Bridenstine town hall
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine speaks at an agency town hall meeting at NASA Headquarters May 17. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — NASA will need to partner with industry wherever possible to maximize its ability to carry out its exploration and science goals while maintaining internal capabilities to build launch vehicles and spacecraft, the agency’s new administrator said.

In an hour-long roundtable with reporters at NASA Headquarters June 6, Jim Bridenstine repeatedly emphasized that the agency must take advantage of commercial capabilities to be more efficient as it carries out more ambitious exploration objectives.

“The goal is to maximize the utility of every dollar that we spend, and taking advantage of commercial is the best way we can do that,” he said.

Bridenstine suggested that there were more commercial capabilities to take advantage of given the growth of companies developing new launch vehicles and spacecraft. “We are at the precipice of having access to space in volumes that we’ve never had before,” he said. “NASA has to reevaluate how do we do things.”

One example he cited was NASA’s new Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, where NASA plans to buy payload space on commercial lunar landers. The agency released a draft request for proposals for the program days after Bridenstine took office, and he said the agency is currently evaluating industry feedback on that before releasing a final version.

“We want to get robots and landers on the surface of the moon — aggressively, 2019,” he said regarding when those missions would start. “Definitely by 2020.”

Some of those missions, and the companies that attempt them, he acknowledged, will not be successful. “Of those, let’s say, half a dozen companies, if three of them are successful, that’s a great win,” he said. “If three others aren’t successful but have achievements that NASA can then take advantage of, it’s still a win.”

He said he remained confident that the two companies developing commercial crew systems, Boeing and SpaceX, would have their vehicles ready before NASA’s access to Soyuz seats for International Space station missions ends at the end of 2019, even as NASA takes steps like extending ISS crew rotations to provide additional schedule margin. “We want to make sure that we’re covered” in the event of delays, he said.

Despite this growth in commercial capabilities, he said there was still a need for NASA to develop vehicles like the Space Launch System to fulfill its exploration requirements. “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,” he said.

The SLS, he argued, offered “a capability right now that no one else has, and so we want to deliver it.” However, he said he’d be open to revisiting that should commercial vehicles with similar capabilities enter service in the future. “If there comes a day when someone else can deliver that, then we need to think differently. It’s always evolving.”

“It’s a mix. There are some areas that are sufficiently mature where we can take advantage of that robust commercial marketplace. There are other areas where it’s not sufficiently mature where NASA has to operate its own programs to go deeper into space,” he said. “The mix 10 years from now may be different.”

Support for Earth science and JWST

Bridenstine reiterated his support for the agency’s Earth science programs, and also emphasized that he believed that humans were responsible for growing levels of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere. However, he argued NASA should not take sides in the debate on how to address climate change.

“There’s no agency on the face of the planet that has more credibility to study it and understand it so that 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 do the science. That’s what keeps our brand good, that’s what keeps our credibility high.”

He expected that the four Earth science missions targeted for termination in the administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget request will be continued. Two of those, CLARREO Pathfinder and PACE, were identified as priorities in the latest Earth science decadal survey report, published 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” in future years, he said.

A third mission, Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3, is on track to launch to the ISS in January. The fourth, the Earth-viewing instruments on the DSCOVR spacecraft, is inexpensive enough that Bridenstine suggested that money for continuing it could be found somewhere in the budget. “I imagine we could cover that by other ways,” he said.

Bridenstine said NASA will press ahead with the James Webb Space Telescope despite its latest problems, including a delay in its launch to May 2020 and the potential for it to breach its $8 billion cost cap, which would require Congress to formally reauthorize the mission. NASA has received a report from an independent review panel and expects to announce a new launch schedule and cost estimate by the end of the month.

“It’s going to be worth it,” he said of JWST. “I’m committed to the mission. I know everybody here is committed to the mission, and when I testify to Congress, I’m going to encourage them to be committed to this mission. We’ve gone a very long way now and at this point the science we’re going to get back from the James Webb is sufficiently important that we need to finish the project.”

He was critical, though, of the performance by JWST’s prime contractor, Northrop Grumman. “It hasn’t been good. They know that. NASA knows that,” he said when asked about the company’s work on the mission. “But we’re going to get it worked out.”

Bridenstine also supported the next large astrophysics mission after JWST, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which the administration proposed for cancellation in NASA’s 2019 budget request. That mission was funded for 2018 by Congress, and he said NASA is continuing its development as it awaits action by Congress on spending bills for 2019. One, approved by House appropriators last month, did fund WFIRST, but at only half previously projected funding levels for the mission.

“We are committed to the mission,” he said. “The question is, what does Congress do going forward, and ultimately how do we think about these kinds of missions in the future. But certainly we’re going forward with WFIRST right now and we believe it is a strong mission and important for astrophysics.”

Picking a deputy and building relationships

Bridenstine, who has been NASA administrator since April 23, currently does not have a deputy administrator, a post that has been vacant since the start of the Trump administration. Bridenstine said, though, that he expected the administration to nominate someone for that position in the near future.

“They’re talking to a number of different people right now” about the job, he said. “Certainly we’re going to have one nominated in the not-too-distant future. The candidates they’re looking at, in my view, would be good.” He declined to identify any of the potential nominees.

The deputy administrator position requires Senate confirmation, which for Bridenstine was a long process that ended with a confirmation vote that fell on party lines. Despite that process, he said he was working to improve relationships with members of Congress, in particular Senate Democrats.

“It’s all building relationships,” he said, noting that he had good relationships with House members of both parties. “I’ve been doing that with personal meetings with senators and members of the House on both sides of the aisle.”

He mentioned a May 23 hearing of a Senate appropriations subcommittee on NASA’s budget proposal where he won praise from both Republican and Democratic senators. “It was fantastic. Great dialogue, very sincere people talking about serious issues, and seemingly very supportive of the direction we’re taking, on both sides of the aisle,” he said. “I only see it getting better from here.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...