Bridenstine’s likely priorities

Now that the Trump administration has announced its intent to nominate Rep. Jim Bridenstine as the next NASA administrator, we’ll soon learn whether his policy and spending priorities in Congress will equate to an entirely new direction for NASA.

In a wide ranging interview with Aerospace America last year, Bridenstine spoke about many of those priorities. He said he favors continued government research on the climate, including by satellites, while also expressing skepticism about the degree of human influence on global temperatures. He spoke at length about what he described as threatening experiments in space by China and Russia. He said U.S. purchases of RD-180 rocket engines amount to underwriting “Russian space-based military operations.” On the issue of space debris, he raised the specter of the Kessler Syndrome, the theory that wayward objects in orbit will inevitably collide, creating a self-perpetuating cascade of collisions and debris. On weather forecasting, he spoke about the need for partnerships between government and creative companies to gather data that can improve predictions of severe weather, including the tornadoes that regularly strike his home state.

Bridenstine’s experience on aerospace issues is considerable: He flew F-18 jets with the Navy, he is on the House Armed Services Committee and on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. The Space Renaissance Act he introduced last year aims to beef up investment in U.S. space infrastructure. He is an advocate of returning humans to the surface of the moon with the help of rovers.

Here is an edited transcript of editor-in-chief Ben Iannotta’s interview with Bridenstine for the June 2016 issue of Aerospace America.

Navy pilot in afghanistan and iraq

Iannotta: I really appreciate you making time. Do you mind if we jump right in? I wanted to start with a little, ask you about your background a little bit. I know there’s a lot that’s been written about you online and on your website too. Could you just tell again, you flew Hawkeyes?

Jim Bridenstine: Yes. I started off in naval aviation flying the E-2 Hawkeye. I did that, I guess, see I went to the Hawkeye fleet replacement squadron around, it must have been 2000. Then 2001 I went to my first squadron, VAW-113 at Point Mugu, California. I flew there for three years, but deployed quite frequently. That was of course after Sept. 11. We deployed, I deployed on the USS Abraham Lincoln. Went to the North Arabian Sea. Flew combat in Afghanistan. Rolled over into the Persian Gulf on the USS Abraham Lincoln in March of 2003. I was a part of Operation Shock and Awe and then Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Iannotta: Gotcha. Does that mean you’re a pilot?

Bridenstine: I am.

Iannotta: OK.

Bridenstine: Then in 2004 I transitioned to the F-18 Hornet and I flew at the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center in Fallon, Nevada, which is the parent command to Top Gun.

Iannotta: I got you. OK. In the Hawkeyes with Afghanistan, does that mean you were what, controlling air traffic or gathering radar to control air traffic or what kind of things?

Bridenstine: The Hawkeye’s original intent was to do air-intercept control, in other words, bears over the horizon, how does the United States intercept incoming threats kind of deal.

Iannotta: Bear bombers?

Bridenstine: Exactly. Or fighters or whatever the case is. It’s early warning and then air-intercept control. The Hawkeye, though, was the asset in Afghanistan and in Iraq. The mission we did there was called airborne battlefield command and control, ABCC. What we did is we talked to the special operators on the ground or, in the war in Iraq, the forward air controllers on the ground, and we would find out what they were up against. Maybe it was tanks. Whatever they were fighting against, we would determine what the right course of action was.

They would pass us information, we would do a weapon-to-target pairing exercise in the Hawkeye. The right weapon for the right target. But also you need the right guidance system. If you’re trying to defeat a tank, you don’t want to use a GPS-guided weapon because the GPS coordinates don’t move and the tank moves, so you need a laser-guided weapon. Then you’ve got to figure out, OK, if we need a laser-guided weapon, who’s going to do the lasing? Is it going to be a ground lase, is it is going to be a buddy lase from the sky?

We would do those kind of exercises in the Hawkeye, basically trying to figure out what is the right bomb for the right target, what is the right guidance system for the right target, and then orchestrating the tanker plan because you have to get the bomb to the target. You’ve got to get the aircraft back home. Sometimes you need front side tanking, sometimes you need back side tanking. Sometimes you have to move the tankers closer to the forward edge of the battle space, but you also don’t want to get them, they’re a high-value asset so you don’t want to get them in any kind of circumstance where they could get shot down. In Afghanistan, that wasn’t such a threat, but in Iraq, Saddam [Hussein] had his integrated air defense system that was, quite frankly, very robust until we eliminated it.

The mission we did in Iraq was airborne battlefield command and control. It was talking to the forward air controllers, the JTACS, the joint tactical air controllers, and then getting the right weapon to the right target.

Iannotta: Are you still working with the Oklahoma Air National Guard?

Bridenstine: I joined the Oklahoma Air National Guard in April of last year, April of 2015. So, yes. I’ll fly an aircraft called an MC-12, which is a Beechcraft King Air with an intelligence surveillance-reconnaissance capability.

Oklahoma Air National Guard pilot

Iannotta: The Liberty planes, right?

