NASA must look for ways to commercialize activity in low Earth orbit so that it can focus on getting humans back on the moon and onto Mars, Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, said Monday.

Speaking at a Washington Space Business Roundtable lunch even in Washington, D.C., Bridenstine said he is looking for space industry partners, non-traditional companies and allied nations to help fund activities happening at the International Space Station so that NASA’s federal funding can be allocated to missions farther out in space.

The International Space Station (Photo: NASA)
The International Space Station (Photo: NASA)

“The government has been providing support to activities in low Earth orbit now for 20 years, and in fact the International Space Station has been there for 18 years,” he said. “What we need to do is we need to figure out, how does NASA go farther?”

The organization is involved in several studies to determine the best way to commercialize low Earth orbit (LEO) efforts, and encourage competition amongst providers to help drive down costs and increase access to space, Bridenstine noted.

“The reality is, given our current budget constraints, if we want to go to the moon and we want to go to Mars, we need to commercialize low Earth orbit and go on to the next step,” he said.

Alternatives could include standalone space stations that are privately funded, launched and put into orbit, that NASA can then use as “one customer of many customers,” Bridenstine said.

The former Republican congressman from Oklahoma also expressed his support for President Trump’s desired Space Force, stating, “Everybody should be advocating for a Space Force.”

The amount of resources that are reliant upon space systems, from communications to navigation, to banking and national security means that the potential loss of access to space is “an existential threat to the United States of America,” Bridenstine said. He noted that NASA does not and would not get involved in defense-related matters, but it does have a stake in the conversation due to its own systems in orbit and its personnel.

“We are the only agency in the federal government that has humans in space. Do they need to be protected? Absolutely,” he said.

Bridenstine said he is supportive of the proposal laid out by Vice President Mike Pence and the Pentagon last month (Defense Daily, Aug. 9) and the new efforts included therein, such as a new combatant command dedicated to space, a Special Operations Forces-like entity to organize, train and equip forces and a new assistant secretary of defense for space.

“You add all that together, it looks a lot like a Space Force,” he noted.

Many of these capabilities already exist within Air Force Space Command, but must compete for funds within the service dedicated to air or cyber missions, “and in my view, they ought to be separate,” he added.

Bridenstine noted that he voted for the creation of a new space service while serving on the House Armed Services Committee (HASC). The effort – then called a Space Corps – was approved in the House version of the FY ’18 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), but was killed in the Senate. Bridenstine served in the House from 2013 until he was sworn in as NASA administrator this past April.

Bridenstine noted the importance of standing up a new combatant command for space in particular. The Defense Department originally stood up a Space Command in 1985, but it was merged with U.S. Strategic Command in 2002.

“Bringing that combatant command back, which is focused not on a geography on Earth but that is focused on a … space security, I think is important,” he added.