Over the Moon? Not quite: NASA boss has a good whinge about 'counterproductive' Authorization Bill

It's all Boeing to go wrong unless everyone gets to come to the party

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has dribbled a little something from the scorn bucket over last week's Authorization Bill, which both postpones boots on the Moon and turns the Lunar Gateway into a "Gateway to Mars."

As if trying to follow the "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all" edict, Bridenstine tried to find the positive, commending the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics for taking a bipartisan, consensus approach to things.

Such an approach is critical if NASA is to ever actually do anything, since its goals are usually very much in the long term. However, as well as a bipartisan approach, those goals do need to be relatively stable and, alas, it looks very much like lawmakers have change on their minds.

"I am concerned," said Bridenstine delicately, "that the bill imposes some significant constraints on our approach to lunar exploration."

It certainly changes things, not least the shift in the goal of achieving a crewed lunar landing from 2024 to 2028.

While Bridenstine would likely not weep too much at the prospect of an extra four years, the removal of the Gateway station from the Lunar architecture by the committee will set the nerves of the agency's international partners a-jangling.

The Register asked the UK Space Agency for its thoughts.

Sue Horne, head of Space Exploration at the UK Space Agency, said: "Our long-term goal is to participate in crewed missions to Mars and we view the Moon as a stepping stone to get there. The Moon is nearer and therefore cheaper and easier to test out the new capabilities needed for sending humans on long-duration missions deeper into our solar system. Complex missions like this will require government and the commercial sector working together."

Which is a bit of a problem. While NASA has been busy talking to commercial providers about the technology needed, including landing systems, the bill is quite clear that the US government must "retain full ownership of the human landing system".

"Without the dynamic participation of commercial partners," grumbled Bridenstine, "our chances of creating a sustainable exploration program are significantly diminished."

He also pointed out that getting to Mars was hard, saying: "We will need the flexibility to rapidly develop technical expertise using the Moon and to fully engage commercial and international partners," before describing the limiting of lunar activities as "counterproductive".

The agency, he said, "would appreciate more flexibility in defining lunar surface activities that may contribute directly to Mars exploration".

In other words, would you lot please stick to the law-making and let us get on with all that Buck Rogers stuff?

Given the long history of interference in the space programme by politicians with competing interests, we'd have to offer Bridenstine the best of luck before cracking open the popcorn.

If funded properly, the bipartisan nature of the bill should still see bootprints on the lunar surface before the decade is out, although there remains a real danger of a re-run of the unsustainable Apollo days.

Industry group the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) issued a statement pointing out that "any sustainable space exploration effort must bring together the best of government and commercial industry", warning that the bill, as it stood, "set NASA up for failure by eliminating commercial participation".

Still, Boeing will still get to build all those SLS rockets and the Exploration Upper Stage, so it isn't all bad in the commercial world, right?

While Bridenstine proffered his congratulations to the committee for, er, "this bipartisan consensus in favor of a Moon to Mars exploration program" but not much more, another commercial outfit that isn't Boeing continued with lunar ambitions of its own. ®

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