Bridenstine: Yes. They’re not going to be called Liberty in the new role that we’re using them for, but it’s very similar. What I would request for your article, or what you print, I would rather, look, I’m running right now for my third and final term, and should I win, this will be it, and when it’s over I’m going to deploy with my National Guard unit. The last thing I want to do is have them get any special attention, because they’re going to deploy to hotly contested areas. I would rather them not be the target of anything because they’ve got a congressman in their squadron.

Iannotta: Yeah, no, I got you. I wasn’t, I certainly wasn’t going to belabor it, but I saw the reference on your website, so –

Bridenstine: You can say I’m currently serving in the Oklahoma Air National Guard.

Iannotta: Sure. Those MC-12s are doing something domestically, or do you mean they deploy? You guys, you drill?

Bridenstine: Domestically … of course, we’re in this transition phase right now, so we’re not 100 percent sure how we’re going to be utilized. But in the Air National Guard, you work for the governor when you’re domestic, under Title 32. When you deploy under Title 10, then you work for the president. There are missions that we could be involved in domestically which would include counter-drug operations, border security operations, things like that.

Iannotta: Good. That’s really, that’s neat that you’ve got all those interests. We have about 40 minutes, is that right?

Bridenstine: Yeah. If you want to take 40 minutes, we can do that, I guess.

Iannotta: I could probably take, I could take all day. I love this stuff, obviously. That’s why I’m editor of Aerospace America. I used to be editor of C4ISR Journal, by the way. I don’t know if that ever crossed your desk.

Bridenstine: Oh, fantastic, so you know —

Iannotta: One gets rusty. You kind of answered my first question. Why is it you believe so strongly in term limits?

Bridenstine: I really believe that this kind of public service was intended to be temporary. When you’re complete, you need to go back and get a job like everybody else. I believe that’s what the Founding Fathers envisioned, that’s what they intended. They didn’t anticipate that this would be a job that would be a career for members of Congress or politicians.

Iannotta: I got you. So then, what I think is interesting is it seems to, you seem like a man in a real rush to get a lot done in a short time. Is that one of the effects too? Motivating?

Bridenstine: We’re just trying to do the right things for the right reasons and get things done. As far as the rush, I don’t think we’re rushing anymore now than we would be if I was going to be in Congress for the next 20 years. The rush has absolutely nothing to do with term limits, it has to do with the fact that we have threats, this country has threats, and we need to make sure that we’re doing the right things to mitigate those threats.

has u.s. lost its edge in space?

Iannotta: OK. Let’s just plunge right in then. I see the word ‘renaissance,’ obviously, in American Space Renaissance Act. That implies that the U.S. has lost its edge in space. Can you kind of diagnose how that happened and how this fixes it, in a nutshell?

Bridenstine: I wouldn’t say that the U.S. has lost its edge in space. I would say that we still have an edge in space. I would also tell you that the world has changed so dramatically since the United States became the pre-eminent space-faring nation. What used to be only available to governments and superpowers like the Soviet Union and the United States of America is now available to not only superpowers but it seems like every country in the world now wants a space program, and even non-governments, commercial operators, commercial entities want space operations of their own.

It’s not so much that the United States lost its edge, it’s that technology has changed. We now see the miniaturization of electronics. Of course, when that happens, the weight of the devices that get launched into space, the weight comes way down. We see that the cost of launch is coming down. Now you’ve got companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin that are, and ULA, that are initiating reusable launch vehicles. The cost of launch is coming down. Devices are becoming smaller. So access to space is now pervasive. The United States needs to make sure that if we’re going to remain the pre-eminent space-faring nation, we have to make adjustments to the way that we govern ourselves so that we can stay ahead. That’s the intent of this bill, the big picture.

Mining asteroids

Iannotta: Yep. I got you. The 1967 Treaty on Outer Space, does it still make sense? Does it constrain the U.S. too much? Or anyone else?

Bridenstine: It depends, it really depends on how the State Department interprets provisions therein. We have heard the State Department tell members of Congress that, right now, they don’t believe they have the authority to give the green light for some of these nontraditional space activities. For example, asteroid mining. Or in-space servicing of satellites, when you do those rendezvous and proximity operations where you’ve got one satellite joining on another satellite, or human habitats.

We’re hearing from the State Department that under the outer space treaty the United States government has continuing supervision requirements that must be met. They’re saying for these nontraditional space activities, and that would include human habitats as well, like Bigelow Aerospace, human habitats, co-orbital servicing of satellites, asteroid mining, these activities are nontraditional and there is no federal agency that can provide that continuing supervision. The State Department is saying, when we launch for those activities, we would be out of compliance with the Outer Space Treaty.

There will be members of Congress and others that don’t agree with that assessment, but the reality is that’s where the State Department is. What we need to do, I think, is update our regulatory authorities to make sure that the State Department can’t at the last minute say “no” to those entities that are trying to accomplish those objectives.

Iannotta: Like Article 2, full disclosure, I didn’t know this until about 9:45, but Article 2 says a sovereign can’t appropriate a celestial object by claim or occupying it. Does that restrict a private company’s ability to do something like mine an asteroid?

