its members have severely criticized the Obama Administration for spending billions on researching it. In fact, Bridenstine and fellow Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) have teamed for a similarly named measure aimed at making the country more dependent upon carbon fuels. [Ted Cruz, Jim Bridenstine Push Back Against Climate Change Alarmists with ‘American Energy Renaissance Act’]

Cruz and other top Republicans have argued that NASA’s research should be transferred to other agencies that are also studying global warming. They believe that the work distracts the space agency from its core mission of exploring space.

Bridenstine, who like Cruz hails from a state heavily dependent upon oil and gas revenues, has criticized the Obama Administration for spending more on global warming research than on studying the weather. [Jim Bridenstine: U.S. spends 30 times as much on climate change research as on weather forecasting]

The Congressman has proposed shifting funding from global warming to severe weather research. This change would benefit his native state of Oklahoma, which is prone to tornadoes.

Under Bridenstine’s bill, NASA would be required to lead a study on how results from emerging private sector capabilities could be incorporated into Earth sciences missions.

The measure also includes a 25-percent discount on bids submitted by launch providers that use domestic rocket engines after Dec. 31, 2022.

A massive explosion occurred right after the Antares rocket hit the ground.
A massive explosion occurred right after the Antares rocket hit the ground.

As of Oct. 1, 2019, NASA would be required to determine maximum possible loss from a mission that it contracted to a launch provider. Launch providers would be required to purchase insurance for either $500 million for third-party liability and $100 million for damage to government property, or the maximum probable loss, whichever is less.

NASA would also conduct a study on how to remediate orbital space debris done in cooperation with Department of Defense, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Federal Aviation Administration.

  • Tom Billings

    While the proposed plan is indeed radical, the article does not say just how deep the changes would be.

    I will admit that I like the idea of a NASA dedicated to settling the Solar System through enabling the rest of society to act as much as possible.

    The key question in actually making this work is control of NASA budgets, as always. Basically, it seems the proposal would create a single line item in the budget for NASA. It would then allow the Administrator, guided by the Commission plans and Commission oversight, to allocate those funds. We must note that this slices the agency costs of Congressional Committees and their Chairs from the budget process, but if and only if later Congresses decide to play by the rules laid out here.

    Among other things not clear is the term in office of Commission members. If they are re-appointed at the beginning of each new Congress, then we will have simply added another layer to the funding hierarchy, since each congressional appointment would be influenced by NASA Committees. If they stay in office forever, then we allow their own agency costs to become institutionalized. Agency costs spring up eternally. The only question is how rapidly they are sliced away. That is why markets are such a valuable level of the networks in industrial society.

    Over 10 years ago I was drawing deep frowns from others at symposia and conferences, by stating that eventually the structuring of space science exploration programs would be done by non-academicians, and that people not interested in the science would be setting the basic parameters that determined funding far more closely than political patrons do today. It seems I am not the only one thinking this way. Science disciplines are now so closely tied to academia in the public’s mind, and academia is so reviled as a result of its self-interested political stances, that I am not surprised to see this paragraph in the article:

    “The measure downgrades the role of the scientific community in planning
    space and aeronautical activities “by striking ‘the scientific community
    in planning scientific measurements’ and inserting ‘future utilizers of
    space destinations, including commercial entities, the scientific
    community, and academia, in planning for measurements.’””

    I have had people sitting on Portland’s MaxLine trains beside me, when I wax enthusiastic about lunar lava tubes for settlements, ask why they should believe in the data I talk of, when so much in science is done so badly, and to such obvious benefit for the administrative university staffs. I then have to acknowledge that those budgets provide major funding that helps pay their salaries. I also have to acknowledge that their policies provide shelter and support to the last 20 years of the “I-5 banditos of the Black Mask” that plague Portland, and much of the I-5 corridor. I am very much afraid that the degree of control space science academics have enjoyed through their patrons will either be decreased in this way, or will eventually be cut off entirely, until they distance themselves from academia and its politics.

    To re-emphasize the pioneering mission of NASA is hardly a bad thing. It is inevitable that the priorities of pioneers and scientific academics will clash at some point. Better set up a way to manage those clashes than to insist on utter control for academics.

  • Arthur Hamilton

    This plan is good in certain ways and bad in others. I see it as protecting the status quo and freezing out any future potential SpaceX style companies.

