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Space Force, Artemis and going to Mars: A conversation with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine

Associated Press

The following is a transcript from a recent interview conducted on KSL Newsradio’s “Inside Sources,” hosted by Deseret News opinion editor Boyd Matheson.

Boyd Matheson: We’re very pleased today to be joined by the NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. Jim was nominated by President Donald Trump, confirmed by the Senate and sworn in as NASA’s 13th administrator in April of 2018. Administrator Bridenstine was also previously elected to the United States Congress as a representative from Oklahoma’s 1st District, began his career in the U.S. Navy flying E2C Hawkeyes off the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier and has a host of other experience. Administrator Bridenstine, thanks so much for joining us today.

Jim Bridenstine: It’s my honor. Thanks for having me.

BM: But we got to know each other a little bit back when you were in Congress. I’m sure you’re not missing those days today as opposed to being able to to play with all of the wonderful assets at NASA.

JB: Yeah, I’ll tell you, it looks like the Hill is a really rough place to be right now. So I’m very happy that I’m at NASA.

Boyd Matheson: Well, it’s a great spot. It’s a great spot for you. Many people have asked the question, you know, has NASA lost that ability to capture the imaginations of the American people? And I can’t think of anyone better prepared to lead that effort than you.

JB: Well, I appreciate you saying that. I will tell you, there have been some pretty dark days at NASA going back about a decade. We had a moment there, where we retired the space shuttles. And then we canceled the replacement to the space shuttle, the Constellation program. And there was just a lot of a lot of concern about, “What is the agency going to do?” But we’re bringing it back and we’ve got some really big programs that are very close to completion now. And I will tell you with the president and the vice president giving us bigger budgets and bigger missions, with bipartisan support in the House and the Senate. I think our future is very bright and all of America will be very proud.

BM: That’s exciting to hear. And I and I want to dive into some of those programs and some of those initiatives moving forward and and maybe start with the Artemis program. I think that’s probably one that should capture captured the nation’s attention. Tell us about that.

JB: Yeah, so we have a big agenda to go back to the moon. I like to say we’re going to go forward to the moon. I say forward because we’re going in a way that’s never been done before. This time when we go to the moon, we’re going sustainably. In other words, we’re going to stay at the moon. We’re going to learn how to live and work on another world for long periods of time. And we’re going to use the resources of the moon in order to live — namely the water ice. When we think about the water ice, water ice represents water to drink, of course. It also represents air to breathe. And hydrogen and oxygen — that’s rocket fuel. Hydrogen and oxygen is the same rocket fuel that powered the space shuttles. And it’s available all over the south pole of the moon, we’re talking about hundreds of millions of tons of water ice on the south pole of the moon.

And of course, that was just discovered in 2009. So really, you know, 10 years ago, 11 years ago, this major discovery was made. And that should have instantaneously changed our space program. We should have immediately said, OK, we’re going to go back to the moon, we’re going to learn how to use the resources of the moon in order to live and work for long periods of time, and we’re going to take that knowledge. We’re going to take that knowledge to Mars, and that’s really what the Artemis program is all about. It’s about a sustainable return to the moon. And then we’re going to take that knowledge and go to Mars. The thing it’s also important to remember is Artemis, in Greek mythology, is the twin sister of Apollo. And we loved the Apollo program. But remember, in the Apollo days, all of our astronauts came from fighter pilot backgrounds and test pilot backgrounds. And in those days, there were no opportunities for women.

Well, now we have this very diverse, highly qualified astronaut corps that includes women, and we’re going to go to the moon sustainably, with this very diverse astronaut corps under the name of Apollo’s twin sister, her name is Artemis. And she was in fact, the goddess of the moon. So I think it’s really an amazing story to share. You know, America has changed and the space program has changed. And I think it’s a good story that America can be proud of.

BM: Yeah, that is one that I think the American people can get behind, especially in a year like this where we’re celebrating women’s suffrage and a host of other firsts and a lot of great advancements there as well.

So as you look at that Artemis program, you mentioned that it would be really the place where you would be sustainable and then be able to use that to parlay our way to Mars. Tell us a little bit more about that.

JB: So what we need to do is we need to learn how to live and work on another world for long periods of time. The challenge with Mars is that Mars and Earth are on the same side of the sun once every 26 months. So when you go to Mars, you have to be willing to stay for a couple of years. We’re not talking about a couple of days, you have to go for a couple of years. Which means we have to use the resources of Mars to live and work for long periods of time. Well, the glory of the moon is that it’s always a three-day journey home. And so we can go to the moon, we can learn how to live and work on another world. We can prove the capabilities, build the technologies, utilize the water ice, as well as the regoliths and other minerals there on the on the surface of the moon. And then we know that if something goes wrong, we can always make it home. Which, of course, we proved that on Apollo 13, for example. Something went terribly wrong on the way to the moon, and our brave astronauts were able to make it home. That’s why the moon is so valuable. If we were to learn everything for the first time on Mars, the probability of success would go down, and so the moon really represents the best course for us to learn what is necessary to go to Mars. So, around the moon, we’re going to have in orbit what we call the (Lunar) Gateway.