Bridenstine: No, because we passed the Space Act not too long ago.

Iannotta: Is that the Space Launch Competitiveness Act?

Bridenstine: Yes. When it came out of the House, it was just called the Space Act. Of course it got changed in the Senate. But yes, that’s the same bill. The Space Launch Competitiveness Act.

Iannotta: What’s, to get you back on — sorry I knocked you off course — so how does it help?

Bridenstine: It clearly states that according to Congress we believe that we have those authorities. That we can extract resources from celestial bodies and it’s not a violation of the Outer Space Treaty. We’re not saying that … the private company owns the asteroid. We’re not saying that the United States government owns the asteroid. But it could be, the resources therein could be extracted and used for commercial purposes.

orbital debris and “protecting space”

Iannotta: How big a problem is orbital debris, in your mind?

Bridenstine: Huge. Absolutely huge. It’s a problem that cannot be ignored any longer.

Iannotta: What’s the biggest step or two you could take to stop ignoring the problem? Or the U.S. could do to stop ignoring the problem?

Bridenstine: This is a 40-minute conversation. Here is the reality. I’m going to go back to the beginning here of why this is so important. It is not just about debris, it is about protection of space.

Here is what we’re facing today. The Chinese have launched direct ascent anti-satellite missiles. Back in 2007, the Chinese shot down one of their own satellites, a weather satellite in low Earth orbit, creating 5,000 pieces of orbital debris. The Russians also have direct ascent anti-satellite missile programs. The Chinese have not just stayed in low Earth orbit. They’ve tested direct ascent anti-satellite missiles all the way up to geostationary orbit, which is where our communication architecture is.

That geostationary orbit, which is critically important, not only to national security and space security, but critically important for those of us who like to communicate … When you use a cellular phone and you have cellular backhaul. If you have DirectTV or Dish Network. Communications. When you think about space-based infrared sensing so that the United States of America can know when there’s a missile launched somewhere in the world, or you think about Advanced Extremely High-Frequency satellites so that we can communicate over the horizon, communications that are encrypted and anti-jam. Frequency hopping. Protected from some of the greatest threats that you can imagine in space. That’s what AEHS is about.

The Chinese are testing anti-satellite missiles all the way up to the geostationary orbit, which is 33,000 kilometers from Earth. That is a significant change in the threats that we face. The Russians are advancing these kind of programs as well. Beyond just the direct ascent, there’s also co-orbital threats. The Russians have been launching objects into low-Earth orbit that are doing sophisticated orbital maneuvers around rocket bodies. They’re developing rendezvous and proximity operations that could be perceived as threatening. The Chinese are doing the same things. Then you have this Russian Luch satellite, which is all the way up in geostationary orbit and it’s going from one communications satellite to another. These are commercial communications satellites in geostationary orbit and it’s going from one to the other and just parking there.

Iannotta: So how —

Bridenstine: Space is no longer a benign environment where nobody can threaten. It is very real, the threats.

On top of the physical threats, there are also spoofing and jamming and dazzling. Directed energy weapons that are being used against these satellites. All of these things create a risk where, if somebody loses control of a satellite because it’s being jammed, or if somebody has a satellite go stupid because of some directed energy threat, then those satellites become missile hazards, they become just huge pieces of debris. That in itself is unacceptable.

Now, on top of all of this, there are 23,000 pieces of trackable orbital debris. And on top of that we have studies coming from NASA and other space agencies all over the world that are saying the same thing: That in a critical orbital regime in low Earth orbit, from 700 kilometers to 900 kilometers, we have already hit something called the Kessler Syndrome. The Kessler Syndrome says that even if you launch nothing new into space, we will continue to create orbital debris just from collisions that are happening. There are six different space agencies who are saying that we’ve already hit the Kessler Syndrome in that 700- to 900-kilometer low-Earth orbit regime. Which means, if we launch nothing new into space, we will continue to see the population of debris grow.

We’ve got SpaceX, which is launching a constellation of 4,000 communication satellites into low Earth orbit. You’ve got OneWeb which is launching a constellation of 700 satellites. Of course, I don’t know what the final number is. Every time I read a story it’s a different number. We’re talking about multiple hundreds of satellites into low Earth orbit. You’ve got companies like Planet Labs and Black Sky and Skybox, which is now Terra Bella. They’re launching satellites for remote sensing and imagery, into low Earth orbit. All of these companies are launching hundreds of satellites. Then you’ve got companies like GeoOptics and PlanetiQ that are launching satellites into low Earth orbit to do weather detection, or not weather detection but weather sensing. GPS radio occultation or hyperspectral sensing. They’re launching thousands and thousands and thousands of satellites in the next decade will be launched into low Earth orbit. We already know that in some of these orbital regimes we’ve already approached the Kessler Syndrome.

Defense Department’s role in space

Iannotta: Why can’t DoD just stay in charge of watching all of that?

