Championing a Climate Change for Commercial Weather

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Profile | Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.)

Chairman

U.S. House Science Environment Subcommittee


U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) is a growing presence in the Washington space policy scene. The 39-year-old sophomore from Tulsa made a splash in his first term as an ally for the budding commercial weather satellite industry, and his voice on this issue only figures to carry more weight in his second term.

That is because Bridenstine has been appointed chairman House Science environment subcommittee, which oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — operator of U.S. civilian weather satellites and prospective anchor customer for commercial weather companies that have yet to commit to satellite orders and launches.

But Bridenstine’s first act on the space policy stage in 2015 came on the military side during a Jan. 28 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, where he is one of the more junior members. Bridenstine used his first chance at the microphone to ping Pentagon acquisition czar Frank Kendall on the Defense Department’s plans for commercial communications satellites.

That space in general, and commercial satellites in particular, have become a signature Bridenstine issue is something of a surprise even to the congressman himself. Bridenstine admits space was “not at all” on his agenda when he cruised into Washington in 2013 after an upset victory in the Republican primary for the GOP-heavy first district of Oklahoma.

However, Bridenstine is not a complete newcomer to space. Prior to his election, the former naval aviator was the executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum, where he led what he acknowledged was a “long shot” bid to win one of NASA’s retired shuttle orbiters. He was also involved with the short-lived Rocket Racing League, which tried to apply the business model of auto racing to rocket planes. Although the Rocket Racing League held demonstration flights at a 2010 air show in Tulsa that Bridenstine helped organize, the venture failed to take off. “It was before its time,” he lamented.

Now, having secured a second two-year term after running unopposed, Bridenstine looks to continue both his service on the House Science and Armed Services committees and his push to privatize any part of the U.S. space enterprise that appears ripe for it.

High on Bridenstine’s to-do list in 2015 is reintroducing the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act, which aims to ease restrictions on integrating commercial data into U.S. weather forecasting models. A version of the bill passed the House last year only to stall in the Senate — not a bad run, considering it was only the third bill Bridenstine had introduced in his Capitol Hill career.

Should the measure become law this time around, it would clear some hurdles for PlanetIQ and GeoOptics, which aim to launch GPS radio occultation satellites to augment data gathered by the keystone U.S. weather satellites in the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R series.
Bridenstine spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writers Jeff Foust and Dan Leone.


Why are you interested in commercial weather satellite data?

Oklahoma has extreme weather events as much as any other state. In May of 2013, we had one very large tornado that killed 24 people and did $2 billion damage. It resulted in a keen interest of mine to do what I could to be effective for the lives and safety of my constituents. Then I started to hear about a pending gap in polar-orbiting satellites that could, according to NOAA, prevent us from detecting up to 25 percent of severe weather events, which, in the state of Oklahoma, is extremely scary. I decided to learn as much as I could about how we could not only mitigate that gap but make sure in the future that these kinds of gaps don’t arise. That’s a scenario that we just can’t afford in the state of Oklahoma.

Why do you think your Weather Forecasting Improvement Act died in the Senate last year? Did it run into opposition or just run out of time?

I don’t know of any opposition in the Senate. I just think they had different priorities they were trying to accomplish that didn’t include this particular bill. I think it was about timing. I think in the 114th Congress it’ll have a good shot at passing.

What effect would your bill have on the JPSS and GOES-R programs?

GOES-R series weather satellite at the company’s Denver facilities in late 2014. Credit: Lockheed Martin
GOES-R series weather satellite at the company’s Denver facilities in late 2014. Credit: Lockheed Martin

First, I think JPSS and GOES need to go forward as planned. Those programs need to be fully funded. We need to make sure we’re not doing any harm to our current numerical weather models. But we need to start pilot approaches for things like commercial GPS radio occultation satellites that can augment current data and potentially lead us to a day where we are not so reliant on billion-dollar, monolithic satellites. But if next decade we need a JPSS-3, if that’s what’s required, my goal is not to stop that from happening.

PlanetIQ has suggested NOAA pare the U.S.-Taiwan COSMIC-2 GPS radio occultation project down to six satellites. Do you think NOAA should launch all 12 COSMIC-2 satellites as planned?

Nobody has come to me and lobbied me telling me they shouldn’t. I think if COSMIC-2 is necessary to get that done, I don’t have a problem with that. Even if they launch COSMIC-2, there is still a market for more GPS radio occultation data. We in Congress are going to make an effort to put forth a little bit of money for NOAA to purchase that data. It probably won’t be sufficient to launch an entire new private GPS radio occultation constellation, but it would be enough to suggest that there is a market here for entrepreneurs who are interested in providing capital to launch, and prove that they can.

The 2015 National Defense Authorization Act directed the Pentagon to study whether the commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center should be in charge of all military satellite communications procurement, whether for DoD satellites or commercial bandwidth. Do you think that’s the right approach?

Yes. I think the direction we need to go as a nation is to have somebody manage satellite communications for the military that establishes the perpetual demand for military satellite communications and can ultimately transform the process from commercial satellite communications and military satellite communications to just satellite communications. And I think the head of Air Force Space Command, Gen. John Hyten, has that on his agenda.

The 2015 defense authorization also banned U.S. use of the Atlas 5’s Russian-made RD-180 engine for national security launches beyond 2019. Is that the right move?

I think it’s appropriate for us to not rely on a Russian engine. There are people out there who would suggest that we need to build our own liquid engine. Other people would say we can use solid rockets. I’m not going to speculate on which is the right answer, but I do think it’s important for us as a nation not to rely on a Russian engine.

What’s on the House’s agenda for NASA this year and next?

I think we’ll do a NASA authorization bill, and certainly I think the Space Launch System and Orion are going to be funded as they have been funded. I would hope they don’t slip any more than they already have, but certainly our objective needs to be to move forward with those programs in a way that advances human spaceflight capabilities like those we used to have.

Where do you think NASA should go when it next sends crews beyond Earth orbit? Which destination do you like best?

Asteroid Redirect Mission Option A
NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission robotic capture Option A. Credit: NASA

I’ll tell you what I don’t like: I don’t like the infighting over what the destination may or may not be. I think we need to figure out what our destination is, we need to all resolve to make that our objective and we need to move forward given the constraints of the budget and NASA needs to focus like a laser on accomplishing that objective. Whether that objective needs to first be the moon or whether it needs to be going to Mars or a moon of Mars, I, quite frankly, am agnostic. But an Asteroid Redirect Mission, from a lot of the testimony I’ve heard, is not the right answer. I have read a lot of reports and heard expert testimony that this particular mission results in dead-end technologies that ultimately we can’t benefit from. I think that limits our ability to focus on what our objective is.

What commercial space legislation needs to happen this Congress?

We need to move forward with the same indemnification that has enabled commercial space to prosper thus far. We need to move forward with the same lenient regulatory policy that ultimately enables commercial space to get off the ground. We don’t want to stop the industry before it even gets started. We need to enable it, not restrict it.

After the Virgin Galactic and Orbital Sciences accidents last year, did you or your House Science colleagues begin to doubt commercial spaceflight companies?

I haven’t heard any of that. I think people understand that space is extremely difficult, that it’s necessary, and that we’ve got to keep moving forward. I think people who operate in the commercial sphere know and understand the challenges and the risks. I think that stopping the direction that we’re going is only going to result in more problems, not less.