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NASA's Jim Bridenstine: America needs to be first, even in space

October 1, 2018 | MSN - The Examiner

Trump's NASA chief wants America to be first, regardless of whether you're talking about going back to the moon, going to Mars, or finding life on some distant world.

"And to the extent that life is found on a world that is not our own, it should be NASA that discovers it. It should be the United States of America, and not somebody else," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in an interview with the Washington Examiner.

He sees other nations joining NASA as partners, but it is the United States that will be leading on space exploration. "The United States leads here," he said. "We always have, and we always will."

He said the U.S. wants partners, "but if we don’t lead it nobody else will."

In the interview, Bridenstine touched on how the Trump administration is marking the 60th anniversary of NASA this month, as well as other key historic moments such as the 50th anniversary of the moon landing next summer.

Washington Examiner: I was surprised how much Arizona is involved in space explorations these days, especially when mapping out a market for metals and other elements from the asteroid belt.

Bridenstine: I was just out at Arizona State University. There was a congressional forum there — so members of Congress on both sides of the isle — that participated in the forum, and they invited me to speak about space issues.

Now, a lot of people don’t realize how involved universities are in NASA’s mission. A lot of amazing talent resides at universities for research and exploration and those kinds of things, and at Arizona State University, they are the prime contractor for NASA on a mission called Psyche. So, they are headed out to the main asteroid belt with a probe to characterize a massive metal, steel — some kind of metal — a massive metal ball in the main asteroid belt. When I say ball, literally it’s a sphere, the size of the state of Massachusetts. It is thought this is a planetary core of a planet that was destroyed. And what’s left is a core, which is a massive metal ball that’s orbiting the sun out at the main asteroid belt that is between Mars and Jupiter.

So, Arizona State University is leading that mission. And, of course, they do a lot of different things, not just that one mission. But the University of Arizona has their own mission, called Osiris Rex, which is going out to an asteroid called Bennu, and they’re actually going to return samples from Bennu to Earth. We’re going to be able to characterize samples of an asteroid from deep space.

Washington Examiner: Who else is involved in that NASA project?

Bridenstine: Those universities stepped up to the plate, and then they subcontract. So, they’ve got partners [such as] Lockheed Martin, whomever the contractor is. In this particular case, the data that we get from this activity will be explored not only by our researchers, but university researchers.

Washington Examiner: Is the objective here with the OSIRIS-REx and Psyche to mine the asteroid belt eventually?

Bridenstine: Well, certainly we are interested in characterizing what these asteroids are. And the answer is, if they do look like they can have precious metals, there are private companies — that’s not what NASA does — but there are private companies that would love to raise funds and go prospect for those kind of precious metals.

Washington Examiner: So, right now, you’re doing the characterization of what’s there. Is this the beginning stages of that?

Bridenstine: We’re learning about all the different things that are in our own solar system. Things that we should know about and don’t. And we’re going to learn more every day.

Washington Examiner: Is there something special you’re planning for the 60th anniversary of NASA in the next few months? How do you plan to mark that? Are there any special events?

Bridenstine: This October will be the beginning of fiscal year, and that’s in essence going to be the beginning of NASA in 1958. Yes, we are celebrating in October the 60th anniversary of the formation of NASA. Sixty years is phenomenal. Even better, this Christmas Eve is the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8, which was the first time that we sent humans to orbit the moon and then come home safely. And then next July we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, which is when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on the moon for the first time. We have a lot of history that we are going to be celebrating in the coming year.

Absolutely, all of that is under way. But what we like to talk about is what is happening next. The president has signed Space Policy Directive-1, which takes us back to the moon. And when I say back to the moon, I should really say forward to the moon, because we’re going in a way that’s never been done before. The president’s space policy directive said this time when we go, we’re going to go sustainably.

[From] 1969 to 1972, we did six missions to the moon, where we actually had astronauts step on the moon, and from that we left flags and foot prints. But that architecture went away when those missions were over. We want to create a sustainable architecture. So when we go, we can stay.

I’m not just talking about humans. I’m talking about landers and rovers and robots, where we can do more and explore more on the surface of the moon than ever before. So, that’s underway right now.

Sustainably means, we’re going to use commercial partners, and we’re going to use international partners. And we’re going to use reusable capabilities. People have seen what happens when you reuse rockets. The cost goes down, the access goes up. We want everything from here to the moon to be reusable.

Washington Examiner: What are some of the discussions behind the scenes on implementing that strategy? I mean, Elon Musk is definitely focused on reusable rocketry.

