NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine testifies about NASA’s 2019 budget request to a Senate appropriations subcommittee May 23. (credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky)
by Jeff Foust
Most previous NASA administrators have enjoyed something of a honeymoon period after taking office, having usually been confirmed by wide margins in the Senate with the optimism that they will be able to tackle the challenges that await running the space agency. Jim Bridenstine faced the opposite: he took office after a bruising partisan fight, including an extended confirmation process and a final vote that fell precisely on party lines, with all 49 Senate Democrats voting against him.
But, just as the optimism regarding, and confidence in, previous NASA administrators faded as they faced fiscal and technical challenges, the mood regarding Bridenstine is shifting, but positively. At a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing last month, his first since becoming administrator, Bridenstine won praise from both Republican and Democratic members, including those who voted against his confirmation a month earlier.
“I want to thank you for the tone that you’ve taken ever since you were sworn in,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) at that hearing. “I appreciate your energy and enthusiasm about the NASA mission, which is a great American success story.”
“It’s all about building relationships,” Bridenstine said last week in an hour-long roundtable with a dozen reporters. “I’ve been doing it with personal meetings, with senators and members of the House on both sides of the aisle. I’ve also made phone calls with senators and members of Congress. It’s about building those relationships.”
That warm reception that Bridenstine received at that hearing, and elsewhere, has come in part because of his statements on Earth science and climate change. On several occasions, including the Senate hearing and an earlier town hall with NASA personnel, Bridenstine stated that he agreed with the scientific consensus that human activities were the leading cause of climate change, even as the administration sought to cancel several NASA Earth science missions and a grant program for carbon monitoring.
“I just want to recognize your evolution on this issue,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) at that hearing. “I have come to the conclusion that this is a true evolution, that you respect the people with whom you work, you respect the science.”
Bridenstine argued in the town hall that he had long supported Earth science research. “As a member of Congress, I’ve been an advocate for PACE. As a member of Congress, I’ve been an advocate for CLARREO,” he said of his past support in the House for two of the Earth science missions targeted for cancellation in the administration’s 2018 and 2019 budget requests. “And they still nominated me.”
He emphasized that he wanted to keep NASA on the forefront of Earth science research, including climate change studies, as administrator. He said he expected the four Earth science missions proposed for cancellation in the budget request would continue: PACE and CLARREO Pathfinder, he said, were identified as priorities in the latest Earth science decadal survey released in January. “If we’re going to follow the guidance of the decadal, which I committed to going through my confirmation process, it seems to me that those would be projects we need to consider in the president’s budget request,” he said.
A third, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3 instrument for the ISS, should be completed and ready to fly in January. The fourth, the Earth observing camera on the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), costs only a few million dollars a year to run. “I imagine we could cover that by other ways,” he said.
However, he wanted NASA to focus on climate science, rather than advocacy. “There’s no agency on the face of the planet that has more credibility to study it and understand it so policymakers can make good decisions than NASA,” he said. “I also think it’s important that NASA is not involved in prescribing policy, but instead to do the science. That’s what keeps our brand good, that’s what keeps our credibility high. We need to do the science, 100 percent.”
While Bridenstine had won praise from some in Congress regarding his support for Earth science, the agency continues to face questions, and criticism, regarding the future of the International Space Station. At a separate hearing last week, senators again criticized the proposal in NASA’s 2019 budget request to end direct funding of the ISS in 2025, either handing the station over to private operators or making use of a new commercial space station for the agency’s ongoing needs for low Earth orbit research.
“It is my firm belief that it would be irresponsible for the United States government to prematurely end the life of the International Space Station before maximizing American taxpayer investment,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), chairman of the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, at that hearing.
Bridenstine, who had suggested in an earlier interview that talks were underway with “several international companies” regarding operation of the ISS, told reporters at last week’s roundtable that nothing had been decided yet about who might run the ISS, and how, after 2025.
“There’s a range of options here,” he said. That included, he suggested, splitting up the ISS in some way and giving a portion of it to a commercial operator. “What the president’s budget request did is it has started this conversation, and kind of put it on steroids.”
Any decision about the station’s future, he added, would be done in consultation with its international partners. “Nothing will be done—and I want this to be in everybody’s stories—nothing will be done outside of consent and advice of our international partners,” he said.
Before the space station can be privatized—if that is indeed what happens—NASA needs to restore access to the station. It’s been nearly four years since NASA awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX for development of commercial crew vehicles that would end NASA reliance on Soyuz spacecraft, but development of both the CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon spacecraft have fallen behind original schedules. While current schedules call for both companies to perform uncrewed and crewed test flights of their vehicles by the end of the year, it’s increasingly unlikely those companies will be able to get to the crewed test flights this year.
In response, NASA has been finding ways to buy additional time for commercial crew development, including stretching out the schedule of Soyuz missions to the ISS to provide a few more months of schedule margin. In the roundtable, Bridenstine said he was still optimistic one or both commercial crew companies would be ready to start carrying NASA astronauts by the end of next year, when NASA’s access to Soyuz seats ends.
