NASA chief pledges to remember Mars while shooting for moon

Speaking at Humans to Mars Summit, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine promises exploration “in tandem”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on Wednesday sought to assure advocates of a human mission to Mars that NASA is “doing both the moon and Mars in tandem” rather than focusing exclusively on the Trump administration’s more immediate goal of sending astronauts back to the moon.

Bridenstine addressed the scientists, business executives and NASA attendees at the Human to Mars Summit at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The event, in its sixth year, was organized by the advocacy group Explore Mars, which wants to get humans to Mars by 2033.

“If some of you are concerned that our current focus in the coming years is the moon, don’t be,” Bridenstine said.

Returning humans to the surface of the moon, he said, will develop and prove technologies that will “feed forward to Mars,” including precision landing, methane-fueled engines and long-duration life support.

Bridenstine referred to the launch last week of the NASA’s InSight probe. The spacecraft is on a six-month journey to land on Mars and dig into the planet’s surface and measure heat, hence its formal name, the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport,

“InSight will help us understand the history of Mars, so that we can better understand our own planet,” he said, referring to the mystery of why the ocean that may have once covered much of Mars disappeared, and why Mars is thought to have stopped generating a global magnetic field.

“At some point in the past Mars changed,” Bridenstine said. “We need to understand what caused that, what is the history, so we can better understand our own planet.”

As for lunar planning, Bridenstine said he hosted an industry day at NASA headquarters Tuesday for companies interested in learning more about a draft request for proposals seeking ideas for how to deliver payloads to the moon. NASA seeks to eventually contract landers of various sizes for small and large payloads including robotic rovers. The agency’s funding for a lander to carry humans to the lunar surface begins in 2024, so a lander for humans will be built “sometime after that,” NASA’s Human Mars Study team leader John Connolly told me.

While emphasizing the need for companies to build some spacecraft for NASA, including a craft to land humans on the moon, Bridenstine said government funding for exploration is necessary.

“We need a government backbone to explore where an economy doesn’t yet exist,” he said.

NASA aims to build a space station called the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway between the gravity of Earth and the moon by 2025. Companies are in the early stages of creating concepts for NASA for this station, which is envisioned as a staging area where humans could dock spacecraft, retrieve sample return landers from the lunar surface and conduct experiments as a prelude to crewed missions to the surface.

The new NASA administrator compared the building of rockets and plans for infrastructure in space to the building of the transcontinental railroad across the U.S. in the 1860s. Bridenstine compared the 1969 moon landing by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the scientific expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to chart the American Midwest and the West Coast.

Bridenstine noted that Aldrin was present at the conference and said despite this comparison to Lewis and Clark, “Buzz Aldrin would tell you he’s Buzz Aldrin.” Earlier during the summit Aldrin told me the most important thing about building a lander to take humans back to the moon: “It has to be reusable.”

When Bridenstine left the stage, Explore Mars President Artemis Westenberg said of the administrator: “I am confident that a man who worked that hard to get this job, he’ll now fight hard for NASA.” Westenberg was referring to Bridenstine’s confirmation by the U.S. Senate in April by a 50-to-49 vote after months in limbo. Bridenstine in his speech credited former NASA Administrators Mike Griffin, Charles Bolden and acting administrator Robert Lightfoot for laying a foundation for his term at NASA.

Photo credit: Explore Mars

NASA chief pledges to remember Mars while shooting for moon