Bridenstine: Here’s why. Because it’s not just a matter of orbital debris, it’s a matter of very real threats. Space is contested by the enemies and the potential enemies of the United States. The DoD has told us, as members of Congress, not only on the Science Committee but also on the Strategic Forces Subcommittee, that they need their men and women who are in the JSPOC, the Joint Space Operation Center — this is the place over in Vandenberg Air Force Base [California] where all of the sensors that are detecting space objects all over the world, it all feeds into the JSPOC, and they have the software to do conjunction analysis and reporting. They do that for free for the entire world. They do it for the United States, they do it for commercial operators, they do it for our international partners, and they even do it for people that are not friendly to the United States. And they do it for free. They do it for one reason. Because space is important and if we lose access to space, it’s a very dangerous, not only to the United States but for the world.

Look, the way we communicate, the way we navigate, the way we produce food and energy, the way we provide disaster relief, the way we do banking. Imagine if banking shuts down in the United States. Electronic funds transfers. Banks to banks. Your ATM machine. When you pump gas at the gas station. All of those things are electronic fund transfers that require GPS. You’ve got the Chinese and the Russians that are building new GPS constellations and they’re at the same time launching direct ascent anti-satellite missiles. If the GPS signal is free and available to the world, why are the Russians and the Chinese developing their own GPS constellations while at the same time developing anti-satellite, not just missiles but also co-orbital capabilities?

What I’m saying —

Iannotta: The implication there meaning, if they knock out GPS, they still want navigation?

Bridenstine: No. The implication being if they knock out GPS, they can shut down the American way of life.

Iannotta: Right. But they have their own satellites, so they can still —

Bridenstine: The question, and I’m not saying that the Chinese are going to do this, or that the Russians are going to do it, I’m saying that these are threats that we have to be prepared for because they’re not doing it for no reason.

Iannotta: That all sounds like an argument to keep it a DoD mission. Aren’t you in favor of having FAA do it?

Space traffic control

Bridenstine: Couple of things. The answer is DoD will always do space situational awareness, and DoD will always protect space assets. That is absolutely true and I don’t want to change that at all. But I will also tell you that what DoD needs is, it needs its it needs it’s men and women at the JSPOC to be focused on fighting and winning wars and not doing conjunction analysis for the next time a weather satellite is going to run into a communications satellite.

When you’ve got two commercial operators, you look at the, back in 2009 there was an Iridium satellite that collided with a Cosmos satellite. What DoD needs to do is not focus on that, but they need to focus on fighting and winning wars and then have a civil authority, a civil agency that is responsible for doing the conjunction analysis and reporting for all of the people that are not involved in fighting and winning wars.

For example, look at the United States Air Traffic Control System. Back when the air space started becoming more contested and competitive, at the beginning it was the Department of Defense that was responsible for making sure that everybody would be conflicted, but eventually it got to the point where there were more commercial operators using the air space than there were military operators and so they moved to a new model, where today we see what the FAA is and how the FAA controls the air space.

What DoD has told us on the committees that I serve on, [is] that they no longer want to be, they do not want to be the FAA for space. Commercial operations are now so prolific that the DoD should not be involved in being the manager of space traffic for commercial operators. They need to be focused on how to fight and win wars because of the threats that we face.

Iannotta: OK, if you think that air traffic control should, for example, be done by a private company like, similar I guess to the way Canada does it, could that ultimately be done someday too as space situational awareness?

Bridenstine: The answer is possibly. Again, a couple of things: As far as the privatization of the FAA, I was not a supporter of that and I’ll tell you why. Because when you have a government monopoly and you privatize something, the goal is to have a competitive free market that reduces prices and increases innovation. That’s the goal of privatization. But what they were doing with the FAA is they were going to take a government monopoly and transfer it to a private monopoly, a nonprofit monopoly, if you will, and then that nonprofit monopoly would have the authority to raise taxes and they would call them fees, and they would — those fees would be on the people who travel on airlines. Of course, the airline tickets would be higher and nobody would know that they were being taxed, but it was going to be a tax. So I was not in favor of that.

I will tell you, when it comes to space traffic, that might be the first step, is you take companies that are doing space situational awareness, right now there are companies doing it that are not the DoD but they’re not doing it because they’re just good people trying to do good things, they’re doing it because commercial operators are looking for services. They’re looking to make sure that their multibillion-dollar investments are not at risk. You’ve got AGI [Analytical Graphics Inc.] and the Space Data Association and the ComSpOC [AGI’s Commercial Space Operations Center] and you’ve got commercial operators out there that are saying, “Look, we can provide more and better analysis of your space assets, to make sure that they’re not going to run into something, than even what the DoD can provide.” People are paying for that service right now today.

What the DoD is saying, the DoD is telling us that … one piece of testimony we had on the Science Committee was that at the JSPOC they get up in the morning and they spend the first couple of hours trying to determine if a screw that was launched in 1974 is going to run into the International Space Station. That’s critically important work, but it’s not what the Department of Defense ought to be doing. The Department of Defense ought to be focused on fighting and winning wars, and allow a commercial operator or a different federal authority be responsible for the general day-to day management of space traffic. I think that’s a differentiator.