Bridenstine: Absolutely. And there are a lot of companies focused on that now. So, we want tugs from Earth orbit all the way to lunar orbit. We want those tugs to be reusable. We need a space station in orbit around the moon to be there for a very long period of time. And we are developing that with solar-electric propulsion. And that should be developed by 2024. It should be fully developed and in orbit.

And then we need landers that go back and forth to that space station. And we need those landers to be reusable. Now the architecture isn’t just American. Any country that wants to partner with us that has a good idea, they can build their own lander.

And commercial partners. If someone wants to go to the moon and prospect for precious metals, certainly they can put together a proposal, and we’d love to have for them to develop a lander to go do that.

So, we want the architecture to all be reusable, and we want to use commercial partners and international partners to learn more about the moon than we’ve ever learned before. And we want that entire architecture to be replicable at Mars. The first space station that we build around the moon, we’ll call it the Gateway. That particular Gateway — the first one — is all about giving us more access to more parts of the moon than ever before. The second Gateway is a deep space transport. And it’s going to take our astronauts from the moon to Mars.

Washington Examiner: It sounds like the U.S. will take the lead, or are you looking to collaborate with an international body like the U.N.?

Bridenstine: The United States leads here. We always have, and we always will. We are the nation that has the preponderance of the capability, the preponderance of the assets, and the budget, and we want to lead. We want the standards, the interfaces — whether we’re talking about docking or power — we want all those standards to be our standards. So, that’s why we build the Gateway. That’s why we build the architecture. And then our international partners can join us. We want them to join us.

We want partners, but if we don’t lead it nobody else will. And so we are going to take the initiative, move out, and have people help us.

Washington Examiner: Is there some contention, potentially, over who has a right to the moon, one country over another?

Bridenstine: The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 is very clear that nobody owns the moon, and we are signatories to that. We cannot own the moon. But what we can do, is have the fruits of our labor extract resources that then we own. So, we can own the resources.

We now know there are hundreds of billions of tons of water ice at the poles of the moon. Water ice is tremendously valuable. It represents life support, air to breath, water to drink. It also represents rocket fuel. If you take water and you crack it into hydrogen and oxygen, and put it into liquid form, cryogenic form, that is rocket fuel. The same rocket fuel that powered the space shuttles. So, think of the moon as having hundreds of billions of tons of rocket fuel.

So, when we put labor into extracting resources, that labor, in essence, turns into a property right, where the U.S. or a commercial partner — it can be any commercial industry that wants to go there — if they put labor into extracting resources, those resources belong to them.

Do they own the moon? No. Do they own the land? No. But certainly they can own the resources.

Washington Examiner: The president has proposed creating Space Force. How is NASA involved in that effort?

Bridenstine: NASA is interested in a Space Force in the sense that we’ve got hundreds of billions of dollars worth of assets in space. And we have humans. We have our American astronauts, and international astronauts on the International Space Station. All that being said, we have an interest in keeping space secure.

NASA doesn’t get involved in national security and defense. That’s not what we do. We do science, we do discovery. We do exploration. We push the edge of technological envelope.

I will tell you when I was in the House of Representatives, I voted for the Space Force three times. We called it the Space Corps, like the Marine Corps. Each time it passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan majorities. Twice I voted on it in committee. The third time I voted on it, it passed the floor of the House, and it had 344 votes. That’s a lot of votes; strong bipartisan support.

This is a national security and defense issue, it will reside in the Department of Defense. But really, if you look at what it would do, it would carve out Air Force Space Command, which does the organizing and training of a space cadre of professionals for national security. And maybe the Space and Missile System Center, which does the acquisitions. So, there is your organizing and equipped functions, which is what your military service does. You carve that out of the Air Force, and there’s your Space Force. And you could add to that, maybe, the Missile Defense Agency. And I’m not saying that they are going to do that, but there are other agencies that could be included in what would be called a Space Force.

NASA’s role in it is we care about space security and we want our astronauts to be safe and we want our billions of dollars in equipment to be secured.

Washington Examiner: How do you foresee that security? What do you mean when you say keeping NASA’s assets secure?

Bridenstine: The dependency the United States has on space. The way we communicate, the way we navigate, the way we produce food, the way we produce energy, the way we do national security and defense, the way we predict weather, the way we understand climate, the way we do banking in this country.

Every banking transaction requires a timing signal from GPS. In other words, if there is no GPS, there is no banking in the U.S. Everything shuts down. There is no milk in the grocery store. It becomes an existential threat.

Electricity flows on the power grid are regulated by a GPS timing signal, as well.

As the United States of America, we are dependent on space to the point to where our adversaries have called it the American Achilles' heel. And they are developing capabilities to deny us access to space. Not just access, but to wreck those capabilities in space. And if they did, they could bring our country to its knees. Big problem.

