In describing NASA’s bold future, Jim Bridenstine points out he is the first administrator of the space agency who wasn’t alive for the Apollo-era moon landings.
The indelible images witnessed by Bridenstine and his generation are of Space Shuttle Challenger exploding 73 seconds after launch and the Columbia breaking apart as it re-entered the atmosphere. Those tragedies are stark juxtapositions to Neil Armstrong’s “small step,” or Alan Shepard’s “sand trap” golf shots with a makeshift 6-iron, or “moon buggies” bouncing on the lunar surface.
Tuesday marks one year since the former Tulsa congressman was sworn in as NASA’s 13th administrator. Eleven months afterward, Vice President Mike Pence leveled Bridenstine a daring directive: Land the first woman and next man on the moon within five years “by any means necessary” and establish a sustainable human presence by 2028.
In a phone conversation last week from NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., Bridenstine, 43, told the Tulsa World that the challenge is an opportunity for America to lead the world again. A beefed-up NASA budget proposal for Congress to consider is forthcoming to let the space agency accelerate its manned lunar program.
“We need to establish those stunning achievements that people remember, that are not tragic but are in fact positive and encourage the next generation to get involved in the STEM career field,” Bridenstine said. “Some of those stunning achievements will be sending a human to the south pole of the moon for the first time in history and having the first human to do that be a woman.”
Bridenstine said serving as NASA’s leader is “amazing” and “by far” the best job he’s held.
He noted that in the past year scientists have discovered complex organic compounds — building blocks of life — on Mars and methane cycles commensurate with the red planet’s seasons. There also were significant indications found of a body of liquid water under the Martian surface.
None guarantees life — past or present — but the probabilities have gone up, he said. A sustainable human presence on the moon can be a bridge toward manned explorations of Mars.
Bridenstine said the moon’s south pole is a strategic location for humanity’s return to lunar soil based on a remarkable discovery in 2009.
“We now know that there’s hundreds of millions of tons of water ice on the surface of the moon at the poles,” he said. “Water ice represents life support. It’s air to breathe — oxygen — it’s water to drink — H2O — but it’s also rocket fuel.
“If you take H2O and you crack it into hydrogen and oxygen and you put it into cryogenic liquid form, it’s the same rocket fuel that powered the space shuttle. It’s the same rocket fuel that will power the SLS rocket, which is the biggest, most powerful rocket ever built.”
SLS — or Space Launch System — is NASA’s heavy-lift vehicle to take astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit. SLS has overshot its budget and fallen behind schedule, but Bridenstine said requirements are being put into place to get the rocket back on track.
Pence’s speech March 26 at a meeting of the National Space Council referenced that combustibles issue. The vice president, in no uncertain terms, said the priority is “the mission over the means” and private U.S. industry rockets will be used if necessary to meet the five-year goal.
“We need to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil this year. 2019,” Bridenstine said. “That has not been done since 2011. This year we’re going to do it.”
With the unexpected discovery of water ice on the lunar surface that was thought to be dry, the question becomes: What else remains unknown about the moon?
Perhaps rare-earth metals.
Bridenstine said rare-earth metals come from asteroid impacts potentially billions of years old. Earth’s active geology, atmosphere and hydrosphere make those metals difficult to find and only in trace amounts.
The moon isn’t active, meaning whatever impacted the body in the past remains there.
“Which means we could find very precious metals in large amounts on the moon,” he said. “I’m not saying we’re going to; I’m saying I don’t know. But neither does anybody else, and we should find out.”
The south pole also is a desired target because parts of it are under near-continuous sunlight, Bridenstine said. Solar power is critical toward achieving sustainability there.
Bridenstine said a “sustainable human presence” on the moon isn’t akin to scientists living in colonies on Antarctica while conducting research. It’s the capability to have access to all parts of the lunar surface at any time for humans, robots, rovers or landers.
What Bridenstine anticipates to be a catalyst toward that end is one of his first initiatives as NASA administrator: Commercial Lunar Payload Services contracts, or CLPS.
The space agency is working with nine American companies on developing delivery services to the lunar surface for science and technology payloads. Bridenstine said CLPS competition will boost innovation and drive down costs as NASA becomes one of many customers seeking to put cargo on the moon.
He said a sustainable architecture will include:
• reusable “tugs” to go between moon and Earth orbits;
• a reusable space station in permanent lunar orbit, commonly called the “Gateway;” and
• reusable landers that go between the moon’s surface to the Gateway.
Bridenstine noted that every element of the Apollo program was thrown out at the end of a mission. Imagine if a jumbo jet only embarked on one flight before it was thrown out, he said, the costs would be prohibitive.
“The purpose of going to the moon is to retire the risk there like we’ve done with low-Earth orbit,” Bridenstine said. “Retire the risk at the moon and then have commercial industry go there. And then NASA can go to the next step. So it’s about always expanding human presence farther.”