Russian RD-180 rocket engine purchases

Iannotta: What’s your favorite solution to reliance on the Russian RD-180 rocket engines?

Bridenstine: That’s a great question. I think everybody, I didn’t directly address that in the American Space Renaissance Act, and the reason I didn’t — that is a very high-profile issue for a whole lot of members of Congress, it’s not short on attention. What I’m trying to focus the American Space Renaissance Act on are issues that are critically important that are not getting as much attention. But the RD-180 issue is important I think for everybody on both sides of the aisle, that we don’t want to be dependent on Russia.

I will tell you this, the head of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, recently said in an article for Aviation Week and Space Technology that they are financing their space-based communication architecture and they’re financing their remote sensing and imagery architecture, we’re talking about their national security capabilities, they are financing those programs with off balance sheet financing by launching what — according to him — foreign astronauts and foreign satellites.

Every time you see a Russian Soyuz rocket launch an American astronaut, every time you see a Russian Soyuz rocket or a Dnepr rocket or a Proton rocket do resupply to the International Space Station or launch a satellite into space, we are in essence financing — the United States government is finanancing — the Russian military space-based communication architecture. We are financing the Russian military remote sensing architecture.That in itself is a problem.

We’re over here focused on the RD-180 engine, but in the meantime we’re spending billions of dollars flat out launching our assets on Russian rockets and our astronauts on Russian rockets.

If you look at Orbital ATK with their Antares rocket and they’re using the RD-180 engine [designated the RD-181, also made by Energomash]. That in itself is funding Russian space-based military operations.

The issues are much bigger than the RD-180. In Washington, everyone focuses on the RD-180 and I believe that’s because there are a lot of parochial interests here, whether it’s SpaceX or ULA or who’s on which side of the issue, and in many cases it’s parochial. But the issue is much bigger than the RD-180, and I will tell you, on both sides of the aisle, we need to get off the RD-180, and we need to do it as soon as possible.

I am not somebody who would suggest that we need to cut off our nose to spite our face, though. We need to do it smartly. We need to have assured access to space, and we need to do it in a way that doesn’t break the budget. Which means, temporarily, we will be dependent on the RD-180. And again, this in itself is a failure of government in Washington D.C.

Climate science

Iannotta: I want to hit some other ideas too. How much of a priority should NASA or NOAA, or maybe which one, how much priority should they give to gathering climate-related readings, whether by satellite or aircraft or, I guess, even ocean buoys?

Bridenstine: A couple of things, and these are arguments that people have, Republicans and Democrats, about global climate change and what’s causing it and that kind of thing. Again, in the American Space Renaissance Act, we did not directly address that issue. We left it alone because we didn’t want this bill to become some kind of partisan thing. We wanted it to focus on issues that both sides agree on, are necessary to reform in order for America to be the pre-eminent space-faring nation into the future.

That being said I will tell you, I’m a guy that comes from Oklahoma and I have absolutely no problem studying the climate. That’s what these assets do. They study the climate. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Iannotta: Is there any data that they can produce that would change your view, and I think your view is that fossil fuels and human activities aren’t warming the climate?

Bridenstine: My view is that if you look, and again this is not what the American Space Renaissance Act is about —

Iannotta: … You made that clear that you’re not talking about this in that context.

Bridenstine: Right. Here’s what I would tell you. That if you look at the Chinese and the Russian and the Indian production of carbon emissions, it is overwhelmingly massive compared to the carbon footprint of the United States of America. If we unilaterally damage our economy while they continue to grow their economy by damaging the environment, whether or not you believe that that’s contributing to climate change, then we’re not serving ourself well. We even had testimony from EPA, their own analysis indicates that if we push forward with the current agenda, according to the EPA’s own analysis, the amount of temperature increase change or less increase change is not even measurable. That’s their analysis, not mine. Because the United States does not have a big enough carbon footprint to make a difference when you’ve got all these other polluters out there. So why do we fundamentally want to damage our economy even more when nobody else is willing to do the same thing?

Iannotta: Couldn’t the U.S. be a leader then in that case?

Bridenstine: That’s what we have been. That’s the irony of the whole thing. Our carbon footprint, we have this huge economy by comparison to all these other countries, our carbon footprint is smaller than theirs by massive amounts. So we have led. The question is, “Who’s following?”

Iannotta: I wanted to get just a little more fundamentally into that because I feel like I put words into your mouth, which is kind of a no-no in my business, at least the way I do my work. So just tell me your view on human contributions, if any, to what’s happening with the climate.

Bridenstine: I would say that the climate is changing. It has always changed. There were periods of time long before the internal combustion engine when the Earth was much warmer than it is today. Going back to the 1600s. We have had mini ice ages from then to now. There are a whole lot of factors that go into the changing climate that are not purely carbon emissions.

Iannotta: I got you. Before we leave that, just because I’ve, I hear that line of thought a lot. Wouldn’t it be like, you rent a car, the car starts going faster. Well, that could be because you’re going downhill, and gravity, a natural force, is making you go faster. Or it could be because you’ve got your foot on the accelerator, a human force. So isn’t that really what the question is here?

