Today, NASA’s new administrator, Jim Bridenstine, spoke candidly with a group of reporters in Washington, DC about the direction of NASA, touching on everything from deep space rockets to climate change.
During the hour-long roundtable discussion, he maintained NASA’s commitment to studying the Earth from space, as well as continuing over-budget and delayed projects such as the James Webb Space Telescope and the deep-space rocket called the Space Launch System. Bridenstine also promised that NASA would not end the International Space Station program unless the agency had a viable alternative in place.
Here are five of the most interesting topics discussed during the interview:
End of the International Space Station
The Trump administration’s budget request this year called for NASA to end direct funding of the International Space Station by 2025. The goal for the White House is to transition full or partial control of the orbiting lab to private companies by then. However, NASA’s inspector general cast doubt on this plan at a Senate hearing in May, noting that there’s been a lack of interest from the private sector and that a business case for operating the ISS doesn’t exist yet. However, Bridenstine countered that he’s spoken to companies that are very interested in assuming control.
“There are companies that are interested in managing the ISS from a commercial perspective. That exists right now,” said Bridenstine. “And that existed before I got to NASA. Companies were talking to me about this as a member of Congress long before I got here.”
Bridenstine did not specify what companies would want to use the ISS for. He noted it’s possible certain companies may only want to operate part of the ISS, while other portions are de-orbited. It’s also possible that companies will put up their own commercial habitats to use instead of the ISS. He stressed that no decisions have been made on this front. “There’s a range of options here, and what the president’s budget request did is it started this conversation and kind of put it on steroids,” said Bridenstine.
Most importantly, he maintained that there won’t be a gap in access to low Earth orbit for the US. He does not want to repeat what happened with the Space Shuttle when it was cancelled, and there were no American rockets ready to take its place.
“Look, there are kids graduating from high school this month that their entire lives, we’ve had an astronaut in space,” said Bridenstine. “We’ve had people living off the planet their entire lives. We want that to continue in perpetuity forever. So no gap; that’s the goal.”
NASA’s rockets versus commercial ones
For the last decade, NASA has been developing a powerful new rocket called the Space Launch System, which is supposed to take humans to the Moon and Mars. However, the first launch of the rocket has been consistently delayed over the last decade, and once it’s built, it’s expected to only launch once or twice each year at around $1 billion per flight. Critics have argued that this is far too pricey and that NASA should instead rely on cheaper commercial rockets such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which is almost as capable as the SLS and starts at $90 million per launch.
When asked about these criticisms, Bridenstine did admit that the SLS has been expensive and slow. “Of course it’s been delayed, and it’s had its own cost overruns,” he said. But he claimed that he supports the SLS, since no other commercial rockets can match its power.
“There are some areas where we don’t have a mature commercial capability yet, and if that’s the case, it’s my view that NASA needs to provide the government backbone to get us where we need to go,” Bridenstine said. “So when it comes to deep space exploration ... that’s a capability right now that nobody else has. And so we want to deliver it.”
To be fair, it’s a capability that NASA doesn’t have either right now, and probably won’t have for some time. The SLS won’t debut until 2020 at the earliest, and when it does, it won’t be in its most powerful form. At least the first three launches of the SLS from 2020 through 2024 will have a less powerful upper stage on top. NASA then plans to debut the most powerful version in 2025 at the earliest. So it’ll be many years before we see the full strength of the SLS.
Bridenstine says he is open, however, to changing his mind about the SLS if other commercial vehicles can match the capabilities of the rocket in the future. “If there comes a day when somebody else can deliver that, we need to think differently,” he said. “It’s always evolving.” Meanwhile, SpaceX is developing a monster rocket of its own called the Big Falcon Rocket, which is supposed to be more powerful than the SLS when it’s complete. SpaceX has a very optimistic deadline for the rocket: 2022.
Commercial Crew delays
By the end of the year, two of NASA’s major commercial partners — SpaceX and Boeing — are supposed to launch their first astronauts to the International Space Station. It will be a major milestone for NASA’s Commercial Crew program, an initiative that’s tasked private companies with developing spacecraft to take crew to and from low Earth orbit.
