Jim Bridenstine really wanted to become NASA’s administrator. As a pilot and congressman from Oklahoma, he sought out opportunities to influence space policy and met with experts whenever he had a chance to do so. He was the rare congressman who engaged in space policy not because he had a NASA facility in his state, but because he had genuine interest.
After President Trump nominated Bridenstine for the administrator position in September 2017, Bridenstine had a long wait. There were fears the conservative Republican would prove an overtly political chief of NASA, driving the space agency hard to the right. The US Senate finally approved Bridenstine’s nomination in April 2018, with a party-line vote. Over the next year Bridenstine showed himself to be a leader for all of NASA. He eschewed partisanship for inclusiveness. He genuinely sought to push NASA forward.
But then, at the end of March 2019, Bridenstine was handed an almost insurmountable task. During a speech at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, Vice President Pence instructed NASA to land humans on the Moon by the end of 2024. “I call on NASA to adopt new policies and embrace a new mindset,” Pence said. “If our current contractors can’t meet this objective, then we’ll find ones that will.”
Though Bridenstine welcomed the challenge, there are many reasons this seemed an impossible assignment. Since Apollo, NASA has tried several times to return humans into deep space and failed. Little of the technology NASA needed for such a mission, from spacesuits to a lander, was close to ready. Far from working as one, the contentious mix of aerospace contractors vying for NASA funding had to be brought together. And finally, a recalcitrant Congress had to be convinced this endeavor was worth funding.
It was a very narrow needle to thread. And yet—and yet—with the recent award of Human Landing System contracts it seems like Bridenstine and his hand-picked chief of human spaceflight, Doug Loverro, are giving the agency its best possible chance to succeed. Here’s a look at why.
Before going further let’s take a quick look at the various interests that Bridenstine must answer to, at least to some degree, in his post as administrator.
The White House
This is his ultimate authority. He answers to President Trump and more specifically Pence, who has overseen the nation’s space portfolio. Bridenstine has clear marching orders to set humans down on the Moon by 2024. After that, Pence has expressed a desire to build up a lunar settlement before moving humans onward, toward Mars in the distant future.
Bridenstine fired the long-time chief of human spaceflight he inherited, Bill Gerstenmaier, in July 2019 for moving too slowly on the Artemis Moon program. But NASA is filled with civil servants at all levels who have their own fiefdoms. They cannot always easily be ordered around, as NASA is a civil not a military agency. Many there prefer to go directly to Mars.
Congress and large aerospace contractors
Congress has funded development of the expensive Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft for more than a decade, touting these vehicles at the backbone of NASA’s deep space exploration program. Leading people in Congress, and its corporate contributors, generally have demanded that any Artemis plans use SLS and Orion.
SpaceX and its brethren in the new space industry are quick to say they can provide faster solutions for NASA’s needs than SLS and Orion, at a lower price. And often, they’re not wrong (SpaceX is beating Boeing in commercial crew, for a significant discount). This is a small, but growing constituency that Bridenstine seems to appreciate.
The bottom line: Bridenstine has a mandate to get to the Moon by 2024, and his key constituencies are at odds about how to do so—and in some cases whether NASA should even do so. These are a lot of cats to herd.
One of the biggest issues facing Bridenstine, who at present has less than five years to get to the Moon, is that rather little of the hardware he needs actually exists. Most all of the rockets, spacecraft, and landers either have not yet been built, tested, or flown with humans. And because there are always development problems in aerospace, he cannot really count on any of this hardware being ready.
To reach the Moon, NASA has three basic needs. And at present, there are multiple paths to fulfilling each need.
Get astronauts to lunar orbit
NASA performed the Apollo landings with an all-up launch on a Saturn V rocket. But neither SLS nor Orion are as powerful as their predecessors. The initial variants of SLS and Orion can get four astronauts into a high lunar orbit (and back home to Earth), which is good enough for the 2024 landing. Although untested with crew, Orion is in good shape. However, the SLS rocket has been perennially delayed and now is unlikely to launch for the first time until 2022. There are “commercial” alternatives. A Falcon Heavy rocket, with modifications, could launch Orion. Orion could also launch on a smaller commercial rocket, and dock in low-Earth orbit with a Centaur upper stage to get its boost to lunar orbit. Finally, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft would require some additional heat shielding, but it also could supplant Orion in a pinch to get crew to and from lunar orbit.
Get the Human Landing System to lunar orbit
NASA picked three separate designs for a human lander and all three could launch on commercial rockets to the Moon. Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander could go on the New Glenn or Vulcan rockets. Dynetics’ lander is baselined to the Vulcan rocket. However, to fly on commercial rockets, the landers would need to be broken into components and then assembled in lunar orbit. Potentially, these landers could be launched fully assembled on an upgraded SLS rocket (Block 1B), but it is highly unlikely this rocket would be ready by 2024—or even a year or two later. Finally, there is SpaceX’s Starship lander. It would be launched to lunar orbit by the company’s Super Heavy rocket, where it would rendezvous with astronauts for a lunar landing. Super Heavy is not yet built.
Land on the Moon
NASA has contracts for design and initial development of three different Human Landing Systems. Very little actual hardware for these exists. Blue Origin has built the BE-7 engine for its lander, and SpaceX has the Raptor engine for its Starship. But industry experts generally agree that developing, testing, and flying even one of these landers by 2024 will require extraordinary effort.
Given all of these challenges, one has to appreciate the plan put together by Bridenstine and Loverro. Their approach plays for time while also addressing some of the problems cited above.
In theory, NASA’s SLS and Orion offer the best technical solution for the Moon landing. But these programs, especially the SLS, have been plagued by development issues. And their long-term costs are staggering. Commercial companies, potentially, offer a better long-term solution. With the 10-month contracts issued in late April, Bridenstine has basically established a competition. If the government programs come together—for example, if the SLS rocket passes its critical Green Run test firing later this year with flying colors—that will bolster the argument of building Moon landing missions around the expensive government technology.
Meanwhile, the commercial companies will also get a chance to show their stuff. Perhaps United Launch Alliance will demonstrate its Vulcan rocket with a test flight next spring. Maybe SpaceX will fly Starship on a suborbital test that showcases its ability to make a vertical landing. Blue Origin could begin flying some of its Blue Moon prototypes.
All the while, Bridenstine has something to offer each of his constituencies. For the White House, he is moving forward to the Moon. Within the space agency, he can continue to build support by establishing a credible plan that demonstrates progress. In Congress, he can explain that he is putting SLS and Orion on a path to succeed. For the commercial companies he can say, look, I’m giving you a chance.
Next year, Bridenstine will be in a good position to move forward (assuming he is still administrator after the 2020 election). If SLS and Orion succeed, he and Loverro can select those programs with confidence. If commercial spaceflight is in ascendancy, he can build support for a more purely private program based upon that evidence. If both are succeeding, NASA can plan around a mix of both.
There are other reasons to like Bridenstine’s approach, too. He had steadfastly pushed for the lunar lander contracts to be fixed-price awards—even in the face of political pressure to make these lucrative, cost-plus contracts for favored contractors. He has favored companies that put “skin in the game” by investing in their own lander designs. Finally, he has shown a willingness to take a chance on new ideas. The “drop tanks” in Dynetics’ design are innovative. Blue Origin seeks to build an ambitious, reusable rocket to make its overall system affordable. And SpaceX, of course, has a plan based around Starship that—if successful—may one day lead humanity to Mars.
In short, Bridenstine is trying to push NASA forward into the future while remaining grounded in the realities of his political world. Odds are still against a human landing in 2024, but damn if he’s not going for it.