  • Douglas Messier

    I’ve been working on two more in-depth stories about ASRA. Here’s one on the oversight restructuring that I published this morning:

    I’m frankly not sure whether the Trump Administration would be interested in establishing a separate oversight board now that the National Space Council has been revived. They might see it as redundant.

    I’m also working on a separate story about how ASRA would have rewritten NASA’s institutional objectives and downgraded science. That’s been a bit more complicated to write. I expect to publish that within the next day.

  • Tom Billings

    “I’m frankly not sure whether the Trump Administration would be
    interested in establishing a separate oversight board now that the
    National Space Council has been revived. They might see it as redundant.”

    I agree. The better part, now that a NSC will be in place, is the demand for a NASA refocused on pioneering and enabling settlement. Indeed, the least good thing about the NSC revival is that it leaves out an explicit demand for settlement enabling activities.

  • mike_shupp

    Maybe my memory’s faulty, but I can’t think of any major government agency or program which has benefited from a large oversight committee, whether such as the 21-member commission that Bridenstine would drop on NASA, or the grandiose cabinet level space commission headed up by Vice President Pence. Maybe this explains why past iterations of such a commission have generally died without anyone’s regret?

    I also can’t imagine any US President, from George Washington onward, taking that attitude that “Our Florida/Southern/Northern/Western/Space frontier is extremely important for the nation and therefore I must absolutely ignore the program’s leadership and goals and just trust that somehow things will come out okay.”

  • mike_shupp

    I suspect we’ll get through eight years of a Trump-Pence administration without hearing a single word about human settlements in space,

    It seems useless to speculate about “WHY?” The simple point is that 60 years after Sputnik, not a single government on earth has shown the slightest interest in colonizing the heavens. Space enthusiasts need to come to terms with that, understand the factors that explain this reluctance, and figure out paths that avoid the obstacles that impede their dreams.

  • Paul451

    Science disciplines are now so closely tied to academia in the public’s mind, and academia is so reviled as a result of its self-interested political stances

    That and decades of well funded, well organised political campaigning to undermine science in the eyes of the public. (And the fact that scientists are generally bad at coping with political attacks.)

  • Douglas Messier

    The Trump Administration and their allies in Congress and industry have launched a full-scale attack on science across the government.

  • windbourne

    The problem is, that trump/gop are not the only ones attacking science/scientist. Dems have been doing it as well.

  • therealdmt

    Not all bad. I like the emphasis on exploration and handing off things to others

  • Douglas Messier

    No comparison. Not remotely close.

  • windbourne

    No nuke; no nukes; no nukes;
    No Genetic Engineering; No Genetic Engineering;…
    No vaccines; No Vaccines; No Vaccines….
    They CORRECTLY back AGW esp being put forward by James Hansen but then disregard the facts that shows that AE, ESP. WIND/SOLAR, CAN NOT provide 100% of our energy. Worse yet, they not only fight against nukes, which are safe, but also against hydro and geo-thermal.

    I can go on and on and on, but no sense.
    The far left is just as wacky as the far right.

  • windbourne

    So, not only will he work against AGW studies (such as killing off OCO3 even though it is cheap to put up there), BUT he will focus on Mars. By doing mars ONLY, it will be economically impossible to go there.
    Instead, we MUST go to the moon first with private space, let other nations be taken up there as well, and this will help launch many many more SHLVs, which is needed to get costs down.

    I love the idea of a SMALL STEADY GROUP deciding, but it is obvious that he wants to rig the situation. A far better way would be to set up a council of 9, 11, or 13 ppl that will serve 9, 11, or 13 years, respectively, but staggered yearly. President appoints, and CONgress approves. Ideally, each of the NASA administrators would go to the board. This gives continuity of council, but loaded with ppl that KNOW.

  • windbourne

    Pence? Maybe. Trump will be gone by Xmas.

    As to hearing about human settlements, I would not worry about that. Bigelow is NOT going to let this go. He NEEDS to have settlements on the moon.
    While he can put up a private space station, he will not make much money at it. The reason is that few other nations/businesses will want to be there just to be there.
    HOWEVER, if Bigelow, Musk, Bezo, perhaps Bruno (hey, musk is odd man out 🙂 ) announces that they will be on the moon by 2023, then you can bet on it that a NUMBER of nations will want to set up their own space program and will make heavy use of private space stations to get ready for the moon.
    This will force CONgress to follow suit and probably have NASA lead.