As a country, we have to make sure our potential adversaries understand that if they want to wreck space, it will not give them in any way an advantage over us. It will be protected.

We have to deter them from ever making those moves to begin with, and I think that is really what the Space Force is all about. If they can’t get an advantage by wrecking space, then they aren’t going to wreck space.

Washington Examiner: You recently explained where you stand on climate change. Could you explain what the change was and how the change came about?

Bridenstine: I gave a speech back in 2013. It was a one-minute speech. And I just had constituents killed in a tornado. And in Oklahoma, I had constituents getting killed in tornadoes every year. And in that speech back in 2013, I was committed to having zero deaths in the country from tornadoes. So, I was looking within the budgets that we have that I have control over when I was on the science committee. How can we allocate resources so we can save lives? That was what I was looking at.

In that speech, I said, "look, temperatures quit rising 10 years ago, but we know I am going to have constituents that die from tornadoes."

I made that speech back in 2013. It was really one line, and I said global temperatures quit rising 10 years ago. And by the way, back in 2013 that was the case. And if you look at the NASA website that data is still there. That temperatures paused for 10 years. Now after that they went back up. But my point there was, I was advocating for resources to be allocated where they could save lives and property today.

Fast forward to me getting the nomination to be the NASA administrator, and all of a sudden this narrative starts being created that somehow I am denying the science.

They went back to the speech I gave that I didn’t even remember that I gave, and they created this narrative out of it. So, it wasn’t entirely accurate to begin with.

All that being said, I will tell you this, here is what we know — and I don’t know anyone who disputes this — carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. It is. And we have put more of it in the atmosphere as humans than existed 100 years ago. And we’re responsible for the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So, we have contributed to the warming climate.

The question is, when you look at feedback from it, we also see right now that the Earth is greening, because carbon dioxide ultimately results in more vegetation. We know the Earth is greening, we know there is more water vapor in the atmosphere, because we’re talking about a temperature increase of 1 degree over the course of 100 years. That has resulted in more water vapor and more cloud formation. Water vapor is a greenhouse gas, meaning it warms the planet. Clouds actually decrease the temperature. So, the question is what are all the feedback mechanisms from this increase in 1 degree Fahrenheit? And we don’t know.

Most people claim that they know, but they don’t know. That’s what NASA does. We are investigating. And we need to continue to investigate these things. Is the Earth’s system stable? In other words, when it goes off temperature for a little bit, does it come back to center, or is it unstable?

If it goes off, does it go off even faster? And these are things that NASA is working towards understanding.

The things that get debated on the Hill are "what do we do about this 1 degree temperature increase?" The answer is, we can debate about it, but that’s not what NASA does. NASA does the science. That’s it. And we want it to be dispassionate of the arguments on what to do about it.

Washington Examiner: So, the Earth observation satellite program, which collects the climate data, is still a priority under your watch?

Bridenstine: Absolutely. The president’s budget request on Earth science within NASA is higher than three of President Obama’s budget requests on Earth science. And it’s tied for the fourth one.

There are narratives out there that he cut the Earth science budget. It’s actually not true. His Earth science udget is strong. It’s in good shape.

Washington Examiner: What are other missions at NASA that the Trump administration has made a priority and is committed to?

Bridenstine: We have a mission on its way to Mars. We call it InSight. We have landed on Mars seven times, successfully. And we’re going to do it an eighth time. We’re the only nation on the planet that has ever done it.

We have a mission we are going to be launching to a moon of Jupiter called Europa. The entire moon is water. The shell is ice and there is liquid water on the inside, which is really amazing. We believe if there is anywhere in our solar system where there could be life off of planet Earth that could be it.

Washington Examiner: The objective is to see if there is life under the ice.

Bridenstine: Yes. That’s right. And to the extent that life is found on a world that is not our own, it should be NASA that discovers it. It should be the United States of America, and not somebody else.

Washington Examiner: How will NASA get through the ice?

Bridenstine: The first part of the mission is called the Europa Clipper. It’s going to orbit Jupiter, but it’s going to come by and take pictures of Europa. The radiation environment in that part of the solar system is exceptionally harsh, quite frankly because of Jupiter. In order for that satellite to last long enough to get a lot of different looks at Europa, we’re going to need it to stay in orbit around Jupiter.

The second mission to Europa will be a lander. How we get inside the ice on that, I don’t think has yet been determined. Or even if we will. We might not need to. We might be able to assess whether there is life without even having to get under the ice.

I believe there is a probability that life exists on another world. And maybe in our own solar system. And we need to find it.