NASA Chief Lays Out Lunar-Exploration Plans, Commits to Climate-Change Research

NASA chief James Bridenstine unequivocally told a Senate panel that human activity is the primary cause of climate change, reversing his earlier skepticism, and sketched out a five-year, $52-billion lunar-exploration program.

In his first testimony on Capitol Hill following a lengthy confirmation process during which critics attacked him for controversial environmental positions, Mr. Bridenstine on Wednesday received bipartisan support for many policy priorities.

Under his direction, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration seeks to pursue various private-public partnerships to develop a family of spacecraft intended to return astronauts to the Moon by the early 2020s.

To maximize such partnerships for initial unmanned lunar missions, contractors will “provide all activities necessary to safely integrate, accommodate, transport and operate” rockets, landers and re-entry systems, according to Mr. Bridenstine’s prepared testimony ahead of his appearance before the Senate appropriations subcommittee overseeing NASA. Such principles, according to the statement, demonstrate NASA’s “ongoing confidence in the ability of U.S. industry” to help meet the nation’s exploration objectives.

Mr. Bridenstine also reiterated that by 2023, the U.S. will launch the first proposed building blocks of a government-funded “gateway” for exploring deeper into the solar system.

More than previous NASA spending blueprints, the current plan aims to better coordinate human and robotic missions to develop technologies needed to eventually reach Mars. And the agency foresees extended stays by astronauts on the lunar surface as vital steps toward that ultimate goal.

In his initial weeks on the job, the former Republican congressman from Oklahoma has moved quickly to shake up personnel and commit to continue scientific missions expanding Earth imaging and delving into climate change. Mr. Bridenstine told the Senate appropriations subcommittee overseeing NASA that he agreed with the scientific community’s consensus describing human activity as “the dominant cause” of greenhouse gases leading to global warming.

Mr. Bridenstine’s views have evolved markedly since his nomination last year, when he indicated the extent of human contribution to climate change wasn’t clear. In a televised town hall meeting last week with NASA staff, he said human beings were contributing to greenhouse gases “in a major way.”

Following Wednesday’s hearing, Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, who sparred with Mr. Bridenstine during the confirmation hearing, posted a message on twitter praising the NASA chief’s latest statement as “an act of common sense and courage.” The lawmaker said in a separate tweet: “I don’t want to overstate it, but it also shows that people of good faith, when exposed to the facts, can in fact acknowledge the reality of what we are doing to our planet.”

But looming over the NASA chief’s current honeymoon phase is a major dispute: The White House aims to cut off all federal funding for the international space station by 2025, arguing that will free up more than $3 billion annually for expanded exploration efforts. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, however, have vowed to continue funding the orbiting laboratory that is backed by more than a dozen countries—and cost about $100 billion to assemble—for at least several more years.

In his prepared testimony, Mr. Bridenstine said NASA has earmarked limited seed money to encourage private ventures to take over and use part of the orbiting facility past the 2025 deadline.

But last week, a House science committee heard Bhavya Lal, a researcher at the Institute for Defense Analysis, a Pentagon-backed study group, testify about the challenges of building a smaller station or reusing part of the existing one. “It is unlikely that a commercial space station would be economically viable by 2025,” Ms. Lal said.

Experts from the Government Accountability Office have reached basically the same conclusion.

Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who chairs the Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over NASA authorization bills, has characterized as “deeply troubling” proposals for retiring the space station before the end of the next decade and called them a potential waste of billions of dollars.

Write to Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com

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