Bridenstine: That’s why we need to continue studying it. Again, I am not opposed to studying it. What you’ll find, though, is that the space-based assets that are studying climate change are not in agreement with the terrestrial assets that are studying climate change. In fact, the space-based assets are not corroborating some of the data.

mars vs. europa

Iannotta: I’m going to completely switch gears on you. Where do you come down on Mars versus Europa? You can recalibrate my question if you want, but I’m curious about what somebody that works on the Hill in this area, I mean it seems like that’s a real bit of a conundrum now, where to put the resources. A Europa mission or a Mars, further Mars missions.

Bridenstine: That’s a great question, and I will tell you, [Rep.] John Culberson [R-Texas] is a great friend of mine. He is somebody who is a champion for the Europa mission. Of course, he’s chairman of the Commerce, Justice, Science Subcommittee on the Appropriations Committee. He fully believes that Europa is the place to go. He believes that, if there is anywhere in the solar system where life could be found, Europa is the place. I don’t disagree with him. I don’t know. I’ve not studied it the way he has studied it.

I will also tell you that the whole world, all of the space agencies throughout the world, are looking to go to Mars. It seems to me that if we’re going to maximize the resources available to do something like that, Mars would be, should be the horizon goal. My problem has been, and one of the things we outlined in the American Space Renaissance Act, is that, the challenge we have is we get testimony on our committees — I’m on the Science Committee; I’m on the subcommittee on space, … We get testimony saying, “We need to spend this much money to accomplish these objectives so that we can have a mission to Mars.” Then we have the National Research Council do an independent assessment and they say that, given the current budgets and strategies and missions, there is no way that we will ever get to Mars, ever. Not that we’re going to get there ten years later than we anticipated, not that we’re going to be delayed a couple of decades, but that there is no way to ever get there. Which just, this was a study that came out in 2014.

Iannotta: You mean a human mission.

Bridenstine: That’s right, a human mission. That’s right. Of course that just floored me because I’d been listening to testimony saying that we need to make these investments for a mission to Mars. I know now only me, but of course it infuriated members of Congress on both sides of the aisle who have been under the assumption that we going to have a mission to Mars.

We say that NASA needs to give us very realistic assessments and they need to provide a plan and that we need to have people who are not affiliated with NASA vet this plan to see if it’s actually possible before we go forward and just start handing them money. If the answer is we can’t get there, then we ought not be wasting the resources of people. If the answer is we can get there, then we should. It wouldn’t be a waste at that point.

Iannotta: I’m guessing you probably saw SpaceX’s announcement about sending a Dragon capsule to Mars. They’re launching in 2018.

Bridenstine: I knew that they had done that, but I haven’t looked at it or seen it.

Iannotta: …well I guess the bigger question I was going to ask coming out of that would be, can commercial providers help make this more affordable, getting to Mars?

Bridenstine: I think the answer is absolutely yes. I think commercial needs to have a big play in it. One of my philosophies, and we bring this out in the American Space Renaissance Act, one of my philosophies is that NASA and NOAA and agencies that are a part of the federal government, they need to be focused on areas that are not mature enough yet for commercial operators to invest resources. They need to be pioneers, if you will. They need to go first. When it is time, they need to commercialize those opportunities. For example, the International Space Station is not something that commercial operators would have built on their own. But since we have seen the value in it, there are now commercial operators that are building space stations, Bigelow being the one that most people associate with.

If we can commercialize operations, human operations in low-Earth orbit, we should commercialize human operations in low-Earth orbit. Then NASA can focus its missions beyond low-Earth orbit. The International Space Station is rapidly coming to an end of its useful life. Right now they’re saying 2024. Some people are saying we can get it to remain until 2028, but the bottom line is it’s not going to be around forever. What do we do when the International Space Station is at the end of its useful life? We now have commercial resupply to the International Space Station. We will soon have commercial transportation for astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station. And we’re going to have commercial space stations in low Earth orbit. Commercialization really enables NASA to focus further down the road and let the private sector focus where there’s commercial capabilities.

Iannotta: … There’s one question I want to ask you and I kind of, I really, I bounce it back and forth in my mind. When I look at your record, and I haven’t spoken to John Culberson, but of course I read a lot about him and see a lot of things he says. You guys are both very activist. I don’t mean activist in a get on the streets and march sense, but you’re not just exercising oversight, I think, you’re bringing ideas to the table. Is there a danger of micromanaging though? Should Congress really be telling NASA, “You must launch a lander and an orbiter to Europa simultaneously”?

Bridenstine: You’d have to ask Chairman Culberson about his philosophy on that. I don’t want to, I’ve not been involved in that mission so I don’t know what the right answer there is, but I do believe that it is true that you don’t want to be prescriptive in how to accomplish the objectives we’re trying to accomplish. What we do need to do is make sure we’re providing oversight, and if they’re telling us they’re going to do something and they need a certain amount of budget to accomplish that objective, and then we learn from other entities that there’s no way that they will ever be able to accomplish that objective, then we need to react. We need to say, “Okay, we need a real assessment of what you can accomplish with this level of funding. How can we help achieve the objectives that are important to us, and what is that going to cost?” Those are the things that are important.