The Gateway is a space station in orbit around the moon, and we’re already under contract to build the first elements of the Gateway, and that Gateway in orbit around the moon is going to give us access to the surface of the moon. It’s maneuverable, it has solar electric propulsion, so it can make sure we can get to all parts of the moon. We learned in 2009, that there’s hundreds of millions of tons of water ice on the south pole of the moon. What’s interesting is how come we didn’t know that from 1969 all the way up until 2009? For 40 years, we missed the fact that there was water ice in hundreds of millions of tons, probably a lot more, on the south pole of the moon. Well, we missed it because we landed at the equatorial region six times with humans. We had 12 humans that landed on the moon six times, but they were all in the equatorial regions where there is no water ice. Well, what the Gateway enables us to do is because it’s maneuverable, it can go it can go to all the different orbits around the moon. And it can get us access to the north pole and the south pole. And we can go to where the resources are, and we can learn how to use those resources.

Well, that same Gateway is also evolvable. So it can be evolved to be the deep space transport that takes our first astronauts to Mars, for example. So it gives us capability and flexibility. At first, it’s going to be all about getting us access to the moon and being a command module for moon activities. But eventually, it’s going to take us all the way to Mars.

BM: That’s fantastic. I want to shift gears a little bit now and talk about some of the interesting components to me in terms of how we continue to sustain this. Obviously, there’s private groups that are out there. So you know, some are questioning what’s the role of the federal government now — public-private partnerships there — as well as the international connection. Obviously, we’re we’ve been reliant on our international allies and alliances as it relates to space for the last number of years. Give me a sense both in terms of continued role for NASA, from the federal government and the private sector, as well as our international component.

JB: Yeah, great question. So it’s another way that this time when we go to the moon, it’s entirely different than we’ve ever done before. We do have a very robust commercial marketplace. You know, people who listen to this maybe on the internet or however they listen to it, maybe they they have their internet from internet broadband from space, or maybe people have DirecTV or Dish Network or XM Radio. There’s all these space based communication capabilities that are transformational and remote-sensing capabilities that are transformational, but here’s the point: The point is there is a very healthy and robust commercial marketplace for activities in space.

And so NASA has made a decision that instead of us purchasing, owning and operating all of the hardware to get things to space, what if we buy the services from this very robust commercial marketplace. So it goes from NASA. We’re going from NASA purchasing, owning and operating the hardware to NASA becoming a customer, one customer of many customers. And when we do that, we’ve been doing it, for example, to resupply the International Space Station.

When we resupply the International Space Station, we buy a service, we don’t purchase, own and operate our own rockets. And it has been very successful. We’ve been very successful at driving down costs, which of course increases access. And we’re doing that now, in fact this year — this is a big deal. This year we’re going to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil. And we’re doing it with a program that we call Commercial Crew. So where we are going to launch on in this case, we’ve got two providers. One is SpaceX with the Dragon Crew capsule, and the other is Boeing, with what’s called the Starliner Crew capsule. And we’re buying services from these two countries to get our astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station.

The idea being that we want to be one customer of many customers. We’re hoping that there is a very robust commercial marketplace that includes humans flying into space. And there’s a lot of reasons to have humans in space. I can get into those in a few minutes. But when we think about commercial resupply of the International Space Station, commercial crew to the International Space Station, and now we’re going to start building commercial space stations, that will eventually be the replacements for the International Space Station. So there’s a robust commercial marketplace where NASA can be a customer. And we can be one of many customers. And we can have numerous providers that are competing against each other on cost and innovation. The goal being that we need to drive down costs.

So we’re doing that already in low Earth orbit. Now what we need to do is we need to take that model all the way to the moon. So when we buy the lander that takes our astronauts to the surface of the moon, that lander is going to be a commercial lander, and we want to buy the service. Now make no mistake, we’re going to invest a lot in developing that capability. So it is a public-private partnership. But we want to have numerous providers that are competing against each other, driving down costs. But we want to do it as a service. And then again, we can be one customer of many with numerous providers that are driving down costs.