  • Douglas Messier

    You can certainly go on and on. That much is true.

    Nuclear power has its rewards but also have risks. People realize that wind, solar, etc. cannot provide 100 percent energy. They’re not THAT stupid. Not everyone on the left is against genetic R&D. And you’ve greatly overstated the opposition to vaccinations on the left.

    The other thing you don’t grasp is while say anti-vaccers are on the far left fringe, climate change denial is mainstream on the right. So is the rejection of most science as it applies to environmental regulations.

    The point is, the left is primarily supportive of science with some exceptions. The right by and large is not real supportive of science with a few exceptions.

  • Tom Billings

    Pooooorr Babies! Your idea, that it is science being attacked, when what is under attack is the use of scientific cover as an excuse for what progressives wanted to do anyway, expand, again, the number of college graduates employed by government in coercing Civil Society, is by now an old excuse itself. It is *not* being listened to!

    What is being attacked is the funding hierarchy, not science!

    As long as the politicians are at the top of the funding hierarchy, their agency costs will be served by those below them!

    If you want science funded without these attacks, then get the money outside political hierarchies. It is those hierarchies, and the academic institutions that depend on them, that are not trusted.

  • Tom Billings

    The simple facts about political lack of enthusiasm for solar system settlement were known by the end of the Apollo program.

    In January 1962, just before the first flight of John Glenn, when Kruschev’s Space Propaganda campaign was winning converts around the world, a major polling group asked voters if they wanted NASA funding increased or decreased. 42% said they wanted NASA funding increased, and only 7% said they wanted NASA funding decreased. That’s was a political profit margin of 35% of voters. NASA funding grew.

    In 1972, after the last Apollo mission, the same polling group did the same poll, with as many of the same voters as they could find. 43% wanted to increase NASA funding, but 38% wanted to decrease NASA funding. The political profit margin had shrunk 7/1. NASA funding decreased.

    In those circumstances, the political community was never going to act as though there was a huge priority to get the solar system settled. The splits between academia and the rest of society were already wide and growing. Worse, inside NASA we had already incubated the turf warriors who spent some time between 1979 and 2004 doing what they could to make sure that no one outside NASA did what NASA was doing. Those are still with us.

  • Tom Billings

    Then campaign to move science funding out of government by expanding other funding.

    That has been needed for decades, anyway.

    Until the rest of us see progressives willing to address their own self-interest, they will not be trusted to have their hands on the levers of information that shape policies.

  • Paul451

    Try more exclamation marks, you might get your point across.

  • Paul451

    The difference is you are describing a group that makes up the fringe of the left, and equating it to a group which dominates and controls (and finances) the right. “Both sides are the same!”

  • Tom Billings

    You continue the fantasy that corporations, and their leaders, can force government legislators to do what is politically unprofitable to themselves.

    As long as politicians perceive, correctly for now, that more money explicitly for space settlement will mean fewer votes, they will not vote more money to NASA, or anywhere else, for space settlement. Only when NASA funding means more votes will we see larger budgets for NASA to go to the Moon or anywhere else.

  • Valerij Gilinskij

    From my point of view, the plan that prevents the emergence and growth of new start-ups, similar to Spasec, can not be “good”. On the contrary, it is necessary to strengthen the capabilities of NASA to promote the development of private space infrastructure in space.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The problem is that if NASA has the capability it prevents private space infrastructure. NASA launching private satellites at Marginal Cost, a practice it engaged in from 1962-1986, basically prevented the emergence of a commercial launch industry. It only emerged after NASA was prohibited to launch private satellites after the Challenger Accident.

    Similarly, as long as the ISS is in orbit it will be hard to make the business case for a private space station, especially as NASA is allowing (CASIS) private research to be done on the ISS at Marginal Cost rates.

    So a NASA with limited capabilities is far better for the development of private space infrastructure.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Which started with the anti-nuclear activists and the environmentalists in the 1970’s. It is interesting to see it has come full circle now.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, both sides use science when it supports their agenda, and are anti-science when it doesn’t. That is why it is incorrect to claim one party or the other is anti-science.