“Yes, I’m confident that commercial crew will be ready by the time those Soyuz seats run out,” he said. He acknowledged, though, efforts like extending Soyuz missions. “We want to make sure we’re covered.”
A related issue is crew safety, particularly as Boeing and SpaceX struggle to reach loss-of-crew thresholds previously established for the program. “We’re going to protect human life the absolute best we can, because it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
But, he added, that safety has to be balanced with the risk inherent in human spaceflight. “I used to fly off of aircraft carriers, and overwhelmingly we would have briefs and everybody would say, ‘Well, our number one mission today is safety,’” Bridenstine, a formal naval aviator, recalled. “Your number one mission is not safety if you’re hurling yourself off the end of an aircraft carrier and coming back to land.”
“So what is our number one mission and where does safety fall into that?” he continued. “This is a balancing act that we have to evaluate.” Should the commercial crew vehicles not be able to meet the safety threshold set earlier in the program, “it’s something that all of us are going to have to look at and make a call on in the coming months and years.”
During the roundtable, Bridenstine left open the possibility of more commercial partnerships in the future for NASA, as the agency seeks to make the more effective use of its resources. One near-term effort is the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, where NASA is proposing to fly instruments on commercial lunar landers starting as soon as 2019.
“We’re going fast and we’re going commercial and some will probably fail,” he said. “If of those, say, half a dozen companies, if three of them are successful, that’s a great win. If three others aren’t successful but have achievements that NASA can then take advantage of, it’s still a win.”
Other commercial opportunities may emerge as well. “We are at a precipice of having access to space in volumes we’ve never had before,” he said. “NASA then has to reevaluate how do we do things.”
In some cases, that means leveraging those new capabilities, but he also said there’s a role for in-house systems, like the Space Launch System. “There are some areas where we don’t have a mature commercial capability yet. If that’s the case, then it’s my view that NASA needs to provide the government backbone to get us where we need to go.”
SLS, particularly in its ultimate Block 2 version with a payload capacity of 130 metric tons, is “a capability right now that no one else has, and so we want to deliver it,” he said, but added an important caveat. “If there comes a day when somebody else can deliver that, then we need to think differently. It’s always evolving. If we can help companies develop that capability and they can do it in a way that’s more efficient and better, then we should do that as well.”
While questions swirled about his views on ISS commercialization and climate science research, Bridenstine also addressed some other near-term challenges. That includes the status of the James Webb Space Telescope, which is facing delays and a potential breach of its $8 billion cost cap. NASA has received a report by an independent review panel and is expected to announce a revised launch schedule and cost estimate for the program by the end of the month.
Bridenstine emphasized that there’s no chance that JWST might not continue. “It’s going to be worth it,” he said of JWST’s science potential. “This is what NASA does. We do very difficult things, the leading edge of technology, to deliver world-changing science, and that’s what James Webb is all about.”
At the same time, NASA is grappling with the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which the administration proposed for cancellation in its 2019 budget request even as NASA worked to lower the mission’s cost. Congress funded the mission for 2018 and the House included $150 million for the program for 2019. Senate appropriators will take up their spending bill this week.
“We’re committed to the mission,” Bridenstine said of WFIRST. “The question is what does Congress do going forward, and ultimately how do we think about these kinds of missions in the future.”
Bridenstine, both at the roundtable and in prior comments, hinted that flagship-class missions like JWST and WFIRST might be the wrong approach for NASA science programs, since they tie up a large fraction of the overall budget for science missions. “There is hesitation going forward with another massive flagship mission when you could, in many ways, have smaller missions that are distributed or disaggregated, if you will, that in some cases can produce different types of science but still groundbreaking science, civilization-changing science, and instead do a dozen different missions instead of a single mission.”
That approach, though, neglects scientific requirements, like aperture, that drive science missions towards larger, flagship-class missions. Nonetheless, shortly before the roundtable, NASA advised teams working on studies of four potential flagship-class missions for consideration in the next astrophysics decadal survey to find ways to fit them into costs of between $3–5 billion, significantly less than JWST.
Bridenstine also has internal issues to deal with. The agency still lacks a deputy administrator, a position vacant since the beginning of the Trump Administration. Jeff DeWit, the former Arizona secretary of state who won prompt Senate confirmation earlier this year as NASA’s chief financial officer, has been acting in some respects like a deputy administrator, taking a much higher public profile than is usual for NASA’s CFO.
“They’re talking to a number of different people right now,” Bridenstine said of White House interviews of potential NASA deputy administrator nominees. “Certainly we’re going to have one nominated in the not-too-distant future. The candidates that they’re looking at, in my view, would be good.”
That nominee will have to go through the same confirmation process that Bridenstine experienced, but hopefully one not as long or as controversial. Bridenstine said he wasn’t bothered by his own confirmation process, including some of the criticism that he noted came, in part, from his past political career. “I heard so many things it didn’t bother me personally,” he said. “It’s not a big deal.”
“Going forward, we need to make sure this is apolitical,” he said of his position. He cited the praise he got from the Senate budget hearing last month as evidence of that positive change. “I only see it getting better from here.”