NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told a Congressional committee on Tuesday that President Trump’s accelerated timeline to put humans back on the Moon is within the space agency’s capabilities, and that a revved-up lunar mission will improve the odds of American astronauts reaching Mars by 2033. For that to happen, however, Bridenstine said Congress will have to provide some extra funding—the exact amount of which NASA is still trying to figure out.
Speaking to the National Space Council last week, Vice President Mike Pence, on behalf of the president, directed NASA to put Americans on the Moon by 2024, instead of 2028 as originally outlined in Trump’s 2017 Space Policy Directive 1. Pence said the crash program to the Moon should be done by “any means necessary,” including the use of launchers and landers developed by the commercial sector. The U.S. has re-entered a new space, explained Pence, with the stakes now “even higher” than they were back in the 1960s.
Pence also chastised NASA, along with its partner Boeing, for cost overruns and delays in getting the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket developed, saying if NASA can’t get astronauts to the lunar surface in five years, “we need to change the agency, not the mission.”
Harsh words, to be sure, and NASA now has a tremendous hill to climb given the sudden urgency imposed by the Trump administration. As part of a lunar mission, for example, NASA needs to build an outpost in orbit around the Moon, a project known as the Lunar Gateway—but NASA has yet to award a contract for the project, nor does NASA have the landing craft required to deliver astronauts from the Gateway to the lunar surface and back. And as noted, the SLS rocket required to reach the Moon is still in development.
At a NASA town hall held yesterday, Bridenstine said the space agency will require “additional means” to make Trump’s wish come true, adding that no one could possibly “take this level of commitment seriously unless there are additional means.” These comments foreshadowed his appearance today in front of the Congressional Committee on Science, Space and Technology, which is currently reviewing NASA’s budget request for 2020.
Speaking to the Committee, Bridenstine provided no specific details in terms of the “additional means” required, aside from telling Congress that NASA will be submitting a budget amendment request for the 2020 fiscal year given the new directive. As it stands, NASA is asking for $21 billion—but that was before the accelerated timeline. The amendment should be ready for Congress by April 15, he told the Committee. That NASA hasn’t tabled a budget amendment yet is wholly understandable, considering the directive was dropped onto the space agency just last week.
That said, Bridenstine seemed to be emboldened, not discouraged, by the 2024 deadline. The way he sees it, this is an opportunity for NASA and its partners, and by consequence the United States as a whole, to develop the technologies and capacities required for “living and working” in space, as he told the Committee.
“We’re not going to leave flags and footprints and then not go back for 50 years,” remarked Bridenstine, “This time we’re going to stay.” NASA, he said, will work with its international and commercial partners to “go sustainably” and “explore the resources” of the Moon. The NASA chief said the commercial sector has been a tremendous help, providing, for example, the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule that could restore the U.S.’s ability to independently launch astronauts to space. In turn, the U.S. will take the technologies learned from a lunar mission and use them for a future mission to Mars, he said.
“Mars is the horizon goal,” he said, but “the Moon is the tool we need to get to Mars.” Bridenstine alluded to the beleaguered Apollo 13 mission of 1970, saying the three-day travel time to the Moon would serve as a nice cushion should something unexpected happen, whereas the seven-month trip to Mars won’t provide such a luxury in terms of an emergency response time.
At the same time, Bridenstine said NASA will continue “to do the things only the government can do.” He assured the Committee that NASA is “focused like a laser on the James Webb Telescope,” a multi-billion dollar project that could last as long as 30 years. Among NASA’s many other objectives, Bridenstine said the space agency is also looking to develop hypersonic jets capable of exceeding the speed of sound without causing disruptive sonic booms. He envisions aircraft capable of delivering passengers from New York to Los Angeles in just two hours.
In response to a question posed by Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson about the important of returning to the Moon sooner rather than later, Bridenstine said it’s a matter of making scientific and technological progress.
“By moving up the Moon landing by four years we can move up the Mars landing,” he said. “Mars is the proving ground. We have to be able to utilize the resources of another world,” he said, such as gaining access to frozen water-ice.
Bridenstine said he spoke personally with the vice president, assuring him that NASA would be able to meet the accelerated timeline and that the request was “within the realm of possibility.” Many of the elements required to reach the Moon are already in place or in development, he said, but the development of these elements now has to accelerated. But this acceleration, he said, “has to be reflected in the new budget.” Among these “elements” are the SLS, the Orion crew vehicle, and lunar landing vehicles.
“The focus now is getting humans to the Moon ASAP,” said Bridenstine in response to a question posed by Committee member Frank Lucas about the extra funds required. “But not just to get them to the Moon, but to live and work on another world.”
The NASA chief told Lucas that work on the SLS system’s core stage is “proving to be more challenging than anticipated,” but the focus is now on getting it complete, which will then allow NASA to work on the rocket’s upper stage. Budget constraints, said Bridenstine, are preventing NASA from working on these components in parallel. Bridenstine, who described the SLS as the “backbone” of a mission to the Moon, said a recent investigation by NASA concluded that no alternatives currently exist to replace the SLS concept, such as borrowing assets from the private sector.
A number of Committee members, including Suzanne Bonamici, Jenniffer González-Colón, and Troy Balderson, expressed concerns that the pending mission to the Moon will take money away from other important NASA initiatives, such as observatories, STEM-related education programs, and scholarships. The Committee was also concerned that NASA’s ability to track climate change might be compromised by the distraction of going to the Moon.
Bridenstine responded by saying no other nation on the planet is as fiscally committed to science as the U.S., and that NASA, in cooperation with NOAA, will continue to track the effects of climate change. Canceled or de-funded STEM programs, he said, will be offset by other programs, including FIRST Robotics, an engineering contest for high school students.
Committee member Ben McAdams expressed concerns that the accelerated timeline could come at the risk of astronaut safety.
“Are we going to compromise safety? Absolutely not,” Bridenstine responded. “All safety valves are in place—we’re not going to take any undue risk.”
One of the more interesting moments of the nearly three-hour hearing was when Committee member Bill Foster, who received his PhD in physics from Harvard University in 1983, accused NASA of failing to “move the needle” in finding alternative ways of getting cargo and people into space, such as the use of space elevators and electricity-powered mass drivers. Because conventional chemical propulsion is expensive, Foster wondered if NASA is spending money to develop “transformative technologies,” such a fundamental research into carbon nanotubes—a material allegedly strong enough to hold a space elevator in place.
“It depends on the definition you’re using for ‘transformative technology,’” replied Bridenstine. To which Foster responded, “a factor of 10” in terms of cost improvements. Bridenstine had no answer for the congressman.
“Money is not being spent on making space accessible to most Americans,” said Foster, who then asked Bridenstine to reconsider how NASA spends its money.
The NASA head was supremely confident and nonplussed during today’s hearing, brushing aside concerns about tight deadlines and yet-to-be-built technologies. His answers were almost always the same: NASA can get the job done, but only if properly funded. Today, Bridenstine proved he’s not just a good administrator—he’s also a good salesman.