  • ThomasLMatula

    I would hardly call President Obama “fringe”.

    “The Administration is not supporting recycling of spent fuel, and the Obama Administration has not provided any real funding for advanced reactors. In fact, most funded clean energy requests have been to renewables and purposefully not for new nuclear, even though nuclear supplies over 60% of our clean energy.”

    Both policies are against the advice of nuclear scientists and represent the Democrats long history of being against nuclear power, something that has contributed to global warming by blocking the number of nuclear power plants built in the last 40 years, again, against the advice of scientists.

  • ThomasLMatula

    And in terms of GMO.

    “Democrats in the U.S. Senate yesterday blocked a mostly Republican-led
    effort to bar states from requiring labels for foods made with
    genetically modified organisms (GMOs). On a 48 to 49 vote, the
    bill—which would have instead set up a federal, voluntary GMO labeling
    system—fell well short of the 60 votes needed to clear a key procedural

    “Senator Bernie Sanders (D–VT), a Democratic presidential candidate and
    longtime champion of mandatory GMO labeling, celebrated the bill’s

    Of course the strategy of labeling is to make it easier for anti-GMO (anti-science) to target firms with GMO products for boycotts.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Nor is everyone on the right against Climate Change research. And I suspect most Republicans would have no opinion on Climate Change if the Democrats like VP Al Gore or President Obama had not hammered them on it as a key issue.

    For every reaction there is a reaction in politics. Many of the Republican actions are simple political payback, for example shutting off the camera that Al Gore was so proud of making NASA build on “Goresat” AKA DSCOVR.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The problem is that we are incorrectly thought it was governments that settled the New World. Actually most of the settlements were private ventures with the government just taking a share of the profits off the top for granting permission to establish them.

    Columbus for example received a charter to privately settle Hispaniola. But it was only when the government’s payments was less than promised that they sent out an investigator and took them over. Really, that was the basic pattern, European government only got more involved when the settlements failed to generate the promised payments to government, or to protect them when other European powers threaten to take them.

    The few exceptions when governments did settlements directly, like Siberia and Australia, were done mostly to have someplace to dump the undesirables with having to spend money on jails.

    So it amazes me anyone would expect governments to lead in space settlement when they never led in regards to establishing new settlements on Earth. Space, like the New World, will be settled by private ventures, not government ones.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Blue Origins recent announcement that it has increased the diameter of the New Glenn faring to 7 meters (as opposed to 5.3 meters for SpaceX) is good news for Bigelow Aerospace as it gives them a cheaper option for sending habitats to the Moon.

  • windbourne

    And the 7 meters is not the fairing, but the rocket size. It can still be given a larger diameter hammerhead fair, perhaps out to 9 meter.

  • Valerij Gilinskij

    I believe that after 2024 the ISS should be privatized. This can be done by an international consortium. It will quickly become clear that one ISS is not enough. For example, for medical research with virulent materials, a separate space station will be required. Signus from Orbital is a practically ready-made autonomously flying module, which is necessary for the investigation of microgravity.

    In addition, with the advent of commercially available manned spacecraft, the tourist industry in space will be boosted. And what opportunities open after the Dragon will fly around the Moon …

    But that’s not all. After creating a new, methane upper stage for Falcon Heavy, I’m sure, Elon Mask will begin to experiment with its refueling in orbit. I’m sure, not immediately, but he will succeed. And this means that Falcon Heavy can send 60+ tons to the Moon or to the Mars. Not in one launch, but cheaper than the Senate Launch System. And this is more than ever possible SLS.

    And, most importantly, all this will be very soon – until 2021-22. And this, in turn, will create an entirely new reality.

  • Valerij Gilinskij

    In my opinion, the major role in the colonization of other planets will be played by large, including multinational, corporations. They are already “tightly” on Earth, and investing relatively little money (less than the content of the hockey club), they can take their place in a huge, almost limitless market. Therefore, Audi and Caterpillar are already showing their interest.

    But, of course, after the first investors appear, the state will want its share. It is unlikely that this will be a money tax 😉 Rather, the state will require the inclusion of its astronauts in the first crews. And will also be compelled to participate in the financing of the project.

  • Douglas Messier

    So, this is all Al Gore’s fault somehow? He made them do all these idiotic things?

    It’s not the lamest answer I’ve ever heard, but it’s close.