However, the Government Accountability Office released a report in January doubting that SpaceX and Boeing would meet their Commercial Crew deadlines. That’s a problem since NASA is running out of options for sending its astronauts to space. Right now, the space agency has bought a limited number of seats for its astronauts on Russia’s Soyuz rocket, but those seats will run out in the fall of 2019. If SpaceX and Boeing aren’t ready by then to launch astronauts, there could be a gap in NASA crew members on the station.
Bridenstine doesn’t think that will be a problem. “I’m confident that Commercial Crew will be ready by the time those Soyuz seats run out,” he said. He also noted that NASA has been looking at the possibility of extending the trips that future astronauts take to the ISS, so that NASA has more time until the Commercial Crew launches are ready.
Some critics have argued that the delays of the Commercial Crew program are partially due to the fact that NASA is holding the companies to an incredibly high safety standard. Both SpaceX and Boeing have to prove that there is only a 1 in 270 chance that their vehicles will fail and cause the death of crew members on board. In comparison, the Space Shuttle had a 1 in 80 chance. The GAO report doubted that SpaceX and Boeing could meet this standard, and Bridenstine noted that the requirement may change.
“It doesn’t look like at this point that’s going to be achievable,” said Bridenstine. “Now what is it going to be at the end? I don’t know. But we’re going to have to make judgements and decisions.”
The fate of the James Webb Space Telescope
In March, NASA announced that its long-delayed space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), would not launch in 2019 as planned, but would instead go to space in May 2020. The fault for the delay lies mostly with the telescope’s main contractor, Northrop Grumman, which has caused damages to the vehicle during the construction process. And Bridenstine conceded that NASA isn’t happy with Northrop’s handling of the telescope. “It hasn’t been good,” said Bridenstine. “They know that. NASA knows that. But we’re going to get it worked out.”
In 2011, Congress capped JWST’s development budget at $8 billion. So lawmakers will have to re-authorize the project now that it’s exceeding that cost cap. Bridenstine said he will do everything to make that happen. “When I testify to Congress, I’m going to encourage them to be committed to this mission,” he said. “We’ve gone a very long way now, and at this point, the science we’re going to get back from the James Webb is sufficiently important that we need to finish the project.”
The delay of the telescope has had repercussions on NASA’s astrophysics program, though. Trump proposed canceling the space agency’s next flagship space telescope, WFIRST, which is supposed to launch after JWST, arguing that WFIRST is too costly. Meanwhile, NASA has told scientists working on future ideas for space telescopes to limit the costs of their designs to between $3 and $5 billion. Bridenstine hinted that it’s getting more difficult for NASA to do big-budget space telescopes. “These type of flagship missions that take a huge chunk of the astrophysics budget present a challenge,” he said.
Earth science at NASA
Democratic lawmakers heavily criticized Bridenstine during his nomination hearing for past statements he had made on climate change, claiming that the Earth is no longer warming. Since getting confirmed, Bridenstine has made it clear that his thoughts on climate change have evolved and that he does believe that human activity is causing the Earth to heat up. Today, he noted that this evolution actually occurred before he came to NASA. As evidence, he said that when he was in the House Armed Services Committee, he adamantly supported a study to find out how climate change affects national security.
At the roundtable today, Bridenstine also established his commitment to studying the Earth’s climate with NASA resources. He voiced his support for two upcoming Earth science missions at NASA, PACE and CLARREO, which President Donald Trump proposed canceling in his budget request for 2019. He noted that those missions are considered priorities by the science community, and so he will continue to support them. “It would seem to me that those are projects we need to consider in the president’s budget request to fund,” he said.
A New York Times reporter asked Bridenstine his thoughts on a Pew Research poll that came out today, which found that most Americans think that Earth science should be NASA’s top priority over going to the Moon or Mars. Bridenstine said NASA will continue to do as many aspects of space exploration as it can. “I think NASA can lead when it comes to studying the Earth and the climate,” he said. “I do think it’s important for NASA to continue its other missions as well.”
Then, Bridenstine, a former Republican representative from Oklahoma, added that his mission at NASA is to keep the agency apolitical. “It’s important that NASA is not involved in prescribing policy, but instead to do the science,” he said. “That’s what keeps our brand good. That’s what keeps our credibility high.”