BM: That’s excellent. So I want to drill down. You mentioned getting more humans into space. And I want to attack that kind of in two tiers. One obviously, is just the regular consumer, the individuals out there, but then also as it relates to Space Force, and what that means from a military perspective as well.

JB: Yeah, so when we think about technologies that we’re proving right now on the International Space Station, we are proving that on the International Space Station, for example, we can we can compound pharmaceuticals in orbit around the Earth in a way that cannot be done in the gravity well of Earth. We’re proving that we can create immunizations that cannot be created in the gravity well of Earth. We are proving that we can in fact, print in 3D human organs on the International Space Station using adult stem cells. So when we use adult stem cells to print human organs in 3D, what that means is that it’s going to have all of these technologies have amazing breakthrough capabilities for human life here on earth.

And that, of course, the goal being that will drive investment, private capital into the market to do more activities in space than ever before. So we’re using the International Space Station right now to create those markets.

But also, we think about people who have macular degeneration and they lose their eyesight. We’re proving that we can create artificial retinas for the human eyeball in space in a way that you cannot create them on earth so that people who have macular degeneration don’t have to lose their eyesight. And there’s advanced materials like fiber-optic networks that can be created so pristinely in space that you don’t have to have repeaters and of course, that drives down the cost of laying fiber-optic cables throughout, you know, cities. So there’s advanced manufacturing, there’s industrialized biomedicine. There’s all of these different capabilities that are being developed that can only be done in a zero gravity environment, they cannot be done on earth. And once these capabilities are proven, the goal would be that we would see lots of investment in space.

Now to your question about the Space Force. Remember why we have a navy. We have a Navy because there is commerce on the high seas, and without a navy, that commerce is vulnerable. And that’s precisely why the United States of America is powerful, because we have an amazing economy with amazing free market enterprise. And then we also have the strength to back it up. The challenge with space is, as you can imagine, we’re already seeing, you know, it’s already a $400 billion market for commercial activities in space and it’s soon becoming a trillion dollar market. And there are nations out there like China, who have called space the American Achilles heel. Because of how dependent we are on space.

We think about the GPS constellation for navigation. It also is used for regulating flows of electricity on the power grid and regulating flows of data on wireless networks like the cellphone I’m speaking on right now. It’s also used for every banking transaction, a GPS timing signal is necessary. Without GPS, there is no banking. So we are dependent on space in a way that most Americans do not understand. And we want to grow this economy in space. And remember, the economy is on Earth, the activities are in space. But we want to grow it and in order to grow it countries around the world who believe they can bring America to its knees by destroying space, they need to understand that we are not going to let anybody get an advantage over the United States by threatening space.

NASA does not do Space Force. We are not a defense organization. NASA is a science and discovery organization. But I’ll tell you, we are developing an economy and that economy is is put in jeopardy if we don’t have security in space. And that’s what the Space Force is all about.

BM: That’s fantastic. Just in our final few minutes here, Administrator Bridenstine. I just wanted you to talk to the American people in in general, you know. They’ve been listening to this for the last few minutes. What is it that you hope every American thinks about, what do you hope we do about our relationship to space and enter the future of the space program?

JB: Yeah, so I think the future of the space program is very bright. We’re seeing bipartisan support in the House and in the Senate. We’ve got strong support from the president. The president has put the vice president in charge of the National Space Council, of which I am a member. And so the amount of support we’re having right now, I don’t think we have had this much support since the 1960s, when we had people on the moon, you know, in the early days, and of course, the early 1970s, as well.

So I think the space program is strong. I think it’s important for people to recognize how we are dependent on space in ways that most people don’t know. And that’s why it’s important for the American economy. It’s important for national security. And these are the activities that we need to continue to grow. And of course, NASA plays strong. You mentioned international partners. We’re growing our international partners.

I’ll tell you, when we canceled the Constellation program and retired the space shuttles, a lot of our international partners were running for the hills because they thought America didn’t have a vision. Well, now we’re bringing them all back. They all want to be with us on going to the moon. They’ve never been to the moon. Remember when we went to the moon last time it was America alone. This time when we go to the moon, we’re leading a coalition of nations. It puts the United States of America in the driver’s seat to be the leader. But it also gives us access to more resources and capabilities.

And so this is an important program for the nation, for diplomacy, for economics, for national security. And I think it’s a point of pride and prestige for our nation. And so I would just encourage Americans out there who are listening, to know that your country is doing what it can to make sure that America leads and that’s what we’re doing. We’re leading.

BM: Fantastic. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. Thank you so much for joining us. I appreciate your leadership of NASA and our space program and there are some very exciting things ahead that really will capture the imagination of the nation. Thanks so much for being with us today.

JB: Thank you, always. Will do it again.