Q&A: NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine
‘What we don’t know about the moon is critical’ and could change ‘the balance of power on Earth’
The Senate confirmed Jim Bridenstine to lead NASA in April after months of delay related to Democrats’ concerns about his commitment to the agency’s climate research and Republican infighting over its resources.
During two terms in the House, and the start of a third, Bridenstine was a space enthusiast. He served on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and drafted an ambitious bill to overhaul the way the government manages its space resources.
He’s motivated, in large part, by his desire to demonstrate to people like his former constituents in Tulsa, as well as rural Oklahoma, the importance of NASA and its research to their daily lives. And he’s an outspoken advocate for President Donald Trump’s plan to return an American to the moon for the first time in 46 years and to put the agency in position to oversee a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s.
He spoke to Shawn Zeller this month for the “CQ on Congress” podcast. Here’s an edited transcript:
Q. President Trump says we are going to Mars. What needs to happen for us to get there?
A. What you see from this president is he understands that the way to get to Mars is by using the surface of the moon as a proving ground for all the technologies and capabilities that we need to develop. The president’s Space Policy Directive 1 directed us to go to the moon in a way that is sustainable, in other words not like Apollo. If you look at the Apollo program, it was flags and footprints and when it was over we came home and we never went back.
Q. One of the crucial aspects of that is mining water on the moon that would provide the fuel to propel us on to Mars?
A. If you are going to go to Mars, it’s about a six-month journey. By the time you get there, you’re not going to come home for at least two years because you’re not going to be in the same plane around the sun. We have to figure out how to utilize the resources of Mars in order to live. What’s unique about the moon — and we learned this in 2009 — is that there are billions of tons of water ice at the poles. Water ice is hydrogen and oxygen and when you break ice into its component parts and then you put it into cryogenic form, liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, that’s the same propulsion that powered the Space Shuttle.
Q. Congress in its last NASA reauthorization adopted the goal of 2033. Is that realistic?
A. That is a horizon goal. It’s a visionary goal. It’s not necessarily going to be easy and it will probably require more budget than we have right now but it’s not outside the realm of possibility.
Q. So we would get to the moon much more quickly than that?
A. Absolutely, we want to be to the surface of the moon with humans inside of 10 years.
Q. Experts I’ve talked to say the technology does not now exist to get an astronaut to Mars alive because of things like cosmic rays, radiation, the psychological effects of living in a small ship for months. Can we develop the technology?
A. The answer is yes, but they are absolutely correct. We are not there right now. Here’s what we know about physiology. Every month an astronaut is in space, an astronaut is losing 1 to 3 percent of their bone mass. So you add that up over six months on the journey to Mars, that’s damaging. We also know that the heart deconditions itself when you are in a microgravity environment. We have to figure out ways to make sure the human physiology stays conditioned, and of course we have a lot of concerns about the galactic radiation that ultimately could be very damaging to humans. We can prove all of this out on the surface of the moon, maybe having habitats that are underneath the surface of the moon, and take all of these things that we learn and then feed it forward to Mars.
Q. You mentioned budget. Do we have a sense of what a Mars mission would cost?
A. It depends on timing — how fast do we want to get there? So here’s what I would say: The president has been very generous in the NASA budget. While other budgets are being challenged, NASA is actually being plussed up and then, even better, it goes to Congress and they plus it up even more.
Q. You spoke at the Human to Mars Summit at George Washington University in May. You said we need to use public funds to enable private equity. Is there money to be made for private companies in a Mars mission?
A. Here’s what we have right now because of what the private sector’s already done: For the first time in human history we have reusable rockets, which is driving down the cost and increasing access to space, which means we can put more mass into space for a lesser cost than ever before and then assemble parts of what would be a ship to get to Mars.
Why is commercial doing this? They are doing it because they are serving a $200-$300 billion commercial communication capability that’s in space — DirecTV, Dish Network, internet broadband from space, remote sensing imagery, weather. Now we know there is at least tens of billions of tons of water ice on the moon, potentially hundreds of billions of tons. We learned that in 2009.
What we don’t know about the moon is critical because there could be platinum group metals on the surface, which could change, depending on who gets it first, the balance of power on Earth.
[Trump Taps Senate’s Deputy Sergeant-at-Arms for NASA Post]
Q. A law Congress passed in 2015 would allow the companies that want to mine in space keep the proceeds.
A. Absolutely, we are trying to create that market incentive.
Q. NASA is relying on contractors to build a new deep space vehicle, the Space Launch System, two commercial crew vehicles to replace the space shuttle to take our astronauts to the International Space Station, and an ambitious new telescope, the James Webb. But these projects are behind schedule and over budget. It worries House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith. Is there a contract administration problem at NASA?