Drone business

Iannotta: Switching to just another area. I saw that Oklahoma was turned down by FAA as one the UAS drone test sites a while back. How’s the drone business going in Oklahoma after that, how are things evolving?

Bridenstine: There are a lot of universities that are continuing to do research in that area. Of course, the interest I have in it is weather. I have constituents that die every year in tornadoes. There are capabilities that we can use, unmanned aerial vehicles  that can help us predict tornadoes hours in advance instead of minutes in advance. We can warn our populations based on the forecast of the tornado rather than, what we do now is just wait until we detect a tornado, then we warn people. That’s going to require us to continue to utilize these capabilities, and our universities, Oklahoma State University and even the University of Oklahoma, are very focused on that mission. And there are companies here developing capabilities for that mission as well.

I will tell you that the market there is not going to shrink any time soon. We’re going to save lives. That’s what this is about. It’s about saving lives. When it comes to predicting tornadoes, there’s a capability there that we need to take advantage of.

In Oklahoma we have a program called the Oklahoma Mesonet and every county has a tower that is collecting boundary layer data. That boundary layer data is very important for knowing the energy levels in the boundary layer so that we can better predict severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.

Iannotta: … Could you just give me a 20-second primer on boundary layer?

Bridenstine: Boundary layer is about 4,000 feet and below. It’s the atmospheric activity from the surface of the Earth up to about 4,000 feet.

Iannotta: This is what you’re saying the UAS or drones could look at?

Bridenstine: Yes. Right now we have towers in every county that go up to, say, 200 feet. But we need to get higher than that. If we had a quadcopter that could go straight up and straight down and collect the data in the atmosphere all the way up to 4,000 feet and then come down, you’re getting temperature, pressure and humidity for the entire boundary layer across the entire state of Oklahoma.

Iannotta: You can’t do that from space?

Bridenstine: Actually, we’re getting better at it, which is another reason that we’re doing the American Space Renaissance Act. There are capabilities that can reach into the boundary layer. Hyperspectral sensing. There’s a company called Tempest Global Data that does hyperspectral sensing. It’s a commercial company. They’re going to launch satellites into geostationary orbit that are, basically you’re going to take CAT scans of the atmosphere all the way down to the surface of the Earth. Once we have that amount of data, then we can put that data into a numerical weather model where we can actually predict tornadoes, in some cases, hours in advance. And save lives.

That’s a piece of the American Space Renaissance Act. What we’re saying in the bill is instead of NOAA always turning to big prime companies and purchasing, owning, and operating multi-billion dollar satellite programs, NOAA could simply buy data from commercial operators that are in space, and but the data to feed the numerical weather models, and you’ll get more data, you’ll get better data, and you’ll share the cost. The reason these companies are launching these space-based assets is because they are serving customers in, the insurance companies, they’re serving the agricultural industry, the energy industry, the transportation industry. Weather is very valuable in these industries, and so they’re, a lot of these companies are buying data from commercial space-based operators to feed their own numerical weather models to better predict weather so that they can have a competitive advantage over their other competitors in their industries —

Iannotta: So could you — I’m sorry go ahead —

Bridenstine: What I’m saying is that we could, the government could be one customer of many customers buying that data. You’d get more data, better data, and you’re sharing the cost, so it’s cheaper to the taxpayer.

Iannotta: Do you foresee NOAA, or whichever agency, getting out of the business of buying expensive weather satellites and operating them for years on end?

Bridenstine: I don’t. I’ll tell you why. Because there will always be a need for a government backbone. We will always have that need. But I will also say that we can augment the data with new sources and more resilience. Remember, the Chinese shot down a weather satellite. It was their own weather satellite, but it was a weather satellite. In 2014, the Chinese hacked into the National Weather Service. That’s the US National Weather Service, and they compelled us to shut down ground stations so that our weather satellites couldn’t communicate. Now the Chinese are doing that kind of activity because the way you fight and win wars is through information dominance.

The answer is, how do we mitigate that? We need more resiliency. We need more sources of data that are shared in different frequency spectrums, that have different encryption, that have different anti-jam capabilities. Commercial can provide this.

When you think about right now, GPS radio occultation is a capability that will provide thousands and thousands of pieces of new data every hour. We should take that data and feed our numerical weather models. Those constellations are not being launched because NOAA is asking for it, they’re being launched because commercial companies are asking for it.

Iannotta: You’ve mentioned a couple of times, you’ve referred to offensive actions in space and the potential of attacks on satellites and the history you cite is dead-on, isn’t it? Couldn’t the answer be, hey, get all the countries to sign a treaty that we’re not going to attack each other’s satellites or put weapons in space. In fact, I think Russia proposed that and the United States rejected it, if I’m correct.

Bridenstine: A couple of things. Number one, the Outer Space Treaty does prevent the weaponization of space.

Iannotta: Does it? I thought it was nuclear weapons. I could be wrong.

