Shooting for the moon
By Cat Hofacker|June 2019
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and his agency have just five years to accomplish what Americans haven’t done since 1972. Landing on the moon in 2024 will require many different pieces of the mission architecture to come together, from the heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket that’s still in development to the Gateway, a proposed reusable command and service module. At the same time, NASA can’t forget that the mission won’t just be about going to the moon in 2024, but also forward to Mars. NASA must accomplish all this without losing sight of its other responsibilities, including gathering data about Earth for climate scientists. Just over a year into his tenure as administrator, Bridenstine spoke with me by phone from his office about NASA’s new era of space exploration.
2024 moon landing “technologically achievable”
We have to make sure that we hit our milestones and we don’t make mistakes and we don’t have setbacks. To make sure that we don’t have setbacks, we need to build redundancy into the architecture as much as possible. So instead of one lander, maybe we have two landers that can go from the Gateway down to the surface of the moon. Those are the kind of things that we’re looking at to ensure success for the 2024 moon landing. In order to accelerate as fast as possible, one of my first initiatives even before the 2024 directive was given was to create what we call the Commercial Lunar Payloads Services program. CLPS [pronounced “clips”] is what we call it, and so we were turning to commercial industry and saying, “If NASA had a payload, who can deliver it and for what cost?” In other words, the access to the moon for small payloads is not going to be by NASA purchasing, owning and operating its own hardware, but instead buying a service from commercial industry.
High risk but high return
We do understand that through the Commercial Lunar Payloads Services program there will be failures. I want to make sure that gets known. There will be failures. In other words, not everybody who attempts to land on the moon is going to be successful. I see CLPS as kind of a venture capital effort. It’s high risk, but it’s very high return, and it’s low cost. So, low cost, high risk, but a very high return for successful missions. That was an initial program that we put together to help inform us how we would get humans to the surface of the moon eventually, and when those humans are on the surface of the moon, what are they going to be doing? What are the most interesting parts of the moon scientifically that we can investigate? Remember, we had an effort to land on the moon in 2028; so in order to get to 2024 what we’re doing is we’re taking some of those investments that we were going to make in ’25, ’26, ’27 and ’28 and we’re pushing them forward to today.
The reason we want to commercialize low Earth orbit in general is so that we can have more resources to go where there isn’t yet a commercial industry. In low Earth orbit we have an interest in being one customer of many customers, which drives down our costs. We also have an interest in having numerous providers that are competing on cost and innovation, and we are rapidly approaching that in low Earth orbit. And what does that mean for us? That means that we can use the resources that are remaining to do things for which there isn’t yet a commercial market, namely go to the moon and on to Mars. Again, we want to, at the same time, work to commercialize activities in cislunar space and then of course at Mars as well. So the reason we commercialize is so that we can use the taxpayers’ resources to do the things that only NASA can do. We don’t want to do things that commercial industry can already do.
Overcoming political challenges
I feel pretty confident. I think most people understand the history. The history is that since 1972, which was the last time we landed on the moon, there have been many attempts to get back to the moon, and all of the attempts have failed. Not because of technological challenges, but they have failed because of political challenges. The goal here is to make sure that we are not doing the things that make this politically problematic, which have been tried in the past. So we need strong bipartisan support in order to achieve the end state. It’s how President Kennedy was able to achieve the moon landing back in the 1960s. He had strong bipartisan support. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon continued that bipartisan support that ultimately resulted in a moon landing on July 20, 1969. We just have to make sure that we’re doing all the right things to make this as apolitical and bipartisan as possible.
The path to Mars
As we are headed toward the moon, we want to build technology and capability that is replicable at Mars, and that’s what we’re doing. There are people who say that you can get to Mars without using the moon. I think that’s crazy; I think it’s unsafe; I think it would be inappropriate. What we learned during the Apollo program is that the moon is the path to Mars. We saw what happened on Apollo 13: Our astronauts made it home safely. Why? Because they were going to the moon. If they were headed to Mars, it would have been the end of the story for them. The moon is the proving ground; it’s the place where we can learn. It’s the place where we can ultimately understand how to utilize the resources of another world to live and work and ultimately apply all of what we learn at the moon, where it’s only three days away, as opposed to Mars, which is a seven-month journey plus a two-year stay.
The allure of Mars
Number one, we now know that there are complex organic compounds on the surface of Mars. So the building blocks for life exist on Mars. That doesn’t mean that there is life on Mars. We don’t know, but those complex organic compounds do not exist on the moon. They exist on Mars; they exist on Earth. It might be an indicator of something, and I think it’s important that NASA continue to investigate. In the last year we also learned, because of the Mars Curiosity rover, which discovered the complex organic compounds, but we also learned that the methane cycles on Mars are commensurate with the seasons of Mars, so that’s a big discovery. Doesn’t guarantee that there’s life, but the probability has gone up. And then not related to NASA specifically, but an orbiter of Mars from a different country discovered that there’s liquid water 12 kilometers below the surface of Mars.
