When Jim Bridenstine became administrator of NASA 16 months ago, critics questioned his willingness to defend NASA’s climate science portfolio and his ability to move beyond the partisan politics that characterized his nearly three terms as a Republican from Oklahoma. Since that time, Bridenstine has largely answered those questions. He has stood up for science and sought to work across the aisle.
However, Bridenstine has stumbled where most thought he would succeed—selling and communicating NASA’s programs to Congress. In particular, the administrator appears to have angered some key Republican legislators who will be needed to support increasing funding for the agency’s Moon plans.
For example, in March 2019, Bridenstine revealed at a Congressional hearing that NASA was looking at using commercial rockets to launch an uncrewed Orion spacecraft around the Moon. This represented a bold move, as Congress has demanded that NASA build the large Space Launch System rocket, at great cost, to serve as Orion’s launch vehicle.
After this hearing, the chief Congressional champion of this SLS rocket, Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, was irate. Shelby chairs the Senate committee that writes NASA’s budget. Multiple sources have told Ars that he excoriated Bridenstine, in private, after the administrator’s public comments. Shelby was upset both at the potential side-lining of the SLS vehicle, as well as the fact that no one from NASA had bothered to tell him about Bridenstine’s remarks in advance. Since that time, Bridenstine has been much more deferential to the SLS rocket.
This week, Bridenstine toured progress on construction of the SLS rocket’s core stage at a NASA facility in Southern Louisiana, and then visited the agency’s field center in Shelby’s home state, Alabama. He was to speak at an “all-hands” meeting at Marshall Space Flight Center and also, according to a NASA news release, make an announcement about the Lunar Lander for the agency’s Artemis Program to land humans on the Moon by 2024.
As Ars reported, this announcement would entail handing the Alabama center leadership of the lander program as well as oversight of its “transfer” and “descent” elements. Houston-based Johnson Space Center, which managed the lunar lander during the Apollo Program and historically has designed human spacecraft for NASA, would lead development of the “ascent” part of the lander and report to Marshall.
Again, it appears that neither Bridenstine nor his staff bothered to tell the US Senators from Texas—Republicans John Cornyn and Ted Cruz—about this decision. “Neither the senator nor his staff received advanced notice,” a spokesperson for Sen. Cruz told Ars.
The advance news report of Bridenstine’s announcement prompted Cornyn, Cruz, and the US Representative whose district includes Johnson Space Center, Republican Brian Babin, to write a letter to Bridenstine on Thursday. Citing the report in Ars, the legislators wrote, “This is very troubling if accurate.” Noting Johnson Space Center’s past development of human space vehicles, they wrote, “We are deeply concerned that NASA is not only disregarding this history but that splitting up the work on the lander between two different geographic locations is an unnecessary and a counterproductive departure from the unquestionable success of the previous lunar lander program.”
Although the Texas lawmakers asked Bridenstine to delay his announcement, the administrator pressed on Friday regardless. During an event at Marshall, standing in front of an SLS liquid hydrogen fuel tank, Bridenstine announced the division of work between the Marshall and Johnson centers. “This is not a decision that was made lightly,” he said.
According to NASA’s news release, Babin had been scheduled to appear at the event alongside several Alabama lawmakers. However, Babin decided not to attend. “I am disappointed by the decision from NASA to not place the lunar lander program management at the Johnson Space Center,” he later said in a statement.
A spokesperson for Cruz, too, said it made no sense from a technical standpoint to break apart management of the Lunar Lander across two field centers. “Sen. Cruz has significant concerns about the division of responsibilities for the lander,” the spokesperson said.
In response to these concerns, Bridenstine attempted to smooth things over at Friday’s event. “NASA has a very different look today than it did in the 1960s,” he said. “In the 1960s, if a center led a mission, that center led the mission. Well today, we have telecommunications, and the ability to work remotely, and networks where we can share data and information. The way we work today is we share with all of the centers. I really think this is a great day for the Johnson Space Center. And I mean that.”
It is not only political figures who have questioned the efficiency of breaking management for different components of the lunar lander across two centers.
“The deal is the worst of all worlds,” one senior aerospace official, who is not tied to either the Alabama or Texas center, told Ars. “This sets up an epic battle between Marshall Space Flight Center and Johnson Space Center regarding budgets, mass, and schedule. The whole thing was done wrong.” Instead of accelerating a lunar landing, this source said, this division of work is likely to lead to delays.