A. Lamar Smith is right: There is a challenge here that we have to wrap our arms around and figure out how to fix. What I would tell you, when you think about the Space Launch System, which is the largest rocket ever built, it’s going to give us transformational capabilities that are necessary to get to Mars. No. 2, the James Webb Space Telescope, we’re going to go over $8 billion on that program and that means I have to go back to Congress, in front of Chairman Smith, and I have to ask for a reauthorization. I think that’s the right thing to do. Congress needs to 100 percent buy in on this.
Here’s the important thing: The science we are going to get from James Webb is also transformational. We are going to see for the first time cosmic dawn. We are going to see light from the very formation of the universe. We are going to learn more about the universe in which we reside than we’ve ever known before.
It’s also important to mention commercial crew. That’s our effort to launch American astronauts from American soil on American rockets for the first time since the retirement of the Space Shuttle, since 2011. Since then we’ve been dependent on the Russians, and of course they’ve been raising their prices, from $20 million in 2011 per seat, now it’s $80-some million per seat. And they can do that because we don’t have our own access to the International Space Station that we paid for. We have to get these things fixed.
The other thing that’s important to note is that NASA has done things that have never been done before, the most difficult things. The science and the technology that is required for this means by definition there is a lot of uncertainty when these projects get started. I’m not making excuses. But if NASA is doing what it ought to be doing, we are at the very leading edge of technology, which means there is more risk to what we do.
[From the Archives: Flake Flip on NASA Nominee Followed Senate Tumult]
Q. One of NASA’s big successes is the International Space Station. We’ve invested close to $100 billion in it and yet the Trump administration in its most recent budget says we should phase out federal funding by the end of 2024 and allow the private sector to take over, the idea being to use the money to go back to the moon and on to Mars. Members of Congress led by Sen. Ted Cruz are opposed. Is it right to phase out funding?
A. We’re looking at seven years to figure out what the replacement for the International Space Station is.
Two big things to consider: No. 1, commercialization. We have more companies right now developing space stations for human activity for low Earth orbit than have ever existed before. If we can transition to commercial, then NASA becomes one customer among many driving down the costs and increasing innovation through a competitive market. Second, NASA can then use the resources that it’s been spending on the ISS to go further. We want to build a gateway around the moon, not like the International Space Station, but think of an outpost that has habitation capability, power and propulsion, so we can see more of the moon than we’ve ever seen before and that’s an architecture that ultimately feeds forward to developing our access to the surface of Mars.
Q. Your nomination to lead NASA was controversial because Democrats are worried that you will end NASA’s research into the Earth’s climate. Where do you stand on that?
A. NASA has been studying the Earth for a very long time. In fact, it’s in the 1958 Space Act, which created NASA, and so if you look at the president’s budget requests, they had a budget for Earth science that was higher than three of the years that Obama was president and it was tied with the fourth year, so the president’s commitment to NASA understanding the climate of the Earth and how it’s changing, I think, is there.
Q. President Trump has proposed to create a Space Force, a new branch of the military. Is that a good idea?
A. Yes, I think it’s important for Americans to understand that all of us are very dependent on space, the way we navigate, the way we communicate, the way we produce food, the way we produce energy, the way we do disaster relief, provide national security.
If you think about how we predict weather: 80 percent of the data that feeds our numerical weather models comes from space. The way we understand how climate is changing is driven by space. And the way we do banking: Every banking transaction in this country requires a timing signal from GPS. So imagine if we don’t have banking in this country, within three days there’s no milk in the grocery store. This is an existential threat to the United States. The Chinese are developing and testing anti-satellite missiles as well as jamming, spoofing, dazzling, which is using laser energy, hacking. They are doing all of these things in an aggressive way.
Now, do they have an intent? I don’t know. But do they have capabilities? Yes. We also have to remember that the Air Force was once a part of the Army. It was resisted very strongly by bureaucracy for a long time to take the Army Air Corps out of the Army, and now we’re looking at a similar situation. Back then the new domain was air warfare. Now the new domain is space.
Q. When you were in the House you proposed an ambitious overhaul of the government’s space resources. As administrator can you implement it?
A. There is all of this civil activity in space and then you’ve got commercial activity, which is starting to dwarf the civil activity, and then you’ve got national security space. They are all up against the same challenges but they aren’t really coordinating on how to solve these challenges. They are all creating their own stove-piped ways to complete their architectures but they aren’t interoperable.
That was the purpose behind the American Space Renaissance Act — how do we think about space as a national enterprise and then do things that enable us to work across agencies to ultimately maximize the utility of space for every American citizen? That bill was very difficult to pass because it was so comprehensive, but with the National Space Council we’re seeing bits and pieces of that be put together in ways that are very positive for our country.