U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) had only been on the House Science Committee a few months when he sprung a commercial weather satellite bill on his new colleagues in early 2013. It was only the freshman lawmaker’s third bill, and its focus on commercial space was something of a surprise — even to Bridenstine himself.
The 39-year-old gentleman from Tulsa readily admits space was “not at all” on his agenda when he cruised into Washington last year after an upset victory in the Republican primary for the GOP-heavy first district of Oklahoma.
Bridenstine, however, is not a complete newcomer to space. Prior to being elected to Congress, 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 shuttle orbiters. He was also involved around the same time with the short-lived Rocket Racing League, which tried to apply the business model of auto racing to rocket-powered aircraft flights. 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 term in Congress after running unopposed in primary and general elections this year, Bridenstine looks to continue both his service on the House’s 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.
The bill won passage in the House earlier this year only to stall in the Senate. Should the measure become law, 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 and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R series. Both companies are counting on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, operator of all U.S. civilian weather satellites, as an anchor customer.
Bridenstine’s next attempt to get the weather bill through Congress was only one of the issues on his mind Dec. 17, when he spoke with SpaceNews staff writers Jeff Foust and Dan Leone at his office on Capitol Hill.
Why are you interested in commercial weather satellite data?
Oklahoma has extreme weather events as much as any other state in the Union. In May of 2013, we had one very large tornado that killed 24 people and did $2 billion of damage. It resulted in a keen interest of mine to do what I could as a lawmaker to be effective for the lives and safety of my constituents. Then I started to hear about a gap in polar orbiting satellites that is pending 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. So I made a decision 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.
What effect would your weather bill have on the JPSS and GOES-R programs?
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 cut the U.S.-Taiwan Cosmic-2 GPS radio occultation 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 money to launch an entire new private GPS radio occultation constellation, but it would be enough money to suggest that there is a market here for private entrepreneurs who are interested in providing capital to launch, and prove that they can.
In the wake of the Virgin Galactic and Orbital Sciences accidents, have you or your House Science colleagues started 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.
The 2015 National Defense Authorization Act would ban U.S. use of the Russian-made RD-180, the main-stage engine for United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5, after 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.