Bridenstine: No, I’m pretty sure it’s weapons, in general.

Iannotta: I yield.

Bridenstine: What I would also say is, the Russians are currently in violation of the INS treaty, the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty. They’re in violation. The State Department admits it. The Obama administration admits it. And yet we’re still complying with our obligations under the treaty, but the Russians are not. If the Russians are, and this is not new, this is a matter of the way the Russians behave, we enter into treaties, we honor them and they don’t. This is a challenge.

The answer is yes. If we could come to some kind of verifiable tools where we could guarantee that they were in compliance, the answer would be yes, we could do that. But right now we’re just not there. In the meantime, we can’t let them continue doing what they do and us not have a response.

Iannotta: It’s been a great discussion. I think I have you deep into overtime now.

Bridenstine: A couple of other things. When I talked about the weather stuff. It is absolutely true that we will need a government backbone. Nobody cares more about that government backbone than the guy who represents constituents in Oklahoma. I hope that is part of your article. I don’t want to cannibalize the JPSS and the GOES program, which are the government programs. My objective is not to cannibalize those programs because my constituents depend on those programs to not get hit by tornadoes.

Ben Iannotta: Yeah, I got you.

Bridenstine: If we can have more data and better data with taking advantage of commercial sources of data, we should do that. The key term there is distribution and disaggregation. If we can distribute the architectures, look, if the Chinese want to shoot down a satellite that, like a JPSS satellite, that’s thousands of pounds. Of course, when it’s on Earth it’s thousands of pounds. It’s big and it’s like a Battlestar Galactica satellite. They can shoot that down. But if you have instead hundreds of small satellites that might be the size of a microwave, the Chinese could shoot one down and it would be irrelevant. That in itself is what prevents space from being a battleground. Because if they know that shooting down a satellite will not change the outcome of the war, then they’re not going to shoot it down, and they’re not even going to make the investments necessary to shoot it down.

We protect space by distributing our architectures. That’s true for weather. It’s true for communications. That’s why commercial needs to be such a big part of our communication architecture. The government will always have a backbone for communications over the horizon for the Department of Defense. But we also, right now we lease 80 percent of the capacity that we utilize as war fighters, 80 percent of that capacity is leased from commercial. We need to lease more from commercial. Again, that means we’re taking advantage of dozens of satellites, if not over a hundred satellites that the Chinese simply can’t, they can’t shoot them all down. Or the Russians or whoever. I think that’s an important piece. It’s not just communications and weather, but it’s also remote sensing and imagery. Which is why the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, the NGA, they’ve created a commercial space policy a number of months ago. Again, they’re trying to distribute the architecture. They’re going to be buying imagery and data from commercial operators.

Iannotta: This is the disaggregation theme that you’re pursuing.

Bridenstine: Absolutely. The more we can disaggregate the architectures, the more resilience there will be in space. The quickest way to do that is to take advantage of commercial operators that are already there.

Iannotta: This is going to be, at least the plan right now, our Q & A feature for the June [2016] issue. I might, if something else works as a separate story, I might do that, but I don’t know. Is there anything else that you’re surprised I didn’t ask or that you feel like you didn’t get your message across?

Bridenstine: I would say that, one last thing that I think is critically important. When you think about the Department of Defense and NOAA and NASA, as things are being commercialized, which I think is important, because it brings, like I just said, it’s bringing resilience and distribution, disaggregation, and it’s lowering the cost to the taxpayer and we’re getting more and better data and information. As all of that happens, one thing to keep in mind is that we have to have a domestic, very robust launch capability. I’m not just talking about SpaceX and ULA. I’m talking about a venture class launch capability. Small rockets that can reconstitute satellites in low Earth orbit at a lower cost.

NASA has put forward a venture class launch program that I think is important. I think the DoD needs to replicate that. There’s a lot of talk about RD-180 engines. But what we need really in this country is a commercial venture class launch industry where we don’t have to turn to the Russian Dnepr rockets, we don’t have to turn to the Russian Proton rockets or the Soyuz rockets. But our commercial operators can launch on domestic rockets.

Iannotta: …This has been interesting because you can see clips of somebody, or you can surf around the web and read up, but maybe it’s kind of a statement on where we are in the information age, but I feel like I kind of had this caricature of you and your views that was much simpler. Your views seem a lot more nuanced than I thought.

Bridenstine: That’s the way politics is. Everybody wants to create a picture of who they think you are and not who you really are.

Iannotta: Yeah, I got you.

Bridenstine: I appreciate you very much.

Iannotta: Taking my journalism hat off, thank you very much for your service over there in Iraq and Afghanistan and your ongoing work with the Air Guard.

Bridenstine: Awesome. Well thank you. We’ll keep it up. All right. Talk soon.

"I would say that the climate is changing. It has always changed. ... There are a whole lot of factors that go into the changing climate that are not purely carbon emissions."

Rep. Jim Bridenstine
A man in a business suit with a striped tie speaks during a presentation in a room with purple walls.
Credit: Defense Department

Bridenstine’s likely priorities