Maintaining urgency for Mars
Yes, I’m concerned about that. The answer is we need leadership, but remember, the goal here is to put that first human on the moon since 1972 in 2024, to have a sustainable lunar program by 2028 and then to do all of the things we need to do to learn how to live and work on another world, and then go to Mars. There’s a lot of things that have to be invented in order to go to Mars. The moon is the proving ground, but if 10 years from now we don’t have active leadership attempting to make that next great leap, it will be a problem. But I can tell you right now this administration is very motivated and highly focused on achieving the moon landing and making sure that the technologies we develop are applicable for an eventual Mars landing.
America leading the way
We lead because we bring the preponderance of the assets and a preponderance of the capabilities, and without our leadership, quite frankly, it just won’t happen. We are very open, and we want international partnerships, 100%. This is about American leadership, and we want them to be with us when we go to the moon, but the reality is America is going to lead. That’s who we are, that’s what we do, it’s what we’ve done in the past and it’s what we’re doing now. Absolutely this is an effort internationally that we want to lead on. If you just look at the International Space Station, for example, the United States of America provides 77% of the resources for the International Space Station, and there are 15 different nations that participate in the International Space Station from an operational perspective. So while we are one of 15, we bring the preponderance of the capability and the preponderance of the assets. So it’s up to us to lead. We can either choose to lead, or we’re just not going to go, but we have to lead. Certainly we want to lead with a coalition of international partners to achieve even more spectacular outcomes.
In November, we landed InSight on Mars, which was the eighth time in human history that we’ve landed on Mars. The United States of America is the only country that’s ever done it. InSight is going to give us great information and data about the formation of Mars and, really, how planets in general form. It’s going to have the ability to understand Mars quakes and asteroid impacts on Mars. Another big accomplishment was entering orbit around Bennu with OSIRIS-REx. The idea that we can actually orbit an object as small as Bennu, characterize it for a period of years and then bring a sample home from that asteroid in deep space, that will be a first for humanity. Another big accomplishment was flying by Ultima Thule in the Kuiper belt, which is 4 billion miles from Earth. This was the first time we’ve ever had the ability to get good scientific data and characterize an object that is that far from Earth. Even more impressive is the fact that it was from the same New Horizons mission that gave us beautiful images of Pluto back in 2015. Another big accomplishment was launching a Commercial Crew to the International Space Station with the [SpaceX] Crew Dragon. Even though it was uncrewed, it was a demonstration of what Commercial Crew will bring.
Strong on Earth science
Understanding the water cycle is a critical piece of what we do. Water, of course, is the most potent greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, and so by measuring it we can get a good understanding of the climate, as a matter of fact. ICESat is a mission that helps us understand and characterize the ice at the poles of the Earth and how that ice is changing. It helps us measure the thickness of the ice, and then you combine that with imagery that helps us understand the mass of the ice in the horizontal, I guess the mass, like the land, how much of the Earth is it covering at the poles. GRACE Follow-On is helping us understand how water moves around the Earth just by measuring gravity, so what we find is that the gravity of the Earth is not uniform, nor is it stable. It’s constantly changing, and that gravity change is based on where water is accumulating. We’re also actively sensing water vapor in different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, and of course we do that because number one, we want to understand the changing climate, but number two, we want to be able to predict weather. Understanding weather prediction is a key component as well. Understanding carbon dioxide is a big mission for us. We have the Orbital Carbon Observatory 2 on orbit right now helping us gather information on carbon dioxide. We have Orbital Carbon Observatory 3, which will be launching this year to the International Space Station to help us gather even more information from a carbon dioxide perspective. We also have GeoCarb that will be a geostationary hosted payload on a communication satellite in GEO stationary orbit. GeoCarb is going to give us great information on not just carbon dioxide, but methane and other greenhouse gases that are over the Western Hemisphere. So NASA is focused on Earth science. Our Earth science budget request is very strong, and we continue to study the Earth in ways that only NASA can do.
Leading in climate study
What you’ll find is that our budget requests for Earth science is higher than five of the enacted budgets under President Obama. So we have a strong Earth science budget that I think keeps NASA right where it needs to be and of course, again, if you look at how we compare to the rest of the world. If you add up all of the nations of the European Space Agency, Canada, Japan, Russia — all of our partners on the International Space Station — you add up all of their climate science budgets and ours alone is still higher than all of theirs. I would say that the United States is very strong when it comes to studying the climate.
Climate change is “very real”
When I was in the House of Representatives, I was on the Armed Services Committee and there was an amendment to have the Department of Defense understand climate and how it affects our national security posture. There were a lot of Republicans against it and a lot of Democrats for that amendment. I broke with my party and supported that amendment. Why? Because here’s what we know: The Arctic ice is melting. As a Navy pilot, I can tell you that the Navy is having to defend territory it never used to have to defend, and the ocean is open in ways that the ocean didn’t used to be open, especially when we talk about the Arctic. So climate change is very real; it has a national security kind of posture. My position on that, that was my position on it in the House of Representatives. It’s my position on it today. I have a history of being in favor of trying to understand the changing climate.