Bridenstine discusses ISS future, exploration cooperation in Europe

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FARNBOROUGH, England — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said July 17 that he’s had good discussions with European officials here about potential cooperation on NASA’s plans to return to the moon.

In a brief interview after a panel discussion at the Farnborough International Airshow, Bridenstine described the meetings he’s held during the event, including with the heads of the European Space Agency and national space agencies, as “fantastic” and said more details about the agency’s “exploration campaign” plans, such as the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, could be released this fall.

“There’s a lot of support for, ultimately, our next big exploration campaign, which includes the moon,” he said. “We’re putting together concepts and ideas from our international partners for who can plug in where.”

Discussion of NASA’s lunar exploration campaign was one topic of Bridenstine’s discussion with Jan Woerner, director general of ESA, according to a tweet from Bridenstine’s account. Other topics of that discussion included the ESA-provided Orion service module that has suffered development delays, space traffic management, space weather and ESA’s commitment to launch NASA’s long-delayed James Webb Space Telescope.

In a July 15 video, Bridenstine suggested more details about NASA’s exploration plans, including roles for international and commercial partners, could be released in the near future. “NASA has a lot of business upcoming with our future exploration campaign that we’re going to be rolling out details in the very near future,” he said.

Asked after the panel when those details could be released, Bridenstine responded, “Maybe in September.”

Bridenstine also met with executives of several aerospace companies at the air show, including Lockheed Martin, Pratt & Whitney, Airbus and Arianespace, according to a readout of his activities at the event July 16 provided by Megan Powers, NASA press secretary.

During the panel, Bridenstine discussed NASA’s International Space Station transition plans, which call for ending direct federal funding of the station by 2025. That transition, he argued, is essential to carry out national space exploration policy, which calls for human missions to the moon and, later, Mars done in a sustainable way.

“In order to accomplish these goals, we need to have a transition in low Earth orbit,” he said. “Whether it is transitioning the International Space Station to our commercial partners or an international consortium of commercial partners, or taking advantage of brand-new platforms, all of that needs to be in the mix.”

There’s been skepticism, though, that the ISS could be operated commercially, at least in its current form and with current markets for the facility. Bridenstine, in response, asked for patience.

“We’ve got seven years,” he said. Potential new markets, such as additive manufacturing in space and biological research, could prove promising, he argued. “The goal is to commercialize low Earth orbit. NASA becomes a customer, and then we use the resources of the taxpayers to go further than we’ve gone before.”

Among the skeptics of a full commercial transition of the ISS is ESA’s Woerner, who was on the same panel. He said he saw the potential for more direct private funding of the ISS, but did not expect the station to be fully funded and run by the private sector. “Personally, I don’t think we can switch it to totally private operation without public funding,” he said.